East End Beach Keepers Fellowship: Second Clean-up on the Rocks

The weather this October has been quite dry and comfortably warm. Saturday, the 12th was no exception.  My only fear was that I didn’t put the right address to the right parking lot to Anderson Park.  I picked up Camron at St. Basil’s at 8:15 and arrived at the Monitor Merrimac Overlook parking lot in about 15 minutes later.  As I had hoped, Phil and Jai saw my car.  They had Jacob Butts, his father is Arch-Priest Joseph, with them.  Emanuel Tessema’s mom drove him over to us just before we started our Third Hour Prayers.


Idiot that I am, I forgot to pick up extra trash bags. But, a Newport News Parks attendant drove up with a couple of court workers.  He was more than happy to lend us a few very large bags and didn’t mind leaving the little strip of beach for us to clean up.  As we worked, park visitors admired and thanked us for what we were doing.  They had never heard of Orthodox Christians.  I should get business cards made up.

I can’t help but to brag a little about our Teen SOYO. These over-achievers climbed the rip-rap rocks and were pulling trash from between them.  This is not the safest thing in the world to do.  It is so easy to loose footing, or have a large rock roll on an ankle.  But, not a piece of trash escaped them.  We did far more than the court workers who were “volun-told” to clean the area.  After an hour, Paddy and Yonah Edens showed up as we filled up about 8 large trash bags.


Crossing the bridge on Salter’s Creek, we hit Anderson Park. As is their custom, the fellas went right to the rocky bank.  Fifteen year old boys like risking their ankles.  Fifty year old men think about better ways of doing things.  Yeah, I did pull some larger items off the rocks.  But, something told me there was a nice sandy beach that really needed some attention.  I was more than right.  Along the end of the park, the beach was cluttered with plastic bottles, junk food bags, I even saw a barnacle encrusted bike.


I tried to call one of the guys to let them know to come down to where I was. They didn’t answer the phone.  An 11 year old kid saw me working and decided to give me a hand.  By the time my “crew” came down, it was already close to noon.  We said our Sixth Hour Prayers and went back to St. Basil for some well-deserved pizza.


This trip reinforced my idea that there are people who would be interested in the same sort of programs we offer at York River State Park. Everyone likes a litter free park to enjoy a romantic view of the water or a place to fish with a buddy or two.  Every kid likes to explore a nearby river or seashore.  Having Phil Riske as my Teen SOYO assistant is a blessing as he works at the Hermitage Gardens & Museum.  His plant expertise can come in handy when the weather warms up again and flowers are in bloom.


So, I am knocking on doors down in the East End. I sent e-mails to the local elementary schools and Boys & Girls Clubs asking them to have me as a volunteer and to give them a State Parks In Classroom Experience (SPICE) program.  I am also inspired to break out my camera gear and go back to my old BayStride Images pursuit of outdoor photography.  Camron suggested that we partner with a local church that serves meals to the food insecure and homeless.  I can definitely see that happening.  There are many ideas and possibilities for our fellowship to grow.  As for now, we’ll go with the advice someone once gave Fr. Paul Abernathy as he was trying to bring an Orthodox ministry to Pittsburgh’s Hill District; “Just say your prayers and everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.”

Balloons as litter: a problem we can solve

I stumbled across an interesting article from Clean Waterways Virginia describing the nuisance of wasted balloons on our beaches and shorelines.  If you are planning an event, please refrain from any sort of balloon release.  Balloons as litter: a problem we can solve.

dead bird balloon

Here are a couple of other links to articles about this problem:


East End Beach Keepers Fellowship:  Prayer and Practice before Preaching

The next shoreline clean-up date for the Beach Fellowship will be Saturday, October 12th at Anderson Beach.  We will begin at 9:00 a.m. with the Third Hour Prayer.  From 9:30 to 11:45 is litter collection time.  We’ll end at 12 noon with Sixth Hour Prayer.  The prayers are Orthodox Christian and optional for anyone participating with us.

East End Beach Keepers Fellowship clean up oct flyer

You’d think that with 17 years of pastoral experience and over 20 years as a licensed and ordained Baptist minister (before my conversion), that I would be ready to set up a pulpit and preach the word.  I am in no hurry.  This Fellowship is not a sedgeway into some non-denominational church plant.  If a church is to develop from this, it will be Orthodox.  That will take God’s blessing (unless He builds the house, it will fall).  And if is His will, we must follow proper procedures and protocols.  And if one doesn’t, so what?  As long as God’s will is done, nothing else matters.

