Native Americans and Orthodoxy

[Ancient Faith Radio; August 28, 2008]

Frederica Mathewes-Green: Here I am, I’m in Anchorage, Alaska. My first visit to Alaska, this completes my visiting fifty states. This is my fiftieth state, so it’s wonderful to be here at last. I am on the grounds of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, speaking to Steven Alvarez, who is- what is your role here at the center?

Steven Alvarez: I am Director of Strategic Initiatives and Media.

FMG: You were telling me you produce films sometimes for the center as well. And we were hearing the story of what brought you here, you said it was St. Herman that brought you. To begin with, your heritage goes back to New Mexico, your background is Apache. You were telling me that it’s connected with some of the peoples in Alaska, as well.

SA: Right. The Athabaskans up here share a common language (a common language base), and we’re pretty much the same people.

FMG: And, how in the world did you end up becoming Orthodox?

SA: I was part of San Jose Christian Fellowship that converted back in 1993. And I was the music director there at the church, and so that whole process brought us to Orthodoxy and…

FMG: You were swept up.

SA: Yeah, yeah.

FMG: Had you been a Christian all your life?

SA: I was raised Roman Catholic. So I had really no issues with the theology. I mean, I grew up with it. The only question that I kept asking was, once we become Orthodox, where does the band go? (laughs)

FMG: Because you were the percussionist in the worship band.

SA: I was the worship leader.

FMG: Oh, you were the worship leader.

SA: Yeah, and so we were chrismated and I was ordained a subdeacon that same weekend, and we became Orthodox. And I was there for four years before I moved up here.

FMG: And you felt like, as you said, St. Herman had engineered it— had brought you up here.

SA: Right. Well, a deacon from the church and a layperson and I came to, when we all turned forty— look, there’s a fox right there!

FMG: Oh! Look. And he sees us. I think this fox sees us. Is that a red fox?

SA: That is a red fox. He’s kinda skinny.

FMG: He’s skinny, maybe he’s a little one. He’s got a nice puffy tail, though. Wow. It’s like a little dog or a cat even, it’s so alert. Not very afraid of people, I don’t think. He’s going to try to go in that… Oh, he pounced on something. He’s got… he’s so graceful. It’s like a cat, really. Yeah. Well, we’ll keep an eye on it, and see if he shows up again. So y’all came up, you said, to pray, to ask St. Herman to make the next forty years a little bit better than the first forty years.

SA: Right, and I had over the course of the time that I was canting and studying the theology of the Church, discovered how close Orthodox theology was with Native American spirituality.

FMG: Could you tell me a little bit more about that? Because I don’t know much about Native American spirituality. What would I recognize?

SA: Well, you know, the whole liturgical cycle- how every part of the day in Orthodoxy there’s a service or a ceremony that is designed to help you- it’s the same aspect of Native American Spirituality. Every part of what we do is tied to our spiritual beliefs. Whether it’s getting up in the morning or going to bed at night. And all of our ceremonies are very liturgical. There’s a reason for everything. And we have our own form of incense, which is the burning of sage or cedar. We have, um…

FMG: The chant…

SA: Yeah, the chanting, um, you know, the belief that because God created everything, that because of that, all of his Creation is sacred. So we hold that the trees, the ground, you know, has the sacredness, the holiness of God in it because he created it.

FMG: Like Eastern Orthodoxy, with the sense that God is really filling this Earth, as opposed to a kind of spirituality that would say, the spirit is good, the body is bad; we only pay attention to the soul, we try to rise above physical reality. It’s that same treasuring and discerning the presence of God in the world.

SA: Right. And then also in the same manner in which clergy in the Orthodox Church are set apart as people who provide us with a spiritual guide. The same happens in Native American spirituality. We have certain elders, or what has become know as, the term is medicine men. People who have the ability to heal, but also provide insights that, this is what’s right and this is how you should be living your life, and this is the answer to those questions that you have.

FMG: Wisdom. Like an elder, I guess, or like a spiritual father.

SA: Right. And an elder is considered a spiritual father because everything that we do is tied to our spiritual life. And, you know, our songs and our dances, even if they are social, there is a spiritual aspect to it.

FMG: Not every old person is an elder automatically.

SA: Yeah. So, as I learned more about St. Herman, I came to revere him and love him in the same manner that the Alaskan natives did because of what he did for them. So I prayed that somehow I could find a way to… And I also felt that because of how the church handled Native Americans when they first came over, as opposed the Roman approach, which is baptize them and then enslave them, and the Protestant approach was don’t even baptize them. You know, that there was something special about the… I think it would make it easy for Native Americans to discover the Church, and I felt, well, this could be a way of me being some kind of instrument that could at least bring the Orthodox Church to the doorstep of Native American people.

FMG: Continuing the work of St. Herman.

SA: Right. So, that’s what I asked, Can I do that. And the next thing I know I’m being invited to come up and perform, the next thing I know I’m up here performing and teaching, and the next thing is I’m accepting a job and moving up here.

FMG: You found a new home.

SA: Yeah. And it’s been wonderful. I’ve been able to do just about everything I could dream and imagine of artistically, as a performing artist. I’m still waiting to find out what’s going to happen with regards to serving Native American people, but I think I’m doing that here. Everybody that knows me here is part of what I do; the Alaskan natives know that I’m part of the Orthodox Church, so I think at some point God’s plan will be revealed. We’ll see what happens.

FMG: Maybe you’re just getting filled up with more and more wisdom as time goes by, and when the right time comes, you’ll be called on to…

SA: One could hope! (laughs)

FMG: Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

SA: Sure.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.