an interview with Father Peter Smith, St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church, Norcross, GeorgiaEach Sunday morning in the St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church in Norcross, Georgia, a congregation of devout Christians is lead in prayer and worship by their dedicated and passionate priest, Father Peter Smith. The first things I noticed upon my meeting Father Peter in person were his happiness and zest for life! In his warm and friendly manner, Father Peter was kind enough to partake in this interview, and I consider myself blessed and honored to share in his very profound message and to have such an esteemed guest for my publication. Because faith lives by example, I would like to introduce you all to Father Peter. You will discover an amazing person, who has served as a spiritual leader for many years; who loves God and His people; and who can teach all of us more about how to live a life worth living in the light of God.
Mara Circiu: I have to say, Father Peter, you are the happiest Orthodox priest I know, what is the secret to your happiness and positive attitude?
Fr. Peter Smith: Well, I’d like to think it is because I’m from Irish roots. But, honestly, I love people -- and to be a servant of the Lord at His table is beyond anything else I could do in my life. It is a constant source of true joy.
Mara Circiu: How did you, as an Irishman, come to Orthodoxy? How did you become a priest?
Fr. Peter Smith: I will try to make these answers fairly brief...but it truly is a 53 year long and MIRACULOUS story. I was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1946...I’m 65. My family moved to Valley Stream, NY in 1951. As a young boy, I was intensely involved in all sports...a running back and defensive safety in football, an all-star shortstop in baseball and a forward/mid-fielder in soccer. In 1965, I took a year off from college because I was invited to spend a year in Peru with a British family - business friends of my father. In the sixth month of my visit, I had a swimming accident at a local beach and broke my neck by diving through the top of a seven foot wave and hitting the hard sand behind it. After I was flown to New York City -- still with broken 4th & 5th cervical bones -- a nursing student friend of my then ex-girlfriend visited me in the hospital over that first weekend. She is now my wonderfully loving wife of 43 years. I actually told my folks THAT VERY weekend that I was sure I would marry her. Well, she was Russian Orthodox and over the next few months we spoke quite a bit about life and God. Being Roman Catholic at the time, I understood and resonated with all she said about Orthodoxy. It was not very strange then that we were married in the Orthodox Church in 1969 and I finally converted to the Orthodox Church in 1975 after the birth of our second child. That “conversion” was so we could all receive Christ at the same Chalice in the One Church -- all together. When we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1978, we helped establish an Orthodox Mission Church there. When our Bishop visited in 1982, the Bishop tonsured me a Reader in the Church. Later, when I asked my Pastor in 1984 if the Lord might be calling me to the Priesthood, his answer was a typically Orthodox “definite maybe” as he said, “Well...could be!” In 1987, after Ordination and graduation, we moved to Columbia, South Carolina where I pastored Holy Apostles Orthodox Church for 13 years and I now pastor St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church near Atlanta, Georgia.
Mara Circiu: I understand that you have been to Europe. Tell us about your experience in the Eastern European countries.
Fr. Peter Smith: I had the magnificent blessing to visit Romania last year. A dear Romanian family here at St. Mary’s invited me to be with them and other members of UNIFERO - “Uniunea Internationala A Femeilor Romane.” We spent 2 weeks in Piatra Neamt and elsewhere in Moldova. We toured several magnificent monasteries...and I fell in love with the Romanian culture, piety, and wonderful people. It was an unforgettable experience. My wife’s grandmother’s name in the Church was Paraschiva. And I had the incredible blessing to visit her Cathedral in Iasi. What a great privilege and blessing...unforgettable!! I will be eternally grateful to God for that trip! A brief but telling highlight of the trip occurred at the airport in Prague - even before arriving in Bucharest. As I exited the plane into the terminal, a voice cried out, “Father Peter, what are you doing here??!!” It was a dear lady I knew from St. Mary Romanian Orthodox Church here in Atlanta!! She was on the same flight!! What a small world!! Yet, it was indeed God’s way of saying, “Don’t worry, I have My Hand on you!!” How assuring and comforting to hear her voice... and share the common experience of Orthodoxy in Romania.
Mara Circiu: What does the Orthodox Church signify to you?
Fr. Peter Smith: From the moment my wife -that Nursing Student who visited me in the hospital- and I began talking about God and the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,” it became crystal clear to me that God had much more waiting in our future. Not necessarily the Priesthood at that time, but a much closer and intimate walk with Him. That might be the way the Church is meaningful to me...intimate, edifying, forgiving, loving and so fulfilling!! To think now that God Himself has held me in His own Hands for all my life is both humbling and incredibly awesome!! Now...THAT IS SIGNIFICANT!!!
Mara Circiu: How easy is it to preach the Gospel of Christ in the contemporary secular world without compromising the dogmas of the faith?
Fr. Peter Smith: That is quite an excellent question!! And what a challenge for a Priest to think he has to preach the Gospel himself! Well, first of all...he doesn’t preach the Gospel himself!! God not only sends His Spirit to give the Priest the words to preach; but He supports the Priest in all he does in the service of the Lord -- that is if the Priest will let Him!!! The greatest challenge for the Priest...indeed for ALL Christians... is to “Get out of the way and let God be God!” So, preaching the Gospel is “easy” when one preaches it by letting God Himself be the “driver of the vehicle” -- “the Pilot of the plane” -- “the wind beneath my wings” - so to speak. A preacher worth anything is one who steps aside and lets God do the work. Though it seems “easy;” that might be the most difficult thing in a Priest’s ministry -- to let God do the work!!
