Memories of Fr. Roman Braga

The Gang Summit

I remember that sometime in the late ’90s, I was sitting in my house when I received a call from a spiritual child of Fr. Roman Braga’s, a fellow named Nick. It seemed that Fr. Roman wanted me to come and participate in a gang summit in Michigan. At that point, I hadn’t heard of Fr. Roman, but I had a strong feeling that I should do what he asked.

I flew to the airport in Detroit, where Nick picked me up and we drove to the monastery in Rives Junction. We arrived at night, where I was received M. Gabriella, who took me to my quarters. This was before the monastery was in its present state of beauty. It was raining and I walked across the muddy yard to what was then the sewing room, and had a peaceful night’s sleep there. In the morning I woke to the sound of the semantron – the call to prayer.

I made my way to the chapel and sat in the back as the Liturgy began. The time of censing came, and the priest, having censed all the people, neglected to cense me. Fr. Roman, in the altar, looked out of the curtain of the north deacon doors and saw this. He took off his epitrachelion and cuffs and came out to stand beside me. “Now,” he said, “if they cense me, they’ll have to cense you!” We stood shoulder to shoulder. I immediately felt his love and kindness.

Later that day, Fr. Roman, Archbishop Nathaniel and I went to an Ethiopian restaurant where we had lunch and discussed the upcoming summit. Fr. Roman seemed to know many of the customers and staff.

The Summit was quite an event. Many bands and musicians performed before I was scheduled to speak – rappers, gangsta rap and spoken word poetry. There were even two old Blues guys playing harmonica and guitar. My talk was supposed to be about “The Paradise of the Holy Fathers” Following those acts, I got nervous. I thought the crowd might mob the stage. I had visions of the Blues Brothers singing at the country/western bar where the patrons threw bottles at them.

My talk focused on St. Moses the Black and St. Mary of Egypt, as I hoped these two saints would appeal to the crowd’s sensibilities as being outcasts and throwaway children. It must have worked, because you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. After I stopped speaking, the silence continued for what seemed like an eternity but was only a few minutes. It was broken by a young gang member who stood and asked, in a commanding voice, “Why didn’t the White man ever tell us about this?”

After such a seemingly crowd pleasing presentation, I was not about to take the rap for that, so I looked out on the sea of Black youths, and there were only three White faces in crowd of several hundred: Nick, Fr. Roman and Archbishop Nathaniel. Pointing to the archbishop, I answered, “Because he didn’t tell you!” He stood up and said “St Moses the Black is one of my most beloved saints of the Church.” Archbishop Nathaniel continued, “As a matter of fact, we have a prominent icon of St. Moses in our church, and you are all welcome to come by any time you want!” And they, like the children they still were within, nodded in acceptance. Whatever charge could have been in that room dissipated instantly.

We returned to the monastery, feeling that God was with us, and knowing that if we gave so much as a cool drink of water to the least of these, we should in no wise lose our reward.

Further Recollections

After that first meeting, I became close to Fr. Roman and thought of him as my “spiritual father,” a term I’d heard used many times. However, I didn’t understand the depth of responsibility each party would have to take on in order to make this relationship work.

In the Spring of 2003, I was very disappointed with the progress that the Orthodox Church in America was making in evangelizing African American people. I once expressed this to a group of my White peers, and they didn’t seem to think that there was a problem and that God would sooner or later take care of it. It was obvious to me that Black people simply weren’t on their radar. I became frustrated trying to convince them otherwise and I actually felt disregarded by their lack of sensitivity to something so fundamental to me.

I was wounded, and after mulling this over for a few days, I decided to share my experience with Fr. Roman, who I was sure would understand and support me. After driving non-stop except for gas from Ash Grove to Rives Junction, I was received by Fr. Roman and began to describe my troubles. He said simply, “Fr. Moses, what are you going to do when the Communists come?” This stopped me dead in my tracks, because I knew exactly what he meant. If I wasn’t able to endure insults and misunderstandings from the good guys, what would I do if the bad guys showed up?

The monastery guest quarters were full, so as it was still early enough in the evening, I planned to start the drive home. However, Fr. Roman invited me to stay at his house, because he wouldn’t be there that evening and there was room. I stayed in his bedroom, which was small and sparsely furnished, with walls covered with murals about his life and coming to America. I think he did them, but I’m not sure. In any case, they were very moving.

