The Blessing of Father Andrei
By: Joe Webb
I’ll never forget Father Andrei. Father Andrei is the priest of the Russian Orthodox church in Komsomolsk, the small rural town housing the orphanage that many of the kids from the ministry center in Ivanovo grew up in. He is a big, happy, laughing, gregarious man with long hair whiter than his age and one of those awesome greyish beards that frames and expands his amazing smile. Sort of a young Santa Claus vibe with a subtle dose of The Dude.
There are lots of reasons Father Andrei is memorable to me. His love for the orphans in his town. His dedication to his parishioners in particular and his village as a whole. His hospitality. His strong, yet humble bearing. His openness to questions. His own inquisitiveness.
But the thing I’ll remember most about Father Andrei is the blessing I received from him.
After about an hour-long visit to his church during my visit to Ivanovo in May 2013, Father Andrei gifted everyone in our group with a coffee mug (or probably, more accurately, tea cup) that had been produced to commemorate the recent renovation of the church and bearing a beautiful painting of the refurbished building.
Andrei told us he would bless each of our mugs before we left his church. He stepped behind the curtains where so much of the mystery of the Orthodox liturgy occurs, and came out with a dish of the holy water that was pumped into the building from a natural spring in the church’s courtyard and a long-handled brush which looked suspicioiusly like the mopping tool I use to slather barbecue sauce over pork shoulders on my Weber smoker.
Our party stood in a line facing the altar as Father Andrei pronounced his blessing in his mother tongue and began to dip the sanctified bbq brush in the water and gently sprinkle it over the mugs held by Brooke, Ramona, and our translator Anya who stood to my left. As I reverently raised my mug to him as he approached me, he looked straight into my eyes, grinned a huge, ornery grin with a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, and proceeded to soak my entire face with a massive flip of his brush that flung holy water from the top of my head to the middle of my chest. I think some of it might have hit the cup, too.
My look of utter surprise must have lasted for about a millisecond as I stared at this holy man and proceeded to laugh out loud from the depth of my belly at his massive “blessing.” Father Andrei was unable to contain himself and laughed right back, then proceeded to ceremoniously drench the rest of our group down the line.
And I realized that the blessing was not in the water, but in the laughter.
What had started as a somewhat solemn, formal ceremony erupted into an exuberant expression of ridiculous happiness and joy.
Father Andrei blessed us with more than holy water or the rites of his church’s ancient tradition. It was more sacred than that. He blessed us with the gift of himself, of his mirth, of his love.
I make it a point to drink my Sunday morning coffee from that mug every single week. At first I worried that I was being a bit superstitious about the whole thing.
But then I realized that it was not the water that made this mug holy. It was Andrei.
The young men and women we serve through Orphan’s Tree have been blessed by a number of holy people, both clergy and laity. From Father Andrei in Komsomolsk, to Father Makarios in Ivanovo, to Elena and Antonina in the ministry center, to George and Brooke and all the folks from Orphan’s Tree who care enough to invest dollars and miles and time into the lives of teenage Russian orphans, to the young students who serve as interpreters during our visits, there is a deep and abiding sanctity that infiltrates not only the lives of the kids, but all of us who touch and are touched by their ministry.
And although it’s my Sunday coffee mug, I enjoyed a Thursday drink from Andrei’s cup this past Thanksgiving, and re-lived that laughing, cantankerous blessing. And I thanked God for the privilege.