And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” So he said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. (2 Kings 2:9-12)
These verses came to mind when I heard the news this morning of the repose of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas. There are a number of saints within Orthodox history who are given the title: “Equal to the Apostles.” I cannot rush beyond the Church and declare a saint where the Church has not done so, but I can think of no better description of the life and ministry of Vladika Dmitri here in the South than “equal to the Apostles.”
Many people whose familiarity with the presence of the Orthodox faith in English-speaking lands are unaware that until 1962 there was no particular standard work of introduction to Orthodoxy available in English. Thus pioneers, such as Met. Kallistos Ware in England (who wrote that first standard work), or Archbishop Dmitri (who entered the faith along with his sister – as teenagers – in 1941) were extremely rare individuals and generally found conversion a nearly impossible feat.
Vladika Dmitri began life as a Texas Baptist, and, in my experience, never spoke ill of his background. I can recall him saying, “I like Baptists – they make great Orthodox!” accompanied by a sly smile. Indeed, I frequently heard him caution converts to Orthodoxy to refrain from disparaging their roots: “Most likely, it’s where you first heard of Christ.” His conversion as a teen led to a life as a scholar, missionary, teacher, leader, pastor – all in the context of kindness and love.
He cared deeply about the Christian faith and expressed concern, even dismay, as he saw many surrounding Churches that once would have been considered “traditional,” moving away from many of the primary teachings of the Christian faith. He was particularly expressive about the weakening of the doctrine of Christ’s Incarnation. He insisted that the understanding of God becoming Man was the only possible foundation for the dignity of human beings. It was a thought shared by men such as C.S. Lewis.
His advice to priests was very clear: “When you have opportunity to speak about the faith, never turn it down. And when you speak, don’t waste time on ethnic concerns. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that is the great treasure of Orthodox and that is what you have to offer.”
In 1977 he was almost elected as the Metropolitan of the newly-autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. The Holy Synod seemed less than sure that the OCA was ready for a convert-bishop to be Metropolitan. In 1978, the Holy Synod formed the Diocese of the South, with Dallas as its see city. Bishop Dmitri was appointed as its first diocesan bishop. The new diocese had little more than a half dozen parishes, strung from Florida to Virginia to New Mexico (mostly Florida). Vladika Dmitri would always smile and call it his “consolation prize.”
However, it became a great apostolic opportunity for a man uniquely suited to its apostolic task. He saw the Diocese grow over ten-fold with a remarkable spirit of kindness and hospitality. During World War II he met an Orthodox priest in California who spoke about a vision of an American Orthodox Church. It was the first time the young Dmitri had encountered the concept. It became his vision as well. In the course of a life-time, he saw that vision mature in his beloved South. Having been its apostle, he now becomes its intercessor. May his memory be eternal!