Month: October 2013

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 5): Wisdom From New Friends

1:00 pm – 9:30 pm/ 12 October/ Kansas City, MO

During lunch, we had round table discussion about race and the church. Sure enough, there are some Orthodox congregations who are not receptive to black converts. One of the things that has crippled the spread of the Orthodox church was the various ethnic groups kept their faith closed and did not evangelize to others of any race. Except for St. Herman and the other Russian missionaries to Alaska in the 18th century, the church made no major effort to win converts. In 1987, the Antiochians threw the doors of Orthodoxy open to all who sought the faith. But because of traditional ethnic bonds and good old American racism, there are still some Orthodox churches that keep their doors closed to African-Americas who may want to convert.

Thank God this has not been my experience. There is not one Orthodox church that I have visited that I was not welcomed. The church I attend (when I can) is in a city with a reputation for being bigoted. But, the members are from all over Hampton Roads and various ethnic backgrounds. To me, the racial divide works both ways. I think black people need to open their minds and hearts and see that the Holy Spirit is more than just clapping and shouting in church. We need to learn that Africans originally practiced liturgical worship. Even today when Ethiopians immigrate here, they don’t go to our AME, Baptist, COGIC, or any other African-American congregation. They go to any Orthodox church they can find. And if there is enough of them in a general area to have a congregation, they form a parish.

Perhaps one of the most compelling people I have met and heard is Rodney Knott. Bro. (Dortheos) Knott directs ReEngage Services, a mentoring program to encourage men to be responsible fathers and contributors to society. He has a sense of compassion and toughness that seems to be very effective. I was blessed to be in the small group discussion with him and Fr. Deacon Nathaniel. I’d love to have those two brothers come to King William and evangelize for a week. I think they could convert almost half of the men in the county to the Orthodox Church.

Again my health was not up to par, which reeked havoc on my attention span. What I did hear of Mother Katherine Weston’s talk on “Loneliness” was very interesting. I had no idea there was no such word until the 1800’s and the industrial revolution. One thing I did write down that is worth thinking about in this time of social media meanness and isolation that she said, “Real conversation can be messy.” No doubt, there can be no true community nor church unless we are willing to have compassionate dialog.

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Actually, I was impressed with the nuns who attended the conference. These women have rejected the world’s standards of beauty of clothing, make-up, and all to live in humble simplicity. There was one younger sister, I guess mid-20’s, who could probably attract a nice young man. Yet, she has shunned human marriage for a divine, spiritual matrimony to God and the church. There is nothing like being in the presence of women monastics. They are full of wisdom and compassion.

I had been looking forward to hearing and meeting Sub Deacon Paul Abernathy.  Had he been Protestant, Paul could have started his own non-denominational church and made himself a bishop.  He could be a mega-church minister with a little time and effort.  Instead, this brother is in the Hill District of Pittsburgh “Building Community in Profound Brokenness.”  I liked what he said about not cutting ourselves away from redemptive suffering.  When we run from it, the result is fear and self hate.  When we accept it, we become one with the suffering people we serve.  I ate with him and Fr. Jerome.  I will share notes on that conversation in my final article.

Dr. Carla Thomas is a wonderful combination of brilliance and compassion.  While I am not qualified to open and run a free clinic as she did in a small town in Alabama, she does present a model for building an Orthodox community anywhere.  Meet a practical need of the people and make the prayers a part of what is done.  From her clinic, an Orthodox Church was organized.  Indeed, something similar is happening to Paul in Pittsburgh.  The goal is to bridge the faith with the needs of people.

Fr. Moses Berry uses history as a bridge.  His museum in the heart of Ozark country and traveling lectures about slavery and black communities during Jim Crow helps to break down the barriers between the races.  We tend to put up stereotypes and avoid facts.  Not Fr. Moses.  He has slave neck irons to show the pain of the brutal system and quilts that depict the fact that we are a people who (by the grace of God) constantly create something out of nothing.  I like his example.  We should talk with one another about the past in love and not accusation.

I am no night owl.  So again, I got a ride back with Mrs. Mathews and the boys.  I hope someone recorded the “Circle Wrap Up” and will post it on You Tube or Ancient Faith Radio.

