"Mission Outreach from Orthodoxy in America"
MISSION OUTREACH FROM ORTHODOXY IN AMERICA
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
“God our Savior…desires that all should be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” the Apostle Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy (I Timothy 2:4).
From apostolic times, Orthodox Christians have sought ways to share the Good News (evangelion) of Jesus Christ with others. The Great Commission of Christ “go forth and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19) followed by his Great Empowerment, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…and you shall be my witnesses…to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8), have inspired missionaries throughout the centuries.
Our Greek Orthodox faith implies seeking and living in union with God through our worship and life. In Holy Scriptures and throughout the Holy Tradition of our Church, union with God entails seeking union with our neighbor. And who is our neighbor? Our neighbors are those in need around us – whether that means those within our own city and country, as well as those throughout the world. As individual Christians, and as the Church, we have a responsibility for all people. St. John Chrysostom reminds us that “The leader of the Church ought to care not only for the Church that has been entrusted to him by the Spirit, but also for the entire Church existing throughout the Oikoumene.”
This long history and tradition of Orthodox missionary activity to other cultures and people began in the apostolic ear and continued during different stages of Church history. During the fourth century we see such stalwart missionaries as Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia, Nina of Georgia, Frumentios of Ethiopia, Hillarion of Gaza, and the Syrian monk Alexander, who organized a group of 150 of his most able monks to evangelize the lands around the Euphrates River. In fact, from the 4th through 6th centuries, the Byzantine Church actively evangelized the many pagans within the Empire, while also sending out missionaries to Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Phoenicia, Arabia, Noubia, Ethiopia, India, Mongolia, and China, as well as to the Goths, Huns and Iberians.
The most famous of the Byzantine missionaries were the ninth century Thessalonian brothers Cyril and Methodius, who evangelized the Slavic peoples of Moravia. Although Frankish missionaries had been working in this area for 50 years prior to their arrival, Cyril and Methodius were the first to create a Slavic alphabet and translate Holy Scriptures, Divine Services and writings of the Church Fathers into the language of the people. Despite fierce opposition from their Frankish counterparts, they received the blessing for their methods and work from the Churches in Constantinople and Rome alike. They labored in this region for 20 years, leaving behind more than 200 trained, indigenous clergy. Although little trace of their work survived in the regions of Moravia during the years of Frankish persecution following their deaths, their disciples carried their legacy into the southern Slavic lands, doing evangelistic work and spreading the Gospel in the lands of Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldavia, and eventually Russia.
With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, a period of darkness spread over the Orthodox lands of the Balkans and the Middle East. Islamic law forbade any proclamation of the gospel to those outside the Christian faith, while Muslims greatly encouraged and sometimes forced conversion upon the subjugated Christians. During these 400 plus years of oppression and decline, the suffering Orthodox Churches in the Balkans and the Middle East were unable to participate in much missionary activity. One unique exception was that of Kosmas of Aitolos, the most famous modern Greek missionary. Kosmas was an 18th century monk from Mt. Athos, who left his monastery after 19 years to re-evangelize hundreds of villages in modern-day northern Greece and Albania. His 20 year missionary effort helped to create more than 200 schools, with his main goal being to educate future generations of children to learn to read Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers. He continued his missionary efforts until his martyrdom in 1779.
While the Orthodox Churches in the Balkans and the Middle East struggled during these dark ages, the Orthodox Church in Russia actively began participating in significant missionary outreach throughout the lands north and east of Kiev from the 14th century onwards. The most famous missionary of this era was Stephen of Perm, the evangelizer of the Zyrian people of northwestern Siberia from 1378-1396. He followed the missionary model of Cyril and Methodius, creating an alphabet with ancient Zyrian ruins and translating Holy Scriptures and liturgical services for the people, training and ordaining indigenous clergy, and establishing a strong, local Church.
In the mid 16th century, Bishop Gurii evangelized the peoples of Kazan and helped convert thousands of Muslims. Centuries later, the famous Academy of Kazan would become an important center of missionary and linguistic research and training. Other noteworthy missionaries of this period were the layman Trifon of Novgorod, who proclaimed the Gospel to the Lapp people, and Bishop Filotei of Tobolsk, who evangelized and helped convert 40,000 indigenous peoples in various parts of Siberia. In 1714, the first official Orthodox mission began in Peking.
Missionary activity reached its apex in Russia during the 19th century, when a great spiritual renewal swept across the land, bringing about a renewed apostolic zeal. Since most of the missions of this period took place among more than 50 ethno-linguistic groups within the vast boundaries of the Russian Empire, the amazing achievements of so many of these outstanding missionaries drew little notice outside of Russian circles.
FIRST ORTHODOX MISSIONS TO AMERICA
It was during this period in 1792 that the Russian Synod requested that the Valaam Monastery send some of its monks to the newly discovered lands of Alaska. Of the original ten missionaries, only the simple monk Herman ended up remaining for the next forty years. His simple life and Christian presence consisted of prayer, worship and witnessing to the natives of his island about Jesus Christ and the Orthodox Church. Many accepted the gospel through his humble Christian example and teachings.
The monk Herman spoke about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit and the saints to all who would listen. He became a champion of the native population against the Russian fur traders who abused and exploited them for financial gain. His virtuous Christ-centered life won the hearts of the native Alaskans. In the monk Herman, native Americans saw an authentic holy man who not only spoke about Christ’s, but who also reflected his divine love.
His spiritual legacy can be summed up by a statement he once made to a Russian Navy officer, who asked him what he most desired in life: “From this day, from this hour, from this moment, love God above all else.”
