This is the first article on a topic that is important to me, Orthodoxy in America. As an American conservative, and as an Orthodox Christian, I hold some opinions quite strongly, and must tread lightly lest I offend (this is one reason I haven’t posted yet on this topic, but have several drafts, which I certainly will not publish without major revisions). In some ways, I depart from many of my brothers and sisters, who often display a highly overgeneralized and extremely simplistic anti-Americanism that is, sadly, all too common in Orthodoxy.
But rather than addressing those opinions that may be controversial, the best way to begin is, I think, to look at American Orthodoxy, and not what it should be, or how we might get there.
American Orthodoxy exists, here, in plain sight.
First, however, no matter how anti-secularist one might be, Orthodoxy exists in the real world, that is, in a secular context, and not in a monastic vacuum, not here, not in Russia, not in Greece, not anywhere in the real world. Ranting and raving about secularism doesn’t change that, nor is it in any way productive (save, perhaps, to one’s sense of self-righteousness). Religious v. secular isn’t the issue. How Orthodoxy can survive in the United States without compromising the Faith is the issue.
There are two models for ethnicity in America. The first is multiculturalism, the liberal, essentially and literally anti-American model, where “ethnic” is anything but white, heterosexual, and male, all ethnic groups have status as victims, and the ideal is to ghettoize ethnic groups and polarize tensions between them and the dominant culture. The second is the traditional model, where we are all Americans, the dominant culture belongs to all of us, we learn from one another, and while we may treasure our ethnic heritages, we do not elevate our ethnic status above our status as Americans.
The first way leads to antagonism, often hatred. The second, while often a bumpy road for new immigrants, has a record of success unseen in the world until 1776. Only the second model will lead to a united, thriving American Orthodoxy, because only the second leads to a united, thriving society. And Orthodoxy following that time-tested, successful uniquely American model already exists.
St Michael the Archangel is the parish into which I was chrismated. It is an Antiochian parish in Louisville, Kentucky. St Michael’s is the image of American Orthodoxy, but was not always so.
The parish began, as so many do, as an immigrant parish to serve the small Christian Arab community in Louisville. After many years as an immigrant parish, as Louisville grew, so did the parish. It gained other immigrant Orthodox groups (Slavs of various sorts) who for whatever reason, did not feel welcome at the Greek Orthodox parish.
The native community assimilated rapidly, as Christian Arabs historically have, and became successful merchants and businessmen. The parish built a new church in the suburbs, and got a new priest, who, while a Christian Arab, shared a vision of a truly American Orthodox church. The parish gained more members, both from traditionally Orthodox ethnic backgrounds, and converts.
By the time I first attended St Michael the Archangel in 1983, it was a large and thriving parish, and was truly pan-ethnic. The people were warm, welcoming, and friendly, and on the Sundays there was food after Divine Liturgy, one’s choices ranged from raw kibbeh to pierogies to fried chicken to curries, and the pecan pie (Derby Pie, actually, but I’m not supposed to use that name) was on the table next to the baklava. There was a celebration of different ethnic traditions, including native Kentucky (for nothing is more Kentuckian than fried chicken on Sunday after church), in an English liturgy parish that reached out to all Americans.
This, my friends, is American Orthodoxy.
There is the small OCA parish I currently attend. This is rural Pennsylvania, so “pan-ethnic” in an Orthodox context here means “Different Slavic groups and converts,” with pockets of Christian Arabs and a few handfuls of Greeks scattered here and there, but even with a narrower ethnic spectrum, my parish exemplifies American Orthodoxy.
It began not as a parish, but a campus mission. Locals started attending rather than drive over the mountains to one of the many Orthodox parishes in the area, and over time, more locals started attending. (This is the Alleghenies. To get anywhere, you have to drive over at least one mountain ridge, and the roads are narrow, there are no shoulders, and often, no guard rails.) In (I believe) 1993, the parish bought a small church three blocks off campus, tore out the pews, put in an iconostasis, and the campus mission becamse a community parish.
Services are in English, the parish is warm, friendly, and welcoming. Our priest is from Texas, and while I do not think he has much of a drawl, locals do. So we have a grits, barbecue, and Tex-Mex priest (he never gets quite to hell and brimstone in his homilies, but he has come close), a core parish of Slavs and converts, and students of all ethnic backgrounds, all coming together to worship in an English language parish.
This, my friends, is American Orthodoxy.
It’s American Orthodoxy because it is American, in the unique way that people have come together from all over the globe to become Americans and live peacefully together, and welcome those who come to live with them as Americans. In the case of St Michael the Archangel, those people come from a broad ethnic spectrum, and in the case of Holy Trinity, they come from a narrower one, but both parishes are wholly American and wholly Orthodox.
Even the “ethnic” parishes here are, in the same way, American, at least the ones I have visited. Services are at least mostly English, and the parishioners don’t care who you are, and are glad to have you worship with them. Certainly, Pennsylvania is the exception, and not the rule. Orthodoxy isn’t exactly mainstream, but it isn’t exotic, either. In most of the US, Orthodox parishes are mostly to be found in large cities. Here, most parishes are in small towns or the country. But American parishes are to be found all over the United States, in cities and small towns. American Orthodoxy is already here. I think our hierarchy only need recognize it.
I have more — a great deal more — to say about this topic, but not today.