Fr nathaniel

Father Nathaniel Johnson made a powerful observation during the 2014 Ancient Faith & Afro-American Conference.  The Desert Fathers of Egypt didn’t run around advertising and proclaiming who they were.  The spiritual lives they led attracted men and women from all over the empire to these arid outskirts along the Nile River.  If we strive to be the best Christians by growing our inward prayer lives and struggling against our passions, this would be a better means of drawing people to us rather than standing on street corners telling people what they ought to be.

Perhaps for this reason alone, my first focus should be on my interior spiritual development.  Of course, this is an ongoing process for any minister.  Orthodox Christianity all but demands that a clergyman does not slack in this pursuit and offers volumes of holy writings from ancient fathers to more recent keepers of traditional Christian thought from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Eastern Europe.  I am in the process of absorbing this treasury.  When the time comes for me to preach again on a regular basis, I’ll be ready and continue to ready myself.

Many a ministry dies early because someone is in too much of a hurry to speak without seeing what the need of the community is.  I am a bit fortunate that the Lord seems to have led me to an urban community with beach front parks.  My experience and training at York River State Park will come in handy with watershed education programs for the local schools and youth centers.  But, I need to spend more time in the East End learning the people, the problems, and the overall vibe.

me with st cyprian

By the grace of God, a ministry is beginning.  Preaching is not a main and initial focus for us.  The East End Beach Keepers Fellowship is about prayer and practice.  By the grace of Christ and the Holy Spirit, that will not change if/when I start delivering sermons.

East End Beach Keepers Fellowship: September Clean-Up

I woke up today in great anticipation and humble expectations.  Of my ten Teen SOYO members, I was only expecting a handful to show up.  Most of them are involved in sports and had other activities planned before I came up with this idea.  The ones who said they would participate included my leaders; Frank Edens (former President), Jai Riske (current President), and Camron Moye (soon to be Orthodox).  My Teen SOYO assistant, Phil Riske, was on hand as well as my good brother and parish iconographer Jeff Edens.  To make matters even better, the Newport News Park Ranger on duty was former York River State Park Conservation Intern Lauren Ferrero.

East End Beach Keepers Fellowship

20190921_095902_edited-1We broke out the gloves and bags provided by Clean Virginia Waterways as Lauren gave us some trash grabbers.  The amount of trash was a bit daunting.  We filled up 17 bags of litter and estimated the weight to be about 120-130 lbs.  But, the condition of what we found was (oddly enough) hopeful.  Most of what we found were older cans and bottles.  The aluminum was well corroded.  The beach is not really used by swimmers and sunbathers.  Fishermen on either pier use the trash cans rather than litter the shoreline (the beach is way too small for a lot of activity.  Those of you looking for summer fun should go to Buckroe, Ocean View, First Landing State Park, or Yorktown).  This is a very good thing.


The lack of foot traffic means there is a healthy population of recovering native sand dune grasses and ghost crabs.  Ranger Lauren told me that there are a few shorebird species that can be found early in the morning.  I wish I would have had either a cast net, or minnow trap to help catch some of the fish.  One of the anglers had a nice bag of finger mullet he hauled up for bait.  While we were successful in litter collection, there was nothing to be found in the dip and seine nets.  I did give an interpretation of oysters in the bay and how they went from forming huge reefs at the time of Captain John Smith to the decimation of over-harvesting and disease and the modestly successful recovery efforts.


We wrapped up a little after noon with the Third Hour Prayer.  As we were leaving, we saw more kids and adults coming to the park.  It was a great afternoon to hit the playground, have a cook out for two, and just to hang out with a friend.  I see opportunities for one of our “Roaming Ranger” style programs that we do at York River.  It would be too cool if I could get my hands on the stuffed and mounted oyster toadfish a saw once on a VA Marine Resources Commission display some years ago.  That would make the best prop for my “Terry the Oyster Toad” story.


There will be plenty of time for debriefing with the fellas and bouncing a few ideas off of Ranger Lauren.  I may also reach out to my pals at VIMS and the Virginia Aquarium as I may have an idea or two about a theme for a Roaming Ranger demonstration for October.  I am already pondering birding opportunities for the late fall and winter.  Today was a good start for the fellowship.  I look forward to what’s next.

Ammah Sarah Chesapeake Bay Outreach: End of the Path?

On the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos (Sunday, September 8th), I made this announcement at St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church: 

Brothers & Sisters in Christ

Our Teen SOYO will kick-off what, I pray, will become a consistent Orthodox presence in the East End of Newport News.  On Saturday, September 21st, we will participate in a park & shoreline clean-up at King-Lincoln Park on Sixth Street & Jefferson Avenue.  We will begin at 9:30 am with Third Hour Prayers and collect litter in the park and along Pinkett’s Beach.  Following the clean-up, I will give a demonstration of netting techniques to collect aquatic life such as fish and crabs.  We will identify these creatures, discuss their role in the ecosystem and release them.  The outing should be finished around noon with a brief Sixth Hour Prayer. 

