imgp4249_edited-1

A Home for White Nationalist?

An African-American Orthodox Christian shared this article with me; “How the Orthodox Christianity Became the Spiritual Home of White Nationalism” (http://religiondispatches.org/how-orthodox-christianity-became-the-spiritual-home-of-white-nationalism/?platform=hootsuite). Much of the writing focused on the example of Matthew Heimbach, who was excommunicated by the Antiochian Orthodox Church for his racist activities. The author does mention that this action “means that he is technically unable to receivesacraments in any canonical Orthodox church” and that he may or may not have sympathy from a Romanian priest. Other than a generalization of “alt-right” thugs displaying Orthodox symbols on the web, she does not name anyone else or any other American movement except Heimbach. Combined with an incident of a priest in Corinth blessing an office of the Greek Neo-Nazi “Golden Dawn” and the Russian nationalist fervor among Christians and supporters of Vladimir Putin, it would seem that the Orthodox Church has opened its arms to white nationalist. No doubt, there is a problem of white nationalism in the Church. But, from my experiences and what I see as an African-American Orthodox Christian, I think that the “alt-right” has some major obstacles to overcome if they are to make the Church their spiritual home.

First of all is the fact that Orthodox Christianity owes much of its spiritual wisdom to non-European people. It is hard to find any monk or nun that does not refer to the “desert fathers” of Egypt. St. Anthony the Great was a native Egyptian (according to St. Athanasius) and is widely regarded as the father of monasticism. Many monasteries are organized in a structure formed by St. Pachomius who lived in Upper Egypt where the residents are certainly not of Nordic stock. St. John Cassian, who brought monasticism to many places in Western Europe was heavily influenced by such monks including St. Moses the Ethiopian (also known today as “the Strong, Robber, and Black). Prayers from St. Macarius are found in many prayer books, including the widely used “Jordanville” prayer book of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Going back to St. Athanasius, he is credited to be a lead spokesman at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and put together the list of 27 books that would be canonized as the New Testament. Even that canonization was done in the African city of Carthage. As nationalistic as Russian Orthodox Christians may seem, some of their most influential writers such as Sts. Ignatius Brianchaninov, John of Kronstadt, and Theophan the Recluse point back to these African saints. The works of American orthodox heroes Fr. Alexander Schmemann and Seraphim Rose also point back to this source of wisdom. Sure, a white nationalist may embrace the double –eagle and the idea of a holy dynasty. But, anyone who seriously studies where the great spiritual masters of the church came from will have to face the fact that they were not European.

Then, there is the mission of the Church, the spread of the Gospel and making disciples of all nations (as Jesus taught in Matthew 28). The apostles did not stay in Judea. They went through out the known world. Barnabas and Paul, the first missionaries, were ancient Middle Eastern Jews and were ordained in a Syrian city in part by two black clergymen (Acts 13:1). These brown skinned people brought the faith to the darkest of Africans and the palest Europeans. Had it not been for the Muslim invasions, Africa beyond Ethiopia would have been evangelized centuries ago. The Russians had spread the Church into China, Japan, and their Alaska territory not as a means of dominance and conquest. They did so because they believed and the Church teaches that the Gospel is for all people. If a white nationalist becomes Orthodox, he will have to justify his racial supremacy with the call of Christ and the history of the first believers.

imgp4249_edited-1

Finally, the modern Orthodox Church has been making much better efforts in evangelizing to minority groups than in decades past. Up until the mass conversion of evangelicals into the Antiochian Archdiocese in 1987, very few “whites” were converting to Orthodoxy. That event was a sign to America that the Orthodox Church was for anyone who would “come and see.”  The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, a fellowship committed to spreading the faith to African-Americans, was inspired by the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina CA over 20 years ago. The internet broadcaster, Ancient Faith Radio has featured lectures from the Ancient Faith Afro-American Conferences since the 1990’s. Several bishops and well known priest have by voice and action expressed their support of minorities coming into the Orthodox Church.

Am I saying that Orthodox Christianity has no white nationalist and people with “alt-right” tendencies within our walls? I wish I could. When I posted a part of my conversion story on my blog, I had one person declare that I could not be black and Orthodox at the same time. There are some parishes who try to send minority inquirers somewhere else. There are some African-Americans who love the history and spirituality of this ancient faith. But, they have been put off by Orthodox clergy and laity that refuse to extend a hand of friendship and an unwillingness to find common ground on political and social issues. I am sorry to confess that in some places across the country and around the world that the Orthodox Church is a haven for bigots.

