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.”

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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.

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43 comments

  1. Most of us white Western Europeans had nothing to do with slavery either. St Patrick and John Wesley were both abolitionists. They too were heavily influenced by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox customs.

    1. Mr Gresham, I’m agreeing with you when you say that orthodoxy gave slavic peoples a feeling of panhumanity, the feeling that humans, whatever be their race, origins, skin colour, are our brothers in pain and christic joy. Orthodox slaves suffered through their history, and, empathy for other peoples who suffered from western colonialism and imperialism is very present : black americans, native americans, peoples from Africa and Asia. Their sufferings are always alive in us. This is my experience as serbian orthodox. I think that these victims of history and of the laws of this world can find real brotherhood (communion in our Saviour’s body) in the orthodox Church. Not only because it is the ONLY real Christian universal Church, but because roman catholicism and protestantism were Churches for the “race of lords” (western europeans). Please forgive me my poor English.

  2. I agree with everything you said. The Ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers from Egypt, as well as, the Ethiopian and the Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest branches of our Christian History. I grew up Protestant, my father was Catholic and I converted into the Russian Orthodox Church. My family is supportive and I do not stand in judgement of them. I am home and have never looked back. God Bless and I hope your friend finds peace. in Christ, Cherie

  3. I agree with everything you have said. The ancient Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt, as well as, the ancient Coptic Church have long been a part of our African history. I was raised Methodist, my dad was Catholic I converted into the Russian Orthodox church in 2001. My family is very supportive and I am never going to stand in judgement of their faith choices. I hope your friend finds her path and peace. God Bless. In Christ, Cherie

  4. It’s inspiring to see how Orthodox faith is a space that enables to you to not only bring in such important parts of your identity and tradition but also allows them to be realized even more fully. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. Very well said. I am a priest in the Coptic Orthodox church in Arlington, VA and wanted to thank you for preaching a much-needed truth with such grace and eloquence. May the Lord bless your service John.

    1. Bless me, a sinner. It seems that I have heard you on Youtube, or another Coptic priest talking about the differences between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. It was a great presentation. Blessings to you.

  6. Thank you for sharing some of your journey! You mention Malcom X, I have always felt he was a truth seeker whose spiritual journey was cut short. Currently reading a good biography about his wife Betty and her journey which is fascinating in its own right. May Christ Our God bless the work of your hands!

  7. Personally, I think we [American Orthodox] missed some real opportunities to embrace Black America as it reexamined its religious heritage in the mid-20th century. As a student at Duquesne University in the early 70’s I researched the African Orthodox Church in America. The local bishop [Rt. Rev. Clifford McCloyd] lived down the street and I visited him and his church often.

    He told me that in the 1930’s his denomination [AOC] attempted to join the Orthodox Church. Some of their bishops were consecrated by Syrian/Antiochian bishops originally consecrated by Archbishop Aftemious Ofish – they were, of course, un-canonical and they knew it. In an effort to unite with canonical Orthodoxy, they attended a Pan-Orthodox conference in the 30’s and petitioned the then Orthodox hierarchs [Greek, Russian and Antiochian] to be admitted to the Church. They were willing to be Chrismated, re-ordained, re-consecrated etc – whatever it took to be accepted. Sadly, they were refused.

    In speaking with Orthodox who remembered the incident, it was clear that some of the Orthodox bishops and clergy leaders at the time were really torn as to what to do. They realized the sincerity of the group and their genuine desire to be canonically “Orthodox’ and their conscience weighed on them. But in the America of the 1930’s they just could not bring themselves to ‘welcome’ these African Americans. Reportedly there were about 32,000 members of the African Orthodox Church at the time – all black. If they had entered the Church, they would have been the largest Orthodox ‘jurisdiction’ in North America – just imagine. Some of them attended the Orthodox CEOLA conference in Pittsburgh back in the late 60’s. My friend, the bishop, said he was there with the Russians and the Greeks – he felt they were embarrassed about what happened – I remember him saying, “But, what could they really do?”

    Some of these bishops went to Africa and one of their black African ‘disciples’ went ended up in Alexandra, Egypt where he was received into the Orthodox Church by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandra and All Africa – he was later ordained and sent as a missionary to east Africa. The present thriving Orthodox Church [all Black] on that continent can trace her roots in his mission effort. Too bad the original founders didn’t live to see it – maybe someday their African Orthodox ‘children’ can come here and missionize their African-American cousins – since we don’t seem to be too good at it.

