Orthodox America

The Eastern Orthodox Church traces her roots back to Apostolic times. The early communities mentioned in St. Paul’s epistles are numbered within Her fold. It is estimated that the Church has three hundred fifty million faithful. She has preserved Her Liturgical practices for two thousand years. When Constantine moved Rome’s capitol to what is modern-day Turkey, he named the city Constantinople, and The Byzantine Empire was born. For over one thousand years, the empire stood strong and Christianity, Orthodox Christianity, was her official religion. Her history is more than four times that of The United States. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. The Church of Hagia Sophia is one of the most beautiful and well-known Churches in the world. The hymnology and art that were developed under this empire are second to none. In other words, the Church has a long and rich history. But in the United States, it is mostly unknown. Many of us feel it is America’s best-kept secret.

How could this be? How could The Apostolic Church be unheard of in America? I will opine that there are two main reasons for this. The first reason is that Eastern Orthodoxy is just that, eastern. The United States is a young country. For much of our history, the Eastern Church lived in countries where communism ruled. The communists were trying to root out religion from their nations, they certainly did not celebrate it. The christianity of America is mostly western. European history for us is Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, and France. Most of our early immigrants come from these areas.

The Eastern Church survived the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Turks, communist Soviet Union, the near expulsion of the Christians in Armenia, the persecution of the Greeks and Arabs, by warring muslim rulers in Turkey and other middle eastern areas, and the list continues. The Church survived. Many of those immigrants have now started moving to the United States and are bringing their Faith with them. These people prayed and kept their relics, art, and literature under fear of death. So now that these fervent persons are establishing themselves and their families in the United States, we should be hearing more about the Faith that they held through all of this turmoil, right? Unfortunately, the answer is largely ‘no.’

The reason for this is speculative, but I have a few ideas. Personal experience and anecdotal evidence have pointed me to two distinct immigrant experiences. One is the immigrant who wants to cast off the old self and reinvent himself as an ‘American’. They begin to use more American names and try to blend in as just another ‘Joe’. Many of these people don’t even teach their native language to their children. Some are more zealous for their faith than others, but largely, and this is a sweeping generalization, not an all-inclusive commentary, they water down their faith. Their children lose touch with this faith and join the ranks of the rest of us secular, “science-minded” Americans. Capitalism and the good life are our mantra, our religion, and so it is theirs too.

Many of these immigrants have survived by sticking together. This is the other immigrant experience: the immigrant who attempts to recreate their village within a community in the United States. They group together to help one another financially. They continue speaking mostly in their native tongues, they hold to all of their own cultural perspectives and practices. And, they build their ethnic Churches. This group has not really brought Orthodoxy to America, they brought their traditions, to practice on their own, and in their own language, to their community. These church communities rarely have any outreach. The Great Commission is mostly forgotten.

As an American who traces his roots back for several generations, four or more in each branch, I have no cultural identity outside of ‘American.’ So, is Orthodox Christianity for Americans? Was the message of Christ eastern or western? Where is the New Testament Church? This question is the subject of a whole other discussion. I have come to the conclusion that the Eastern Orthodox Church is The Apostolic Church. So, how do I, as a non-easterner, practice this faith? Well, in my city there are two Church communities: Holy Resurrection Antiochian Orthodox Church or St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church. The terms Antiochian and Greek were not added by me, those are the names of the churches. In other cities one might find those as well as Armenian, Russian, Carpatho-Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Romanian, and more. Now the one that strikes me as most interesting is a body who generally places no ethnic label on her Churches: The Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Now this must be my best option, right? The answer is “maybe.” Her roots are mainly Russian and a few neighboring areas. For example, they have a Romanian diocese within their group. This group celebrates their Liturgies in their native tongues. Mostly, however, the OCA use English in their services. They have established three seminaries in the United States and are, maybe, the least ethnic. Though, they still have a very strong Russian background and adherence.

The Churches in my city are largely a tale of the two immigrant experiences. The Greek Church counts the majority of her faithful as ethnic Greeks. The Matins service is changed mainly in Greek and the service itself has as much or more Greek than English. My experience there has been that the Church has mostly been an ethnic Church with little attempt by the faithful to evangelize their faith in their community. My grandparents were the first Orthodox Christians in my family. They encouraged me as a 17-year-old boy to “give it a try.” I complied. Of the two aforementioned parishes, the Greek was nearer to my home. I attended alone for four Sundays. I was shy and didn’t seek anybody out. But neither was I ever greeted until the fourth Sunday. I was approached by a Greek woman who asked who I was and ‘why’ I was going to a Greek! church. She then asked if I was looking for a Greek girlfriend. I didn’t return.