But, I know that is not the whole story. There is a Greek parish that has taken the time to offer the Canon of Racial Reconciliation with its weekly Compline (nightly) prayers before Bible Study. An Orthodox Church of America bishop and priest are working to bring a predominately African-American congregation into that jurisdiction. A Serbian parish has served as a model for helping to bring social services to poor inner city neighborhoods to create a “village” atmosphere where there was racial division. One white person left a parish when an icon of St. Mary of Egypt was being venerated.  He wanted nothing to do with any saint that didn’t look like him.  I have seen and participated in too many instances of racial brotherhood in the Eastern Orthodox Church to let a few toxic people keep me from practicing the faith of my ancient African, Middle Eastern, and European fathers & mothers. With the multicultural history and spirituality of the Church and the jurisdictional leaders reaching out to minority communities, white nationalist cannot remain comfortable in Eastern Orthodoxy for long. Those who do are being superficial and should not be taken as model examples of who we are.

Featured Image -- 1482

Reconciliation: Ambassadors of the Greater Kingdom

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Tomorrow is the end of the road (I hope) to the most contentious presidential campaign of my lifetime.  Many things have already been said about both of the major party candidates, the question of why third parties are not given an equal public platform, and how some groups will respond if the results do not go their way.  I have already determined that I’ll go to work, return home for a while, and go back to St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church on Wednesday, November 9th.  We are continuing with the Canon of Racial Reconciliation with our Compline Prayers followed by Bible Study.  While I am at it, I want to thank Fr. Milton and my good brothers & sisters at St. Demetrios for committing to this fellowship.

 13254207_10206237324435897_3656918516801094016_n

In such a political hurricane as we are experiencing, we Christians of all stripes tend to forget where our true citizenship belongs. …

View original post 443 more words

Featured Image -- 1478

Reconciliation: Consistency over Complacency

Desert Fathers Dispatch

Recently, the VABSMB and St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church have started praying Compline and the Canon of Racial Reconciliation on Wednesday evenings at 6:30 pm.  A half hour of prayer is not the same as getting out in the streets to protest, or lobbying a legislature.  While no town is perfect, Williamsburg’s racial climate is milder than many other places in the state and nation.

racial-reconciliation-prayers-flyer

But, our town does have the oldest history of class and race divisions in the nation.  English colonist committed genocide against local native people about a decade before the first African indentured servants arrived in nearby Jamestown.  After two failed insurrections, the remaining Powhatan tribes were removed from the Virginia Peninsula in 1645.  Twenty to thirty years later, the colonial government made laws restricting the mobility of free blacks and establishing chattel slavery based on skin color.  Between the end of Reconstruction up until the…

View original post 401 more words

imgp3850_edited-1

A Week at the ‘House’: Antiochian House of Studies Residency Program

imgp3850_edited-1

The Antiochian House of Studies (AHOS) is a correspondence certification and graduate degree institution that has a very demanding reading and writing program for its students. The professors are authorities in Byzantine liturgics, canon law, Eastern Church history, and other subjects.  Although the school was established as a ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox under Metropolitan PHILIP to prepare men for the ordained clergy offices, the school is open to every Christian (and non-Christian, I suppose) who wants a working knowledge of our faith.  One can earn a Certificate in Applied Orthodox Theology (the three-year St. Stephen’s Program), Master of Divinity through the St. John of Damascus Seminary of Balamand University in Lebanon, and qualified students can earn a D. Min in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh.  For an institution of higher learning without an actual campus and doesn’t require a student to leave his or her home and life to study, AHOS has a good deal of academic clout and respect.

imgp3808 imgp3801 imgp3714_edited-1 imgp3705

Even though we don’t have a traditional campus, each student must complete a week of residency for each year enrolled in the St. Stephen’s Program. The residency is held at the Antiochian Village Retreat Center near Ligoner PA (an hour or so outside of Pittsburgh).  My friend and fellow church member at St. Basil, Chris, gave me a heads up of what to experience.  There would be little time for “R&R.”  Almost every moment will be spent in either classes or worship.  The food will be plentiful and delicious.  But, from 8 am to 10 pm, I would be constantly in class or worship.

