Jacobï¿½s Well Orthodox Church in America
Diocese of New York & New Jersey
Jacobďż˝s Well Fall 2020
Published with the blessing of His Eminence, The Most Reverend Michael, Archbishop of New York and the Diocese of New York & New Jersey Editor-in-Chief
Rev. Matthew Brown
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Singing Their Songs (1992) Back cover
Madonna (1982) artworks: Elizabeth Catlett
Editorial 4 Across the Great Divide by Nick Tabor
Interviews 6 Rev. Samuel Davis 9 Mat. Julitssa Davis 12 Ahmad Williams 16 Rdr. Doyin Teriba 20 Femi Olutade 25 Ronald Rosaliere 28 Brandon Dawson
Across the Great a social category people are assigned to, based on shared physical traits (like skin color, eye shape, and hair texture) that they’ve inherited through genealogy. Examples: white, Black, Asian, Latino. Race:
the bundle of language, nationality, culture, and religion that make up a person’s background. Examples: Yoruba, Han Chinese, English, Turkish. Ethnicity:
an ethnicity made up of Americans who have significant African ancestry. The term usually refers to U.S.-born descendants of enslaved people, though African immigrants sometimes also adopt it. African American:
a racial group made up of people with significant ancestral ties to SubSaharan Africa (as opposed to North African countries like Egypt and Morocco). The term also refers to the cultural traits and expressions that are shared among a wide variety of Black people. Black:
a Latin-American of African ancestry; the largest clusters of AfroLatinos live in Brazil, Colombia, and the Caribbean. Afro-Latino:
This past summer, many national news organizations — including The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker — announced they would begin capitalizing the term “Black” when it referred to the racial group, the same way they’ve always capitalized terms like Asian, Hispanic, African American, and Native American. Starting with this issue, Jacob’s Well will do the same. Editor’s note:
Divide by NICK TABOR
it seems safe to say our country is nearing peak
polarization. Of course, we ought to be careful about making these kinds of judgments, because it seemed we were near the peak a year ago — and then we found out it could get much worse. The pandemic forced most of us to stay inside our homes throughout the spring and part of the summer, and during those months, most of our contact with other people was mediated by screens and by social-media algorithms designed to make us angry. At this point, most every subject, no matter how banal it once seemed, is now charged with political tension, including health data, the postal service, and school calendars. For a time this was even true about the act of grocery shopping. Nowhere is the polarization more intense than on the subject of race. Polling data now tells us that June’s Black Lives Matter protests constituted the largest wave of demonstrations in American history, with somewhere between 15 million and 26 million participants (the previous record, set by the Women’s March of 2017, was 5.2 million people, by the highest estimates). As we watched the protests build — whether on TV, online, or in person — we all assessed them through the lens of our own experiences with race, whatever those may be. Some have seen them as inspiring displays of solidarity and righteous anger; and in fact, many Orthodox Christians, including Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, joined the marches. For others, the demonstrations provoked an angry backlash. Historians will have to sort out whether, in the end, 2020 has brought us closer to a vision of racial harmony or pushed us farther away. For now, this special issue of Jacob’s Well is meant to be an intervention, at least for our corner of the Orthodox world. Over the summer, seven Black parishioners in our Diocese joined us for wideranging conversations. Besides discussing the protests, they spoke broadly about their experiences with race, both inside and outside the Orthodox Church. They offered opinions about what African Americans can bring to our parishes and why we’ve failed to attract them in large numbers so far. Their responses were diverse and illuminating.
In general, if we are to treat people like they’re made in the image and likeness of God, it’s necessary to listen to them genuinely, setting aside whatever preconceived notions we might bring. Again, this seems especially critical when it comes to race. At the same time, because so many of us are unused to talking about race, few subjects tend to be more fraught with tension. The conversations in these pages are clearly no substitute for person-to-person dialogue within our parishes, but they might be a helpful contribution. Here I’ll add a personal note. In January, I moved to Mobile, Alabama — temporarily leaving my home in New York City — to work on a nonfiction book, dealing with a historic African American community here on the Gulf Coast. As a white journalist interviewing Black people every day, I’ve become, if anything, less colorblind this year. The question of race never goes away, no matter how much time these Alabamians and I spend together — but it does get easier to talk about. They have been gracious, and it seems a bit of humility and self-awareness on my part has helped. This issue of Jacob’s Well draws inspiration from Dr. Albert Raboteau, a brilliant scholar of African American religious history who teaches at Princeton University and belongs to our Diocese. In his memoir, A Sorrowful Joy, Dr. Raboteau describes a long struggle to integrate the disparate parts of his life: being, for instance, a Black man from coastal Mississippi on one hand, and a convert to Orthodox Christianity on the other. For him, the struggle has led to a profound revelation: that despite the cultural differences, there is a deep consonance between Black Christianity and the Orthodox faith. “Christianity is a religion of suffering,” he writes. “As the old slaves knew, suffering can’t be evaded, it is a mark of the authenticity of the faith. The primary example of suffering Christianity in this country was the experience of African American slaves.” Dr. Raboteau’s story can speak to us on multiple levels. Living in a culture where our particular faith tradition is all but unknown, it can be hard to think about race relations, or politics, or our jobs, or popular media through the lens of Orthodox theology. We tend to compartmentalize what we do on Sundays and in our icon corners from the rest of our lives. But in the Christian life, challenges usually present opportunities. Perhaps we can use this frantic, polemicized moment to follow Raboteau’s lead and strive for unity, starting in our own lives.
illustration: Tagor Vojnovic 5
Rev. Samuel Davis There is a disconnect between how we say the Orthodox Church has strong African roots and how we demonstrate that.
Rev. Samuel Davis is the rector of St. Simon the
So your family is originally from Panama? What is
Cyrene Orthodox Mission in New Brunswick, N.J.
Could you say a little about your background and
My great-grandparents were originally from Colombia and then later moved to Panama — although Panama was part of Colombia until 1903. My parents later moved from Panama to the U.S. Through a little research on ancestry.com, I learned that one of my great-grandparents was a Sephardic Jew. I grew up hearing my parents speak Spanish. Both my wife and I speak Spanish, but we don’t speak it much in the home.
My wife, Julitssa, and I have four children — two boys and two girls. My oldest is 16; my youngest is 4. Julitssa is a manager of a medical spa in New York City. My parents, who are from Panama, immigrated to the United States before I was born. I attended the University of Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. After college, I worked in corporate America for a few years before I decided to join the military. My father is a veteran of the U.S. Army and I am a veteran of the Air Force. Where did you serve?
I served on a Naval base in Iceland. I was part of the military police on the base — in the Air Force, they’re called security police. I learned about Orthodoxy for the first time when I was in the military. jacob's well
Do you consider yourself Black, given that your family came from Latin America?
Technically, I consider myself Afro-Latino, but let’s be honest, that’s still Black. I’m Black, but I’m not technically Black American. My wife is also AfroLatino, and her family is from Panama, too. There are certain things in common across various kinds of Black people, but there are still a lot of differences, and it is hard to generalize. Because of my background, it
has been easier for me to connect with Black people from Latin America. Having a common language helps forge a common bond.
What was the most welcoming encounter you
Seeing as there are so few African Americans in
I will never forget this. Just as much as I had negative experiences, I had positive ones in equal measure. I remember seeing the fervency in people’s faces when they were taking communion. I was very moved by it. I was standing there with tears in my eyes, and a man came up to me, having noticed that I was moved. He said to me, “Welcome home. This is just as much your Church as it is my Church.” Then he gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. One negative experience I had was when someone in church asked me, “Why are Black people so lazy?” I really had to calm myself down inside. But I tried to explain where that stereotype came from and how it is inaccurate.
the Orthodox Church, did you feel like an outsider when you first started attending? Like you didn't belong?
