The choir sang softly in the loft and cameras flashed from every direction as Deacon Gregory Parker, escorted by two deacons, faced an altar full of priests at Holy Resurrection Cathedral. In moments, he would breach the gap, leaving the post of those at his side and joining the ranks of the men who awaited him in the altar.
What was in his mind at this sobering moment?
“Could these cameras get out of the way?” Parker confessed.
But on a deeper level, the process was pretty emotional.
“It was the beginning of something new. I was leaving the old self behind, taking on a new identity.”
As Parker talked about his office, he invoked St. Paul who said that he once thought as a child, but now as a man.
Now that he’s a priest he has “put away childish things,” Parker said.
It's certainly no childish thing to be called Father Gregory. Parker said he is getting more comfortable with his title as the days go by, but at first it was "pretty unreal."
"The idea that I'm now a priest is pretty intimidating. I suppose I will stand in awe the rest of my life in terms of the priesthood and who I am."
Parker, a fourth-year student at St. Herman's Seminary, said his decision to become a priest was an act of obedience. "I'm being obedient regardless of my unworthiness. I'm going to shepherd a flock, and I'm going to have to lay down my life for those people."
But before one is willing to lay down his life for his flock, it’s important that he know them.
“Once I get to know them, I can learn what their needs are and how I can help meet them. That’s going to be the big challenge.”
The flock Parker will serve is the parish of Old Harbor. He, his wife, Marlene, and their sons Gabriel, 13, Roger, 8, and Leo, 3, plan to go down there shortly after graduation May 31.
He hopes to revitalize the church school program and activate the youth.
“That’s one of the first things that has to be developed and picked up,” said Parker, who has helped Fr. Innocent Dresdow with the youth group at Holy Resurrection.
He grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeastern Montana and was raised a Catholic.
Because of her interest in history, Parker’s mother, Sue Parker, talked about Orthodoxy a lot when he was a child.
“I always figured at some point I would see what Orthodoxy was. I envisioned that it was like Roman Catholicism.”
Parker learned more about Orthodoxy when he attended Salish-Kootenai College, a tribal college in Montana. There he met his future wife, Marlene Gust, an Alaska Native (Yup’ik) from New Stuyahok and a member of the Orthodox Church.
“There was a connection between us. We both believed in Christ.”
Even though they came from two distinct Native American cultures, they observed striking similarities between them. When Gregory visited his wife’s community in Bristol Bay, he saw those similarities more clearly.
“What I saw most fascinating was that the world that my grandparents had lived in was still there in New Stuyahok,” Parker said. “It was a subsistence culture.”
Parker said that the buffalo economy was taken away from his people, but the subsistence economy remains in Alaska.
The Yup’ik stories, such as the prophecies of the coming of the white man, had a familiar ring to him.
“These were the same kinds of stories that I heard from where I’m from. That was amazing to find out.”
Gregory’s mother and brother, Ryan Parker, came from Montana to attend his ordination.
“It was an awe-inspiring process for them,” Parker said. “They’d never seen an ordination before. This was something new. I was answering my calling. For my mom it was pretty emotional.”
Parker faces another milestone when he graduates from St. Herman’s Seminary.
During these past four years, Parker has taken theological, patristic, history, Scripture, and counseling courses that will help him in his vocation.
Life experiences can also prepare him for pastoral work. Two years ago, the Alaska diocese went through turmoil with a bishop whom many in the clergy felt compelled to protest. Students, who were told to respect and obey their hierarchs, had to determine church teaching in a situation like this.
Ultimately, leaders within the Orthodox Church in America asked the bishop to resign from his episcopate. Currently His Grace the Right Reverend BENJAMIN (Peterson), Bishop of San Francisco and the West and former dean of St. Herman's Seminary, is acting bishop until one can be found.
When asked what he learned from that crisis, Parker replied. “In those times of crisis and struggle God won’t leave us destitute. He’s going to see us through it.
“I hope the next bishop will be a father to us. I’m hoping that he is somebody I can go to as a spiritual son and learn from him. I hope that he gives us spiritual meat. That’s what I crave.”
Father John Dunlop, dean of St. Herman's Seminary, says OCA leaders have candidates in mind for the Alaska episcopate.
"They are concerned to make a good decision. We hope the process will be quick, but they don't want to rush either."
Dunlop, who has taught at St. Herman's for 13 years, was named seminary dean last fall. Parker's ordination was the first under his watch.
"I'm thankful to God for blessing us with this ordination." Dunlop said. "We need clergy. Particularly in Old Harbor they need a resident shepherd."
By sending Parker there, a need is being filled, with the youth in particular, Dunlop said.
"Raising a new generation of Orthodox children is an incredible responsibility. I'm confident that Fr. Gregory will do the ministry that is necessary. He's really put in a lot of effort. He's a serious student; I'm thankful for that. I have confidence in him."
In addition to Parker's ordination into the priesthood, seminarians Ishmael Andrew and Methodius Nicori were ordained as deacons.
This edited article was written by Mike Rostad and published in the Kodiak Daily Mirror on April 3, 2009.