I floundered in my spiritual life for five more years before my family, mostly my uncle, encouraged me again. So, I decided to go to the Antiochian parish. Antioch is a city in Turkey that used to be a major community within Greater Syria. It was one of the original five patriarchal cities of the Church: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. Antiochian Christians come from mostly Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan–Greater Syria. Their bishops in the United States have made great strides to be accepting of any Orthodox Christians, to be Pan-Orthodox. One will find most people like me in Antiochian and OCA parishes. Some converts feel that many of these churches have tried too hard to Americanize. For example, a parish priest told me that he was directed by his archbishop to wear a suit jacket outside of his church building, so that he would be more accepted and integrated. This might seem to be a minor issue, whether a priest wears a cassock or jacket, whether a bishop wears western red buttons and cap, or more traditional attire, such as a cassock, or whether the clergy are bearded, as is typical among Orthodox Clergy, or are clean shaven. The risk, I am afraid, is that this comes too close to the first immigrant experience, casting off the old self completely and becoming American. I’m afraid that the church leadership might also be in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

I would like to interject a comment at this point. I do not consider myself to be a fundamentalist or zealot. There are those who argue every point of history endlessly on blogs and public debate forums. There are valid points on both sides of these issues, I feel. I am not arguing old vs. new calendar, shaven vs. bearded, english vs. native language, ecumenism, or any such issue. I am a convert American who would like to practice authentic–I am in no position to decide what is authentic by the way–Orthodox Christianity. I am not looking to join another ethnicity, nor am I interested in joining a church community that is trying to completely cast off every part of their ethnicity in favor of a more American flavor of Orthodoxy. There are many ‘Antiochian ethnic’ faithful who have personally told me that they really don’t know the difference between Orthodoxy and other ‘Christian’ churches. They feel comfortable in a Protestant or a Catholic Church. They told me that as long as they believe in Jesus, we are the same. That is a problem for me. My father was raised Protestant and my mother Roman Catholic. My experience from both is that they do not believe the same thing at all. So if I, who have experienced both ‘Western’ Christian experiences, come to an Orthodox church where the faithful don’t know the difference and where many of the clergy are trying to be more ‘Western,’ then why do I come at all?

I must tie this back to my theme. Why have ‘Americans’ not heard of Orthodox Christianity? I argue that those who have brought us the faith are either keeping it to themselves or trying to make it more Western. Neither of these options are likely to be successful. Keeping Orthodoxy Greek, or Antiochian, or Romanian clearly is not the answer. There must be an Orthodox Church of America (suggest changing this to read, “ American Orthodox Church”). Lets not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We must also not be overly fundamentalist either in my humble opinion.

The last point that I would like to add is not small. We must win the youth. As a parent, it is my hope that my children will ‘Keep the Faith.’ If I do not, it is hard for me to think they will. Children will likely not go to church if they think it is mostly an ethnic club. They are unlikely to be as identified with the culture as their immigrant parents. I listened to a lecture recording recently by Fr. Thomas Hopko. He was dean of the OCA seminary in New York for ten years. The Antiochian’s also use this school to train their clergy. Fr. Thomas said that seminarians are either priest’s kids or converts. There were almost no ethnic seminarians outside of clergy’s sons. Ethnic churches are not winning their own youth!

When I did go back to the Antiochian parish in my town, the priest told me that, “we love kids.” He said that they need to be in the service. We baptize our infants in Orthodoxy, so they need to be in the Liturgy. In my parish, there are many parents who only come when Church school is in session. They come for their kids. I was recently told by a family member that she went by herself with her children to a morning service. She sat in the back, so that she would be least ‘disruptive’ to others. A woman come all the way back to her and told her that she needed to participate from the ‘cry room.’ The children were not crying at this time. The message was clear, kids are not welcome–they are a ‘bother.’ This is not a message that will help Orthodoxy spread in America. Not only does this seem highly unorthodox [sic], but downright unbiblical. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Mark 9:42 and of course, “but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matt 19:14

We must engage the youth in order for Orthodoxy to be known in America. We must, of course, let them in the building first!

I have no definitive answer, I have no right to. But, I would challenge ourselves to be authentic (I didn’t say rigid or fundamentalist), American, loving, faithful Christians. Let our light so shine before men, that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven. Matt 5:16. Of course, this starts at home, and with our children.

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