You Should Meet Our Last Pastor
So it was with not a little interest that I learned of Father Jon Braun, founding pastor at St. Anthony the Great Antiochian Orthodox Church. I found the church quite by accident (and before I found Father), holding its Sunday Liturgy in the brick chapel that anchors one end of the abbey-esque Torrey Pines Christian Church compound. At the time, I was on my way to speak with Torrey Pines’ pastor, Michael Spitters, who noted that, as an Emergent Christian, he wanted to avoid anything that struck visitors as “playing at worshipping God.” He said that some Emergent Christians — postmodern believers dissatisfied with the Evangelical status quo — were “actually taking back some of the traditions — the incense and the candles and the meditation.” I thought, “You mean, like the Orthodox in the next building over?”
The following Sunday, I was leaving St. Anthony the Great’s Divine Liturgy when a parishioner approached me. “You should meet our last pastor, Father Braun. He used to be the National Field Coordinator for Campus Crusade for Christ, back before he became an Orthodox priest.” Hello. From an Evangelical Christian organization that didn’t even hold Sunday praise services to the most liturgy-drenched denomination I knew? How did that happen?
However it happened, Braun seemed like a good sort to help shed light on that “heart of worship.” For starters, he had left a successful career within his own tradition — without rejecting his Christian faith, mind you — and gone searching for it. “My father was a Presbyterian minister,” he explains, “and he hated the Orthodox business, just hated it. The only thing he ever acknowledged to me was this: ‘I have to admit that when I leave church on Sunday morning, I’m not sure that I’ve worshipped God.’ That was coming from a 98-year-old man who had been a minister all the years of his life” — in churches ranging from Berkeley to just above Anaheim.
Braun the son, however, was sure — he was satisfied that he had found that heart of worship, and in an ancient church that barely registers on the American religious landscape. (It is estimated that there are between two and three million Orthodox Christians in North America, and there are only ten Orthodox churches in the San Diego area.) “In America,” admits Braun, “if you’re not a Greek, a Russian, a Serbian, or a Romanian, you may not even run across the Orthodox Church. There is a Greek Orthodox Church across the street from Dallas Theological Seminary. I had a friend who went [to the seminary]. He was studying the commentaries of St. John Chrysostom, and across the street, they were doing the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and neither side knew the other existed. I went to high school in Berkeley, across from a Greek church, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s the Catholic Church in Greece.’ I dismissed it at that.”
The dismissal was part and parcel of his formation. “I remember, one day, I was sitting in church history class at Fuller Seminary, in Pasadena, and the professor — who was really good — was discussing Ignatius of Antioch. With one exception, his is the earliest writing outside the Bible — he lived between 50 and 110 A.D. The professor said, ‘Don’t bother to read him. It’s irrelevant. It’s the beginning of the Roman Catholic Church.’ I promise you that he knew that wasn’t true, but the point was to dismiss it so that you had no obligation to weigh it. I majored in history in college, and in seminary you do a lot of church history, but all I knew was that the Roman Catholic Church was evil because that’s what I was taught. And from what I was taught, there was no Orthodox Church because it was never mentioned. I promise you, not one time.”
So what happened to turn Campus Crusader Jon Braun into Father Jon Braun, Orthodox priest? Well, for one thing, history — including the history of worship.
The Phantom Search for the Perfect Church
It began with a practical question: “What’s going to happen to these kids?”
Braun was in his late 20s, the 20th Century was in its early 60s, and Campus Crusade for Christ was exploding. The Crusade operated as a sort of parachurch evangelistic ministry, and, says Braun, “People were interested. The students were easy to work with, and it was just a really easy time. We were very aggressive and evangelistic — we’d stop you in your tracks. And we were very effective. It’s just like what the apostle Paul did at Corinth. He didn’t know anybody, so he just sat there and started talking to people, and pretty soon, he had a church. What you have to do is know why you’re there. People will sense very quickly: are you trying to sell them on something, or do you have a purpose? I wasn’t trying to sell any of those guys. In January of 1961, I traveled to the University of Miami to start bringing Campus Crusade to the Southeastern U.S. The next year, I went to Athens, Georgia, got myself a room in a hotel, and went down to the cafeteria at the University of Georgia. I saw two guys sitting there and I went up to them: ‘My name is Jon Braun. I’m trying to start a Christian group on campus. If you’ll give me five minutes, I’d like to tell you why I’m interested in doing it and see if there’s any way you can help me.’ I never saw those two guys again, but they gave me two names. Within a couple of years, I had the largest Campus Crusade group in America there in Georgia.”
Braun is in his mid-70s now, but he has lost little of the presence that undoubtedly aided in his success. A hint of Charlton Heston can be seen in his profile, his frame, his long agricultural hands. His intellectual demeanor is that of a man who has read much and now seeks to retain what is essential. When he pauses midsentence to find the right word, his tongue will dart from one corner of his mouth to the other as if seeking a target. A preacher’s son, to the pulpit born. “Occasionally, there would be nights when six or seven thousand kids would come to a lecture, followed by a lot of personal one-on-one, and we had all these converts.”