imgp3727_edited-1 imgp3736 imgp3843 imgp3669_edited-1

For the most part, Chris was absolutely right. And I enjoyed meeting some of the teachers that I had known only through the red ink they put on my essays (Fr. Najim).    Class was often lively with discussion and points that we normally wouldn’t consider.  For example, I dreaded the very thought of Cannon Law (I am a former Baptist.  Religious legalism smacked of either Judaizing or Catholicism).  Fr. Viscuso did a great job in explaining how Canon Law is not a weapon we use to beat one another over the head with.  It is a ministry used to direct the church to its best and most ideal expression.  Even though we were all tired around 9 pm, all of us in the Byzantine Liturgical Practice class carefully listened to the 45 years of wisdom coming from Fr. Shalhoub.  I had no problem making it to Orthros (morning prayers) at 8 since I start mine at home at 6.  Vespers before dinner was a wonderful service to attend with a daily sermon as well.  We only had Compline (bedtime prayers) one night, led by the Slavonic students.  It was actually very beautiful and has encouraged me to try to keep some form of it (again) as a part of my personal prayer rule.

imgp3838 imgp3903 imgp3905 imgp3844_edited-1

The one thing that I wasn’t told about was how unique of a fellowship the AHOS is and the spirit of brotherhood that exist among us students. I did meet some of my classmates through Facebook before I knew we would be in class together.  But, we all did more than just get along.  We all came together for the common purpose of study and the worship of God.  The variety of backgrounds we all have is mind-boggling.  Some of us are “cradles” who grew up in the Antiochian or some other jurisdiction of Orthodoxy.  Some of us are of Oriental Orthodox Churches.  Some of us are from the Middle East and other nations.  Some of us aren’t even Orthodox, but Anglican and Evangelical.  No matter where we came from, we came to see the beauty and truth of the Church of Antioch where the believers were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:26).  From this city, Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were set aside by the Holy Spirit to spread the Gospel to various parts of the world (Acts 13:1-3).  The Spirit still moves us to share the Good News and grow in the grace of God.

imgp3921 imgp3922_edited-1 imgp3690 imgp3791_edited-1

Spending a week at “The House” was a fantastic way to cap off a year of reading books and writing essays. It was great hearing my classmates chant in our worship services (I hear myself at church and that ain’t nothing to sing about), make like minded friends from all over the country and world, be in the presence of the saints and our church leaders.  If my bank account could stand my not working, I’d want to spend another week.  I have my reading list and will secure the rest of the books I need for the year.  I probably won’t sit there and count down the days until August ‘whatever’ 2017.  But knowing what sort of week awaits me at the end of Units 3 & 4 will inspire me to get my work done and done well.

A Deeper Freedom

 

Both sides on America’s political divide love to talk about freedom.  There are constitutional concerns such as the right to bear arms or to marry a partner of the same-sex.  There is the fear of being killed Islamic terrorist or racist policemen.  We sing in our national anthem that we are, “The land of the free,” and in a hymn of our Civil War, “let us die to make men free.”  In my morning spiritual readings, I have found that there is a greater freedom that we ought to be striving for and that is being woefully ignored in today’s political climate.

In the writings attributed to St. Anthony the Great:  Regard as free not those whose status makes the outwardly free, but those who are free in their character and conduct.  For we should not call men in authority truly free when they are wicked or dissolute, since they are slaves to worldly passions.  Freedom and happiness of soul consist in genuine purity and detachment from transitory things.  (Philokalia vol. 1, On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life #18).  Rather than dwell on the words of America’s founding fathers, it would serve us Christians well to measure our level of freedom based on the teaching of this desert father.

st_anthony_great_2

True freedom is in our character and conduct.  Character is how we think, speak, and act when people aren’t around to see us.  Anyone can work at having a good reputation; putting on a front of good moral behavior in public while willingly keeping a wicked private life.  But, we serve a God who knows our innermost parts.  He knows when we sell ourselves to indulging in self-indulgence, greed, hate, arrogance, and other sinful ways in our thoughts.  He knows the difference between a man who seeks to be transformed by the renewing of his mind toward His will (Romans 12:2) and those who are like whitewashed tombs that look good on the outside, but are full of decay and rot (Matthew 23:27-28).  Even if one is able to fool some of the people some of the time and perhaps all of the people all of the time, no one can fool God.

