Thursday, June 25, 2009

Reflections of a Road Trip: Orthodoxy in the Heartland

On my recent loop through the Midwest and upper South, I took opportunity, whenever possible, to visit Orthodox churches and institutions along the way. While I have been fortunate to visit Orthodox churches and monasteries in the Balkans, the Levant and the Caucasus region, my experience with American Orthodoxy has heretofore been limited to our mission in East Texas, the Dallas-Fort Worth churches, and churches and monasteries around Austin and San Antonio. So, the opportunity to connect with like-minded folk in Missouri, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Tennessee was of great appeal to me. In every locale, I was reminded of what a small world we American Orthodox inhabit. Everywhere I went, I met people who knew Orthodox Christians in Texas that were also known to me. While on one level, this speaks to our meager numbers relative to the general population, on another level it speaks to the tightness, if I can use that word, among American Orthodox believers. And it is this last factor, rather than large numbers, that I believe will stand us well in the years ahead. Please bear in mind that these observations are those of a layman who first stumbled into an Orthodox church only 6 years ago, and was received into the faith some 2 ½ years after that.

I stayed for two nights in the remote, unoccupied home of an Orthodox friend. In time, this house and a considerable amount of surrounding acreage may very well become a monastery. There are still some jurisdictional issues to resolve, so for now, I will not venture any further about the specifics of this prospect. To my delight, an Orthodox library was already well underway, with a 1,000 plus books on the shelves, and several hundred more still in boxes. With a full kitchen and my only companions being the rabbits in the front yard, and the wild turkeys in the back, I could have lost myself amidst these books for days. But, I was expected in Minneapolis, so I restricted my stay to one day and two nights.

Remembering my time in this library, as well as a recent post by Owen, has started me thinking about the role of "intellectual inquiry" among those on the road to Orthodoxy. It seems to be a common component in the construction our conversion narratives, if you will. I have likened it to being at a beach resort, then leaving the hotel pool and wading out into the ocean. Or as I have noted to friends familiar with my previous religious affiliation, “I no longer have to check my brain at the foyer.” The danger here, though, is that by so doing we reduce the Faith to an intellectual construct, and one that merely competes with all the other intellectual constructs. Owen has wisely observed that what is often going on here is not so much a feeding of true intellectual hunger, but of ideological hunger—a desire to validate that which we have already decided to believe.

In the library

I was undergoing no particular religious crisis or existential meltdown prior to being found by the Orthodox faith. While recognizing the limitations of my sect, I nevertheless believed we had the best take possible on things. I believe it was Fr. Stephen Freeman who said something to the effect that the only reason to become Orthodox is to find Christ (if it wasn’t Fr. Stephen, then it sounds like something he would say.) This I have found to be true. On June 9th and 10th, 2003, I caught a glimpse of a relationship with Christ (and the Trinity) that I never knew possible. Looking back now, I recognize that all my subsequent actions were in pursuit of appropriating that vision in my own life. And part of that process was the immersion into the literature, beginning with the writings of St. Ignatius, which irretrievably weakened my existing theological presuppositions. Subsequent readings, if I am to be completely honest with myself, were less of a honest comparison of Orthodoxy up against Protestantism, but rather a quest for knowledge about the decision I had more or less already made. With no access to Orthodox worship, these readings were invaluable in answering my questions and doubts. But that said, my first impetus towards Orthodoxy, my resolve to pursue it, and my commitment to stay the course came from standing in worship, not from my reading. Once Orthodox, I can now swim out into that ocean as far as I can manage. But like I often advised my son, there is a time to “step away from the books.” As we mature and become more sure of our footing on the American continent, I suppose we can engage in the requisite discussions of methodology and missiology--that is, as long as we do not lose sight of the fact that the Orthodox faith is experiential, and that the old "come and see" approach will trump all others.

