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Saying “Yes” to the Church: A Conversation with SVOTS Trustee Dan Abraham

Dan and Kathy Abraham

As long as he can remember, businessman and St Vladimir’s Seminary Trustee Dan Abraham’s life has been integrated into both the local and national Church, from his beginnings as an acolyte at St Nicholas in Grand Rapids, MI, where he still is involved today.

In addition to serving as a St Vladimir’s Seminary Trustee, Dan is a member of his Parish Council, a Trustee of the Antiochian Archdiocese, and a Director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. In his former role as Chair of the Order of St Ignatius in his Archdiocese, he traveled all over North America encouraging people towards generous philanthropy. 

 In 2021, Dan almost died of COVID-19; through his near-death experience, forty days in a coma, and subsequent recovery, Dan was upheld by his lifelong faith and the prayers offered by the clergy and faithful all around the U.S. Through Zoom and email, Dan shared his unique perspective with us as a Trustee and experienced leader and fundraiser in the Church.

As a lifetime Orthodox Christian, what have been the highlights in your spiritual journey

I grew up in a typical Middle Eastern family church environment; along with my four sisters, we were the third of what is now five generations of our family to participate at St Nicholas in Grand Rapids, MI. We are firmly rooted. My parents’ social friends were their church friends and their connections were in the Church.

My parents were very devout. I remember the first day on a Palm Sunday when I became an Altar Boy after months of practice. A lady in our church made our robes by hand. I was 7 or 8 years old, and was thrilled to participate in the Great Entrance for the first time. My father kept a very disciplined fast and as I entered my teen years I started to emulate him. I still remember the oration I gave when I was 15. The topic was "My Priest and Me." 

Give us a sketch of your professional life.

I earned a bachelor degree from the University of Michigan, then an MBA from Western Michigan University and a degree in Law from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Working during the day, I attended school at night and did my studying early in the morning before work. Nobody forced me; I did it because I wanted to, and I am proud of accomplishing that.

Once I was done with school I jumped in with both feet to the family businesses. My family life included my father's two brothers and their families; they continued the business my grandfather started. It evolved into a large wholesale grocery distribution company. In 1982 we purchased one of our retail customers, which I was assigned to manage for 30 years.  During this time I started a manufacturing business, which I eventually managed exclusively after leaving the family firm. Our main customer channel was school and sports fundraising; through this, I accumulated 30 years of business fundraising. 

As a young married couple, how did you first become active in Church leadership?

Kathy and I have been married for 35 years. Right from the start, my new wife was very active in church and she pulled me back into the church after my years of graduate school and career development. 

When we got married, Kathy was very involved in the Fellowship of St John Divine leadership (the former Antiochian young adults organization). We were nudged to become members of the Order of St Ignatius, and then I was asked to serve on the national council. From there I moved up the ranks.  One of my proudest moments was when Metropolitan Philip of blessed memory asked me to be the Chair of the Order of St Ignatius after serving for 25 years as Chair of Membership Development.

I’m concerned that today’s young adult world is so dominated by secularism and people are being pulled away from the Church. Because I was raised in the Church, it was natural for me to stay with it later. There were times when Kathy and I were away from each other even on our anniversary, due to church responsibilities!

How have you been shaped by the battle with COVID-19 that brought you to death’s door?

I came within four hours of death, but God chose I should live. After my illness, I realized that God chose me to live and I had to ask myself why? Why me? I began to be reconciled with the knowledge that we don’t know why God does what He does. We have to accept that he chooses some to live, and some to pass on. For a while after my near-death experience, I struggled that I wasn’t the person I used to be, and there was an empty feeling. It took time and patience for me to let God administer the healing that He brings. 

Slowly my heartbeat and my deep breathing came back, I regained strength in my muscles, and my damaged vocal cords began to heal. Writing was hard, talking was hard; all of the rehab had to happen simultaneously. Thank God I’m a lot better than I was! 

