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.”