Before I left the next morning, I asked him if he’d be my spiritual father. He quickly answered, with a small sober smile, “No. Because I don’t think you’ll listen to my counsel.” The next time I saw him was a few years later, around the time when the monastery had begun construction of its new church. I asked him again and he agreed. I didn’t really know what he meant the first time, when he’d turned me down, nor did I fully understand the second time. Now, however, I know more about the burden and responsibility of accepting someone as a spiritual child. I have taken on this role for some people and I bear the weight of their disobedience and its consequences.

In the following years, Fr. Roman grew increasingly ill. One evening I got a call from his sister, a nun, telling me he was going to have serious surgery, and asking me to pray for him. He reposed on 4/28/2015. I treasure the time I was able to spend with him, and always remember his enormous kindness and generosity. My troubles always seem small compared with Fr. Roman’s struggles in prison under the communist regime. When I am disturbed by some event, I hear him saying, “What will you do….”

How to get to Heaven

A week or so ago, I had the pleasure of giving a sermonette after the dismissal at Divine Liturgy. I did this because there was some dissension among the parishioners. Certain people were not willing to forgive one another and to make amends so that they could continue in their struggle for the Kingdom of Heaven. They were stuck in their positions.

I told them that they must forgive everyone, no matter what offenses were made against them. I even used myself as an example of how I was unjustly persecuted by the jailors when I was incarcerated as a youth.

The sermonette ended well, and people seemed to like what I said. Afterwards, during coffee hour in the church hall, a visitor from Ukraine came to me and said, “Fr. Moses, I really appreciated what you said, and I forgive the soldiers, because I myself was once a soldier and I know that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to. You must wage war against the enemy whether you like it or not. “ “However,” he went on to say, “I will never forgive those marauders who pillaged my home and raped my niece. How can I forgive them?” I responded, “You must,” and he again asked, “How?”

“I don’t know – I wouldn’t even know how to go about it, but I would know that I must, if I wanted to go to heaven.” I responded.  He said he’d try, but just didn’t know how.

I gave him a little example from my life. My dad and his brothers once asked their grandfather, Wallace White, how he could forgive the slave owners and have a pleasant disposition around them. Some of those who’d owned him were now his neighbors. He’d seen his kinsmen raped, beaten, and sold down the river.  I imagine those young men must have thought him quite the subservient, ignorant old man.  He answered his grandchildren, “Because I want to go to Heaven.”  He was more interested in the Kingdom to come than the Kingdom of the present. 

After I told the visitor this story, he was silent for a bit, and then said, “I’ll try.” I concluded our conversation by reminding him that if he wanted God to forgive his sins, if he wanted to go to Heaven, he must forgive his neighbors’ offenses, no matter how tragic they were.

He returned the following week. “Father,” he said, “I think  I’m beginning to forgive them.”

Wallace White (third from right, bottom row) First Black man in the Missouri 6th Cavalry

Kids say the darnedest things

One morning, when I opened the Museum up, two White families came in to visit. One was from Dusselorf, Germany (they spoke excellent English). The other family was that of the political cartoonist of the Kansas City Star. Both had found out about the Museum through an Ebony magazine article which listed places to visit in Missouri.

During the course of my presentation, I had the occasion to speak about the Buffalo Soldiers and my uncle Harrison White, who, as a Buffalo Soldie,r fought with Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill. In the midst of this talk, a little tow-headed German girl asked the best question of the day. “Why did they call them Buffalo Soldiers?” I answered, “Because they were fierce like buffalo and their hair looked like buffalo fur.” She looked at me, very puzzled, as if she didn’t get it. To further explain, I said, “Look at your hair – do you see how it is? Now look at mine! Do you see the difference?” “Can I feel your hair?” she asked as a little child might in their innocence, while her mother squirmed a little with embarrassment. “Of course!” I said. After she’d finished rubbing my head, I added, “Now can you tell the difference?” She was still puzzled about what Buffalo Soldiers could be.

So I broke it down further. “What’s the difference between your hair and my hair?” She pondered the question for a bit and said, “Oh! I know!” pointing to my receding hairline,”You don’t have any up there!” I realized that I was trying to show her the difference in our respective races, and she was seeing the sameness. The only difference to her was that I was going bald.

The political cartoonist from Kansas City had come to the Museum in part to present me with a wonderful pen and charcoal caricature he’d done of me. All the while I spoke with the German family, the cartoonist’s little boy (around 4 years old) was clinging to me, at times, even grabbing my cassock. He seemed to hang on every word.

