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Our Culture, Our Story

by Fr. Michael Oleksa

I was delighted to read Dr. Dimitri Solodow's recent discussion on the "culture" of the Church. Since I have been teaching a course entitled "Cross-Cultural Communication", I' ve been wrestling with the topic of culture for decades, and while I use several definitions in my classes, there is one that seems most appropriate in our context: Our culture is the story we accept as our own and seek to fulfill. Our culture is the enactment of our story.

I think it would be helpful for all of us in the Orthodox Church in America to review our story.

It began when frontiersmen from Siberia set sail for the Aleutian Islands after Vitus Bering's second exploratory voyage in 1741. They made frequent visits to the archipelago before some and eventually many decided to settle among the Unangax permanently. They baptized their wives and children, so that when the first clergy arrived from Valaam with St. Herman a half century later, they found the entire population already converted, baptized, celebrating the feasts and singing the hymns of the Church.

A similar story was repeated along the Eastern seaboard a century later. Immigrants came, settled, and built churches. The establishment of Orthodoxy, both in Alaska and in the "lower 48" was a lay movement. Laity took the initiative. And they still must. If the church is to grow, if America is to know and embrace Orthodox Christianity, the laity of the Church must undertake this sacred task. Unlike the conversion of the Slavs in the time of SS. Cyril and Methodius or later of St. Vladimir, American Orthodoxy was not adopted by the local rulers who imposed it from "on high". It has been a grassroots phenomenon from the beginning.

The Valaam monks came to Alaska to bring Orthodoxy to the Alaska Natives, whom they always called "the Americans". They never used the word "Russian" when referring to the Faith. They never saw their task as bringing Russian language, art, technology or "civilization" to the New World. In fact, missionary leaders published treatises insisting that they had no cultural agenda, that they were not interested in introducing European styles or methods to the Americans, since "European" culture is not nearly so Christian as many people today imagine. When examined more closely, one Alaskan priest noted that "...European culture is all pride, egotism and the desire for power and personal gain- the opposite of the Gospel of Christ who is all meekness, poverty and self-sacrifice."

The Alaskan missionaries understood their task as bringing Christ, the Gospel, the Orthodox Faith to the local people, and were willing to adapt whatever indigenous customs that served their purpose. They translated the Scriptures and the services into the various tribal languages. They opened parochial schools, trained local leaders, entrusted responsibility for the Mission to Alaskan elders. When Russia transferred Alaska to American rule in 1867, after which nearly all the Russian employees of the colonial administration returned to Russia, the Church not only remained but grew from a dozen churches and chapels to nearly 100 today. The Church had become "ours" and Alaskans accepted responsibility for its growth. The mission to Alaska was amazingly successful because it demanded nothing for itself. It existed for Alaska, for Alaskans.

The vision from the beginning was to bless, sanctify and enrich this land and its people, not to import or preserve a foreign institution on American soil. Our story, our Mission, has been, from the beginning, focused on America and Americans. Even after the majority of Orthodox by 1905 was living in the northeast quadrant of the USA, and the bishops sent from Europe spoke little or no English, they nevertheless understood that Orthodoxy in America was new, unique, different. They spoke of the Church in North America as "Nasha Missiya" (Our Mission), whose purpose was the evangelization of this country and its citizens.

Culture is the enactment of a shared story. We are writing the story as we live it, and the opening chapters inform us of our purpose and direction. If we forget our story, we will either abandon "Nasha Missiya" for another, or we become so confused we no longer have a clear criteria for assessing our progress.

The early missionaries spent years listening to the Alutiiq myths and legends, the sacred stories that the Kodiak people had told their children for centuries, stories about the origins of the universe and the place of human beings within the cosmic order. They discovered that the islanders had a repertoire of myths and parables that described the world and the appropriate place and role of The People in it. The Americans, they reported, believe all people are descended from the same parents, that there was a flood in ancient times, and that the Creator wanted them to live together harmoniously. They discerned that the Alutiiq had the outline of the Ten Commandments and concluded that they could introduce the Christian faith as the fulfillment of what these tribal people already understood and believed.

It is our task to understand and embrace all that is good and true in American society. We have not come to judge or condemn it but to fulfill it, offering to Americans what they cannot find elsewhere, the fullness of the Gospel such as they cannot experience anywhere else. We are here to make Paschal Joy accessible to all, and to invite our friends and neighbor and all who are seeking it, the spiritual treasures which we have inherited from the ancient undivided Church. This is the clear mandate of the story, which we accept as ìour story,î and provides a clear outline for the enactment of it, ìour culture,î ìnasha missiya,îóour culture.

