Southern Orthodoxy – Personal Reflections

holyascension1I am a native of the American South, born in a time when cotton still grew in the fields and Jim Crow laws made life hell for a black man. For all of its strange contradictions – the South truly was a Christ-haunted culture. When Martin Luther King, Jr., began his preaching and marching for justice – his message was pretty much Southern gospel. It was the religion of his message that made him effective in the South – even as it brought about his assassination. For despite the evil of the Jim Crow version of Apartheid, the South was, at the time, a distinctly religious culture.

I grew up with “blue laws,” that allowed only gas stations (a few) and pharmacies to open on Sundays (and then only after Church services were over). More on the side of culture was the simple fact that people largely stayed home after Church. Too much recreation on a Sunday seemed somehow improper.

There were plenty of exceptions to these observations – gathering as family was always an acceptable Sunday activity. For me, this usually meant gathering at grandparents (my mother was one of 12 children, my father one of 5). I had cousins beyond count. There we would gather and eat (“pot-luck” as it is called) and listen to uncles swap stories, the women swap news, and my grandfather silently preside over everything.

Much of that culture has disappeared. The economic growth and large migrations beginning in the 60’s changed the face of much of Southern life. I lived near a city. What was farmland during my childhood is now suburb. The cotton is gone, along with Jim Crow laws (thank God). The family Church is slowly disappearing and being replaced by the new “mega-Churches” in which entertainment and Church are largely indistinguishable.

Southern Orthodoxy is, to my observation, largely no different than Orthodoxy anywhere in America, although in the Churches of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) the South is largely the land of converts. Thus Southern Orthodoxy is often zealous and frequently rough around the edges. Many of our Churches are barely out of the “storefront” stage.

But the quiet piety of the Orthodox faith seems to fit the Southern character. I love to visit in Clinton, Mississippi where Father Paul Yerger (the author of our previous post) serves as priest. Mississippi is simply more Southern than most of the South. To hear the service intoned with the soft tones of the Delta is a reminder that Orthodoxy will grow anywhere.

Archbishop Dmitri has been an Apostle to the South. I have written earlier of the number of Churches that have been planted through his efforts – truly Apostolic in number. He has set a tone for the Diocese that makes it at home in the South. He is among the most hospitable men I have ever known. For years, on Bright Monday, there has been a Liturgy at St. Seraphim Cathedral, attended by all the area Orthodox clergy, regardless of jurisdiction, with a dinner prepared by Vladyko himself in his home next to the Cathedral. He loves to cook (and does so extremely well). To serve the clergy after the long hours of Holy Week and Pascha is simply Christ-like. It is with such examples that he has taught his clergy. Some have learned better than others.

As a former Episcopal priest, I found myself welcomed as a convert, but never treated as a convert. I was treated as a son (I felt like the Prodigal Son because of my sins, but not because of anyone’s judgment). I am most familiar with the OCA, but I have family in the Antiochian Archdiocese as well and many friends among the Greek Orthodox. And though there are flavors and aromas of the Mediterranean to be found within more ethnic congregations, the South has left its gentle mark among them as well.

Orthodoxy in the South is very young. It is vibrant and occasionally impatient. But Orthodoxy grows here like a native plant. I pray that it flourishes and nurtures a people who have long had a love of God, regardless of the shifting culture of the post-modern era. There is more than a little work to do here, but if God continues to send Apostles such as Vladyko Dmitri – the work will move forward quicker than I would ever have thought.

33 Responses to “Southern Orthodoxy – Personal Reflections”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: Construction in 2007 on Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, across the river from Charleston. It is among the younger missions in the diocese.

  2. The_Archer_of_the_Forest Says:

    I grew up in the South, and still consider myself a Southerner though I am living in the Midwest. I am an Episcopal priest, though I often wonder if I had encountered the Orthodox church in my youth might I be an Orthodox priest now.

    You are right, I think the Orthodox faith is well suited to Southern folks. I hope it continues to do well.

  3. Margaret Says:

    Well said and timely (as striving to live in the eternal now is always “timely”!) God bless you, Fr. Stephen!

  4. Brandon Says:

    Bless, Father.

    I’ve really enjoyed these last several posts.

    But I must say I’m surprised, all these posts about Orthodoxy in the south, and so far not a person has mentioned eating cheese grits on Pascha morning!

