Is It Easy to Be Orthodox in America?

A conversation with Archpriest Peter Perekrestov


This is a continuation of the conversation with Archpriest Peter Perekrestov, the cleric of the Cathedral in honor of the icon of the Mother of God "Joy of All Who Sorrow" in San Francisco about the specific differences inside Orthodoxy on American soil and what challenges it is now facing. 

The first part of the conversation can be found here:

Cathedral in San Francisco in honor of the icon of the Mother of God "Joy of All Who Sorrow"

Source: (Russian)

Consecration of the site for the new American Orthodox Church in Salt Lake City (Parish of the Archdiocese of Antioch in the USA), Utah. Photo by Kenesh Hoagland

In America, there is no concept of "dropping by church."

- Father Peter, what is it like to be Orthodox in America now? Has it become more difficult to profess the Orthodox faith recently, or has nothing fundamentally changed?

- Many people do not know, but Orthodoxy in America is on the rise today. Many Americans are converting to Orthodoxy. Let me give you just such an example: in the south of the United States there was a very revered American bishop of the Orthodox Church in America, Archbishop Demetrius (Royster), who in 30 years opened about 60 completely new Orthodox American parishes in the southern states. Vladyka Demetrius is indeed considered the "apostle" of the southern states of the United States. 

The southern states - Mississippi, Utah, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Oklahoma - are not Hollywood or the America of the big cities. They form the so-called "Bible Belt", which is mainly composed of Baptists. Baptists, as a rule, are people who sincerely love (albeit in their own way and outside the true Church) Christ and the Holy Scriptures, and in this "Bible belt" there is a huge potential for Orthodoxy. When these Baptists convert to Orthodoxy, they retain the same love for Christ, the same knowledge of the Holy Scriptures that they had before, but now they acquire the true Church, catholic and apostolic, the Church's fullness is revealed to them, including the world of the Holy Fathers. ... These Baptist converts are actively preaching Orthodoxy, telling their friends and colleagues at work, and neighbors about the faith. Plus, if earlier they gave tithes at the Baptists, then they will obligatorily give a tenth of their income to their new Orthodox parish. This material support allows the missionary work to grow.

Another example. In San Francisco, the choir director of the Slavic choir at the early Liturgy is not a native of Russia and not a descendant of old emigrants, but a thoroughbred American, John. He himself studied the Church Slavonic language and church charter and now directs the church choir, which sings in Church Slavonic. For 6-7 years of managing the choir, he never missed the Liturgy (except when he was on vacation) and was not late for it. He is married to an Orthodox widow, also an American, and they have three children.

In a word, absolutely amazing people are converting to Orthodoxy in America , each has a unique path, a unique history. I am amazed at how intelligent they are, as a rule, and how consciously they made the decision to convert to Orthodoxy. After all, for them Orthodoxy is not a tradition, not a part of their own, American culture; they sometimes encounter misunderstandings on the part of their loved ones, in their families, family members sometimes even turn away from them...

In our cathedral, services are mostly in Church Slavonic. It would seem, why do these Orthodox Americans need such a “headache” — long services, everyone is standing, the language is incomprehensible. But these Orthodox Americans have an amazing love for Russian Orthodoxy, and through Orthodoxy, for Russia! A couple of years ago, a priest from America, Father Joseph Gleason, moved to Yaroslavl with his family. He is a purebred American, he came to Russia for permanent residence, and he has eight children. For Americans, he created a new, stunningly interesting site in English - about Orthodoxy, the site is called "Russian Faith".

Even 25 years ago, they said that Orthodoxy is the best-kept secret in America! And now, more or less every large city has Orthodox churches. In our diocese, half of the clergy are Americans, from the Catholic or Anglican Churches. Thanks in part to the internet, much is easy to learn and see. 

- And what is the reason that so many Americans began to convert to Orthodoxy?

- Americans in general are religious people. You know, in America, for example, there is no concept of “dropping by church”. That is, a person does not come to church to light a candle or sit on a bench, but comes to the service. According to official statistics, in the United States, about 40% of Americans go to (not drop by) church services weekly (in England, for example, 1% of the population does this!), And they are present at the service from beginning to end. 

- But why are people expressly converting to Orthodoxy? Or are basically as many people converting to Catholicism?

- I want to clarify: when they say that many are converting to Orthodoxy, they mean “many” not in quantitative terms, but in percentages.

I am friends with an Orthodox priest in Salt Lake City. This year on Holy Saturday he baptized 28 people at once, all adults who had passed the catechesis. Another priest I know from Riverside (near Los Angeles) is a very brave man; he has 10 children, all of them were educated at home, and his catechism - preparation for baptism - lasts all year round: 12 months. If someone does not want to go through the catechism, this priest does not baptize such people, he says: "Go to another church." His catechumens must go to catechetical talks every Wednesday all year round, and every Sunday they must come to the Liturgy. And he also baptizes adults once a year - on Holy Saturday. He hast not had more than 50 people at once, but there have been 40 people in one year more than once. Imagine: 40 people a year is 400 people in 10 years, and conscious and active believers moreover!

