Black Americans make up a tiny percentage of Orthodox Christians in the United States. Considering how difficult it is for someone from our American culture to convert to the Orthodox faith, it makes the stories of the seven Black individuals in the most recent issue of Jacob’s Well—a magazine of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey (OCA)—rather amazing. Orthodoxy, from the outside looking in, can seem foreign, complicated, and confusing. But perhaps Black Americans are better positioned than any ethnic group in this country to traverse the convert’s journey. They are a people experienced in being “the stranger.”
Earlier this month, Jacob’s Well published a special issue featuring seven interviews with Black Orthodox Americans. It may be the first publication in more than 20 years devoted to Orthodox Christians who are Black Americans (the last we’re aware of was the essay collection, An Unbroken Circle, published by the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black in 1998). The issue was noteworthy both for the diversity of its interviewees and for the commonality among the stories. There were men and women of different ages, some descendants of American slaves, others recent African immigrants or of Afro-Latino backgrounds. They spoke English, Spanish, and French. Some came from Catholic backgrounds, and others from Pentecostal or traditional Black churches. Yet, threads of shared experience ran through them all.
One common theme was encounters with racism: some mild, some disturbing. Rev. Samuel Davis, for instance, the rector of St. Simon the Cyrene Orthodox Mission in New Brunswick, New Jersey, described being pulled over and detained by the police when he was younger because he had a white girlfriend. And Ronald Rosaliere, a newly chrismated convert, described attending a golf tournament that featured Tiger Woods. Rosaliere and his colleagues all worked for the golf course. His boss and all his co-workers were allowed in, but he (the only Black man among them) was denied entry. The security officer refused to believe he was supposed to be there; a co-worker had to help clear up the “confusion.” “I was used to it,” Rosaliere said, “because it happens to me all the time.”
Another common theme was how each convert’s encounter with Orthodoxy transcended their race. They all described falling in love with the faith, in much the same way any convert from any ethnic group might. But some also said discovering Orthodoxy put them in better touch with their African ancestry. Their Orthodox faith enriched their ethnicity, rather than diminishing it.
The impetus for the issue, of course, was the unrest that followed the death of George Floyd. It seemed important to ask: How can the Orthodox Church constructively contribute to a dialogue of racial reconciliation? What can we offer from our own faith to help heal and bring justice to the wider society? We could start by lifting up our Black Orthodox brothers and sisters, by listening to them, and by meditating on their stories.
Listening well is perhaps the first step in seeing the image of God in another. If there is anything we can offer to our society at this moment, it may be the ability to see and to hear the stranger, the outsider. To be heard and seen is to have the image of God recognized in you.
There is much in the Black experience in America unknown to those outside of it. We can fix that. Talking about race can be difficult, but our ascetic tradition is about embracing the difficult and finding God in it. For example, how many white Christians know that in addition to having “the talk” about the birds and bees, Black parents typically also have “the talk” with their teenage boys about how not to get arrested or shot by police? I didn’t. How many know that many Black Americans who are descendants of American slaves feel as if their ancestry is unknowable to them? I didn’t. Many feel like something precious—an ethnic history—was stolen from them. Most cannot identify a little village in the old country where their great-grandparents came from.
Those parishioners can also teach the rest of us how to more effectively reach out to the Black community. Most Orthodox outreach in this country has been targeted to people with economic and educational resources. I have been in Protestant churches that are filled with poor people, but I have never been in an Orthodox church that fits that description. Many people mistake poverty for a lack of money, as if a broke college student is “poor.” Poverty is a lack of opportunity. It is being trapped. Few of us are intimately acquainted with such poverty, because in our country, the poor are sequestered away.
Study after study reminds us that Black families in America are far more likely than white ones to be poor. As the parishioner Femi Olutade says in his interview, exploring a faith tradition that’s associated with a foreign ethnic group is a luxury the poor cannot afford. “To the extent that Black people are oppressed,” he adds, “they don’t have access to secondary education, they don’t have extra time—they cannot learn about the Orthodox Church. They cannot, if those things are not addressed! It’s just not possible.” Reaching the poor, and reaching much of the Black community, will require an intentional dedication of resources to those who are not able to find the Church. It is reminiscent of Christ, who laid aside the ninety-nine in search of the one who had gone astray.
Olutade closed his interview by saying that as a Nigerian man who has found the true faith, he has a responsibility to all Black people to share his discovery with them, a conviction we should all share regardless of our race or class: “I feel like I have a responsibility to African Americans, based on my understanding that Orthodoxy is the one true Church. If you claim that you’re the one true church, you have this responsibility to make it so that people who have been deprived of the Church actually get to hear about it. All the mentions in the Gospels about the poor, the rejected—that is the African American community!”
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