Having just returned from a memorable Thanksgiving in the Big Apple I thought I would share a nugget from my wife’s family history, that gave birth to their Pentecostal heritage.
Spring had come in more ways than one to the tiny little flat on 374 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn New York. It was 1912 and Pasia and Peter Strepka were settling in to their new life in America. They were so new that much of their time was taken up in language school. Pasia was befriended by a lawyer’s wife who admired how clean her hands were and offered her a job as a maid. Peter found work in a local restaurant. These were grateful immigrants. When their cousin Joe Kawalyk arrived on a ship from the Ukraine and passed the Statue of Liberty, he famously heaved his luggage carrying all his earthly belongings overboard shouting, “I’m beginning a new life!”
Easter was coming and the Strepkas were ready to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Ukrainian style. The Easter eggs from that part of the world are stunningly beautiful and Pasia decorated the apartment with these homemade treasures. Pierogis, which they called “pataha”, and lamb were on the menu. They scrimped and saved and scraped up enough money to have their first Easter feast in America. Their Orthodox priest was to come and say the required blessing before they ate the sacred meal.
Candles were lit, the food was ready to be served, and the family gathered with grateful hearts. Noon came and went without the priest’s arrival. The food had to be warmed again, but still the priest did not come. After some time, it became clear that he was not coming. In spite of the embarrassment of eating that meal without the priest’s blessing the family said their own blessing and ate wondering what had happened to their priest.
In their culture it was enough of a slight that Peter was quite angry and confronted the priest the following Sunday. When asked why he didn’t come, the priest said, “I’m sorry, but your family is behind on their giving, that is why I didn’t come.”
The struggling family was incensed. They were as generous as their meager earning would allow in spite of living at a poverty level.
This opened their hearts to accepting an invitation to a house church meeting being held by a Polish Pentecostal preacher that cousin Joe had met in language school. The preacher’s custom was to meet in Ukrainian homes teaching about the new encounter with God that sweeping the country which some called Pentecost. Soon the whole family was converted.
Pasia’s daughter Catherine would later marry a Pentecostal man from Ohio named Stanley. They were in attendance at the founding of a new Pentecostal denomination in 1945 called the United Pentecostal Church. Stanley Chambers was elected to the second highest position known as the General Secretary because he was the only one at the meeting that knew shorthand. He would eventually become the General Superintendent of the denomination where he served with integrity and distinction. Stanley and Catherine gave birth to three daughters and a son. Their second daughter Judy gave birth to three daughters. Judy’s oldest daughter Melanie is my wife.
This Thanksgiving our family took our first family trip back to New York. We saw a show on Broadway, froze through the Macy’s Day parade and gawked at the sights on Time Square, Madison Avenue, and Central Park. On Thanksgiving Day, however, after the parade, Melanie boarded the subway to Brooklyn with our two daughters and stood outside an Apartment complex one 374 Atlantic Avenue and stared up at a third-floor window. Melanie gratefully told our girls the story of this epic moment in their family lore.
Maybe our seminaries should focus less on indoctrinating students on the finer points of Calvinism and should instead attempt to immerse their students in the lifestyle of Jesus. The Strepka’s needed love and welcome when they came to America. A Polish Pentecostal preacher shared that love with them.
I’ve come to believe that heaven is not a place for the theologically perfect. Our theology will never be quite right. The Apostle Paul said that “now we see through a glass darkly.” Heaven will be filled with those who have received the grace and love of God and who in turn bestow that grace and welcome on others.
The ripples of one man’s generous welcome to Melanie’s family reverberates through time and I am grateful.
Philip C. Nordstrom, DMin
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Life Church Knoxville
We're an inter denominational church in Knoxville, Tennessee that believes that all people matter and should experience the love and power that comes along with a healthy relationship with Jesus Christ.