By Fr. Brendan Pelphery
(Friday, 27th Febuary 2004. Source: http://dto.thischurch.org)
Like many Orthodox churches, Annunciation Cathedral in Houston, Texas is set on a hill. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:14). Ours is certainly not a literal hill, because this part of Texas is perfectly flat. But the Cathedral occupies an important place in this city of three million people, drawing visitors of all backgrounds throughout the year.
Not long ago, for example, a group of twenty students from a Montessori high-school toured the church. They wanted to learn something about the art and architecture of a Greek Orthodox church in preparation for a trip to Greece later in the Spring. However, the two-hour visit soon gave way to talk about the Orthodox Christian faith and the students’ own experience of spiritual life.
Such tours are especially stimulating because the variety of backgrounds, races and languages which are inevitably present. This morning’s class included a student from India who is Hindu, a Muslim from Pakistan, a Roman Catholic from Central Africa, and a number of Hispanic, Asian and African-American young men and women. They represented several different Christian denominations, as well as students who had no religious background at all. Although they came from different socio-economic groups and neighbourhoods, all were polite and listened attentively.
This mixture of ethnic and spiritual backgrounds may be found today in every part of America. Also typical of American youth is a curiosity about other religions. Interestingly, however, students often know very little about their own families’ spiritual traditions. The Christian students, for example, did not know that St. Nicholas was the original “Santa Claus”. When we talked about Great Lent the Muslim student compared it to Ramadan, but was less sure of the Muslim teaching about jinn (demons) or of the Archangel Gabriel (Jibri-el in Islam). The Hindu student, named Bhakti (“Devotion”) was delighted when we talked about the meaning of her name, but was less familiar with Hindu devotion itself.
Often, students are perplexed about historical events because they typically do not have a very good grasp of world history. This particular class was unusual because they were studying the history of Byzantium, which is rarely taught today in America. However, they wanted to relate ancient events to modern experience, and to deepen their own understanding of God and of themselves. As a result, the tour this morning included answering very basic questions about Christian faith and life, the Bible, the history of the Orthodox Church, and our differences with other world religions.
I asked one student whether the design on her shirt had any special meaning. It was a black shirt with a strange, pointed design printed in the centre. The design, which is often seen in tattoos and on record-jackets, is in fact connected with the practice of sorcery. The centre of the design depicts a goat with horns (“the horned god”), and upside-down five-pointed star, and two crescent moons. All these symbols relate to pagan religion and have become popular because of fascination with the occult. When we began to talk about it, other students affirmed the occult meaning of the shirt, which its wearer simply thought was connected with a particular kind of rock music.
This incident is a reminder that today our witness is not simply to other Christians from non-Orthodox backgrounds, nor even to people of other traditional world religions. Instead, we have the opportunity, and responsibility, to present Orthodoxy to followers – or potential followers – of every kind of spiritual background imaginable. Not only this, but we do not have to travel anywhere to do it, and our audience is eager to learn about our Faith.
Like many Orthodox churches today, Annunciation Cathedral also finds itself in the midst of a changing neighbourhood. In this older part of the city, the beautiful campus of a Catholic university is across the street. A few blocks further is the Museum District, which attracts tourists to this part of Houston. But in the other direction are tattoo parlours, video shops, palm-readers and gay bars. Does an Orthodox Cathedral have a significant role here?
Without doubt, we do. At Annunciation Orthodox School down the street, parents are always ready to talk with a priest about issues of faith and life, even though nearly 90% are not Orthodox. A Vietnamese mother stands at the church gate to talk with me about her Buddhist past and whether her daughter will be chrismated. The 8th grade class will soon visit the little Buddhist temple only a few blocks from the Cathedral. And our new patio, with a traditional Greek fountain in the centre, attracts passers-by who just want to sit for a little while in a quiet place.
Our encounters with the neighbourhood are bringing new converts from all backgrounds. Several days ago, for example, a Methodist minister inquired about becoming Orthodox and attending Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. One new member works in the crisis pregnancy centre a few blocks from the church, and another is a reference librarian in a busy university nearby. All these people bring with them new gifts and resources for the ministry and life of the Church. Receiving them, however, requires real effort on the part of those of us who are already Orthodox.