I had a very unique experience when we started out. We first encountered Orthodoxy in the Coptic Church. You would think that because Copts are African, even though they are not Black, I would not have had some of the negative experiences I had. One time I had a Coptic man ask me why I was visiting this Coptic church since I was Black. I was ready to leave the Coptic Church, partly because I realized that the outreach efforts towards the Black community weren’t going well and weren’t going to get better. They had a hard time getting past their Coptic identity, and it kept getting in the way of their mission efforts. For example, on many occasions, the clergy insisted on singing hymns in the Coptic language, despite being in a mission where no one spoke or understood Coptic. The mission wasn’t even aimed at Coptic people in the first place. I eventually met Father Jonathan Ivanoff the rector of St. John the Theologian Church, in Babylon, New York — who introduced me to the OCA and our diocese. From there, the transition was smooth and felt very natural. I didn’t have too much of a problem adjusting culturally to the Orthodox Church, because I came from an immigrant family and was used to moving between different cultures and languages. Neither did my family. Growing up Afro-Latino also meant that I grew up in a culture inundated by Roman Catholicism. I had a traditional Christian background that wasn’t “low church” and didn’t have the anti-liturgical sentiments found in many Protestant traditions. That made it easier to become Orthodox, and probably makes it easier for AfroLatinos generally to become Orthodox than those from Protestant backgrounds. The hurdles for many Black people are what most of us would think of as small things, not big doctrinal issues. Like, “OK, you say there are many African saints in the Orthodox Church, but how come I don’t see any Black saints on your walls? Why do all of your icons depict light-skinned people?” I’ve had many conversations with Black pastors and Black laypeople to this effect. So there is a disconnect between how we say the Orthodox Church has strong African roots and how we demonstrate that. It is a big deal to see saints who look like you and your people. For Blacks and Latinos, it is powerful to see iconography of African saints. It makes us feel like there is a place for us in the life of the Church.
had when you first started attending an Orthodox church?
Two years ago, at the same time you were ordained, you took over the leadership of the St. Simon of Cyrene Mission in New Brunswick, New Jersey — which is in our Diocese. Tell us a little about your experience there.
We have made a point at St. Simon’s to display iconography of people who look like the minorities in our community. Demographically, New Brunswick is one-third white, one-third Black, and onethird Latino. We need to be prepared to welcome and share the Gospel with any and all visitors from our community. Something as simple as having the right kinds of icons, or chanting some of the service in Spanish — which we also do at St. Simon’s, goes a long way in communicating to inquirers that the Gospel is for them, and that the Orthodox Church cares about them and has a place for them, too. My vision is not chiefly to create a parish for Black people, but rather to reach out to urban communities that are neglected by the Church, which are largely composed of Black and Latino peoples. What do your friends and family think about you being Orthodox?
I think there are mixed reviews. There are some who think I am absolutely crazy. Some people thought Julitssa and I had joined a cult. And there are some who, to this day, refuse to talk to me about it. For my parents, it was a big problem at first. My dad and I used to meet every week and discuss the Bible and our faith. When I became Orthodox, that stopped for a long time. But now he is attending church with me almost every Sunday. What could the average parishioner do to be welcoming to a Black inquirer? Any practical advice? And 7
Don’t pander to Black visitors and say things that you think they'll agree with like, “Just so you know, I support Black Lives Matter.” Just be welcoming and treat them like people.
how might that be different than other minorities?
I would suggest not bringing up any hot-button topics to them! Like questions about police brutality, for example. I also wouldn’t assume that Black people are monolithic. Don’t assume too much. Also, don’t pander and say things that you think they’ll agree with like, “Just so you know, I support Black Lives Matter, and I’m with you, man.” Just be welcoming and treat them like people. Show them respect. Show them kindness. Learn about their families. Learn the stories of their lives. And share the Gospel with them. There’s only one Gospel. There’s not one for Black people and another one for other people. What is one thing you wish other Americans understood
ence / culture?
History. I wish there weren’t so much propaganda and misinformation that passes for history — as with the aforementioned Orthodox layperson who asked me why Black people were lazy. That myth came from propaganda pushed by certain Southerners after Reconstruction. “Black people weren’t lazy when they were working for free, but now that they are working for themselves, they are lazy.” I wish Americans did their homework better. Have you ever experienced racism firsthand? Can you share a particular experience?
Well, growing up in Somerset County, New Jersey, I was in a bubble, so to speak. There were race riots in the area between 1979 and 1981. Those riots really changed the culture of that area, and afterward, the people were committed to not tolerating racism in that community or repeating mistakes from their past. jacob's well
So I didn’t experience any racism until leaving home from college. Once, my girlfriend and I were in a parking lot, speaking together. I told her she should drive her car ahead of me. She said, “Why?” And I said, “Because that cop over there has been staring at me for a really long time.” My girlfriend had blond hair and blue eyes, and I was the only Black guy in that town. Almost immediately after I drove away, the cop pulled me over. Now, the car was not mine; I was borrowing it from a friend. When I explained this to the police officer, he did not believe me. He held me on the side of the road while he called my college friend’s parents. The parents called my friend and relayed to the officer that he indeed did lend the car to me. Once the cop learned the truth, he gave the keys back to me. He didn’t even apologize. No “goodnight,” or “goodbye,” or anything. He just walked away in silence and wouldn’t look me in the eye. When I got back to campus, I returned the keys to my friend, who was white, and he was crying and was so sorry for me and disturbed by how I was treated. It probably should have been the one crying, but I was oddly calm about the whole incident. What do you think African Americans can bring to Orthodoxy? How would their increased presence leave a positive mark on the life of our parishes?
I think the most important thing they could bring is a renewed sense of zeal and passion for the spiritual life. They have also experienced great oppression, like Russians did under Soviet communism and Greeks under the Turks. That experience has left a positive mark on them as a people. They are stronger and more resilient because of that suffering. They would strengthen our Church with their hard-earned resilience. Interview by Rev. Matthew Brown
Mat. Julitssa Davis Julitssa Davis is a parishioner at St. Simon the Cyrene Mission Orthodox Mission in New Brunswick, N.J. and the wife of Rev. Samuel Davis. Matushka, thank you for taking the time to do this
canonical. My husband led the way in our conversion. He read lots of Church history and introduced me to more of the faith. I was a bit standoffish at first, and it was the change I saw in him that made me take Orthodoxy seriously.
interview. I believe you are the only woman we have managed to recruit for this series.
You’re welcome! I’m glad to help. Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background and upbringing.
I’m originally from Brooklyn. My parents are from Panama and still live in the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up. I am the oldest of four kids, and I was married at 23. I was the youngest of my friends to get married. Even my parents were older than I was when they got married. I remember my mother asking me, “Are you sure you want to get married so young?” Most of my friends growing up were from West Indian backgrounds and were either Latino or Afro-Latino. My husband’s father was my pastor when I was growing up. The church was a nondenominational Protestant church with a Pentecostal bent.
Did you have kids when you converted?
We had three kids when we first converted. They were 6, 4, and 2, at the time. They were so young, they really didn’t question anything or realize it was happening. So practically speaking, all our kids are cradle Orthodox. Do you think about your kids growing up Orthodox? Do you worry about them being able to find Orthodox spouses?
Yes. Yes, I do worry about that, and I know that it will be difficult for them. There are so few Orthodox in this country that it can feel like they are all alone and no other kids are like them. I also just pray that God will bring the right people into their lives for them to marry. I just have to trust God in this, because worrying about it won’t change anything.
How did you first encounter Orthodoxy?
How did you your family react to your conversion?
My husband and I were in Iceland when we first ran into Orthodoxy. We listened to a bishop named Veron Ashe 1 preach. He really got our attention, even though we later found out he wasn’t exactly
My family was OK with my conversion. They were not devoutly religious. They went to church every Sunday, but nothing more than that. Once I explained why I wanted to make this change in my life, they understood where I was coming from.
1. Ashe, who died in 2014, was the founder and self-
There aren’t many Black people in the Orthodox
styled “archbishop” of the Mar Thoma Orthodox
Church in this country. Can you describe your
Church, a noncanonical parish in California.
experience of encountering the Orthodox Church? 9
The Black mothers in my church growing up were so dedicated. There is a strong matriarchal dedication to the faith. Those women could pray for hours in church.