After a while, their visits completed, the families left. The next day, I remembered that I hadn’t thanked the cartoonist properly for the picture, so we spoke on the phone. I asked how they were, and how his boy was doing. “Oh, Fr. Moses,” he said. “You made an impression on him!” He continued, “He’s been running around the house with one of my black t-shirts on. When I asked him why, he told me, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a Black priest, just like Fr. Moses!'”

Both of these interactions confirmed my belief that we must be very careful with children and make sure that the model that we set for them, which, trust me, they will always remember, is good and truthful.

A Double-Minded Man

In the summer of 1972, when I’d just gotten out of jail for selling drugs, after having found redemption and forgiveness of my sins in the confines of a 4 1/2′ by 6 1/2′ solitary confinement cell and having pledged myself to walk the straight and narrow, I was right back to my old habits.

I’d bought a farmhouse in Ashland, MO, just outside of Columbia, where I had people coming by, looking for marijuana. One day, I got a call from my childhood older friend, Yancy Bolton, who said he wanted to come around and sample my wares. He arrived in a powder blue 1971 Cadillac El Dorado.

Yancy was a pimp for a high-end clientele, which included some state legislators. He was accompanied by two of his ladies. At one point during the course of the day, these ladies began to giggle and speak out of turn. Yancy was infuriated and started to slap them around. I, still fresh from my recent spiritual awakening in jail, was horrified at this behavior, and I said to him, “Man, stop it! This is wrong!”

Yancy became very sober, looked at me with a calm intensity, and said, “Karl, when you are in line with what you propose to be, when you are as good a Christian as I am a pimp, then I will listen to what you say.” “Until then,” he continued, “keep your mouth shut.” His words cut me to the quick.

Not everyone is as hard-headed as I and has to get life lessons from someone such as Yancy, but I remember this day so well that I can tell you what I was wearing. I was truly convicted of my double-mindedness then. Yancy saw right through me and told the truth. (God help us to meet someone who will see us so clearly and speak honestly to us.) His words live in me, and so I have been struggling ever since to be in line with what I propose to be.

Yancy Bolton has passed away, and I keep him in my prayers as one who has helped me in life. “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” Lord, have mercy on us!

Something Lost, yet Something Gained

In the fall of 1996, my wife Magdalena and I, along with our two children, were living in St. Louis, MO. I remember that year because it was the first time we’d ever gotten a brand-new car, after many years of old clunkers. I was taking the car for an inaugural drive across the Eads Bridge over the Mississippi into Illinois. I saw a priest standing by the side of the road with a box in his hand, desperately thumbing for a ride. I later found out that this was Fr. Dimitrie Vincent. He needed a ride because he’d been assigned to bring certain liturgical items to a diocesen convention being held in Belleville, IL.

I was intrigued by a priest fully dressed in a cassock with his thumb out, and I pulled over and asked if he needed help. “Yes,” he said, “ I need to bring these things to a meeting so they can conduct Vespers this evening.” “Of course, I’ll take you,” I said. He told me it was a good distance away, but I was up for a car trip anyway.

When we arrived at the hotel, Fr. Dimitrie said he wanted to introduce me to his bishop, and we went up Bishop JOB’s room. When we got there, I was pleasantly surprised by the bishop’s hospitality and genuinely friendly demeanor. He asked, “would you like a Coke?” And I thought that was the most gracious thing a hierarch could do. He didn’t ask who I was, or question me about my jurisdictional status, or anything of that nature. He only said, “would you like a Coke?” I gratefully received it, even though I wasn’t that fond of soft drinks then. When I was about to leave the room, Bishop JOB said, “If there’s ever anything I can do for you, just let me know.”

At that time, my friends and I were in an uncanonical jurisdiction, but were looking for a way to become canonical. We were appealing to diocesan bishops across the country in hopes that one would receive us. Some of us were taken in graciously by a particular jurisdiction (which will remain unnamed). Everyone received a formal letter of acceptance, except for me. I decided to write the headquarters to determine my status. I was told they’d decided not to accept my petition. On one hand, I was quite devastated because I’d looked forward to moving ahead. On the other hand, I understood, because I was perhaps lacking in qualifications. Then I found out, through the Dean of my area (who happened to be a close friend), that the real reason for the rejection was that “they weren’t ready to accept an African American clergyman. “ I felt as if I had been left out on a limb.