  5. Yudi Kris Says:

    very good brief history touch, Father. (And btw, this has made me know a little bit the past of the Southern)!🙂

    It’s inspiring story, And please pray to The Lord, so that there will be a kind story in Indonesia, in every nation as well.

    Father bless!

    Yudi

  6. Sean Says:

    Father,

    You wrote Orthodoxy is very young in the South, obviously counting the number of years there have been orthodox parishes and converts there. From another side however, Orthodoxy is new nowhere. It is the Faith given by Christ, and as Christ is one and the same Lord of the Ages, such is the Faith and such is the Church. What if OCA parishes are only a recent ‘development’? To me your parish, ‘young’ as it might be in the years of its existence as a building and congregation, represents the same quality to me as the Catholicon of a Monastery of Mount Athos, however old and adorned by the lives of many saintly souls the latter may be. The Church and Christ are present in both alike, and the deposit of timeless Faith and Tradition is offered intact in both.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Yes and No, The faith is old, but frequently younger congregations lack an Orthodox ethos. That takes time. It’s a kind heart you have

  8. A Seeker Says:

    Father,
    Thank you for these posts on Orthodoxy in the South. I grew up in the rural South, where, even in the early 1990’s grocery stores and movie theaters were still closed on Sunday’s, and Sunday pot-lucks were the norm. As a recent convert from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, I have been trying to articulate why coming into the Orthodox Church feels like a homecoming to me, like a completeness. These last three posts of yours have really helped me articulate those thoughts more fully, so thank you! And, you’re right: we Southerners may be a little rough around the edges, but we’re full of joy and searching for a home in the midst of all the post-modern culture and loss of the Old South.

  9. David S. Says:

    Father,

    What a great post, thank you! I remember the blue laws as well, and I remember being disappointed when it all changed. All of a sudden the malls were full of people and Sunday afternoon wasn’t quiet anymore. As time goes by I am more thankful that I grew up when I did, and witnessed the lingering elements of an older culture, simpler in some ways, more complicated in others. RC Cola was the drink, NASCAR was easy to keep track of, and sometimes Black folks had confederate flags on their pickups.

    As for the Church, I think it is going to be a nice fit. I believe the Church is a unique position to bring reconciliation to the South in ways that other religious groups have not been able to. I tell my family that one day, our foodfests will include fried chicken and casseroles.

  10. Zoe Says:

    I was neither born or raise in the South and yet for the 35 years of my living here, I have had nostalgic remembrance of those Sundays family get together and or Sundays Church picnics. Family members for one reason, or another, drifted apart from one another and even the Southern Baptist Church that we belonged split apart. Converting to Orthodoxy is indeed a homecoming both in the spiritual and physical sense, in that, I’m just now starting to develop friendship and learning to once again be a part of a family of God, of the Church and be involve in the life of the Church.

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for bringing to remembrance how blessed I

  11. Zoe Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    How blessed I am to have found Orthodoxy here in the South.

    God Bless.

  12. handmaidleah Says:

    May Holy Orthodoxy flourish like Kudzu😉

  13. Brantley Thomas Says:

    Leah,

    I can’t see that replacing “Many Years”, but I really like that statement!
    🙂

  14. Marsha Says:

    May Holy Orthodoxy flourish like Kudzu

    I LOVE that……maybe I’ll make it a sign off greeting on my email or something.

  15. handmaidleah Says:

    lol…

  16. coffeezombie Says:

    I dunno…kudzu seems more like an image of sin, to me. You know, you let it get planted in your heart and it grows and grows and chokes out everything else and it seems impossible to get rid of…

  17. coffeezombie Says:

    …now that I think about it, wasn’t leaven an image of sin in the Old Testament? But Christ did liken the Kingdom to leaven, right? So…hm…maybe kudzu could be used in that way to…

    If nothing else, it’s certainly a unique phrase! (and yeah, I nearly laughed out loud when I read that)😀