Why do they convert to Orthodoxy? At times, some Catholic or Protestant communities deviate from traditional foundations, especially with regard to marriage and gender issues. And for some of the parishioners, this is simply deadly. They can no longer remain in a church that makes Scripture fit to their ideas. And then these people begin a certain crisis and at the same time a search, as a result of which they can come to Orthodoxy.

We have an individual approach to each person who comes to church. The Orthodox Church does not make political statements, does not engage in moralizing. The tradition of the Church is the teaching of Christ, and the Orthodox Church tries to be faithful to this Tradition. True, in America there are different Orthodox jurisdictions, including more liberal ones, some of them make concessions. It is quite sad when unexpected calls are heard from the mouths of Orthodox priests, which can be interpreted as concessions in matters of marriage and gender. For example, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) recently wrote a foreword to the next issue of The Wheel magazine, which discussed the issue of same-sex “marriage”. It is very regrettable that in this text he expressed himself rather ambiguously and seductively. Perhaps the reason is that he is from an academic background. It is very important for people who teach in or studied in well-known educational institutions to be recognized in this environment. There is such pressure that it is very difficult to resist them: either you have to be silent, or if you speak up, then you have to make compromises.

This sort of thing also happens. Sometimes people come to us in San Francisco and cry, describing what is happening in their parish, who in their parish (for example, "registered" same-sex couples) are allowed to take Communion ... These visitors are very embarrassed by this phenomenon. Thank God that this is still an exception for the Orthodox, as I believe. 

Now, in any city church (and not only there), the parishioners' son or daughter can declare their, as they say, “non-traditional orientation”. And if there are already several such children among the parishioners? What should they do then? How can they avoid pushing them away from the Church, how should the priests act, how can they not compromise, how can they find the right words and the right approach to give people the opportunity to stay in the Church and be saved?

- Those who choose this "non-traditional orientation" for themselves have already left the Church! Are there instances when they are admitted to Communion?

- Alas, in some cases they are admitted, even people who are openly in cohabitation with their "partner". It is not yet a powerful movement, but it takes place in some liberal jurisdictions of the Local Orthodox Churches. This is such a challenge, and we must find a language of how to speak worthily on this topic, and at the same time find a way to the hearts of people so that they adhere to the teachings of Christ. The Lord did not come to save the righteous, but sinners; The Lord does not call for sacrifice, but for mercy. And Christ always instructs sinners: "Go and sin no more!"

What is Orthodoxy? It is the unchanging faith of Christ in a changing world. And at every time the Church and its representatives must find a suitable language for communicating with people, must find an approach, on the one hand, uncompromising, and on the other hand, such that touches hearts and ignites them with the desire to live according to the Gospel. 

Marriage is not a license for sexual indulgence

A wedding in San Francisco

- But those who begin to adhere to a "non-traditional orientation" are already deviating from the teachings of Christ.

- Alas, this is basically done by every person who enters into fornication or simply commits the sin of fornication. After all, fornication for a Christian is a non-traditional orientation in the Gospel, alien to us. In principle, fornication and “non-traditional orientation” are from the same category - the category of carnal passion, although, of course, there is a difference. But is fornication a natural thing for a Christian to do?

In my opinion, it all starts with the destruction of the institution of the family. This is where we really fail. We get divorced, we do not create a home church, we cheat, we are addicted to pornography ... It seems to me that the key point in our relationship to the family and to gender is the issue of chastity. This is the main question. When we receive an answer to this very question: “What is the place of chastity in the teaching of Christ, in the life of Christians?”, everything falls into place.

It should also be taken into account that sometimes in our Orthodox families there are perversions in the intimate life of spouses. This is hushed up, and we do not talk about it from the ambo, we cannot ... There are perversions after which, according to the rules of Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, one cannot receive communion for six years! And our Orthodox people do not know about this, or maybe they do not even suspect it! Or they say: "But I / my husband likes it!" Modern films often show these perversions. If earlier in the cinema a love scene began with a kiss, now it is with something else...

When people get married, we pray that the Lord will keep their bed undefiled. Marriage is not a license to sexual indulgence. When we ourselves pervert this closeness in family life, it is not surprising that perversion penetrates further and further and leads to even greater perversions, including perversion in the "same-sex" plane.

- So the identity crisis starts with the family?