Then I remembered my meeting, years earlier, with Bishop JOB, of blessed memory. Now there was something I really needed from him. I called, and we arranged a time for him and a committee to interview me. The meeting was set for the last week in October. It was quite a grueling ordeal for me, as it felt more like an interrogation by the other three members of the committee rather than an interview. At one point, near the middle of our time, I was overcome with a belligerent spirit, in response to how I felt I was being mistreated. I said to myself, “to hell with this.” I made a statement: “If I should be accepted into the OCA, I’ll tell you one thing: that little red Liturgy book you use – I’ll never use it!” Bishop JOB responded, “ I don’t like that little book either!” Then I went on, even more belligerent, “I’ll never become New Calendar!” To which Bishop JOB replied, “I understand – we all used to be Old Calendar.” Then he went on, much to the chagrin of the others, “I’ll come down to your church at the beginning of November and regularize you all through Chrismation. Then before Thanksgiving, I’d like you to come to Chicago, where I will ordain you a deacon on Friday, and priest on Saturday at the cathedral so that you can get home to serve Liturgy on Sunday.”

It was so quiet in the room that you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.Then he gave me directions to the subway, so I could get to the airport and fly back home.

True to his word, Bishop JOB arrived in Ash Grove to regularize our situation. I felt a certain loss in the midst of this joyous event, because the last thing I ever wanted to be was “regular.” I never wanted to be normal. I never wanted to integrate with the mainstream, held fast by ordinary conventions. I was old enough to have remembered America in the 1950’s and 60’s when African American people integrated into the majority culture. There was an enormous gain, but perhaps as enormous a loss.

Let me explain. Before integration, many of us struggled hard to do the best we could with meager fare. We knew we had to be, as my grandfather used to say, “twice as good as they are.” In struggle, we built strong communities and churches. I felt that in becoming mainstream, there was a great temptation to think that now we could rely on “the system” to meet our needs, whereas we once knew we could only trust God – we were, in a way, forced to be “otherworldly.” I felt similarly about becoming “regularized” in the Church.

While it is and has been necessary, and a blessing, I feel the loss of a certain struggle. There’s a temptation to feel that we’re “ok” now, having been received, Once again, Bishop JOB had exactly the right guidance for me. At my ordination, he said, “Now that you’ve been accepted into the Church, don’t think that you’ve arrived! You’re still on a journey to freedom in Christ.” Words to live by. Memory Eternal beloved Archbishop JOB. +

Early visit to Unexpected Joy Church, Ash Grove Missouri

AND WHO IS MY BROTHER?

A young boy entering his teen years told me that he felt sad because he didn’t have any friends. He said that it seemed like other people had plenty. So, I asked him to sit down, and I told him the following story that I hoped would have some relevance to his sorrowful frame of mind. 

I was a young man, when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and I became so disillusioned with society in general that I decided to “drop out,” as we said then. I stopped pursuing education, regular employment, possessions, status, and power, and genuinely looked forward to the dawning of an age when people would be kind to one another.  This particular worldview was defined by such outer trappings as one’s dress and hairstyle, and preferences in music and diet. Those of us who shared this outlook often used hitchhiking to get around. So, I left my little farm near Columbia, MO, to make one last cross-country hitchhiking trip before committing to a spiritual path (and that’s a story for another time).

I arrived in Albuquerque, NM, in the winter of 1973. On the highway, I was picked up by a Volkswagen van whose occupants appeared as if they, like me, had abandoned the regular world in pursuit of peace and love.  All went well until, somewhere in the mountains, a tremendous blizzard began. The folks in the van pulled over to a motel where they would spend the night. I, assuming that we were all brothers and friends, trailed along with them to the motel entrance. There they told me that my ride with them ended, and so I was on my own.

I walked back to the highway, a little disappointed, but at the same time overwhelmed with the majesty and beauty of the country around me, in all its stillness, the fallen snow glistening with moonlight. The snow was so deep that I couldn’t see where the side of the highway began. Only an occasional trucker, braving the storm, would travel the highway, but they passed me by. Finally, off in the distance, I could see the headlights of a fast-moving car coming towards me. I put out my thumb, and the car skidded to a stop – a shiny new Mustang Mach 1 fastback 350. The driver, a young African American man with a green bandanna tied around his head, opened the door. Heavy Metal music was blaring at full volume.  He said, “Where are you going?” And I replied that I was going to San Francisco to catch a plane to Hawaii. “How far are you going?” I asked. “Wherever you want me to take you.” We were then about halfway between Flagstaff and Phoenix, AZ. 