I had the great privilege to attend Divine Liturgy at the Theotokos (Unexpected Joy) Mission in Ash Grove, Missouri, a small, struggling old town about 15 miles northwest of Springfield. Fr. Moses Berry is the well-known priest (and native son of the area). Without directions, the church would be a bit hard to find, located on a little-traveled country road, on the outskirts of town. The day before, the church had hosted the 2nd annual Southwest Missouri Folk Music Festival. I understand it was quite a success, lots of music and food, with plenty of visitors to the church and grounds. I think Fr. Moses even sang a bit. The temple itself is not large, just a modest log structure with attached hall. I asked Fr. Moses about the size, and he replied that it was “just right.” The parish contributed much of the labor during construction, and as I result, I believe the building is paid for. The iconography was well-done and appropriate for the space. The iconostasis was of Missouri red oak.

Theotokos (Unexpected Joy) Orthodox Mission, Ash Grove, Missouri

I arrived in time for the Hours, and observed that most everyone was in line for Confession before services. All of the women wore headscarves. By the time everyone finally filtered in, we were about 35 in number. Most seemed to be local converts, though I did detect a Serbian (though married to a Missourian), and Asian Indian and a couple of Russian dancers (who had driven up from their Branson gig.) Additionally, there were 3 or 4 nuns, and I have no idea where they were from. This was Pentecost Sunday and Fr. Moses' homily was a memorable one. I have not yet lost my amazement at the shepherdic tone of Orthodox homilies. I spent the better part of my adult life being "preached at" and sitting through Sunday morning sermonizings. Fr. Moses even referred to us as "children." A nice touch, that. Coffee hour talk centered around the events of the day before and the work that went into that endeavor. Despite the onion dome, I came away with the impression that here was a group of Orthodox Christians thoroughly integrated into the rhythm of their particular local culture. There is much "a doing" these days among our hierarchs, both within and between jurisdictions. Important speeches are being given, new scandals are unfolding, significant conferences and seminars are transpiring--all focusing on the future of Orthodoxy in America. As fascinating as these developments are (and they are), I believe the real story is right here, in places like Ash Grove, Missouri.

Theotokos (Unexpected Joy) Orthodox Mission, Ash Grove, Missouri

While in Springfield, I stopped in at a Barnes and Noble, in search of a Sunday newspaper. While there, I made a quick swath through the religion section. I was surprised to see, there on the top shelf, a nice stack of Orthodox Study Bibles. I do not know if this is commonplace in other parts of the country, but it is definitely not yet so in Texas. I suppose I have mixed feelings about this. I have to recognize the role the OSB played early on with me. Mainly it was the back of the Bible that helped me along--the lectionary, learning the basics of morning and evening prayers, the psalms as prayer, etc. And even some of the commentary was helpful in getting me over some obstacles. And while the OSB has received criticism, I must say that I still use it. The criticism, though, is not what worries me here. My reservations involve the marketing of Orthodoxy as a boutique, niche religion, with the OSB presented in a collection of other niche Bibles, from which the American religious consumer can choose. Even so, I suppose I am more glad they were on the shelf than not. I pray that they will sell quickly, and that they will cause their readers on the path to enlightenment.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, St. Isaac the Syrian Skete, Boscobel, Wisconsin

Upon leaving my friends in Minneapolis, I had a long drive in store to reach my cousin's in St. Joseph, Michigan. Even so, I made time to enjoy some of the beautiful back roads of Wisconsin, including a stop at the St. Isaac of Syria Skete near Boscobel. This skete is well known among American Orthodox, being one of the premier suppliers of icons. The Church of St. Nicholas there was a log structure also, though much larger in size than Ash Grove. I was particularly impressed with the the interior of the church, and the use they had made of the space. Quite a few relics were on display, as well. The abbot was gone when I made my visit, so I was not able to visit with him. Instead, I talked with the nice lady who manages the bookstore and takes all the phone orders. She gave me a short tour of the compound, letting me see the iconography studio, as well as pointing out the other buildings on the site. I have to admit, the rest of the site did not compare with the church. For while the Church of St. Nicholas was pristine, the rest of the grounds looked like a mobile home park that had seen its better days long ago. All the other buildings were modest, aging mobile homes—often cobbled together in odd arrangements. Only later, when visiting with Owen, did I learn the reason for this. The skete apparently does a good business with its icons. But the money is not necessarily plowed back into their skete, but generously distributed among 20+ other monastic institutions. In short, they are doing exactly what should be done. Why should I think that monastics, having renounced the world, would live in anything other than humble dwellings? So, the problem was all in my view of things. I have found this to often be the case.