God willing, this event will be the begining of the Ammah Sarah Chesapeake Bay Outreach.  St. Sarah of the Nile was an Egyptian Abbess with some of her lessons mentioned in the Matericon and Sayings of the Desert Fathers.  This ministry will work with the Newport News Parks & Recreation Department, Virginia State Parks and other organizations to provide aquatic and wildlife mapping programs for communties that lack outdoor education opportunities and maintain the health of the small shoreline.  As well, we will provide and partner with other churches to help meet the basic needs of people in the area. 

God willing, we will return to the park on October 19th and November 16th (the third Saturday of the month).  I welcome input and helping hands from others in the church, especially your prayers. 

Yours in Christ,

Fr. Deacon John Gresham 


And so, another page begins.  The Ammah Sarah CBO seems to be starting off quite well.  For one thing, the main organization that will benefit from it, the Newport News Parks, Recreation & Tourism Department, has welcomed the plan with open arms.  I had knocked on the doors of several agencies in the Williamsburg area and only got as far as two “one and off” programs in two years.  I will still leave a door open to anyone who wants to work with me on my original plan in this area.  But, I have an open door in front of me and will make the most of it.

Secondly, I have the support of my parish.  Trying to get anyone to come to York River or any other natural area in my neck of the woods is a bit much.  Having to drive all the way to the very end of Newport News is a hassle.  But, it’s only once a month.  I’d rather do that and have people at my side than to be ignored in my own back yard.  I am more than surprised at the enthusiasm I have gained not only from my teens.  The young adults also love the idea and want to help.  Cool.

Sarah of the Nile

Even without giving away food or clothing (which I still wish to do either on our own or with a partner church), I am highly optimistic about how this will go over with the public when we open it up to others in October.  Using this month as a dry run will give us time to figure out what may work best.  I want to practice using a cast net ahead of time.  NNPR&T asked me about promoting the event next month if all goes well.  So, that will be one less thing I have to be concerned about.

King Lincoln Park

More than having ample preparation and practice time is that we will be providing a humble service to the community as well as share a knowledge and appreciation for the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem to people who rarely get such opportunities.  I love working with the kids and adults who come to York River and am grateful that they choose to visit the park.  So many people don’t get the chance to catch grass shrimp in a dip net or learn the different species of waterfowl.  King-Lincoln Park (and nearby Anderson Beach & Park) are accessable to some of the the most marginalized people in the city.  Shame on me if I don’t try to bring my talents and training there, especially since I am welcomed and have support.

Ammah Sarah, pray with me that I will serve the Lord in His way for His glory.

King-Lincoln Park: Recapturing a Sense of Renewal

At the very end of Jefferson Avenue in Newport News is a diamond. A place that shined with great spiritual hope for African-Americans during segregation.  Pinkett’s Beach at King-Lincoln Park was one of few places black people could go and enjoy the water on a hot summer’s day.  This humble stretch of sand has been greatly ignored once when the larger and more scenic beaches were open to everyone.  On a visit to the park, I had a chance to see and ponder the renewal of the past and present.


Pickett’s beach was doomed to be abandoned as a popular swimming destination. It’s size and that of the park pales in comparison to Buckroe in nearby Hampton.  Virginia Beach offers a plethora of amusements and restaurants as opposed to the east end’s industrial buildings and housing projects.  Even Norfolk’s Ocean View has a larger pier and has the view of the broad Chesapeake Bay without the unsightly structures at the naval shipyard across Hampton Roads.  So, why do I think this is a place worth vising?

Most early black churches did not have baptismal pools inside of the building. There didn’t seem to be much of a need in many places in eastern Virginia as there were plenty of bodies of water for the sacrament.  Congregations in downtown and the east end of Newport News made use of Pinkett’s Beach at Lincoln Park.  A couple of Pentecostal denominations, notably Daddy Grace’s United House of Prayer for All People, would have parades of believers marching down to the shoreline for first time baptisms and annual spiritual cleansings.  An Orthodox equivalent of such can be seen at an Ethiopian Temket celebration where boys and men would jump into the water in celebration of our Lord’s baptism.  Also, a Greek tradition of Theophany is where a cross is thrown in the water and retrieved by one of the men in the community.  Some entire congregations of Russians, men and women, will plunge into and icy pond or lake that has been blessed by a clergyman for the great feast day.  My visiting here honors the Afro-American past that has some resemblance to ancient Christianity.