Whenever we neglect or forget our story, we become disoriented and even lose our way, and move in inappropriate and harmful, self-defeating directions. We can be tempted to assume the identity of an immigrant community whose purpose is preserve here what our ancestors did in their homelands. But the people in those homelands are better equipped to accomplish this than we are! If we forget our story, we can degenerate into a self-serving, self-absorbed community, seeking only to survive, to perpetuate itself. We cannot, however, be in America for ourselves, but for America, just as Christ does not come into the world for Himself but for the salvation of the world. He seeks nothing for Himself, And He willing dies to fulfill His Mission.
He becomes the Paradigm for the fulfillment of ours as well.

If we refer to the beginning of our story, it becomes obvious that the yardstick by which we measure our success, at least in America, is missiological. How do we make the Orthodox Faith accessible, meaningful, intelligible to anyone who walks through the doors of one of our churches? How must the Liturgy be celebrated so that even a casual visitor will be informed and challenged by what he/she sees and hears? What sort of sermons needs to be preached to convict and convince those who attend, deepening their faith and their commitment? What sort of publications enhances this work? What kind of buildings are needed, decorated with what sort of iconography? What kind of leadership do we need? How do we fund this work?

The "crisis" in our Church is not essentially about money. It is about losing our sense of direction, forgetting who we are, where we came from. In our immigrant era, many of us saw ourselves, or our parents or grandparents as peasants from what is today the Carpathian borderland between Slovakia and Poland. We felt, to be honest, inferior to the "Great Russians" from Moscow and St. Petersburg, who, also to be honest, seemed to look down on the great undereducated mass of Orthodox bumpkins who had come by the tens of thousands to North America. The folk customs of this confused ethic group, (who weren't even sure where they had come from and had little sense of national identity except to call themselves "Rus"), seemed quaint and colorful to their "high" Russian leaders, but the Lemkos and Boykos also felt belittled by their more aristocratic or better educated pastors. There was tension between the clergy and laity which often provided the basis for conflicts and even schisms.

We should admit that the old Metropolia was an unusual amalgam of Alaska Natives and western Rus immigrants, led by hierarchs appointed in Great Russia to guide and rule them. But those "peasants" were not so ignorant, and those Natives were in no way spiritually inferior to any other Orthodox group. They knew the services by heart. They sang with great enthusiasm and devotion, and devised beautiful folk customs for the perpetuation of their faith, its penetration into their daily lives, producing, precisely a unique culture.

The Rus preserved, in my opinion, not an inferior, but a deeply loved and intensely popular expression of Orthodox worship. Their language was not, in fact, a degenerate or hillbilly version of Russian, but the mother tongue of modern Polish, Slovak and Ukrainian. They understood Slavonic better than their "Great" Russian cousins. We need to restore a certain pride in our story, in "Our People" for the remarkable gifts and treasures they brought with them to America. Those later converts who have joined the OCA need to know, understand and appreciate our foundations, for we cannot move authentically forward in a healthy way if we fail to properly appreciate and celebrate our story, in all its diversity, confusion, triumphs and tragedies.

So our story begins in the 1740's with the evangelization of Unangan, Lingit and Yupíik peoples in Alaska, leaps southward to San Francisco in 1868, then to New York in 1905. The Russian Revolution and Civil War throws the administration and financial support of the Mission into chaos, but it survives. It founds seminaries and monasteries, trains its own leadership and receives its autocephaly in 1970. But soon after we get confused. Why are we here? Where are we going? How do we get there? The immigrant generation and their children seek acceptance. We want the "Americans" to recognize us. We want to be treated as equals, as "just as good" as those immigrant groups who arrived earlier. We seek assimilation. And with this goal, we put in pews, install flags, translate our services into English, switch to the "new" calendar.

There are those who oppose these changes as "innovations" accusing those who promote them as betraying the Holy Faith. Some just seek to be more American, while others identify Orthodoxy with "however they do it" in some other country. For a decade, the emphasis was on getting recognized as a "Fourth Major Faith." We were still immigrants, trying to gain "acceptance".

None of these issues, however is really critical to the fulfillment of our original mission, but these generations increasingly lose sight of what our original mission was. Some don't recall that we ever had one.

