The Foundation and the Future of Orthodox Christians in North America

Bishop Seraphim : Talk
The Foundation and the Future
of Orthodox Christians in North America
[given on 6 August, 2003 at Holy Transfiguration Monastery,
Ellwood City, Pennsylvania

I have been asked to speak on “The Foundation and the Future of Orthodox Christians in North America”, and I ask forgiveness in advance for the inadequacies of my words.

It is an important detail to remember that it was 210 years ago that the original missionary monks, including Saints Herman and Juvenaly, began their trek across Russia and Siberia, towards what is now Alaska. Let us not forget this. However, it is yet more important to keep remembering our primary and most important foundation. That is our Saviour, Jesus Christ, Himself. It is because of the Saviour that the monks accepted the obedience to go. It is because of the Saviour that they undertook this trek (mostly on foot), across thousands of kilometres of forest, mountains, rocks, lakes, muskeg, quicksand and desert. Because of love for Him, they persevered and they endured. They persevered, despite the great risk of attack by thieves and xenophobes. They endured swarms of biting and stinging insects, and dangers from wild animals and wild human beings. All this culminated in a rough sea-voyage, and it took about a year. It is because of the Saviour that they reached out in love to the indigenous peoples they met in the new lands. It is because of the Saviour, and their love for Him, that they began to reach out to the peoples in the local languages. It is because of the Grace of the Holy Spirit that they were given the ability to do all this. It was also because of the Saviour that they fulfilled this obedience, even in the face of death. It is also because of our Saviour, and because of this love, that this well-laid foundation has persisted until now in Alaska (even with a lack of clergy to provide the Mysteries to feed the faithful).

I must recall the missionary zeal that arose from love for Christ, with which the Hieromonk Juvenaly (Govoutchkin) went to the western shores of Alaska, in order to bring Christ to the Yupik people. I must recall the essence of his martyrdom, as related to us by the Archpriest Michael Oleksa. Father Michael reminds us that Saint Juvenaly approached the land, with a companion, in a boat. He was wearing, as usual, a gold pectoral Cross. This metal sign was taken by the local shaman as a direct threat, and he and his party attacked with bow-and-arrow the approaching boat. Remarkable it is that the descendants of these attackers recall the martyrdom to this day, through accurate oral tradition. At that time, the Yupik people thought that Saint Juvenaly was crazy, because they thought that he was waving his hand in order to brush away the arrows, as though he thought that they were mosquitoes. Rather, the martyr was blessing those who were killing him. He and his companion were killed ; but the love, which moved them to travel there, in due time bore fruit, far beyond a hundred-fold.

The original missionaries laid a firm foundation, in the love of the Saviour ; and those who followed them did the same. They were funded not only by the monarch but also, in time, by a missionary society of believers, who cared about bringing the hope and consolation, and joy of life, in the love of Christ, to peoples who had not yet heard the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ. Much of the missionary work, and much of the funding of missionary work after them, was the work of Saint Innocent.

It was not just in speaking about Christ that these early missionaries laboured. They were fishing for human beings, and they caught them for Christ, in the net of His love. They lived as Christians. They served their neighbours as they would serve Christ. They lived with them. In particular, Saints Herman and Innocent called attention to the abusive behaviour of the business-driven exploiters. Very quickly, there sprang up indigenous disciples and local missionaries, such as Saint Jakob Netsvetov.

Because of a very large immigration to the USA and Canada of peoples from European and Mediterranean Orthodox places and countries, in due time the focus shifted away from an explicitly missionary purpose. In meeting the needs of these immigrating persons and peoples, it was necessary to continue both feeding the expanding flock with the food of Christ, and helping these rational sheep to adjust to these new conditions. Regardless of any mistakes, all of this was undertaken as a result of the firm foundation of the love of Jesus Christ, our Saviour, which lived in the hearts of His servants. It is interesting to note that it was about a century ago that, included in this feeding of sheep, was a very large re-grafting of many persons, both in Canada and in the USA, who returned from the Unia to Orthodoxy. We know, certainly, that Saint Alexis Toth was the main (but not only) catalyst here. In Canada, it was the recently-arrived farmer, Theodore (Feodor) Fuhr, in central Alberta. In company with others such as Feodor Nimirsky, he requested that priests come to serve all the leaderless sheep in western Canada. As a result, the first Divine Liturgies for them were served by Father Dmitri Kamnev, who had travelled from Seattle in 1898 to do so. This initial work was followed by the labours of others, most notably Archimandrite (later Bishop) Arseny, who worked there, also, and across the prairies. Thanks be to God, the Uniats were not the only converts to Orthodoxy of those days. There has been a steady flow, until now, of conversions from all sorts of backgrounds.

