In 21st century America, the church no longer has the cultural support it once enjoyed, and serious faith is an increasingly niche practice. In today's world, the church needs a new generation of committed, wise, and faithful leaders. This month, the John Jay Institute is focusing its impact spotlight on alumni who are working to preserve, protect, and encourage the faith and their fellow believers. In this feature article, we delve into the stories of two alumni who were recently ordained.
Before Patrick O’Rourke was admitted to the John Jay Institute, he had moved back home and was waiting tables.
He’d graduated from Ohio State University with a journalism degree a couple years before, and hoped to become a photojournalist—perhaps work for a “fancy glossy magazine” like National Geographic. But things hadn’t yet materialized.
Then O’Rourke got a phone call from an old acquaintance: a man he knew through a Greek Orthodox ministry website he interned for in Florida.
“What are you doing?” the friend asked.
O’Rourke told him about his job situation.
“Why don’t you apply to the John Jay Institute?” the man asked. “You’re a perfect fit.”
O’Rourke looked up the program, applied, and was accepted. So he packed up his things and drove his Honda Civic to Philadelphia.
The car nearly broke down a mile from campus: O’Rourke arrived for orientation just as steam began pouring from under the hood. He dashed out of the car, grabbed handfuls of snow, and began throwing them on top of the engine.
But that semester with John Jay opened up a new world of opportunities for O’Rourke. He recalls how students were reminded, at the end of every class, that they were “the light of the world.” That specific line has continued to stick with him. He referred to it two Sundays ago, at his ordination.
Bryan Wandel grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, attending a Pentecostal church with his family. In high school, he was interested in politics: he participated in a Model UN tournament, and helped out with some local political campaigns. But Wandel also struggled with a shyness that kept him from church youth group and activities.
Following graduation, Wandel began attending Roberts Wesleyan College, a Christian liberal arts school in Rochester. It was there, during his freshman year, that Wandel experienced “a significant spiritual awakening.” His awareness of Christ deepened as he participated in urban outreach and college ministry. Leading weekly student worship services, helping plan events and prayer gatherings, and training worship leaders all fostered spiritual growth in his life.
But Wandel wasn’t a ministry major. He was a history major, and graduated in 2006 intending to further his political interests. A professor introduced Wandel to Alan Crippen, just as Crippen was formulating the genesis of the John Jay Institute. He planned to launch the program in fall 2007, and encouraged Wandel to apply.
The John Jay Institute offered Wandel a variety of new opportunities for political and spiritual thought. “Coming to John Jay was a totally different experience for me in thinking deeply about Christian worldview and applying that to politics,” he said. “It helped me to be more consistent in my thinking, to be more faithful in my interests in politics, history, and philosophy.”
In The City of God, St. Augustine ponders whether it’s better to lead an active or contemplative life. “For the Christian, either choice is a fine and legitimate choice, but both should glorify God in some way,” Wandel said. “If you’re going to do great works, they should be works that help society. If you’re going to lead a contemplative life, you should gather the fruits of your intellectual labors and share them with others.”
The question Wandel now had to ask was this: which life was he called to?
O’Rourke spent his childhood in Toledo, Ohio. Like Wandel, he grew up in a charismatic Pentecostal church. “That’s the faith I was brought up in, and it’s the faith I did not practice once I was out of my parents’ house."
But O’Rourke experienced his own spiritual awakening in college, as well, and it all started when he began watching HBO’s three-series show “Rome.”
O’Rourke was hooked: he was fascinated by the show’s textures of culture and history, the rise and fall of the emperors. A couple weeks after finishing “Rome,” while struggling with a bout of insomnia, O’Rourke grabbed his computer and began reading Wikipedia articles about Roman history. He scrolled through emperor after emperor, proceeding from Augustus all the way to Constantine.
He read about Constantine’s quest to reunite the empire, his controversial conversion to Christianity, and his move of the seat of old Rome to new Rome (later called Constantinople). “I filed it away as an interesting thing, a historical neatness,” O’Rourke said. “I wasn’t really a practicing Christian at the time, so I tucked it into my back pocket.”
A couple months later, O’Rourke’s father called and urged him to attend church, pray, and read his Bible. O’Rourke ignored his father’s appeal. But at the end of that summer, while driving home from work, he remembered the phone call.
“I don’t even own a Bible,” he thought. “Maybe I should get one.” He decided to stop at a Christian bookstore on his way home.
The first book he saw when he walked through the door was titled Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition. “That’s interesting,” O’Rourke thought. “That’s kind of what I was reading about the other night.”
He bought the book and read it in two days. Though familiar with Catholicism and Protestantism, the Eastern Orthodox tradition proffered an entirely different perspective on Christianity. “It seemed that the East’s unique history had shaped a unique approach to the faith,” he said. “My curiosity was ignited, and I knew that empty feeling I’d had in my stomach was hunger.”
