DIVERSITY IN UNITY

by Frank Schaefer

 

I recently lectured at an Antiochian mission parish in Southern California, St. Andrew's Orthodox Church in Riverside, which was established by a convert priest, Fr. Paul Finley, less than six years ago. The congregation is as American as apple pie and as Orthodox as Mount Athos.

St. Andrew's is one of many new Orthodox communities in the United States and is a good example of a general trend. It’s typical of mission parishes in that it was begun by a convert priest yet now has a congregation that is a mixture of ethnic Arab and Greek "cradle Orthodox" as well as converts. This mixture is a seamless and happy one that blends into one dynamic spiritual family.

Like many mission parishes, St. Andrew's reaches out zealously to the non-Orthodox. Missionary, evangelistic activity is not left up to the converts or the priest but is enthusiastically undertaken by the whole community. This has brought converts and also has attracted a number of lapsed “cradle” Greek and Arab Orthodox back to the Church. In this sense, part of St. Andrew's mission is the re-converting of the lapsed Orthodox. (By using the term "re-convert" I mean only to describe the process by which a cradle Orthodox re-discovers or discovers for the first time the treasures of Orthodoxy.)

While at St. Andrew's leading a weekend retreat and lecture series, I noticed that a lot of people attending were Protestants. They were curious about Orthodoxy and most became interested through contact with parishioners. One group in particular stands out as quite remarkable. A Protestant pastor of a Four Square Bible Church and 80 members attended each of my lectures. According to this pastor, they will all join the Orthodox Church in the near future.

What attracted these Protestants to Orthodoxy? I believe it was the character of St. Andrew's priest, a warm welcome from the parish, and a knowledgeable Orthodox congregation.

A new Orthodox world is emerging in the United States, one that is no longer stereo- typed by a few ethnic identities. It is American. It is Greek, Arab, Russian, African, Hispanic and Anglo-Saxon. It is white, black, brown and yellow. It is eager to move beyond the private club mentality, and the new American Orthodoxy wants to enter into a dynamic spiritual struggle for salvation. It seems to me this is a true manifestation of the Holy Spirit at work.

What we see in St. Andrew's and others like it is perhaps the wave of the future. The character of the converts and re-converted cradle Orthodox that I have found in the last six years in these convert mission communities can be described as follows:

 

  1. They adhere strictly to Orthodox Holy Tradition and appreciate it.
  2. They have evangelistic zeal.
  3. They welcome strangers.
  4. They are growing spiritually and physically.
  5. They are informed about the Orthodox faith.
  6. They are unashamed of Orthodoxy and willing to be Orthodox first and American second.
  7. Every aspect of the life of the Church is important, including fasting, confession, the Church calendar and church social events, including ethnic events.
  8. Parishioners donate generously.
  9. They are rarely interested by modern innovations, such as shorter services or politically correct new translations of the ancient liturgies.
  10. There is real gratitude for the Orthodox faith- it is not taken for granted.
  11. Convert communities retain their young people, who are taught by example that the Church is the center of life.
  12. They respect their priests and bishops as true spiritual Fathers and of being accountable to them.

 

There is evidence that - perhaps ironically - convert and mission communities are doing a great deal to return backslidden cradle Orthodox to the Church. Perhaps the zeal for the Orthodox faith shown by the converts is contagious. An Orthodox community that evangelizes the non-Orthodox has a better chance of hanging on to its own people. This may be the key to bringing back Orthodox who have left. The diversity of the new American Orthodoxy may well prove to be its greatest asset.

This article first appeared in the Adbook for the 1996 Midwest Region Parish Life Conference hosted by St. Elias Orthodox Church in Sylvania, OH.

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