- It amazes me that a modern person cannot tell what he is - a man or a woman! How did we get to this state? When I was growing up, this question was not asked at all: who am I - a man or a woman? For many years in the West there has been a process of feminization of men: men are becoming irresponsible, indecisive, they have ceased to be leaders in the family. I know adults who are in high positions, get good salaries, but play video games, watch pornography. How can you build a family and society on such a man? This is a Russian problem, it is true that outwardly men are "masculine", but in terms of determination, responsibility, leadership, example in abstinence and moderation, we have a complete crisis.

Conversely, many women have now become masculine. Not in an asceticism, as in the liturgical writings, but in aggressiveness. They have ceased to be gentle and meek. They try to get their way, they nag their husbands, and so on. True, due to the fact that men "gave up" their positions as leaders, as examples, as guardians, women involuntarily had to play the role of not only mother, but also take on the role of father! And now the children live in such a society where a weak, effeminate man and a mother, both defeated by the passions, make all the decisions. Maybe she is forced to do this, but it turns out to be a mess, the structure of the family as a home Church is destroyed. The devil benefits from this disaster. Hence, in particular, the modern identity crisis.

Today, the topic of identity is practically the No. 1 topic in the West: who am I? Since man has departed from God, he is looking for: who am I - a man, or a woman, or something else? Where is my place in this world? A modern person, if he goes anywhere without his phone, is confused: without a navigator he immediately loses the road, does not know where he is, where he needs to go and when he will get there. But our real "navigator" in life is, of course, the Lord God. And while the Lord God was our Navigator, people knew who they were, where they were, knew their place, knew where they were going and how to get there. In order for a person to fully understand his humanity and his place in this world, a starting point is needed - and this point, of course, is God. And now a considerable part of humanity has abandoned this Navigator!

- In general, in America, the rejection of gay marriages and the like does not yet affect one's ability to adhere to your faith, to go to church?

- It doesn't affect one's ability to go to church at all. San Francisco is a fairly liberal city. Once I thought: what would I answer to a person who would come to us and say that you are backward and your church needs to be closed? I would probably say the following: “First, be a little more tolerant. If you say that our church should be removed, then you have no tolerance. If you really want diversity in our city, do not close our church, otherwise all people will be the same and the city will cease to be “tolerant”. " I can also sometimes say to these people: "Be a little more open-minded!" And that, of course, pisses them off. After all, it seems to them that they are the most open-minded, and we are narrow retrogrades.

In the Russian Church Abroad, our Orthodox clergy, as a rule, always walk down the street in cassocks. I cannot speak for all of America, only California, but the attitude towards me as a priest is very friendly. However, in San Francisco I am sometimes perceived as ... an old hippie. I am “cool” because I have long hair and this “robe” is also interesting. We love interesting, diverse and colorful people.

The Lord has put in this situation, and we must find a way out

Archpriest Peter Perekrestov

- But this diversity is within strictly established frameworks, and this tolerance, it seems to me, has its own clear boundaries, beyond which it turns into its opposite - into intolerance towards what lies behind them. That is, it is a very cunning ideology: diversity without real diversity.

- Yes, but the Lord put us in this situation, and we must somehow find a way out. We have no choice. There is more choice in Russia. If you take Moscow, there are thousands of churches and a great variety. There are very different priests, sometimes with completely polar views.

I myself ended up in San Francisco not because of a conscious choice, but by the will of fate. And since the Lord put me here, then I must work out my salvation under these conditions and, if possible, help other people in this. Among those who come to our cathedral (including guests from Russia) there are also people with “non-traditional orientation”. We must listen to them and determine whether they have a desire to live in purity and follow the Word of God, whether there is repentance and a thirst for a new life, and if so, then help them along the way. However, did you know that before his conversion to Orthodoxy, Eugene Rose, the future hieromonk Seraphim, suffered and succumbed to "non-traditional" addictions?

- No, I didn't know.

- He writes about this in his letters that have been published. However, when Eugene Rose converted to Orthodoxy, he, naturally, completely abandoned these attachments and remained pure. Whether or not he continued his internal struggle with this passion and sinful thoughts, it is questionable, not for me to know. But even about many of the saints whom we see on the walls of the temple, we do not know what their main passion was, with which they fought. Father Seraphim overcame his passions, renounced the "old man" and became a faithful zealot of Orthodoxy and a missionary, reached the real heights of spiritual life.

Of course, today society, especially in large cities, is pushing people towards this lifestyle. It is fashionable among girls to have “this sort of” a male friend, because he is not a threat to them. Plus, he reveals to girls the secrets of the male world, which is especially interesting for girls. But if we can tell young people who succumbed to this attraction, this passion, that such a zealot of piety, like Father Seraphim (Rose), also suffered from this in his youth, that he, like you, also had similar temptations, but he overcame with God's help, it will be a great help for young people and give hope. Such people also need heroes who have overcome their passions.