When we first became Orthodox, we joined the Coptic Church. Most people were very welcoming. But I did feel like a fish out of water — partly because I was Black, but also because of how overwhelming the Egyptian culture is in the Coptic church. We would sometimes get strange looks that said, What are you doing here? It was very uncomfortable. But when we started attending Ss. Peter and Paul, the OCA parish in Manville, New Jersey, we felt very welcomed. Since then, I really haven’t felt out of place in Church because of the color of my skin. Do you think your religious upbringing did anything to prepare you to become Orthodox?
No, I don’t feel that my religious upbringing did much to help with that. It was when I became Orthodox that my relationship with God became more serious. It became more intentional. When I was Protestant, I would go to church and pray, but not much more than that. Everyone has different obstacles when they become Orthodox. Some are personal and others are due to their culture or ethnicity. What obstacles do you think are particular to Black Americans?
I feel that not seeing people who are like them in the Church is hard for many Black people. That makes you feel like an outsider, even if everyone is kind and welcoming. Also, not seeing any Black saints in icons, especially given that we venerate icons all the time, can feel like a non-verbal sign that the Church isn’t for you. There
ethnicities. What do you think is different about being Afro-Latino, versus being Nigerian or being African American?
It’s true that the cultures are very different. I have friends who are Black American, and in my experience, it seems their family lives are different. I feel that growing up I didn’t have the same freedom they did. My parents were strict. It seemed like my friends’ parents were more permissive. At the same time, when people see a Black person, they don’t see those differences. They treat us all the same. Do you talk with your kids about race?
We have had conversations with our kids about their ethnicity. For example, we have had several conversations with our eldest boy, who is 16, about how to conduct himself around police. We tell him to be calm, to speak respectfully, to avoid any sudden movements. Have you experienced racism? Can you tell me about one of those experiences?
The area of Brooklyn where I grew up was filled with West Indians. I really didn’t experience any racism growing up. Only when we were in New Jersey did I experience it. Once, my husband and I were pulled over by two cop cars for no reason. My eldest son was in the car, and the police shone their flashlights right into his eyes. He was only an infant at the time. They asked us a lot of questions, like Where are you coming from? Where are you going? When he approached the car, his hand was already on his gun. They wouldn’t tell us why they pulled us over. The officers were aggressive and rude. I wanted to give them a piece of my mind, but my husband held me back. They eventually let us go. They seemed to be fishing for something wrong. Nothing much happened except that we were harassed by the police for no apparent reason. That was my first experience like that.
Sweet Gospel Trio (1994) artist: John Holyfield
What is one thing about Black culture you wish other Americans knew?
Black people are not all the same! Don’t generalize. Don’t assume too much. Treat people like individuals. I get the idea that most white people’s impressions of Black people do not come from personal experience but from movies. That can give a skewed picture of reality.
those Black women was amazing, and their faith was unwavering. They could pray for hours in church. I think that’s what converts from the Black community would contribute to the Orthodox Church in this country — prayerfulness and dedication. Interview by Rev. Matthew Brown
What do you think that the Black converts could add to the life of the Church?
When I was growing up, the Black mothers in my church were so dedicated. There is a strong matriarchal dedication to the faith. The prayer life of 11
Ahmad Williams Ahmad Williams is a parishioner at Ss. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Syracuse, N.Y.
I studied at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and Iâ€™ve served as an Army chaplain for 19 years now.
Would you say a little bit about yourself?
I was born and raised in New Jersey. I was brought up Muslim, but it was more Black nationalism than traditional Islam. 1 I was introduced to Christianity through my wife. Part of my search for Orthodoxy was finding a Christian tradition that would work well for both of us, because we have different backgrounds. She grew up in Black non-denominational churches. I was chrismated on March 1 of this year. jacob's well
1. The Nation of Islam, a religious movement born in Detroit in 1930, shares some of the doctrines of traditional Sunni Islam but diverges on other points. Its stated goals are to improve the spiritual, mental, social, and economic condition of African Americans, and it advocates separation of the races. Its most famous exponent, Malcolm X, left the group for Sunni Islam shortly before his assassination in 1964.
No. We moved to Fort Drum in New York in March, just before the pandemic hit. Before that, I was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas as a chaplain.
remember walking into the service; a lot of people stared at me. But I knew that if I kept coming it would subside. After my first Liturgy, I was welcomed at coffee hour. Some people asked me if I was Coptic or Ethiopian.
How did you find out about the Orthodox Church?
Is there anything about being Black which makes it
What was it like becoming Orthodox, being Black
difficult to convert?
Do you still live in New Jersey?
and a former Muslim?
I was serving in the Middle East as a chaplain at the time, but church felt like just doing my Sunday duty. It was disconnected from the rest of my life. It felt like everyone could just go away after the service and live however they wanted. My faith felt a little empty, so I started looking at other religious traditions. A lot of things I encountered seemed like fads. In my search, I ran into Orthodoxy. At first, I wondered if there even were any Orthodox churches in America. That sounds silly now, but I really didn’t know. Then I wondered if there were any African Americans already in the Orthodox Church. I thought that if I could find other Black people in the Orthodox Church, then I would go for it and seriously look into Orthodoxy. When I was deployed to Jordan, I ran into some Orthodox Christians there and attended Orthodox churches. I noticed that many of the saints in the icons were of a darker complexion. I had never seen that before. When I started learning more about Orthodox history, I learned how ethnically diverse it was, and I found out it wasn’t just for white people but had strong ties with North Africa. Many Orthodox Christians looked more like me. Given that there are so few African Americans in the Orthodox Church, did you feel like an outsider at first?
Yes, but part of that was because I had to overcome some attitudes and apprehensions in my own mind. I decided I would suck it up and endure the uncomfortable. I looked at photos online to see if I saw anyone like me when deciding whether I would attend a particular parish. I pretty much knew even before I went to an Orthodox church for the first time that I would be the only Black person there. But I am used to this. There are not a lot of Black soldiers and there are even fewer Black chaplains. I started attending Orthodox churches by myself, to see how they treated me, before I brought my family. Before I ever attended Liturgy, I attended a class for catechumens. That helped calm my anxieties before I went to a service. I was advised to go to a Vespers before trying a Divine Liturgy. I can
Black churches have always had a special place for music. That was probably the hardest thing I had to give up in becoming Orthodox — the music of the Black church. I decided I didn’t care what the music sounded like; I wanted authentic worship more. The difference in music can be a real culture shock. And there can be very strong feelings about abandoning one’s own identity, because Black gospel music is so tied up with Black identity and history. But I was tired of feeling like I was supposed to feel a certain way in worship. I had learned all the right things I had to do to look enthusiastic about my faith. However, I did listen to a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio where there was a guy who had put Orthodox hymns to African American gospel music. 2 I would like to see more of that. One of the things about the Orthodox Church that made it a little bit easier to convert was that it had no ties to American slavery or the “White Christ” phenomenon. What do your friends and family think about you being Orthodox?
“What? You’re becoming Catholic?” I heard that a lot. Orthodoxy was something they had never heard of. They were mostly confused by it. I found that it is common for those who critique the Orthodox Church not to know much about Orthodoxy or having ever stepped into an Orthodox Church. What do other Americans often not understand about Black culture that you wish they did?
2. The reference is to Shawn Wallace, a musician and associate professor of jazz studies at Ohio State University, who has composed a setting of the Orthodox Vespers service in the style of Black gospel music. He was interviewed in June on Rev. Thomas Soroka’s podcast “Ancient Faith Today Live”. A performance of the composition is available for streaming at howsweetthesound.net.
