3.14.2018—Nicholas Sooy (“NS”) and Fr. Chad Hatfield (“CH”)
Well, this story that I’m about to tell is something that I shared here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary when OTSA was meeting, and I was asked to serve on a panel to discuss theology and politics. In fact, one sort of maneuvers through those things in different times and different places, and I actually shared a story from my own life of when my family and I—of course, this was “BC,” before conversion. We were Anglican missionaries serving in South Africa in the battle days of apartheid in the early 1980s.
Those were, of course, very difficult times in South Africa; but they were transitional times, as well. In 1983 was the first Tricameral Parliament, where people of Indian descent and people of mixed racial descent had their own branch of the legislative wing; but black Africans were, of course, still excluded. Part of life in South Africa in those days was that we were segregated by race in most contexts, except that in church, we easily broke out of that; and in church-owned schools, we did the same. By law, for me actually to pass into an area that was zoned for another race, I was supposed to go to the police department or station and get a permit. Early on, I decided I wasn’t going to bother with that just out of conscience’s sake. I thought it was ridiculous. I was actually only caught once—I got the red light when I was in an African township called Mamalode, and I flashed my American passport as ID. The guy asked me what I was doing there, and I said I had a meeting at a church. He said, “It’s very dangerous here,” and he gave me an escort. He didn’t bother even to look.
Where we lived was zoned by race. It was against the law for non-whites to live in a white neighborhood. We lived in a largely Afrikaans-speaking neighborhood; people were mostly of Dutch Reformed religious identity. I was really something kind of exotic there. They weren’t quite sure what to make of me. There were in the Afrikaans language a couple of words that were used then—swart gevaar, which is the “black danger,” and Roomse gevaar, which is the “Catholic Danger.” And, of course, they identified me as a Catholic priest because I wore a clerical collar and a cassock, and those kinds of things; so I was all part of the danger.
So one of the things that happened in that time is that I became acquainted with a young man whose name was Micheal. I don’t think I said it at OTSA, but his name almost ruined me for life. On his birth certificate, they flipped the “e” and the “a” for Michael, so his name was spelled differently than Michael is normally spelled; so almost to this day, when I write Michael, I have to pause and think which one to use. Micheal was African. His tribal group was Vadan, from up near the Mozambique border. He wanted to be a priest and go to seminary, but he needed to be tutored to sort of get up to speed for his studies. We arranged for Micheal simply to live with us. We had an extra room. When I say an extra room, by the way, most middle class/upper middle class South African homes were built with servants’ quarters. I’m not talking about putting Micheal in the servants’ quarters. Our servants’ quarters stayed basically as an empty attachment to the house. Micheal stayed in one of the bedrooms down the hall from us.
When I spoke to him, I said, “Well, okay, I can have you licensed as the gardener.” That would mean that he could stay there six nights during the week, but there would be one night when he was away. I will never forget his response, which was, “But Father, that would be a lie.” And I said yes, and he said, “But we’re Christians, and we don’t lie.” So I actually then said to him, “Well, yes. But Micheal, you know what will happen. If, in fact, we’re caught, I’ll soon be deported; but you’ll be arrested, and God knows what will happen to you or whether we would ever hear from you again. You could just disappear.” And he said, “That’s a risk Christians take—to stand on the side of that which is right.” Those were very humbling things for me. Because it was easy for me, you know, as a white guy with an American passport. For him, though, there could be a price; but you stood and did what was right. And not just what was right under the law, because the law was actually wrong; however, as a righteous Christian man, there are things that you do. And if you have to pay the price, then you pay the price.