    God be with you – John – and your friend – welcome her home – prayers and blessings.
    Outstanding website by the way.

  8. Thank you so much for this. A little-known Orthodox book that might be helpful for seekers is “An Unbroken Circle : Linking Ancient African Christianity to the African-American Experience.” It is edited by Fr. Paisios Altschul and published by the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black.
    St.Louis, Missouri, 1997.

  9. My family is not “ethnic” – we are Plain Jane Vanilla Americans blonde hair and blue eyed and when we converted to Greek Orthodoxy we were breaking ground more than 27 years later we are still asked by many “Why? You aren’t Greek. ”
    It’s about the truth Orthodox faith not ethnicity, color or ties….it’s coming home to Him.
    Yes, it was bumpy I won’t lie but it’s been a ride home blessing many times over.

  10. Looking at your picture the first thing that struck me was warmth and peace not colour. I am a white Eastern European, Serbian Christian Orthodox. I consider it a duty and a need as a Christian to lovingly kiss the Icon of st Cyrian of Carthage, as I consider you my brother through God our father.

    May God bless you and your family, grant you all good health and prosperity in your home.

    Keep up the great work!

  11. Thank you for this article. I am in the same situation at my church in Houston Texas. It is a lonely place sometimes and I know God has me here for mine and my family’s salvation. Please pray for me a sinner.

      1. God does not revolve around man but man around God, our father is not of one colour but of every conceivable and inconceivable. If every believer was to only keep his traditions and beliefs then such a “God” would be a tribal one and not a universal God a creator of all mankind.
        In what other faih can you find white believers bowing down and kissing icons of Black saints, or kissing the hand of a black priest. It is in my faith that I look at my black brothers and not see color but people, my people. I do not advocate that a person should leave their culture and traditions these things have a place of their own that is the beauty of mankind.

  12. You missed one very important thing. “The whites of Eastern Europe” have had a horrible history of racism, and for 500 years generations of Romanians enslaved my people, the Roma, aka Gypsies. The Orthodox Church of what later became Romania OWNED “Gypsy” slaves. Obviously they’re not bragging about it now. I was Orthodox for a while but the racism I encountered in some US churches was no fun either .

    1. This is obviously not a story to brag about. In fact, it’s down right horrible and inexcusable. Someone else shared with me some other details of this episode, including how there were slaves in monasteries. This certainly was not what Anthony the Great taught nor Herman of Alaska would have tolerated. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

    2. In light of the brutal oppression they endured during the communist era, is there any sign that the Orthodox Church in Romania have expressed repentance for enslaving the Roma?

    3. Here you are talking of “whites from Eastern Europe”. You should know that in Eastern Europe you have roman catholic Slavs, greek-catholic Slavs, Ungarians and Romanians who are of mixed origins, etc, I’m talking here of a great diversity. There is no such thing as “the whites of Eastern Europe”. Roman catholic Croats (Slavs) commited a genocide against orthodox-christian Serbs (Slavs too) and Romas during the second WW2. You can find many things about the Croatian Independent State on the net. The relation to the Romas was not the same, depending on faith. Take for example russian or serbian classical littérature. You will certainly not find a negative stance about Gypsies in this littérature, and littérature was an echo of the general mind set.

    1. “The emancipation of slaves owned by the state and Romanian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox monasteries?” I had no idea of this part of history. I am especially horrified that there would be slaves at monasteries as this was not the practice in Egypt nor the Northern Thebaid of Russia. Unfortunately, when the hand that holds the cross also holds a whip, both church and society runs the risk of corruption. Forgive me of not knowing this awful story.

    2. Of course, we know that the communist governments were very oppressive to the Orthodox Church. I wonder if the church has reflected on what they have gone through and what they have put the Roma through and repented of enslaving them.

      1. The roma are free people now and this slavery was only in 4 monasteries in romania so it wasnt so big!

  13. Thank you my son for so eloquently sharing the your heart and the truth. You are a light to the Black community.

  14. smf
    For a human being to be with god one has to free himself from the problems of being human. The article and the subsequent comments tell us that one of those shackles is ethnicity, skin color. The good or bad feeling that we draw from ethnicity become a barrier to truly be with our god. And from all the comments above what i see is that people are not free from it.