I think a lot of people who are not Black think that the stories of violence and discrimination against Black people are exaggerated. But they aren’t. I think a lot of people who are not Black think that the stories of violence and discrimination against Black people are exaggerated. But they aren’t. I have to constantly ask myself questions like, “Am I looking too much like the stereotypical thug that the media portrays? Should I wear a hoodie today, or will that get me in trouble? Should I go out by myself or with my family? If I go out with my family, I will look less threatening.” I don’t think many people who are not Black realize what goes through the minds of Black people on a daily basis. I also wish that people knew that Black America is not monolithic. We’re not all rappers. We’re not all basketball players. And we don’t all like watermelon. We’re not all Democrats. I remember growing up thinking that all white people had lots of money because so many of my white friends had so much more money than my family. That is why some Black men marry white women — because it is seen as a way to “marry up.” Not that this is the case for all interracial marriages, but some men have told me personally they consider it “safer,” or it will give their kids better chances in life, because their skin complexion won’t be as threatening.
think instead about going to a community college? That would be better for someone like you.” She kept directing me to lower my expectations. In college, a bunch of students on campus were saying, “All the Black people are going to go around and kill all the white people.” It had to do with some of the Black fraternities organizing some event about racism or Black culture. I had a fellow student run up to me and call me a n — e r and then run away. The worst part was no one stood up for me. That then became my measuring stick to learn who my true friends were. I was in ROTC in college, and once we were all putting on camo paint. Someone said, “Amhad doesn’t have to worry about putting on camo, because he is already camouflaged.” The guy didn’t realize he was being offensive, but a lot of other guys in my troop were waiting for me to yell at him or something. But I didn’t. I’m used to stuff like that happening to me. I mean, what was I going to do? Hit him? That would have been the end of my career, and I was the only cadet of color in the entire battalion.
Have you experienced racism firsthand? Can you
You feel cut off from a heritage and an old-world homeland. We were robbed of that during slavery. You don’t know for sure where you came from the way, say, a Nigerian does. You have that void. My sister was in a Caribbean dance group, and no one could tell she wasn’t Caribbean. When people asked her where in the Caribbean she was from and she said that she was just Black, it was met with a response suggesting she was kind of boring — as if she were a Black person who wasn’t from anywhere. It’s like you don’t have ancestors. You don’t have a sense of where you are from. You feel cut off, like you are missing something everyone else has.
share a particular experience?
Yes. This goes back to a high-school chemistry class. One day when we had some free time, a classmate was reading the newspaper and I was reading over his shoulder. He said, “This isn’t the sports section, so you wouldn’t be interested.” Another time in high school, I was talking with my guidance counselor, a Southern lady, about my future. I told her I was thinking about going to Ohio State. I was a pretty good athlete, and Ohio State had already accepted me. She said, “Why don’t you jacob's well
How is being African American different from, say, being a recent immigrant from Africa, or having an Afro-Latin background?
George Floyd (2020) artist: Celos location: Los Angeles, California
How have the recent protests and videos of police violence affected you personally?
It was something I knew was bound to happen. In America, we’re good at putting band-aids on things without ever addressing the root of the problem. It unleashed all this pent-up trauma. Many African Americans struggle with a sort of PTSD from terrible encounters with the justice system. Every Black man, when he is a boy, must have that special talk — and
I’m not talking about the birds and bees. Parents must have a talk with their boys on how not to get shot: don’t wear a hoodie; don’t put your hands in your pockets; don’t question or argue with the authorities. I was trained to say, “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” Interview by Rev. Matthew Brown
Rdr. Doyin Teriba We become more ourselves as we become increasingly Orthodox. Personally Iâ€™ve become more and more aware of my ethnicity because Iâ€™m Orthodox.
Doyin Teriba is a tonsured reader and parishioner at St. Gregory the Theologian in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. Could you talk about your faith background?
Yes, I always talk about my parents when I tell this story. My dad was raised a Muslim; my mom was raised as a Baptist Christian. My sense was jacob's well
that they decided not to force any one religion on my brother or myself. I only found out that my father was a Muslim when I could read my birth certificate, which has a name that I knew had Islamic connotations. So I wanted to be a Muslim at that point, just out of love for my father. But I only flirted with that for a month or so. I took an Islamic class, but I was only there for two classes. I felt that it was not for me.
That also has to do with my time in England. Even though we were not going to church in England, there was something about the culture of English choirs, like at Cambridge, that spoke to me when I was a child. At my school in England, I took part in a Nativity play when I was four years old. I was the moving star. I was dressed in all black, and I held a wand with a star, and I was told to merge into the darkness. I remember seeing my mother and my brother in the audience. That experience stuck with me. It was my first exposure to the Nativity story and to Jesus in general. That childlike mystique of English Christianity stayed with me. I think it’s the reason my interest in Islam didn’t take root. Even though we wouldn't go to church on Sundays, my mother would take my brother and me to a church on Christmas and Easter. Later, I went through a Pentecostal phase. I became a Pentecostal through a friend, and then I went to university in Nigeria as part of a very fervent Christian group. We went to four or five meetings every week, and we fasted from sunrise to sunset, no food whatsoever. We read the Bible from cover to cover and woke early every morning to pray. That was what I was doing when I came to the United States. How old were you at the time?
I had just turned 25. And you came to continue your education?
Yes, I came to pursue a master's in architecture at the University of Oklahoma. I stayed there for three-and-a-half years, then I moved to the New York area to look for work. That was in 2004. I’ve never really left the area. When I was in Oklahoma City, I became an associate minister of a charismatic, nondenominational church. It was in that context that I started moving toward Orthodoxy. I started on an intellectual journey, where I looked for early Christian writings and wanted to learn Hebrew and Greek and even Aramaic. After I moved to the Bronx, I went to the Brooklyn Tabernacle, a nondenominational church at the Fulton Mall. I remember one Sunday, just sitting by myself after everybody had gone, and I felt that was the last time I was going to be part of that church. I felt that the charismatic church could not grapple well enough with the relationship between Christ and culture. As an architect, I wanted my Christianity to inform my professional life. I wanted to make Christianity relevant to architecture — specifically, Nigerian architecture,
which I wanted to create. I wanted to, in a sense, baptize that architecture with the Gospel, and I felt that the charismatic church did not have the tools. That’s a beautiful idea. Where did it originate?
At the time, I subscribed to First Things . 1 It was full of essays about literature, philosophy — you name it, they wrote about, and always through a lens of theology. They showed that theology was not separate from those disciplines, that the Gospel had something to say about them. That was the first place I encountered David Bentley Hart 2, and I know we both share a love for his writings. I was also listening a lot to something called Mars Hill Audio Journal . 3 I’ve been a subscriber since 2003. As a Pentecostal, I had been taught, indirectly, to be suspicious of the intellect. But those two resources taught me that the intellect was part of God’s creation, that it was not separate from the supernatural. That we should love God with our minds as well. I would think Catholicism must have appealed to you at the time...
Yes, at first, I was drawn to Catholicism. There was a Catholic church just a few blocks away from my home in the Bronx. But as a Pentecostal, I was used to services that were three or four hours long. The Mass was only 59 minutes! I had heard about Eastern Orthodoxy through two things that happened at the same time, while I was still in Oklahoma. One of them was an interview with David Bentley Hart on Mars Hill Audio. The other was that Father Peter Gillquist visited the University of Oklahoma, and there was some kind of open house on Eastern Orthodoxy. So I knew about the Orthodox Church. After going to the Catholic church for two Sundays, I wanted to explore Orthodoxy. I went online and found the
1. First Things is an conservative religious journal founded by the Roman Catholic priest Richard John Neuhaus in 1990. It publishes essays and cultural criticism by writers from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Jewish traditions. 2. Hart is an Orthodox theologian, philosopher, novelist, and provocateur, and a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies. He wrote a column for First Things from 2003 to 2017. 3. Mars Hill Audio Journal is a bimonthly, 90-minute audio digest with interviews on philosophy, theology, history, literature, and economics.
Cathedral of the Transfiguration, the OCA parish in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was the first Orthodox parish I went to, and spiritually I fell in love. I was overwhelmed by the icons and the choir. But that parish was too far away on the subway, so I decided to try Christ the Savior, the OCA parish on East 71st Street. I went there on Easter Sunday, and it was locked! But two ladies happened by and said, Oh, there's another church around the corner and that one’s Greek. It was the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, where there was an Agape service underway. Fr. Robert Stephanopoulos, the father of George Stephanopoulos, was the Cathedral’s dean at that time. I became Orthodox a year after that, and I stayed there for three years. I was the only Black person there. But after living in Western countries for 27 years, that is something I’ve gotten used to. I’m the minority almost everywhere I go. And I was welcomed in a tremendous way there, to Father Robert’s credit. You didn’t feel you were treated as an outsider because you weren’t Greek?