We have a whole history of martyrs in our tradition. So Micheal was actually very bright. He picked things up very easily. He was very disciplined, very diligent. We were raided two times. Once it was at 2:00 a.m. And by the grace of God, Micheal wasn’t there; he was actually away visiting his mother. They’d picked the wrong time. Most likely our neighbors had turned us in, and that was just, again, part of life: people ratted on people. We know that from Nazi Germany, and from Communism, and from all of these things. This is what people did. The other time was—my wife should actually be here to tell this story—but it was something like 2:00 p.m. Micheal was at his desk, and my wife was in the kitchen. She looked out the front window and saw two guys coming up our front walk. She said they were always easy to identify because they always looked like Mormon missionaries. They were wearing navy blue suits and whatever else. And she thought, “Ah, here they are.” So she quickly grabbed the flour and threw it all over herself. She went to the door, and she put on her heaviest American accent. She only opened the door with the chain holding it, and she said, “I don’t know why you’re here; but whatever it is, you’ll have to come back later because, as you can see, I have a dinner party tonight, and it’s not going well. You’ll have to come back later.” And she closed the door. She then watched from the window, and they stood there a long time. Finally they just turned away. They were completely befuddled by the whole thing.
So there we are—both times. I suppose in reflecting on that in terms of theology, it’s kind of a classic example of lessons learned by people who are simply living the life under a regime like apartheid, which is so oppressive and so unjust. But there’s something deeper, I think, in that kind of experience, because there were a couple of times in which my life had become so comfortable in a church setting that I did forget; and I grew up hearing stories about parts of America where there would be signs that said “Whites Only” at the drinking fountain, or “Blacks Only” for a swimming pool, or something like that. So I was certainly aware of all of those kinds of things, knew about them. But I didn’t experience it until we moved to South Africa and began to see it, and at first it was very jolting.
There comes a time, especially when your world is very integrated and very secure, that you do become blind to that. No longer do the signs kind of glare at me. I had one experience that really jolted me back to reality, and it involved the equivalent of American eighth graders. I taught at the diocesan school for girls, which was a lovely experience for me. My wife and I both said if we had a daughter, we’d be proud to have her there. It went from kindergarten through high school seniors, so I had all grade levels. I had probably the coolest title I’ve ever had as a priest: I was the Divinity Master. But my group of eighth grade girls was totally integrated—I had girls of East Indian descent, girls of mixed races, African girls, English speaking white girls, Afrikaaners; and one Chinese girl; I had the whole mix—and so a rather outstanding class. The movie “Gandhi” was in the movies in South Africa, and so I said I would get an afternoon pass and we would all go to the movies together. And the girls did not say one thing to me. Not one word. I went down to the principal’s office to get the permission, and she sort of looked at me incredulously and said, “Excuse me, Father, but you forgot the theaters are not integrated.” And I was so humiliated as I walked back to the class because I’d forgotten, and the girls in class had probably all known. I went in, and I started to explain, and they said, “No, no, Father, we know!” And these were all eighth grade girls, you know, speaking to a priest. And they said, “This was a lesson for you because you forgot.” And by the way, the movie Gandhi—we did go to see it, but, the parts about his life in South Africa had been extracted in South Africa. Yes. So that was interesting.
Those kinds of things reflect theologically that sometimes in the church we can become so comfortable within our own sort of little arena that we forget what’s happening outside the walls of our church. And I’ve even said when talking with people about the church in Uganda that they are the poorest of the poor—Orthodox refugees who are trying to be resettled for the second time in 25 years. As someone who teaches missiology, I would observe that it’s easy for us as Americans to write a check and think we’ve participated and done a good thing. And I also understand that not everyone can go on a mission to Yemen. In fact, some might even say it’s ridiculous for Americans to raise as much money as it takes to have a mission experience in Africa or Central America, or wherever. But I do think the actual experience opens people’s eyes so that they become at least able to articulate the realities to the rest of comfortable American congregations when they return home. Simply writing a check gives us a bit of a pass. We actually have to do what our Lord is telling us to do in scripture. The word “compassion” in scriptural passages sometimes get translated as “pity,” and I think that’s a very poor translation of the Greek text. It isn’t that the Lord has pity for us, but rather that He fully identifies with us and so has compassion. And I think that’s what we are called to do as Christians when we’re looking at Matthew 25 where He talks about people being naked, and in the hospital… We have to identify with them and have compassion.
