Saturday, April 05, 2014

How Can We Attract People of Color to Orthodox Christianity

Today, someone suggested to me that the way to remove the eurocentrism of Orthodoxy in America is to convert more people of color and then the focus would change. I disagree. Removing the eurocentrism first would make it easier to interest more people of color to Orthodoxy. Right now, it is very unfriendly to many of us because of the eurocentrism that is present in so many Orthodox circles, groups, congregations. For instance, my child moved to a nearby city to go to college. It's our old hometown, but we hadn't lived there since before we joined the Orthodox Church. Fortunately, I knew where the nearest church was and it's a big congregation, so I was excited that my child might be able to go from being one of two young adults in our old congregation to a place where there were probably lots of others in that age range.

I contacted the church three times. I spoke to the secretary twice. I gave them my child's phone number and mine. I gave them our priest's name and told them which congregation we were from. I was told they'd call us both back and help find someone who might be willing to carpool to services with my child. They never called back even once. It was baffling to me.

I finally spoke to my priest about it, to see if he knew someone over there who could help my child get to meet some other Orthodox young people in the congregation. He had to tell me that we should probably contact the church that's farther out. Unfortunately, it's in the metropolitan area outside of the range of the public transportation. He said that the congregation we'd been trying to contact--It's a Greek Orthodox church--is notoriously insular and with a name like my child's, it was probably pretty unlikely that they'd call us back. My child's first name is Arabic with an Italian last name, so it's obvious that we're not Greek. My priest let me know that almost all of the non-Greek Orthodox in the city actually go to the Antiochian church, which is really mixed and friendly to converts of all races and backgrounds.

I can't even begin to explain just how mixed my emotions were about this. My child is an artist and the Greek church has a beautiful building of historic record in America. Our old church is a storefront in a strip mall and even on the "big holidays" we never have more than 150 people. We were really excited about the idea of worship for the first time in a church that looks like the beautiful ones we've longed to see all around the world. I remember that this same congregation had a yearly festival they put on and I went to it a few times when I was a young adult. It wasn't very friendly and I got very odd looks every time. However, when my  child moved, I'd gotten it into my head that those incidents had only happened because we weren't Orthodox and were obviously outsiders when we visited. I'd allowed myself to believe that now that we are Orthodox, of course they'd be welcoming and it would be wonderful and spiritually nourishing and just perfect, because my child could catch the bus there on the nice days and maybe find someone to ride with on the days when the weather was inclement. Well, I was wrong. Apparently, they're just not very welcoming people, regardless of whether they are (in theory) our sisters and brothers in the faith.

At the same time, I'm grateful that there is the Antiochian church in the city just beyond the one where my child's living. Before I even knew what Orthodoxy was, I'd visited there. My mentor in college who encouraged me to learn Arabic had suggested that I stop by the church to see if they might be able to help me get my hands on a copy of the Bible in Arabic. I was surprised that this church even existed in our area. I did try to drop by once or twice, but no one was there. It's nice to know that my child may be able to brush up on the language skills acquired from years of hearing me speak Arabic. And it's good to know that another option, besides the Greek church, exists. However, it's going to be impossible for my child to get there unless someone is willing to provide a ride back and forth and that may make it improbable to be as active as we were in our old congregation.

If the predominantly white Orthodox churches in West are this problematic, even toward people of color who ARE already converted, then it's going to remain highly unlikely to attract people of color who already have to deal with a boatload of poisonous eurocentrism in their everyday lives. The church is supposed to be where we want to run to when we're faced with the troubles of the world. It certainly shouldn't be a place that replicates those same troubles.

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