How I Made My Peace with “Ethnic” Orthodoxy

greek-festival

The following is from a larger talk I am working on about Orthodoxy in the West.

That nationalism exists among Orthodox Christians, both in their historic lands and also here in America, is now so self-evident that you’d have to be living under a rock to miss it. That Orthodoxy is associated with ethnicity, both in the minds of many of the Orthodox and the relatively few Americans who have heard of us, is also rather self-evident, especially to those of us clergy who have ever received that phone call asking if it is required to be Greek in order to join your church. Yes, I’ve gotten that phone call. No, my parish is not a part of the Greek Archdiocese. But, let’s face it—there are more Greeks among the Orthodox in America than everyone else combined. So that’s probably why those callers ask about being Greek.

This subject is the worst. It can get really heated, really nasty. I once foolishly prodded an American-born Orthodox friend from seminary with a very minor yet very dumb joke about the ethnicity he shouted from the rooftops, and he exploded at me with profanity and didn’t speak to me for several years afterward.

“Americans” (and here I use the word to mean “everyone who is not the ethnicity at the parish in question”) feel out of place at parishes where they don’t speak the language and don’t share the cultural background. “Ethnics” (forgive me the shorthand, but I hope you know what I mean) feel out of place at parishes composed mainly of converts or composed mainly of “ethnics” other than their own sort.

Sometimes, it goes beyond feeling out of place. People often leave parishes or never join parishes because they don’t fit in or because their spouse doesn’t fit in. There can be conflict between parishioners. I know of one parish where the lone “other” on the parish council was told that his opinion wasn’t welcome because he wasn’t “one of our kind.”

There can also be conflict between the priest and the parishioners. An “other” priest might not be “ethnic” enough or “American” enough for some parishioners. Or the parishioners might not be one of those things for the priest. I know of an instance where certain parishioners literally asked their bishop (including a sizable donation to the diocese) to expel their not-ethnic-enough priest—a man who spoke their language, liturgized in their language, encouraged their cultural events, was married to a woman of their ethnicity and even gave his child a rather ethnic-sounding name. But he just wasn’t one of “their kind.”

Sometimes, the conflicts about ethnicity are more slow-moving but often more devastating to the parish community. It’s observable that the children and grandchildren of immigrants are far more assimilated to the local culture than their immigrant forebears. The kids and grandkids may simply not care as much about the native culture of the immigration. Some do, but many do not. And the language of the country of origin is usually lost within a couple of generations of the immigration.

Why is this more devastating in a parish? It is because, especially if a parish makes an ethnic identification their primary sense of themselves, people who don’t feel that same identification are less likely to associate themselves with the parish. The immigrants and their immediate children may say, “We are this,” but some generation not too far down is likely to say, “I just don’t feel like I’m this, not like you do.” So the conflict may not express itself as anger, but it expresses itself as attrition.

Having observed all this, some who are “American” (and again I am using that term in a much reduced fashion) may want nothing to do with the “ethnics” just as much as the “ethnics” may not want anything to do with them.

Some may go out of their way to say that Orthodoxy has nothing to do with ethnicity. I was once even told by a senior convert priest that I should never use any language other than English, even with parishioners whose first language is something else, because “if you give them an inch, they’ll ruin your parish.”

These are all issues that we are likely familiar with ourselves. And some of my initial experiences with Orthodox Christianity in my early twenties were very much tinted with these issues—not so much because they were a big problem in my own parish, but because I encountered the ideas often in my discussions. Sure, we had “ethnics” in our parish, but there wasn’t an “ethnic problem” there, at least none that I was aware of. And so I formed a certain opinion about these things, an opinion that could roughly be summarized this way: People can be “ethnic” if they want, but ethnicity is bad for Orthodoxy and has no place in the Church.

Shortly after I went to seminary, that opinion began to erode. Why? Because I began to have actual interactions with “ethnic” parishes.

I discovered, for instance, that “ethnic” parishes were populated with actual human persons. Some of them were wonderful, generous people. Some were stand-offish and selfish. Some were holy. Some were nominally Christian. Some were educated. Some were ignorant. They were people.

Another thing that happened is that I married someone with an “ethnic” background. (I did not “marry into” Orthodoxy, though. My wife converted at the end of our engagement. She was raised Lutheran and was an atheist when I met her.) During our engagement period, when her father, who was born in Beirut, showed me a video from a family wedding reception in the Middle East, I was nearly scared out of my mind. I had always been something of a wallflower, and now here was a gigantic dance party—always a frightening prospect for me when I was a teenager—and I was going to be expected to be right in the middle of it.

But as I met some of the people in that video, and as I got to know her father and the rest of her family, I discovered that they were actual human persons. Their accents were different from mine, and their food was different from mine. Their sense of being organized was different from mine. Their sense of being on time… well, I’m still not sure they have one of those. If they do, it’s definitely different from mine.

