By Fr. Michael Simerick
I’m not an expert on matters of evangelism, yet the Scriptures are clear on calling us all to be instrumental in baptizing all nations in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In my 33 years of pastoral ministry, I had concluded, as I am sure many cradle Orthodox clergy and lay had, that I had been faithful to our Lord’s mandate to evangelize. Over the years I looked for opportunities to teach principles of the Orthodox faith to non-Orthodox, in particular those involved with members of my parish. I participated in ecumenical forums in order to provide Orthodox witness.
All of my counseling as a parish priest, and especially as a U.S. Navy chaplain for 20 years, was deliberately predicated on sound Orthodox theology. I did so, hoping that those who were not of the Orthodox faith might come to know something about Orthodoxy through their counseling experience. I attempted to serve the divine worship services with dignity and the solemnity they deserved that they not only be meaningful to Orthodox participants but also to non-Orthodox who might be present.
So confident was I that I was fulfilling our Lord’s mandate to make Orthodox Christians of all nations, that I became irritated when convert priests to our Orthodox faith reminded me personally or through group sharing of the greater need for concern regarding evangelism in our Church. I further justified my resentment to the notion that our Orthodox churches in America were falling short of their evangelistic responsibility by reflecting on my military experience. Many of the non-Orthodox chaplains with whom I served belonged to faith groups that almost exclusively existed for the purpose of evangelization. They would do anything to make converts, and yet from my observations, they would bring these converts into traditions that, it appeared to me, did not have sustaining faith values.
In addition, it became apparent to me that frequently the conversions obtained by these groups were the result of the charisms or personalities of the individual converters. In some instances these clergy evangelists would become lax in their faith, or being military chaplains, were transferred, causing their converts to suffer demoralization and the feeling of abandonment. The above factors led me to believe that by being open to conversion, but concentrating on the pastoral responsibilities I owed my congregation, my ministry was on target.
Realizing The Need For More Aggressive Evangelization
However, I began to slowly change my opinion and to see the need for a more thorough and aggressive plan for bringing people to Christ via the Orthodox faith. I began to realize that some non-Orthodox denominations and Satan himself were responsible for diminishing the zeal we Orthodox should have for evangelization. As cradle Orthodox priests and laymen, we have come to accept the notion that although we have the fullness of truth, other denominations also bear witness to truth. Add to this the current climate of political correctness and somehow the steam is taken out of our drive to evangelize.
Making one feel guilty for claiming their faith group teaches the fullness of the truth is a powerful weapon in defusing one’s zeal for evangelizing, especially living in a secular society that has adjusted to existing in the realm of half truths. Yet, this is our commission—to bring mankind to the knowledge of the truth that they might be saved through their death to the old man and rebirth of the new man in Christ Jesus.
Are we truly living in a Judeo-Christian society, or have the fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as its moral and ethical constructs, been compromised? I think most would agree that they have been compromised, not only in the society at large, but even in western Christianity and Judaism. Some western Christian denominations no longer believe in the Incarnation, the virgin birth, the divinity and the humanity of Christ’s natures. Many Christian and Jewish leaders alike have capitulated to granting homosexual marriage and ordination, and to supporting abortion. New Age narcissistic feel-good theologies have become the norm in some of more traditional western Christianity and Judaism. “If it feels good for me, it is right, and who are you to tell me otherwise?” Frequently, these non-Orthodox groups are offended when they hear us speak about having access via our Orthodox faith to the fullness of the truth.
Some of my non-Orthodox friends in the military were often infatuated with ancient Oriental religions in which Ying and Yang, meditation, fasting, and contemplation were all seen as worthwhile elements to be embraced. However, frequently these philosophies and disciplines were found to be ends in themselves. All of these factors began to disturb me, and it became evident that a real program of evangelization was needed.
Evangelization Possibilities In An Inner City Parish
Over four and a half years ago I was assigned to Saints Peter and Paul in Detroit, an inner city cathedral parish that rode out the collapse of the city’s infrastructure and now finds itself an island in a sea of mostly Hispanics who do not have a clue about Orthodoxy. Only a handful of the original Orthodox faithful live anywhere near the church complex. The questions became “What would God have us, the faithful of SS Peter & Paul, do?” He would certainly want us to try and bring back lapsed members and restore them to the parish rolls. He would desire that we seek out Orthodox Christians who were not participating in area churches and bring them into the fold. But most importantly, He would have us take seriously the humanity outside our church doors and convert them to the Holy Orthodox Catholic faith.
This point was made poignantly clear to us as a church community when we reflected on the gospel of Lazarus and the rich man, and heard it with new ears and new hearts. We concluded, “Are we not the rich eating lavishly from the altar table of our Lord and stepping over those outside our church doors who are starving for the Lord’s eternal sustenance?” This revelation made it clear to our parish members that we would not have a future unless we took the Lord’s commission seriously to go and baptize all nations. From this point on, evangelism took on a whole new meaning. We realized that God could not bless our endeavors unless we were obedient to His commandments—that He would not help us to reach out to others and bring them the life-changing faith of Orthodoxy unless our own parish life was in order. Therefore, the need was born to revitalize our parish and, by His grace, to develop a plan that we might fulfill His commission to evangelize.
In June of 1999, two of my parish council members and I were fortunate enough to participate in the first organized training seminar for evangelism and church growth sponsored by the OCA Office of Church Growth and Evangelism. The training program, termed “Boot Camp” was held from June 7-11,1999 at the Romanian Vatra in Grass Lake, Michigan. The fact that the training session was termed “Boot Camp” made it very easy for an old sailor like me to relate. The following is some of the information we discovered during that seminar:
For evangelism to be taken seriously in the parish and for it to be effective, a real plan is imperative.
