Priest Theodore Yoel is the rector of the Church of St. Cosmas of Aetolia in the city of Malang (Indonesia). Malang is one of the largest cities on Java, with a population of over 1.2 million. We talked with Fr. Theodore about his life, his search for the true Church and baptism, and the first years of his priestly ministry.
—Fr. Theodore, when and how did you have your first personal encounter with the Lord?
—I can tell you the story of how I discovered the Orthodox Church. Ever since high school I had been asking the same question: “Why are there so many Churches, especially in Indonesia, and why can’t these Churches live in harmony with each other?” I grew up in a place where most of the population are Protestants. My friends believed that the original Church was the Roman Catholic Church—we had no other knowledge. I once heard from colleagues that there were already 33,000 denominations. “But why don’t these Churches unite?” I didn’t know the answer and continued to seek the truth. In my circle of friends from the Protestant churches we discussed and debated, and I kept asking everyone: “Where is the real Church? If before there was one Church, how did it happen that now there are so many?”
More and more often we came to the conclusion that it was a consequence of differences in teaching and ways of thinking. I even began to think that the original Church was the Catholic Church, until one day I found an article on the internet saying that up to 1054, the Church was one. And then I first learned about the Orthodox Church. At first I was confused, but after further discussion I realized that the Orthodox Church doesn’t belong to the Protestant or Catholic world. It’s different. “It appears that this is the true Church, isn’t it?” I asked myself. And a positive answer was not long in coming.
—Where did you look for information?
—All the information that I used was found online as I had no other sources. Never before had I met an Orthodox priest or layman. I decided to find Orthodox communities in my city through Facebook. So I met Philip (Damian in Baptism) who answered me that there was an Orthodox community in Malang, and gave me its address. So, I met the family of Gregory—now a parishioner of our church and at that time the only baptized layman in Malang. The first time I went there with my son and met with Philip, Gregory’s family, and Fr. Irenaeus. Back then, services were celebrated in a small room because not everyone who lived in that house was Orthodox. The family of Gregory and Anastasia recently moved to Malang. Gregory himself was baptized in the city of Surakarta. He and his wife were under the spiritual care of Fr. Irenaeus from Gresik and Fr. Cyril (Kirill) from Surabaya [Surabaya and Gresik are cities on Java, Indonesia.—Ed.]. That meeting had an influence on me, so I became a catechumen in 2010, and for two years I studied the basics of Orthodoxy.
For many years I couldn’t find answers to my questions, but at that moment I hoped to learn more about everything. I met with Fr. Irenaeus, and I asked him questions about the Holy Scriptures, the teaching and history of the Church. I had a lot of personal questions that I had never asked anyone before. It was important for me to find out answers to my questions before being baptized.
— What were the questions that brought you to the Orthodox Church?
—I have always been convinced that the true Church must exist and all the existing Churches must have a traceable lineage. I learned that the Orthodox Church has an unbroken connection with the early Church of the first centuries. I was surprised that the Virgin Mary was constantly mentioned in the texts of the New Testament; however, her veneration is not supported by the Protestant Church. The origins of their (Protestant) churches can be traced back to individuals. Especially the “charismatic” churches—we know when and by whom these “churches” were founded.
Of course, I had never seen an example of an Orthodox church or an Orthodox service here in Malang—I had only seen it online. After watching a video about the early Church I realized that what I was doing outside the Orthodox Church was not the real Church. There was no link with the apostles, there was only the Bible, which we interpreted freely.
But the Church isn’t built exclusively on the Holy Scriptures; it is based, among other things, on the teachings of the apostles and the prophets. The biggest problem was that my family rejected these arguments. My fellow preachers from the Protestant church thought that I had joined a cult. They said that the teaching I had begun to follow was heretical.
In 2012, Fr. Irenaeus baptized me, and I became the first to be baptized in Malang. In Holy Baptism I was named in honor of St. Theodore the Varangian of Kiev, who with his son, St. John, are regarded as the first martyrs of Rus’. In the years after that event my friends actively converted to Orthodoxy. Then my wife and son were baptized. But my other relatives rejected my baptism.
—How did your wife and son decide to get baptized? And how did your parents react to your decision?
—My parents had passed away before I was baptized. My father died in 2011. And my older and younger brothers and sisters still refuse to convert to Orthodoxy. My mother-in-law has not yet recognized her daughter’s Baptism. We can say that they just tolerate us and don’t think about many aspects. For them the Orthodox are like Catholics.