When I was growing up, I was actually interested in many cultures. My father had been in the Navy, and being the son of missionaries, I had done some traveling myself and had even lived in another culture at a young age. But Middle Eastern culture was never one I had imagined connecting with at all. Nor almost any of the cultures connected with the Orthodox Church here in America. They just weren’t on the radar for me.

But all of my notions about what “ethnic” people meant in Orthodoxy or even the discovery that my childhood had inadvertently prepared me to like some cultures and not be interested in others melted away in the face of actual human persons. Here were people who maybe thought differently from me or wanted different things from me, but they still felt pain like I did, still wanted love and wanted to love like I did. They were sinners, too, just like me. And loved by God, just like me.

This was something that should have been obvious. But it is so hard to break out of our prejudices, xenophobia and other assorted fears. But once that began to happen for me, I was able by God’s grace to open my own heart to let them in. It’s still a process that I have to work at.

Of all the “ethnic” traditions present in Orthodoxy in America, my life brings me most often into contact with Middle Eastern people. But I love Greeks, too, and Russians and Serbs and Ukrainians and Carpatho-Russians and Georgians and Albanians and Romanians and Bulgarians and so on and on. I will admit that I think that the Arabs make the coffee the best. And it helps that I have it readily available to me. I will also admit that I like Byzantine chant the best. But there is much that I love about the other musical traditions of Orthodoxy, as well. And while English is the language of worship at my church, I do what I can to try to learn something from the other languages I encounter, as well, even if it is just to say “Good morning.”

I have also learned that it is possible to make a nod to someone’s culture without making a full prostration to it. And the nod is almost always enough. I do not believe that giving someone an “inch” means that they will ruin everything.

The problem, I believe is that we so often are intellectually and emotionally lazy when it comes to dealing with the differences between people in our parishes, between parishes, between jurisdictions, etc. It is easier to think and to feel in categories. But people are not categories. People are people.

This realization was brought into sharp relief for me once when I had a conversation with a young man at a parish of the archdiocese in which I serve which was made up primarily of American converts and their children. As you know, we have many people of Middle Eastern background in the Antiochian archdiocese. And as you also know, there is war going on in the Middle East right now, a war in which many people are being martyred, especially in Syria. Where I live, there are many people of Syrian background, and they have family and friends who are in danger and many who have already died.

So this young man was saying to me how much it bugged him that our archdiocesan magazine seemed to have too much about the Middle East in it. He felt that it turned people off to Orthodoxy, that it got in the way of our witness to America. And at that moment, I realized that I used to feel as he did. But I also realized that I no longer could.

It is not that I have become a “born again” Palestinian or Syrian or Lebanese or Jordanian, etc. I cannot be any of those things, no matter how much I now love those cultures. I still don’t speak very much Arabic, though I did learn how to do Arabic dancing for my wedding. But what I realized in that conversation and knew from my own experience with my own parishioners and my own family through my wife is that, by God’s providence, these are the people whom God has brought into my life. And those people in Syria and Palestine and elsewhere who are suffering are important to them—they love them, they fear for them, they are pulling out their hair in worry for them in their prayers.

That does not mean that I have to put those cultures front and center when evangelizing for Christ to people who have no connection to those cultures. But it does mean that I have to serve the real people who are actually in my life. I am not serving a rarefied, idealized “Orthodoxy” that does not touch the lives of the people who are my fellow Orthodox Christians, even if those lives are “ethnic.”

I serve Christ in His Church, and these who are members of Christ are so many things. They are Syrians, they are Greeks, they are Ukrainians, etc. They are cradles, they are converts, they are reverts. They are Virginians, they are Pennsylvanians, they are Californians. They are into sports, they are into science fiction, they are into theatre. They are so many things, and they love so many things. I don’t have to become those things, but I do have to embrace those people. And if I reject those things, things which in themselves are not antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then that means I am rejecting the people who love those things and identify themselves with those things. And I am therefore rejecting the people whom God has given to me. And I am therefore rejecting those who are members of Christ.

I have taken as my watchword the famous saying of St. Raphael of Brooklyn, who served here in America from 1895 to his untimely death at the age of 55 in 1915:

I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.

He did not merely tolerate all those different kinds of people, and he certainly wasn’t hostile to them. He identified himself with them. He of course never became a Greek or Slav, etc. But he still could say “I am” about those people. He had space in his heart for all of them and met them where they were and made their lives his own life.

I myself still have a long way to go. My heart still has brambles and underbrush that need to be cleared from the path. But I think that, if we are to ask and to answer the question of how we who are Orthodox Christians encounter the people in this country where we live—both the people inside our parishes and those not yet inside our parishes—we will have to make peace with the “ethnic” question in Orthodoxy.

How do we do that? I think we begin by not seeing people as categories. We try to see them for who they are and love them for who they are. And while we seek the lost sheep who are not yet of the one fold of Christ, we also tend the sheep who are in the fold. And likewise, while we tend the sheep we have in the fold, we do not define them as “our people” in such a way that we exclude those who are truly “our people” (because they are Christ’s people) but do not yet realize it.

