(The following is a rough manuscript of my presentation at St. Basil the Great (Antiochian) Orthodox Church in Hampton on Saturday, June 24th. Somewhere in mid speech, I attempted to make some changes off the cuff. Those who heard my talk say it was great. Of course, I am my own worst critic. A link to the video is at the bottom of the article. If you get something out of this that helps you on your Christian journey, glory to God. Count the errors to my head and not heart.)
You can go back to the very beginning of Christianity, Catholicism, the genesis of Christianity as we know it to be presently constituted, with it’s heirarchy, was conceived in Africa-by those whom the Christian Church calls “The Desert Fathers.” El-Hadjj Malik El-Shabazz/Malcolm X (1)
You can read the words of someone like St. Macarius, who lived in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth century, and he is speaking to you now. His conditions are a little different, but he is speaking right to you in the same language. He is going to the same place, he is using the same mind, he has the same temptations and failings, and there is nothing different about him. Fr. Seraphim Rose (2)
The Need to Know
On the surface, it would seem strange that of all of the people God would use to plant a seed of curiosity about ancient Christianity it was Malcolm X, a former spokesman for the Nation of Islam who converted to the brotherhood of Orthodox Islam. Although my interest was very well established before I read his impressive biography, Fr Seraphim Rose, the venerable American convert to Orthodox Christianity has been an inspiration for me to continue reading and finding inspiration from the source Malcolm only pointed to. Who were these Desert Fathers and why are they so important to spiritual growth today? I doubt I can fully answer these two questions with any justice in one 20 to 30 minute talk. I envision that we will have a series of discussions about this topic. Today, I will share my own experience.
I am the product of a loving family who raised me in a rural traditional African-American Baptist Church where I was baptized at eight years old. Despite questioning the value of going to church in my teen years, faith in Jesus Christ was the only thing that made sense to me. I re-dedicated my life to the Lord, became a licensed minister while in college, and pastored a very stable congregation for over 16 years. The Orthodox Church was revealed to me only in bits and pieces in high school world history class and hanging out with Rastas at VSU talking about Emperor Halie Selassie.
Working with Catholic missionaries in Northern Kenya, I saw Ethiopian style icons painted on the churches and learned how some of the Ethiopians who immigrated there held on to their ancient Christian faith. While still deeply rooted as a Baptist, it impressed me enough to visit an Orthodox Church when I got back home in 1990. I found St. Cyprian of Carthage OCA in Richmond when it was still on Chamberlayne Ave., just north of the VUU campus where I was taking seminary classes. There in that church I saw these full sized icons of the patron saint and St. Moses the Ethiopian. I saw white people bowing to and kissing pictures of these black men. The priest explained to me that theirs was a faith that embraced holy men and women from all eras from all nations where Orthodoxy was and is practiced. As interesting as the information was and compelling as the iconography was, I didn’t think I needed to know anything else about the Desert Fathers, much less convert to the Christianity they practiced. I was saved; I was helping people find Jesus Christ. To me, the Orthodox Church was the “big brother” of Christianity worthy of respect, but was aiming for the same thing that any other Christian and church wanted.
Over the years, a few things changed my mind about my need to know more. Over the years, I have seen a plethora of new churches and ministries start up with doctrines based more on popularity than the traditional faith handed down to me by my parents and grand-parents. It used to be we had only the Baptist, AME Churches, and a couple of Pentecostal denominations. I saw way too many preachers break off from established churches and doctrines to start new congregations where they answered to no one and preached and taught only as “the Holy Spirit” led them. Too often, they were merely mimicking what they saw on television and ego stroking with the congregation. I knew there had to be something deeper than the constant chasing after the latest Christian catch phrases and Gospel hits to make myself and congregation feel good until next Sunday.
I felt the need to deepen my prayer life. Modern Christianity gave me all sorts of “techniques” from walking around and grabbing the air to “pull down strongholds” to lying down on the floor and “soaking in the Holy Spirit.” I had even been “slain in the Spirit” where I was so caught up in praising God while praying, I fell to the ground. But, I certainly couldn’t have that experience every day. And even if I could, would I want to? I knew there had to be a better way to experience the presence of God that wasn’t based on momentary excitability, but rather consistent and steady spiritual growth.
In my college years, the Southern Baptist Convention gave me spiritual support through the Baptist Student Union. The SBC, of course, was born supporting slavery and believed in segregation for years. But, they were (and still are) trying to shake off their racist past. The idea of being a part of a changing Southern Baptist Convention did seem like a good idea. But, the black and white Baptist still ignored the fact that there was something older than the Articles of Faith. There must have been some doctrine or tradition that put the Bible together before we could base our churches on the book. And if that doctrine or tradition collected the correct scriptures, wouldn’t it also be correct in its teachings of Jesus Christ?
