I like to tout to the Orthodox World that OCF is the only fellowship organization (for now) which is an Assembly of Bishops agency. Who cares, you say? Well, we are the only organization (for now) that is charged by all the bishops to bring together all Orthodox Christians from all backgrounds and all jurisdictions and to do it well. This means we’ve been “doing pan-Orthodox” for a while now, and there are a few lessons we have learned that I’d like to share.
- Make no assumptions. Someone once challenged me to count how many churches in which I’ve actually worshiped in the U.S., and I think the number sits right around 55 parishes from seven different jurisdictions. You might say I’ve been around the block when it comes to Orthodox traditions. What I’ve taken away from all those experiences plus the 10 years I’ve been involved in OCF is that you really can’t assume anything. I’ve met Greeks in OCA parishes, Eritreans in Greek parishes, a ROCOR priest who didn’t know a word of Russian, a Bulgarian priest who grew up Jewish, and converts from every denomination of Christianity as well as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and paganism. Pan-Orthodoxy is most successful in an atmosphere of openness to any possibility and a willingness not to comment negatively right away on what we find (see #3). This seems like a no-brainer, but I think it needs to be said. Too often Orthodox people are surprised by Orthodoxy’s diversity.
- Know the narratives. Everybody–and every jurisdiction, for that matter–has a story. How we got to where we are today is a long and complicated story individually and collectively. I’ve noticed that while the assumptions we often make about each other often don’t hold a lot of weight, people from different backgrounds often do bear a particular narrative of Orthodoxy in America. For example, I was raised in a Greek church where the community was very ethnically diverse so I assumed until I went to college and found out otherwise that all Orthodox people went to Greek Orthodox churches. It was never my intention to marginalize, you know, the rest of Orthodoxy, I just didn’t have any other experience yet. A good pan-Orthodox leader/program/organization is aware of the common narratives that come into play from each jurisdiction. Creating opportunities to uncover, discuss, and break down these narratives in a loving, judgment-free manner is a huge step toward understanding.
- Respect not ridicule. Please, please, please–I’ve said it before–stop making fun of each other. Yes, we all have our weaknesses and sore spots as different Orthodox communities, but what heavenly purpose can possibly be brought about by deriding and ridiculing those weaknesses? We can all take a little joke now and again, but the whole “You-know-those-Russians…” and “What-can-you-expect?-They’re-Greek…” thing has got to stop. If you’re doing it, you’re breaking rule #1 and cutting off any opportunity for #2. Just. Stop. Please.
- Celebrate culture. It’s such a bummer when people equate pan-Orthodoxy with the suppression of our diverse cultural heritages. The Christian faith is universal: it’s meant for everyone and every culture. You don’t have to stop being Greek to be Orthodox nor do you have to become Ukrainian to truly understand the message of salvation. How can we practically express this in pan-Orthodox efforts? Eat, drink, dance, sing! Whether its dancing the dabke or learning the Virginia reel, eating borscht or roasting a lamb, singing colind at Christmas-time or decorating pysanka at Pascha, share and experience the beauty of our many cultures! OCF has this one down pretty well. Instead of banning cultural expressions, we offer everyone a chance to celebrate on equal ground: from the Greeks v. Arabs soccer game at College Conference East to the beatbox jam sessions at College Conference West, from Real Break Alaska to Real Break Slovakia on to Guatemala, Constantinople, Romania, and Jerusalem, a foundation of our pan-Orthodox mission is to celebrate whatever is good and lovely in the lives of Orthodox everywhere.
- English is key, but not king. Language is a touchy subject for us, but here’s how I’ve seen things played out in OCF. English is, obviously, the language that you can pretty much guarantee that all American college students understand. I mean, I’m not writing this blog in Old Church Slavonic or New Testament Greek. On the other hand, it’s not safe to assume (see #1) that English is the only language in which a young person (or any person) can worship or even that it’s the most comfortable language for that person in church. Our unofficial baseline is that services are held in English for OCF events, but when our students can share their other languages or when we are visiting places where English is not the first language, we are blessed to be able to confirm the universality of our Christian faith through its varied linguistic expressions (see #4).
- Learn to sing. Or find someone who can. Right up there with celebrating culture and language–or perhaps more important–is a need for us to understand and celebrate each others’ liturgical expressions. A beautiful Byzantine Paraklesis and a wonderful Russian-style Akathist of Thanksgiving should be something we can all share. Often more than language, people are accustomed to a certain liturgical melody which their heart sings even if their lips do not. Successful pan-Orthodoxy should try to incorporate various melodic traditions whenever possible.
- Love one another. It bears repeating St. John’s advice in the context of pan-Orthodox efforts. It’s not an easy task, but it bears the sweetest fruit. When we are open to each other and in each other’s presence, we find that, on some level, we are united. Perhaps it is not the full unity we so desperately need, but our worship is united in spirit and in truth, and we are called to a unity of love. Doing pan-Orthodox right unsettles us from accepting the status quo of jurisdictional division. In all my experiences across those 55 churches and in all the College Conferences, Real Breaks, regional retreats, and OCF chapter meetings I’ve attended and led, one thing has become abundantly apparent to me: once we’ve been together, we don’t want to be apart!