Christ’s universal call to humanity means that we love every single person. And we begin with those whom God has brought to us—not just the ones he’s brought to us in our families or in our parishes, but the ones he has brought to us in our neighborhoods and our towns. If we do that, then while there will surely always be “ethnicity” in one way or another within Orthodoxy, we won’t have an “ethnic problem” in Orthodoxy. We will simply have people, the people of God.

54 comments:

  1. Great article~~I’ve never experienced an “ethnic” parish; the one I visit is primarily converts and a hodgepodge of ethnicities since it’s the only parish in the county….still, you give great insight that we shouldn’t just brush off the ethnic parishes…thank you for your blogs

  2. I’ve been waiting for an article like this for a long time. Much too often there seems to be a either-or polarization of parishes between English and foreign languages, which varies by location. One thing that I see as a concern is the liturgical services themselves. How do you decide how much of the chanting is in “Ethnic” and how much is in English? The “Americans” don’t understand, but the old “ethnic” guard may not get English.

    From experience, I know that many people go to heavily ethnic services so that they can “feel like back home in Lebanon/Jordan/Syria” and socialize in their native language during the coffee hour afterward. For some individuals, the coffee hour eclipses the service itself in importance! While this view prevails among certain laity, there seem to be differences of opinions among the clergy as well. Last week, I spoke to a ROCOR priest, and he was adamant that he was a “Russian Orthodox” priest and not an Orthodox priest from Russia, because the Russian people were “tough as nails” and they will never surrender their lands to anyone. Incredibly, he stated, if the Russian ethnicity is stripped from the church, the Antichrist will emerge!

    While the above tendencies might seem strange, there is a good bulk of the church that understands the need for accommodating both camps. Many people are adept at chanting multiple languages, without necessarily understanding the full meaning of each. In conclusion, I have concluded that Orthodoxy in America is going to be a multi-cultural affair. At my parish, BBQ and sweet tea coexist with baklava and kibbeh, and that’s a good thing.

  3. This in my mind is the single largest turnoff to Orthodoxy in America. We have to get rid of the labels (Greek, Russian, Antiochian). The OCA is the closest thing to an ‘American’ church we have, and it openly parades it’s Russian roots.

    I originally went to an OCA parish, but was turned off by everyone standing all the time, the thick accent the of the Presbyter etc.

    1. Did you even read what Fr. Paul wrote?

      And it is not the church’s job to “turn on” as many people as possible and bring them to Orthodoxy. It’s job is to be the church.

  4. I appreciated this post because it focused on a problem I experienced early in my journey to Orthodoxy. I was chrismated into an Antiochian church in which I was one of only a handful of English speaking members. Part of the liturgy was always in Arabic and I couldn’t follow it. And I found that in our fellowship times the language of choice was not English, so I always felt a bit of an outsider. Eventually I moved and had to leave the church. I moved on to an OCA church which eventually had a split, which to me was so reminiscent of protestant churches, so I moved on. It has been several years since I have been involved in an Orthodox church and find myself back in a protestant church, yet not really settled and at peace with it. But I understand where you are coming from in your post. Thanks.

    1. I loved the Orthodox way of worship and was many times Blessed at the Altar. However, I am single and not Greek. One woman I spoke to early on after my Chrismation said she had been going to this parish for 17 years and never got to know anyone or felt welcome. I should have taken this clue to the atmosphere of this parish to heart- I waited years.
      If you are part of a Greek family- you are welcomed. “It’s a Greek social club” one man told my daughter. I remember when I went to serve at a function,brought my food and dressed up to serve- I was told I wasn’t needed that evening, I just went on home. This is just one of the events I tried to help at and join in with the same results. I was asked if I was Greek and I had to say,no.

      Sadly,I finally l left after years and went back to a very friendly Protestant church where I am warmly welcomed with actual women’s Bible studies all the time and lots of opportunities to serve- a happy, friendly church home that includes everyone. Why go where you are only marginally tolerated when you can go where you are accepted, serve, help and be a part?

      The Orthodox Church I went to had a few Bible studies a year, like ten sprinkled throughout the year and nothing else…never an outreach to the outer world. No one cares about converts. I’m sorry to say but that was my experience. The only reason I got to be Chrismated was a receptionist was kind enough to sponsor me when I asked her. The priest seemed to be put out of sorts- in a way-that I was joining,never a welcome.
      Now, I have to “wake up and smell the coffee” so to speak- that I am not wanted.
      It is an old world Greek club for Greeks. I have to add the art work is stunningly beautiful in this church and I appreciated it it so much.
      I still read and have my Orthodox prayers,but I am a blended Christian- part Orthodox, part Protestant now. Since I’m an older single person community means a lot- I want to be a part of a church and help.

