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The Light and Joy of the Lord: Dn. Paul Abernathy is Ordained to the Holy Priesthood

The ordination of Deacon Paul Abernathy to the Holy Priesthood: Saturday, August 27,  2016: St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Bridgeville, PA, with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph and His Grace Bishop Thomas, ordaining hierarch

By The Very Rev. Dr. Jason DelVitto, Pastor of St. George Church, Bridgeville, PA

If one could express in words the spirit of a very special weekend in the life of our Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, and in particular among the members of St. George Church, Bridgeville, PA and of St. Moses the Black Mission located in Hill District of Pittsburgh, I believe that we would describe this as a “weekend of joy, thanksgiving, peace and gladness in the Lord.” I am referring to the celebration of the ordination of Deacon Paul Abernathy to the Holy Priesthood of the Orthodox Church.  By the grace of the Holy Spirit and with blessing of our father in Christ, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, and through the hands of His Grace Bishop Thomas of the Diocese of Charleston, Oakland and Mid-Atlantic, faithful and dedicated parishioner Deacon Paul Abernathy was ordained to the Holy Priesthood during the Hierarchical Liturgy on Saturday, August 27, 2016 at St. George Church.  The Very Rev. Joshua Makoul of St. George Cathedral in Oakland and I served as Fr. Paul’s sponsors.

Sixteen clergy from various Orthodox jurisdictions, including priests, deacons, and subdeacons celebrated the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy with an overflowing crowd of faithful parishioners from the communities of St. George and St. Moses Mission. Others included Fr. Paul’s and Kh. Kristina’s family members and friends, as well as co-workers at the FOCUS Center (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve) in Pittsburgh and other organizations. The Divine Liturgy radiated with a Paschal sense of joy as all of the faithful of God gathered to celebrate the Liturgy graced with the light and love which radiates from our risen Lord. May God be praised for this liturgy and every liturgy!  

The celebrative joy continued following the ordination as over 150 guests gathered for a luncheon reception in honor of Fr. Paul and Kh. Kristina at the social hall of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church, Mt. Lebanon, PA.  At the reception, His Grace Bishop Thomas offered a congratulatory message to Fr. Paul and Kh. Kristina, offering his paternal expression of love and guidance to them, and his prayers that God will continue to strengthen and guide them throughout their lives as servants of God.  The Very Rev. John Finley, director of the Department of Missions and Evangelism, shared a personal testimonial in honor of Fr. Paul and Kh. Kristina, which proved to be very moving and telling as to the respect and love that Fr. John has for these two servants of the Lord.

The next day, Sunday, August 28, Fr. Paul celebrated his first Divine Liturgy at the FOCUS Pittsburgh Center in Pittsburgh. His Grace Bishop Thomas presided and Fr. John Finley and I served as well.  Among the faithful gathered for the liturgy were Fr. Paul’s family and friends, members and catechumens of St. Moses Mission, Mr. Paul Finley who serves as Director of FOCUS Cleveland, and other faithful believers in the Pittsburgh area.

I would like to share with you a reflection of sorts, albeit brief, given the vast scope of Fr. Paul’s work in the Church and its various ministries. This can provide the background and context within which our Lord has been working through Fr. Paul and Kh. Kristina and their staff and volunteers. Countless people have and are being blessed to be served through their self-sacrificial love and spiritual leadership. It will also be helpful for me to share something about  their respective educational backgrounds as well as their faithfulness in the work of the Church. The reason for this is, I believe, that given the expertise and talents that they have gained through their academic pursuits, the most important and profound reality is how they are offering their abilities, talents, and professional experiences to the glory of God and in service to their fellow humans. As we all may be aware, academic excellence is to the cherished and honored even more when it is offered in prayer and service to God and his people.

Educational Background

Father Paul holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Studies from Wheeling University, Wheeling, WV, a Master of Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Divinity Degree with distinction from St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, South Canaan, PA. He is also a veteran of the Armed Forces who honorably served his country. 

Khouria Kristina holds a Bachelor of Sciences Degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Science Degree in Community Leadership from Duquesne University.

