Living an Orthodox African-American Christian Life: Ancient Iconography for Evangelism

There is no shortage of people who use white images of Jesus Christ to support the idea that blacks should turn away from the Christian faith in favor of some form of Islam, Hebrew Israelitism, or some other faith based on a traditional African religion. It is not hard to find the presence of brown and black people in the scriptures such as St. Simon of Cyrene and the Ethiopian eunuch (St. Djan Darada, Mark 15:21, Acts 8:26-40). It is a well known fact that Africans were present in every level of Greco-Roman society. The Christian Nubian Empire defeated and made a long standing peace treaty with non-African Muslim invaders. Ethiopia maintained the faith as the national religion until the communist take-over in the 1970’s. And, as I have argued in other articles, early Christianity was not afraid to show icons of Christ and various saints in all complexions.

A visit to St. Cyprian of Carthage (OCA) near Richmond VA

But, there is a problem. Many of the oldest examples of these darker icons are not readily available to Africans nor African Americans. Yeah, it’s not too hard to find an icon of St. Moses the Black from an online vendor. Father Jerome Sanderson’s “Saints of Africa” icon can be found in a few parishes. But, the Church has images that date back centuries that can be helpful in reaching out to African-Americans. For example, I am posing with a wonderful traditional holy image of St. Cyprian of Carthage that was taken during one of my early visits to the named parish near Richmond, VA. I’d love to have a mounted icon of it. People have written to me asking where they can get one. I don’t know. None of the major icon distributors seem to sell it. I have a photocopy of it in a cheap frame.

Christ the King of Kings, Antiochian Village, Bolivar PA
Christ the King of Kings icon, Antiochian Heritage Museum, Bolivar PA

There are two of the Christ the King of Kings icon with a black complexion in the Antiochian Village, one in the Antiochian Heritage Museum and another in a hallway. No, they don’t look like the average Syrian or Lebanese Christian. These images don’t occupy the prominent worship areas. But, they exist. They weren’t painted (written) to appease the BLM, NAACP, or any other organization. The iconographer and the people deemed them holy and a part of early Christian heritage. I and many other black Orthodox and non-Orthodox believers would love to own these. But, I couldn’t buy a small card stock icon of this at the AV gift shop. Thank God I had my camera.

An unknown saint and monk
Theotokos and Christ Child at the Holy Cross Monastery, Wayne WV

Not only for evangelizing to Africans and African Americans. I think these ancient icons can also be helpful for anyone seeking the Church where Christ is all and in all. Remember, the Church in Antioch was founded by refugees from Jerusalem, European Greeks, and Africans from Cyrene (Acts 11:19-25). Race was not a matter of skin tone. People were defined by what religion they practiced no matter where they were from. Early iconographers painted (wrote) holy images because they practiced the true faith where any person had the ability to become holy. By making such images more available, we can help tear down the notion of Orthodox Christianity as being a “whites only” faith. Let’s keep our traditional Mt. Sinai Christ Pantocrators, St. George over the Dragon, and other time honored icons from all parts of the world. But, making these less well known ancient holy images more available can be helpful in remembering our past an evangelism in the present.

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