I have glanced at some non-Christian religions as well. I like listening to roots reggae of the Rastafarians. But, I didn’t like weed nor could I believe Selassie was an incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Hindu Bahavad Gita was an interesting book. But, polytheism was a non-starter with me. The Nation of Islam still taught that the white man was the devil. I could have no part with that. The black Muslims who, like Malcolm X, rejected racist doctrines for the universal brotherhood in the faith did hold my interest and friendship. I especially liked the mystical approach to God taught by the Sufi and the discipline of praying at certain hours of the day and a cycle of fasting. But, I could not be shaken from John 3:16. Was there a Christian faith that had a simple yet mystical union with God?
One night in late 2011, I was on my computer exploring the virtual reality world of Second Life. As a joke and out of my respect for the Church, I looked up “Orthodox Christian” and saw there was a virtual reality site for St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. I found miniature icons of African saints like Anthony, Cyprian, Perpetua & Felicity, Macarius, and Moses the Black. There were copies of various wisdom writings from these men and women. Going online, I found the real St. Catherine’s Monastery still existed with monks from around the world, including a monastery librarian who was a Baptist. Catherine was the daughter of a fourth century Egyptian governor who was martyred not only because she wouldn’t renounce Jesus Christ, but she convinced the pagan philosophers who were trying to convince her to renounce Christianity to become Christian. The movement of Christians renouncing the world to live in contemplation and prayer was started by Anthony the Great, a native Egyptian Not only the Orthodox, but Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans acknowledge him as the “father of monasticism.” One of his protégés, Athanasius, became the lead voice for the co-substantiality of God the Father and the Son in the First Ecumenical Council of 325 AD and, as Bishop of Alexandria and all Africa, put together a list of books to be read in the Church in 367 AD. This list proved so popular with African, Asian, and European clergy that in 398 AD at a council in Carthage, it was canonized and is known today as the New Testament. If there were no Desert Fathers, the Christian faith and Holy Bible would be completely different.
Here I was, an African-American Christian and pastor and I had no idea that people who looked like me played such a crucial and inspirational role in the early Church. Still being grounded as a Baptist, I could not deny or ignore this deep wellspring of Christianity that my ancestors had. Nor could I deny or ignore that the Orthodox Church still held them in such high regard. Looking for some help in my prayer life, I obtained an Antiochian and Russian prayer book. In both, I found the prayers of the St. Macarius, a contemporary of Anthony, whose words were so moving that Christians from all over the world came to his Egyptian desert cave to learn from him. He didn’t put out advertisements on even the means of communication that was available to him. Macarius led such a deep and stellar spiritual life that it could not be hidden, as our Lord taught in the Sermon on the Mount (3). This most spiritually insightful African was known to Russian and Syrian Christians. I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t know and appreciate him as well.
I was also intrigued by Moses the Black, also known as “the Ethiopian (from a Greek word meaning black), robber, and strong.” He was a former slave and gang leader known not only for his physical strength. He was a man of generous humility and great wisdom in growing closer to God. One of the founders of monasticism in Western Europe, John Cassian, visited him and other Desert Fathers to learn how to establish communities of monks (4). Doing an internet search for more information about this saint, I came across the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black. Fr. Moses Berry had a life changing encounter seeing that same icon that I saw at the same St. Cyprian of Carthage Church that I had visited. Except for Egyptian Copts and Ethiopians, I didn’t know there were and blacks who were in the Orthodox Church. Even more surprising was that there were African-Americans who converted to this faith. Therefore, if (more like when) I decided to convert to Orthodoxy, I had a family of believers to encourage and support me in this life long journey.
I am neither expecting nor demanding anyone to make an immediate conversion to this ancient faith. It took me almost 20 years to decide to put effort into learning about the Church and another two to convert. We black folk have been in our various denominations since slaves started stealing away for prayer and Richard Allen refused to put up with Methodist Episcopal segregation to the outpouring of the Holy Ghost at the Azuza Street Revival of 1906. The black church of our fore fathers and mothers was what God ordained for a despised and rejected people to find salvation through Jesus Christ. To just “up and leave” the western Christianity we have always known just because some little country preacher did it is a bit much. Any white convert to Orthodoxy can tell you the challenges they had in leaving the denominations they grew up in.
But, I do appeal to you as your brother in Christ and kin to learn about the Desert Fathers and other African Saints. Know some of their names and stories. Find out why we Orthodox have and honor pictures of these brown and black men and women, and even our dark icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. And see how their lessons and prayers still play a role in how we practice our faith everyday. Our parish started in Poquoson. I remember seeing the icon screen and although Sts. Basil and John Chrysostom were depicted as pale skinned, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist were darker. About the same shade as Lawrence Fishburne. Paraphrasing a conversation with Fr. James about this, he said that Jesus was made incarnate in a part of the world where the native people were some shade of brown. So, it is not unusual to find icons of Christ and saints who were of that area depicted as such. The logo of the Brotherhood of St. Moses comes from an icon written in the Holy Trinity Monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in Jordanville NY. It was done well before anyone in that church ever thought about evangelizing to black Americans. The Russians weren’t under any court order to have him or any other black saint in their monastery. They painted them because they loved the great stories and wisdom they gave to the Church.