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My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (part 4): Morning and Hope

7:30 am to 12:00 pm/ 12 October/ Kansas City, MO

I rode over to the church with Fr. Justin and Turbo.  One day, I’d like to take a road trip with these brothers.  They seem full of great stories, wisdom, and just cool dudes to hang out with.  The day began with the Rite of Sing of Psalms with Toparia, Epistle,  and Gospel.  Let’s just call it Matins prayer on steroids.  In my normal discipline, it is just me, my icons, prayer books, a candle, and some (Dollar General) incense.  This morning worship had more Psalms (duh) and prayers, some I was familiar with.  Others were a bit new to me.  Again, one of the most beautiful things about the worship is that we were all together.  Another thing that was great was the meditative nature of such worship.  There is no entertainment value in a group of nuns singing and chanting and the congregants following along.  It is a call for reflection and repentance in the presence of God. I cannot tell you how many times “Lord, have mercy” was rapidly prayed.  Plus, there was a sermon from Fr. Maximus Cabey.  He is the pastor of an OCA church in Green Bay, WI.

Growing up as a black Baptist in the south, the idea of a black pastor in a liturgical church (except for the Episcopalians) seems odd to me. Yet, Fathers Maximus, Moses, and Jerome Sanderson serve in what I grew up believing in “white” churches.  “Dead white” churches at that because they were not Baptist, Pentecostal, or (at least) Methodist.  While I am not myopic to think that there is no racism in the Orthodox church, it seems that there may be less in the ancient faith than their is in Western Christianity.  The challenge is to make the faith known.IMGP8124 IMGP8128_edited-1 IMGP8135_edited-1

This is the great thing about the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black.  Yes, the goal is to bring Orthodoxy to African-Americans.  But, it is not exclusively black in membership nor target audience.  I was blessed to meet a white sister, Sarah Motley, from Roanoke who had been going to these conferences for six years.  I will work with her to form a Virginia chapter of the Brotherhood.  In a Sunday School lesson, Fr. James Purdie taught that Orthodoxy has it’s roots in Africa.  Yet, it is deeply embraced by Eastern Europeans.  Serbs pray the prayers of St. Macarius of Egypt.  Russians refer to the doctrines of St. Cyprian of Carthage.  Any Greek will tell you that St. Athanasius’s enemies referred to him as the “black dwarf.”  If the Orthodox church is good enough for these white people, I see no reason why African-Americans ought not learn about and convert to this ancient faith that Africans were very instrumental in establishing.  The Brotherhood is named for an Ethiopian (I think one of those really dark skinned Nilotic or Para-Nilotic people rather than a brown skinned Amharic) who is widely honored by the Orthodox world for his non-judgmental kindness and wisdom.

After breakfast, Fr. Jerome Sanderson reminded me so much of my late grandfather-in-law in is lecture about living with nature.  I really should be ashamed of myself for my poor gardening and I have an Ag. Education degree.  I have been good (at one time) about walking trails and along shorelines outside of work.  I need to do more of that.  I didn’t get Brother Michael’s last name.  His work at Emmaus  House in New York is very similar to Reconciliation Ministries in KC.  Fr. Paisius Altschul continued on the theme of “The Church In the Village.”  Overall, it seems that the goal of Orthodoxy is to be a part of the community that meets the needs of the people who live there.  In the case of the fore-mentioned ministries, especially the needs of the least of these.  My challenge will be to make this community/Orthodox model apply to rural and small town Virginia.  Some things are already in place.  I just have to get up and do something.

 

 

Today’s Sermon: Commitment for a Full Blessing

Trinity Baptist Church, West Point

Thanking God for my first sermon since my hospitalization.  Memory Eternal to Freddie Fowlkes whom I eulogized yesterday.  Praying for a wonderful service this afternoon in honor of our Deacons, Deaconesses, and Trustees.

