These are extracts from recent postings to the OPF's e-mail discussion list. If you are an OPF member and wish to take part, contact Mark Pearson or Jim Forest.
In July, at Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, the North American branch of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship had its annual conference. The theme, "Salt of the Earth, Light of the World: Living the Similitude's in our Communities," focused on gathering and expanding a variety of Orthodox social outreach ministries.
The main speaker was Joe May, founder of Matthew 25 House of Hospitality in Akron, Ohio, who spoke on "Voluntary Simplicity in Christian Life and Witness." Joe sold his own home and car to fund Matthew 25 house, which offers transitional housing for men in need. He explained how, through the inspiration of various saints and a priest, he was called to start this mission.
The other main speaker was Fr. Paisius Altschul of the Kansas City Reconciliation Ministries. He spoke on "The Icon of God: Getting Beyond 'Us' and 'Them'." His workshop focused on creating community through tolerance and overcoming racism. He explained how the local Orthodox churches share the love of Christ by serving meals and offering fellowship to residents in the aged and run-down neighborhood, reminding us that we are all made in the image of God and that Christ transcends country, culture and class.
Other ministries included:
- Ss Peter & Paul OCA Cathedral of Detroit reaches out to its Latino neighborhood by offering a free after-school ministry two days a week.
- St. John the Compassionate Mission of Toronto runs a homeless ministry serving meals, helping with services and generally acting as advocates for those in need.
- Fr. Paul O'Callaghan and Renee Croitoru represented "The Treehouse," a project of Orthodox Family Ministries in Wichita, Kansas, which assists mothers and their babies who are enduring difficult circumstances.
- Patrick Tutella has worked in the Prison System for 26 years, establishing a ministry composed of Orthodox families who meet monthly with recently paroled prisoners and their families for dinner and support. He is works with local parishes to establish prison ministries.
- "Souls in Motion Project" is a non-profit outpatient psychiatric facility serving the Harlem community. Artist Julia Raboteau helps provide a place to awaken and nourish the spirit through painting, cooking, writing, sewing, and music. She also encourages time for silence and reflection in this place that welcomes each individual.
How wonderful to have become aware of all these great ministries being led by Orthodox Christians across the United States and Canada.
A lasting impact:
I just returned from the OPF conference and can't say enough about what an awesome experience it was! Such an edifying group of people, nourishing discussion on issues relevant to what we are all living (or trying to live!) as Orthodox Christians, and a chance to learn about the inspiring work others are doing.
I told Sheri (an extraordinary woman!) that I would be glad to help the OPF from Canada in any way I can, perhaps as a contact for others in Canada.
The OPF weekend will have lasting impact on my life, and will have opened doors for St. John's in terms of its presence in the context of global Orthodoxy. It's only a matter of time before each person on our planet will be either a giver or a receiver of a "social service" of some kind, the way the world is going. The "communion of community" is becoming a greater and greater need every day, even to people who may not realize it yet. I consider it a great privilege to work and pray and share the peace of Orthodox faith with the world at large through the OPF, as well as through the opportunities God places before us each day.
The conference was joyful. It was meeting the other people that was so wonderful. To learn how people were doing them in Orthodox churches and how they were relating them to Orthodox theology, that was truly interesting. I thank God for the presence of each person who attended. Many of us are middle aged or older, but it was a group of people with open, child-like eyes. I felt the connection.
Better than a vacation
The conference was informative, inspiring and spiritually refreshing. As an added bonus, I received some insight and inspiration from the other attendees regarding new directions for one of our outreach ministries. This conference was better than a vacation.
Last Sunday, leaving church with my godmother, I noticed that someone had dropped a couple of pieces of prosphora in the parking lot. Early on in my Orthodox life I'd gotten a very serious lecture from one of our babas (now reposed), who told me how important it was never never never to treat blessed bread disrespectfully or casually. So I picked up the dropped bread, including all the crumbs I could find, made the sign of the Cross, and ate it. My godmother then told me that in her childhood this was the way all bread was treated, not just blessed bread from church - none of it could ever be thrown away. If it got moldy or was completely unusable, it was burned. Her aunts used to tell her that this was because Christ had given Himself to us through bread.
I do have times when I feel discouraged, especially when I am tired. Yet, as life goes on I feel that I am moving towards greater hope, and seeing greater goodness in the world. My gosh, everywhere I go, I meet people who are doing good, are socially involved and care about the world (the OPF conference in August was a wonderful example of this). I am convinced that part of the delusion of Satan, the delusion of the veil of evil that covers this world is that we believe that evil is "winning." In a sense we may have more "faith" in evil than in goodness or truth. The verse I have been pondering for the last couple of years is the one that says when sin abounds, grace abounds even more (Romans 5:20). Does not good overcome evil? If not, God is a liar - heaven forbid that we should believe this!
I have been reading more about St Julian of Norwich lately and meditating on her words. Here is something she learned in one of 16 "showings":
"We see so much evil around us, so much harm, that we think it impossible that there is any good in this world. We look at this in sorrow and mourn so that we cannot see God as we should. This is because we use our reason so blindly, so unfully ... that we are unable to know the marvelous wisdom, capability and goodness of the joyful Trinity."
Kids and military service
John asked: "My question was, what is the situation of a young man who can't honestly say that he believes all wars to be wrong?"
He can - very honestly - say that he cannot serve two masters. "for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13) I would like to add: You cannot serve God and Uncle Sam. In the event that the worldly ruler is an Orthodox Christian and therefore has Christ as his own master, this may not hold, because in that case, at least theoretically, the young man would only serve one master.
