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Orthodox Unity: A Local Example

The mission of the Church is to evangelize. Christ commissioned His Church “to go and make disciples of all ethnicities … .”

by Very Rev. Constantine Nasr

For two thousand years the Church has carried out Her commission. Beginning about one hundred years ago, before the beginning of World War I, many of those Christian ethnicities immigrated to the United States. Following the defeat of Germany and the Ottoman-Turkish Empire, a flood of Christian immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe poured into the United States.

Following the principle of unity, the various Orthodox ethnicities fell under the oversight and jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had established an Orthodox presence in North America at Kodiak, Alaska, in 1794. With the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867, that presence became an American presence as well, with the building of an Orthodox Cathedral in the “Russian Hill” section of San Francisco. In response to the massive waves of new immigration occurring on the east coast of the United States, by 1918, the American Archdiocese “was subdivided into four more dioceses: San Francisco, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Sitka, as well as New York City, all of whom were under the presidency of Archbishop Tikhon in New York.”

This beginning of a unified Orthodox presence in the United States shattered with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November, 1917. With the coming to power of the Communists, the Church in Russia found herself fighting for her life. She could no longer oversee and finance the systematic and united assimilation of the various Orthodox ethnicities into a nationwide American Orthodox Church. The various immigrant parishes returned to the jurisdictional oversight of the Church of their respective “old countries.” Multi-jurisdictions based on immigrant ethnicities replaced a united Orthodox Church in North America.

The last eighty years of the twentieth century found the immigrant parishes, the same as their members, putting down roots in American soil. These eighty years were years of becoming Americanized. English became the everyday language of the members. Following World War II, members moved out of their ethnic neighborhoods into the suburbs of the larger American community. Parish after parish opened their church halls to their newfound neighbors by inviting them to attend their annual food festival. Church tours were given, and the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” was shared. By the end of the twentieth century, Americans were discovering the Orthodox Faith by the thousands.

With America’s growing discovery of the Orthodox Church, the question of evangelism was no longer a theoretical issue. Christ had said, “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd.” All across the United States, sheep from other folds entered the Orthodox Church, as former Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Charismatics, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics and a host of other denominations and groups found themselves being drawn to the Orthodox Faith.

Multi-jurisdictions are a hindrance to evangelism. “What is the difference between the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and the Antiochian Orthodox?” bewildered inquirers ask. Multi-jurisdictions contradict the ecclesiastical answer, “There is no difference; they are all the same.” A single, united national American Orthodox Church will one day come to pass. It is God’s judgment in history that such will happen. It is also a fact of life that we can wait to make up our minds, but we cannot wait to make up our lives. In the meantime, while the hierarchs discuss unity, on the local level, where the Faith is lived in very practical ways, Orthodox unity is already taking place.

The Oklahoma Land Run of 1889 marked the closing of the American frontier. The US census of 1890, which included Oklahoma Territory, concluded that the American frontier was closed. In terms of the “Lower 48” states, Oklahoma represented the last frontier. Life on the frontier is quite different from other parts of the country. For one thing, the population is more sparse. On the frontier one learned quickly to make friends, or else there would be no one to help raise the barn or help in time of trouble. Being exclusive was a luxury one could ill-afford on the frontier.

In 2007, Oklahoma, the 46th state, celebrated 100 years of statehood. Even after 100 years, the spirit of the frontier abides. In the entire state of Oklahoma, there are only seven fully functioning Orthodox parishes. There are two Greek parishes, three Antiochian parishes, and one each Ukrainian and Russian. In Oklahoma City, there are four Orthodox parishes: a Greek, an Antiochian, a Ukrainian and a Russian. With the nearest parish within the same jurisdiction being ninety miles away in Tulsa, the frontier necessity of needing neighbors brought Orthodox parishes in Oklahoma City together. The same held true for the two parishes in Tulsa (from two different jurisdictions). Cooperation between parishes in the Greater Oklahoma City metropolitan area has brought about many examples of Orthodox unity.

1. One of the Most Exciting Orthodox Events is Family Night. Family Night is an Orthodox Christian Education Program Offered on Wednesday Nights.

The program is an eight-week block of classes for adults, teens, children and nursery. Normally, four blocks of eight-week classes are offered each year. Fr. John Tsaras from the Greek parish, Fr. Raphael Moore from the Ukrainian parish, along with Fr. Constantine Nasr, Fr. Basil McMurry, and Fr. Jeremy Davis from the Antiochian parish, each offer classes for adults. From 100 to 150 participate in the classes each week. The classes last for two hours, with a 15-minute “coffee hour” in the middle. The fellowship between parishes during the break is Orthodox unity in action.