When we arrived in Phoenix, the storm had stopped and the temperature was at least 60 degrees. He turned down the music and began to tell me about his broken heartedness.  He’d just returned from Viet Nam, where he was a rescue soldier on a helicopter. They’d land in the middle of a firefight and evacuate the wounded. He’d seen so much bloodshed and disregard for human life that he was heartbroken. He told me all about his family and loved ones, who he no longer felt he could be in relationship with because he’d done so many unspeakable things. We wept together.

And somehow, through the grace of God, this conversation, which lasted hundreds of miles, came to an end just outside the Oakland airport. I’d found a friend, a most unlikely friend, although I couldn’t tell you his name. But I felt like the man, from Jesus’ parable, who fell among thieves on the road to Jericho, and those who seemed most likely to offer help passed him by. He was rescued by the Samaritan instead.

So, my beloved child, I concluded, true friends and neighbors are a gift from God and they show up at the most unexpected times and places. Then I sang him part of  a song – an Irish folk tune called, I think, “Mary and the Gallant Soldier” : “and when we’re in a foreign land, I’ll guard you darling with my right hand in hopes that God will send a friend to Mary and her gallant soldier.” I smiled, and we laughed together.

SAINT MARGARET OF SCOTLAND and the HAYLOFT

In the fall of 1995, I inherited the old Berry farm from my Uncle Lawrence. His mother, Grandma Berry, always said that she was going to leave the farm to me, so I could take care of it. 

There is an old family cemetery on the property, and soon I organized its re-dedication as an Orthodox one, “Holy Resurrection Cemetery.” Around a half dozen of my clergy friends from around the country came to participate in this momentous occasion. The weekend’s festivities included an outdoor Divine Liturgy to be served the following morning, but it started to rain, so we had to make other arrangements. After searching for a suitable place, we realized that the only available space was the hayloft in Richard and Sheri White’s barn in a nearby town. We decorated it with icons and lampadas, and placed some folding analogions. The smell of incense filled the air. It reminded us of the manger in which Our Lord was born. When the weekend was over, we departed in peace and returned to our homes. 

Later that week, I was picking up my 9 year old son, Elijah and his friend Brian from school, and we passed by a magnificent structure, St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church. We’d already passed our little storefront church, which was in a somewhat depressed part of the neighborhood. Elijah said, “that’s our church!” in a most innocent and proud way. As we made our way through the streets, I could hear the boys talking in the back seat. Brian belittled our church and compared it to the splendor of his church, St. Margaret’s. It took every ounce of effort for me not to help my son to defend his church. Then, to my surprise, Elijah said, “I have attended Liturgy in a barn, and it was every bit as lovely and holy as St. Margaret’s!” Brian replied, “Oh, I see!” and that was the end of the conversation. I was so proud to witness that which was hidden from men was revealed to babes.

Around the same time, my wife was working as a secretary in a large, historic Presbyterian church, in St. Louis’s Central West End. The sanctuary was beautiful, replete with Tiffany stained glass and an enormous organ. One day she took our 6-year-old daughter, Dorothy, to work with her, and they toured the building. In the sanctuary, Dorothy asked her how many people went to that church, perhaps thinking of our little storefront. My wife replied, “several hundred, I guess.” Dorothy looked around and said with confidence, “Well, if you include all the people in the icons, we have at least that many!” So great a cloud of witnesses she recognized!

Thus, we are reminded that God is everywhere present and fills all things. Sometimes we forget that in the most meager of circumstances, God is with us. “God is with us, understand all ye people, and submit yourselves, for God is with us.” (from Great Compline)

SEEING THINGS THROUGH A DARK GLASS

In the year 1982, before my wife and I were to be married, we decided it was time to pay a visit to our folks and introduce our respective mates. It was quite a few years since either of us had seen our parents. 

We left Atlanta to visit Magdalena’s folks in suburban Washington. We drove all day and arrived at their house in the early afternoon. We were greeted by her mother, sister, and brother-in-law, who cordially invited us in, with the warmest of greetings. As I viewed the house from the foyer, I saw her father sitting at the kitchen table with his back turned towards us. He didn’t make the slightest gesture of welcome. I started to consider how I’d react to his cold shoulder and seemingly obvious rejection of my presence. If he came towards me with malice, as I imagined, waving a broom and striking at me, I’d just fall on my knees to the floor and let him beat me. I would submit. After all, I was taking his daughter away.

