Think piece: Has anyone at an Orthodox parish near you heard of St. Moses the Black?

Every liturgical year, hours after the great feast of Pascha, Eastern Orthodox Christians gather for a unique service called the Agape Vespers -- during which passages from St. John's Gospel are read in as many languages as possible (based on the membership of the parish).

In this highly multi-ethnic Communion, it is common for churches to have readings in six or seven languages. At my family's parish in the Baltimore-D.C. area -- Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, MD. -- we used to hit 16 or more on a rather regular basis.

What's the point? Theologically speaking, The Big Idea is that the church must always remember to proclaim the Gospel to as many people and cultures as possible. In the Orthodox context here in America, it's a regular reminder that the borders of Orthodoxy are not defined by the language and culture of the Old Country (think Greece or Russia), or by the language and culture of the new (think converts here in North America).

Truth is (attention reporters and editors) many, many seeker-friendly Orthodox parishes are becoming quite diverse, when it comes to ethnicity and even languages.

This brings me to an interesting, and quite straightforward, "Have Faith" feature at The Daily Beast that ran the other day. Here was the info-driven, sprawling headline:

The Brotherhood of Moses the Black
It may come as a shock to some, but one surprising religion is making serious inroads into the African-American community.

And here is the feature's overture:

When Karl Berry walked into an Orthodox Church for the first time in 1983, he saw icons of black saints. He and his wife were living in Atlanta at the time, and visiting a friend when they stopped by. He would never forget the day he first encountered St. Moses the Black and St. Cyprian of Carthage. 
“My first thought was that these were just some very liberal white people who were doing some outreach and trying to appeal to black people,” Berry, now known as Father Moses, told The Daily Beast. The priest told him that they were actually replicas of third century icons, linking back to a Christianity that originated hundreds of years ago.
“And that was my first introduction to the universal church, not just in theory or in words but in actual depictions of saints from different countries who were always part of the development of Christendom,” he said.

Truth is, it is hard to understand the life and growth of the early church without digging into its roots in Africa.

This is timely discussion, in light of the fact that several Christian flocks are booming, once again, in Africa and this trend is having a major impact on some churches in the Western world (think Anglicans and United Methodists, for example). Reporters might want to check out two books in particular, "How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity" by theologian Thomas Oden and then "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity," by historian Philip Jenkins.

In terms of journalism at the local level, this feature in The Daily Beast focuses on the slow, but steady, growth of a network called the Brotherhood of Moses the Black in a number of Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions. And if you want a introduction to the amazing life of this 4th century saint -- basically a highwayman and murderer who became a holy monk -- then click here.

The story in the Beast offers these two background summaries:

Berry is one of a small but growing number of African Americans moving from Protestant churches to Orthodox Christianity, inspired by the Church’s long history in Africa, claim to authenticity, and reverence of black saints. Together, they’re transforming a tradition largely tied to white ethnic groups in America, and reaching out to others in the African-American community with their message. 
The icons in the Virginia church also reminded Berry of his childhood, when his grandmother told him that there were so many races of people because they were all flowers in God’s garden. At that Virginia church, Berry said, he felt the icons telling him, “We are the flowers in God’s garden that you’re looking for.”

And later there is this:

Last year, the Pew Research Center found growing racial diversity across all Christian denominations, and Orthodox Christianity in particular. Although practitioners may often associate themselves with particular ethnic groups -- like Greek Orthodox, or Russian Orthodox, for example -- the number of people of color ascribing to the church went up by six percentage points between 2007 and 2014, from 13 to 19 percent.
Mother Katherine Weston, an Orthodox nun, told The Daily Beast that outreach to African-American communities began in the early 1990s with a series conference on the ancient church and the African-American experience which continue to this day. Eventually, Berry and some other conference attendees founded the Brotherhood of Moses the Black in 1997 when he lived in St. Louis. The city was seeing an influx of Orthodox refugees from Africa who lacked support networks, and the Brotherhood sought to provide them with aid and community. 

So what is the takeaway in this think piece? Simply stated, reporters may want to survey the Orthodox communities in the region surrounding their newsrooms and find out if there are any local signs of this trend. I'll be honest: This is not a trend that is reaching all parishes in all regions.

However, it's safe to say that something is going on. In Baltimore, and also here in Bible Belt East Tennessee, there are African-Americans, folks from overseas and members of blended, multi-ethnic families (What would you call a family with a Thai-Indonesian-Vietnamese-African-American heritage?) who are curious about ancient rites and roots. Many of them are young males. Yes, that was an African-American teen chanting the morning prayers yesterday at my own parish here in Oak Ridge.

So place a few local calls. Has anyone near you heard of St. Moses the Black? If your local Orthodox have never heard of this saint, you may want to ask: "Why not?"

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