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.
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….”