After a very short time, which to me seemed like forever, he rose from the table and approached me with outstretched hand and a smile on his face, saying, “Welcome to our house!” He explained why he didn’t quickly come to greet us. You see, he was an amateur calligrapher, and he was in the midst of a letter stroke and didn’t want to stop for fear of blotting the ink. And I mistook the whole thing, as we often do. As I often say, we accept or reject people on the most flimsy evidence. Mr. Arkin remained exceedingly kind to me, and any difficulty he had, he kept to himself.

They set before us sumptuous fare. We had a most pleasant afternoon, and then started the drive back to Atlanta. 

A few weeks later, we made the trip to visit my folks in the Missouri Ozarks. We arrived at my mother’s house on Thanksgiving day, and all my siblings were there, and a few other relatives, and random visitors who popped in for a plate. Later that evening, while we were having dessert and coffee, my Uncle Delmus and Aunt Ida dropped by to give a nod of approval to this girl that I had brought home. Delmus, a slight wiry man who never minced words, invited us to take a little drive with him in his 1950 Ford pick-up. Magdalena sat in the middle, a rare honor, because Uncle Delmus was quite discerning about who he hauled around in his truck. 

After we had driven around for a while and returned home, parking in my mother’s driveway, Uncle Delmus turned to me and said, “Cat, you got yourself a good woman there. Sits there, keeps her mouth shut, acts like she’s got some sense!” Let me interpret: you have a good woman who’s not presumptuous and doesn’t have to put her two cents in on everything that’s said; she’s quite observant and conducts herself in a humble manner. From that point on, I knew that I had my uncle’s approval. 

After we had a good night’s rest, my mother insisted that we visit our old relatives in Greenfield, Mo. We drove to the little town, to a long-forgotten neighborhood where Black people had lived since the end of the Civil War. It was known as Long’s Alley, after my great-grandfather, Robert Long, a Methodist preacher affectionately called “Bakker Bob” because he chewed tobacco. He was the son of a slave, and he remembered when, as a boy, he saw Jesse James, the famous outlaw, as his gang rode through town. Robert’s mother hid him under the staircase of a building on the town square. He and others were the formidable people I remember from my childhood – who helped me develop into the man I am today. 

All that was left of that neighborhood were the tumble-down ruins of the stone masonry house that he’d built with his bare hands. On the very end of that street was a two-room clapboard house. My wife felt, as we drove towards it, that we were headed towards nowhere, as the little house was now surrounded by hayfields. I felt a bit of embarrassment, a feeling I hadn’t had for quite a long time. Here I was, taking my wife to the battered remnant of what I remembered as a vibrant community.

We knocked on the front door, and these two little old ladies in their ’90s, who were also children of slaves, answered. One was blind, the other didn’t see very well. We came in and sat on the sofa, and they were so happy to see me! I was from the generation that they had so such high hopes for. After we’d exchanged pleasantries and I caught them up on my life and where I had been, they offered us refreshments, which I quickly declined because I could see an open bag of Oreo cookies on the kitchen table of this house, that smelled of kerosene and chamber pot. But they insisted, and stood before me with a platter of cookies, smiling from ear to ear, knowing that these were something I’d surely enjoy. 

As I took my first bite, the taste of lovingkindness, the acceptable gift, filled my palate with delight. I don’t think I’ve ever had a sweeter cookie since. I will always remember that wonderful day in the country, when I first understood that a gift given from the heart was quite precious. Sometimes we look at our neighbor and only see what we imagine, like my father-in-law’s hostility, or my old relatives’ poverty, and we miss the real gifts being offered to us because of our own judgment. Let me reiterate: We accept or dismiss people on equally flimsy evidence and miss the gift before us.

photo: Two Dodd girls, part of my family, contemporaries of the old ladies we visited.

FLOWERS IN GOD’S GARDEN AND A TRIP TO WICHITA

People often ask me how I came to join the Orthodox Church. When they first began to ask this question, I was somewhat offended, because I interpreted it as being how does a Black man from the Ozarks become part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I’ve since gotten over that, and used the occasion as an opportunity to testify to the magnificence of our Lord.