  5. Very nice article. I think there is a greater danger in the other direction! That as converts, and especially American, is taking something that is and that has developed over the centuries, and applying American psychology to it. A psychology that often has a business model, and a certain triumphalism. The American model, though often naive, will take something g and remake it!
    This happen when a young man from Seattle went to Italy, and saw espresso for the first time. He came back to Seattle, and created Starbucks! There were already thousands of families in the world who were real coffee people. But this naive individual applied American psychology to coffee, and dominates the coffee world. Very triumphalistic! The desire to dominate!

    1. My experience has largely been that converts tend more often to be “more Orthodox than the Orthodox,” so to speak, if anything. Most are not looking to change Orthodoxy. A lot of them were deliberately leaving innovation behind.

      Innovations of various sorts have largely historically preceded the conversion trends of the past few decades. Assimilation to America was rather important to the early 20th c. immigrants. That was the period of the introduction of pews, organs, etc.

      But of course one can always find people who want their own way, no matter their background.

      But the point here is not to warn off “dangers” or dangerous people but rather to encourage us to love everyone — no exceptions.

      As for Starbucks, I don’t think that man from Seattle has altered anything or dominated anything — just introduced a new product for a new market. It’s not my preference, but it will do in a pinch.

  6. I belong to an ethnic parish and really connected to this article. I have observed that our more recent immigrants want our church to serve as a kind of ex-pat center where they can hear their language and experience the culture in their country of origin. Orthodoxy is secondary to them and many object to English being used. What tension this creates! We really have a missionary opportunity in the ethnic churches!

  7. Father,

    Thank you for an excellent article. I too have felt the “impingement” when those of an ethnic background speak in their native language around me. In my fear I would think, “How dare they exclude me from the conversation. They know I am not Greek.” But someone that I regard highly has taught me that I should not fear death, but rather embrace it and die, so that Christ might live within me.

    He still teaches me each week. Thank you.

    Burt Keener
    Cary, NC

  8. This made me smile.

    A few thoughts:

    Our parish priest of thirty five years, Fr. Constantine Mitsos, most well know saying was: “People are People.” God rest his soul. He was always a very patient man.

    Secondly:

    Met. Kallistos explains the the faith must be received through a receptacle. The culture of the parish is the glass that holds the water – the faith.

    Lastly: through the years we’ve been blessed with being part of the conversion process of many people. The ones that are the happiest and the most fulfilled in their parishes are the ones that jump in with two feet and embrace the culture of the parish. Just a small attempt at joining in is appreciated by those whose culture you’re learning to embrace.

  9. Not sure why the goal of many is to destroy hundreds of years of beautiful tradition to appease a few people. Just like I wouldn’t join the local Italian-American club, I would not join the Greek Orthodox church in the neighboring town. I belong to a church in the ACROD because I am Rusyn. I also apologetically add that I have a problem with our current bishop of Greek descent because he’s not one of us. Could have waited a few more years if that meant finding a proper bishop.

    1. He’s an Orthodox bishop, isn’t he? The history of the Church is replete with examples of ethnic mixing when it comes to bishops, priests, etc. This is normal.

      There is a significant difference between the Italian club and the Greek Orthodox Church, though — the former is a club that is about a culture, whereas the latter is a church that is about Jesus Christ and includes people who have (at least one, probably more than one!) culture.

    2. J.A. I am of Rusyn heritage as well. The destruction you speak of is to ‘Americanize’ the church, in my humble opinion, and make it as judgmental and religious as possible. Thusly removing the gentle nature of the service and prayers we learned and loved.

  10. Thank you for this very thoughtful article.

    I grew up in an “ethnic” parish but never thought much about it because I knew very little about the Orthodox world. A significant difference in that parish, however, is that 50 years ago there was very little Arabic used. Basically the entire service was in English. (if you go back to that parish now, I understand that it is now half Arabic or that there is an echo service in part.)

    My first real experience came in college. The only Orthodox parish in the town was a Greek parish. There was not a single word of English used and it was made clear to me that I was not welcome if I was not Greek.

    For the last 25+ years though I have attended OCA parishes. If I have to change a church for any reason, my first criteria is whether English is the language of the liturgy. I don’t mind occasional differences and the use of multiple languages for the Gospel at Pascha is to me a celebration of all of our heritage. However, I am like many that will not attend a parish that is primarily focused on one heritage.

    We should never ignore the lands of our families but the Orthodox Church in North America will nor flourish if we maintain these ethnic ties as a primary criteria. In my opinion., of course. The parish does not have to be rigidly non-ethnic, but ethnicity should be subordinate. As I said earlier, a celebration of all of our backgrounds is great but ethnicity as a criteria of admission is a sin.

    Michael

  11. Wonderful and perceptive article. It needed to be said. Sadly, the “ethnics” and “cradles” and “converts” who could benefit most from your message are perhaps the least likely to “get” what you’re saying.

