On June 4, the leadership of four interfaith organizations—Religions for Peace USA, Parliament of World Religions (PoWR), United Religions Initiative (URI) and the Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY)—issued a statement: “This Perilous Moment: A Statement from Religious Leaders and Communities on the Crisis of Racial Injustice and Inequity and Current Protests.” This statement is important, as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Humanists, Indigenous, Jains, Sikhs, Taoists, Unitarian Universalists, Zoroastrians, and many others signed on to the statement and were able to address, in one voice and with a sense of urgency, the systemic evil of racism that plagues our country. Drawing inspiration and empowerment from the spiritual resources of their respective tradition, each faith community is underscoring their commitment to justice, peace, and reconciliation.
The Orthodox Church, as an active member of the Interfaith Organization Religions for Peace USA, is also a partner in this interfaith witness. Her participation in these efforts reflect her ethos as it has been authoritatively expressed in the Great and Holy Council (Crete 2016) to seek inter-religious understanding and co-operation for the advancement of peaceful coexistence and harmonious living. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his address to the Global Peace Conference of Al-Azhar and Muslim Council of Elders (2017), expressed the belief of the Orthodox Church in the need for human solidarity and the commitment of the Orthodox Church in advancing that goal through interfaith collaboration building a culture of justice and peace. He stated that the credibility of religious communities in today’s world depends on whether they are active advocates and guardians of human dignity and freedom of all people. His All-Holiness has suggested that it is only through dialogue and collaboration that faith-based communities, governments, and civil society are able to respond together to the challenge of building a just and peaceful world.
These have been unsettling times. I have been forced by the events of the last several months to face up to several disconcerting truths. When the COVID-19 lockdown orders were issued, they had a common element. Churches were not deemed “essential.” Liquor stores, pot distributors, and lottery sales were deemed essential. Commercial air travel and protests were deemed essential, yet congregating at churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques was not. Following the murder of George Floyd, I came to the excruciating realization that the politicians were right. We are not essential.
After the killing of George Floyd, I tried to find some meaning to this hideous act and its aftermath. I am not intending to set forth the arguments regarding the law’s injustices to black Americans. Although tragic, that is far too narrow an understanding of the real issue. Here is the undeniable truth: we are the most affluent nation in the world, and yet countless millions live in squalor with no real prospects or hope for change. I am ashamed of myself; I must change. Also, as a member of the Orthodox Church in the United States, I am ashamed that our church has turned so deaf an ear and so blind an eye to this national disgrace.
When Archbishop Iakovos stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965, he was maligned by many Greek Americans who took offense that their Archbishop would “fraternize with Civil Rights agitators.” Fifty-five years later, opinion has shifted dramatically. Iakovos’ march alongside MLK is widely regarded as one of the iconic moments of Orthodox Christianity in the United States, if not globally. Today, we either ignore or apologize for that generation of Orthodox who did not understand the moral necessity of the Civil Rights movement.
We now find ourselves at a similar moment. Will our grandchildren have to apologize for us because we stood on the wrong side of history, or will we accept the spirit of the Black Lives Matter critique because it is morally and theologically convicting?
On December 11, 2019, Metropolitan Serapion and the clergy of the Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii wrote a statement pronouncing that Christmas celebrations will be held in the diocese on both December 25 and January 7 (29 Kiakh) to better serve the pastoral needs of local congregants. Yet the pronouncement caused a stir among Copts globally. Such debates are not new. Immigrant parishes in North America at one point in their early history routinely celebrated Christmas on December 25 to retain congregants and serve the needs of early Copts scattered across Central Canada and the North Eastern United States. At the heart of such debates, past and present, is the tremendous influence of Pope Shenouda and the many meanings of belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. In order to chart this history and offer insights on its contemporary significance, we begin with the challenges faced by early Copts in North America and then outline the changing nature of Coptic diasporic communities as a consequence of rising immigration from Upper Egypt, following the 2011 revolution.