Glory be to God ! Our lands have not, through all these years, been lacking significant, holy people — both known and unknown, recognised and hidden. Not only do I rejoice in the official recognition given to so many persons, but I also rejoice that others are less officially, but sincerely, loved and remembered, including Alaska’s Matushka Olga Michael, and the founder of this monastery, Mother Alexandra.

All this is to address the bright side of our history, until now. There is far more of this brightness than what I have touched upon so briefly. I am speaking like this not because I am a naïve “pollyanna”. I recognise and admit that throughout the history of our Church in North America there have been many mistakes made. I recognise and admit that our Church has become fragmented by nationalisms, and even by racism. I recognise and admit that we have inherited many problems with addiction and violence in some of our families. We have plenty of faults. However, dwelling on them is poisonous, too. What is important to recognise is that, through all these very real and serious problems, we can see many people (including the leadership of the Church) struggling in a personal and corporate repentance.

“The apple does not fall far from the tree”, is a frequently repeated derogatory phrase. It does apply to most faults and weaknesses which are inherited, and passed on, generationally. It has a lot to do with attitude and disposition of the heart. It has a lot to do with what sort of response is given to various temptations.

If I dislike a weakness or a fault or disability in a parent or other person ; if I resent it, or nurse a grudge about it ; if I hold anger, or even hate, because of it ; if I constantly complain, gossip, or criticise about it ; if I point my finger in accusation at someone, then we must observe the obvious phenomenon that there are, on that same pointing-hand, three fingers pointing back at me, myself, and I.

Accepting to be and to remain angry (and consequently to live in bitterness) is the method of perpetuating poison. It is the opposite of the Gospel. The Good News of our Saviour is about forgiveness. The very words of the Our Father are a daily reminder of that. The Beatitudes (in the Gospel according to Matthew, that is, the longer form) clearly underline this. Our Saviour goes so far as to tell us to bless those who persecute us. As it happens, if we are unhappy about the way things are, and we want things to be better, we have to begin with ourselves. We have to learn how to pray for and to bless, and to come to love in Christ every one who has ever wronged us in any way, at any time. Even the twelve-step programmes understand this. However, using any method or programme that does not involve Christ Himself means that complete healing of addiction-afflicted hearts is unlikely. Addictions, by the way, are largely the result of trying to compensate for the pain persisting from not forgiving some wound, from trying to hide from and mask the pain of some event or events. It is only in this blessed and blessing state of forgiveness in Christ’s love, that we can come to be ourselves, and to know Christ’s peace.

It is this matter of forgiveness that we all need to pay close attention to here, and now, in North America, in preparation for our future work. It cannot be over-emphasised that this forgiveness needs to begin on a personal basis. There are three areas of our life here in North America in which even a more general forgiveness of present and past would do us good.

The great majority of us are descended from peoples who immigrated to North America because of some sort of difficulty in an ancestral land. In my family, on both sides, it had to do with over-crowding, and lack of work, as well as a forced clearing of some rural lands. This is a milder cause, but even this could breed a sense of resentment, as could be felt occasionally in my father and my grandmother. Even though there was great gratitude for the new surroundings, this attitude can be inherited. It is necessary for me to be careful about my disposition. The main point, however, is that we want to be vigilant about our attitude towards our ancestors, and our ancestral history. It can poison our present relationships, if we are not careful and watchful to have clean hearts before the Lord, and before one another.

A hundred years ago, our Orthodox Church in North America was more or less a united family. Our undivided Missionary Diocese looked after everyone, somehow, in North America. However, because of external political upheaval, this unity was lost, as various Mother-Churches of immigrating peoples tried to provide for their scattered sheep settling in North America. By now, we have had about eighty years of experience in living in these unnatural-for-Orthodox conditions. We live in overlapping dioceses, with several bishops of a same city. This is against our canons and Tradition. This fragmented, fractured situation not only lets people think of us as a confused sect (or a simply tribal phenomenon), but it also encourages them to think so. Because we are Orthodox, we are forced to admit that the situation is wrong, but we cannot seem to bring ourselves to overcome the fragmentation. For the most part, the situation persists because we do not trust each other, and we have fears of each other. To say it plainly, we are afraid of each other. Remembering past wrongs, we presume in the other a secret agenda, a “power-trip”. We are afraid that we will be oppressed by our brothers and sisters. All this continues to “raise its ugly head”, even though we feel true joy and comfort in our occasional pan-Orthodox services. Most likely, we react in this confused way because we have poison in our hearts. In not persevering in doing what is necessary to become visibly one, we are, in a way, betraying Christ, by persisting in not being visibly one Church as the visible Body of Christ.