True freedom consist of purity and detachment from transitory things.  Our Lord taught that we are not corrupted by the things outside of us, but by the things inside of us (Matthew 15:10-20) and that we should clean the filth inside of us so that our outsides would also be clean (Matt. 23:25).  But, we surround ourselves with various advertisements and entertainments which stimulate our passions of anger, greed, and sensuality.  There is nothing wrong with wanting a good job, home, and a secure life for self and family.  But, when this “American Dream” takes precedence over seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33), these earthly goals are corrupted by our non-transformed inward passions.  With his spiritual priorities and pursuits in order, a man in the worst poverty with the lowest paying job lives in a greater sense of peace than the elite and wealthy who may have a good reputation with a sinful character.

What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul (Matt. 16:26)?  This is the lesson that those who so vehemently argue from the left and right forget in the pursuit of freedom in this country in this political climate.  Having a sociopolitical point of view can be of value as both conservatism and liberalism are as necessary for a nation as a left and right-wing are needed for a bird to fly.  But, if we are not first and more so concerned with the pursuit of freedom of our souls, there can never be peace in mind for us as individuals nor as a nation.  Neither of the major political parties, third parties, well-financed lobbyist, nor street demonstrators can give us freedom of the soul.  This is a gift given by God by those who diligently and humbly seek Him.

My Wife Came Home

Desert Fathers Dispatch

When I decided to leave the Baptist church and convert to Orthodoxy, my wife was understandably concerned. First, there was the loss of income we would suffer as I would be leaving my pastoral salary.  I would have to be Orthodox for at least five years to be considered for ordination to the priesthood and even that isn’t guaranteed to anyone.  She was more concerned about me forcing her to join a church that we were not accustomed to.  We barely knew any white people who were Orthodox and there were none in our small southern town.  The worship was completely different.  To have to adjust to new styles of church decor (the Baptist are very iconoclastic), preaching, singing, status (we would no longer be pastor and first lady); Brenda found the change quite overwhelming.  I assured her that she could remain Baptist if she wished and could call anyone…

View original post 889 more words

Beyond Bathrooms

So, this whole transgender bathroom issue is the big issue in sexuality and society these days. Please forgive me for not giving too much thought to this.  Usually when I go to a public toilet, I could care less what the other guy is doing.  I am there to do my business, wash my hands, and leave.  If a transgender male feels uncomfortable standing at a urinal, I doubt if anyone is going to harass him for sitting in a stall.  I don’t even know of any lesbian who would want to stand at a urinal.  As far as pervert rapist fronting to be Trans to go in women’s restrooms to attack women and girls, there are children of either sex being raped in public restrooms even without this new transgender bathroom thing.

Actually, there is a far bigger issue of sexuality in America that no one wants to talk about because we are all, in some way or another, guilty of it. Jesus put it down like this:  “Whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28).  Lust is the exploitation of another person for one’s own gratification with or without the consent of the person being lusted after.  It is a mental form of sexual abuse.  When the abuse goes from the mental to the physical, we call it sexual assault or rape.  If the objectified person does consent to the act, she becomes nothing but a plaything for the abuser as he is seeking his own pleasure only regardless of her experience.  Even in marriage, if the husband and wife aren’t approaching each other for the sake of expressing their love and loyalty for each other but solely for their own gratification in spite of the experience of the partner, that is not lovemaking.

We are a nation of mental rapist with a society which encourages us to objectify the opposite sex for our own gratification. This is quite obvious in pornography where young women are persuaded (if not forced) to surrender their bodies to very degrading sex acts.  It is said that male performers also feel cheapened by the things they get paid to do and both frequently abuse drugs in an attempt to ease their consciences.  In some reports, the porn industry generates more money in this nation than all of the major sports leagues combined.

But, Satan needs not to drag us all into the world of hardcore pornography to turn us into mental rapist. Our society is so saturated with sexual images that we barely blink an eye at them.  There was a time when the Sports Illustrated “swimsuit” issue was nothing more than a couple of pages of a young woman somewhere in-between an article about Mean Joe Green and baseball’s spring training.  Now it is its own separate issue with the model photographed so suggestively that it magazine has to be covered on the news stand.  Nearly every sit-com has sexual jokes and situations.  Victoria’s Secrets has well-advertised television specials.  And women are encouraged to dress and feel “sexy.”  Men are also objectified as bare chested and muscular visions for the female appetite.