There was no doubt that I occupied a special place at the cathedral! Every single service there is broadcast, and people who watched it faithfully online or on TV would say, I saw you on TV! Sometimes my picture came up in the National Herald, the Greek newspaper in New York. I’m curious about whether your ethnic background has informed your faith much. Father Moses Berry has often harped on how a big part of the ancient Church was anchored in Africa, and he helped start an organization, the Fellowship of St. Moses, that is devoted to raising awareness about that. Has it played into your experience?
If anything, my time as a Pentecostal played more of a role in me becoming Orthodox than my ethnicity did — but the connection to my ethnicity has been belated. I have to bring up Albert Raboteau here. I moved to Princeton to work on my PhD in 2008. I was there for almost nine years. I met Al Raboteau at an OCA parish there. He is a historian of African American religion, and he wrote the book that is still the definitive book in its field, called Slave Religion, about the religious practices of Black Americans in this country. He also wrote sort of a spiritual autobiography, A Joyful Sorrow, that is incredibly profound. Reading Slave Religion belatedly, after becoming Orthodox, reconnected me with the spiritual world in Nigeria, where ancestors play a remarkable, remarkable jacob's well
role. There is also an awareness there of principalities and powers and spiritual realities. So it’s as if after becoming Orthodox, I reconnected with my African ancestors and the spiritual world that was part of where I grew up in southwest Nigeria. This is the path all of us have as Christians: We become more ourselves as we become increasingly Orthodox. For me, it’s an evolving thing, where I’ve become more and more aware of my ethnicity because I’m Orthodox. You’re saying one of the similarities is that in West African religion, the ancestors are constantly invoked, and in Orthodoxy, we pray to the saints?
Yes, exactly. It’s a similar awareness. Once upon a time, in southwest Nigeria, every person had the equivalent of an oral poem called the oriki. It includes an allusion to ancestors. You know that you come from a certain ancestry, and so whenever the oriki is offered, you’re just — “activating” is not the word, but you have a greater sense of being in the presence of your ancestors. One can easily connect that to how we commemorate saints in the Orthodox Church and ask for their intercessions. We have a sense that they are always with us. Throughout your time in America, have you experienced distinct racism very often?
Very often, no. There have been a few times when I have, and it was only in retrospect that I realized, Oh my goodness, this was racism. I’ll give one example. Around 2004, I was accosted at a subway station. Now that I think about it, it was stop-and-frisk. I had a lot of MTA cards, and I forgot which one still had money on it, so I was swiping one after another. About two or three officers came and seized me. They handled me roughly, and one of them started taking things out of my wallet. Finally he saw my employee ID card. Where were you working at the time?
I was at a development company in the Empire State Building. The officer gave me back my wallet and just told me to go. I was scared and bewildered. This is the first time I’ve spoken about it, and this was 16 years ago. What has been your reaction to the protests since George Floyd’s death?
In many ways it has been difficult. I’m a flawed human being, as we all are, and I’m not immune to moments of despair and anger. I’ve also found that sometimes I walk down the street and see people of
There is an architectural solution here. I think that if we can cultivate neighborhoods that are diverse, where children of different backgrounds grow up with one another, where they go to church together, where the Church — the Orthodox Church, ideally — is in walking distance, that will help. another race, and there’s a climate of suspicion on both sides. It comes to the fore when I wear my Nigerian clothes. I like wearing them, both because they’re so comfortable, and as a matter of ethnic pride. But, oh my goodness, about a month or two ago, when the riots were really at their zenith, just wearing those clothes, with my big beard — when some people saw me on the street, they would go in another direction. Or, I would go in another direction just to dispel any kind of tension. I think that encapsulates everything. A lot of what we've experienced in the last few months are symptoms of a greater disease. There are fewer chances for strangers to meet and strike up spontaneous conversations. Partly because of technology, we’re isolated, and we form our impressions of people who don’t look like us from the internet, from Twitter, from television. So by the time we see somebody who doesn’t look like us, from another race, we already have this opinion about them. I think a lot of the current racial tension comes from that. But at the same time, we tend to trust our neighbors, irrespective of what ethnicity or race they belong to. If you've lived near somebody, if your children were raised with their children, there's more likelihood that you will develop a bond that is very powerful, that transcends race. Back in the day, people used to just go down the street and find a significant other, and they would court and they would get married. So there is an architectural solution here. I think that if we can cultivate neighborhoods that are diverse, where children of different backgrounds grow up with one
another, where they go to church together, where the Church — the Orthodox Church, ideally — is in walking distance, that will help. There is a lot of literature on “the neighborhood church,” and in Orthodoxy, I feel strongly that this is something we need to think about. The reality is that in our day and age, many people drive to church. But imagine a scenario where we live in a diverse neighborhood and we all go to the same church, which is right there. We emphasize the fact that every human being is created in the image of God, and there is neither Jew nor Greek. Christ talked about every person being our neighbor. The idea of the neighborhood can really bring that Biblical idea to fruition. So to tie it all together: you’re saying that if we make an effort to live in diverse places, and if we have our churches located in diverse places, this will be a step toward broader racial reconciliation.
Yes, absolutely. One of the things that often connects people of a certain age is that their children go to school together or play in the same neighborhood. Friendships, and romantic relationships if the parents are single, can come about through those connections. When you see the other as part of your neighborhood, part of your everyday experience, it erodes the racial barriers. Interview by Nick Tabor
Femi Olutade To the extent that Black people are oppressed, they cannot learn about the Orthodox Church.
Femi Olutade is a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection in Manhattan. Tell us about your background and how you became Orthodox.
My parents are from Nigeria, and they emigrated to America just before I was born — my mom was already pregnant with me when she came over. They are both physicians. I was born in Atlanta. We also lived in West Virginia and later in Jackson, Mississippi. I went to Stanford University and stayed in the Bay Area for about seven years after graduating. I also lived in China for a while because my wife is Chinese. We moved to New York in 2018. Nigeria is roughly half Christian and half Muslim, mostly divided by tribe — a result of European colonization and Arab trading, and how different religions spread through the country. My parents both grew up in the Anglican church. When they were in college, they became part of a large charismatic revival that was happening throughout Africa. It was transformative for them. They were from different tribes, and their new faith tied them together and gave them unity and direction. When I was growing up, faith was the most central part of our lives. Even your social life as a family was probably centered on it?
Everything was! Absolutely everything. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom praying in the morning. We had Bible studies as a family every single night. From the time I was 8, we read through jacob's well
the whole Bible every year. We went to some kind of church gathering four times a week. We didn’t go to a traditional Black church. My parents were not African American, so that wasn't their cultural heritage. And they were concerned that traditional African American churches were not well rooted in Scripture or disciplined in practice. The churches they agreed with in terms of theology and practice were predominantly white. When we moved to Mississippi, we went to a church where we were the only Black family. A few years later there were maybe five other black families that had joined us at the church. All of them were Nigerian. But the church was still overwhelmingly white. That was normal. You mean it was normal for you on Sundays, or all the time?
I was around white people all the time. At some point, maybe in middle school, I might have actually preferred being around white people rather than African Americans. I didn't talk slang, and for my parents everything was about spiritual life. We didn't listen to secular music; we didn't watch a lot of movies. My first real experience of spending significant time around African Americans was high-school football. In middle school, I had played in the band with all my white, nerdy friends, but in high school I left the band to play football. As a result, I had to find a new group of people to stand with before school and sit with at lunch. Standing with the football players made the most sense, but like so many social groups in America, the football team was divided by race. I realized that I had more in common with the African
Americans, so I ended up gravitating toward them. The other introduction was from music. When I was about 13, I got into hip-hop, and I started listening to 2Pac and Jay-Z. 2Pac totally changed my view about African Americans. Could you give an example?
The first hip-hop song I ever listened to was called “Thugz Mansion.” 1 2Pac says in the first verse, “So much pressure in this life of mine, I cry at times / I once contemplated suicide, and would have tried /
1. “Thugz Mansion” appears on 2Pac’s 2002 album “Better Dayz”, the fourth album released after the artist’s death in 1996.
