EAGLE RIVER, Alaska — Michael and Meghan Jones were seeing their construction business flourish in this rural suburb outside of Anchorage when they got a wild notion: Move to Fiji.
The motivation for this family with four young children to uproot and migrate from colder to warmer climate wasn’t the island lifestyle. Rather, it was the Orthodox Church and their sense of calling to spread the gospel, expand the church and launch socially redemptive initiatives in Fiji similar to those launched in Alaska.
“We always want to be building Orthodox communities,” Meghan said in a Zoom interview with ReligionUnplugged.com. “This is what we do.”
So in March of this year, they boarded a flight with their children — Catherine, Anastasia, Cecilia and Elliot — and flew just over 11 hours to the island in the Pacific Ocean with 896,000 people. Like Alaska, Fiji has many Indigenous peoples. It’s an exotic location. And it’s a place where more people, like the Jones family, are converting to Orthodox Christianity.
How it started
At first glance, the Orthodox community in Eagle River seems sleepy and isolated from global Orthodoxy given the remote location of this village. Yet, the reality is different, as St. John’s parish represents a dynamic convert community with more than 100 families.
This Orthodox community has several facets. St. James House, a place where young Orthodox members live together, attracts people from all corners of the United States. Eagle River Institute’s summer program brings a world-class theology faculty to the church, about 12 miles north of Anchorage, to teach 100 or more participants. And at the St. John’s Orthodox Christian School, a majority of the preschool to 8th grade students are not Orthodox.
By operating all of these programs, the Eagle River Orthodox community is having an impact both locally and globally. Parishioners of St. John’s Orthodox Cathedral believe they are actively participating in the life of the church. Many in the parish are also missions minded. Students and parents at St. John’s collect tuition money annually for their peers in Uganda, while others want to spread Orthodoxy around the world — from Guatemala and Jamaica to remote Pacific islands. Meghan and Michael Jones are one of the outreach-oriented families.
In 2019, Michael grew an interest in the Orthodox Church and mission in Oceania, which led him to travel to Tonga in March of the same year. During his trip to the region, Michael led a team of five American volunteers helping a work crew from Greece finish waterproofing the building of the Church of St. George in Tonga. It was love at first sight. Instantly, Michael felt called to serve Orthodox communities in the region. After two years of struggle that included fundraising, the COVID-19 pandemic and the disturbance of international flights, the Jones family finally arrived in Fiji in March. However, Meghan and Michael’s path to Orthodoxy, Eagle River and eventually Fiji wasn’t short.
Path to Orthodoxy
The Joneses’ mission to Fiji started with their journey into Orthodox faith. Meghan and Michael became Orthodox during their childhood. Both of their parents became Orthodox around the same time, in the mid-1980s. Meghan’s family lived in California, while Michael’s lived on the other side of the country, in New York. Prior to becoming Orthodox, their families were members of the Holy Order of Mans, which was a new-age Christian group.
“On one hand they were new age, and on the other hand, they were attracted to Catholicism, with monastic inclinations,” Michael said during a conversation with ReligionUnplugged.com over Zoom. “They were doing strict fasting and living in the community before they ever heard about Orthodoxy and met monks from Saint Herman of Platina. They were looking for the roots of the church, wondering what the original church was.”
Meghan and Michael got baptized the same year, 1987. She was 3 years old, and he was 10. Despite not knowing each other and a geographical difference, it seems that this couple was destined to meet.
All roads lead to Eagle River
From the beginning of their journey into the Orthodox faith, Meghan and Michael were metaphysically connected to Alaska. Michael converted to the Orthodox Church through the monastery named after St. Herman, who brought Orthodoxy to North America, while Meghan’s family followed the path of the Evangelical Orthodox Church, which founded the Orthodox community in Eagle River.
In 1999, Michael’s family moved to Kodiak, Alaska, to be part of the St. Innocent Academy on the island. Michael lived on Kodiak for seven years, describing his life marked with ups and downs: “Lot of good things, a lot of bad things” Michael said. Eventually he left Alaska and spent the next four years in Oregon. He came back to Alaska in 2011 to attend his brother’s wedding at Eagle River. At the wedding he met Meghan, which led him to move back to Alaska. “I went home, packed my stuff and came to Eagle River,” Michael recalled about this life-changing decision.
Meghan grew up in Southern California. Her parents were deeply involved in Saint Barnabas Orthodox Church in Costa Mesa. Her dad has been a deacon, and her mom was a member of the church choir.
“My dad used to carry iconostasis at the back of his truck because in the early days, there were home churches,” Meghan said.
She’s the oldest of five siblings. Her middle sister, Bethany, lived in St. James House for a year after graduating high school. During Bethany’s time at St. James House, the whole family came to visit her, which led them to relocate to Eagle River in 2007.
