I recently attended the Pan-Orthodox Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers Service at St. Constantine & Helen in Newport News, VA. It was a blessing to see the clergy of our various jurisdictions from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach gather together to commemorate and worship one of the great high points of our faith. That we affirm the usage of holy icons as Christ became incarnate for our salvation. That the saints lived as examples of holiness for us to follow as they followed Christ. That ours is the true faith in which the whole universe was established.
Fr. John Manuel of St. Nicholas preached about the need for us Orthodox Christians to share our faith with our neighbors. His description of how we tend to put ethnicity above the faith to a point where we don’t reach out to anyone else is a common theme I have heard among others who see a need to reclaim our ancient call to evangelize. He made the point that our goal should not be so much to sell ethnic food to our friends and neighbors at our festivals. But we should share the greatest thing we have, our love. And by this we can share the Orthodox faith with others beyond our ethnic scope. Fr. John put a road out there that we Orthodox Christians must travel to fulfill the commandment of Christ, “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
That same night, I met a brother on the other side of this same road. Mr. James Hicks was once a member of the “Apostolic” church, a branch of black Pentecostalism. He met and became friends with a member of St. Constantine & Helen many years ago who shared with him how the Orthodox Church maintained apostolic succession in the ordination of clergy and adherence to their doctrines and traditions, including the spirituality that led to the compilation of the Bible. After doing some research, including learning more about Ethiopian Christianity, Mr. Hicks converted to Orthodoxy and had been at St. Constantine & Helen ever since.
My conversation with him reminded me of the talks I had after service at St. Basil that same day. Our new Subdeacon, JP (he is stationed with the Navy in our area), shared with me how few people realize that such a large percentage of early Christians were Africans. Another brother serving in the Navy, Mitch, shared with me how he ended an argument with a member of the Nation of Islam that complained how there were no black Christians before slavery. Mitch asked him, “Well, what about the Ethiopians?” Also, a Catholic (he was Catholic at the time) thought the legend of the black “Presbyter John” was fictional. Again, Mitch had to school someone about the ancient African church.
In the world of Orthodoxy and evangelism among African-Americans we have to address the road of friendship and research. First and foremost must come extending a hand in love beyond our ethnic and racial comfort zones. America is toxic with stereotyping which leads us to “staying in our lanes.” While our individual ethnicities are beautiful and help make the tapestry of humanity valuable, threads have to be sown together to make the tapestry in the first place. Often we can find areas of shared interest and build friendships based on these things. From there, our shared love for Christ and one another become the foundation of these bonds. This is the door of hospitality and love we must open to every one of every ethnicity and race.
From the African-American perspective, we should take advantage of the open doors to research the ancient history and spirituality of Africans in Orthodoxy. Too often, we act as if our Christian faith goes no further than the 1600’s. While many of us will run around saying that “Jesus is black,” few of us have been in a church or monastery that has brown and black representations of Christ, His mother, and the saints. Russian prayer books have words from the Egyptian St. Macarius the Great. Yet the modern African-American Church Hymnal does not even mention this brother’s name. Even among those of us who have no interest in converting from the Baptist, AME, or Pentecostal traditions, black Christians should take the time to investigate all that the Orthodox know and practice from the holy men and women of Africa. Those who are staunchly unwilling to go to a “white church.” we can visit the Copts and Ethiopians and learn the same faith.
For effective evangelism to happen by the Orthodox Church to the African-American community, there must be open doors and open minds from both sides.