Learn about these great pillars of early Christianity as a check and balance against the plethora of new ministers and ministries. Every month, another non-denominational church is formed in this nation with its own Bible-based doctrine and its own leader “sent by God, full of the Holy Spirit.” Rather than to heedlessly rush into these latest innovations, let’s measure them up against the timeless truths of Christ through the words of the men who first commented on the scriptures. On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius is still being printed after 2,000 years. There are many relevant books by relevant bishops of relevant ordinations that are no longer in print as they have been replaced by someone and something more relevant. This is not to say that no wisdom can be found among the current religious authors. Many of them are far more learned and scholarly than I am. But, we honor things that have stood the test of time. This is why we have classical music and literature, traditional jazz and the works of WEB DuBois. The Desert Fathers have given us an ancient body of work that still speaks to us today.
Learn about these prayer warriors who are still honored as great generals of spiritual warfare. You don’t get to call yourself a soldier until you have endured boot camp. The Desert Fathers lived in caves and small huts instead of million dollar mansions. They supported themselves by making and selling baskets, ropes, and hand crafts. No one was giving them seed offerings. Bread, water, lentils, and whatever plants the desert provided was what they ate. They would pray all night vigils, maintain fasting cycles, observe the hours of prayer as taught by the Apostle Mark (5), and possess nothing except the simple clothing on their backs. While some modern preachers strive to show their material prosperity to attract converts, the Desert Fathers had nothing and attracted visitors from all levels of Roman society. St. Arsenius was a senator in the fourth century until he secretly went to Egypt where he spent some time as a disciple of John the Dwarf before becoming one of the most honored hermits of the Desert (6). If an Italian dignitary can move to Africa making such a dramatic change of life, it isn’t too much to read ancient Christian wisdom that can enrich your walk with Jesus.
I appeal also to my white and Orthodox kin as well. Byzantine chant and Greek terminology is embedded in the Church. Slavic monasteries are great places for spiritual renewal. But, let us embrace and share the fact that a large reservoir of the Church’s wisdom comes from the African continent. The people of the Nile Valley were various shades of brown just as black Americans are today. We must show the universal origin and nature of the Church. In the second chapter of Acts, there were devout men from all over the world who were moved by Peter’s Pentecostal sermon. In the 13th chapter, we take note that two of the five named clergymen in Antioch (where they were first called Christians) were Lucius of Cyrene and Simeon called N-I-G-E-R (7). Antioch was a cultural and racial melting pot, and from this Church, Paul began a life of evangelism that brought him to several cities in Greece and Italy. While Paul and Andrew went to Europe to spread the Gospel, Mark and Matthew were doing the same thing from Egypt (home of the Alexandrian Patriarchate and the Coptic Orthodox), Ethiopia (which still has an Orthodox Christian Majority), Libya, and the Sudan (where the Nubian Kingdom was Christian up until the 15th century). We Orthodox have this history and the responsibility to make it available to a people who have been denied it because of Arabic invasion of North Africa, and enslavement and colonization.
And we have a more recent history to share that was born in a struggle against modern colonialism. Marcus Garvey was an inspiration of the non-canonical African Orthodox Church in the 1920’s. Some Kenyan and Ugandan priest of the AOC saw that the Patriarchate of Alexandria was still in existence and sought entry into the Orthodox Church. Arthur Gathuna, Ruben Mukasa, and several others were ordained as priest and deacons of those two countries with 20,000 coverts from Kenya’s Kikuyu tribe by the end of WWII. Native Kenyans were drawn to Orthodoxy as this was the Church that was not a part of the colonialist English government. The island of Cyprus was also an English colony until the 1960’s. In 1957, Archbishop Makarios came to Nairobi and delivered a sermon criticizing England’s colonization of both countries. The resistance leader and first President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta and the Archbishop who became the first President of Cyprus shared a bond of friendship from that point until their old age. Orthodoxy enjoyed a similar respect of independence minded Africans in Ghana and other West African nations as well. On our side of the Atlantic, Archbishop Iakavos defied opponents, even among the Orthodox, to march for Voting Rights from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
We need to know that it is possible and holy for people of all races to come together in the body of Christ. This call to come together is rooted in the love, prayers, and wisdom of the Desert Fathers.
- Malcolm X & Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Ballentine Books, New York NY 1990, pg. 368
- Heiromonk Damascene, Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina CA 2010, pg. 471
- Matthew 5:14-16
- Philokalia Vol I, pgs. 94-108
5. Fr. Paisius Altschul, Wade in the River: The Story of the African Christian