I was baptized with my son in 2012. He was little at the time, in the second grade. I always took him with me to the Liturgy. He also attended catechism classes for children held by Fr. Irenaeus. My wife was baptized a year later secretly—to prevent her parents from learning about it. We had a long “struggle” with my wife’s parents. The situation was aggravated when, two years after my wife’s Baptism, her parents were told somewhere that for Protestants to become Orthodox is like changing their religion. My wife’s parents were at first saddened by that news, but gradually accepted our choice. Once they even attended an Orthodox Liturgy, but they are still not ready to embrace the Orthodox faith.
—Do you remember the moment when you decided to become a priest?
—After my baptism, the Orthodox community in Malang grew rapidly over the next few years—perhaps faster than elsewhere. At that time thirty people became part of the community, and I was one of them. I began to read the Typika every Sunday, and Vespers on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Our city is far from Surabaya and from Gresik, and priests came to Malang twice a month. We laymen felt that that was not enough. We wanted better pastoral care. There were parishioners in the Malang Orthodox church, but there was no resident priest.
We prayed for our community to have a priest. Then I was asked to become a priest and serve permanently in Malang. Fr. Cyril asked me how long I would continue reading only the Typika. For six years we mostly read the Typika alone, and only priests from other cities could celebrate the Liturgy. I still had doubts: “Will I be able to serve? Can I really take on this responsibility?”
I was ordained deacon in Surakarta on February 10, 2018, and the next day I was ordained priest by Vladyka George of Canberra [Schaefer; Bishop of Canberra, Vicar of the Australian and New Zealand Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.—Ed.]. The first days after ordination were difficult for me.
—Why? What happened?
—At that time, I was the youngest priest, and I had many difficulties. Back then I still had very little knowledge, but the Lord performed many miracles as a consolation. It helped me move on. I experienced a special feeling when I was being ordained, and this made me go on with my ministry. I felt that I couldn’t do much, that I didn’t have knowledge, but the Lord gave me strength.
Six months after my ordination I went to Russia, and met Vladyka Sergius [now Metropolitan of Singapore and Southeast Asia.—Ed.] for the first time. I received the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, who blessed me along with Orthodox believers and the Orthodox Church in Indonesia. And at the St. Alexander Nevsky Lavra of St. Petersburg I was given a prosphora, which I keep to this day. Surprisingly, the prosphora is fresh—nothing happened to it, no changes since 2018!
When I was about to be ordained, I wondered, “How will I serve?” Because I and those who were ordained in 2018 hadn’t been trained to celebrate services. At first, I didn’t understand services. Immediately after my ordination I was shown how to do the Proskomidia, and a week after ordination I was preparing to celebrate my first Divine Liturgy. I was very worried about my lack of knowledge. I literally felt like a soldier who had not been trained but who had to begin military duty. Later, over the years, I met with Fr. Pitirim [now Bishop of Jakarta, Vicar of the Singapore Diocese.—Ed.] here in Indonesia. I also served several Liturgies with senior priests, and finally learned very much.
—I thought that I would quit my job when our community was ready. But we still rent a place for our parish, and it is not cheap. I work to support the parish. Everything is different here from in Russia, where all parishes are well arranged. Here we have to rent premises. And if I quit my job, I won’t be able to provide for my family. Some parishioners believe that my work is a blessing to them. They understand very well that my work is a reality, and I work to sustain the community. I am saving for the church without taking a single cent from donations. All money from the community is used for the mission and church maintenance.
—Tell us some interesting stories from your pastoral practice.
—Last year I baptized three Muslims: one Madurese and two Javanese [residents of the islands of Madura and Java respectively.—Ed.]. Now their names are Cosmas, Demetrius and Stephen. Before that, we had had no Muslims baptized in Malang.
Once, in the first days after my ordination, I experienced a miracle. As I was cutting several prosphora for distribution among the believers after the service, I realized that we wouldn’t have enough for everyone because many people had gathered... But a miracle happened: When we divided the bread and left it in the basket, it didn’t run out immediately, so everyone could take a piece for themselves, and something even remained. I believe that these people were brought here by God Himself.
Some people have amazing stories to share. Some said that they wanted to be under my spiritual care. To be honest, I didn’t even dare tell other people about it because it is somehow strange and subjective, and I cannot understand whether it is right or not for such a desire to appear. I had never taught them; we hadn’t known each other—and suddenly they came to our church! There were other priests, also far away, but nevertheless people were coming here, to this place. They came not only from the city of Malang, but also from Surabaya and other cities, and they came from the island of Madura. I still remember the bread that didn’t run out.
Another case was a real miracle: Once I was tired after the Vigil because our deacon couldn’t serve that day. I was exhausted, and that night I forgot to put oil in the icon lamps, but the next morning I saw that all the icon lamps were full! There was no one in the church who could have done this, because when there are no services, the church is empty and closed. Isn’t this evidence of God’s help?
God is with us in this church not because of me but because He has a plan, and the Orthodox Church must be present in our city.