I am a native of the American South, born in a time when cotton still grew in the fields and Jim Crow laws made life hell for a black man. For all of its strange contradictions – the South truly was a Christ-haunted culture. When Martin Luther King, Jr., began his preaching and marching for justice – his message was pretty much Southern gospel. It was the religion of his message that made him effective in the South – even as it brought about his assassination. For despite the evil of the Jim Crow version of Apartheid, the South was, at the time, a distinctly religious culture.
I grew up with “blue laws,” that allowed only gas stations (a few) and pharmacies to open on Sundays (and then only after Church services were over). More on the side of culture was the simple fact that people largely stayed home after Church. Too much recreation on a Sunday seemed somehow improper.
There were plenty of exceptions to these observations – gathering as family was always an acceptable Sunday activity. For me, this usually meant gathering at grandparents (my mother was one of 12 children, my father one of 5). I had cousins beyond count. There we would gather and eat (“pot-luck” as it is called) and listen to uncles swap stories, the women swap news, and my grandfather silently preside over everything.
Much of that culture has disappeared. The economic growth and large migrations beginning in the 60’s changed the face of much of Southern life. I lived near a city. What was farmland during my childhood is now suburb. The cotton is gone, along with Jim Crow laws (thank God). The family Church is slowly disappearing and being replaced by the new “mega-Churches” in which entertainment and Church are largely indistinguishable.
Southern Orthodoxy is, to my observation, largely no different than Orthodoxy anywhere in America, although in the Churches of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) the South is largely the land of converts. Thus Southern Orthodoxy is often zealous and frequently rough around the edges. Many of our Churches are barely out of the “storefront” stage.
But the quiet piety of the Orthodox faith seems to fit the Southern character. I love to visit in Clinton, Mississippi where Father Paul Yerger (the author of our previous post) serves as priest. Mississippi is simply more Southern than most of the South. To hear the service intoned with the soft tones of the Delta is a reminder that Orthodoxy will grow anywhere.
Archbishop Dmitri has been an Apostle to the South. I have written earlier of the number of Churches that have been planted through his efforts – truly Apostolic in number. He has set a tone for the Diocese that makes it at home in the South. He is among the most hospitable men I have ever known. For years, on Bright Monday, there has been a Liturgy at St. Seraphim Cathedral, attended by all the area Orthodox clergy, regardless of jurisdiction, with a dinner prepared by Vladyko himself in his home next to the Cathedral. He loves to cook (and does so extremely well). To serve the clergy after the long hours of Holy Week and Pascha is simply Christ-like. It is with such examples that he has taught his clergy. Some have learned better than others.
As a former Episcopal priest, I found myself welcomed as a convert, but never treated as a convert. I was treated as a son (I felt like the Prodigal Son because of my sins, but not because of anyone’s judgment). I am most familiar with the OCA, but I have family in the Antiochian Archdiocese as well and many friends among the Greek Orthodox. And though there are flavors and aromas of the Mediterranean to be found within more ethnic congregations, the South has left its gentle mark among them as well.
Orthodoxy in the South is very young. It is vibrant and occasionally impatient. But Orthodoxy grows here like a native plant. I pray that it flourishes and nurtures a people who have long had a love of God, regardless of the shifting culture of the post-modern era. There is more than a little work to do here, but if God continues to send Apostles such as Vladyko Dmitri – the work will move forward quicker than I would ever have thought.