Since the beach is no longer a place of massive gatherings, the (albeit small) sand dunes have sprung back with grasses and shrubs. I saw holes that, at first, I thought were made by anglers who tried their luck from the shore.  Further investigation showed that they were dug out by ghost crabs.  This is the northern most place I had seen evidence of them, and I have spent plenty of time in wilder places such as Bethel Beach in Mathews and Northumberland’s Hughlett’s Point.  There was no shortage of small fish swimming amongst the waves of very clear water.  To top off my enjoyment of this resurgent little haven of nature, I picked up a whelk shell that contained a live hermit crab.  Like any other shoreline, there was litter.  But, I found more sand smoothed sea glass than recent bottles.  There are more secluded and urban beaches that have far greater trash problems that what I have seen at Pickett’s.

I met a local woman who was cutting a small path along the pier entrance to the beach. What she was doing was probably not ecologically sound nor in compliance with official park policy.  But, she wanted to make things a little easier for visitors to make their way down to the beach.  Someone cares to bring the resource to the people.  She may not be a ranger.  But, she understood the basic definition of park interpretation.  Perhaps, also, the mission of ministry.

Dormition Fast: What Am I Waiting For?

The Modern Monastic Order Of Saint Simon of Cyrene

I was blessed to preach the Gospel last Sunday, July 28th and focused on the need to be in the presence of Christ. I got my traditional Baptist preacher three points across and called it a day.  Our clergy and laity thought it was a good homily and appreciate my public speaking ability.  All was successful, glory and praise be to God.

Speaker 1

Yet, a couple of items on Facebook woke me up to the fact that I still haven’t quite moved, or am not moving as I should from my paralysis. Yesterday, an article from the Orthodox website Pravmir described how St Timon and generations of Middle Eastern Christians (I am in the Antiochian Archdiocese) have taken that Gospel message to rise up and walk to love their neighbors despite the brutal persecutions they have gone and still go through.  Not an hour later, Fr. Barnabas Powell posted, “‘Your sins…

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The Loss of Gentleness

The Modern Monastic Order Of Saint Simon of Cyrene

Isaiah prophesied that the Christ would not break crushed reeds or quench smoking flax (1). True to the forecast, Jesus was the personification of compassion.  Prostitutes, tax collectors, the mentally and physically ill, widows: they all found mercy in their encounters with the Lord.  He even prayed forgiveness for those who were killing Him (2).  Only the temple money changers felt the sting of His wrath (3).  Other than that, Jesus Christ was gentle in this world as there was a greater one that He would rule over.

Unfortunately, many of us have missed this characteristic of the Lord. Threats and violence are commonly used by individuals, groups, and nations to impose their will on others.  And where a physical attack does not happen, grudges and ill feelings are held against those whose ideas and ideals do not match our own.  Sadly, gentleness in the heart and mind can be…

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A Call to Renunciation and Watchfulness: Maroons & Monastics

In the fourth century, many Christians fled to the deserts of northern Africa and the Middle East to escape worldly distractions and struggle against their temptations. Some were tired of the growing complacency that was creeping into the Church now that Christianity had become legal.  Others had little trust in government protection even though Emperor Constantine ended the persecutions.  Life in the desert was harsh and very simple.  But, the desert fathers and mothers found freedom in the wasteland.

Some were in the wastelands for only a short time. Yet, they carried the spirit of detatchment from worldly greed and power in the cities and towns they lived in.  Some noted bishops and priest gave liberally to the poor and maintained a rather Spartan existence.  In every generation there were those who imitated those original desert fathers.  Russia had it’s Northern Thebaid.  Other monks eked out a living on the wind-swept British Isles and the escarpments of Ethiopia.  Even in an old mining town north of San Francisco, a pair of believers wanted nothing more than to pray, read, and publish writings of ancient Christianity.


Perhaps it was in the early 1700’s that a few enslaved Africans found a similar freedom in a wasteland. Native Americans were the first to reatreat to the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina as a refuge from the encroaching colonist.  Slave owners counted their “property” that ran away into the swamp as lost to the bears and snakes. European indentured servants, who were treated almost as bad as slaves, also found a home there.  Although full of valuable bald cypress trees, the land was deemed untameable by the colonial and national government.  The runaways, called maroons, had very harsh elements to deal with.  But, in overcoming the obstacles they found freedom.  There were thriving communities on both sides of the swamp.  Maroons would slip into “civilization” every now and then to get what they need or visit loved ones on the plantations.  But, they quickly made their way back to their wet wilderness where they were free and safe.