But when I held that 9 all I could see was my mama's eyes / No one knows my struggle, they only see the trouble / Not knowing it's hard to carry on when no one loves you / Picture me inside the misery of poverty / No man alive has ever witnessed struggles I survived.” It blew me away because I had never heard the African American perspective articulated that way. To hear his struggles with depression and feeling unloved, of having to run from the police, of being poor. He talks about finding a place where he and his friends can smoke marijuana. I wasn’t interested in doing drugs, but after hearing that song, I thought, Oh, I get it. They’re suffering and they’re just trying to find a way to medicate away this pain. It totally changed how I saw African American culture. 21
I did well academically, and I graduated third in my class. I ended up winning the hall of fame award for my high school. There was one moment around graduation that really stuck with me. One of the guys on the football team said, “Hey, guys, Femi represents us! When he was getting an award, I felt like I was getting an award.” Somebody else was like, “Yeah, now that's real talk.” It was huge for me, because I never hung out with them outside of school and never partied with them. I imagined they thought I was too white. But they had nothing but reverence for me, and they really wanted me to succeed. I started to understand my identity more as Black than as just Nigerian American. I started realizing that these were my people. So how did you wind up in the Orthodox Church?
It started around 2016. There were three factors. The first was a video series, produced by a Protestant, called The Bible Project. 2 Its strategy is to help viewers understand what the words of the Bible would have meant to their original audience. It helps you understand that the Bible was crafted as literary art. It really humbled me. I had thought I understood 90% of the Bible, but I realized I only understood like 10 percent. The second factor was the election of Donald Trump. I’m politically moderate. I could understand people voting for Trump. What I didn’t understand was evangelical leaders endorsing him when other candidates were still in the race. I got into a few online debates with some Christians I grew up with and noticed how some basic aspects of their theology led them to very different political views than mine. I started to realize that theology really matters. Between that and The Bible Project, I realized I needed to understand how the earliest Christians, the Apostles, understood theology. In my reading, I picked up The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware. I thought, THIS is the theology. I was immediately convinced, but I read about Orthodoxy for a year before my wife and I visited a parish. Experiencing Divine Liturgy totally sealed the deal for me. The last thing was Kendrick Lamar’s album “DAMN.” 3 It’s a modern take on Deuteronomy, the book of Jonah, and the Sermon on the Mount. It's about following God's commandments, about forgiveness and humility in the midst of harm and violence. It led me to read the Sermon on the Mount for the first time in years, and I thought, Jesus actually wants us to take this to heart. That album made me more or less a pacifist. It redirected my focus to the jacob's well
Gospels and the kingdom of God — which had not been my focus in evangelical Protestantism. I’ve never heard someone say Kendrick led them to Orthodoxy.
The first time I saw Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral in New York was because of Kendrick Lamar. I noticed that there was an Orthodox three-bar cross in the background of one of his music videos. 4 I zoomed in and looked up the church name, and that’s how my wife and I ended up going there after we moved to the city. I looked it up on Google, and that’s how we found the church. By then my wife and I had been attending an Antiochian parish in California for about six months. The first time we visited the cathedral, it was a fast-free Friday when they had a dance party. Doyin Teriba is also Nigerian, and I met him there. I was glad there was at least one other Black person there. But even if there wasn’t, I would have continued going. How has your relationship with African Americans, as a group, changed over time?
I’ve realized the lives of other Black people are intimately connected with my own life and my future. If people think African Americans are uneducated or lazy or violent, they might walk across the street when they see me coming. When you notice people are clutching their purses or locking their doors because you’re nearby, you realize they’re afraid of you, and you must be careful. This was something I learned both from hip-hop and my parents. When I started driving, my parents had a Honda minivan
2. The Bible Project was founded in 2014 by the sometime Protestant pastor Timothy Mackie, who has a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his friend Jonathan Collins. Their website, bibleproject. com, has scores of videos and podcast episodes on Biblical history and exegesis. 3. Lamar’s 2017 album “DAMN” was the first nonjazz or classical album to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music. Olutade contributed to the fifth season of the podcast Dissect, where the album’s lyrics are broken down song by song. dissectpodcast.com. 4. The cathedral appears in the video for Lamar’s song “Rigamortis”, from his 2011 debut album “Section.80”.
Icons of African saints are not enough. Are you celebrating those saints’ feast days? Are they central to the Church’s liturgical life? Do you tell their stories? and a Lexus. Of course, I wanted to drive the Lexus. But my mom would say, I don’t want you wearing your durag, driving a Lexus. Cops are going to pull you over and harass you. They’ll think either you’re selling drugs or you stole it. When the protests started this spring, after the death of George Floyd, my first reaction was,
We’ve seen this before. There were protests after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. Nothing has fundamentally changed. But after a week or so, it became clear this moment was different, if only in terms of the scale and the longevity. What’s your perspective on all of this?
I think some things just take time. Documentaries like 13th 5 coming out, along with videos and books about systemic racism that have reached nonBlack people — that has helped. Partly it was just the egregiousness of this event. And there was a lot of pent-up energy because of COVID. People were without jobs, nothing to do, and they decided, We have nothing to lose. The world is burning. Then there was a lot of discussion about the violence of the protests. I think MLK said everything the best about this. He said that riots are the voice of the unheard. He said, I believe in nonviolence; I think that’s the best way. Acts of violence and destruction are going to create more problems than they solve. But at the same time, I need to say - and white people need to hear it - that we need to get angry about injustice as much as we do about destruction of property. We can’t bring the
5. 13th, a documentary by the filmmaker Ava DuVernay, presents evidence of a throughline between American chattel slavery, the Jim Crow period, and mass incarceration. It was nominated for the Best Documentary Feature in the 2017 Academy Awards.
lives of these people back. What would cause people to commit violence or put themselves at risk or go out of their way to not go to work? It’s because things are really bad! It’s not just theoretical for me. A Nigerian friend at Stanford had a bad experience with the police. Once he was biking to a professor's house for dinner. A cop drove by and did a U-turn. He jumped out of the car and pointed a gun at him. My friend immediately raised his hands. To convince the cop he belonged there, he started explaining things that only Stanford students would know. But the cop just yelled more. My friend thought that if he ran, he’d only get shot in the back. He thought of his mom weeping. Eventually, he thought to toss his student ID to the cop, who let him go. Why do you think most Orthodox converts in America are white?
Well, I was able to study the faith because I had time on my hands, and because I learned how to study at an elite university. I learned to pick up random academic books and start reading them. Most African Americans don’t grow up in school districts that prepare them for that level of learning. In many cases, they’re trying to survive; they’re trying to not get killed. At the very least they’re just trying to put food on the table. So, to the extent that Black people are oppressed, they don't have access to secondary education, they don't have extra time — they cannot learn about the Orthodox Church. They cannot, if those things are not addressed! It’s just not possible. Otherwise, you have only people like me, who are at these very extremes of privilege. Honestly, Nigerians are some of the most privileged Black people in America. The stereotype is that most Nigerians are doctors or engineers. We have access to our African culture. We have good parenting. We learn to function in white society. 23
Yoruba Nativity (1948) artists: Oye-Ekiti Workshop of Nigeria present location unknown
I feel like I have a responsibility to African Americans, based on my understanding that Orthodoxy is the one true Church. If you claim that you’re the one true church, you have this responsibility to make it so that people who have been deprived of the Church actually get to hear about it. All the mentions in the Gospels about the poor, the rejected — that is the African American community! So what should the Church do differently? For instance, do you think having icons of African saints helps?
I think that’s not enough. Are you celebrating those saints’ feast days? You celebrate the Russian feast days. Are the African saints central to the Church’s liturgical life? Do you tell their stories? There’s a Biblical theme of Africa representing the fulfillment of the Gospel, of God reaching the ends of all nations. In the Book of Amos, you hear God saying to Israel, “Aren’t the Ethiopians just like you in my sight?” In Acts, the Gospel starts in Jerusalem, then is taken to Judea and Samaria, and finally Phillip baptizes a royal official who is on his way back home to Ethiopia. We should talk more about this, as part of the Church’s theology and history. We should look at how we depict Jesus. When I have showed Black people icons — even the ones jacob's well
at our church in New York City, where Jesus and the saints and Mary are brown — you have no idea how many are like, This is amazing! It redeems Christianity for some people. And people learn visually — particularly younger people, who perhaps don’t have the access to education. The church really hasn’t invested in understanding how people learn. It needs to make its theology and history more accessible, especially for Black people, who, unfortunately, have tended to be excluded from traditional educational institutions. The Bible Project is a good model. What do you think laypeople can do to help?
