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.