Mara Circiu: Have there been cases in your pastoral experience which have strengthened your faith in God and His Divine Providence?
Fr. Peter Smith: OH, SO MANY!! Every Baptism, every Wedding, every time I bless a pregnant Mother, anoint a person who is not doing so well, every time I hear a confession...almost everything I do as a Priest in/for/through His Holy Church strengthens my faith in God. I don’t do anything I do without Him...and that strengthens me. Just think! God has taken this red-headed, Irish, Roman Catholic kid from Brooklyn, New York and blessed him to be a Priest in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church!! That has to be one of the most mind blowing things in my life!! Providence?? After facing death three times in my life, there has to be a “Providential end” to all of this in His will and plan...not mine.
Mara Circiu: Being a good Christian is something we all aspire to be, how can we attain that?
Fr. Peter Smith: Well, the short answer is...do what the Lord said to do; Pray, fast, give of yourself...deny yourself; take up your Cross; and follow Him! In other words, we all need to ‘do this’ HIS WAY and NOT OURS!! Each one of us has an Ego -- a desire to “make something of ourselves” leave our mark on the world in some significant way. Well...that really isn’t very “Christian!” It is indeed somewhat self-centered and “exclusive.” A sort of “motto” or “mantra” or PRAYER that I ask from everyone is to say every morning, “Lord, give me the strength to think, do and say everything THIS DAY to Your glory!” St. Isaac the Syrian said that if we do God’s will for even ONE DAY...we’d be in Paradise! Imagine how very difficult it is to really do God’s will and not ours! Being a “good Christian” is to bring Christ into one’s life and KEEP Him there!!
Mara Circiu: Who is your role model as a Christian?
Fr. Peter Smith: Again...a short answer...a truly humble and repentant person! Seriously, the Theotokos [literally “The God-bearer” - the Mother of God] is the “paradigm” for all of humanity. Imagine yourself as a young, teen-age girl having a ‘stranger’ say to you; “Rejoice Mara!! You are pregnant and you will bear the Son of God 9 months from now;”...which is basically what happened to Mary when the Angel Gabriel made the “Annunciation” to her. Since you have not had relations with a man...if you aren’t married...that is the furthest thought from your mind. And yet, that very teen-age girl answered, “Let it be done to me as Thou sayest!!” What FAITH!! What better ‘role model’ for ALL of us!?! Can I do that? Certainly not myself on my own! But if and when I let the Lord lead me...”move over and let God be God”... I can see faith restored and made manifest in my life.
Mara Circiu: The parishioners of your church, Saint Mary of Egypt in Norcross, Georgia, are Russians, Americans, Romanians, white, Latino and black, a real melting pot of cultures and backgrounds. How do you manage to keep the unity of the congregation?
Fr. Peter Smith: In a way, I encourage each & every person to be who they are...God’s children. I have been blessed with a tremendously varied life. Beating cancer in my teen years by having a tumor surgically removed from my brain; having two broken Cervical vertebrae in about 26 pieces surgically repaired; having many international experiences through my father’s import/export company; enjoying teaching experiences both here in the U.S. and Peru and intensely loving people of all walks of life have all contributed to a thrilling and rewarding ministry in the Lord’s service. Every person is a child of God with His image and likeness created in each one. How can I NOT want to see everyone in unity with these ‘children’? The Lord has asked me to temporarily take care of them for Him. How can I refuse that? I certainly won’t say “Nope!” to God.
Mara Circiu: What can you tell us about your church and its plans, I know you have a project to remodel and reconstruct the current building.
Fr. Peter Smith: A few years ago, His Eminence Archbishop Dmitri - our Diocesan Hierarch, now reposed and praying for us in God’s Kingdom - challenged us to build a “Catholicon” here at St. Mary of Egypt. So, we began by conceptualizing what and how that would look. We had plans drawn up by a resident architect in our Parish. Our community has seen changes in various ways...people moving to or from the Norcross/Atlanta area; new faithful discovering St. Mary of Egypt all the time; immigrants and converts helping the growth of the community have all contributed to the need to “expand” our facilities. Well, we need to build a larger and more substantial Temple. That is our present plan -- a larger, more accommodating and spacious facility for the proper worship and glorification of the Lord. Presently...and for a good while into the future...we are in the “fund raising” phase of this project. It is an exciting project and will be a rewarding and fitting place for our community to hear witness and spread the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Any help or contributions are gratefully received and prayed for in the glory of God!
Mara Circiu: We have reached the end of our interview. What are your thoughts and message for our readers...?
Fr. Peter Smith: St. Mary of Egypt was a rather sinful woman with a voracious and intensely deep appetite for earthy pleasures and self-satisfaction [How totally human - yet fallen!!]. Her later life was spent in complete seclusion in the Trans-Jordan wilderness amidst struggle leading to a rather “saintly” uniting with Christ. This is what we at St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church want fervently to manifest and communicate to the world...not only our close surrounding neighborhood, but as far and wide as it can be heard -- maybe even in Romania? The variety, diversity and unity of our community is an ongoing and ever-growing witness to the love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness of Christ. As St. Philip said to Nathaniel, “Come and See!!” We believe you will like what you see...and stay awhile. God bless!
Mara Circiu: Thank you again, Father Peter, you are an inspiration to all of us! For anybody who wants to know more about St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church, please feel free to visit them at 825 Beaver Ruin Rd, Norcross, Georgia, 30093