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.
On the morning of August 24, I was hot! I woke up as I usually do—to the morning’s light, with stares from my cat, awaiting his early meal. I turned on Morning Joe and opened up my iPhone’s newsfeed. This is what I saw:
Now, generally, I’m not one easily given to anger. When I get angry—that is, when I’m in the grip of the emotion—I tend to resolve it in a matter of hours, or a day, tops. My maternal grandmother (God rest her beautiful soul), who was very much a biblical woman, always used to say, “Do not let the sun set on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26, NAB), and I try my best—with God’s Grace—to live by this rule, as Grandma certainly did.
As I sit holding and examining the print of the famous painting “The Last Meeting of Lee & Jackson” by E.B.D. Julio, I reflect on my own racism and prejudices that I grew up with as a Southerner. I feel as Wendell Berry wrote about, The Hidden Wound, inside me and the South, the hidden wound of racism. In this piece I would like to make my confession of how being raised in the South influenced me and other Southerners.
Being raised in the South, I became entrenched in the racist heritage of the South and beholden to the religion of the Lost Cause. I did not know or think of myself as a racist, for I had African American friends and colleagues. But deep inside me was the hidden wound that goes unnoticed by many Americans.
I know and am friends with Addison Hodges Hart, author of “‘White Jesus’ and Shaun King,” published at Public Orthodoxy on June 26, 2020. And I should also note that I am in full agreement with Fr. Hart’s main thesis there: Notwithstanding the fact that the historical Yeshua of Nazareth, as a first century, Palestinian Jew—and therefore, of Semitic, Afro-Asiatic stock—was, in all likelihood, a deeply tanned or brown-skinned man (with facial features, hair texture, and bodily proportions probably as depicted on the Shroud of Turin), artistic images of a “white Jesus” are “good and harmless”—certainly as originally intended by their Western European (and European American immigrant) creators. Moreover, attacking them as necessarily racist undermines the Black Lives Matter movement, giving an excuse to those who want to label BLM and its efforts to secure racial justice and human rights for African Americans (and, by extension, for all), as “imbecilic and dangerous.” After all, Christianity has always been an iconophilic (“image-friendly”) religion. That is, even as Christianity proclaims the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus from its beginnings 2,000 years ago, it has always favored spiritual and aesthetic expressions that awaken the “active imagination” (to use a term dear to Carl Jung) through vocal and instrumental music; architecture; and visual, textile, and performing arts.