Life in Alaska
Meghan came to Alaska after graduating from college. In the beginning, she worked at St. John’s School and lived for a year at St. James House. In the following years, she taught first grade, art class and also worked for the Anchorage school district in the Child and Transition program for homeless kids.
In Alaska, Michael had been predominantly working as a carpenter. Before getting married, Father Marc Dunaway, the parish priest, advised him to find a more sustainable job. Michael still remembers Father Marc’s advice: “You need to find a regular job, with insurance and benefits.”
Following the advice, Michael worked for the state of Alaska for almost seven years, in the office of the state ombudsman, among other positions. Michael commuted by bus from Eagle River to Anchorage for a couple of years. During this time, Michael listened to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of “The Black Swan,” who inspired him to start his own business. “People would always ask Taleb how to make the world a better place. He said a couple of things and then said ‘start a business,’” Michael said enthusiastically. In 2018, Michael started his own construction business, and in nine months, he left his state job.
In addition to having a fulfilling career and being involved in the community, Meghan and Michael Jones are proud parents of three daughters — Catherine (9), Anastasia (7), Cecelia (6) — and a son, Elliot (3), who keeps them on their toes. And their church provides a fulcrum for them to center their lives and their family.
The “Orthodox community has been formative for me,” Michael said. “It’s all about church and community.”
Called to serve
“God works in ways we can’t imagine,” Michael said, describing the beginning of his family’s journey to Fiji. Michael is an avid podcast listener. His favorite is the “Ancient Faith’s The Lord of Spirits” podcast. Michael and Meghan follow a variety of thinkers, ranging from Jordan Peterson and Rod Dreher to Russell Brand — although they say that they don’t agree with him.
About a year after he started his construction company in 2019, he listened to a podcast with Father Paul Patitsas, an American Orthodox priest who talked about the Orthodox mission in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Michael remembers that Patitsas’ call to action inspired his interest in the region. Immediately after, Michael emailed Patitsas expressing his willingness to help. Michael remembers well the email he received back:
“The new archbishop Myron invites you to come to Tonga. We will be there in 10 days. If you are in, you are in. Just come.”
Michael’s business was thriving, and he decided to travel to Tonga for four days. In 2020, he took a second trip to Tonga, which lasted for 10 days. During that time, Michael realized that he should come back to finish the construction of the Church of Saint George in Tonga.
Bumpy road to Fiji
Despite their enormous enthusiasm to travel and pursue missionary work in the region, Meghan and Michael had a bumpy road with many obstacles ahead of them. After his second trip to Tonga, Michael decided to be minimally involved in his business while transitioning to full-time planning for his family’s relocation to Fiji. In addition to his construction firm, which is now defunct, the Joneses’ plan was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which made international travel to the region impossible.
Financials were a big part of their Fiji project. After counseling with Father Patitsas and others, they decided to fundraise through the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, following an already established fundraising procedure. The global pandemic slowed down their fundraising efforts.
“With COVID and everything, it was a slow process,” Meghan remembered. “It took a year to be approved and start asking people for money. Looking back, that situation was providential. We couldn’t come earlier than we did because of COVID.”
In a year, the Joneses raised about $160,000 to support their missionary work for the period of two years. Approximately 75% of the funding came from the St. John’s community in Eagle River and St. Barnabas Orthodox Church in Costa Mesa. The rest was donated by Meghan’s and Michael’s extended non-Orthodox family members. During this laborious process, the Jones family never questioned the success of their Fiji project.
“This was a big change for me,” Meghan said, describing the fundraising campaign. “I completely trusted God, saying yes to whatever he calls you to do.” Their fundraising effort still continues as they ask for recurring donations, although they are not in a full fundraising mode anymore. The Orthodox Christian Mission Center found a benefactor who agreed to match every dollar they raised during their first year in Fiji.
Finally, after a couple of years of planning, in March 2022, the Joneses started their journey to Fiji. They took two red-eye flights: Anchorage to Los Angeles — where they stayed for a couple of days, visiting Meghan’s family — and Los Angeles to Fiji. The Joneses are among the first foreigners to visit the island after the government closed its borders in the light of the global pandemic.
The Joneses are still settling on the beautiful island of Fiji. They still have to complete the bureaucratic procedure of obtaining Fijian residence permits. During a recent Zoom interview, Michael told me, laughing, “The visa process is currently difficult.” The Joneses applied for their visas in mid-February. They expected the answer in a month, which came six weeks late. Interestingly enough, during the process the Joneses had to pay a bond, which is basically an air ticket to the country of origin because the Fijian government doesn’t want to pay travel expenses for foreigners who don’t receive a visa approval. It seems that this bureaucratic quagmire doesn’t affect Meghan’s and Michael’s determination to make Fiji their home while pursuing a missionary work.