While we are outraged by men who rape and women who seduce young boys to have sex with them, we think little or nothing about the way we objectify one another. Yet this mental sexual abuse is a core reason of why so many of us fail to establish and maintain platonic friendships with the opposite sex and keep marriages from falling into divorce.  We are not considering that man or woman as a being made in the image of God.  We are only thinking about how we want them to please our desires.  While we Christians are good at declaring the surface level standard of the male-female marriage, we make way too many excuses too often for our lusting of one another.  Not only are we silent against a business like “Hooters,” we accept their money for our churches and will patronize them because, “they have really good hot wings.”  It is no wonder then that the homosexuals feel that they can establish and maintain relationships just as good (or poorly) as we do.  It is no wonder that impressionable teens and pre-teens are confused about how they want to be known sexually.  Fighting against transgender restrooms, worthy as the fight may be is a mere surface solution to a surface problem.  Unless we Christians get serious about repenting of our own mental raping of one another, the transgender and other challenges to the heterosexual standard will not disappear.  Indeed, more destructive ones will arise.

So, yeah, Pres. Obama and the LGBT have gone too far with this bathroom thing. Yeah, there are conservative Christians who have pulled some silly stunts to protest against it.  This issue is a symptom of our society’s sickness of mental rape.  And rape is the use of another person’s body for the sake of our own gratification regardless of the will of the other.  There is no quick fix for this deeper sickness.  We all will have to be repentant and transform our desires from selfish lust to selfless compassion.  Instead of hiding behind the cross, let’s try carrying it for the sake of healing what is really wrong with us.

A Lesson From Great Lent

Satan approached Abba Macarius and began to beat him.  Seeing his attacks were of no avail, he left the saint.  Before leaving, the adversary said, “I do everything you do and more.  You fast; I don’t eat.  You keep all night vigils; I don’t sleep.  There is one thing in you that I cannot overcome.  That is humility.”    From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus … and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.  Therefor God also has highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every other name, …   Philippians 2:5-11

The only way to truly be an Orthodox Christian is to practice the faith in humility.  When we fail to be humble, we make ourselves vulnerable to being defeated by temptations and living in ways that are the very opposite of what we proclaim to believe.  When we are careful to practice humility, God’s grace empowers us to overcome the enemy of our souls.  We make our souls even more pure so that we can see God active in us and others.  And even if we fall into temptation, that empowerment calls us to repent quickly and not dwell in our wickedness.

180px-st_macarius_the_great_with_cherub

Macarius the Great

This Lenten Fast has been a reminder of the necessity of humility in being an Orthodox Christian.  Sure, we can talk about how we have maintained the traditions of Christ and His Apostles, determined the original Christian doctrine and the books of the Bible, and the whole nine yards.  I had been comparing Baptist and Orthodox doctrine and practice for over a year before my conversion and am still fully convinced that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church.  But, if we become arrogant or complacent about our faith, we do nothing more than just go through the motions.  When the motions become empty rituals, Satan is able to maintain his foothold in our hearts and minds.  He can even introduce new and more destructive sins into our being.

In her podcast “Search the Scriptures,” Dr. Jeanie Constantinou began this season by tackling the issue of corrupt clergy (yes, we have them in Orthodoxy as well).  In the opening episode, she tells of one priest that was defrocked for having an adulterous affair.  The affair was going on for 20 years.  My statement of how Eastern Europeans were not involved in American slavery in my “To Be Black and Orthodox” blog article attracted comments from a couple of people of Roma (Gypsy) ancestry.  They told me of how Orthodox Christians in Romania held Roma slaves for hundreds of years.  Some sources even mention that there were Roma slaves in monasteries.  I didn’t enter Orthodoxy blindly and knew that there were many sinful people and nations in it are past and present.  These revelations did sadden and surprise me.  Historians, psychologist, and other minds in the faith more experienced than my own have greater insights to these and other issues.  However, I believe lack of humility in following the Orthodox faith is a contributing cause in individual and church failures.

In his original podcast, “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” Fr. Andrew Damick stated, “When the hand that holds the cross also holds the sword, much is risked.”   While the cross is a symbol of death to this world that leads to eternal life through Christ, the sword is a tool of earthly and immediate power.  When humility dictates our faith, we take up the cross and deny ourselves the selfish pleasures of this world (whether consensual or exploitive).  This is how we truly follow Jesus, as He taught in Matthew 16:24-27 .  Without humility, we become enemies to Christ as were the Pharisees.  That sword we use to attack or defend against worldly foes for the sake of earthly advantage is the same one we unwittingly use to cut ourselves away from the very One we claim to follow and His other-worldly kingdom.  To practice the Orthodox faith in this way is hypocritical and makes us targets for critics and eternal captivity.  As written in Isaiah 52:5 and repeated in Romans 2:24, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”  As the skull of a pagan priest told St. Macarius, “Those who know God but denied Him are down below us.”

