Bringing Orthodoxy to the African-American Community: Some thoughts

I had a long conversation with my priest last week and he asked me if I had any ideas about how the Church might become more attractive to the African American community. Since I have never been “black enough” and have always had a tendency to go my own way, it was a question I really do not have an answer to.
My journey to Orthodoxy was partially engendered by my disgust with the name-it-claim-it, hyper-emotional, sometimes straight up heresy I was drowning in, among other things. I know that it was an intellectual pursuit for me that became a spiritual one as time and life went on. Most of my friends aren’t as bookish and inclined to research as I am. They also think the Orthodox Church is “boring” because there isn’t such an emphasis on the emotional showmanship. Others have issues wi…

th anything that might be remotely “Catholic” (although there is less of that these days because they know me).
One thing I said was that many of my friends have issues with the ethnic emphasis (or even the label on the sign) in many of the churches. They wonder if they will be welcome in a “Greek” or “Russian” church, and if they will speak English there. In the US Antiochian Patriarchate, Fr Nicholas said, Met. Philip has asked that signs downplay the  patriarchy name on signs in order to de-emphasize the “foreignness” for some seekers.
So…Anyone have any ideas? I would like to continue this conversation with Fr N and have something to bring to him.
Elizabeth Gatling from the Black Orthodox Facebook Page
A Russian Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

A Russian Orthodox Icon (© John Gresham/ This icon is Blessed from the First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad HIS EMINENCE HILARION Metropolitan of Eastern America & New York

This is a heck of a topic to address.  It is almost embarrassing as it seems that a faith that has had brown skinned bishops, priest, and saints since day one ought to be the most popular expression among those who celebrate Black History Month.  I can honestly say that, other than a couple of Ethiopian immigrants, I have never met a black Orthodox Christian.  Yet, our community is heavily religious.  So, the question of how do we make the faith more appealing to the African-American community is one that is bound to arise and should be addressed.  I have no silver bullet answers.  But, it will take effort from the church and blacks to bridge the gap with each other.
For the Orthodox, a little active evangelism to us would help.  And it isn’t that you must immediately try to shove the Divine Liturgy down our throats either.  But, making us aware of the Africans who helped develop Christianity is a great place to start.  In a lot of cities, there are major festivals and get-togethers where vendors can sell art and books.  Sell some icons of St. Moses, Cyprian, Athanasius, Mary, and the like.  Develop some brochures about the black saints that you honor on your calendar.  Books about the Desert Fathers would sell.  A homecoming at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) would be an evangelistic gold mine for Orthodoxy.  Our folk will spend (Lord knows we spend) money on anything for the sake of “cultural awareness.”  Get the material in our hands and let the Lord take things from there.
And since I brought up the topic of HBCUs, it wouldn’t hurt to send a priest or deacon to one of our campuses on a weekly basis to develop a ministry among the students.  I have seen a lot of students get up in charismatic ministries and get ruined by them.  I was almost a victim as well.  Thankfully, the Southern Baptist Convention invested in a campus ministry intern that gave me good guidance.  College students tend to be more open minded and will accept nearly anything that is Afrocentric, or different than the falsehood they see around them.  Some wouldn’t mind the disciplines of prayer and fasting if they know it is for their spiritual benefit.  Various Islamic sects found converts on campus during my years at Virginia State University (1985-89) and I was accosted by 5%ers at Virginia Union University (a Baptist school) once.  Just show up and someone will come to you and listen.
Hosting events that celebrate African-American culture would help as well.  How about a concert of traditional Negro Spirituals after the Divine Liturgy during Black History Month?  While I would never advocate putting “Mary, Mary’s” latest single into the Divine Liturgy, our music tradition is not that distant from Orthodox doctrine (you had the period of martyrdom, we had slavery).  Get a couple of your bishops and best choir directors to meet with some of our knowledgeable musicians and put together a quality function.  There are some of us who are willing to take a serious look at Orthodoxy.  Just bring it to where we are.
Now for my folk, drinking two or three full glasses of OPEN YOUR MIND will help.  St. Cyprian Orthodox Church (I think they were ROCOR before they became OCA) was in Northside Richmond (VA) for many years in a house before they built their new building in Powhatan County (which does have a rural black population).  Black families should have done more than just peek in the door  and leave (I ain’t seen none of us in there, so I didn’t think we were welcome).  Negroes Please!  Look at the icons.  Read who their saints are.  Greeks, Russians, Serbs, etc.,  they may not be NAACP members.  But, their ancestors weren’t in the KKK either.  Even converts (the ones I’ve met) put their traditional American racial stereotypes behind them.  Orthodoxy may not be perfect.  But, neither are we!
And don’t give me that excuse about worship style either.  For every verse in the Bible (you know, that book that the Orthodox was nice enough to put together for us) about praising God with loud voices, there is another about being silent and meditative in his presence as well.  Perhaps it would do our community some justice to become liturgical worshipers rather than spend Mega-money on Mega-conferences so that Mega-celebrity preachers with Mega-titles can live in Mega luxury.   The fact that so many of us believe in these shisters  when we ought to know better is turning many in my generation and younger away from organized Christianity all together.  I am not saying we all ought to convert to Orthodoxy the first time we attend a Divine Liturgy.  But, if the church is making the effort to seek us, we ought to return the favor by attending for a few weeks to a month and see the history and spirituality of this ancient faith that our African ancestors helped to organize and die for.
“So Rev., when will YOU convert?”  As a member of the St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline, I am under the guidance of an Antiochian priest.  Fr. James Purdie has told me that I don’t need to rush.  My Baptist congregants and colleagues have not put me under interrogation despite the fact that I have not hidden my journey from them.  I do expect that I will reach the “tipping point” sooner or later.  In the mean time, I am just making sure that my steps are firm.  I pray that I will make the right steps at the right time.  The only thing as bad as making a move too soon is moving too late.  My only prayer is that the Lord makes a way for me to provide for my wife.
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