It has been said among African-Americans that if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future. If this proverb is true, then the black church is doomed to fail as we don’t have much of a clue of who our ancient heroes are. Most of us belong to churches that were founded in the years just after the Civil War and a growing number are joining congregations that are two decades old or less. Some believers may pick up a Bible and point to the Ethiopian Eunuch, or interpret from Revelation that Jesus was black. Other than that, we are without anyone to emulate in our Christian past beyond America.
In Orthodoxy, there is a plethora of men and women who gave various cultures a road map for Christian living and courage to die for the faith. Middle Eastern Christians endure suffering as did Ignatius of Antioch who refused to be sheltered by loving believers on his way to face the lions in Rome. Basil, Gregory, and John Chrysostom were brilliant Greek scholars who proclaimed and advanced correct church doctrine and felt the wrath of leading citizens. Russians and Serbians have a list of saints that extend from their earliest converts to the victims of the communist era.
It is easy enough to dismiss such examples of church saints by pointing to Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and other heroes who took a stand against injustice in this nation. But, many African-Americans are looking for an ancient link with a faith that had nothing to do with white supremacy. Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, and William Saunders Crowdy understood this and to this very day the Moorish Science Temple, Nation of Islam, and Hebrew Israelites attract members. Instead of doing research an presenting the deep roots of Africans in Christianity to our people, our ministers have been dropping the ball. Indeed, clergy and laity alike have been comfortable with Sunday morning entertainment rather than a quest to be one with Christ by going to our Christian ancestors as part of our spiritual growth. Thus, our succeeding generations are going to these other faiths for a sense of an ancient connection to the truth.
This is why I am making it a point to introduce the saints of Africa to African-American Christians. Each week, I intend to produce an article, Dispatch from the Desert. This will list the Orthodox saints who either were from, influenced by, or spent time on the African continent. My primary source of information will be the Prologue of Ohrid which contains a very good list of saints from many parts of the world. Also, there will be a lesson from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Matericon, or some other significant writings of our ancient African Christian past. Biblical scripture will also support the reflections that I write. The goal is to introduce the reader to the fullness of our past in Jesus Christ by acknowledging our long ignored ancestors of the faith.
I confess that I have no resources of saints of the Coptic and Ethiopian churches other than the ones held in common by the Eastern and Oriental Churches. I welcome input from believers of those two important African backgrounds. It’s good for us to know about both camps of the Orthodox faith. As well, if anyone has information about the Roman Catholic Church in the Congo before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, that would be welcome too.
Ancient African Christianity has a deep vein of spiritual wisdom to share with the diaspora. It is time for us to dig into this history and embrace our ancestors of the faith. Look for a new Dispatch article between Friday and Monday.