It is good that we have and made the effort to read the scriptures for the season and some other spiritual writings for our growth.  Perhaps some of us have added to or made a change in our prayer rule that make us seem more complete.  These things are good and (by the Holy Spirt and good counsel) can be carried with us beyond Great Lent.  But, let’s not deceive ourselves.  Satan is not only concerned by what we practice.  He is also concerned with how we practice.  Ten prostrations with Jesus Prayers in humility is a powerful breastplate that his fiery darts cannot penetrate.  One hundred of these done for the sake of boasting to one’s self or others creates a mere empty room that a demon can return to and bring in seven more worse than himself.

As I reflect on my times of failure, I believe some were caused by my lack of humility.  My readings, prayers, and almsgiving have all increased.  I was blessed to write a few good essays for my classes as well as on my blogs. Except for receiving hospitality from non-Orthodox believers, I kept the fast well.  But, I have had my moments where I thought that I was “the man.”  God allowed me to fall on my face to remind me that I still have much to learn.  As I think about the path God may be leading me on, I can see where I will be destroyed if I am not careful to strive to grow in humility.  While I believe I have learned this lesson, chances are that I will, at some time or other, have to be reminded of this.  Satan will have plenty of opportunities to tempt me with arrogance, pride, and self esteem.  If I have any sense in my head, I will be watchful.  Pray for me, a sinner.

 

To Be Black and Orthodox: Part of my story

I have a friend who is considering becoming an Orthodox Christian.  She is African-American and is concerned that by joining the Orthodox Church that she would be turning her back on black culture.  While she likes everything about the ancient faith, she notices the lack of Negro spirituals and the preaching style of the church we grew up in.  Also, except for me, I am the only native black American in the parish.  While she is used to being the only black in some circles in her upbringing, that she would be a little more comfortable making the same plunge that I did if she saw more of us in the same pool.  How is it possible to maintain a strong black identity in this white church?

As I have written in a previous article, the Orthodox Church is the white church that is not.  Much of its spirituality comes from the teachings of the Desert Fathers of the Nile Valley.  It is not uncommon for Eastern European monks and nuns to trace their ascetic practices back to St. Anthony of Egypt or St. Moses of Ethiopia.  St. Athanasius, who was described by his rivals as a black dwarf, is the acknowledged hero of the First Ecumenical Council which underlined the true doctrine of the pre-existence of Jesus Christ.  This saint would go on to be Bishop of Alexandria and all Africa and compile the books of the New Testament in 367 AD and the New Testament was officially canonized in a conference in Carthage 30 years later.  Almost no White Anglo-Saxon Protestant church in this country would admit to such things.  What saddens me is that very few, if any, African-American Protestant churches teach these things on a regular basis.

Also, the whites from Eastern Europe had nothing to do with the chattel slavery of our ancestors nor established the Jim Crow laws.  Greeks and Serbs were slaves to the Ottoman Turks up until the early 1800’s.  Russian monks defended the humanity and rights of Native Alaskans and helped push for the liberation of serfs (semi-slaves) in their own nation.  Arabs, Lebanese, and Syrians do not consider themselves to be white.  As for the Egyptians and Ethiopians, they certainly aren’t white.  Thus, for a black American to become an Orthodox Christian is to join a universal body of believers that are not defined by Thomas Jefferson’s assumed white supremacy and Finis Dake’s Biblical misinterpretations of black “inferiority.”

IMGP7902_edited-1

Me with St. Cyprian of Carthage (© John Gresham)

Being an Orthodox Christian, I see myself as transcending America’s ignorant defining wall of race and embracing the ancient sense of being both black and Christian.  In my icon corner, I have Cyprian of Carthage, Moses the Ethiopian, John the Dwarf and other heralded saints of Africa.  As well, I have a dark skinned Theotokos and Christ that was written in the Slavic tradition and the Kursk-Root Icon of the Theotokos which is one of the holiest images of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The pale skinned Christ Pantocrator at the top of my corner is the 6th century icon from Africa’s Sinai Peninsula.  But, there is an Ethiopian icon of the Nativity beside it.  I reject the American tradition of iconoclasm as it lends itself to white supremacy.  I fully embrace the Orthodox tradition of iconography as ours is the faith of all peoples from the very beginning. Of course, my Baptist upbringing is against “graven images” on biblical grounds.  But, Orthodoxy Christianity also uses the bible to support the use of these “windows into heaven.”  And the very first Orthodox Church I attended, St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond, I saw full sized icons of black saints and saw “white” people going up to, bowing before, and kissing them.  Who’s interpretation should I trust; that of the ones who defended legal segregation and still maintains it by custom? Or, the multi-racial church leaders who came together in the eighth century who defined the proper place and use of holy images in the life of the Christian who knew no reason for skin color prejudice?