 

Commitment for a Full Blessing

Luke 3:1-6

It is easy for us to shortchange the blessings and miracles of where the Lord has brought us from. As you know, I drove myself to the hospital last weekend not knowing that my blood sugar was 720. I should have gone into a diabetic coma, had a stroke, got dizzy, had an accident and died. But, by the mercy of God, none of those things happened. As you can see, I am alive and well. And I praise God for being better to me than I have been to myself. It is very easy for me to shortchange my testimony right now because my story is encouraging enough…

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My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 3): An Urban Beacon

9:00 am to 9:00 pm/ 11 October/ Kansas City, MO

I arrived early at St. Mary’s and needed to crash for a couple of hours.  The lady at Reconciliation Ministries was nice enough to let me in.  Then, I was greeted by a nun ( I feel a bit foolish that I don’t remember her name).  I was also greeted by a very remarkable Fr. Paisius Altschul.  He and his late wife founded Reconciliation Ministries as a non-denominational mission/ministry.  They became Orthodox and established a Serbian parish in inner city Kansas City.  I was very impressed that they started a church in such an unlikely area not with a plan to make a mega-church.  Their only motivation was to serve homeless people and to share the ancient faith.  Climbing stairs to the third and fourth floors for the sanctuary and fellowship hall was a bit different.  But, I couldn’t help but to think that this is the way a church ought to start. 

This beacon was not only the building.  The church was in the heart and hospitality of the people as well.  Fr. and Matushka Justin Matthews (and their 3 sons) opened their home to me and another house guest, Turbo Qualls.  Rather than the well groomed suburbs, the Matthews family lived blocks away from the church and the people in need.  The boys, though raised with some amount of privilege, got to see first hand what poverty was like and how people struggle to do better in life.  Turbo is an African-American convert to Orthodoxy who’s story has been told on Ancient Faith Radio and the Orthodox Christian Network.  He was the 4 pm speaker on “Iconography: Expressions of Culture and Faith.”  A statement that he made separates iconography from general pictures.  “Jesus is not a story book character.”  Thus, the icon is not something that we can conveniently throw away.  The icon is an expression of our faith and a window for us to see into the world beyond.  Combined with viewing the movie “We Are All Supermen” (a documentary of how St. Mary’s, Reconciliation Services, and Reengage [a ministry focused on transforming males into men] have combined to improve lives in the Troost neighborhood of KC), the conference was making a powerful impression on me within the first hours.

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It was an honor to meet the founder of the Brotherhood, Fr. Moses Berry.  Also, Subdeacon Paul Abernathy and Fr. Deacon Nathaniel Johnson.  I have heard these brothers on You Tube and Vimeo.  I am humbled that these men of God even took the time to read my little blog.  Had I been well rested, I could have spoken with these men later into the night than I did.  But, the bus ride (and the abuse I did to my body with way too many sugar-sweetened beverages) took a toll on me and I left with Matuska Matthews and the boys around during the “Music:  Expressions of Culture and Faith” session (which was very entertaining).  Meeting people that I knew from Facebook (John Norman, Orlando Greenhill, and others) and those I didn’t know from Adam was terrific.  I even met Sarah Motley from Salem VA.  She has been coming to the conference for years.  Oh yeah, there will be a Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black!

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Two things also moved me that could be taken for granted.  Vespers; prayer was one of the main things that drew me to Orthodoxy.  The differences between my Antiochian parish and the Serbian order were slight.  We were all praying the same thing no matter what part of the country, race, ethnic background (there were some Ethiopians and Eastern European descendants as well as a Chinese family) or jurisdiction.  I felt like I was among family.  What is cooler is that we are all praying the same thing at the same times (the Hours) when we get home.  The dinner was also quite unifying as we  enjoyed delicious Ethiopian food.  Injera, a couple of different types of lentils, steamed vegetables, salad, and good conversation with good people.  The music program topped off a great evening.  If only I had flown or took the train.  If only I hadn’t abused my body.

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (Part 2): A Bad Blessed Bus Trip

( I actually typed this up on the way to Kansas City.  There is quite a bit of moaning an whining.  You may wish to skip down to the “REFLECTION” at the end of this post )

8:40 pm/9 October/Richmond VA

I think the Roman Catholics are right about Purgatory.  I have found it.   The Richmond Greyhound Bus Terminal waiting for a midnight bus to DC and Baltimore.  There cannot be too many more jacked up situations than where I am now.  I didn’t want to impose on anyone too much.  So, I asked my sister-in-law to get me here around seven.  We had a nasty little Nor’Easter  hit us and she doesn’t drive in the rain too well at night.  So, I will be waiting for a while as dude with the big floor scrubber does his thing and there is darn near nobody around.

Gina did hook me up with some sort of pumpkin spice bread.  I paid way too much for a “Powerade.”  These metal seats must have been part of the Spanish Inquisition.  Uncle Bob used to denounce Greyhound as a low class airline.  Chances are the Huxtibles would not be caught dead around here.  But, I paid half of what a plane would cost and dealt with no freaky airport security x-ray machines showing my butt naked body to some guard.

