I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately. Being a priest in a historical cathedral, in a historical community, I often hear stories about how the Church was the center of everyone’s lives “back then”. It never fails that the one sharing the particular story with me inevitably states how nice it would be to return to a time when the Church was the center of life for our community. But before we can return, if in fact we need or want to return, we must first ask the question, “Why was the Church the center of life in the first place?
We all know that for the overwhelming number of Orthodox Christian parishes in America, at least those that were established prior to 1950, were first ethnic communities made of almost exclusively of immigrants and their extended families. My personal experience, and that of Be Transfigured Ministries’ host parish, is forever tied to Greek immigration.
Like most Orthodox Christian parishes in America, it was our immigrant community that first gathered in ethnic ghettos helping each other survive in the New World. America was different. Our people were different, and our Church was very different, from the culture found by our immigrant ancestors. Faced with sometimes violent opposition to their very existence, ethnic Orthodox Christians, NEEDED the Church as a safe haven from the often-oppressive Americans they encountered at work and in the markets. In the marketplace John Thomson was a dish washer. In the Church Ioannis Athansopoulos was a respected member of the Church Board.
Much has changed over the decades that the Church has been quietly providing a safe place for members to gather away from the society struggles. Our members are no longer considered second class citizens, and we are no longer expected to cross the street to avoid sharing the sidewalk with others. For the most part, Orthodox Christians living in America, no matter what their ethnic heritage are respected members of society, and the Church is no longer NEEDED as a safe haven from society.
Or is it…
Modern Orthodox Christian parishes are, more and more, established as missionary communities intentionally sharing the Gospel and Orthodox Christian way of life with America. Non-ethnic families are discovering the Church as “converts” to the faith. Our Churches are less and less ethnic ghettos, and more and more Christian outposts sharing the Gospel with secular society, but that doesn’t mean the Church is still not NEEDED as a safe haven.
We may not be ethnic outcasts of America in the 21st Century, but we are increasingly becoming spiritual outcasts in a society quickly departing from Christian moral standards. Our youth are faced in public schools with anti-Christian (or at a minimum anti-Orthodox Christian) messages of morality at an alarming rate. If the Church morality doesn’t match-up with society, the Church runs the risk of being labeled a hate-group by society.
Today members of the Church face a similar antagonistic environment as they did at the turn of the last century. If we take the time to learn from our ancestors how they survived not losing their identity, we will again survive, and maybe even thrive. I’m not suggesting creating secretive ghettos, but I am suggesting that if we view life from the perspective of our ancestors, we can again revitalize the Church as the center of life. Immigrants were living in a foreign worldview, so the Church was their anchor each week to rebuild and refocus with like-minded families.
Today the world in which we live, rapidly departing from Christian life, and under the daily influence of the devil, can longer be ignored. In society we may still be John Thomson, a respected attorney, but in the Church we can be John Thomson, devout Orthodox Christian living in Communion with God, according to His will for us in the Church. We don’t need to avoid the world, just not ignore its dangerous influence.
If we wish to hold on to our spiritual heritage, and “keep our youth in the Church” we must return to the Church as a safe haven and center of our life. Our ancestors worked to show the society they were worthy of respect, and today our communities enjoy the highest levels of society honors. Unfortunately, it is no longer our ethnic life that is foreign and frightening to others, it is our Orthodox Christian faith in Christ. One hundred years ago, the Church was seen from the outside as eccentric and otherworldly. Today the world doesn’t fear our ethnic difference, they fear our spiritual difference.
Saint Paul said, “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.” (1 Corinthians 5.9-10) We must remain in the world as Saint Paul taught, but we must stop living according to the world’s standards.
We are the Orthodox Church, and our way of life is different. The century might have changed, but the times are still the same. We are foreigners is a land waiting to return home. Our home is no longer Eastern Europe, our home is Heaven. The only way to remain true to who we are as Orthodox Christians is to return to the idea that the Church is the center of life.
That will mean not only attending Church services occasionally, but at a minimum every Sunday. That will mean sponsoring social and education ministries (even opening parochial schools) to help our families remain close to the Church and never forget who we are as Orthodox Christians. We have a strong history of being able to keep our families close to the Church.
We already know “how” to do it. What remains is “why” it is worth doing. In the last century the Church was the center of family life because our ethnicity was important to us. Today the Church must return to be the center of life because our faith is important to us. For faithful Orthodox Christians, the world can be a dangerous place, but for faithful Orthodox Christians, the Church is still a safe haven.