If visitors are coming from an evangelical Protestant church, they will notice how many people in a parish stop and greet them and talk to them. In most parishes, that doesn’t happen with people who are the most different. But a lot of Black visitors are looking for that. It’s going to take time to reach more and more people. Fortunately, there are people like Doyin and myself who have come into the Church because we’ve had certain advantages. The Church needs to invest in those people, whatever that looks like. Interview by Nick Tabor
Ronald Rosaliere Ronald Rosaliere is a parishioner at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in East Meadow, on Long Island. Could you say a little about your background and how you became Orthodox?
It all started about 35 years ago. I migrated to the U.S. from Haiti in 1987. I had no family here when I moved, but I eventually got a job; then I went to school in Manhattan and earned a degree in liberal arts. I met my future ex-wife at work. After several years together, we divorced. Thankfully, we didn’t have any children together. Then, while I was working for a law firm, I went back to school to get a degree in political science from Queens College. But midway through my studies, the firm ended the tuition reimbursement program and I had to drop out. On the advice of friends, I became a real-estate broker. I’ve been doing that since 1997. I now live on Long Island. My sister also moved to the United States. She introduced me to the Orthodox Church. She was working for a Greek family in the Poconos, and that family shared their faith with her and invited her to church. Once she stepped inside an Orthodox church for the first time, she never left. We were both raised Catholic, and we both felt that something was missing spiritually. We were both looking for something more — we just didn’t know
what it was. My sister had been talking to me about her newfound faith for a while when I saw an ad in the paper for Holy Trinity Church in East Meadow. So I responded to the invitation and went, and never looked back. I was just Chrismated at the beginning of August. I’m told I chose a very unusual time to become Orthodox — during a pandemic. There aren’t that many people of African ancestry in the Orthodox Church in this country. What has that experience been like?
What gave me the courage to visit an Orthodox church was my sister’s story. She was welcomed with open arms. She also related how she was treated as special when she visited Jerusalem, because she was Orthodox. It didn’t matter that she was Haitian; what mattered was her faith. Before I visited the parish in East Meadow, I drove by Orthodox churches several times, but I never saw people who looked like me, so I always passed by, thinking it wasn’t for me. Not having anyone who looks like you or talks like you in the church can make it very difficult to take that first step. What was the most welcoming encounter you had when you first started attending an Orthodox church? 25
Haitians could bring a deep level of devotion that would be positive for the whole Orthodox Church — and all the good food and music would enrich the community life too.
When I first came, something strong inside of me urged me to introduce myself. I was welcomed with so much warmth, it surprised me. Several people shook my hand and introduced themselves even before the Liturgy was over. Everyone who came up to me knew my name. It shocked me; I had only told my name to one person. I was invited to come down for coffee or tea after the service. I was surprised by this. This didn’t happen at any other church I’ve been to, and it made me feel special. As I socialized with people at coffee hour, I didn’t feel like anyone was hiding anything. I felt honesty there, and I never felt any pressure. It was so refreshing. I was treated like I could make up my mind for myself about the faith. How did your previous religious background prepare you to become Orthodox? What was the most
How is being Haitian different from other kinds of Black minorities?
There is one reason I intentionally did not drop my accent: it was so I would sound different from other Black people. I had several people advise me to do that so I wouldn’t be discriminated against. I noticed that when I spoke French in public, people would treat me like I was smart. 1 But my accent can also sometimes cause me to be discriminated against. Some of the cultural aspects of my Haitian background put me in more contact with white people than perhaps some other Black minorities are. For example, I play soccer, and I have run in the New York Marathon several times. Those are things most Black people don’t do. So sometimes being Haitian works against me and sometimes it works to my advantage.
difficult thing to adjust to? Have you ever experienced racism first hand?
Growing up Catholic made it easier to become Orthodox. Orthodoxy felt like a different version of Catholicism. But it felt more serious and more authentic. I respected how I was not permitted to take Communion and the seriousness of preparation for Communion. That made me realize the Orthodox Church was the real deal. It made me appreciate Holy Communion more. What do your friends and family think about you being Orthodox?
My sister is older than I am, so they say I am following in her footsteps. They don’t have anything bad to say. I would like to convert my whole family someday. jacob's well
I have. But I try not to focus on it. At one time, I was a manager at a golf course. There was a golf tournament, and Tiger Woods was coming in. The owner invited me and three other managers to the tournament. We had good seats. I only had to pay for the drinks and food. I was walking together with my boss and co-workers into a restaurant. All the other guys I was with were white, and they all walked through with no problem, but the security officer stopped me and gave me a hard time, asking for my ticket. He didn’t really believe I was supposed to be there. One of my co-workers came to my defense. Later I told my fellow managers that I was fine, and I was used to it because it happens to me all the time.
What do you think Black people can bring to Orthodoxy? How would their increased presence leave a mark on the life of our parishes?
I will speak for Haitians. I believe that Haitians could bring a lot to the Orthodox Church. They are a very religious and spiritual people. They would bring a deep level of devotion that would be positive for the whole Church. And all the good food, music, and other customs of the Haitian people would enrich the community life of the Church, too. The Orthodox Church today feels like what the Catholic Church used to be, when I was growing up. I think that if the Orthodox Church opened missions in Haiti, She would gain a lot of converts. 2 How
welcoming to a Black inquirer? Any practical advice?
Well, I think the church did a very good job welcoming me personally. If they do the same for other Black inquirers, it will be a job well done. So many people would give me antidoron after the service that I couldn’t hold it all. I think from what I’ve experienced, at least at Holy Trinity [in East Meadow, N.Y.], their hospitality is on point. When I attended a Catholic church, I don’t think the priests ever remembered my name, but Father Martin Kraus at Holy Trinity learned my name right away and never forgot it. I also felt a lot more informed and included in church life than I did growing up Catholic. Interview by Rev. Matthew Brown
Three Angels with Black Jesus (c. 1960s) artist: Edgar Brièrre location: University of Kansas, Spencer Museum of Art Lawrence, Kansas 1. Haiti was colonized by Spain in 1492, but two centuries later it was ceded to France, which imported vast numbers of enslaved Africans there to grow sugarcane. Ninety-five percent of Haitians are of African descent. 2. In fact, International Orthodox Christian Charities has been working in Haiti since 2010, when a massive hurricane swept the island. Both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia have opened parishes and run schools there.
Brandon Dawson Brandon Dawson is a parishioner at Ss. Peter &
Both of your parents are Black?
Paul Orthodox Church in Jersey City, N.J. So what’s your story?
I grew up near Los Angeles, primarily in South Pasadena in Hollywood Hills. I didn't come to the East Coast until 1989. My parents were separated, so I lived with my mother and stepfather in California. When I was 17, I came to New Jersey — to South Orange — to live with my father, so I could get to know him and be closer. I grew up in an upper middle-class family. Both my stepfather and father are doctors, and my mother is a nurse. I have a degree in Biblical theology from Moody Bible Institute. Now I work at Audible, the audiobook company. Before 2017, I worked for 20 years in an acute-care psychiatric unit. jacob's well
Yes. My father is from St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands. My mother, memory eternal, passed away in 2019. She grew up in North Carolina. When we were growing up, we went to a Baptist church. That’s where I was formally baptized — I would say probably in the sixth grade. If you chose to attend a Bible school for college, you must have taken your faith pretty seriously as a teenager.
No, actually, I didn’t. I was pretty introverted; I was part of the nerdy group. It’s not like I was living a wild, hedonistic, adolescent life. I went to church every week. But I wasn’t living by the faith I professed. I grew up in a very difficult home — my
stepfather and mother fought a lot — and I think that really led to my thinking about deeper things. It was a combination of watching a Jimmy Swaggart 1 sermon on television and reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity that really reignited my faith in my later teens. The grace of God led me to go to Bible college. It was one of my classes at Moody that introduced me to Orthodoxy — that, and a friend I had there.