Mission on the island
Meghan and Michael have an ambitious plan for their missionary work in Fiji. Currently, they are running an orphanage for approximately 30 kids. However, their plans don’t stop there. During their time in Fiji, Meagan and Michael will do what they love and what they are good at. She will work as an educator, while he will continue his construction career.
The metropolitan of New Zealand prioritized the region as a place for outreach and expansion. One of the first things to do is build a preschool and tutoring center in Saweni, a town located about 6 miles from Lautoka, the second largest city on the island. Meghan’s position will cover the preschool’s administration, catechesis and tutoring programs.
Father Patitsas is now the metropolitan of Detroit, Michigan. Before that post, he had served the Greek Orthodox Church as a missionary in Oceania in New Zealand with travel to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. He remains passionate about the work in Oceania, inspiring people like the Jones family to move there.
The religious climate on some of the Pacific Islands is very much in flux according to Father Patitsas. He notes some of the older churches in Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are Methodist and Catholic and are declining in members. Meanwhile, Pentecostal churches are flourishing. He believes Orthodox Christianity is a welcome and needed entrant to the religious landscape on the islands.
“We don’t find other Christian churches to be our competitors. They were here long before us,” Patitsas said. “Our goal is to remind people of the source of the faith, the source of Christianity. We are a 2,000-year-old church, so we bring to them fresh water from the depth of the deepest well. Fijians find spiritual refreshment in our church.”
Father Patitsas believes many Pacific Islanders are connecting for the first time to Christianity. Some are looking for ways to rekindle or reconnect to Christianity. So missionaries, such as the Jones family, are providing pathways and connections for these people who are searching for authentic faith. Patitsas believes missionaries and clergy coming to the islands should understand history, tradition and the religious landscape.
“People will not jump to change their faith unless they see that we are authentically Christian,” he said. “If our faith can endure being rejected, for instance, can endure being shot, can love people who are maybe not happy to see us but at the same time ready to share that love without measure equally to everyone — if they can do that, they will establish trust with locals.”
The Jones family is moving quickly to begin work they believe will help people in Fiji and will help grow Orthodox Christianity there as well.
After the school is established, Michael plans to undertake several construction projects, such as building new homes for parishioners of the Holy Trinity Church, a small chapel and a large church in the country. Michael didn’t forget what brought him to this part of the world. He intended to help complete the interior of the Church of St. George in Tonga as well as to build a mission center and church in Samoa. If they achieve all of this, the Joneses will leave an indelible mark on the development of Orthodox community in the region of Pacific Islands.
Michael said about his mission on the island, “This is our new community. This is what we came here for. For some reason God wants us to be in Fiji, but we would do it no matter where.”
Fiji’s flourishing Orthodoxy
Although unique for the Eagle River’s Orthodox community, the story of the Jones family is a part of a new trend in the region. Under the supervision of Metropolitan Amfiolochios of Ganos and Hora — who served as a bishop of New Zealand — the Orthodox Apostolic Mission in Fiji was established a little over a decade ago.
The decision to start a mission at Fiji has yielded results. The Orthodox community on the island is flourishing. In little over 10 years, approximately 400 Fijians have been baptized and received into the Orthodox Church. The demographic influx led to the establishment of four churches, a female monastery, an orphanage with capacity for 30 children and a mission center on the island. Four Indigenous locals have been ordained and became Orthodox priests, while there are two Fijian nuns.
A tremendous success for Orthodox Church in this remote part of the world has been attracting countless volunteers who feel called to actively help building the global Orthodox community. The Jones family is one of them. Their journey from Alaska to Fiji tells a story of converts to Orthodox Church who are committed to aid newly established Orthodox communities around the world.
A growing Orthodox Church in the Pacific was the theme of the documentary “Hello Orthodox,” which depicted Metropolitan Amphilochios’ arrival in the region and his mission to bring Orthodoxy to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. The film recently won the award for the best documentary at the Byzanfest 2021 Film Festival organized by the University of Saint Katherine’s in California. Michael had a brief appearance in the movie, and pictures from his 2020 trip to Tonga were included.
Success of the Orthodox Apostolic Mission in Fiji, the Jones family’s mission on the island and growing interest for the region in the global Orthodox community starts a new chapter in the history of the Orthodox Church. “Orthodoxy is needed throughout the world,” said Father Patitsas, “because it’s the fullness of the faith delivered once and for all. To this day, this is how we believe it.”
Patitsas said he believes people will continue to be receptive to Orthodox Christianity in Fiji and other parts of the Pacific Islands. He said the Christian messages of suffering, the joy of the resurrection and the joy of forgiveness are messages that draw people toward Christianity and the Orthodox Church in particular.
“They are traditional, and they respect that … we come representing the origin of the faith,” he said in an interview with ReligionUnplugged.com. “They want what is authentic and true. They don’t want something that’s been watered down, and they don’t want something that’s been altered.”