Christ the Savior Orthodox Church, Harrisburg

After Michigan, I found myself in the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When Sunday rolled around, I drove up to Harrisburg and attended Christ the Savior Orthodox Church, an long-established OCA parish. The temple itself was a bit modernish, with lots of light. The church seemed to have a large ethnic component, as I would expect to be the case. The service was all in English, however. There were certainly older members present, but the church had a sizable number of younger couples, with children of all ages. I suppose there were 150 or more in attendance (eventually.) About a dozen or so Ethiopian or Eritrean members were in attendance. None of the women wore headscarves. The service was somewhat more abbeviated than those to which I am accustomed. And of course, there was the whole pew thing. Of course, I have been in "pewed" Orthodox churches before, but I have noticed that often worshippers are hesitant to use them. Everyone seemed pretty settled-in to them here, which of course is the danger, I suppose. In looking over their church bulletin, they seemed to have quite a few outreach programs and that sort of thing. And I found people to be quite friendly to this visitor. They have an excellent and energetic young priest in Fr. Stephen. I hung around for the Slavic Food Festival following services. Here, I ate my first perogie (sp.) I have heard a lot about this ethnic staple from our priest, a Pittsburgh native. I found them to be nothing more than a somewhat more greasier Georgian kinkhale, with cheese substituted for meat! My best memory of Christ the Savior was from the food festival: one one picnic table under the trees sat 3 old men in caps, animatedly conversing in Russian while at the table right next to them were 3 Ethiopian men doing the same in their language. While Orthodox parish life can be very localized, one never looses sight the global (and cosmic) reach of our faith, which helps temper our innate Americanism.

The Ethiopians and the Russians, Fr. Gregory

Three days later, I found myself in Nashville, Tennessee. I decided to look up my old friend, Fr. Gregory, who chrismated me at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Dallas in November, 2005. He is now with Holy Trinity in Nashville. I must say, the church is impressive, setting atop 10-15 acres of the most prime real estate along the Franklin Pike. When I walked into the hall, he recognized me immediately, and introduced me to his friends around the table as "the Church of Christ elder who started reading St. Ignatius." He showed me around the church and we talked of the differences between Nashville and Dallas. The church there had not the wealth of his former parish, but was a working church where everyone seeming to chip in. I was surprised to learn that the church had no debt.

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, Nashville

Before leaving Nashville, I stopped off at the Alektor Cafe and Door of Paradise Book Store, near Vanderbilt. This combination cafe/coffee house/book and icon store should be a required stop for all Orthodox travelers through middle Tennessee. I do not know all the particulars, but believe it is the effort of a Greek Orthodox priest and his family. I know there is a Greek Orthodox mission nearby. The establishment seems to attract quite a following--from students to women on luncheons to coffee shop habituties to the inquisitive of all sorts. For most, the icons are just quaint, pretty decorations. But for some customers, who knows? I wish them all the best. And I highly recommend their Russian spiced tea.