In exploring Orthodox Christianity, American Christians of all backgrounds would do well to follow the example of our desert fathers, their followers and Maroon ancestors. As individuals and a community, we have sins to struggle against.  Yet, too often we get distracted by the pursuit of money, politics, and other worldly cares.  This is not to say we should not participate in society.  But, there is a great temptation to be so focused on the earthly kingdom that we forget there is one to come.  The virtues of patience, honesty, chastity, and others cannot be legislated and can be gained no matter who is in the White House or wins the NBA Finals.  Gaining the virtues cleanses our souls and gives us victory both now and later.  Renunciation of the world and keeping watch over our what we take into our hearts and minds is how we gain them.


Shall we all physically move between Suffolk, Virginia and Elizabeth City, North Carolina? That would be impossible.  But, we can establish a sense of maroon like watchfulness in our lives little by little.  Making deliberate times for prayer, such as keeping the Hours brings us in God’s presence.  An icon corner in our homes can be as much of a refuge for our souls as the buttress of a bald cypress was for a runnaway slave.   Feeding on the spiritual wisdom of our monastic ancestors who renounced the world nourishes our souls.

The Psalmist declared that God prepares a table for him in the midst of his enemies (Psalm 22:5 LLX/23:5). The maroons still had to overcome bears, mosquitoes, and snakes.  Yet, God granted them freedom.  Satan and his minions will pester and threaten us in our quest for the Kingdom.  But, as  we practice spiritual watchfulness, there will be a refuge for us to thrive in.

Westmoreland & the Path of Humility

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a diversity training session for my job at Westmoreland State Park. Visiting the Potomac River shoreline is a homecoming for me.  My family and I used to live in Sandy Point in a house owned by Joseph J. Roane, a prominent African-American of the county.  I attended Cople Elementary School for Kindergarten and first grade.  The park was a hop-skip-and-jump from where we lived.  So, my parents took us there frequently (my brother was born not long after we moved to the county).


I arrived at Westmoreland about an hour early so I could visit the Park Manager, my former boss Russell Johnson, and sneak in a hike.  Big Meadow Trail is a favorite of park guest as it leads to the Fossil Beach section where the occasional Megaladon shark tooth can be found.  I like everything about the trail as it straddles a ridge above a small stream.  As the hiker descends from the hill, the stream becomes tidal in a marsh choked with tall grasses.  Arriving at the beach, two high cliffs can be seen both up and down river.  With icicles on the washed up trees on the shoreline, digging for fossils was completely out of the question.  I did get a few good landscapes images and some much-needed exercise.  So, the hike was well worth it.

I don’t think I can go into much detail about the training. But, it seemed that everything I learned related to the topic of my talk at the West Point Ministers Association’s MLK Day service, radical humility.  A major part of my job as a Ranger is to welcome and treat park guests and fellow employees with dignity and respect.  By doing so, we promote a friendly atmosphere and experience for everyone.  Dignity and respect for others is rooted deeply in one being humble to all.  The great humility of Jesus Christ, as described in Philippians chapter 2, brought the hope of salvation to all who were lost.  His humility led to the horrific death on the cross.  But, it also gave Him the Name above all names.


Unfortunately, it is easy to lose sight of the need for humility as it is so easy to embrace pride. Of course, it can be a good thing to love one’s country, ethnicity, organization, and religion.  All good things can be, and are often, wasted when we put such earthly boundaries above the expansive mercy that the Lord has called us to emulate.  The Jewish scholar Saul of Tarsus was sent through the northern Mediterranean to share the Gospel taking all sorts of attacks and difficulties as a humble sojourner whose true home is not of this world.  It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul has been so greatly honored with some of his letters making up so much of the New Testament.  Bishop Basil of Cappadocia was a leading teacher of Christianity in the fourth century and applied the monastic life of compassion and community to the general body of believers.  He taught the virtues of simple living by example; taking only what he needed and giving the rest to those in need.  The Church calls him, “the Great.”  And how humble was Macarius the Great of the Desert Fathers?  Despite all who came to him for advice, the monk began his morning prayers with:

Oh God, cleanse me, a sinner, for I have never done anything good in thy sight. Deliver me from the evil one, and may thy will be in me, that I may open my unworthy mouth without condemnation …

There is no greatness without humility. Paul went beyond ethnic boundaries and received beatings.  Basil gave up the pursuit and maintaining of personal wealth to help others live better.  Macarius didn’t let his world renown holiness go to his head.  This narrow path walked by these great men leads to the only kingdom Jesus spoke up for, the kingdom of heaven.  We serve the God who opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5 & Proverbs 3:34).  Let’s walk likewise.