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