In a recent post on Facebook, I mentioned that “There will be some bumps and bruises in some parishes for black Inquirers.” Over thirty years after a wave of evangelicals converted to Orthodox Christianity under the Antiochians, the hurdle of ethnicity can still be daunting for anyone seeking the faith. Along with that are the strange looks family and friends have when one mentions an interest and desire to become a member of the Church. One dear sister told me that her neighbors thought that she and her husband were cult members. But, many parishes are more accepting of converts and realize that evangelism is a calling that the Lord Himself gave to the Apostles. Just as European immigrants assimilated and blended into American culture, new converts are finding themselves being accepted among Greeks, Russians, Serbs and are constructing a growing OCA identity.
But, we didn’t immigrate here (unless slave castles on the West African coast were immigration offices and chains were passports). Our skin color became a legislated stigma in the 1705 Act Concerning Servants and Slaves making it officially legal for any white man (slave owner or not) to kill a black man in the process of correcting him and not be punished for it (item XXXIV). Even in “free” colonies and states, blacks were expected to sit in the rear pews and balconies (look up the history of the African Methodist Episcopal Church). Freedom at the end of the Civil War did not relieve the stigma as we dealt with everything from Jim Crow segregation in the south to “red-lining” and “urban renewal” in northern cities. More than once, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bemoaned the fact that “11 ‘o clock Sunday Morning is the most segregated hour in America.” It is not unusual for us to face the double whammy of being the wrong ethnic group and skin color when visiting a parish, especially if you don’t vote Republican.
Add to this the attitudes we get from our own community when they see us going to a “white” church. Sure, grandma might not mind “as long as you still love Jesus.” But, others of our kin and skin look upon us as “sell-outs,” “Uncle Toms” (read the book, please), and “wannabe whites” (especially if you don’t vote Democrat). No matter how many brown skinned icons your parish may have in prominent places, videos of sermons from Fr. Moses Berry or Paul Abernathy you show them or historical references to the Desert Fathers you can quote, many black people are just as bad as white people, thinking there is supposed to be a separation of races on 11 ‘o clock Sunday Morning.
I have been Orthodox for almost nine years and have had moments where I have wondered about leaving. After all, I am a former Baptist pastor and there has to be a few churches between West Point (my home) and Hampton (my parish) that would be glad to have me in their pulpit. I have not only managed to remain devout in the faith, but am strengthened to continue in it because:
- Orthodoxy is a way of life, not just the church you go to – This church gives believers structure in spiritual living from morning until night. Using ancient practices like the Hours and Jesus Prayer, we can keep ourselves in (or return to) the presence of God throughout the day.
- Ancient Christianity belongs to all of us – The same time the Apostle Paul went to Greece and Rome, Mark and Matthew made their way down the Nile River. The Church in Antioch was so diverse that it had black Africans among the clergy and laity (Acts 11:19-30, 13:1)
- Monastic spirituality was born in Africa – Every Orthodox monk of every jurisdiction knows who the Desert Fathers of Egypt are. Contemporary Saints from other lands, like Basil the Great and John Cassian learned from them. If there were no holy men like Anthony, Moses, and Poemen; there would be no Brianchaninov, Velimirovich, or Rose.
- God provides a home for faithful believers – When I came to and became a member of St. Basil, the parish was in Poquoson (legendarily racist), and that was still an hour away from my home. “The Lord can make a way out of no way.” The black church elders are absolutely right.
Other black Orthodox Christians have been through everything from “side-eyed” looks to outright hostility. So, I don’t pretend that these four points are the only and final answers in dealing with the problems we face in our inquiry and conversion process. Our journey is not easy. Then again, anything worth having isn’t going to be.