    I am an Ethiopian as black as they come. I was fortunate to be born and brought as an Ethiopian and Orthodox christian. I don’t consider myself as a devout practitioner but I am grateful for all our fathers that perfected the teachings of the Orthodox church that I am free man not bothered of ethnicity that much. It does affect me but never to have conflict with myself.

    The thing is I don’t disregard ethnicity at all. Being born an Ethiopian I was always comfortable with my skin color. So when I write this it is not without sadness about the difficulty of the African American face in themselves because of history.

    From the article and the comments I see that those African Americans who are drawn to Orthodox Christianity did so because that there are black saints which I think is only a half way journey. As long as those people hang on to the ethnic concept they will never pass and enter the glory there is beyond it.

    This may sound contradictory but to do that one has to learn to accept once own ethnicity from once own kind. I don’t think African Americans who come to Orthodox Christianity through the Russian or or Serbian orthodox church by overlooking the Ethiopian orthodox church are doing very well at leaving ethnicity behind.

    I am not saying there is any thing wrong with those churches but there is some thing wrong with African Americans approach.

    Go to Ethiopia. It is a filthy place. But you will find your true self that is beyond and above your flesh. since people do not make you conscious about your skin color you will find the peace of mind to contemplate what your true calling is.

    From what little I have learned once calling is not an escape from the troubles of the world. It is not a place of refuge. It is a place you will explore your greatness as god intended you to be. You can not do that if you consciousness is filled with your appearance.

    For black American or any African decent for whom a history of degradation has passed a battered soul from one generation to another, the path to orthodoxy is through Ethiopia. You have to cleanse and feel rekindle being with those that are untouched.

    I live in Europe and as aloof as I am the racily charged atmosphere weighs on me and I have to go back from time to time to recharge myself. And more than family and friends it is the churches and remote monasteries and the contemplation in silence that restores my balance each and every time.

    Ethnicity is an important door and barrier that one has to go through.

  15. I saw the thing about keeping a strong black.identity in the orthodox church. There’s a strong conflict of interest there. As with cradle orthodox, some make some ethnic functions rather than the church of Christ who represents God. Where the doctrine is whole as it is, where everything councides and makes aense in contrast to mosts doctrines that have these conflicts.
    Do you want to be like Christ or do you want to be black, you can’t have both? Have you heard the term theosis? Becoming like God. Where God don’t care about your identity. Unless it’s one that’s reflective of him or the other way where a special place is for those like that.
    Again slavery, its over with and has been for well over a century, except in the middle east and Africa.
    But on the identity thing. It’d be wrong for a priest to let someone into the church for objectives other than faith, true faith at that,.with true worship. Cafeteria style christianity isn’t Orthodox. That’s how many denominations came to be. As the Orthodox is a high liturgical church, meaning there’s worship moreso than preaching. We sing and pray from the psalms as the bible says. Then tthere’s doctrine. Which if someone don’t believe in doctrine you don’t believe in Orthodox.
    Like here we have Russians, Ukrainians, Lebanese, Greek, American, Georgian and we have a central objective. Where there isn’t an ethnic issue or identity issue. Some places it’s still an issue, but that’s national and cultural heritage. Like a kiss on a cheek or three sides. Is the choir in front to the right in front or in back. But Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy except where slavs sings and syrians chant.
    If you like ethiopian, join ethiopian. As to coptic, it isn’t african eitheir as my cousin is coptic orthodox and it’s the same as our other churches.
    Where the faith doesn’t change. Again it has to come from the heart.
    Do you accept the fact that bishops are responsible to assure that worship is continued on as it has been for centuries? As well as supposed to assure true doctrine is taught? Understand not everyone is perfect so the emphasis is on teaching so everyone knows what the goals are. Because we have flaws, we have confession as well as a support group of others that support our identities as followers of Christ.
    I’ve seen many join a church of different types where some fundamentalists are very devout in faith and hold true core doctrine. Which the Catholic and orthodox have rites.
    But seriously, if you’re going to a Chinese restaurant to get a hamburger, Mc’D’s would be quicker.

  16. Joining the Orthodox Christian Church is most certainly NOT a betrayal of black identity. My parents have been Orthodox Christians for over a decade now, and they are from Nigeria. I think the issue here is getting OUT of the American mindset on race and connecting with the Christian faith with a pure and new frame of mind where all are one in the body of Jesus Christ, where differences are celebrated rather than denigrated.

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