These days, I am hearing rather more anti-Jewish commentary than I have heard for many years. This is not unrelated to our present problems. Because we get out of focus by taking our attention away from Christ, we get distracted by unbridled emotions and by trivial and disconnected details. I want us all to remember the words of the Apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, chapters 9 to 11. Here, we are sharply reminded that it is because of Israel’s recalcitrance that we, Gentiles, have been grafted into Christ. He further says that, although the disobedience of the Jewish people has taken them to a distance, they are still children of the Promise. The Apostle also strongly underlines that our responsibility is to show them God’s love in Christ, so that they will also accept Christ. He says that if we have been grafted on (in view of their disobedience), how much more will it be so when the Jewish people accept that Jesus is truly the Christ, the Messiah. If we are behaving in an anti-Jewish way by condemning them and pushing them down, we are working against our Saviour (and against ourselves, too). It is, rather, our missionary responsibility to “fish” for them, and to gather them in Christ’s love. Here, again, is the activity of living in love and in forgiveness.

We, the Church, are the New Israel, about which the great prophet spoke, when he said for the Lord, “‘a law will go forth from me, and my justice for a light to the nations’”(Isaiah 51:4) ; and “‘Behold, you shall call nations that knew you not; and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you’” (Isaiah 55:5) ; and “‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. [...] I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered’” (Isaiah 56:7-8). We have been gathered and grafted, and it is for us to go and to gather others. Since the arrival of Orthodox believers in North America, many have found Him, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (see John 14:6), our Saviour, Jesus Christ, even across language barriers, in the Orthodox Church. Thus, the Lord challenges us as He did the great prophet, “‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” (Isaiah 6:8) Of course, we say with the prophet, “‘I am a Man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips’”(Isaiah 6:5). However, like the prophet, we have been purified — not with a burning coal, but by baptism, chrismation, and by repeated reception of the Body and Blood of Christ. Like the apostles, we, too, are sent out. We cannot avoid it.

In the context of my experience of Church life in North America, I am convinced that the missionary foundation of our Orthodox life on this continent remains our vocation from the Lord. Even though many came here as exiles or refugees ; even though many came for economic reasons ; even though many came damaged by pain, I believe we are all called to be salt and yeast here (see Matthew 5:13 ; 13:33). Ours are lands of extreme selfishness and confusion, with people groping about in all directions as they search for stable hope and truth. There are many who offer cheap or false substitutes ; but the Lord has given us everything we need to supply what our neighbours are lacking.

To fulfil our mandate, we all need first to repent. We all need to turn back to the Lord, and to allow Him to renew His love in our hearts. We need to let Him rule there, and to allow Him to put the correct balance in our hearts and minds, as a unity. We need to allow Him to take painful poisons from our hearts. We need to allow Him to heal the brokenness of our lives, and the brokenness of our Church life. We need to allow Him to soften and to open our hearts, so that we may dare to show His love, the way He wants it to be done. We need to be ready, at last, to take the Gospel seriously, and, without embarrassment, to live according to the Gospel.

The Lord has planted us here, to be for North America what the Church has been everywhere else : the Body of Christ, the Rock, the Foundation, and the Source of joyful, graceful life in Christ — a transformation and transfiguration of the way of life. He has given us a rich inheritance from many cultures, already transformed and renewed by the Gospel. From this inheritance we can, by His inspiration, through the Holy Spirit, find the ways to do the same for all the local cultures, here.

The future of our Orthodox Church in North America is to baptise these cultures in Christ. Let us let go of our self-built protective walls and open the doors of our hearts, so that He may heal and enable us. Let us say, with love for Him, ‘“Here am I. Send me”’(Isaiah 6:8). “God is with us”, as we always exclaim in Great Compline. You and I — we are all called to be missionaries, in one way or another, here and now. Beginning with our families and friends, we are to cast the net of Christ’s love, and to co-operate with the Lord, as He brings us together into His one Body, His one Church.