Baltimore Sun gets the little picture: Convert-era Orthodoxy comes to local Greek parish

More than 30 years ago, there was a big story that rocked the rather small and obscure world of Eastern Orthodox Christianity here in the United States.

That was when a flock of evangelicals -- led by a former Campus Crusade leader, the late Father Peter Gillquist -- were embraced by the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church. Regular GetReligion readers know my own family later joined that number, through a close friendship with another leader in that flock, the late Father Gordon Walker of Franklin, Tenn.

The mainstream press gave the "evangelical Orthodox" story a modest amount of ink at the time. Like I said, it was an important story in a small, but growing, flock. The key was that it was a sign of things to come for the faithful in the world's second-largest Christian communion.

Years before I converted, I wrote a column about the growth of an American expression of this ancient faith, built on an interview with the late Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church. He was born in Turkey, but by the end of his life he could see ripples of change in America. The converts were coming, whether some Orthodox leaders wanted them or not.

"I cannot visualize what an American Orthodoxy would look like. ... But I believe that it will exist. I know that it must be born," said Iakovos. ...
"I do know this for sure. The essential elements of the Orthodox tradition will have to remain at the heart of whatever grows in this land. The heart has to remain the same, or it will not touch peoples' souls. It will not be truly Orthodox. I know that this will happen here, but I do not know when it will happen or how."

That was 1992. Why bring this up now? Well, the Baltimore Sun recently published a lengthy and admirable feature about a local development in this larger national story. This piece offered an in-depth look at the story of a former Southern Baptist (from East Tennessee, of all places) who has found his way into the Greek Orthodox priesthood.

To be blunt, there is only one problem with this story: It never really places this one priest in the context of this larger, 30-year-old trend in Eastern Orthodoxy. It also failed to note the degree to which this trend had already had a big impact in Baltimore, especially as symbolized by one of America's best-known "convert friendly" parishes. I am talking about Holy Cross Orthodox Church (my family's parish for 12 years), the subject of one of the first books that many Orthodox seekers read -- "Facing East," by my good friend Frederica Mathewes-Green. Note the Russian news story at the top of this piece (yes, I'm in the choir).

Let me be clear: Am I saying this new Sun feature is not valid or timely? Of course not. Am I saying that it should have focused on my old church. Of course not.

What I am saying is, that by failing to note the larger context of changes in Orthodoxy, the Sun didn't help readers understand a new wrinkle in this older story in the marketplace of American religion. You see, it is now clear that the convert era is reaching the large Greek Orthodox Church, which is sure to bring new joys and pains to this proud body of believers.

The Greeks, for example, need priests and lots of their new seminarians are not, well, GREEK. That's a big change. Also, reporters that dig deep into U.S. Orthodox statistics will find that the Greek Orthodox have many small, struggling local parishes that -- to survive or even thrive -- will need to embrace converts and cradle Orthodox believers from other jurisdictions (think Russians, Romanians, Arabs, etc.). They will need to become Pan-Orthodox.

So what is right, in this Sun story about the religious pilgrimage of Father Brent Gilbert? Lots of things. Here is some summary material near the top:

Gilbert is neither ethnically nor culturally Greek -- his forebears came to America from the British Isles. But after discernment and years of study, he's now the Rev. Gregory Gilbert, the presiding priest of Sts. Mary Magdalene and Markella Greek Orthodox Church in Darlington -- and a prominent example of the gradual but insistent wave of conversion that is turning a tradition long rooted in ethnic heritage into a more varied and, some say, more American movement.
Almost half the nearly 1 million Orthodox Christians in the United States today are converts, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America reported in 2015. The majority of these married into the church. But a growing number are joining simply out of an affinity for the faith.
"We can still say that it's not the majority of the laity -- at this stage, most have been raised in the church -- but there's a lot of them," says the Very Rev. Archpriest Andrew Damick, pastor of St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pa., and the author of several books on Orthodox Christianity. "Conversion has already had a pretty big impact."

Father Damick is a good source on this topic -- part of the second wave of converts in the Antiochian jurisdiction. Maybe Mathewes-Green was out of town and not available to interview, in addition to Damick? Still, there were many other local voices to seek out. Like I said, convert-era Orthodoxy is an old story -- in Baltimore.

Moving on. I found this next passage particularly moving. You see, 80-plus percent of Gilbert's flock not only have roots in Greece, they have roots in three older Greek Orthodox parishes in Baltimore. So does it help that Gilbert majored in classics and already spoke Greek?

For much of its first decade, Sts. M. and M. followed te pattern of the three older churches -- and most Greek Orthodox churches in the United States -- by engaging an ethnically and culturally Greek cleric, Fr. Manuel Burdusi, the former Proistamenos (spiritual leader) of St. Nicholas Church, to lead the congregation.
Deanna Karkoulas Mojarrad grew up attending St. Demetrios in Parkville. She and her husband were married there in 1993. They joined Sts. M. and M. in 2011.
Mojarrad says the parish loved the popular Burdusi during his tenure, at least in part because he was steeped in the Greek language and culture most have known since childhood.
When Metropolitan Evangelos of New Jersey, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the mid-Atlantic, assigned the newly ordained Gilbert to be head priest of Sts. M. and M. in 2015, she feared he might have a hard time connecting.
He didn't.

There is lots more. There are many threads here to weave together, such as ties to the old country, the realities of intermarriage, trends among second- and third-generation young people and the ways that Orthodox people struggle to separate "big-T" Traditions (as in doctrines) from "small-t" traditions linked to national cultures.

It would have helped to discuss the fact that -- in addition to evangelicalism -- many traditional believers are entering Orthodoxy after fleeing progressive trends in oldline Protestantism, especially the Episcopal Church. Some Catholics are swimming the Bosphorus, too. This is a big, complex story and I am sure that some Orthodox insiders will quibble with a few details in this new report.

But, like I said, please read it all. The Sun team only needed to let readers know that the story of Father Gilbert and his flock is a new chapter in a national story -- even in Baltimore -- that is already decades old. And this story is part of the next act in the drama.

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