Fr. Moses Berry

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Icons and the Black Church: The Time Has Come

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnared us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1, 2

Today, I used one of my vacation Sundays to worship at St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond VA.  Like Father Moses Berry before me, I was stunned to see the huge icons of St. Moses the Ethiopian and the Saint of the church both looking like the African men that they are.  I also couldn’t help but notice that the icons of Christ and Mary on the iconostasis were also a bit brown in colour as well as some of the others on the walls.  Except for three smaller icons that were bowed to and kissed, I didn’t see anything that looked like worship of a “graven image.”  The pictures were more like going to your uncle’s house with photos of the family “old heads” on the wall over the sofa.  The focus of the worship was on Jesus with the sermon coming from the Gospel reading, the music taken straight from the Psalms (a couple of chants were entire Psalms), constant prayers for God’s mercy, and the Eucharist as the climax of the worship.

My Living Room Icon Corner (© John Gresham)

With so few Orthodox churches in our communities and our focus on the Civil Rights struggles, I can understand why older generations of black ministers didn’t learn and teach about the many African saints who are honored by the ancient faith.  With greater access to information through the internet, and immigration from Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, it is far easier to learn about the church.  The Brotherhood of St. Moses The Black has been promoting Orthodoxy to the African-American community for over two decades.  So, there is information out there about saints, patriarchs, monks, nuns, and martyrs from the “Motherland.”  As Protestants, we need not venerate such icons.  But, as a people who wants to celebrate its rich past, it only makes sense that we learn about the Orthodox saints from Africa.  And as they worked and worshiped with Europeans and Middle Eastern people, we can also give respect to some of the other great heroes of our united Christian past such as St. John Chrysostom, Isaac the Syrian and American saints such as Herman of Alaska and Peter the Aleut.  Christianity is universal and iconography shows this.

Yes, I know what the Second Commandment is.  It is also repeated in Exodus 20:23 as well.  Icons are not gods.  Nowhere in Orthodox doctrine and worship will you find anyone calling them gods.  Icons of the saints are pictorial reminders of those who lived godly lives and for us to follow their example.  Believers cross themselves (which is a physical expression of the Gospel), bow to, and kiss the icons as a matter of reverent respect and not worship.  Had the saints been alive, they would be greeted with handshakes, hugs, and kisses like we do with all other living people who we respect and love.  The Israelites and Jeroboam made golden bulls and said, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt.”  Solomon made idols of the gods of his foreign wives and they led his heart away from the Lord.  I have yet to meet any Orthodox cleric or layperson to hold up an icon and say, “This is God.”  They are icons that are worshiped with and not worshiped themselves.

A few of the Saints: ( l – r from lthe bottom) Sophia, Fulvainus-Matthew, Anthony, Elesbaan, Moses the Ethiopian, Cyprian, Djan-Darada, Maurice, Athanasius, and Mary of Egypt. (thanks to Bro. John Norman, the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black Detroit Chapter, and St Innocent Orthodox Church in Redford MI)

Let’s not use tradition nor narrow-minded biblical interpretations (the Bible was compiled by the Orthodox Church) deny us from the encouraging stories from the men and women of God from our African past.  Let us recognize them as members of the great cloud of witnesses that surround us  as we focus on Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1, 2).