But, I can’t complain. The fact that I can afford to go to the conference is a blessing.  Plus, I got my wife a set of teeth.  The refund check was a gift that I was not looking for.  I probably could and should have spent the money on a couple of other things around the house.  But, next year’s conference will probably be in Oakland or somewhere else too far to travel.

The wi-fi sucks!  I can’t get on Facebook.  Yeah, this is Purgatory.  I will have to make the  best of it.

5:35 am/10 October/Baltimore, MD

I thought Richmond was bad.  At least Richmond hand a restaurant.  Richmond, not considered a pro sports city, has a much larger terminal than downtown Baltimore.  Both terminals have me more than a bit disappointed in how the customers have a choice between these horrible metal seats and the floor.  I am not saying Greyhound should provide us with Lazy-Boy recliners and sofas.  But, these seats offer no comfort.  If the company is going to offer us slightly overpriced food (Richmond) or only vending machine food (Baltimore), they should give us some measure of comfort.  And yet again, NO FACEBOOK!  THE WI-FI DOES NOT WORK!

St. Moses the Black

St. Moses the Black

2:44 pm/ 10 October/Zanesville OH

For every joy there is a frustration.  Between Frederick MD and Pittsburgh is some of the finest fall scenery I have ever seen.   And yes, Pittsburgh is the HOLY LAND with about 3 or 4 Orthodox Churches within sight of the interstate.  Actually, Wheeling WV and eastern Ohio are kind of nice too (not yet in Zanesville).  I am not sure how the area does in tourism.  But, I would definitely visit here.

I don’t think my laptop is allowing me access to Greyhound’s unsecured wi-fi.  This could be for my benefit.  So, I won’t cry about that.  But, once again, I am furious with the metal chairs in the Greyhound terminal in Pittsburgh.  Riding a bus is a more meaningful way of travel than flying.  You get to see the country at a slower pace than you do a train.  But, uncomfortable terminals and sub-par, overpriced food take away from what should be a nice experience.  Again, I liked what I saw of Pittsburgh outside of the Greyhound terminal.  It really seems to be a nice place to visit even if you don’t like sports.  But the terminal was just another place where Greyhound must improve.  Next year, if I go anywhere, I may check out Amtrak for an unadvertised early bargain.

REFLECTION

A couple of people at the conference (somewhat jokingly) called my journey on the bus ascetic.  When I think about the saints who lived in deserts, ate dry bread, and dealt with worse conditions than mine; yeah, I seem like a cry-baby wuss.  Jesus told us to deny ourselves and carry our cross.  Following Jesus does not always happen in times or situations of comfort.  People who only want to move with a savior that calls them to creature comforts of life are missing the point.  We are to pursue the Christian faith, we have to learn to endure hardship and accept sacrifice.  No, not everyone is going to be a St. Anthony the Great (he gave up a life of wealth to move out into the Egyptian desert to live a life of prayer).  But things like maintaining a discipline of prayer and fasting helps us remember what our Lord has gone through for our salvation.

So, I will put some “Ben-gay” on my back again and be grateful for the journey.  Not just going to the conference.  The journey of Christianity is to walk through this strange land we live in knowing that we are citizens of the greater and eternal kingdom.  May I live like such a citizen.

Embracing John The Baptist

I am sorry I haven’t worked on articles about my trip to the St. Moses the Black (Ancient Faith Afro-American) Conference yet.  Actually, I did type up a few rough drafts while in and on the road.  I will get on it as soon as I have time and get better.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been well and found out last Friday that my blood sugar level was 720.  I was hospitalized over the weekend and just got home Monday afternoon.  This morning, I tested out at 150.  I feel dizzy.  I’m ready for a morning nap.

I am grateful for the visits, prayers, and phone calls from my Trinity Baptist Church family and relatives on both sides of my family.   Fr. James Purdie came with his eldest children.  I kinda expected him to pray the Trisagion and offer up some other ancient prayers.  He also gave me an icon of John the Baptist.  This was no major surprise coming from an Orthodox priest.  But, the more I sat and looked at the icon, the more I thought of how I need to make my patron saint a part of me.