The whole parish must be made aware of the importance of the program, and all the faithful must be willing to take ownership of it and participate in it.
In addition to recruiting converts, we must have in place a process for bringing them into the mainstream of parish life. The physical parish complex must be well maintained and conducive for church growth.
There is a scriptural adage that suggests new wine cannot be put into old skins. This might lead some to believe that old parishes cannot change their ethnic biases and become open to peoples of different ethnic and racial diversities. Yet if the old skin is lined with a new fervor to be faithful to Christ’s commission of baptizing all, then this transformation is possible.
Our plan for evangelization and church growth at SS Peter and Paul has become multifaceted. Due to our predominantly Spanish-speaking neighbors, akathist services in the Spanish language have been held periodically, particularly when the Weeping Icon of the Mother of God of Livonia can be present.
The following information relates to what our parish attempted to do in the past in order to foster better community relations, and what we are now attempting in our program of evangelization:
Food Distribution Center
For eleven years our parish offered its services as a food distribution center for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. We were there to help our neighbors, and in so doing, we avoided much of the damage that was done to other buildings in the area in the years when some struck out in restless rebellion. A few years ago, the St. Vincent de Paul Society closed the food program and moved to another area where they are concentrating on summer camps and clothing.
Head Start and Latch Key Program
We were then able to offer our building for a Head Start (Vistas Nuevas) Program where nearly 100 children from three to five years of age attend pre-school instruction from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. We are now contemplating initiating a Latch Key Program to accommodate the siblings of our Head Start children. The Latch Key Program will operate from 6:00-8:15 a.m. and from 3:30-6:00 p.m.
For several years now we have offered an Open House program around Halloween for adults and neighborhood children alike. The program consists of day-long events with sessions on the Orthodox faith and a Head Start orientation segment, lunch, pony rides, petting zoo, moonwalk, magician, clown, games and prizes. All is provided by our church free of charge. We publicize the event via posters, the distribution of flyers, and recently we have added a bulk mailing to all the residents in the area with information pertaining to the event. We have had as many as 300 in attendance at this event.
We have made some adjustments in the program since its inception. In the beginning, we attempted to offer informational sessions to the adults while the children partook of the other activities. However, the Spanish people, being very family-oriented, did not want to be separated from their children. Thus, we suffered poor attendance at the informational sessions. We corrected the format and now hold the information sessions for the whole family before lunch. Upon the completion of the session, the family receives tickets that enable them to participate in the rest of the day’s activities. It is important to emphasize that the tickets are free. We did have a few situations where families did not participate because they thought they would have to buy the tickets.
Advent / Nativity Concert
This past Advent/Nativity season, our choir conducted a concert on Sunday, December 16th at 3:00 p.m. Over 50 Hispanic parents and children attended the concert of traditional Orthodox Christmas music. Immediately following the concert, a punch and cookie reception was held in our parish hall. Santa distributed stuffed stockings to the children as they left the church.
Mexican Priest Assigned For The Summer
We have been fortunate to have the assistance of a St. Tikhon’s Seminary student, Fr. Emmanuel Rodriguez, recently ordained. He and his wife, Matushka Nancy, spent some of their winter and summer vacations with us prior to Fr. Emmanuel’s ordination. Fr. Emmanuel has recently been assigned to us for the second time in connection with the OCA Seminarian Internship Program. Now that Fr. Emmanuel will be with us for the whole summer, a full range of programs is planned: weekly “obednitsas” (pro-liturgies) in Spanish, orientation classes to the Orthodox faith in Spanish, door-to-door visitations of our Hispanic neighbors, translation of additional Orthodox materials into the Spanish language for distribution, and periodic articles in the local Hispanic paper regarding the Orthodox faith and programs offered at our parish. Two other programs being considered are classes in English as a second language and computer usage.
Obstacles To Evangelization
Recently we have been made aware of some of the obstacles preventing our Mexican brothers and sisters who live in the area around our church from coming to the Faith. We have found that those who left the Roman Catholic Church and have had some involvement with Protestant churches, see the Orthodox Church as simply another Roman Catholic Church, and they seek no information as to who we really are.
Disenchanted Roman Catholic Mexicans still attending the Roman Catholic Church view the Orthodox Church as a Roman Catholic imposter, and shy away from involvement.
Other Mexicans who have resettled here without a faith tradition frequently are enticed by the greater and greater opportunity to gain wealth and material luxuries. They are willing to work a six or seven day week in order to acquire “the good life.”
Although participation by the Hispanics in our parish life is slow in coming, we will not be discouraged. We recently had the baptism of an African American. We never know who will come to our doors or where the seed of faith will take root. Our parishioners are committed to opening our church doors to all. The Boot Camp experience of my parish representatives and the information imparted at those sessions made a favorable impact on my parish as a whole. Although we have the will to follow the gospel with regard to its emphasis on evangelism, change is always difficult, and for some members of the parish it is more difficult than for others. Our prayer is that our parish will always be here to reach out to the unchurched and to be a haven of salvation for its Orthodox members.
I believe we have entered a new era of evangelistic fervor because the present time is now the right time. Ultimately it is God who decides when the time is right for all that occurs. Many are searching desperately for the truth that only our holy Orthodox faith can provide. Let us courageously, with dedicated resolve, seek God’s guidance in bringing the unchurched to the knowledge of the truth that they might be born again of water and the spirit for their salvation and the building up of His Holy Church.
Fr. Michael Simerick is pastor of SS Peter and Paul Cathedral in Detroit, MI