I would submit that even those with no Slavic heritage, those who converted to the Orthodox Faith and thought they could skip the ethnic past, dismissing these chapters of the story as irrelevant, must realize that such a rejection is not only harmful but impossible. Converts are grafted onto a living organism, a tree with Hebraic roots, a Greek trunk, a Slavic branch, an Alaskan twig. They may be the "fruitî"of this ancient tree, but they cannot exist alone, without the roots, trunk, branch or twig. By becoming Orthodox they have become part of this story, a player in its continuing enactment. The Church's traditional use of Hebrew and Greek, and in our tradition, Slavonic, celebrates this heritage. It cannot be renounced, dismissed or forgotten.

Those in the OCA of Slavic heritage need to overcome their inferiority complex, believing erroneously that the "Great" Russians somehow embody a more complete or adequate language, culture or liturgical tradition. In many ways, our mission in America, to Americans, would be advanced by the renewal of many of our historical, "Little" Russian customs. Congregational singing in melodies that anyone can learn quickly and easily, folk carols that celebrate the major Feasts, not only at Christmas but Theophany, Pascha, Pentecost and major saints days, the freedom to create popular expressions, the use of religious greetings, not only at Pascha but throughout the year - our mission will only thrive when we embrace our story - "Po Nashomu" - the way of Our People, and stop apologizing for being ourselves.

I believe we will develop a genuine "Orthodox Culture" within the OCA only when we review and accept our own story. We are actors in a play that is already in its third act, but many of the actors do not know the story of Act I (Alaska) or Act II (Immigration). They are on stage. They have roles to play in the unfolding story, but they have little idea what the story is, who the main characters have been, where it began and how it has developed. And they have no script. There is no one to provide them with appropriate lines. So they ad-lib, without a clear sense of purpose or direction. In order to restore our culture we must re-examine and re-evaluate our story. And we will then rediscover "nasha missiya", our historic and God-given mission. And we will not be embarrassed or ashamed of being who we are.

Too often, it seems to me, we wanted to be someone else. For some that meant "just as good as" the respected Episcopal or Presbyterian pastor, parish or community, just as "rich", just as "accepted", just as "respected". For others it meant replicating the manners and style of an Old World establishment, the Patriarchs of Moscow, Bucharest or Constantinople. The Alaskan mission was also redirected during these years, to approximate as quickly as possible the usages and practices of the Anglo-Americanized parishes in other parts of the USA, and later, to adopt standards imported from Russia. Alaskans asked for decades, "When can we be ourselves?" That time has at last arrived.

We must reaffirm our identity, resume our mission. We must first have a healthy sense of self, of who we are, however, before we can love our neighbor "as our self."

We must admit and repent that we have neglected or forgotten or even denied and rejected much of our story. And there are some recent elements in the more recent history we may be tempted to deny or forget. But we cannot do that. We must face and critique our deviations, our mistakes our betrayals, and in the spirit of repentance, condemn our own sins and resolve to change our direction, in order to reaffirm our identity, resume our mission. It is not only the leadership, the clergy or the hierarchy who have been confused, who have lost their way. Our whole Church has. But we are capable of self-criticism, genuine repentance, reform and renewal. Our autocephaly requires this of us. We are free to move forward or to fall backward as we decide. It is our story to write. We can find our way. We can resume our mission.

Central to that mission, I believe, we must rediscover our original purpose. Our focus, unlike all the jurisdictions founded primarily or exclusively by immigrants for the perpetuation of their own ethnic identity, (as a colony of a Mother Church on the other side of the Atlantic), was never simply for ourselves. We have never been in diaspora. (Alaska Natives have never left their homelands.) Our mission began with an outpouring of love for the "Americans", a willingness to suffer and if necessary die for them. This is what we must recover. We must so love this land and its people that we are ready to sacrifice all that we are, all that we have for them.

Only then can we fulfill the missionary task which our saints have entrusted to us. You cannot save what you do not love. So let us return to our story, our mission, in the spirit of those saints who inaugurated our journey, SS. Herman, Juvenaly, Innocent and Jacob in Alaska, SS. Tikhon, Raphael, John, Alexander, Basil and Alexis among the immigrants in the East. Let us be renewed by reviewing and recommitting ourselves to the story they have already written, realizing that it is our sacred task to embrace and continue that legacy, and keep it clearly in focus as we fulfill, and with God's Help, complete the evangelical work they entrusted to us all.

(Fr. Michael Oleksa is the acting Chancellor of the Diocese of Alaska and a member of the Metropolitan Council/)



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