And so did Micheal ever make it to seminary?
Yes, and Micheal was not ordained, by his own choice. He married and moved to Cape Town, and he has a son who is named after me.
So on this last point about not being aware of what goes on, or what’s going on outside of our own little bubble, do you have any sort of advice or insights for Orthodox Christians, especially those living in America, who may not be aware of what it’s like to be poor or a person of color living in [a hostile environment]?
Sure. Well, I was for sixteen years a member of the Board of Trustees of our Orthodox Christian Mission Center in St. Augustine, Florida. For six years I was the Vice President. We’ve sent three mission teams since I’ve been here at St. Vladimir’s. So we do good work. But something that’s always frustrated me is that we’ve never been able, as Orthodox Christians in North America—and I include Canada—to get more than 25 full-time missionaries in the mission field. There’s something really wrong with that because I know of Protestant congregations that support more than 25 missionaries. One congregation! We have to have some kind of awakening to the fact that God has blessed us with so many resources and affluence in North America. We sort of toss little nibbles and bits and pieces out and think we’ve accomplished something. We really need a radical awakening to the way St. Paul, in scripture, put the call out to the church in Jerusalem to do something, to act. And not just in other countries. We have so many things—like gifts and insights—to give; and we hold back. For instance, in the former Soviet Union, in Russia and Eastern Europe, there are battles with alcoholism and addiction. We have a lot to contribute from our own experience here in America. We have a lot of experience as Orthodox in dealing with addiction. I know of one person in Romania who’s introducing twelve-step programs; but that’s one person. So somehow or other, we need to become a little more sensitized and aware that the parable of the talents is at work here, and we haven been given much, and there’s a judgment day coming when we’re going to be asked—and I think individually and corporately—“What did you do with that which was given to you?”
One of the things I especially love about the story you told is that you certainly had to deal with a political element; but fundamentally, what you did was about living with someone and forming a relationship, rather than taking political action. It was about actually having contact with people. And I think also in America there are so many issues with poverty and violence—even in the United States.
And we can be blind to it because we’ve become so comfortable in our own little place.
And this past week I was in Georgia talking with people dealing with the historical memory of lynchings, and it struck me that there wasn’t an Orthodox church for many, many miles. And some of the struggles there are very far from what we are concerned with, at least in the area where I go to church.
Yes. I was once invited to open the U.S. Senate with prayer, and I thought this was a great thing. I enjoyed the day. I’d thought I’d say the prayer, they’d shake my hand, and I’d be gone. In fact, I was the chaplain for the day. One of the things on the agenda involved hearings about the slave issue in Sudan. So I went. It was a privilege that I had for the day. But I did walk away embarrassed because here we were talking about Sudan, and the bulk of those people who were Christians involved in the slave issue there had identified themselves as Orthodox— Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox. An Anglican bishop, a Roman Catholic bishop, someone from the Lutheran churches were testifying. And I thought, well, here they are dealing largely with our people, and there’s no one here. That’s another problem I think we have with Orthodox in North America: we’re not coordinated. We don’t speak with one voice. We’re in camps; we’re little tribes. And that makes us ineffective, in my opinion.
Do you have any advice for people today dealing with race and racism and what their faith might teach on how to engage these issues.
It’s a big challenge for Orthodox that many other Christian groups don’t have because as Orthodox, we are often so tied to our ethnicity. You can even see it on our signage- Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox. And people who might be visiting a church encounter this. “Oh you don't look Greek.” “Are you Arab?”
We need to realize that we are catholic. Catholic means universal. We are a church for all. That's very important.
We are seeing some good steps, such as with the Brotherhood of St Moses the Ethiopian. We just opened a chapter here at St. Vladimir's, which helps address racism. The mere presence helps, along with the presence of our African students. Two weeks ago we hosted an African Lenten fundraiser meal. Orthodox are normally very proud of their heritage, but that meal in particular got people curious, asking “What are we going to be eating?”
It's not going to come as quickly as we would perhaps like, but we need to build a multi-racial Orthodox Church.