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Well Done, Good and Faithful Servants

By Father Deacon Ezra Ham

“The last one out of Oklahoma, Turn out the lights.” That’s what the T-shirt said. It was 1982. The collapse of the Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City had set in motion a domino effect. What the whole country would experience with the collapse of the housing loan market in 2009, Oklahoma faced in 1982. Banks failed. Businesses and stores closed. Many lost their jobs.

Times were tough in Oklahoma. Times were tough at St. Elijah Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City. Church attendance had dwindled and along with it—the offering. Discouraged and disheartened—it was easy to complain and be divided.

It was 1982 when Fr. Constantine Nasr arrived with his wife, Sharon, and their young sons, Constantine and Philip. Fresh from their successful years at St. George in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, they found themselves in a raw, young state three months short of its 75th birthday. It was a state hardened by the frontier and toughened by tornadoes, the Dust Bowl years, and the changing price of oil and cattle.

A lesser man would have told the Metropolitan, “No. I will not accept this assignment.” A lesser wife would have packed her suitcase and taken her children with her back to Rhode Island. Neither one happened. Fr. Constantine accepted his assignment. Sharon Nasr made a life for herself, her husband and her children in Oklahoma.Nasr family, early yearsNasr family, early years

They were tested often in the early years—financially, socially and spiritually. The turning point came with sickness, in the late 1980s. A small child of one of the Ethiopian members was diagnosed with a critical illness. The church had no money—the offering covered expenses but barely kept the priest fed. Always saying that God would provide, Fr. Constantine explained the child’s need to the parish.

Several days later an anonymous envelope arrived at the church. As Fr. Constantine began to open it—he realized it contained cash. He immediately stopped, called then-Deacon Basil McMurry and the church secretary to come. Together they opened the envelope and counted the money. It contained $5,000 in cash. The next Sunday Fr. Constantine told the story of the envelope and its cash to the church. He asked the donor to contact him so that the donor could receive tax credit for his gift.

That was over twenty years ago. To this day—no donor for the $5000 in that envelope has ever come forward. But from that day to this—St. Elijah became a giving church. Divisions within the parish began to heal. A spirit of unity and cooperation once more flowed through the parish.

Unity and peace produced growth. Former members returned. Soon non-Orthodox knocked on the doors of St. Elijah. Fifteen to thirty converts each year began embracing the Holy Orthodox Faith. Marriages were crowned. Births were celebrated. St. Elijah was once more vibrant and enthusiastic. It also had outgrown its church home. It was time to build.

St. Elijah consecrated its new temple at 150th and N. May in September, 1997. The $7 million church was fully paid for the day it was consecrated. An additional $5 million education space with gym was completed in 2005. A family within the parish donated 10 acres of land adjoining St. Elijah. Today the St. Elijah church complex, sitting on 20 acres of land, is valued at $12 million. It is fully paid for. On the national level, St. Elijah consistently ranks among the top five churches in giving to the archdiocese.

During his 29 years of ministry at St. Elijah Fr. Constantine has blessed the birth of Family Night—a pan-Orthodox educational night with classes from the Nursery through Adults—with multiple classes offered each week for adults. He has blessed the birth of Teen Chats—a weekly gathering of teens for frank conversations about life and their faith. He has blessed the birth of the Twenty-Forty Fellowship—a fellowship group targeting singles and young married couples. A parish that barely had fifty attending liturgy in 1982—today has twenty high chairs in the fellowship hall—all filled on Sundays! Most recently Fr. Constantine blessed the birth of SaGE: Sex and God Education—an annual seminar for teens and their parents on sexuality. Divided by grades, SaGE seminars present age-appropriate material designed to guide our teens toward a mature Christian understanding of sex that leads to moral choices.

During his years at St. Elijah Fr. Constantine has helped train men who have become priests, deacons, sub-deacons and readers. This includes those who came from other Orthodox parishes to serve and train here at St. Elijah: Fr. John Salem, Fr. Christopher Salamy, Fr. John Mefrige, Fr. Charles Baz, Fr. Jeremy Davis, Karim Azar, and three students from Nazareth: Sleeman, Shadi, and Elias; and one student from Bethlehem, Iyad, and most recently our new youth director, Erin Learned. Those coming out of St. Elijah include: Archpriest Basil McMurry, Fr. Antony Bahou, Fr. James Shadid, Fr. George Al-Dehneh, Fr. George Shawareb, Kh. Bertha McMurry, Kh. Valerie Salem, Kh. Raghad Shawareb, Kh. Mageda Al-Denheh, Dn. Ezra Ham, Sh. Kathy Ham, Sbdn. David Rotramel, Sbdn. John Dutcher, Sbdn. Larry Jefferson, Sbdn. Noel Spoonemore, Sbdn. David Tait, Rdr. Philip Nasr, Rdr. George Ghata, and Rdr. Kory Warr. Finally, he has encouraged Janet Jaime to pursue her passion as an Iconographer.

For twenty-nine years every Sunday Sharon Nasr sat near the back of the church—watching for visitors. Spotting someone she did not know, Sharon quietly greeted them and asked them to sit with her. She assisted them with the Service Book and helped them through the Divine Liturgy. She brought them with her to Coffee Hour, wrote down their names and contact information, and introduced them to others. Sharon embodied the welcoming hands and open heart of evangelism. The warmth of her greeting and the genuineness of her care has blessed us all.

On August 14, 2011, Fr. Constantine and Sharon Nasr passed the baton of leadership to Fr. John and Valerie Salem, and their children Michael and Christina. Fr. John and Valerie stepped into a church with an attendance ten times larger than those that greeted Fr. Constantine and Sharon in 1982. They have stepped into a happy church—a united church—a financially sound church. Fr. Constantine and Sharon have given them a physically strong church—a church ready for spiritual growth and eager to accept the challenge of new ministries.

What a difference twenty-nine years has made. What a difference Fr. Constantine and Sharon Nasr have made. Well done, thou good and faithful servants.

St. Elijah is honoring Fr. Constantine and Sharon with a Retirement Party on Saturday evening, January 14, 2012. The event will be held in St. Elijah’s Fellowship Hall. For ticket information please contact Kay at St. Elijah 405-755-7804.