After he finished Light from the Christian East, O’Rourke drove to Barnes and Noble and asked for some books on Eastern Orthodoxy. He met an employee named Isaac, who had converted to the Greek Orthodox faith when he was 12 or 13 years old. Isaac recommended books to O’Rourke, and invited him to church. “I had been very agnostic about God’s existence or role in our lives,” he recalls. “But now, I saw God moving me in a direction.”
On his first visit to Columbus, Ohio’s Greek Orthodox Church, O’Rourke walked inside and immediately stared at the building’s 68-foot-wide gold mosaic of Christ. “He was looking me eye to eye,” O’Rourke said. “I was frightened, but also in awe at the beauty.” O’Rourke was chrismated into the Orthodox church in August 2008.
But even while his spiritual life was developing roots, O’Rourke was struggling to find the right vocational outlet. After pursuing some employment opportunities in Tennessee, he found himself working four concurrent part-time jobs. “I was really struggling, really spinning my wheels,” he said.
Then O’Rourke found the Orthodox church internet ministry in Florida, and after his internship ended, was accepted to the John Jay Institute.
The fellowship program continued to enrich his faith. “At the end of John Jay, I knew this sacred beauty I encountered in the Orthodox church was very important in our world, especially in our visual culture,” O’Rourke said. “The Orthodox Church touches all five of your senses in an immersive way, to show you the beauty, the truth, and the goodness of God in every way you can perceive it.”
O’Rourke wanted to share this vision with others, with people who might (like him) feel a hunger for this church and this faith. So he contacted a friend who works as an architect and artisan in South Carolina. “He’s an Orthodox convert and primarily designs churches,” O’Rourke said. “He wanted to start an online publication that would distribute this sort of knowledge, the best standards and practices in architecture and iconography, in liturgical music, and all of these ways the church manifests the kingdom of God to created beings.”
Together, they established the Orthodox Arts Journal, and garnered contributions from artisans, scholars, and theologians from all over the world.
Two of Wandel’s history professors at Roberts Wesleyan were adult converts to Catholicism and eager to immerse their students in Christian theology and church history. Through their influence, Wandel’s fascination with church orthodoxy and doctrine began to deepen. But it was John Jay institute’s morning and evening prayers from the Book of Common Prayer that first introduced him to Anglicanism.
After his time at John Jay, Wandel got an internship on Capitol Hill with Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas). He began attending the Anglican Church of the Resurrection on Capitol Hill, and developed a deep love for its liturgical service, deep sense of mission, and reverence for the sacraments. “That’s what drew me to Anglicanism, I think,” he said. “It held up all of those things at once, tying together the different strands of influence in my life.” The Church of the Resurrection offered what Wandel calls an “emotionally healthy spirituality,” one that affirmed the best inclinations of his charismatic upbringing while also challenging him to think deeply and critically.
It was a tumultuous time in Washington. In 2008, the economy was crashing and no one knew exactly why. Banks were failing. And Wandel was at the center of it all.
“The market was crashing and nobody in either party knew what to do or what positions to take,” Wandel said. “During that time, there were no clear party lines.” For Wandel and other John Jay fellows in Washington, this provided a unique opportunity. They wanted to help clear away some shortcomings of the neoconservative movement and Bush administration, to steer the Republican party toward a more traditional Burkean vision. “For young conservatives who could find a job around that time, there was some excitement about how we might shift the party in a more positive direction,” Wandel said.
Once Wandel finished his internship, he got married to fiancée Kacy in July 2008, and began a job with Representative Bill Sali (R-Idaho) that fall.
In addition to the political components of his job, the time Wandel spent on the phone with Sali’s Idaho constituents had a ministry component to it. Many were troubled and angry about the country’s economic situation. They were struggling to find jobs, and losing money. “I was trying to research things and find out how best I could to explain the situation to people who were calling,” Wandel said. "Even though it was apparent something had gone wrong, it was difficult to figure out who to blame for what.”
But in the midst of these struggles, Wandel’s church was sharing its vision for ministry: elucidating how our faith works in our lives, and how best to offer comfort to people.
Unfortunately, it was a bad time to be a Republican on Capitol Hill. The Democrats took both the White House and both houses of Congress, and the economy was in its worst state since the Great Depression. After Sali was voted out of office, Wandel was unable to procure another position in Congress.
But just before his bills came due, Wandel got a job doing financial accounting and budgeting for some members of Congress. At the time, he was realizing that the people who usually succeed on Capitol Hill—to quote St. Augustine once more—“aren’t the contemplative-life sort of people. They are the active-life sort of people.” Wandel was realizing that his skill sets did not lend themselves to that sort of life.
Wandel worked in financial accounting for several years. He got a masters degree in accounting, and took the CPA exam. He and his wife welcomed a daughter—Evangeline—into their family, and then a son, whom they named Valor.
But Wandel knew he didn’t want to do accounting work for the rest of his life. “I tried other things,” he said. “I tried to push on the political career, tried to push on the academic path, and tried to move overseas. Those options didn’t work out.”
