Mike Rostad photo

Fr. James Keene, far left, with his family and Bishops Michael Dahulich and David Mahaffey; student, Hieromonk Iosaph Billy.

St. Herman’s Seminary graduations are a big deal. Some of the finest in Orthodoxy’s Who’s Who are invited as guest speakers: theologians, professors, seminary deans, authors. If the Orthodox Church published its own People Magazine, these speakers would be on the cover.

But considering class enrollment numbers, the graduations are also small events. This year, only one student, Fr. James Keene, received a four-year theological decree.

Hieromonk Iosaph Billy, who attended the seminary in the mid-1980s and returned to finish his studies, was given a certificate of completion

The graduates were honored at the Seminary graduation banquet at the Afognak Center on Sunday.

However, in Orthodox spiritual mathematics, that which seems insignificant like the parabolic mustard seed, may carry limitless possibilities.

After all, it was a relatively small group of men who “turned the world upside down” for Christ; great churches were birthed in humble domiciles. One man or woman who said “yes” to God have converted millions to Christ.

Don’t underestimate the possibilities of “small.”

Keene, who was ordained into the priesthood over a year ago, came to Kodiak from Kasigluk, a Kuskokwim river village with a population of less than 600. It was served by influential priests.

One of them was the late Fr. Yago Steven, who graduated from St. Herman’s Seminary in 1978.

He encouraged Keene to consider the possibility of getting a theological education.

Keene, a convert to Orthodoxy from the Moravian faith, put off attending seminary for pragmatic reasons. He had a job as a plumber for the Kuskokwim Health Corporation which required him to travel all over the region.

Keene also had a family to support.

After weighing the pros and cons of attending the seminary, Keene approached his wife about the possibility of uprooting the family and moving them to Kodiak. She said she would follow his decision.

Before Keene took that final, irrevocable step, he fretted over responsibilities at home.

“So many thoughts were going through my head,” he said. It was hard to leave his in-laws whom he supplied with subsistence food and helped in other ways.

But after talking with his priest and others in the village, he was assured that his family would be taken care of. The whole community would look after them. That’s pretty much what happens in the village, he said.

Compared to Kasigluk, Kodiak was a booming metropolis.

“Driving for the first time, I got lost,” Keene said while smiling.

The move from village to city was hard on the kids, Keene said.

Some of them would come home crying because of the tough adjustments. Since Yup’ik was their first language, it was difficult to attend classes with students and teachers who did not know it. They were worlds apart culturally.

“But they managed to adjust,” Keene said, pointing out that by the end of the first summer, they were anxious to get back to Kodiak.

“The kids are speaking English more,” Keene said.

Keene’s vocabulary expanded as well. In his classes and services, he was learning words and concepts that were beyond his reach in the village.

While Keene gave credit to his village priests for influencing him to come to the seminary, he thanked St. Herman Seminary dean Fr. John Dunlop for helping him stay there. Dunlop, his father/confessor, taught some of the classes which “really helped me,” Keene said.

Besides taking classes on the Old and New testaments, homiletics, the church fathers and other ecclesiastical subjects, Keene spent more than 200 hours in the clinical pastoral education, which brought him to the hospital, nursing home and other places outside the seminary complex.

The CPE program is managed and supervised by Dr. Patricia Wilson-Cone, a vivacious lady who faces her duty with the zeal of an evangelist.

At the graduation banquet, Cone thanked Keene and his fellow students — Amy Miller, Rev. Mark Overbeek and Rachelle Yeates — for saying “yes,” to participating in the program and being leaders.

“They recognized the value of the people they serve — those who are bound to hospital rooms,” Cone said.

The theme of compassionate service was also taken up by the keynote speaker, Bishop Michael Dahulich, archbishop of the Orthodox Church in America New York and New Jersey Diocese and dean of St. Tikhon Seminary.

Quoting St. John Chrysostom, Dahulich said that some make their parish their world, others make the world their parish.

Dahulich encouraged Keene and fellow priests to have a servant’s heart whether serving in the altar or a soup kitchen. Be a person of prayer; don’t compromise the truth; preach the Word of God at every turn.

Tell the story of the Alaska saints and your own story, Dahulich said. Serve with joy as if the Liturgy you serve is your first and last. “Love the people assigned to you.” The flock is not yours, but the Lord’s, said Dahulich.

The visiting bishop thanked Alaska for being a spiritual light for the rest of the country. He said that our society adores secular “idols,” such as Hollywood and athletic stars and politicians, rather than Christ, the Theotokos and the saints.

Dahulich’s former student, David Mahaffey, bishop of Sitka and Alaska, chided Dahulich, tongue-in-cheek, for being instrumental in getting him to Alaska. Mahaffey said he was very happy that he accepted the position. He said he liked the way the seminary was “doing things,” and was touched by the humility and faithfulness of the students.

Dr. Bea Dunlop, St. Herman’s professor, presented Keene monetary and other gifts from his sponsors in the Adopt-a-Seminarian program initiated by Mary Ann Khoury. Adopt a Seminarian is part of Outreach Alaska, which Khoury founded. Dunlop said Khoury, who traditionally presents seminarians gifts from their sponsors, retired from her position last year.

Keene will most likely be assigned to a parish. In the meantime, he and his family will stay in Kodiak.

“It’s going to be hard to leave the people,” he said. “We got to know them well.”

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