Eastern Orthodox students find academic freedom at Calvin

Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy at Calvin say their transition to Orthodoxy has been well received by Calvin’s academic community.

Juniors Joseph Olivares and Malak Alkanani, recent converts to Eastern Orthodoxy and the only known Eastern Orthodox students at Calvin, say faculty members appreciate their religious diversity.

“Calvin is pretty easygoing about Orthodoxy,” said Alkanani. “Calvin really welcomed the diversity.”

Olivares said he noticed this particularly with his religion professors.

“Even the professors who disagreed with me were still supportive,” Olivares said.

That academic freedom was, however, more difficult to find among fellow students.

“Some people stopped hanging out with me,” Alkanani said. “I had to sit down with people and explain things to my friends. There are a lot of things that [Joseph and I] had to clear up with people.”

These clarifications mainly included doctrinal differences between the CRC and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

“Generally, students don’t know as much about the [Eastern] Orthodox church as [Malak and I] do so there may have been some misunderstanding,” said Olivares.

There are in fact, a number of differences between the churches that were challenging even for Alkanani and Olivares to accept initially.

“It was hard for me to accept praying to Mary and the saints,” Olivares said. “It was also weird how they sing everything during the service.”

The major differences between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Protestantism stem from the split of the Eastern and Western churches in the Great Schism of 1054. The Eastern church has not gone through any major reformation since, Alkanani said.

The fact that the Eastern Church has remained so unvarying overtime was one of the major draws for both Alkanani and Olivares.

“The Protestant Church has changed a lot, which was my biggest setback,” Alkanani said. “I wanted more continuity.”

According to Alkanani, these changes created not one church, but many denominations with no central authority binding them together. “The Protestant church became sort of the junk drawer,” Alkanani said.

Olivares agreed the lack of a central church authority in Protestantism gave him the push towards Eastern Orthodoxy.

“We [Orthodox Christians] all know that we all believe the same thing,” Olivares said. “If I go to another [Orthodox] church I know what the service will be like.”

 Alkanani said the theology and structure of the liturgy are the same throughout Eastern Orthodox churches.

According to Alkanani, the Orthodox church also has a high sense of reverence. “They approach church much differently,” Alkanani said. “It feels sacred and is very high, very reverent.”

This does not, however, mean the conversion was entirely easy.

“The hardest thing for me to accept was the apparent exclusivity of the [Orthodox] church,” Alkanani said. “I can’t commune at my Protestant church anymore. It was hard to break that connection.”