ORTHODOX COOPERATION ON THE LOCAL LEVEL: WHAT UNITES US
by Fr. Daniel J. Keller
When Bishop Demetri asked for my thoughts on Orthodox cooperation on the local level, I immediately recalled a conversation almost twenty years ago with my godson when we were students at Holy Cross Seminary in Boston. We were discussing Orthodox unity in America and how it might be achieved. I remember saying that considering the way Orthodoxy works, the impetus for Orthodox unity would come from the bottom up rather that from the top down. All these years later, I still think that way. When Orthodox people on the local level discover their common identity and unity in faith it will lead by natural progression to administrative unity. I am not implying that the Orthodox bishops in America do not need to act. Nor am I claiming that the mother churches do not have a vital role in the work for the unity we all desire. Rather, their efforts will only be fruitful if there is a vision and hunger for unity on the local level. And this will come about only when Orthodox Christians know each other and experience the bond of love that comes from working together for Christ and His church.
My earliest experience with inter-Orthodox cooperation was in Baltimore before I entered the seminary. In those days it took the form of visits to parishes of other jurisdiction for special events or celebrations. Out of this developed a clergy fellowship; and a common Sunday of Orthodoxy celebration.
My next significant experience was while serving as assistant pastor at St. George’s in Cleveland. There, in the early 1980s, we had an excellent clergy fellowship; a metro area Orthodox Women’s Guild; a joint effort to support St. Herman’s House of Hospitality — an Orthodox ministry to the homeless; a Pan-Orthodox lay fellowship; and a number of educational programs, including cooperative vacation church schools and training for church staffs. Next, during my three years at St. John’s in Ft. Wayne, Ind. We developed many of the same activities and programs I had experienced in Cleveland even though the Orthodox community was considerably smaller. Particularly successful were our vacation church schools and teacher training programs.
Presently, in Huntington, W.V., where I have served as pastor of Holy Spirit Church for 10 years, we have seen an explosion of cooperative activities between the six parishes in southern West Virginia (three Antiochian, two Greek and one Carpatho Russian). Over the past decade, during Lent, services and vespers have been jointly celebrated and fellowship meals shared. This has strengthened our common identity as Orthodox Christians and given us an appreciation for the rich diversity of our individual traditions.
Out of this experience has developed a successful annual retreat known as Mountain State Orthodox. In the works is a pan-Orthodox effort to develop a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham on 50 acres of donated land. There also is hope of developing a Pan-Orthodox center in conjunction with the shrine. Additionally, we have established a local IOCC chapter, which sponsors an annual benefit that so far has raised several thousand dollars.
Elsewhere around the country, there have been other, wonderful successes. Pan-Orthodox programs have provided Orthodox counseling services in Washington, D.C. and Youngstown, Ohio, marriage preparation services in western Pennsylvania, a hospital ministry in Youngstown, a number of college chaplaincies and charitable societies. At least one Pan-Orthodox community I know of, Worcester, Mass., has developed a residential senior citizen facility.
I am certain there are many other cooperative efforts that I’m not even aware of. This trend happily points to an increased desire and effort to work together as a Orthodox Christ community rather than isolated jurisdictional enclaves. Through this effort we have become more effective and credible in our witness to the society around us. It has become increasingly clear that the majority of Orthodox Christians in this country realize that Orthodox administrative unity is necessary for the church to fulfill its mission in this society. This unity will be achieved only through the cooperative efforts of our bishops, clergy and laity along with the support and encouragement of the mother church. However, the foundation has to be built at the local level. So I pray and encourage all of you to support and expand the effort to build a common identity through cooperative programs and witness with our brother and sister Orthodox Christians in your communities.
This article first appeared in the Adbook for the 1996 Midwest Region Parish Life Conference hosted by St. Elias Orthodox Church in Sylvania, OH.