Five Questions: Elissa Bjeletich

Welcome to! Tell us who you are.

I’m Elissa Bjeletich — I’m a mother, a writer, and a podcaster. I grew up in California but moved to Texas about eighteen years ago. In 1998 I converted to Orthodoxy, just as I was having my first baby, but it took me a few years to really come to understand and appreciate the Orthodox faith. In 2005, my fourth child passed away from SIDS, sending me on a long spiritual journey during which I learned so much about myself and about God. Five years later, my sixth child was born with a rare liver defect, and required a transplant. During those months in the hospital, I wrote what would become my first book, In God’s Hands, with Ancient Faith Publishing. From there, I would go on to write podcasts, develop a blog, and publish three more books.

I have two passions: religious education and collecting stories, and even as I say that I am realizing that they’re the same thing. I love telling the stories of our faith, the Bible stories and the Saints’ lives, and examining how they all work together and shed light on each other, and most importantly, reveal Christ to us.

Right now, my friend Kristina Wenger and I write Tending the Garden of Our Hearts, offering weekly lessons for families, to equip parents to engage their children in conversation on the faith. We tell the stories in a memorable and accessible way, and we develop questions and discussion prompts to help families explore those stories in depth.

On Sunday nights, I collect stories of Everyday Orthodox people, and bring them to the audience. I invite diverse Orthodox Christians from all walks of life to come share their story, and we spend an hour just talking about their experiences. It’s wonderful to get to hear all of those stories, and to share them and celebrate them.

What do you most enjoy sharing? What do you feel most called to share?

To this day, my mom will tell you that I share too much. I’m just not a dissembler. I love stories; I collect them. I have a treasure trove of family stories, and my mom was dismayed that I delighted in sharing old family scandals — they were just such good stories! I couldn’t resist sharing them, laying them out on the table for all of us to view, consider, and enjoy. Only in my forties have I begun to really value silence, pondering things in my heart for a while before sharing them.

The world of social media is complex. What do you see as difficult and as redemptive about sharing your journey in this way?

I find that social media is like electricity or charisma: it is neither good nor evil, but its power can be used for either. I love how social media connects us across the miles, with the people we love and also with people we would never have met otherwise. I have gotten to know so many people around the country and around the world, and I really value the friendships I’ve made and the insights I’ve gained. On the other hand, social media can bring out the worst in us. I often think of diners, and how many years ago, you’d often find a person sitting alone there at the counter, spinning weird conspiracy theories and spewing invective against the government or his ex-wife. Social media has connected all of them — no longer alone at the counter, they are connected to all sorts of conversations, and with increased numbers they gain increased power. Online community can be wonderful, but it can also grow ugly — like any community.

What is your earliest, distinctly Orthodox memory?

In the summer of my fifteenth year, I saw Orthodoxy in three little glimpses: a Greek friend’s entryway featured a large icon of the Theotokos; I toured an Orthodox church in Nice; and I saw an old Byzantine church in Ravenna. Orthodoxy looked… unfriendly. My friend’s mom didn’t like me coming around because she didn’t want him marrying a girl who “wasn’t Greek,” and in Nice the tour guide constantly admonished that we girls must be careful to keep our heads covered and to stay away from the altar. There was a lot of concern, it seems, that we would burst into the altar. I wasn’t welcome. Orthodoxy eyed me suspiciously lest I corrupt it somehow with my Americanness or my femininity. In those early encounters, it never occurred to me to consider joining the Church — indeed, I wouldn’t have thought such things were even allowed.

Though the people didn’t connect with me, the icons crawled inside my head. My friend’s mom and the church in Nice had dark icons that didn’t reach out to me, but the cathedral in Ravenna was different. From the beginning, when I planned the trip, I’d included a stop in Ravenna because there were some “must see” mosaics there. I was intrigued, but I had no idea how much I would love them. I entered the church, and saw brilliance – bright gold and the beautiful green of Springtime. I walked slowly through, craning my neck upward to see the mosaics. I moved through these unfamiliar images, past bishops and emperors I didn’t recognize, until I came to the stories. Bible stories that I knew and loved, my own stories that lived in my heart, were right there on the wall before me. I stayed for hours, fascinated, decoding each image. I was completely entranced and overwhelmed with the beauty, and I somehow connected to those icons in a way that has never left me.

I went home thinking that Orthodoxy was something dusty and strange and uninviting, but also loving these amazing, lively mosaics — never recognizing that they had any relation to the dark icons I’d seen elsewhere. I carried those images and that feeling in my heart for a decade before I would come to associate them with Orthodoxy, but that must have been the first moment when I really entered into the Church. 

In the fullness of time, perhaps when I was ready to open my eyes, I found Orthodoxy standing before me, with its arms outstretched, welcoming me home. God prepared me with little messages along the way, preparing the soil and planting the seeds. Those glorious icon mosaics in Ravenna were the first connection I made to Orthodoxy, but time would bring so much more, until I finally truly became a part of the Church.

What do you hope will be the mark you leave on the world as you pass through it?

I am not concerned about making a mark on this world. The world forgets us all eventually, and I have made peace with that. I am happy to journey through, collecting stories and enjoying them. Perhaps someone will collect my story — I have raised a house full of people who truly appreciate story. I am happy to fade into a character in an old story, and then to disappear altogether.


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