I tend to think of myself as doing Orthodox mission work in the world of Appalachia. Geographically that is true, though much of the work I do with people are with folks who comes from somewhere other than the Appalachian region. My own roots are fairly shallow in Appalachia, though they are on the at least the fringes.
There is also the Southern aspect to mission. A culture that is steeped in contradictions. Hospitality and yet a history of slavery (I do not care to hear Southern justifications of slavery – my own family – on my mother’s side – were slave-owners and I do not seek to hear them justified). Slavery was wrong from every possible perspective – an abberation in Christianity and certainly laced with heresy.
Having said that, I love where I am from and I love its people. There is a native goodness in the places I have lived that have been a rich blessing in my life. But that has never left me free from criticism or complaint. The more you love and the more you live, the more you see and wish for something better. And the South could have been better.
But that is already a Southern way of thinking – to speak of what could have been.
More to the point as an Orthodox Christian is what could be. Anything could be. God can do and make many things possible. He has sustained me and my family in this region despite my deepest fears and misgivings.
But there are many things here that make Orthodoxy a natural. There is a reverence in some places for things that have gone before. This is a place that sings of “that Old time religion,” which Orthodoxy almost alone can claim with any sense of truth.
The South has a patience about it, an almost eschatological patience that makes Orthodoxy a hopeful proclamation.
This place loves the Bible, and nobody, but nobody, uses more of the Bible than the Orthodox.
There are deeper things, that will take many years to come to a place of real conversation. But the South has a love of nature. My parents, and all of their siblings and parents, were convinced that the natural world was so designed that there was a cure for everything if only you knew the right plant or mineral. The world of nature was good and meant to be used for good. This is an Orthodox instinct and a place where deep dialog can occur. Interestingly, no culture in the world is more deeply involved in herbal medicine than the Russian culture. My grandmother would have understood and been deeply interested.
The South has a great sense of the “lost cause.” Orthodoxy does not believe in a lost cause, but it does have a deep sense of the true cause having been delayed for a long time, and possibly not vindicated until judgement day.
There are many things that can be said about Southern culture and Orthodoxy, but the truth is that Southern culture is really only a subset of American culture which is a subset of the West. And if you dig long enough in the West you come to Orthodoxy. We were once here, in the work of St. Patrick, St. Columba, St. Brendan, St. Brigit, and so many others. My work as a missionary to the South is only an extention of a mission that began long ago, which also says I am not alone in this work. Great saints – among the greatest – prayed for the ancestors of the very people I now count as my flock. And they prayed for their descendants. And so we are here. We are here as an answer to prayer (I’m sure of it).
What a great long trek we have made to come to this place so that here we may enter into covenant with God and know Him even as we are known. This place is a holy place and our God is with us.