    I am ACROD from a family of three generations of priests. Like most ACROD and old line OCA parishes, we trace our roots to the old Austro Hungarian Rusyn regions of modern Slovakia or Ukraine. For all intents and purposes immigration from there stopped after World war one. English has been the general rule for nearly two generations , very few speak the old languages yet the “one of us” etc… mindset lingers on. So there is work to be done. But the success of our American born bishop of Greek ethnicity and the overwhelming affection he has received and good will he has brought to us coupled with his connection to our young people and young families is real and amazing in the three short years, he has been our spiritual shepherd. I pray he is an exemplar of the future that others might point to ….

  12. I am a Greek Catholic who belongs to a Church in the American South. We face the same challenges as our Orthodox sisters and brothers. I am happy to report that our parish has people born on four continents. A small part of the Divine Liturgy is in a Slavic language but it does not predominate. We make money from ethnic dinners but our customers might be served by a Ukrainian or an Egyptian.

  13. Thank you, Father, for this article! Frankly, when I saw the title I was afraid to read it. I have heard so much bashing of Orthodox ethnicity and touting of “American” Orthodoxy. I’ve never heard anyone, though, address the fact that the Gospel is to be preached to “the nations,” which are ethnic identitites, not political or social identities. Evangelism has historically happened precisely along these lines, hasn’t it? And “America” is not an ethnic identity, it is an economic, political and social identity. It is at once non-ethnic and multi-ethnic. And it is not just in the Orthodox Church. Even in the city in which I live there are parts of town that are “ethnic,” and you might feel the same way going to a grocery store as you do to an “ethnic” parish. I myself am decidedly not looking for an “American Orthodoxy.” To me that just means a “Faith” that is stripped down, slicked up, feeling good, nicely packaged and marketed for “relevance.” If we’re going to receive the Faith handed down it’s going to come ethnically. I think you’re doing a good job in this article trying to balance this all out.

    1. My sense of “the nations” is that it is not the same as “ethnicity” (nor is it nation states as we now know them). My point, really, is that everyone needs to be loved as they are and not as a category, whether that category is “ethnic,” “American,” etc. In no way should I be understood as proposing a programme of either ethnic promotion/preservation or of de-ethnicization. Either one strikes me as ideological, which is something that the Christian faith is not.

  14. Four years ago when I converted to the Orthodox faith, I noticed it was quite a mixed bag. Coming from a Roman Catholic background, it wasn’t so much of a stretch, and I actually looked forward to much of the ‘ethnic’ expressions of Orthodoxy from reading so much about it. I found it a bit dismaying when I had people, both in and out of the church, wondering aloud why I, a Black American woman would even want to consider Eastern Orthodoxy. There are precious few blacks in the Roman Catholic Church as it is (just slightly over 2% in the USA) and definitely even fewer Orthodox Christians of color. Most people assume if you’re black you must be Baptist or AME. Anyway, for whatever reason, I found that most of the time when I visit an “ethnic parish” I am welcomed with open arms. It’s only with online ‘ethnic” Orthodoxy or American-style “netodoxy” that I run into problems. Here’s how I see it: converting to the Orthodox faith is not unlike when an American travels abroad on physical travels. One shouldn’t go into it with the attitude that other people who reside in the foreign land are the “foreigners.” Truth is YOU are the ‘foreigner’ and it’s up to us to adjust, not for them to conform to your ways. That doesn’t mean necessarily “going native” (or convert crazy as Fr Seraphim Rose of blessed memory puts it), but of at least keeping an open enough mind to understand where the crossroads are with the various ethnicities that have been shaped by Orthodoxy. In the past 4 years since becoming Orthodox, I’ve begun studies in both the Greek and Russian/Church Slavonic languages, and for me it’s a real blessing to be able to walk into an ethnic parish and be able to chant and pray along in the language and not get upset because it’s not in English. There is a certain beauty to the prayers in the languages in which they were written that doesn’t always translate well. I love it that I am now able to ‘read” the icons without having to rely on someone else’s interpretation. If I hadn’t become Orthodox, I probably would’ve never seen Serbian frescoes, would’ve never gotten into Greek foods, never would’ve learned more about the Byzantine Empire (which is woefully undertaught in US K-12 academic institutions and not all that well covered in university courses, either.) I also probably had final made the step in doing something I’d always wanted to do: Recently, I took an an autosonal DNA test that determines what possible genetic ethnicity one has and it turns out I have some Russian ancestry which makes me laugh because I attend an OCA church which started from the Russian Orthodox Church. Yes, I am definitely embracing the Russian Orthodox in me, but it doesn’t mean I am any less Black American AND Orthodox…and that it’s all good. If someone else doesn’t understand or like it, that’s their problem, I say 🙂

  15. I understand immigrants are human, they are people just like the rest of us, but I would like to speak practically. If it is our goal to penetrate America with Orthodoxy, we have to think about the future; we must make converts of Americans.

    Ethnic Orthodox churches in America will always present a dilemma. Unless it can be continually stoked with new immigrants of the same ethnicity, it is mono-generational. As the children of immigrants become more American, the less they associate with the ethnic church and want something more American.