Was your first Orthodox experience at the OCA cathedral there?
Yeah, but it was not where it is now — it was on the south side of Chicago. It wasn’t until two years later that it moved to where it is now, across the street from Moody. I doubt there weren’t many Black parishioners there. Was that an obstacle for you?
How did that happen? Moody is part of a very different Christian tradition. 2
Well, in my fourth year, I had a class called Current Trends in Theology. We read The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware, as an introduction to Orthodoxy. At the same time — you could say, coincidentally, or providentially — my friend was a catechumen in the Orthodox Church. He shared with me Frank Schaeffer’s book, Dancing Alone. 3 I had read all the books by his father, Francis Schaeffer. In fact, it was Francis Schaeffer’s books that kind of saved my faith, because I was going through a crisis of faith during my senior year. The crisis was brought on by some of the things I was being introduced to. The professors at Moody, though they were evangelical, challenged a lot of what I had taken for granted. I really was aware of the chaos of what it meant to be Protestant. Also, in my own personal spiritual experience, I was seeking more accountability. So all these things, combined, led to my journey toward Orthodoxy.
1. Swaggart was part of the generation of televangelists inspired by Billy Graham, which also included Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Jerry Falwell. In the 1980s, before he became embroiled in prostitution scandals, his weekly show was broadcast on 3,000 channels around the world. 2. Moody Bible Institute, a nondenominational Protestant college, was founded by the 19thcentury evangelist and businessman Dwight Moody. Its official literature describes its teachings as “generally Calvinistic.” 3. Francis Schaeffer, an American pastor who founded a Christian community in Switzerland, was one of the most influential evangelical theologians
Not really. I grew up in a primarily white neighborhood in California, and there were a lot of Asians and Mexicans in the area, too. So I didn’t feel out of place in a primarily Caucasian community. I do sometimes wonder if I have a unique perspective or experience. If I had grown up in a Black community, it might be different. Do you have any thoughts about what Orthodox people could do to make our parishes more welcoming to Black inquirers?
Well, one of God's mercies to me is that going to Ss. Peter and Paul in Jersey City, where Father Joseph Lickwar is my spiritual father. He has adopted grandchildren who are Black. And just everyone there just accepted me right away. I've never had a sense that I was different; it has always been very warm and accepting. I know the difference, because for a while, I went to a Greek church, and this may have been because the whole Liturgy was in Greek, but it was a very different experience. But in terms of attracting other Black Americans, I think the core thing is really communicating the history of the Orthodox faith in Ethiopia, in North Africa, and in the Middle East. That would help dismantle the straw man arguments against Christianity as “the white man’s religion.” If Black people come to understand the broader context of what the Church has believed, and who has made up the Church, I think that will make the difference. At the same time, my community here in America will have to be lovingly, gently challenged: Are you seeking the truth of God, or do you want the truth of God only in an environment that is comfortable to you? Do you want truth, or do you just want something that closely fits, and that you're comfortable with? But that challenge becomes easier after you’ve knocked down all those faulty arguments against the faith.
of the twentieth century. His son, Frank Schaeffer, converted to the Orthodox faith in 1990, though he
That’s an interesting point. The Nation of Islam
has since described himself as a “Christian atheist.”
used to appeal to a lot of Black people, with the
Dancing Alone is his 1994 memoir of his conversion.
argument that Christianity was the white man’s 29
I don't have any hope for changing the system. But I do believe the Lord, within His Church, can bring different cultures together. religion and that becoming Muslim could be a way of reconnecting with African roots. You see this in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Seems like you’re saying Orthodoxy could have a similar appeal.
Yeah. A lot of the Church Fathers may not have been as dark-skinned as I am, but we know that some of them, like St. Cyril and St. Anthony, must have had a dark complexion, just in light of where they lived. So once those straw men are broken down, then you can start to speak to truth. If we can walk people through that journey, I believe the Lord will draw them into His Church.
Yeah. Yeah. That's just one example of some of the experiences I was aware others were having. And then in my senior year of college, the woman I was dating was white. I was always very aware of the challenges we would face if we got closer, given that she was white, and I was Black. Could you spell those out?
People’s perceptions. The way we’d be looked at when we walked down the street. The way her family would react. Things of that nature. What has been your reaction to the protests since the death of George Floyd?
Have you experienced palpable racism in your life?
Racism has been more subtle throughout my life. When I was younger, there were girls I wanted to date but they wouldn't date a Black man, because that’s how they were taught. In elementary school and junior high, I was sometimes called a n — er by kids who wanted to pick fights. And then, whenever I traveled, I always had an awareness and an anxiety about racism and experiencing prejudice — whether it was traveling to other parts of L.A. County or to another part of the state. I would sometimes look for Black people. I’d feel like I'm going to be OK here because I see there are other Black people in the area. And then at Moody, I remember that some of my classmates were encountering Black people for the first time. They were very ignorant. I’ll give you an example: A student asked one of my Black classmates, very innocently, if she could see her tail. And this was in the early ‘90s — Hold on. Just to clarify, you mean this student thought Black people had actual tails attached to their back sides?
Well, I don't think this is necessarily cynicism, but I think that realistically, at least apart from the grace of God, people will not change. And so, although I think it's important to work toward certain political and cultural goals, I have a certain acceptance of the way things are. Maybe it's a form of shell shock. But having grown up in L.A., this seems no different to me than when Rodney King 4 was beaten, you know? So for me, this is a reality that has always been there. It is painful to the point where I haven't even watched any of the videos posted about George Floyd. Ultimately, I believe prayer is what makes the difference. I'm not too spiritually minded to be of any earthly good, but I do believe prayer is the thing that will make the difference with people I meet. One thing I will say, before I forget, is that one of my greatest concerns, especially in the early weeks after George Floyd’s death, was making sure I walked very carefully — even in my own community, where I’ve lived since 1999. Sometimes I felt more anxiety about the police presence than I did about COVID.
You say you’re not necessarily cynical, but it’s easy to hear it that way. Do you find any hope for racial relations in America?
No, not for changing the system. But what I do believe is that the Lord, within His Church, can bring different cultures together. That comes partly from my experience at Ss. Peter and Paul. I think that’s the only way change is going to come. Even outside the Church, as we live consistently with whom the Lord wants us to be and we communicate our faith to others, then we can evoke positive change. At an interpersonal level?
Yeah, and then even on a community-wide level. OK, sure. And then maybe institutions can be changed farther down the line.
Yes, slowly. And I will say, I probably am cynical, but the grace of God and the spirit of God challenge me to have faith and to work towards justice. I believe the Lord holds me responsible to act and speak and not allow my cynicism to control my choices. The Wales Window (1965)
There’s an old political mantra that goes “Pessi-
artist: John Petts
mism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
location: 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama
And I want to say that Cornel West makes that distinction. He says, “Black people are not optimistic, but we're a people who have faith and hope.” And there's a difference there. So my faith and hope shape the work I do. 5
Interview by Nick Tabor
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry, and Robert Edward Chambliss, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. At 10:22 a.m., the bomb exploded, killing four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley (all aged 14) and Denise McNair (aged 11). Twenty-two others were injured. Four thousand miles away, in Llanseffan, Wales, stainedglass artist John Petts heard about the tragedy. Collaborating with a newspaper editor, he started raising funds for a new window to replace one destroyed in the bombing. They accepted no large donations; it was to be a gift of the people of
4. King was beaten severely by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department after he was caught driving drunk in 1991. A video of the incident was played for weeks in TV broadcasts, spurring historic riots throughout the city.
Wales. The new window depicted the Crucifixion, and the figure of Jesus was Black. When interviewed by The Guardian's Gary Younge in 2011, Rev. Arthur Price, Jr., the church's current pastor explained: “I think the major message we try to take out of the window is not so much identifying Christ’s color but knowing
5. West is a philosophy professor at Harvard and a
that Christ identifies with us. To the white community this
political activist. He has written or co-written more
means that the Jesus you love identifies himself with the
than a dozen books dealing with the Black Church,
African American community, so you are really crucifying
intellectual history, democracy, and American race
him again when you persecute someone who does not look
like you.” 31