In his autobiography, Malcolm X stated that the Desert Fathers were the founders of Christian Church structure (1). He also briefly mentioned St. Augustine as a defender of Church doctrine against heresy (2). While Malcolm said these things specifically in is critique of white racism in Christianity, he does make an incidental point that should not be overlooked. It ought to be a topic to help the Orthodox Church evangelize to African-Americans and develop a more multi-cultural identity in this nation. Many of the most heralded saints of early Christianity were Africans.
At the time I read this, I took Malcolm’s words for granted. I was planning to become a pastor in a black Baptist Church and figured that I shared the same skin color with these ancient Christians was all the connection I needed with them. I identified St. Augustine with the Roman Catholic Church and didn’t think that anything he and his contemporaries was important for any Baptist to take note of. Visiting St. Cyprian of Carthage (OCA) gave me a great respect for the Orthodox as the congregation venerated its patron and St. Moses of Ethiopia even though they were all white. Again, I had put what I had observed on the back burner of my mind for many years.
After serving over a decade and a half in a black pulpit, I read more about the prayers and spiritual life of some of the Desert Fathers. I was stunned to find that four morning prayers of St. Macarius the Great were found in the popular Russian Orthodox “Jordanville” prayer-book (3) and five in the Antiochian St. Philip’s Prayer Manual (4). Here was an African, most likely some shade of brown complexion, who was influential for generations of pale skinned people in Eastern Europe and lighter complected Middle Easterners, and my African-American church had no idea of who he was. I looked further at the life of St. Moses and noticed how this ex-slave and gang leader converted to Christ and became a role model of the faith. This is similar to my ancestors here being in bondage and the black church inspiring liberation struggles throughout the world. Moses is not simply some sort of token recently being used to evangelize to black Americans. During his life, other Christians, such as St. John Cassian, visited and learned great spiritual lessons from him and other Desert Fathers and brought a disciplined spiritual life to Europe (5).
Too much of modern American Christianity, among all ethnic groups, is too busy chasing after the latest fads and fashions of self help and church growth to pay attention to the depth of history and spirituality offered in the Orthodox Church. Yet, every Black History Month we hear the old African proverb, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.” there is great value in knowing the words of African-American Christian leaders from Bishop Richard Allen to James H. Cone. But, this sort of Christianity only goes as far back as the early 1700’s on this continent. If the faith is to grow deep and strong enough to survive our materialistic post-Christian society, African-Americans must tap into and become steeped in the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and African saints. These are not found in some self-made chuch with self- appointed clergy nor a Protestant denomination that ignores early Christian history. They are found in the Church that was brought to Africa by the Apostles Mark, Matthew, St. Photini (the Samaritan woman Jesus spoke with at the well) who brought the Gospel to Egypt, Ethiopia, and Carthage at the same time Paul was making his missionary journeys.
Among African-Americans outside of Orthodoxy, we should open our minds and hearts to this Church that has maintained a spirituality from the Desert Fathers that has been universally passed down for 2000 years. Fr. Seraphim Rose described the words of modern Russian saints like John of Kronstadt as speaking with the same voice as an ancient Egyptian such as Macarius (6). If we can (as we should) forgive those of our white brothers and sisters who supported slavery and segregation, there is no reason why we can’t be inquisitive about a Church who didn’t create such laws. The Nubians of modern Sudan were Orthodox Christian up until the 14th century when the Muslims overcame them. The Orthodox Churches of Egypt and Ethiopia still exist and are growing among us.
Among us Orthodox, we should let the light of Christ and the Desert Fathers shine in us and hold it up for blacks (and others) to see. There is over 300 years of scars that we African-Americans have endured from bull whips and Jim Crow signs. Also, we have a church culture that we are quite comfortable since such denominations as the African Methodist Episcopal, National Baptist, and Church of God in Christ, has been a haven for us in a nation that offered us few safe harbors. Another Pentecost with 3,000 or even a 1986-87 with some 2,000 converts may or may not happen among African-Americans. But as long as we sow seeds and water them, we are doing God’s will as He gives the increase (7). He will do his job; we must do ours.
Let us be mindful of the universal message of our faith found in ancient Antioch (8). Of the five named clergy, two of them were of African origin; one of whom had to have been dark-skinned (Simeon wh was called Niger). These African and Middle Eastern Christians ordained two of their number that would spread the Gospel to Cyprus, Greece, Malta, and Italy. In our racially diverse nation, let us make room at the table and wear garments of love that all may share in the wedding feast to come (9).
- Malcolm X & Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ballentine Books New York NY, 1965, pg. 368
- Malcolm X & Haley, pgs. 369-70
- Prayer Book, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville NY, pgs. 15-17
- St. Philip’s Prayer Manual & Common Discipline, Fellowship of St. John the Divine & Double Eagle Industries 2004, pgs. 28, 29
- The Philokalia vol I, Faber & Faber, New York NY 1979, pgs. 72 & 94-108
- Hieromonk Damascene, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina CA 2010, pg. 471
- I Corinthians 3:6, 7
- Acts 13:1-3
- Matthew 22:9-14