Every day I ask myself, “What are your plans for me, Lord?” I lost my business and most of my assets, yet God continues to lead me on a path of service. The question that all of us need to ask every day is, how do we tune in to His will? It’s something that we have to work towards as we begin to understand how He transforms us. So maybe part of my purpose is to share with others what I learned through my experience and what it can mean to others. There is suffering all around us, but we can learn from our suffering and can find relief from it by trusting in God’s will. 

You keep busy with family, your parish, and your business life; so why did you say yes to serving as a SVOTS trustee? 

The short answer is Fr Chad invited me and I can never say no to the Church. The timing was interesting: I was elected at the November 2020 meeting and it was just a few months later that I was hospitalized for 120 days with COVID-19. Today I view one of my most important responsibilities as serving St Vladimir's Seminary. I hope to continue as a Trustee and as a positive contributor in the future. 

All of us are significantly impacted by the dominant secularism in our country. Unfortunately, we also see fundamentalism growing as well which is not necessarily a good direction. More than anything, we need balanced young men who will dedicate their life to Christ. 

What did you learn as a longtime leader within the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese that is complementary to your leadership role at St Vladimir's? 

I traveled extensively for the Order. I met many people over those years, many of who are still friends today. Early on I discovered that I was most successful when I invited people to join in the cause of generosity. Everyone wants to feel wanted, needed, and important. Orthodox Christians who give are inherently generous people and if we can help connect them with our cause we increase the likelihood of the individual making a donation. Raising money for the church theoretically should be very easy, once we understand what’s behind the giving.

Giving to the Church is very different from giving to the Cancer Society or disaster relief. When you give to the Church, God multiplies that gift. He takes our gifts, and then the equation is 1 + 1 = 3 in His eyes. That’s how we multiply our impact; we combine our resources and work together, and God gives the increase..

What have you learned about the Seminary in your time as a trustee that you didn't know before? 

Stewarding the whole enterprise that is St Vladimir’s Seminary  is much more complex than I imagined; this was apparent to me from my first Board meeting. Hopefully, I can contribute to the compelling vision that is currently guiding Seminary leadership. Training men and women of all ages how to serve Christ through the Church is such an important reason for existence. 

Those who work and give their life to the Seminary are amazing people who are filled with the love of Christ. The stellar accomplishments of our Board of Trustees are impressive. 

There are so many aspects of the school. For one thing, meeting the requirements and traditions of the various jurisdictions is very complex. As an institution of higher learning, St Vladimir’s Seminary functions as a university with housing departments, community concerns, and classroom experience with highly skilled professors. Additionally, SVOTS administers other programs like Ed Day to bring ongoing educational opportunities to the general Orthodox public, while also producing books and audio resources. Those entrusted with leading the Seminary carry a heavy weight on their shoulders. 

How would you describe the key challenges and opportunities the Seminary is facing as we approach the 85th anniversary? 

The overriding challenge of not just the Orthodox Church but Christianity in general is the power and influence of secularism. We simply can't avoid it but we can resist its temptations if we are properly instructed both at home and through the Church. While its primary objective is to teach theology, St Vladimir’s Seminary is also looking more seriously at teaching seminarians about leadership, administration, and public speaking. We simply cannot minimize the impact of these three characteristics. A man can be the most pious Orthodox priest, but if he cannot lead and administer, his success at parish life will be limited. 

For people considering a gift to SVOTS I would say: You take it for granted that if your priest retires or moves on that there will be someone there to step in. Without St Vladimir’s Seminary, this wouldn't be the case. We also need the resources to reach out to young men, to open their minds to a future life of serving the Church. There are many worthy organizations, but the Church should always come first in our giving. 

From your perspective, why should someone consider being a regular donor to St Vladimir’s Seminary? 

Today we “compete” with many Christian and non-Christian organizations. We must lay a strong financial foundation for future viability. Every Orthodox Christian will be impacted by the caliber of education and successful formation produced by our seminaries, particularly St Vladimir's Seminary. 

And every $25.00 donation is as important as the $100,000 donation! We must all be invested in the future of our faith in America. Generosity comes from the heart—God calls us to be cheerful givers. 

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