Being Orthodox, I am opposing the American Protestantism which ignores the history and wisdom of the African saints.  Why should I not pray the words of St. Macarius the Great when Serbian school children have them in their prayer books?  Why should I not seek guidance in the wisdom of St. Pachomius when Russian monks in West Virginia embrace the very lifestyle he taught?  Oh don’t get me wrong; I honor my mother and father, rely on the strength of Harriet Tubman and David Walker, enjoy traditional black spiritual music, and have nothing against the Black Lives Matter fight against police brutality.  But, any faith that teaches me that the African Saints don’t matter is a faith that does not teach black people the fullness of who they are in the eyes of God.  The Orthodox maintain this Christian fullness with that of other holy men and women from Europe and the Near East.  Fathers Seraphim Rose and Alexander Schmemann (two pillars of the Orthodox Church in the United States) frequently referred back to desert fathers in the formation of Christian worship and spiritual discipline as well as the monks of Mt. Athos or Valaam Monastery.  Even in those hallowed places of contemplation, the African saints are highly revered.  I see no reason why I shouldn’t follow suit.

Do I miss the form and style of African-American preaching?  Sometimes I do.  But, style without substance and sincerity is wasted.  You take Dr. CAW Clarke, one of the greatest black preachers from back in the day.  That man could “whoop” a sermon from the invocation to the benediction.  But, his style was born out of the intense suffering of our people during the Jim Crow era that he lived in.  Clark didn’t just “whoop,” but gave a lot of spiritual truth to his listeners.  Too many preachers try to imitate his style not because of shared suffering, but out of the idea giving people what they like to hear.  The same is true with the delivery style of Gardner C. Taylor (my biggest preaching influence).  His slow and deliberate rise to a rousing crescendo of a shout was a reflection of the pain we suffer in this world rising to the hope and victory in the life of Christ.  He did this with a theological mind second to none.  While racism is still alive and well in this country, most black Christians have little or no idea what it is to have suffered like our parents and grandparents.  We have lost the sense of humble suffering and reliance on God that they had as we are often too quick to protest the very slightest insult against us.  Thank God the days of Jim Crow are (well, mostly) gone.  But, without the sense of humble suffering and reliance on God for deliverance from this world and personal sin, our best Clarke and Gardner styles are mere mockeries.

Sadder still is the fact that so many black preachers today aren’t even trying to emulate these classic ministers.  Way too often, modern preaching is dictated by whatever seems popular on “Christian” television.  The mannerisms and styles of whatever preacher is amassing a great number of followers and generating the largest income is the patter that is being pedaled as “anointed preaching.”  There is a great reliance on “Christianized” secular slogans to excite people to a point that some of the same things heard in a Friday or Saturday night dance club can be heard in a Sunday Morning sermon.  “Turn around three times and give a ‘high five’ to your neighbor.”  “Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost party ’cause a Holy Ghost party don’t stop.”  If the old mothers of the Baptist church I grew up in could rise from the grave and hear this sort of preaching, a lot of ministers would be getting whippings!

The same is true for black religious music.  Our slave ancestors didn’t have the luxury of pianos.  They clapped, stomped, and perhaps played a drum.  The songs they made came out of a faith born in struggle with both the outer demons that oppressed them and the inner demons of sin.  During segregation, that same sense of music made in a faith born out of struggle carried over on pianos and in some cases, other instruments (at least one branch of black Pentecostalism had horns).  Contemporary Gospel, like that in white American Christian circles, is nothing more than a Christian label thrown on the secular music forms.  What is heard on a Rhythm & Blues radio station is no different than the Gospel station.  Some of the “liturgical dance” performed even in the morning worship in some churches is the same as seen in dance clubs.  Instead of the church being a thermostat of Godly change in the souls of black Christians, it is too often a thermometer going along with whatever is going on for the sake of being “relevant” and keeping young folk in the church.  Sadly enough, one of the reasons why youth and young adults leave and aren’t very active in the church (black or white) is that secular music and dance is a lot more professionally done and done with more talent than the entertainment that is in church.