Taught by Subdeacon Ezra Ham, our Family Night includes an Introduction to the Orthodox Faith for Inquirers. Presently, there are 27 inquirers in the class. These inquirers visibly see Orthodox unity week after week. Orthodox unity is further experienced in the Inquirers’ Class itself. In addition to his personal meetings, Fr. John from the Greek parish funnels those who approach him about the Orthodox Faith to the Family Night Inquirers’ Class. He knows there is never any intent by one parish “to steal” another parish’s sheep. Family Night Classes provide the opportunity for evangelism to occur within a demonstration of Orthodox unity.

2. A Second Area That Manifests Orthodox Unity is Celebrating Joint Services Together.

The Family Night Classes are usually scheduled to end just as the Presanctified Services of Lent begin. St. Elijah (Antiochian) and St. George (Greek) celebrate the Presanctified Liturgy together, alternating from parish to parish each week. The Agape Service of Pascha is jointly celebrated by the two parishes. After the Agape Service, St. George hosts both parishes for a feast of roasted lamb. Again, the reality of Orthodox unity is manifested and experienced when the clergy of parishes with multiple staff fill in when a priest is absent from his parish. He will visit the sick, and the members of the neighboring parish know they can call upon the other priest in case of an emergency. Orthodox unity is being lived out in the lives of the parishes because they have worshiped together and sat under the teaching of the other parish’s priest. Because of this unity, the priests of Oklahoma City are not strangers to the Orthodox of Oklahoma City.

3. A Third Area Demonstrating Evangelism in the Midst of Orthodox Unity is the Joint Sponsership of Orthodox Radio Programs.

For many years, St. Elijah sponsored the Antiochian Christian Orthodox Radio Network (ACORN) in Oklahoma City. With the creation of Come Receive The Light, a new vehicle became available. St. Elijah (Antiochian) and St. George (Greek) provide joint financial sponsorship of this pan-Orthodox radio program, which was created by Fr. Christopher Metropulos (Greek Orthodox).

4. Creating a Unified Orthodox Presence in the Greater Oklahoma City Metropolitan Area is Further Achieved by the Joint Sponsorship of a Directory of Orthodox Churches, Which Appears Weekly in the Religions Section of the Local Newspaper. This Directory is Financially Sponsored by All Four Oklahoma City Parishes, Each From a Different Jurisdiction.

5. A Fifth Means of Creating Evangelism in the Midsts of a Unified Orthodox Presence is at the Annual State Fair of Oklahoma.

The Orthodox Clergy Brotherhood of Oklahoma rents a booth at the State Fair, and displays a large map showing the name and location of each Orthodox parish from all jurisdictions. The booth is staffed with clergy and laity from the various parishes who distribute brochures, show videos and answer questions from interested fair-goers.

6. A Sixth Example of Demonstrating Orthodox Unity Occurs at the Annual Food Festovals of ST. ELIJAH and ST. GEORGE.

Both parishes offer tours of their sanctuaries. The clergy of the various jurisdictions lead tours in both parishes. The tours are an initial point of contact for evangelism. Orthodox unity is visibly demonstrated when Fr. John from the Greek parish leads a tour at St. Elijah, an Antiochian parish. The same is just as true when it is Fr. Constantine from St. Elijah conducting a tour at St. George, a Greek parish.

7. A Very Practical Acy of Orthodox Unity Occurs Every Summer in Our Vacation Bible School.

Proverbs 22:6 reminds us that we are to “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” For over ten years, teachers and students from all Orthodox parishes, along with non-Orthodox friends, gather together for a joint Vacation Bible School. Not only are we training our children in the Orthodox faith; by practical experience we are training them in Orthodox unity!

8. Still Another Example of Orthodox Unity is Orthodox Christian Fellowship.

At the University of Oklahoma, OCF is a pan- Orthodox gathering of Orthodox students on campus. Orthodox clergy from all jurisdictions play a part in OCF and encourage their college students to participate. St. Elijah’s youth director, Karim Azar, travels to Norman each week to participate in the OCF meetings. OCF is yet another example of training our children in Orthodox unity.

9. One of the Most Beautiful Experiences of Orthodox Unity Occurred in the Establishment of Orthodox Missions in Norman and Stillwater.

While they are Antiochian missions, they are nonetheless pan-Orthodox in spirit, in that clergy from all jurisdictions have assisted in their birth by conducting services and encouraging Orthodox people in each area to become involved in the birth of the missions. When Antiochian Bishop BASIL of Wichita celebrated a Feast Day Liturgy at the Church of the Ascension in Norman, clergy of all jurisdictions from across Oklahoma attended and participated. Already, preliminary discussions about beginning a mission in Shawnee are underway. The creation of missions is an act of evangelism. In Oklahoma, the pan-Orthodox clergy, regardless of jurisdiction, understand the necessity of working together. If the Gospel of Christ is to spread across Oklahoma, by God’s grace it will take a unified pan-Orthodox clergy and unified pan-Orthodox parishes “to raise the barn,” as it were, of the next Orthodox mission.