  18. Mickey Says:

    Cheese grits and Chick-Fil-A (but still not on Sundays)…

  19. Susan Cushman Says:

    You say Orthodoxy grows here (in the South) like a native plant. I assume that means slowly. I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and came of age during the apocalyptic 60s. Even watched a cross burning in my 8th grade boyfriend’s front yard in 1964. (His dad was with the FBI and had been transferred to Jackson to deal with the racial unrest.) Converting to Orthodoxy with the rest of the EOC in the 70s and 80s (it was a 17 year journey for my husband and me) I struggled (still do) to blend the cultures of ancient Byzantium, Greece, Russia, Romania, and … Mississippi. Just submitted an essay to the 2009 Southern Women’s Writers Conference at Berry College, Georgie, called “Are These My People?” which deals with this subject. America may be a melting pot, but it sure simmers slowly in the South, where we cling tenaciously to our races, our clans, and our families. As Hodding Carter wrote (in Southern Legacy, which came out in 1950, before the turbulent 60s): “The two groups [blacks and whites] go their separate ways, as far as separateness can be maintained, in common mistrust; and throughout this strangely communal life that is lived together yet apart are woven the multiple threads of discrimination…. discrimination has inflected the white South with a moral sickness.” Yes, it has. But maybe, as Carter goes on to say, “our unity is in its soul a wholesome thing.”

    It’s against that backdrop, and in the midst of striving to live an authentic Orthodox Christian life as a modern-day Southerner, that I seek to know God, to love my fellow man, and to ply my craft. And to pray for the unity of the Orthodox Church in this country, although I can’t help but wonder if all our clans really want to pay the price for unity. The legacy of regionalism doesn’t exist solely in the South. It’s alive and well, even within the Orthodox Church, throughout our country. I guess we’ve got to figure out what to cling to and what we’re willing to let go of as we move forward. Like Dylan said, “The times, they are a-changin.”

  20. Romanós Says:

    One of the aspects of Orthodoxy that gives me good reason to believe it is a supernatural intrusion of God’s world into our human world is the fact that almost without exception I have found, no matter where I have gone, that there is a gentleness and mercy that radiates from the Orthodox worship service and most of the people I have met afterwards. Coming as a convert from the Episcopal Church over 20 years ago now, and an accidental convert at that (visited the local Greek church one Sunday because my regular Episcopal parish was inaccessible by road that weekend), what brought me back the Sunday after next, and made me stay from then on (with the blessing of my Episcopal priest) was the sumptuous mercy and welcome that I received from day one, and this, from a congregation most of whose members at that time were Greek-born or 1st generation Americans.

    All this was brought to mind by reading in your post, “I found myself welcomed as a convert, but never treated as a convert. I was treated as a son…”

  21. Brandon Says:

    Oh yes Mickey, no Chik-Fil-A on Sundays…

  22. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    Hi Father Stephen,

    I wonder if you might forgive me for asking an impertinent question. I say this as one who is glad to see orthodoxy flourish here in the west, and is a very grateful reader of yours.

    It is common to hear complaints against evangelical missionaries traveling to eastern Europe and Russia trying to convert traditionally Orthodox peoples. Yet here you are championing efforts to evangelize the (in many ways) deeply Christian American South.

    I wonder if you have a defense of this (apparent) inconsistency, other than your conviction that Orthodoxy is the true faith and Baptist Christianity is not. In other words, you may object to efforts to evangelize the Orthodox in that you believe they are replacing the true church with a false one, but is there any common grounds upon which you can express this to them? Can you communicate to protestants, as Christians, why they should be sympathetic to your mission here, and resistant to Baptist mission efforts there?

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    This is my home. I do not go out into the streets or homes to proselytize. I answer the phone and offer hospitality to those who come, and instruction for those who ask. I do not attack others or seek to interest those who are not interested. Protestants in Eastern Europe would shrivel up were they as passive as American Orthodox.

  24. handmaidleah Says:

    kudzu is not native (Japan)- part of the reason that I chose it to make the point…

  25. Margaret Says:

    Fr. Stephen, you say in your comment above that “Protestants in Eastern Europe would shrivel up were they as passive as American Orthodox.” And after listening to Fr. James Early’s conversion from Southern Baptist to Eastern Orthodox Christianity via Bosnia, I agree! Fr. Early’s story can be heard here:

    http://www.myocn.net/index.php/Journeys-to-Orthodoxy/Page-2.html

    with the title:
    Journeys to Orthodoxy: From Baptist to Bosnia to Byzantium

    Fr. Stephen, if you ever change your mind and decide to go out into the streets, please let us know, I’ll be there to hand out the pamphlets on Orthodoxy!

  26. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    Or perhaps they would do far better, and alienate less people. God exalts the humble, after all.

  27. coffeezombie Says:

    Forgive me for continuing an off-topic conversation, but it seems to me that, perhaps, part of the reason people are so often offended by Protestant missionaries going into whatever culture is because of the missionaries’ perceived arrogance.