Let me start with a story of a visit to my uncle, Frederick, in Wichita, Kansas. In our family, there’s a tradition of the children receiving a blessing from family elders. Uncle Fred was on his deathbed, in hospice care. My uncle Lawrence called me in St. Louis, where we were living at the time and asked me to take him from his home in Ash Grove to visit his brother in Wichita. I agreed and set off with my children, Dorothy and Elijah.

It was a memorable trip, with adventures along the way, as my uncle insisted on taking back roads instead of the interstate as much as possible. I suppose this reminded him of the routes he took in days gone by. When we arrived in Wichita, the children and I were ushered into Uncle Fred’s room. He laid hands on Dorothy and Eli, and blessed them, according to the tradition. Then he looked at me, and saw my large pectoral cross and ankle length black robe, and asked, “and what are you?”

I immediately felt defensive and ashamed, as though I had betrayed our family tradition of African American preachers, and I knew I had to respond in a humble and submissive way. I sheepishly replied, believing that he had no idea what Orthodoxy was, “I’m an Orthodox priest,” and I awaited his judgement. He said, “Oh, the Orthodox Church. They have the most beautiful temples and paintings on their walls. I really like the looks of the Orthodox Church I think there’s something to it.” Fred, who had been a deacon in St. Mary’s Baptist Church in Wichita, was a retired mail carrier and had an Orthodox cathedral on his route. He looked at me and said, “If you don’t think you’re in the best church in the world, then, my friend, you are in the wrong church!”

Now, to how I became Orthodox. I remember so clearly, when I was a boy, sitting on the back steps of the house my great grandfather built in 1871 and watching my mother hanging out the wash on a clothesline, with scent of fried potatoes and onions wafting through the air. I asked her, “Mom, why are there so many races?” She turned to me and said, “Son, it’s because we are all flowers in God’s garden. Some of us are roses, some are peonies, some are petunias, and some of us are crabgrass. But we’re all flowers in God’s garden!”

I spent most of my teen and young adult life trying to find the flowers in God’s garden that looked like me. I searched high and low for that field which contained the pearl of great price, but I couldn’t find it. I looked in Eastern religion and New Age religion, Native American religion, too, but it all fell short of what my soul sought – that other-worldly Christian fragrance.

When my wife and I were first married, we lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and our friend John invited us to visit him in Richmond, Virginia. The plan was to have a lovely dinner Saturday evening and go to his church for services Sunday morning, where I was scheduled to give the homily. On the highway up to Richmond, I was driving a little too fast and we were stopped by the police and taken to the station, most likely, I think, for being an interracial couple. “Arm in arm went black and white, and some saw red…” I’m adding this detail because our trip was somewhat fraught and delayed, and by the time we reached John’s house, it was already near 6:00 in the evening.

When we got there, he rushed us off to an Orthodox vespers service, the last thing I wanted to do in that moment. As we walked up the back entrance of this house church, I remembered saying in an embarrassingly loud voice, much to my wife’s chagrin, “This isn’t really a church!” I walked into a small upper room chapel. My eyes were drawn towards the kliros where there was a small, three person choir. Later, I realized through experience that this was most likely comprised of the priest’s wife, the reader and one other faithful. I said, once again, teasing my wife, “this isn’t really a choir!” And then I heard them sing, “Rejoice, thou through whom God will flash forth. Rejoice, revival of fallen Adam, Rejoice redemption of the tears of eve, Rejoice thou through whom the curse will cease, Rejoice thou Bride unwedded.” These words resonated deep within me. I had never heard such words before, nor did I know you could use language to describe the indescribable. I was cut to the quick. All my life, I’ve suffered from dyslexia, and it has caused me embarrassment and shame, to say the least. And once again, I heard the choir sing, “She [the Mother of God] makes most eloquent orators as dumb as fish.” Then I knew where the genuine expression of human intelligence was truly to be found, within the Mother of God, she who causes the Sun to appear.

By this time, I had warmed up to this little church, where it seemed the whole of creation resided. Around that time, the priest walked out of the Royal Doors with the censer filled with frankincense, and fragrant smoke filled the air. Once again, the evil one whispered in my ear, “Incense is no good. It must be masking the smell of something else.”