First, it is helpful for us to know about the religious groups which are represented all around us. In speaking to the high-school students at the church tour, it helped me to know something about their own religions and to explain the differences with our Faith and spiritual life as Orthodox Christians. To augment our awareness of world religions, the Cathedral subsequently offered a class on world religions to adults every Tuesday afternoon. This has been supplemented with interfaith dialogues conducted in homes, at the Cathedral, and in formal settings such as local hospitals and interfaith centres.
In one instance, Mormon missionaries attended a Bible-study in the home of one of our parish members – and they stayed for three hours! A meeting with non-Christian leaders in the city resulted in a day-long seminar at a local hospital, to join Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist ministers in speaking about our ways of ministering to the sick. An inevitable result of this sort of interchange was a voiced curiosity on the part of many who were present, in the Orthodox Christian Faith.
Second, we are forced to examine the way in which we receive converts to the Faith and even casual visitors on Sunday morning. Bible study groups are discussing how we react when strangers are among us. What should we do when a street-sleeper joins us for a weekday Liturgy? Does anyone speak to visitors or tell them where we are in the Liturgy book? What about Greek-language services, which leave many of the hearers completely lost? How should we respond to a Protestant visitor who comes every week, but who insists in a loud voice that priests should not be called “Father”? How would we include a Roman Catholic priest who, in his retirement, attends the Divine Liturgy regularly and can read Greek – but who, at this time in his life, is not going to become Orthodox?
Finally, our Education Ministry is expanding constantly. The “Introduction to Orthodoxy” class is full, not just because of persons who are marrying into Orthodox families but because individuals have elected to enter the Church on their own. Backgrounds of catechumens during the last three years have ranged from Jewish to Mormon, Muslim to Buddhist, Episcopal to Baptist, Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, atheist and Wiccan (neo-pagan, that is, practicing witchcraft or worshipping ancient gods). Our adult-study classroom, which easily accommodates more than 50, is too full on Sunday mornings to seat everyone – and there are two other adult classes running simultaneously! Pre-marital counselling nearly always includes Hispanic Orthodox (we occasionally perform a wedding in Spanish and Greek, since these are the languages used by the bride and groom). This suggests that eventually there needs to be liturgical services which include Spanish.
At present, one of the greatest problems faced by our parish council is that the cathedral is too small. By economia we celebrate two liturgies on Sunday mornings, but often these are “standing-room only”. This is a good problem to have, but we must ask: How will we conduct mission in the future? Will we start new congregations in the city? Are we willing to meet the needs of so many diverse people?
The changing nature of our American culture, and the multi-religious environment in which we find ourselves, means that all Orthodox Christians today are called to respond to the challenge to mission which has been given to us by our Lord. To do this, four things are required of us. These are not optional, but are absolute requirements of the Gospel. They are:
(1.) Study our own Faith diligently. Without spiritual preparation we are not equipped to speak to others about Orthodox Faith, or even to receive those who come to us seeking the truth and salvation of Jesus Christ.
(2.) Study the religions of others in our neighbourhoods. We must know something about those who are coming to us, so that we can listen intelligently and answer their questions meaningfully. This is exactly what the Church Fathers did, from St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century to Sts. Cyril and Methodios in the 9th century, who evangelised the Slavs; to St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century (he was aware of the spiritual practices of Hindus and Muslims, and entered into dialogue with them), to Archbisop Anastasios of Albania in our own time.
(3.) Be willing to enter into discussion about our Faith with anyone who approaches u on the theme.
(4.) Conduct the Divine Liturgy in such a way as to give glory to God. The key is not simply language, since visitors who do not speak Greek can nevertheless experience the mystical presence of Christ in our midst. But we must worship with pure hearts, genuine love and a willingness to love one another as we love God.
When these elements of the Body of Christ are in place, the result is that the Church inevitably receives many who have been drawn to Christ.
(The source from which this article was drawn from no longer exists and locating this article on the internet is virtually impossible. However the authorship of this article is by Fr Brendan Pelphery who now serves in the Greek Orthodox parish of St. George’s, Shreveport, Louisiana USA).