    To me, our church is a good model. Holy Theophany in Colorado Springs is an OCA English speaking church with a majority being Protestant and Catholic converts. However, the congregation is salted with a decent number of Russian, Romanian, and Greek immigrants who function well even with the everything done in English. Their familiarity with the Liturgy, helps them learn English. In the past an ethnic congregation (Serbian-I think) has shared our facilities, and I think they have their own location now. As their children grow up, they might become more comfortable in our convert parish, than their ethnic parishes. Our church has broad appeal and does quite well.
    jbr

  16. Great article, Father!
    I was born into the ROCOR 22 years ago. I like to say “born into” because I was received by baptism and chrismation. Maybe a third of the liturgy was in English. At first this was a stumbling block but I simply assumed that that’s the way it was so I was just going to have to deal with it. But I had already read a lot about Orthodoxy and was captivated-so much so that I wasn’t going to let this foreign language get in my way. I started bringing an old Jordanville prayer book with me and learned to follow a long. After the liturgy I would corner the priest and ask questions. Then I went out and got me some commentaries on the Liturgy. Now I became enchanted and excited. Every service I would take my prayer book and keep following along and asking questions afterward. Within maybe 6 months I not only knew what was being said (Slavonic or not) I had an appreciation of the inner integrity and beauty of the theology of the Liturgy. I dare say I knew more than most in that lovely little church and all because I was so interested in finding out more and more that I kept reading and reading. I developed a warm fondness for Slavonic, though to this day I speak little of it.
    My priest blessed me to go to the Greek Cathedral and it was amazing! I speak almost no Greek but I can listen to it being prayed and chanted all day long! A month later Father blessed me to attend the Antiochian church. Just beautiful! Such a beautiful sound Arabic has to it. Ironically, once I heard it spoken and chanted I became greedy to hear it all in Arabic. Alas, there was too much English mixed in! Now I live in Texas, not far from the Mexican border. It turns out that there is a ROCOR and an OCA presence in Mexico. My application for a passport is being processed as I write. Once you really get to know the liturgy (and you’ve read the appointed Epistle and Gospel) no language is truly a barrier.
    In my long journey I too have met “ethnic” folk. Most of them are like most of us- socially insecure. But most everybody responds to kindness. Heck, I’ve visited “all convert” churches where I literally had to go around and introduce myself as a visitor because nobody would even say “hellohowaya”. But, ninety five percent of the time, if you’ll smile and say “hello” all sorts of people will smile back. The more everybody smiles the better everybody feels! Besides, some of the food prepared for coffee hour at some of these parishes is to die for! It would simply be rude to stuff your mouth (and your pockets–I’m a bachelor so that’s culturally permitted where I come from) without having first smiled.

  17. Father, there is a big difference between the ethnic issue and the language issue in Orthodox Churches in America. For example, many Antiochian parishes maintain a strong sense of cultural identity while using English as the liturgical language of the Church. This has generated many healthy parishes in the USA and today many people from diverse backgrounds feel welcome in this environment. I know I do.

    What happens though when an ethnic parish insists the use of a foreign language for liturgy that in some cases is not even a spoken language? Take for example the use of liturgical greek in the GOA or the use of Church Slavonic in Russian parishes.

    Is it healthy to use such a language for liturgy and expect children, mixed marriages, and non-Orthodox neighbors to want to participate and understand the liturgical life of the Church? Can one even evangelize if the liturgy is not commonly understood?

    Here is another question: What is the pastoral reason for the Church to insist on the use of such languages for Liturgy in the USA? After all, we do not hold Sunday School in Liturgical Greek. And most clergy do not even preach in greek. So why do so when it comes to Liturgy?

    How do we show hospitality to strangers when so many Churches choose not to even hold liturgy in a language that is understood by the people we extend an invitation to.

  18. I have been Orthodox for 20 years. I was chrismated in the Greek Orthodox jurisdiction. I worked to learn Greek and to fit in, and I didn’t have too many problems with it. However, I often invited friends who were not ethnic to “come and see”. I remember one time, a friend of mine who had asked for, borrowed, and read many books on Orthodoxy decided he and his wife were ready to attend a liturgy He chose to come the Sunday we had the Greek Festival. Because of tours of the church, the pews had been cleared of all the service books which had the Greek on one side of the page and English across from it. There was no choir that Sunday in order to free choir members to get away to their stations just as soon as Liturgy was concluded. So, the priest and chanters led the Liturgy. I looked across the nave and saw my friends standing there not having a clue about anything that was going on. I sidled over to them and tried to give them a running commentary on what was happening. They were polite. Their eyes glazed over at times. They told me how interesting and edifying it all was afterwards. They never came back. We had presented ourselves to them as Greek, and they couldn’t get past that to see the Church of the Apostles established at Pentecost even after reading books on Orthodoxy. That will probably be a problem to us for many years yet.

