St. John the Baptist Mission Profiled in the Frederick News-Post


One man’s spiritual journey ends with a congregation’s conversion

Lewistown is now home to Maryland’s first Western Rite Orthodox church

by Ron Cassie of The Frederick News-Post

Last weekend, at a service at St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church in Poquoson, Va., Bishop Thomas Joseph ordained James K. Hamrick into the holy priesthood of the Western Rite Orthodox Church.

It was a moment Hamrick’s congregation in Lewistown has been waiting for since early spring. On April 10, his small flock at the former Charismatic Episcopal Lamb of God Church converted en masse to the Antiochian Orthodox faith, which includes both Western Rite and Eastern Orthodox churches.

At Hamrick’s urging, the 40-member congregation, which worships in a church built in 1883 by Methodists, was officially accepted as an Orthodox mission in March. After preparation, members went through the sacramental rite of chrismation into the Antiochian Orthodox faith. Further highlighting their transformation, the congregation adopted a new name: St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church.

This weekend, Hamrick will lead an Orthodox Sunday Mass for the first time at the church, marking the final step for the 45-year-old priest and his congregation as Maryland’s first Western Rite Orthodox church.

“For the people who have endured a rather long and difficult journey, this doesn’t mark the end, but a fresh new beginning,” Hamrick said. “We’re excited about what God is doing — about being pioneers and evangelists, about bringing Holy Orthodoxy which is the faith of the Apostles and the ancient Church to the people of Frederick County living in the 21st century.”

Jeff Hueg, a member of the pastor’s council at St. John the Baptist, called this weekend’s Mass, “a big beginning moment for us as a congregation.”

Hueg acknowledged trials along the way, but said that during the process of conversion the congregation “believed it was being led in this direction by God.”

“We did some investigation, visiting other Antiochian churches, and Bishop Thomas came to visit us,” Hueg said. “It has been more enjoyable than anything else, learning what really is the true and ancient faith.”

A personal odyssey

The journey for the Lewistown congregation was short compared with Hamrick’s path to the Orthodox faith.

He was born into the family of a United Methodist minister, now deceased. The Rev. Kenneth Hamrick led a congregation in Thurmont for 26 years, but his son James never aspired to be a clergyman. He became a police officer — and still serves as assistant chief of police at the University of Maryland.

But by 1994, he said, he had begun to sense a call to the ordained ministry.

“I resisted that for a while,” he said. “Having grown up as (a) preacher’s kid, you see the ugly side — the struggles my dad went through, demands of the job, calls in the middle of the night, dealing with people who don’t like the decisions you make, and divisions in the church.”

Following in the footsteps of his father, he first became a certified candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church in 1997. In 1998, he accepted a position as pastor of a threechurch charge in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Working weekdays in College Park and leading weekend services near his home in Thurmont, Hamrick is called a “bi-vocational” in the religious community.

“Other people sometimes call me ‘the pistolpacking priest,’” he said with a laugh.

Handling the demands of both jobs, and what could be construed as inherent conflicts — the image of a peaceful nonviolent minister versus a policeman who may be required to deadly force — has never been an issue, Hamrick said.

“I see a lot of similarities, actually, in the two roles,” he said. “There is a similar sacred trust. Being a police officer is not contrary to my thinking of Christ as the Good Shepherd.”

A married father of four, Hamrick said his recent struggle has been to find “ecclesiastical anchorage” for his evolving Christian beliefs.

Sacred traditions

Around the time of his father’s death six years ago, Hamrick was introduced to a priest from the Charismatic Episcopal Church at the annual meeting of the Maryland Chiefs of Police.

He eventually decided to leave the United Methodist Church and give up his pastorship in Harpers Ferry. In 2005, he was ordained into the priesthood of the Charismatic Episcopal Church — a more conservative church, closer to Catholicism on many issues. He began his mission in the C.E.C. at the previously vacant old church in Lewistown.

A year later, a major rupture shook the Charismatic Episcopal Church, and the bishop who ordained him, Philip Zampino, left the C.E.C. (Zampino recently joined the new Anglican Church in North America).

“At that point I questioned again where God was leading me,” Hamrick said. “I had already adopted an Anglican/Catholic sacramental world view.”

Hamrick believed that God’s authority was not only found in the Scriptures, as he felt Protestant churches emphasized, but also in the apostolic succession and sacred traditions, he said.

“I knew when I left the Charismatic Episcopal Church, I couldn’t go back to Protestantism.” Hamrick said.

For practical reasons, he dismissed becoming a Roman Catholic priest. Being married didn’t rule him out automatically — previously married and ordained Christian ministers are sometimes admitted to Catholic seminaries — but he thought, if nothing else, the process would take an unreasonably long time given his circumstances.

Unchanged faith

Hamrick finally realized his beliefs were in more in line with the Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.

“Orthodoxy represents the most compelling form of Christianity to me,” Hamrick said. “They’ve never had a reformation, there’s never been a need for reform — not to say there hasn’t been family squabbles. But theologically it is pure and pristine. The fundamentals of faith have remained unchanged.”

Issues debated in other Christian denominations, such as women’s ordination, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia and “the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary” are “all settled and not points of division,” he said.

Hamrick disagrees with the Roman Catholic concept of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction of the pope; he prefers the somewhat less hierarchical Orthodox structure. He said, however, that he would like to see the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches reunite.

There are now 276 Antiochian Orthodox churches in the Eastern Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, and 20 U.S. churches in the Western Rite.

Hamrick’s congregation has already received encouragement from the only other Orthodox church in Frederick County, Sts. Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox.

“Father Anastasios and I have met and have had conversations and he is very supportive of our new mission,” Hamrick said. “We have been in their prayers. In fact, several families in our congregation attended services there while I was going through the ordination process.”

Reprinted with permission as appearing in the online edition at www.fredericknewspost.com.

Click here to read commentary on this article by Terry Mattingly.