From drug dealer to Catholic monk

LAC STE. ANNE, Alberta - For years, the alcohol, the drugs, the parties consumed Taras Kraychuk.

Then, literally, he saw the light.

He's now Father Taras (Terry) Kraychuk, serving as a hieromonk - pastor-monk - in the Ukrainian Catholic Church and living the monastic life near Derwent, Alberta.

For 12 years, Father Kraychuk has followed God's call to serve others, he told about 2,000 participants at the Catholic Family Life Conference at Lac Ste. Anne in early July.

Father Kraychuk said his conversion came on a bus trip from California to his family in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He had decided to return home at the urging of friends who felt his hard-driving lifestyle would lead to his death.

The light appeared, he said, soon after he dumped the illicit drugs he was carrying into the toilet in the back of the bus, and he promised God that he would try not to get drunk again. Suddenly, he recalled, he realized that Christ loved him despite his decadent lifestyle.

As he looked out a bus window, Father Kraychuk said he saw God's creation with new eyes. He turned to the biker-type man behind him, with whom he had exchanged stories about the partying life during the trip, and realized something had happened to his new friend at the same time. They started to talk loudly. People came from the front of the bus to the back and sat down and listened to the pair.

"That was the moment my life turned around," Father Kraychuk said.

Not long afterward, Father Kraychuk began working in native missions in northern Canada, discerning a call to the priesthood and monastic life in the Ukrainian Catholic Church. He studied at the Benedictine Seminary of Christ the King in Mission, British Columbia, at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Redwood Valley, Calif., and at Holy Spirit Ukrainian Catholic Seminary in Ottawa before being ordained in 2000.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Father Kraychuk was the child of a devout Ukrainian Catholic family that prayed together and attended Mass weekly.

"I grew up in the faith, but I drifted away from those roots," he told the audience attending the four-day conference. "When I was about 15 or 16, I was into the drug scene."

As Father Kraychuk put it, he rejected the land of the church and took off to find another land.

"I wanted to experience all the excitement, all the drugs, all the partying, all that belongs with that kind of life," he said.

When he was kicked out of high school, he left the church and his family and became a biker, traveling throughout much of the United States and Canada. Eventually, he landed in Southern California.

"I was living in a place where all my needs where met, selling drugs and making money," he said.

He never stopped believing that God existed but essentially abandoned himself to fate. Any time he would get in trouble, he would call on God. He constantly read his Gideon Bible, believing that if he read it often, God would protect him from the police.

One rainy day, as he looked through a window, thoughts of emptiness and suicide filled his mind.

"I really thought there was nothing to live for," he said. "I wanted to blow myself away because there was no reason; this is all absurd. This is all meaningless."

In that moment, he heard a voice commanding him to take the Bible and read it. He opened it to St. Paul's letter to the Galatians and read about those who will not make it to be with God: drunkards, fornicators, adulterers. He identified with every sinner on the list.

However, Father Kraychuk said he still rejected God and religion.

"I don't want to become a Jesus freak," he recalled thinking.

But for the next 14 months, things were different.

"It's like the Lord sent an angel, a spirit that would speak to me," he said. Every time he was ready to make a drug deal, the spirit would come to remind him his actions were against God's law.

He took off again, making his way to Florida, then to Eastern Canada, trying to shake what he imagined was depression. Returning to his friends in California the young man became even more involved in drugs and alcohol, so much that he would shake from the chemicals in his body.

"My old buddies said, 'You've got to go or you are going to kill yourself,'" he recalled.

That's when he hopped the bus to Winnipeg. Between Utah and Idaho, two biker types came onto the bus and went to the back where Father Kraychuk was sitting. They started to talk, sharing their latest adventures with drugs and parties. The conversation then shifted to God and Scripture.

He realized that the same things that had happened to him had happened to one of the bikers.

"It was like looking in a mirror," Father Kraychuk said.

After the conversation had died down, Father Kraychuk turned around in his seat and as he was sitting down he experienced the beginning of change in his life.

"It was Christ himself. And he said to me, 'Terry, there are two roads before you. You know where your road is going; you know where it leads. Now I'm offering you my road. You must choose.'"

Father Kraychuk knew then that he had to choose God, pledging "I'll try to follow you."

That's when he dumped the drugs in the toilet.

And then he saw the light.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970