Kristina Elias grew up as a member of St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church, Greensburg, PA, the church in which she and Paul were married.  Now Fr. Paul and Kristina serve as a team; Fr. Paul the Director of FOCUS and Kristina is the Clinic Administrator of the FOCUS Pittsburgh Free Health Center.

Father Paul's Journey of Faith

In reflecting on Paul’s journey, I vividly recall the day that he asked for a meeting with me as he had set himself on a path to learning more about the Orthodox Church. I was greatly impressed not only of Paul’s theological knowledge which he had gained through his own studies, which readily became apparent at this initial meeting, but equally or more importantly, I was deeply moved by his sense of reverence and commitment to our Lord and His mission and his desire to seek avenues in which he could nurture and bring to fruition those desires.  After that initial encounter, Paul began a more formal study the tenets of  the Orthodox faith through a life of personal and the corporate prayer life of the Church. After his completion of the catechumenate, he was received into the Orthodox Christian Church through the Sacrament of Holy Chrismation on January 20, 2002 at St. George Church. His beloved uncle, Mr. Michael Cross of blessed memory, an extraordinarily faithful member of our parish, stood as the sponsor for Paul as it was through the loving and caring encouragement of Mr. Cross that Paul was encouraged to further his pilgrimage to the Orthodox Faith which had already been in progress for quite some time.  

It was not long after Paul became a parishioner of the parish that the people of St. George began to cherish his presence within the community as he exhibited a tremendous spirit of love and dedication to his fellow parishioners of all ages, stages in life and backgrounds. It quickly became apparent among the faithful that this was a man of deep conviction, integrity, dedication, hard work, and most of all, a man who radiated a sincere and abiding love for God and all whom God had placed in his path and likewise he in theirs.

As a dedicated layman, Paul then developed and maintained multiple leadership roles at St. George Church including, but by no means limited to: his  membership on the Parish Council and the Building Committee, which was commissioned with building a new church complex currently near completion, his role as a leader and teacher among the parishes singers and chanters, his role as an educator of the faith through St. George’s Parish Educational Program, his  leadership and care for the youth of the parish, and as the coordinator of the parish Ministry to the Poor. In light of his dedicated service, on October 16, 2006, Paul was ordained a Subdeacon by His Grace Bishop Thomas at St. George Church and, as his ministry flourished, Subdeacon Paul was ordained to the Holy Diaconate serving his home parish of St. George until the time of his ordination to the priesthood almost one year after being ordained a deacon by His Grace Bishop Thomas.

Prior to his ordination to the Holy Orders, and at the caring and fatherly encouragement and advice of His Grace Bishop Thomas, Fr. Paul accepted His Grace’s challenge to put the training that Paul had received into practice as a seminarian and graduate of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. His Grace introduced Paul to a number of Orthodox Christians in the Pittsburgh area who, at that time, were contemplating supporting a local outreach program under the umbrella of FOCUS North America. Bishop Thomas not only encouraged Paul to undertake this missionary vision of service in the Hill, but on many occasions throughout the years, His Grace visited, and continues to do so, the people in the Hill speaking with them, blessing them and offering encourage and hope as well as participating in various celebrations related to FOCUS and the St. Moses Mission.

Outreach and Ministry

FOCUS Ministry: Steven DelVitto and John Harrison and volunteersFOCUS Ministry: Steven DelVitto and John Harrison and volunteersIt was in January of 2011 that the ministry of FOCUS began and Fr. Paul was appointed Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh, a  thriving center of prayer, evangelism, and outreach.

Father Paul’s ministry continued to expand within his home parish and throughout the residents of the Hill District of Pittsburgh.  “The Hill,” as it is commonly referenced by the people of Pittsburgh and as described by Fr. Paul, is today a predominately African-American community which over the years has seen a decline in living standards with a high unemployment and crime rate, food insecurity, and poorly performing schools, along with many other challenges. Rising to those challenges, Fr. Paul, Kristina, and an army of volunteers from various church, volunteer and local university communities and professional sports teams, are making a truly miraculous impact in the daily lives of those in need. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been collected in an ongoing effort to help implement and fund a variety of programs which include the establishment of a free Health Center which is the first comprehensive Orthodox Christian health center in the United States. The Health Center offers free primary and behavioral health care along with dental care. In addition, a trauma-informed community strategy has been implemented in order to raise awareness of the untold pain that residents in the Hill have experienced for generations. Through this strategic program, work is being done to establish healthy, healing micro-communities throughout the Hill and beyond.