People in Wandel’s life had suggested in times past that they thought he should pursue the ministry, but he always rejected the idea. He had not felt a clear, positive call in that direction.
But in 2012, during a series of conversations with his wife Kacy, Wandel started to think about moving back to Buffalo. As they began to lay plans, a childhood friend contacted Wandel. He had become an atheist in college, but then dramatically turned back to the Christian faith.
“I looked for churches in the city of Buffalo to help him, but I was surprised how few taught the Bible clearly, believed in the historic creeds, and had vital communities,” said Wandel. “I suddenly felt that my experiences were leading me to supply exactly those things in the city of Buffalo. I felt uniquely equipped and called to fill an important need.”
Wandel and Kacy began praying about the call to plant an Anglican church in Buffalo—and it soon became clear that this was where God was leading them. Wandel began taking seminary classes on nights and weekends, and was ordained as a transitional deacon in June. This fall, he will finish his Master’s degree in Biblical Studies, and will be ordained as a priest in December. Early next year, Wandel and his family plan to move back to Buffalo. Their church-planting journey will begin in earnest.
Spiritually, Buffalo is part of the “burned over district” in upstate New York. The flames of religious revival “swept through and burned and then left people dry,” said Wandel. Buffalo is also one of the poorest midsize cities in the U.S. Its heyday was in the early 20th century, but it’s experienced a population decline in every census since 1950, according to Wandel. This decline and stagnation, coupled with widespread emotional depression, have taken their toll on the region. “There are people in deep need,” Wandel said.
But in the last seven years or so, new economic opportunities have begun to flow into the city. Elon Musk is building a solar plant factory in Buffalo as part of his SolarCity venture. “There’s a downtown medical corridor being greatly expanded, and 20,000 new jobs will come with it when it’s done,” noted Wandel.
Wandel has a vision for reaching many of the younger people who live in the city. He believes they have a special, deep hunger for liturgical forms of worship. “Many young people feel that the worship in liturgical churches is very genuine,” he noted. “It’s not trying to be something that it’s not. People have worshiped in this way for a long time, and people connect with it—not because it fits flavor of the moment, but because it speaks to deeply felt human needs, longings, and rhythms.”
After working on the Orthodox Arts Journal, O’Rourke began pursuing a Masters of Theological Studies at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. His goal was to pursue doctoral studies in Byzantine Art and Architecture, and then eventually teach at the college level.
One day, O’Rourke was sitting in the college’s cafeteria, surrounded by seminarians in their black cassocks. He stuck out like a sore thumb with his J.Crew button-down shirt and khakis.
He looked out the window, and saw a girl in a purple sundress and bright orange boots walk past the window. “Whoa. Who is that?” he thought.
Jessica was an undergrad student at the Hellenic College on campus. She had just returned from a semester in Greece, and was finishing a degree in elementary education. They began dating a few months later, and were married on October 12, 2014.
It was Jessica who suggested that O’Rourke’s love for sharing beauty was, at root, a love for teaching beauty. “She lit the fire for sharing that beauty now, and on the ground, not necessarily in the analytic halls of an Art History department,” said O’Rourke.
Through conversations with Jessica and spiritual leaders in his life, O’Rourke decided he should switch to the Masters of Divinity program and pursue ordained ministry. On September 18, he was ordained into the priesthood.
O’Rourke has been assigned to the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in New Rochelle, New York. The church has been in Westchester County for more than 70 years, and contains about 600 families, the majority of whom are of Greek descent. “It’s a metropolitan mix, a neat community,” noted O’Rourke.
O’Rourke has chosen to wear a cassock in public, and said the decision has brought its share of challenges and opportunities. For the most part, he said, it’s “been a great blessing, because people come up and ask me about it. It gives me the opportunity to share.”
From that broken-down Honda Civic to his incense-filled church in New Rochelle, O’Rourke has been seeking divine beauty—and seeking to share this vision with a Western culture that’s often suspicious of religious beauty. In the midst of religious iconoclasm, notes O’Rourke, our commercial culture seeks to put forth its own sensual substitutes. But there’s a hunger at the heart of every human that remains unfilled. “In the end, all of it—the icons, the chant, the incense, the architecture—all of it is for the benefit of humanity,” he said.
“I left for opportunities: for power, jobs, and something new. But all somethings new, it turns out, are basically the same. Each person only has a special, limited set of somethings old. … My friends are in Washington, D.C., but my family is in Buffalo.”
Wandel wrote these words in a 2011 piece for Humane Pursuits titled “Lament From a Hometown Refugee.” This February, he intends to return to Buffalo, and to grow his spiritual family in that old homeland.
"In the depths of our hearts, at the point where we disclose ourselves to the Eternal One, all the rays of our life converge as in one focus,” Abraham Kuyper once said. There are disparate threads in O’Rourke’s and Wandel’s stories. But their vision and their hunger are the same, and their work is now unified. Both seek to be lights in a dark world, and witnesses to glory and beauty—one church at a time.
Author: Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at Humane Pursuits, The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life. Follow her on Twitter.