A sister at my church said that her neighbors don’t consider her and her husband as good Christians because they are Orthodox. She and her husband are white. If much of white Protestant America does not consider the Orthodox Church as a valid expression of Christianity, there is no doubt that black inquirers (and even more so catechumens and converts) face a hard wall of opposition from the non-Orthodox.
Perhaps the hardest criticism we face is the accusation that “we have forgotten where we came from.” The African-American Protestant church has a history and spirituality that was forged under the harshest conditions. Our slave ancestors stole away and worshiped in “hush arbors” in opposition to the slave master’s abuse of the Bible to keep them subjugated. During the Jim Crow years, the church was a haven of hope and humanity for a people who endured a dehumanizing system of segregation. We developed our own sense of Biblical interpretation, preaching, music, and worship. For someone to dare break away from the worship of God that we have always known to be among those who have enslaved and legally restricted us (despite that the Arabs, Greeks, and Slavs had little or nothing to do with American racism) is counted as betrayal by many blacks. Even for those who convert to Coptic or Ethiopian Orthodoxy are still frowned upon as “they ain’t our kind of people.” Along with lack of evangelistic efforts from the Church its self, criticism from the community is the main reason why there are so few African-American converts to the Orthodox Church. So, why should an African-American even seriously inquire, become a catechumen, or (dare ye) convert? I dare to question, “why shouldn’t we?”
Orthodox Christianity is a cycle of life that has existed for 2,000 years. The prayers, liturgy, and wisdom of the Church is not dependent on the latest book from whatever preacher is popular at the time. These spiritual tools have been used by renown bishops and saints and every day Christians. Some of them were written by Africans during a time that there were only three races; Gentiles, Jews, and Christians. Difference in skin color was evident, but was not a barrier between those who were baptized believers in Jesus Christ. In fact, one’s race did not condemn anyone to slavery nor elevate anyone to supremacy. So, why then is it wrong to practice a form of Christianity that knew no racism? God blessed the church of our slave forebears and segregated mothers and fathers to survive and thrive without the knowledge of Orthodoxy as the ancient faith was not readily available to most Americans, let alone blacks. Now that the knowledge of the Church can be explored with few hindrances, why shouldn’t we seek to understand, and even participate in it?
There are Protestant and non-denominational black churches in abundance in black communities. They are mostly competing with one another trying to come up with new and exciting styles of worship, preaching, and ministries to cater to every age and lifestyle group. To have new churches spring up as a result of a break from one older congregation is very common. To have new churches spring up just because some man or woman declared, “God called me to preach,” is very common. What is not common is to read, research, and understand the depth of spiritual wisdom that lead our African ancestors to write inspired prayers, teach sound doctrine, and establish the church that still exist after some 2,000 years. If indeed, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future,” is a truthful proverb, then isn’t it a good idea for the children of Mahailah Jackson, Fred Shuttlesworth, Sojourner Truth, and David Walker to embrace Cyprian of Carthage, Catherine of Alexandria, Moses of Ethiopia, and Mary of Egypt?
“Well, they don’t sing our kind of music.” Byzantine, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Slavonic hymns and chants can be daunting to hear and sing. But, no one gets to dress out in the uniform and take the field if he isn’t a part of the team. While there are some ethnocentric churches who would not allow any changes to the hymnology of an Orthodox Church, there are enlightened believers who see the great value of the Negro Spiritual. In fact, the late Archbishop Dimitri (OCA) called the Negro Spiritual the only truly salvific music that was ever made in America. There are congregations who do sing hymns like “Wade In The Water, Steal Away,” and other timeless songs of our people as part of baptism or during the eucharist. Can the Church do a better job of including such music in the Divine Liturgy, Great Vespers, or (at least) host concerts of our musical heritage occasionally? Yes it can and should. If we had a few more black voices in the church, more of these changes could be made.
“Well, the priest don’t preach like we like to hear preaching.” AME Bishop Adam Richardson once taught (2000 Hampton Univ. Minister’s Conference lecture) that the role of the preacher is to introduce Jesus to the congregation and get out-of-the-way. Orthodox Divine Liturgy does just that. The priest does give a sermon and preaching styles do vary from priest to priest. That is after the Little Entrance. But, the highlight of worship is the Eucharist which takes place after the Great Entrance. Word cadence and vocal fluctuations are nowhere near as important as the content of the sermon and the sermon is not as important as the presentation and the partaking of the body and blood of Our Lord and Savior. Style does have its place. But, when one is too obsessed with the style of preaching, the content is likely to suffer, and the focus shifts from Christ-centered to preacher-centered. So, isn’t it wise to investigate a church where the focus of worship is structured to be on Jesus?
“Well, I don’t want to be the ‘only one’ in there.” Jackie Robinson was the ‘only one’ playing Major League Baseball. James Meredith was the ‘only one’ at the University of Mississippi. They took hell for us so that you can be scared to go to a church full of (Greek, Middle Eastern, Slavic) white people? So that you can be scared to go to church with Egyptians and Ethiopians that come from the place you call the Motherland? No, not every Orthodox congregation welcomes blacks (or even average whites) with open arms. But, I have not been in one church of any jurisdiction where I wasn’t made to feel welcome when I arrived and didn’t welcome me back. I wouldn’t doubt that I would find at least one friendly face in the churches I haven’t visited yet in the state. Come to think of it, to dare go where almost and no black people go and to go for the sake of worshiping God and understanding the Christianity that African saints practiced, isn’t this walking in the shoes of all of those “first blacks” that we just celebrated last month?
Please keep in mind, there is someone in Virginia who has taken the risk of being an African-American Orthodox Christian to an extreme. Thus far, I can testify that I wouldn’t take anything for my journey. I do miss the people I left behind. But with all that I am learning and practicing, the risk inquiry and conversion into the Orthodox Church is worth it.