Monday, September 7, 2009
The Face of American Orthodoxy: A Forgotten Perspective
Fr. Aris Metrakos
Looking for an Orthodox Christian parish to attend? Search the Internet websites, blogs, and articles and you might conclude that you have one of two types of communities from which to choose: the moribund "ethnic ghetto" (a term made a permanent part of the American Orthodox lexicon by a widely circulated AEOM* video), or the progressive, cutting edge congregation of converts coming soon to your neighborhood strip mall. Obscured by the dust of the collapsing cultural country club communities and the smoke and mirrors associated with the convert parishes is the silent majority of American Orthodoxy's mainstream churches.
In Praise of the Great Unwashed
These mainstay parishes are the direct result of the sacrifice of the persons from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Middle-East who came to America around the turn of the 20th century. These immigrants from the Old World who were part of "the Great Unwashed" might not have been perfect. They committed the "mortal sins" of giving us mixed choirs and pews and priests with trimmed hair and beards (or no beards at all!). They were too busy working 70 hours a week to attend all night vigils. Virtually none of them could quote St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain.
Somehow, in spite of all of their "deficiencies" these pioneers started hundreds of Orthodox Christian parishes in the United States. Their faith and sacrifice made it possible for them to forge a new life for themselves and their families in this, the most remarkable country the world has ever known. They had been brought up in the Church. It was only natural that they would establish parishes for their children.
It's easy to second guess the genesis of the communities founded by our grandparents: their ethnocentricity; the lack of jurisdictional unity; their adoption of a quasi-congregational ecclesiology. But these criticisms are ahistorical and intellectually dishonest. They were people of their time, doing the best that they could.
They did well. We all revere the heroism of the Alaskan Saints. I mention them and the other North American Saints whenever I do intercessory prayers. But here's the reality. The overwhelming majority of American parishes are the spiritual benefactors of the unsung heroes who crossed the pond in the early twentieth century.
"Ethnic ghettos" -- the favorite epithet used at almost every opportunity to describe Orthodox parishes with Old World roots -- needs to be put in perspective. The parishes of the early twentieth century were cultural enclaves. They had to be. Come to my neck of the woods if you need a refresher course in religious bigotry. Even though the neighborhood in which I live is comprised of Blacks, Whites, Asians, Hispanics, Catholics, every kind of Protestant, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and at least one Orthodox family, you need only to travel a half hour to find a population that regards Orthodox Christians as "unsaved idol worshippers." Take that attitude and multiply it by a hundred and it becomes self-evident why the first American Orthodox circled their cultural wagons as tightly as they could.
There remain some parishes that are ethnically exclusive. In some locales this is a natural consequence of the congregation's cultural homogeneity. What else could we expect? In other places, an anachronistic cultural chauvinism finds some parishes dying slowly. Without a shift in mindset, these churches might one day have to close their doors -- maybe they deserve their fate. But two generations after the church planting of the "Great Unwashed," ethnic exclusivity has given way in most places to cultural diversity and religious dynamism. The parish which I serve provides a snapshot of the contemporary "American Ethnic Orthodox" Church.
An "Ethnic" Church of 2006
Founded by Greek émigrés in 1936, Columbia, South Carolina's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church is home to cradle Orthodox from virtually every traditionally Orthodox country. On any given Sunday, the majority of congregants are American born and about half are persons who have chosen as adults to become Orthodox Christians. Our size gives us the "critical mass" necessary to have effective programmed ministries for persons of all ages.
Our community also carries unashamedly the banner of traditional spirituality. Confession is anything but "the forgotten sacrament." The faithful take fasting seriously. Prayer and Holy Communion are recognized as essential elements of life.
Sure there are some things that need to be changed. Our choir depends too heavily on the organ. Participation at weekday services doesn't come close to Sunday's standing room crowds. But I'm convinced that time and the Holy Spirit will fix these and other minor problems.
In the meantime, our parish is blessed with an organic piety that doesn't find the members struggling to discover what it means to be Orthodox. Our pappoudes (grandfathers) and yiayiades (grandmothers) still go through their house weekly with a hand censer. Our kids know why that certain legume is called a lent-il. Maybe we don't do as many prostrations as some other Orthodox, but no one in our parish would be caught dead sitting on the floor during a sermon!
Parishes like ours also represent a large part of the future of American Orthodoxy. Our parish leadership team (which consists of GenX-ers, Boomers, and folks born in the 1930's and 1940's) participates regularly in the sacraments. Our "committees" see themselves as "ministry teams." Stewardship is giving way to tithing.
We're a downtown parish but that's a good thing. You can't drive to the State House or City Hall without passing the block which we own. A combination of high visibility and receptivity of newcomers means that we have the "problem" of overcrowding; plans call for us to break ground October 15 on a larger sanctuary.
Besides being a "downtown ethnic parish" we also have other "shortcomings."
We have a Greek Festival. So what? Annually, the only event in Columbia drawing more visitors is the South Carolina State Fair.
Our parking lot boasts more than one BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes. The owners of these vehicles are also extremely generous with their time and money.
I confess, we even have Greek School. But, hey, the Baptist mall down the street from us has a "Pilate Class." I thought he was a bad guy!
Orthodox Missions in 21st Century America: A Reality Check
Does this imply that there's something wrong with "mission parishes?" By no means! No doubt about, if you want more Christians, establish more churches. The apostles went out and founded churches. The sacramental and corporate nature of the Orthodox Christian Faith makes it impossible to be Christian apart from the Church. One cannot become Christian over the Internet. In our own greater metropolitan area, the creation of new parishes has always increased the number of worshippers at our own Liturgy.
At the same time, can't we look critically at the origins of some of America's new Orthodox communities? While clamoring for Orthodox unity, jurisdictions throw up missions with as much discrimination as a track home developer. It is not uncommon to see an Orthodox mission established a short drive from an established Orthodox parish. Like Evangelicals traveling to Europe to "save" Romanians, Ukrainians, and Russians, these missions appear to be borne of an insidious contempt for any parish "stained" by ethnic roots.
This indiscriminate church planting goes from offensive to absurd when we encounter situations in which multiple Orthodox missions crop up within minutes of each other and we deny that this squanders resources and opportunities. We wring our hands over the shoot-from-the-hip approach to church founding of the early 20th century that gave rise to America's multi-jurisdictionalism, but are we any better off today?
Facing the Truth
What then is the face of American Orthodoxy? Like America itself, American Orthodoxy is comprised of lots of different faces. I pray that the inwardly focused ethnic communities will discover the Great Commission before it's too late. Nothing would make me happier than to see every store-front mission of today become tomorrow's cathedral. While we wait to see what will happen to these two extreme types of parishes, the middle ground is filled with hundreds of churches that possess both an acceptance of their ethnic background and a vision for growth and progress. Like so many other Orthodox communities in America, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church has been bearing the torch of Apostolic Christianity in the New World since the first half of the last century-and that torch burns brighter than ever.
* AEOM -- The Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission
Rev. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is frequent retreat leader and speaker for both teens and adults. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Aris was an aviator for the US Navy. He travels annually to Romania to help the Romanian Orthodox Church establish ministries for Romanian youth. You can contact Fr. Aris at FrMetrakos@orthodoxytoday.org.