    However, I keep in mind — and try to get this across to my friends who are interested in Orthodoxy but can’t bring themselves to “come and see”– what Fr. Joseph Honeycutt said:

    “If you could become Orthodox like a Romanian, experience it like a Serbian, be loyal to it like a Ukrainian, sacrifice for it like a Russian, be proud of it like an Arab, and enjoy it like a Greek, what a great faith you’d have… especially, if in addition, you got to call yourself an American!”

  19. In New Zealand I have tried to go to an Antiochian Church. The congregation were somewhat hostile because they were mostly Romanian. I heard afterwards that the service was being held in part in Slavonic. anyway I felt I should not disturb a place where Romanians felt at home.

    However on attending an Anglican Church I was given the same treatment , so take heart.
    I’m English you see, and not popular because of my nationality.

    The problem seemed to me to be in the women of the congregation in both instances.
    Is this the problem elsewhere, that it’s the females defending their territory?
    Men don’t seem to mind me but maybe another female is not easy to assimilate for the women especially one who does not conform to their type.
    I hope this helps. It will make it all worth while if it does!

    1. Keep loving – I was once an active member of a parish for three years before being “accepted” (tolerated) by the more established, ethnic members. It all boils down to why you are there – to worship.

  20. This is an interesting article – I have a ton to say on the topic. Something I would point out is that many ethnic parishes really are not what they seem. I firmly believe that most ethnic parishes are merely holding onto portions of it in their programming (which might be beneficial, but may also not be), while a vocal minority is pandered to and keeps the perceived parish identity far, far more ethnic in appearance than it actually is in reality. My parish would be a typical example of this phenomenon.

  21. Fr. Andrew: Your reflections are thought provoking!! You might be interested to know that I think I’ll be at that November 14 meeting you mentioned earlier.

    I really appreciate this later clarification from you, “In no way should I be understood as proposing a programme of either ethnic promotion/preservation or of de-ethnicization. Either one strikes me as ideological, which is something that the Christian faith is not.” I sometimes like to adapt a St. Vincent formula to express what I think you are saying here. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people at all times in all places. And to me that means that the Gospel must be spoken in Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, German, French,…you get the idea. The Gospel of John proclaims, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. I take from this that any Christian life that is worth putting on a lampstand for all the world to see must be placed on certain cultural/fleshy lampstands despite all its sinfulness and inclination to decay. The lampstand is not what’s important, of course. It’s the Light of Christ that is what’s important. I sometimes that I refuse to be Helenized, and I refuse to de-Helenize because both are demonic, i.e., both agendas elevate secondary and tertiary things to first things. I think Fr. Tom Hopko had a maxim that would come into play here, viz., desire to change no one.

    Thanks again for your thought provoking reflections. I hope all goes well on the 14th.

  22. This is a beautiful article, Fr. Andrew, thank you. The parish we are currently a part of is in a stage of attrition – the “immigrant” generation are grandparents and older, while the 20-30 year old generation has functionally left the church. The problem isn’t with the question of “ethnicity” as it is with a disconnection of purpose and action.

    Upon returning to this parish after living elsewhere for four years, the amount of regular participants had dropped by half, and it was the younger generation that had left. The sense of purpose in the church had shifted from being Christ’s hands and feet in the world, to being ethnic and running a restaurant out of the parish hall to pay the bills.

    Ethnicity in a church can be comforting to some, interesting to others, but when it becomes the central focus of an individual church that church can miss out on the beauty and growth that the love of Christ brings. A church can have both ethnicity and outreach, but Christ not ethnicity must be at its center.

    The Church has a purpose in this world, and that is (briefly stated) to share the love of Christ in tangible ways. Ethnicity is part of the historic beauty of Orthodoxy, but not its reason to exist. As you say, the love of Christ is the way to keep this in perspective.

  23. People are people, that is true. It is only when people put ethnicity before God and the church that problems arise. For them putting ethnicity in the position of primacy to Christianity is where the problem start. If the congregation is in America, the liturgy, should be in American. I grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church in Toledo where it was demanded that everything be done in Greek, because after all we were “Greek Orthodox.” I encountered a more balanced (and primarily American) liturgy when I moved over to the Antiochians, because my kids and wife were not being spiritually fed because they, like me, didn’t speak Greek. When I relocated to the Cincinnati area, I encountered ethnic primacy again in the form of an Antiochian Church, where I was the “other,” the one who didn’t speak Arabic. I tried for 5 years to assimilate, with no luck due to their “zero tolerance” mentality for “others.” Thanks be to God that I have finally found the OCA Church that is populated by ethnics and converts alike, but whose focus is on spiritually feeding the congregation, not preserving an ethnic covering to the liturgy that keeps the Holy Scripture and services from anyone. I am finally at peace and at home.

  24. I stay away from ethnic parishes. In my last one (ROCOR) the liturgy was in Russian, English and Arabic. The congregation was Russian and Eastern European always talking about the old country, the old ways and old wars. I am American. I speak English. I have been around the world in the military and probably lived a bit in their homelands. I am very content in my mission church of converts. The ethnic thing is going to hamstring the orthodox church for a long time. They will just be cultural repositories instead of churches.