Alektor Cafe and Door of Paradise Books, Nashville

I stayed in Memphis my last night before the drive home. I suppose this was the most satisfying of all my Orthodox encounters. I attended Vespers at St. John's, an Antiochian parish in that city. St. John's has its roots in an old EOC group that came into the Antiochian archdiocese back in the day. They were able to purchase a Presbyterian church whose membership had dwindled and were ready to decamp to the suburbs. Consequently, St. John's is located in the leafy, established neighborhood around Rhodes College and Overton Park. In fact, the church is unique in that it remains very much a neighborhood church, where members walk to services. Many of the founding member bought homes in the area, and this emphasis has persisted. Today the church averages about 325 in attendance. After services, I met a St. Tikhon's Seminary student returning to Texas, who just happened to be a good friend of one of our parishioners. Again, that small world thing. This was a old-fashioned friendly church, in the way in which we Southerners are accustomed. After Vespers, a meal was served in the hall below, before class that night. I talked with a young lawyer who was a member there. He had been Southern Baptist before becoming Orthodox. As it turns out, he had been to Lebanon and Syria, as well. It seems his sister lives in Beirut. I inquired about this and he told me that she was a Southern Baptist missionary to Lebanon. Sometimes being too cynical by half, I replied, "don't they have enough problems?" He went on to explain that there were actually Baptists in Lebanon, but from his sister's au currant evangelical perspective, they were still stuck in the 40s, singing those old standby Baptist hymns, etc. Consequently, these Southern Baptist missionaries were bypassing these established groups, seeking to introduce Chinese-style house churches to the Lebanese. Like they say, you cannot make this stuff up.

St. John's Orthodox Church, Memphis

I left before class due to an appointment I had with my friend Owen, also a member there. Babysitting detail prevented him from being at church himself. After his wife got off work and relieved him, we met at the Poor & Hungry on Madison Avenue. The P&H was my kind of joint, with a clientele you'd never see in the line at Luby's. Smoke still hung heavy in the place, as the smoking Nazis have not yet taken Memphis. Years earlier, someone had drawn caricatures of the corrupt political establishment (but I repeat myself) in the city, and stapled the likenesses to the ceiling of the P&H. We sat right underneath one depicting of Harold Ford and his "Harold Ford Mortuary and Machine Shop." I enjoy watching his son on MSNBC's Morning Joe. In Memphis, this sort of thing is all taken in good stride. The proprietress of the establishment reminded me of my Aunt Polly. And I know my aunt would have been right at home on a barstool here, as she was in the ice houses on the north side of Houston. I learned that the owner was the sister of the original owner, a well-known local trasvestite, who before he died had the surgery and crossed over, you might say. Anyway, a few hours spent here, over a couple of pitchers of Yuengling lager, with my friend Owen, discussing things of a decidedly ochlophobic nature, was the perfect cap to my road trip. I'm not sure, but I believe we solved all the Orthodox Church's jurisdictional problems before we left. I don't exactly remember, now. All the best, Owen.

At the P & H


elizabeth said...

Thanks for the tour. I always feel that I benefit from these. Thank you.

s-p said...

It would be cool to do a video travelogue across America like this. You'd make a great "color analyst"/host.

John said...

Better yet--we ought to do it together. I've got plenty of time these days!

Mimi said...

What a great road trip, and thank you for bringing us along.

In one of those "small world" stories that you reference at the beginning, a dear friend of mine came into the church at St. John's.

The Ochlophobist said...


I was great to meet you. May we be able to do it again many times.

Seriously, I'm not one who gets really into the whole podcast thing, though I do sometimes get s-p and Fr. Freeman. But I think you could do one heck of a Orthodox travel/culture podcast sort of program - along the lines of This Orthodox American Life or some such. You have the exact knack for that sort of thing.

John said...

Owen, thanks for the kind words. I hope our visit was just the first of many. I am flattered, of course, by your confidence in me, but stick a microphone in front of me and I choke.

Ian said...

Thank you so much John: as others have said, you write very well generally, and your travel writing is particularly involving and delightful. I feel as though I need a pilgrimage through where you travelled.

What blessings and joys you encountered. And what a joy to meet with the priest who Chrismated you, Fr. Gregory, as well as getting to meet the wondrous blogger The Ochlophobist -- as well as you many other encounters.

Thank you for sharing; and here is to many, many more adventures and travels.

The Ochlophobist said...

Perhaps wanderous, but hardly wondrous.

Nina Celibataire Endurci said...

Very interesting tour! The orthodox culture is very mysteriou and beautiful for me!