I don't know enough to have a well-informed opinion about military chaplains. I only have questions:
1. If the right role of chaplains is to prevent the soldiers from losing their humanity and to help them on their way to Christ, why would secular governments want them around when ordering people to kill, much less pay them? Does not usefulness to country in part require at least a temporary suspension of humanity? Why would secular governments employ people to preserve the humanity of soldiers in combat, much less help them on their way to Christ? Or do secular governments hire them to serve a different agenda?
2. Is it more destructive to our humanity to kill without hating, or to hate those we kill? As many see it, why should the former feel guilt at all? Who are harder to reach with the gospel of Christ incarnate in each person - those who see no evil when indifferent to those they kill, or those who know their hearts were not pure when they took the lives of others? Does teaching soldiers to kill without hating prepare them to receive the gospel, or inoculate them against it?
A former chaplain's response
When you say "chaplains," please realize that you are describing a collection of ordained ministers from a variety of backgrounds, so any generalization will not be very accurate in details. In my military branch, the Army, the chaplaincy is dominated by Baptists, Pentecostals, and assorted evangelicals. There are some outside this category - a handful of Roman Catholics, a few Jews, a sprinkling of liberal Protestants, and fewest of all - Orthodox. But such non-conformists are merely there for window dressing, barely tolerated by the majority fundamentalists in order to give Congress and the courts the impression that the chaplaincy is diverse. (I understand from colleagues in the Navy that their chaplaincy is much more balanced. I have no idea of the situation in the Air Force.)
In my estimation, the dominant brand of Army chaplains is rarely troubled by the morality of war and chaplains' role in it. I know I was not so troubled for the decade that I was a Protestant Army chaplain. (I definitely sense the tension now that I am Orthodox.) They tend to see America as good in all that it does. So if the President of the United States of America starts a war, and America is good, then that war must be just - especially if the President starting the war is a fellow evangelical, and earnestly prayed about his decision. That may sound naive and simplistic to OPF readers, but that is precisely how they see it.
I have heard of a few cases where evangelical Army chaplains became ridiculously nationalistic and de-sensitized. I understand that, during the Vietnam war, a chaplain in an infantry battalion in the 101st Airborne had his picture taken with an M-16, wearing ammunition belts criss-crossed over his chest like Poncho Villa, and a helmet that said, "Kill A Commie For Christ." When that picture wound up on the cover of Life magazine, the senior chaplains at the Pentagon tried to have him court-martialed. But the infantry chain-of-command loved him because he was apparently extremely brave, and they gave him a Silver Star medal instead. I knew some chaplains who took much greater pride in the airborne wings on their chests, and the ranger tabs on their shoulders, than they did pondering the cross on their collars. Those chaplains are probably the type that one OPF contributor saw blessing atrocities in Serbia.
But chaplains like that are the exception. Most chaplains, including the fundamentalists, are actually there to minister to the spiritual needs of soldiers. I spent the vast majority of my time doing marriage counseling. This is not surprising since the Army has a horrendous divorce rate. I also visited the sick and dying, intervened in a couple of suicides, prayed with those who had lost loved ones, did a lot of funerals, and attended to mundane administrative duties. There wasn't much war-mongering going on.
Even in the current war, chaplains weren't exactly beating the drums. One of my most poignant memories was just hours before the beginning of Operation Desert Storm. I met with a large group of chaplains in my area. We all expected chemical weapons to be unleashed on us, and heavy casualties to result. So we coordinated what we would do, where we would go, who we could get help from, etc. But in our final prayer before adjourning the meeting, the senior chaplain pointed out that, just as we expected to sustain heavily casualties that night, there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi soldiers who were also preparing to die in the coming days. Most of them were draftees, probably hungry and thirsty, with little choice of being where they were, most of them somebody's husband or son, who probably hated Saddam. The chaplain pointed out that Jesus commanded us to pray for our enemies, and so that's what we were going to do right now. At the end of his eloquent prayer for our fellow human beings in Iraqi uniforms, nearly all of us were sobbing. Nobody in that room was blessing the killing.
The historic reason that the U.S. government has always had chaplains in the armed forces is to ensure that soldiers have the opportunity to freely exercise their chosen religious faith while in combat, the same way they have a right to three meals a day and adequate medical care. For the first hundred years or so, chaplains were not paid by the government, but were allowed to "tag along" like embedded reporters today. The U.S. government has seriously entertained the idea of abolishing the chaplaincy. There was a court challenge to the military chaplaincy in the '80s, based on the separation of church and state. The chaplaincy won that case, but not by much.
From my 20 years' experience as an Army chaplain, I think the chaplaincy is having a harder and harder time justifying its existence to anybody. Through World War II, the overwhelming majority of generals and average soldiers were regular church-goers, so the chaplaincy had a strong case to exist. But, just as American society is rapidly becoming secularized, so is the Army. By the time I retired, I noticed that most of the soldiers attending services were older. It was increasingly rare for a soldier in his teens or 20's to attend services. The leaders of the Army chaplaincy see this and are always looking for new ways to seem more relevant in a rapidly secularizing Army, focusing more and more on counseling (which is in huge demand, unlike religious services). But I think it will be an uphill struggle in the long run.
The Army's fondness for the chaplaincy is cooling. About ten years ago, the Army's Engineer branch redesigned their organizational structure, deciding how many bulldozer operators and demolitions experts they needed in their line battalions. Without telling the Chaplains branch, the Engineer branch eliminated the chaplain slot from their battalion organizational chart, replacing the chaplain with a chemical officer. After this change was put in place, the Chaplain branch found out, went crazy, and successfully lobbied to have the chaplain slot restored. But the underlying message from the rationalistic engineers to the chaplains was: we don't value what you do.
Someday, those secular officers now in their 20s will be in their 50s and in charge of the Army. If current trends continue, those generals are as likely to be atheists or Muslims or Wiccans as Christians. They may decide that these quaint Christian chaplains can easily be replaced by counseling social workers.
Fr. John Brown