...are the ones that make the biggest difference

2.01.2006

The 'ethnic' problem

A couple of weeks ago in the inquirer's class after church, a woman and her 20-something daughter were introduced to the class by Father M. with the announcement that they would be joining our class next week. We didn't see them the next week, but the mom came last Sunday. She spoke with a thick slavic accent and explained that she was from Yugoslavia and had been Orthodox her whole life, but that since coming to America her daughter had grown up knowing little about the Church. The mother agreed to come to the classes with her daughter so the young woman would feel more comfortable, presumably. Unfortunately, her daughter was ill that day. Unfortunate that she wasn't there to learn about the priesthood and ordination, which was the actual topic of that day's class, and most unfortunate that she wasn't there to hear the teacher's rebuttal to her mother's obviously ethnicized understanding of what it means to be Orthodox.

She raised the first question about "how can be there an American Orthodox church?" right in the middle of a discussion on the priesthood of all believers - I didn't quite grasp the connection, but it was clearly bothering her. St Nick's was originally a Macedonian congregation and many of the older members of the congregation are Macedonian immigrants (a fact that occassionaly causes some tension with our thoroughly American convert priest; they want the old way and still look at it as "their church" to the exclusion of outsiders), but the younger folks are all either converts or were born into other national churches. These latter people all, obviously, view the Orthodox Church as 'the Church', regardless of whatever ethnic flavor its local expression may present. And St Nick's is now a part of OCA. But this posed no small stumbling block to this woman; how can the Liturgy be in English? how can a priest be a convert with German heritage? how can the Church be American at all? She seemed to think that whatever changes the transition from an ethnic to an American congregation might cause almost completely invalidated its Orthodox credentials. Comparisons to the Serbian churches in Chicago were frequent, which still use Church Slavonic and follow the Old Calendar. That St Nick's follows the "American" calendar also bothered her - she asked if they were actually Catholic because they celebrate Christmas in December.

The teacher for that day gamely tried to answer her questions while steering the conversation back to the appropriate subject, but failed in the latter regard. The ethnic problem became the main focus of the class, and frankly, it was the first time I'd ever encountered it first hand. I've heard of it, of course, but this was the first time I'd ever heard someone say directly that they doubted it was possible for there to be an American Orthodox Church, that one had to at least worship in an ethnic congregation (if not actually be that ethnicity) in order to really be Orthodox. I was flummoxed. This represents such a huge disparity in understanding as to what the Church really is that its almost as wide as the divide between Orthodox and Protestants over issues of authority. How do you get someone to see that the Church of Christ could never be limited by language and nationality? How do you get them to understand that the non-Orthodox world is in need of salvation and redemption, that it needs precisely what Orthodoxy has to offer? I can hardly wait for next Sunday's class.

7 comments:

The Scrivener said...

Wow. Personally, I’ve never experienced anything like that encounter. I wish I could sit in on next week’s class, too.

My parish has a convert majority and is all convert clergy. We have a handful of Lebanese and Syrians, and a handful of Greeks, a couple Eritreans, and at least one cradle Russian, but we’re all very much on the same page in regard to the ethnic question.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. The "ethnic" problem is one of the reasons why our family is hangning in the balance between deciding to convert to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church. Although we agree with so much of Orthodox theology, as African-Americans it sure seems like our family would be more welcome in the Catholic Church.

The Scrivener said...

For what it's worth, Anon, I think this has a lot to do with your particular parish (we have several African and African American parishoners). Are you familiar with Claudia Burney? She's a blogger as well, and an African American convert to Orthodoxy. You can find her site at http://ragamuffindiva.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

Thanks douglas, I will look that up.

Nathan said...

Anon -

I think this is definitely a parish-specific problem, or rather, a person specific problem in this case. When we attended an Antiochian parish in Phoenix we didn't come close to running into this kind of thing even though the priest was an Arab American and a large part of the congregation were Syrian or Lebanese immigrants. In the congregation we're presently attending there are several African American families, including an immigrant family from Egypt and one from either Ethiopia or the Sudan. This diversity has been celebrated and at church picnics or coffee hours, they've proudly served their traditional dishes much to everyone's delight. My guess is that you won't find any trouble finding an Orthodox church that welcomes you with open arms.

John said...

Anon, I agree with Douglas Ian and Nathan that this is a parish-specific problem. I am a recent convert (Nov.) and am a member of a congregation that is about 40% convert (including our priest). The rest are largely Greek, with a large number of Eritreans. I have found all to be welcoming, whether Greek or convert.

Anonymous said...

From an Old Country perspective, especially one of the Old Countries where Orthodox Christianity is essential to their ethnic identity, where Orthodox Christianity has flourished for over a millenia, where Orthodox Christianity is the faith of the majority, the American expression of Orthodoxy in a predominantly Protestant country is new, young and strange.

The so-called "ethnic problem" is simply growing pains. We are a young Church in America and have to grapple with the melding of 1st and 2nd generation American "ethnic" Orthodox with converts along with a new wave of Orthodox immigrants from the Old Countries of Eastern Europe and the Middle East - all of us Orthodox Christians, all of us Orthodox in America. I think we've got maybe a century more of growing pains to work out, but they will be worked out.

I'd like to remind you that the so-called "ethnic problem" goes both ways. I have encountered non-Old Country converts who make a point to distance themselves from the "ethnics" and their "alien ethnicities." A real shame. These converts forgot to be grateful for the gift of Orthodoxy that these so-called "ethnics" have brought to these shores. To their shame they seek to distance themselves from the Old Country Mother Churches who have produced so many Saints and martyrs for the Faith, all in the name of being "American."

For the sake of all Orthodox Christians in America, let's acknowledge that a large part of the "ethnic problem" has to do with good ol' American prejudice and less to the "ethnics" who are only being who they are.