  25. If only all converts were like our friend Richard Cook. Converts need their own space. Converts even need their own Church and America is blessed with many Churches that broke away from the big Christian faiths but remain Brothers and Sisters in Christ with all of them.

    It’s a fact that most converts and especially most of their priests make bad house mates with Orthodox communities, many even treat the ‘real’ Orthodox communities like some home front that needs to be beaten down. But converts have so many good people in them, so make your peace for real and form your own Church and let us be good neighbours in Christ, you dont have to gatecrash the Holy Orthodox houses.

      1. All main Churches claim to be the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”, and that means the Churches which most of the converts left. Converts need to establish their own “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” and find their peace within it, teach and preach their wisdom from the pulpit of their new Church. We can see here the pain caused to converts as they try to push their way to be members of the real Orthodox Churches of America (especially of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but also Moscow and Antioch).

        Establish your own, independent Church and then give people the choice to join your ecclesiastic family, in your own terms, instead of trying to join our ecclesiastic family and to impose your own sensitivities. The Orthodox are a minority in this great, all-embracing country America.

        You converts enjoy the visibility and comforts and of the (white, ‘Anglo-Saxon’) majority. But now that you made yourselves an artificial minority in Orthodox communities, it pains you, it offends you and it has turned most of you into colonizers and not like pilgrims. Xαιρετισμούς, Привет, Greetings.

        1. But isn’t it true that the Orthodox Church claims to be uniquely the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? If so, wouldn’t your suggestion mean either 1) that some people should not be allowed to be saved in the one Church or 2) the Orthodox Church ought to change its ecclesiology not to accommodate letting converts in, but rather to keep them out?

  26. Somewhat tainted views in the article. It definitely points out extreme examples. Having assisted in erecting several Orthodox Churches up and down the east coast of the US, it is a subject I am familiar with. If I did not realize the benign nature and the humility of the author, I may me even be upset by it’s content. The million dollar question of the article – “How do we deal with ethnicity in Orthodoxy in America? The answer is quite simple. It is through education. When Greeks and Russians came to America, they did not build social clubs and ethnic centers. They build Churches. Without that commitment of faith, we would not be having this discussion. I recall a discussion I had on a forum last night where I was referred to as Greek (with negative overtones) I reminder the individual that I am Orthodox, of Greek descent.
    The second point relates to Orthodoxy’s path to the new world. A path that is paved with the skulls and the blood of those same ethnicities that now are reduced to being an “issue” of discussion. I can write a complete dissertation that will take a year to complete on this subject, but I believe you get the point.

  27. Interesting article. However, the point still remains. No matter how open you personally may be, do you really think that any “ethnic” parish will ever view someone who is not of the same language and background as anything more than an outsider? Do you think any of these parishes would view someone like me, a dark skinned american, with anything other than suspicion?

  28. Just a note one year later concerning my thoughts on this interesting article. I realize this article focuses more on the Orthodox Churches, but I thought my experience within the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches would be almost as relevant.

    I was born a Protestant, and spent my young formative years passing from one Protestant denomination to the next as my father attempted to find his own way spiritually. I met and married a Filipino woman, and during our engagement I converted to Roman Catholicism. In the wider church in communion with Rome, there are many Eastern Rite churches, and I have had the opportunity to visit two of these parishes: a Melkite Greek Catholic church, and a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church.

    In the Melkite church, my wife and I were welcomed wholeheartedly, and it seemed to be a mix of various converts and old-country members. Of note, their Archpriest had converted with his parish to Catholicism after 20 years as an Episcopalian priest, and through a strange series of events had become the pastor of this Melkite parish.

    On the other hand, the Ukrainian parish we attended was considerably less inviting. The parishioners said nothing to us, and while the priest was willing to answer questions and the like, he did little to make any non-Ukrainians feel welcome. The prevalent attitude could have been due less to our non-Ukrainian-ness and more due to the fact that this was at the height of the ongoing hostilities between Ukraine and Russia. I overheard one parishioner state that they had loss almost half of their members to a nearby Ukrainian Orthodox church that was still linked to the Russian Orthodox Church.

    In the end, I do not attribute the attitudes of either parish to their ethnicity or nationality–I attribute it to the fact that every parish has its own personality, and the congregations at each Mass time may even have their own personality. I have visited or been a member of more than 20 parishes in North America and Europe, and each one had a different view of life, of community, and of how to interact with their fellow parishioners and visitors. From the parish in Washington state that had more members at its Latin Mass than at the English Masses, to the parish in Arizona that seemed to be only made up of retirees, to the old parish in Georgia whose church building had been used as a Confederate hospital (and some parishioners clung to the Old South mindset), to the military congregations I was a member of in Belgium and Iraq who were really a mixed bag, it depends on the people in the parish. I realize most of this experience is Roman Catholic, but I think it correlates to what folks are talking about here.

  29. Just finding this article, and thank you for writing it! It was a lovely read and resonated a great deal with me from several angles and for several reasons.

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