Thank you Father Herbel!
by Al Fragola, Whidbey Island, WA
Of all the positive things I have seen come out of OCANews.org, I must say that Fr Herbel’s reflections, and the ensuing debate, could be the most vital and beneficial to the future of Orthodoxy in the US, if they are taken to heart. By simply raising a serious question of whether or not there has ever been a serious mission to evangelize the non-Orthodox population, he has identified the most profound failure of the Orthodox in America. Not financial misconduct, not sexual misconduct, not jurisdictionalism, but an abject, continuing and inbred failure to seriously evangelize the people of the continent. As a community, we have collectively ignored the “Great Commission”, and failed to bear full witness to the Gospel of Christ to the world around us.
Yes, we have expressed spirituality. Yes, we have preached to each other. Yes, we have accepted converts. Yes, we conduct inspiring worship. Yes, we train our choirs. Yes, we pray unceasingly. Yes, we fast. Yes, our clergy renounce sin. But we have not, and do not venture, systematically and universally outside our closed circles and set a clear and obvious Christian example for our non-Orthodox neighbors and evangelize them. Perhaps a few parishes and people, but not in the main.
I’m not talking about sending young men in dark suits and ties to knock on doors, or asking everyone we meet if they are “saved”, or telling them we want to “witness to them”. Rather, we need to “love thy neighbor as thyself”, and I would suggest some, and only some, examples based on words we hear in the Gospel readings of the Liturgy over and over again.
“I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me drink. I was naked and you clothed me”. Ever consider parishioners wearing a t-shirt with your parish name on it going door to door regularly to collect canned goods for a local food bank or clothes for the needy? Ever check to see if a local soup kitchen needs workers on a regular basis? Ever check to see if a shelter for battered families needs food and clothing or personal supplies? Not just collecting and disbursing money, but personally helping your neighbors, in person, and letting them know, even if only subtly, that you are from their neighborhood Orthodox parish, and that’s how we Orthodox express our love for our neighbor. Did Christ take up a collection and send it to someone else to feed the multitudes? Did He collect money for people in foreign countries while ignoring those who lived next to him? Did the Good Samaritan refer the fellow by the side of the road to a charity he supported, or did he physically help him, and ensure that his subsequent needs would be met? Are those scriptural examples so difficult to follow?
“I was sick and in prison, and you visited me”. Do your parishioners do anything regularly, in person, for shut ins, those in hospitals, nursing homes, or in jail? Does your local hospital engage volunteers from area churches, and if so, is yours one of them? Have you even inquired? Has your parish ever entered a team in the local Cancer Society Relay for Life, or similar activity? Does your parish collect books or other appropriate materials and donate them to the local jails for prisoners to read? Not necessarily religious material, just books to help those in prison do more then vegetate, and to let them know that Orthodox Christians care when they see the little label that says, “Gift of St SoAndSo Orthodox Church”.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me”. Do you conduct an annual “Neighborhood Appreciation Day” to thank those who live around your church for their patience and forbearance in accepting the parking problems, noise and traffic you create? Perhaps a summer barbecue where you host them and recognize them? Do you personally invite all in your parish’s neighborhood as guests to the celebrations on the feast day of your parish? Don’t necessarily have to invite them to the services, but a seat at the subsequent banquet table would be a welcoming, loving and charitable gesture. Or are your banquet table seats only for paying customers and sister parishes? Ever stop by and tell the neighbors they are welcome to drop in during “coffee hour”, just to enjoy their company, no strings attached?
In general, are your parishioners visibly active in caring for the least among you in your community. Are you active as a parish in those benevolent activities where other church groups are active? Does the community at large see you as a Christian family that contributes to the needs of all, or just a bunch of people who go inside a building to worship? Is your parish a vibrant part of your community to the point that when one thinks of good works, your parish immediately comes to mind?
Reverend Fathers, do you spend at least one day a week visiting a hospital, nursing home, pregnancy crisis center, family shelter and/or jail population in your area? Not just for Orthodox people but all people. Have you offered your services as a police, fire department, scouting, Big Brothers/Big Sisters or service group chaplain? If it takes “certification” to serve as a chaplain, have you so much as lifted a finger to achieve it, or do you just bemoan the lack of it? Do you say there just isn’t enough time for that? Then I challenge you to just make one stop at a nursing home and let each of the residents know that you are too busy for them and see who that promotes the Faith.
Reverend Fathers, do you simply read these Gospel lessons and preach about them, or do you also lead your flock in acting out both of the “Two Greatest Commandments” and the Sermon of the Last Judgment? Have you ever advised in confession to do these acts of love and mercy as a means to overcome sloth, greed or envy? Or do you just tell them to pray and try harder, over and over again? Do you set an example by your behavior in expressing love for all your neighbors in the community? And not just in the abstract!
Reverend Bishops, do you seriously counsel your clergy and laity that they are expected, by Christ, to perform works of love and mercy, like those above, as part of their day to day lives, lest they be numbered among the goats? Do you lead them to opportunities to engage in Christian acts of love? Do you counsel your clergy when they fail to actively lead their flock to fulfill these clear commandments from Christ that are read from the Gospels at the Liturgy. Do you counsel your clergy when they themselves fail to fulfill these commandments and help them to succeed? Have you done anything to get your priests properly trained to be chaplains to all of those in need, and direct them to serve as such, or do you just focus on the Orthodox? Do you strive to be an icon of fulfillment of the Sermon of the Last Judgment?
There is a hymn with the refrain, “They will know we are Christians by our love”. That isn’t just “touchy – feely” stuff. If we truly express love for our neighbor, they will know we are a cut above, and ultimately Orthodox Christians. It’s called being witnesses to the Gospel of Christ, and it has proven itself, time after time to be contagious. But our neighbor will not know of our love if it is impersonal and merely in the form of an occasional check to charity. Christian love is expressed personally, and in person. To spread the Gospel, we must express that love in person, so that we will see Christ in our neighbor, and hopefully, our neighbor will not only see Christ in us, but also see Christ’s message of love being expressed through us. By this love, our neighbor can be drawn to Christ, and in time, we will make disciples of the American nation.
All too often, we have withheld a twofold gift from those amongst whom we live. The gift of true, sacrificial Christian love, and thereby the gift of the true message of Life Eternal. As a result, we have failed to carry out a mission to evangelize America.
Will we be counted among the sheep or the goats?