Then I looked towards the priest, and I saw on the icon screen an icon of St. Moses the Black, beside the icon of the Mother of God. There he was, an image that looked like me. His hair was curly, his nostrils were flared and his skin tone was the same as mine. On the other side of the priest, beside an icon of Jesus, was one of St. Cyprian of Carthage. He reminded me of the way my brother Gary looked – handsome and stern. I turned my gaze back to St. Moses, and it seemed he was saying to me, “Welcome home. We are the flowers in God’s garden that you’ve been looking for.”

I thought perhaps this was some kind of evangelical outreach to the Black community, and I said as much to the dear priest. These icons, he replied, are part of the Church, in recognition of our elder brothers and sisters from all over the world, who’ve gone on before us. Icons, I later learned, were much like family portraits of loved ones, which inspire and raise us up towards Heaven.

That was the evening I made up my mind to become part of the Orthodox Church. I’d almost forgotten this experience by the time I visited Uncle Fred, but now I think of his admonition to me very often. This is, in fact, “the best church in the world.”

I forgive you, my dear

Yesterday, a group of children whom I hadn’t seen for several weeks came by my house to pay me a visit. They were pretty amazed by my new electric wheelchair and the new sidewalk in front of the house. Unlike many adults who saw this sidewalk and thought, “it’s too bad about Fr. Moses, but quite convenient for him to get to the road, so he can easily drive his wheelchair to church,” one little boy said, “that looks like fun! Can I drive the chair down there?” This little boy was excited – how different a child’s perspective can be!

This reminded me of many times when my mother lamented over the fact that we were poor, but I never thought of us that way. We always had everything we needed, and more. It wasn’t until I entered high school and started comparing our situation with some of my contemporaries’, that I realized we were, indeed, poor.

Back to the children. After each one had told me about all their adventures, from capturing fireflies in a jar to making hideouts in the nearby woods, we got down to more serious business. One asked if he could make Confession, and they all joined in. “Have you prepared yourself to make Confession?” I asked, suspecting that they’d likely been prompted by their parents to make the request. Than I gave them a little instruction, as is fitting for children. I went through the Commandments: “Have you lied?” Have you stolen? Have you been covetous? Have you forgiven everyone that has offended you, hurt your feelings or even done you wrong?” One of the older children asked what I meant. Then I changed my tone, from being the jovial grandfather to the more serious spiritual father, and said, “Let me tell you a story.”

“Do you remember the nursing home we went to last year to sing Christmas carols to the elderly and infirm?” The children remembered. “Well,” I continued, “I used to go there every other week to visit. There was one lady I always paid special attention to because she was my mother’s friend and I grew up around her and her family. Her children were my classmates. She was always so happy to see me, and to reminisce about the times she and my mother, both expert bakers, used to make cakes and pies to order and sell them for special occasions to the wealthier people in our town. This lady and I always had a pleasant time, and she’d fill in many gaps and awaken sweet memories of days gone by. One night, I got a call from the nursing home that the lady was dying and I rushed over to her bedside. She was near to death and I could hear the death rattle. She gently squeezed my hand and said, ‘I don’t have long.’ I asked, ‘Do you have anything against anyone.’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you forgiven everyone?’ ‘Everyone but my sister, and I will not forgive her for what she did to me.’ Her sister was executor of the their family estate. and it had always been known in the family that when the parents died, the farm, property and cattle would go to all three sisters. However, the oldest sister, the executor, kept it all to herself and didn’t share one bit with her siblings.”

By this point in my story, the listening children were still as statues. I continued. “The lady said, ‘I refuse to let her off the hook for all the pain she’s caused us. My family would have been much better off had she had done the right thing.’ I reminded her that she’d done a good job raising her children. They never lacked for much and turned out to be upstanding people in the community. She said, as she was about to die, ‘I will not forgive her.”‘

I told the children that the lady had died with a grimace on her face, and her mouth wide open in pain and woe. “You must forgive everyone who trespasses against you,” I said, “so that your reward in Heaven may be great. It’s just like the new sidewalk. When the concrete is newly poured, you can easily straighten out the flaws and make it smooth. But once it starts to harden, that’s more difficult, and you can get stuck in your sin. So prepare yourself for your Confession.”

Like hardened concrete, our deeply held resentments become part of how we are constructed, and breaking them up could destroy the false reality we’ve built. We hold fast, like my old friend, to what we’re used to, what could become part of our core belief. May God grant that we are given the strength to forgive, to be straightened and smoothed, to enter Eternal Life.

photo: Fr. Moses and a couple of young parish members, years ago.