One of the reasons why some African Americans are not becoming Orthodox is that we feel that it is someone else’s faith and culture and not our own. I have read some discussions on other sites as to where some of us wish to mix other doctrines into the Church to make it more relevant and appealing to black people. Rather than post what I was typing last night, I will share with you an idea that came into my head this morning.
The native Alaskans became Orthodox during the time when Russia claimed the land as their territory. Russian fur trappers shared their faith (in good and bad relationships) with the Natives to a point where the missionary priest found Orthodox Christian communities already existing with lay leadership. Rather than force them to adopt the Russian language and culture, men like Sts. Herman and Innocent translated the scriptures and holy books into the Native languages and blessed the best of Native culture. American Protestants and Catholics forbade the Natives to use their language and tried to impose their denominations and English on the people. The Alaskans saw that if they wanted to be Christian and still be who they were as a people, the Orthodox Church was the best choice. It is still said by some, “To be Native is to be Orthodox.”
So, here is my idea. Let’s learn from the Native Alaskan Orthodox Christians how they manage to be true to their culture and members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. After all, they faced racial prejudice and were looked down on just like us. They didn’t want to see their language and culture disappear. Orthodoxy honors who they are. But how? Are there places in the Divine Liturgy that they used a Native musical tone rather than Byzantine or Slavonic? Do the Native preachers speak with a certain vocal pattern that reaches the people in ways sermons from others cannot? This blending of faith and culture is not the result of a bridge of modern doctrines made by non-Orthodox clergy. Orthodoxy in Alaska is over 200 years old. They must be doing something right up there.
No doubt, people of the race of Jackie Robinson and James Farmer of the 1950’s and 60’s ought not be afraid to go to any church in 2015. No doubt, too many Orthodox parishes are still infected with a cold ethnocentrism, even towards potential catechumens that look like themselves. But, if there is going to be a bridge to help more blacks become Orthodox, the Native Americans of the north may have some proven ways on how to be Orthodox Christian and yourself at the same time. I think that it was Malcolm X who said something like this:
If you have a problem, look at your neighbor who had the same problem and see how he solved it. Once when you learn how he solved his problem, you are well on your way to solving yours.