John the Forerunner

John didn’t eat the most elaborate diet.  I imagine locust and wild honey gets old kinda quick.  Nor was he very fashionable (camel’s hair garment).  I’m not much on clothes since I wear a uniform at work and a suit on Sundays.  A couple of sport shirts, jeans, and khakis round out my wardrobe.  I have to make a change in my eating and drinking.  Deserts are not a big problem for me, except for holidays.  I do okay on my weekly fast.  But, I eat myself silly on non fast days.  I don’t think there are too many juice-based drinks at the 7-11 that I have not tried and liked.  Such beverages have been a major addiction of mine.  On my trip to KC, I drank Hawaiian Punch like a comfort food.  No wonder my blood sugar level was up to ridiculous.    John and the later monastics had the right idea.  We need only to eat and drink what is necessary for health.

Spiritually, John provides a role model of what is most important about the Christian faith.  Repentance, giving to others, and living in expectation of seeing the Christ.  Again, I am no fan of “get your praise on” worship.  I don’t really get into buying stuff because I have little or no disposable income.  I do worry that people see the Christian faith more as a “feel good, self help, get what you want in this world today” religion rather than the “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me” faith that Jesus calls us to.  Could it be that we have spiritual diabetics who only want the sugar of earthly blessings and no balance of muscle building proteins of self sacrifice?  Could it be that we have people with 720 blood glucose levels of praises instead of 60 to 100 of a prayer discipline?  I think we all need to monitor our bodies and souls and the later is far more important.

Yeah, I honor the saints of Orthodox Christianity.  Moses the Black, Cyprian of Carthage, Isaac the Syrian, Herman of Alaska, and others grace my icon corners.  But, John was the true forerunner not only of our Lord.  Except for the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), he was the role model for all saints.  He is a role model for all Christians as well.

 

My First Orthodox Pilgrimage (part 1): The Ancient Faith Afro-American Conference

9 October/7:30 am/West Point, VA

Contemplating this new step in my journey

Contemplating this new step in my journey

 

Well, it is here … sort of.  I am taking the midnight bus from Richmond.  So, I am giving something of a prelude as to what in the world I am stepping into and why am I going in a direction so radically different than the western Christianity I was born in raised into.

I have to thank God for the way I was raised and the church that brought me up.  I still remember my grandmother telling bedtime stories to my brother and I.  My parents were devout in raising Jason and I in the love of Jesus Christ.  We went to church diligently.  Even when we were away from our beloved Baptist Liberty Baptist Church in King William, we went somewhere.  Had it not been for the Baptist Church, I would have never known and grown in God’s grace and mercy.  My life would have been a bus accident without it.  So, I praise God for all who have played a role in my Christian journey.

But, I feel there is something deeper that we are missing out on in the black Baptist (or any ethnic Protestant tradition).  Not to sound like a broken record.  But, it amazes me how little we know of our contribution to the early Christian faith.  It’s like … an African carried the cross for Jesus at his crucifixion, there was a Negro with Paul in Antioch, Philip baptized an Ethiopian,  and then came Richard Allen and the establishment of the AME Church.  From the time of the apostles to Colonial America, it is as if there was no black presence in Christianity and no need to learn about them.

Talking with Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Church, we were too busy with our struggle against segregation to learn that there was still a church in Antioch.  It wasn’t until 1987 that some 2,000 American Evangelicals came into the Diocese.  With the work of Father Moses Berry and the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, African-Americans are discovering what Greeks, Russians, Serbs, and the like have known all along.  Africans were among the great men and women that established the Orthodox faith.  The Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian Churches still exist.  That missing gap between Simeon called Niger and Absalom Jones is there for us to learn about. Now that we live in an age where we can have a black man in the White House and another as the head of the opposition party, the door is open for us to learn about, tap into, and even convert to this ancient and active version of Christianity called the Orthodox Church.

I guess I like taking risk, or whatever.  But, black people (and small town whites as well) aren’t going to hear the message of Orthodoxy unless someone of their own kind is willing to take the plunge and tell others of what a marvelous gift it is.  So, here I am.  I hadn’t even packed yet.  I missed those really good Greyhound discounts.  Yet, I know my wife will be well taken care of.  No, I don’t expect, nor can I afford, to convert to Orthodoxy when I get back home.   I don’t expect to do so next year.  But, the path is before me.

I gotta get ready for work.