Many Americans feel internally that their country is fundamentally changing and sometimes has already changed, that something bad is happening, and they are trying to resist this bad thing.

- Is resisting these disastrous changes working? In what way?

- For example, in America now there is a very powerful movement for home education of children. More than 2 million children are officially homeschooled. This indicates that the level of education is falling, sometimes learning turns into indoctrination. It also speaks of the desire of parents to take the formation and upbringing of children into their own hands, and not blindly trust the system. For us Christians, the word "education" comes from the word "image". The closer we are to the image of God, the more we are educated.

We have a parish in the Western American Diocese that is made up mostly of former Protestants. The parish opened a full-fledged private parish school (something like Orthodox gymnasiums in Russia) in its region, and there are quite a few agnostics and people either indifferent to religion or interested in the New Age movement. And suddenly the local population began to show an active interest in this school, and there were then about 30-40 children studying. The priest and the school administration had a question: should non-Orthodox children be admitted to the parish school? We decided to accept it. Now there is a queue for this school, an enrollment, a second building is being built, so many people who want to study in it. And already four unbelieving families who sent their children to this school have converted to Orthodoxy.

And the problem of "non-traditional orientation", about which we have talked a lot now, is not relevant for our parish. At this stage, it is rather a problem of modern society, which our families and our children have to face.

- Excuse me, I will ask this, perhaps not very pleasant question: what if the situation comes to the point that you have to flee from America, leave? Could it be that the pressure will reach such an extreme degree?

- I prefer not to think too much about the future, in advance. I prefer to act in an evangelical way: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all this will be added to you. So, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of its own: every day has enough of its own concern ”(Matthew 6: 33-34).

I generally do not like to compare where is it better, where is it worse. After 55 years of life, it seems to me, everything is getting better. It is enough for me to live today, I myself have to prepare for death. I love California, I love Russia, I love the Holy Land and Athos - everywhere it is good, and everywhere you can learn something. And if difficult times come (does the world not live constantly in crises and difficult times?), I will hope that the Lord God will show us what to do and what to say. But keep in mind that a military man cannot flee from his post and a family man cannot leave his children.

A friend of mine said the other day: “You have earthquakes in California. Are you not afraid? " I answered him: “I'm afraid - I'm not afraid ... but if the Lord put me here, how can I abandon the relics of Vladyka John? Will I run away, and all the parishioners and spiritual children will perish? This is somehow not very good for a pastor, not in an evangelical manner. "

In America Orthodoxy is new, like a child

- What other specific features or problems are there that are characteristic of Orthodoxy in America?

- American Orthodoxy is very diverse. In Russia, one might say, Orthodoxy is mature, historical, it is more than a thousand years old. In Russia there are ancient monasteries, numerous relics; the Russian land is saturated with the blood of the new martyrs - this is something amazing. But at the same time here the Church is very strongly connected with the state. Such a phenomenon is inevitable; it is the norm in Orthodox countries, as, for example, in Greece or Cyprus. And in America, Orthodoxy is new, like a child. Yes, children make many mistakes, but at the same time they have some kind of spontaneity, openness and gullibility. The late Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) once said at the congress of his Antiochian American Archdiocese: “I have been at many celebrations and at many solemn services, where there were thousands of believers, I was in Lebanon, in the Trinity-Sergius Lavra and in different places, but I have not seen the Orthodox Church more dynamic than in America ”.

Each Local Orthodox Church has its own face and its own "handwriting". Our ever-memorable Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev) loved to repeat the words of Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern) that each Local Church makes its own contribution to the Ecumenical: the Greeks gave theology to Ecumenical Orthodoxy, the Russians - piety, and the Serbs are the defenders of Orthodoxy: Serbs may not go to church but they will lay down their lives for the Orthodox Church. And American Orthodoxy also has something to offer this ecumenical bouquet - freshness and dynamism.

I think and believe that the growth of Orthodoxy in America will continue in the future. It is too early to give up on America, on Canada - with God's help, everything is possible in this world.

In general, my attitude is not at all pessimistic: I see a lot of positive things around me, and people sometimes surprise me a lot. Maybe I'm naive ... But you know the words of Elder Paisius that a bee, flying over a field of manure, finds a flower, unlike a fly that finds manure among a field of flowers. So at some point in my life I decided that I wanted to be a bee.

The Apostle Paul says: "Rejoice with unspeakable joy," and the Paschal prokimenon says: "This day, for which the Lord has created, let us rejoice and be glad in it." "This" day - without reservation, whether it is good, bad, or dangerous. The Lord created this day, gave us life on this very day, and we must in these circumstances in which we are, to be saved, asking ourselves the question: "What does the Lord God want from me today?" Amen.

 Yuri Pushchaev spoke with Archpriest Peter Perekrestov on October 15, 2018

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