Through the grace of God, another wonderful ministry has emerged. At the initiative of Steven and Shadia DelVitto and with assistance of Gregory and Daniel DelVitto and the parishioners of St. George Church, the “Backpack Feeding Program” was established. The Program provides nutritious backpacks of food for children in need over the weekends as many of these children do not receive the nutrition that is necessary for maintaining their health and growth. For a variety of reasons, it is during the weekends that it is critical that the children receive ample nutrition.

The first backpack feeding event was held in the parish hall of St. George and continued for several months, which saw a number of volunteers gather each week to prepare and pack 50 backpacks of food which were then distributed to the children in the Greater Pittsburgh Area.  According to Steven DelVitto, manager of the FOCUS Backpack Feeding Program, to date the weekly distribution now exceeds 2,500 backpacks a week which are distributed through twenty six schools in the Pittsburgh area. In addition, a hot meal is served from the FOCUS Center every Wednesday from 4:30 – 5:30 p.m., along with distribution of clothing and other basic items.  Hundreds of people are fed each week with both physical and spiritual nourishment including a lunch distribution program sponsored by the Orthodox Clergy Brotherhood of Greater Pittsburgh and many other benefactors.

At the FOCUS Center via the Mission, Fr. Paul and Kh. Kristina continue to organize and lead daily prayer and weekly scripture studies which are available to anyone who would like to participate;  numerous people have availed themselves of these opportunities to grow and be nurtured in our Lord and His Church. Multitudes of those afflicted with suffering and pain on various levels find love and comfort and care that is graced by our Lord Himself.

The Nurturing of St. Moses Mission

In tandem with the work accomplished through FOCUS, Fr. Paul and Khouria Kristina continued to nurture the catechumens of the Mission with the assistance and dedication of the parishioners of St. George and many other Orthodox communities in the area. One expression, among many, of their care for those entrusted to them stands out to me. For the past several years, Fr. Paul and Kh. Kristina, as well fellow parishioners, would travel to the residences of people in the Hill to pick them up and transport them to St. George for worship on Sundays and feast days, all year long and through all types of Pittsburgh weather. From this nurturing act of love, seven catechumens were baptized at St. George Church, finding their home in the Orthodox Faith. Our parishioners of St. George have truly been blessed to gather in prayer and fellowship over the years with these wonderful and faithful people and have been graced to learn much from them through their love, trials and tribulations. Their lives have been truly transformed by and for the glory of God.

Recently, a new phase in the lives of those faithful members and many others emerged. His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph gave his blessing for Fr. Paul to serve as the priest and spiritual father of the members of the St. Moses Mission at the FOCUS Center, until such a time when the Mission is able to acquire a permanent home for worship in the Hill. Now, with great thanksgiving and joy, Fr. Paul and Khouria Kristina will be worshipping with their flock in the Hill celebrating the Divine Liturgy every Sunday and feast days in the continuous offering of prayer to God and offering His comfort  and healing for  all of God’s people. 

Concluding on a personal note, Kh. Anna, our children Gregory, Steven, and daughter-in-law Shadia, and our grandson Jason and Daniel, are extremely thankful to Fr. Paul and Kh. Kristina for their continued love which they so graciously continue to share with us. We are especially thankful to Fr. Paul’s mother Denise Abernathy and all of his family members, along with Kh. Kristina’s parents, David and Marilyn Elias, for their offering of their beloved children in service to God. 

I humbly request that you continue to remember our beloved hierarchs, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, His Grace Bishop Thomas, Fr. Paul, Kh. Kristina, their family members, and the faithful members and catechumens of St. Moses Mission and the staff and volunteer of FOCUS Pittsburgh, and the parishioners of St. George in your prayers.