    Taking the Orthodox/Protestant situation, it seems (in my experience, at least) that Protestants go to Orthodox and say, “You’re not really Christian. Your Church teaches lies and a false Gospel. If you don’t get ‘saved’ you’re going to Hell” and so on. It is not a good way to endear oneself to the Church you are preaching against.

    The Orthodox (and I’m sure there are individual exceptions), however, go to Protestants and say, “You have much of the Truth, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Cross and Resurrection. Here is the fullness of these things.”

    Perhaps I have simplified things to the point of offense, forgive me, but that does seem to be the general difference in attitude. Again, this is just my experience, having been on both sides of that fence.

    However, as a side note, while saying, “The Baptists should work with the Orthodox” sounds nice, it’s just not gonna happen. The Baptists are doing what is right, to the best of their knowledge; why should I expect them to do different?

    More on-topic, handmaidleah, I’m just glad you didn’t say “fire ants” instead of kudzu!😉

  28. handmaidleah Says:

    Fire ants! ouch!

  29. Lesa Morrison Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    I, too, am a Southerner, and grew up Methodist while the Blue Laws were in effect. My husband, John, and I were discussing the other day that we think it is a sad fact that those Sundays have passed from our culture. I became Episcopalian as a young adult, then converted to Orthodoxy-at a store-front mission in the South, before moving to Alaska. I do agree with you about our Orthodox faith fitting hand in glove to Southern sentiments and culture.
    I also wanted to let your reader know that I DO fix cheese grits for Pascha morning breakfast every year for a large group of friends that come over to celebrate! So old Southern recipes are alive and well in Alaska!
    Have a good rest of a Lenten journey.

  30. Ole Rocker Says:

    “Archbishop Dmitri has been an Apostle to the South.” I love this man. I see him about once every three or four years and yet he still remembers me and calls me by name! He treats me as an equal though I am a nobody in comparisn. He personifies Christ on earth to me. I wish I knew him as well as you. You are indeed blessed, Fr. Stephen.

  31. Lena Says:

    One little thing about Protestant/Orthodox in Eastern Europe:
    Protestants missionaries came in Russia in time (late 80s,early 90s) when Orthodox Church was trying to raise from ruins, when they (especially on local level) didn’t have much resources, Bible was not easy to find and expensive to buy, say the least. Young, cool, and handsome missionaries from America could offer much more than always suspicious of young people “babushka” in an old church building. I knew some young people who were drawn to American missionaries in hope to have opportunity to go to study in US (and some of them did). Some of my friends who were baptized by American missionaries found their way to Orthodox church eventually and some all but forgot that they are Christians now after missionaries left.
    I was baptized Orthodox in Russia and made my first steps toward Christ in my homeland. But really grow in faith and understand what am I doing I started here in American South. By the Lord’s grace I spend couple of years in Father Stephen’s parish at St. Anne in Oak Ridge. For that I am forever grateful!
    Dear Father Stephen, you taught me and showed how real Christian life should be. ( I still consider St. Anne a Lord’s miracle.) And it is such a treat to have opportunity to read your blog. I can not express my gratitude in words (I probably already said too much, forgive me, a sinner). You are truly blessed, Father.

  32. Angelo Says:

    Father Stephen: I am new to the study of Orthodoxy in America. Would you be so kind to outline for me the difference(s), if any, between the Orthodox Church of America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. I thought these were interchangeable but it seems they’re not. Please help! Many thanks in advance.

  33. Sean Says:

    Angelo:

    I hope I answer correctly in saying that the difference between the two bodies is the governing authority and the ethnic background and elements in worship:

    The Orthodox Church in America is an autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox Church that has its roots on old Russian missionaries. Most people that belong to it are converts (do not know actual percentage). Worship is conducted mainly in english.

    The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is an autonomous Orthodox Church with its canonical dependency on the Ecumenical Patriarchate (that means that the Archdiocese has its own Synod of Bishops, but that Synod is obliged to give account to and receive guidance from the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, of which it is also part). GOArch was formed to serve primarily the religious needs of the ethnic group of Greek immigrants in America and thus it is bearer of many ethnic elements in its worship and traditions (language used in services is Koine Greek, byzantine chant and generally congregation of mostly greek ethnic descent).

    The two Churches are in full communion and share the same Faith and Tradition.

    Father Stephen if I am making any mistakes, please correct me.

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