10. Yet Another Example of Orthodox Cooperation is the Creation of a Combined Board to Study the Feasibility of Creating and Operating an Orthodox School in Oklahoma City.

The seed for planting St. Andrew Academy is being gathered. With God’s blessing, we will plant this seed some day.

The Clergy Brotherhood of Oklahoma is a statewide organization of all Orthodox clergy regardless of jurisdiction. Recently a joyful event occurred. Fr. Anthony Nelson of St. Benedict, a ROCOR parish, has participated as fully as canonical limits permitted in the pan-Orthodox life in Oklahoma. With the reconciliation of the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), those canonical limits were removed. Recently, Bishop PETER of Chicago visited Oklahoma City for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at St. Benedict. Many of the Clergy Brotherhood were in attendance, joyfully concelebrating the Divine Liturgy with Fr. Anthony.

The ten items described above are concrete examples of ongoing Orthodox unity being realized and achieved on the local level. Already exciting possibilities exist for new areas of pan- Orthodox unity to be achieved. These include the following.

1. Other Ideas Being Discussed for the Coming Year Include Having a Reception and Dinner for All the Members and Their Spouses of Each Parish Council Along With the Respective Clergy.

The purpose is for fellowship, to get to know one another, to address our common vision of the Orthodox Church.

2. With the Blessing of the Diocesan Bishops, an Exchange of Pulpits Could be Done. Even With the Minor Variations of the Different Jurisdictions, This Would Visibly Remind Our People That the Orthodox Faith is One.

The experience of the interchange of priests will strengthen the cause of Orthodox unity.

3. We are Encouraging our Women’ s Organizations and our Youth Organizations to Have Meetings for Getting Acquainted and for Fellowship Wwith Comparable Organizations in Other Parishes.

In this way, the reality of Orthodox unity will be experienced at the grass roots.

4. Many Orthodox Families in the Greater Oklahoma City Area Homeschool Their Children.

We are exploring the possibility for all Orthodox homeschoolers to meet twice a month for a time of religious education, recreational activities and fellowship. The locations for these events would rotate among the four parishes in Oklahoma City (Antiochian, Greek, Russian and Ukrainian).

5. Yet Another Idea Gaining Attention is the Discussion of an Orthodox Assisted Livng Center.

Through both biological and evangelistic growth, our Orthodox parishes in Oklahoma are growing. The aging population inside our parishes is also growing. When we began having Orthodox unity on the local level, we were able to begin thinking so much bigger than just the needs of our individual parishes. Working together, the whole Orthodox community is able to accomplish what single parishes by themselves could not. An Orthodox Assisted Living Center would be one such example.

The ghetto mentality of jurisdictionalism is contrary to the spirit of the Church. The unity of the Orthodox Faith is much more than structural and administrative. There is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”7 We are one Church, meeting in various parishes. The reality of our oneness is experienced ecclesiastically in the Eucharist; existentially, the reality of our oneness is experienced in the fellowship of Coffee Hour, a Coffee Hour that includes all other Orthodox, even as all other Orthodox are invited to the Chalice.

Participation in the various events discussed above has strengthened the Orthodox presence and the Orthodox witness in Oklahoma. It has brought the Orthodox clergy closer to one another and made the laity feel welcome in other parishes. The camaraderie has lessened the fear of “sheep stealing.” We have come to care only that people are growing in the Orthodox Faith. Even new catechumens freely choose into which parish they will be added.

There are other events that can be done. The events discussed here are by no means exhaustive of the many possibilities of experiencing Orthodox unity at the local level. But the issue is for the Orthodox clergy to take the initiative and reach out across jurisdictional lines. Until local Orthodox clergy manifest the unity of our Faith with fellow clergy, regardless of jurisdiction, then we are out of step with Christ “who made us one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.” Let us not be guilty of rebuilding a wall that our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ has already broken down.

Orthodox Clergy cooperating together in Oklahoma include: Fr. William Christ (Greek, Tulsa), Fr. Jeremy Davis (Antiochian, Oklahoma City), Fr. George Eber (Antiochian, Tulsa), Fr. Justin McFeeters (Antiochian, Norman), Fr. Basil McMurry (Antiochian, Oklahoma City), Fr. Raphael Moore (Ukrainian, Jones), Fr. Constantine Nasr (Antiochian, Oklahoma City), Fr. Anthony Nelson (Russian, Oklahoma City), Fr. John Tsaras (Greek, Oklahoma City), Subdeacon Ezra Ham (Antiochian, Oklahoma City), Subdeacon David Tait (Antiochian, Stillwater).

Courtesy of the

January 2008 issue of The Word magazine.

Return to The Word article listing.