I recognize the best of my African-American Christian heritage.  Among my treasured icons of the saints are photos of people who contributed greatly to my spiritual development.  My cousin Oppielee, Deacon Louise Kersey, was known for her godly wisdom and love for others.  Alex and Zechariah Jones were uncles I never knew but were known as no-nonsense deacons at St. John’s Baptist Church.  Deacon H. L. Mays was my shop teacher and a well-loved example of Christian manhood.  My mentor in ministry and grandfather in law, Rev. Carter Wicks, took my narrow behind under his wing when it came to being a preacher and pastor.  I am ever mindful of the road they paved for and the legacy they left me as I pray before them and the other icons every morning and evening.  I kept the name I was given at birth when I was Chrismated into the Church out of respect for the two men whose legacy I will carry unto death.  My Uncle John R. Thompson was a United States Marine when blacks weren’t supposed to be good enough to be Marines.  After serving our nation in WWII, Johnny was known as a giving man who extended a hand of friendship to anyone who needed one.  My father, John Robert, Sr., quietly broke color barriers as his aptitude test scores for AT&T technical trainees were among the highest in his entry class.  Today, he is one of the most respected deacons in King William County for his wisdom and community service.  I wasn’t asked to change my upbringing to become an Orthodox Christian.  I didn’t.

But, my father also taught me not to follow what everyone else was doing for the sake of being like everyone else.  So, I stand on his shoulders and those of Uncle Johnny.  I am rooted in the faith of Dr. Clarke and Deacon Oppeliee.  But, I have taken my African-American identity to the table where Moses the Black speaks with John Chrysostom.  I stand with Ephrem the Syrian and Cyprian of Carthage.  I take from the chalice of Ireland’s Patrick and Egypt’s Mary.  Just as Malcolm X urged black Americans to look beyond the struggle of national Civil Rights and bring our struggles into the realm of worldwide human rights, I have brought my faith to the older and broader Church.  I pray my friend will see this and, in God’s time and way, come home to Orthodoxy.  I pray others will do likewise.

The Trap of Little Sins

I have a little print-paper icon of St. Moses of Ethiopia that I use as a bookmark.  It is currently in use as I read My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt as part of my bedroom prayer rule.  On the icon are these words from the African monastic,

Even in little sins, let us force ourselves and not become lazy for truly we have forgiveness of sins

From the Russian priest, I found these words on page 58,

Most men not only bear Satan’s burden willingly in their hearts, but they become so accustomed to it that they often do not feel it, and even imperceptibly increase it

moses and kronstadt

It is not hard for us to wake up and repent of our “big” sins.  We are quick to be offended, saddened, or feel some other emotion when an obvious act of immorality has been committed.  If our vision along our spiritual journey goes no further than what can readily be seen, then Satan has blinded us.  As long as we aren’t observant that we don’t fall for the “minor” temptations and make excuses for us committing them, the evil one is allowing us to rot from the inside.  He is often waiting for the rot to set in so deeply that when faced with a major temptation, we will fall quite easily and not realize how we could do such a thing.

Oh, it is a little thing for a man to “check out” a shapely woman every now and then and consider it harmless.  Yet, our Lord taught us better;

But, I say to you, if a man looks upon a woman to lust for her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matthew 5:28)

In many cases of child molestation and rape it is not unusual for law enforcement to find the perpetrator had a pornography habit.  Affairs and fornication begin with the eyes and the mind long before the sexual organs are involved.  And rather than confront a son’s (or daughter’s, I suppose) lengthy times in the restroom or alone online, even Christian parents resign themselves to the phrase, “boys will be boys.”  The perpetual laziness in not being watchful against and embracing lust is the cause of men and women failing at relationships as we don’t know how to relate to one another as beings who pursue purity of heart.  Even as we pursue our “soul mates,” lust stains our souls so that we wouldn’t know the “right one” unless an archangel actually pointed him (or her) out.  And even if we do find a good spouse, those little sins left unchecked and well fed are able to rot the best of marriages.

Murder can begin with unchecked anger, theft with envy, hate with pride; every “big” sin begins with a “little” sin, or a series of “little” sins.  Care must be taken that we search them out within ourselves in times of contemplation and prayer.  We who seek God cannot afford to accept the worldly excuses for them.  They must not be tolerated in ourselves.  But, we must repent of them no matter how minor they may seem.