The most famous Russian Orthodox missionary, Fr. John Veniaminov, was a married priest who overcame his initial inhibitions to go to Alaska and went with his wife, infant son, mother and brother in 1823. He would serve in his apostolic endeavors in Alaska and later in eastern Siberia for the next forty five years teaching and preaching the gospel. Fr. Veniaminov had many talents. He was a missionary, a linguist, a translator of the Scriptures into native Alaskan languages, an author, a naturalist, a carpenter, a builder, a diplomat and an inspiring teacher. After his wife’s early death, he became a bishop and changed his name to Innocent. He traveled over 40,000 miles in his numerous missionary journeys throughout Alaska by dog sleds, kayaks, boats and foot to reach the all the peoples of his region with the gospel of Christ. During his final ten years he was elected as the Metropolitan of Moscow (1868-1878) and founded the Russian Orthodox Missionary Society which carried on mission activity until the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. This Mission Society supported apostolic work in more than 20 distinct ethnic-linguistic people groups.
GREEK ORTHODOX MIGRATIONS TO AND GROWTH IN AMERICA
Greek Orthodox Christians first came to America in the mid-18th century as indentured servants under the aegis of a Protestant clergyman, Dr. Andrew Turnbill. He established a plantation for these 1200 Greeks and Corsicans in northeast Florida and named it New Smyrna. However, the venture ended in disaster with most of the immigrants dying of malaria in the swamps of the hostile environment.
The first Greek Orthodox Christian immigrants to America to build a Greek Orthodox Church came to New Orleans in 1863 (???). They came to America to find a better life of opportunities, not as missionaries. However, they established the first Greek Orthodox parish in America and erected the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. This began a pattern that would be replicated by Greek immigrants who followed over the next hundred years. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North & South America was established in 1921 with headquarters in New York. It eventually united all the fledging Greek Orthodox parishes of America under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. By 1965 their numbers had increased to a million Greek Orthodox Christians worshiping in over 500 Greek Orthodox Church communities in America.
In 1937 Archbishop Athenagoras of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North & South America established the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School in Pomfret, Connecticut to train young men for the Greek Orthodox priesthood. The continuing influx of Greek immigrants to America demanded the need for bilingual Greek-American born clergy to serve their Greek Orthodox churches.
The Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School moved to Brookline, Massachusetts in 1947. Today it is an accredited graduate school of higher learning. The graduates of this theological school become the Greek Orthodox clergy leaders serving Greek Orthodox parishes throughout the United States, Canada and South America.
In 1965 the Archdiocese added Hellenic College, a four year liberal college, to the Holy Cross campus. Most Greek Orthodox priests of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese today, as well as many male and female lay leaders in Church Schools, parish choirs and in administrative positions of the churches have received their college and/or theological education at Hellenic College/Holy Cross. A significant number have gone on for further graduate studies to serve as professors, counselors, chaplains and theological scholars.
The Russian Orthodox Church in America also opened St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary located in Crestwood, NY, St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, PA and St. Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak, Alaska. The Carpotho-Russian Orthodox Church runs a small Christ the Savior Orthodox Seminary in Johnstown, PA. The Ukranian Orthodox Diocese has another small seminary in Bound Brook, NJ.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF ORTHODOX MISSIONS IN THE 20TH CENTURY
In the mid-20th century, the Greek Orthodox Church of Greece began a missionary movement led by the zealous young Greek Orthodox theologian, Anastasios Yannoulatos, who founded the first missionary journal entitled “POREFTHENDES” (“GO YE”). “Porefthendes” is the first word in Greek of Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” This bi-lingual periodical (in Greek and English), which ran for ten years, contained the theological, Scriptural and historical foundation for foreign Orthodox missions, as well as many inspiring articles which helped created an interest in missions.
Fr. Deacon Anastasios Yannoulatos would subsequently become a professor of world religions at the University of Athens. Through his teachings and writings, he advocated a renewal of interest in Orthodox missions. “Church without mission is a contradiction in terms…A static Church which lacks a vision and a constant endeavor to proclaim the Gospel to the ‘oikoumene’ could hardly be recognized as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church to whom the Lord entrusted the continuation of His work.” After 25 years of teaching at the University of Athens School of Theology, Professor Bishop Anastasios Yannoulatos became the acting Archbishop of East Africa from 1981-1991. During this time, he opened the first Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi which produced indigenous priests for Orthodox Christianity in East Africa and other African countries.
In 1991, upon the fall of communism in eastern Europe, Archbishop Anastasios became the Archbishop of Albania where he has created astounding revival in the Orthodox Church of Albania during the past eighteen years. He has built the beautiful Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy in Durres which has produced 140 priests who now serve the Orthodox Church throughout Albania. The revival of Orthodoxy in Albania has included the erection and/or renovation of more than 300 churches, including an imposing Orthodox Cathedral in Tirana. High schools, medical clinics, an orphanage, youth programs and hostels, an Orthodox university ministry, and a powerful Orthodox Christian witness have come to fruition in this formerly harsh communist country. Archbishop Anastasios’s ministry epitomizes an example of a remarkable modern Orthodox missionary. He continues to inspire worldwide Orthodox Christians to enter missionary outreach.
MISSIONS IN THE GREEK ORTHODOX ARCHDIOCESE OF AMERICA
Partly through the influence of Archbishop Anastasios and “Porefthendes”, a Greek Orthodox priest in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Fr. Alexander Veronis, began a missionary revival in 1962. During his theological studies at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline (1954-1958), he encountered Orthodox foreign students from Korea and Mexico. He helped develop the first Orthodox Missionary Society at the Holy Cross in 1956. Through this society he began a correspondence and exchange with neophyte Orthodox Christians in Uganda and Korea. His commitment to foreign missions increased during his years at the University of Athens School of Theology (1959-1961), where he met international Orthodox students from Uganda, Korea, Europe and the Middle East, as well as people connected to the Porefthendes movement.
At the same time, Fr. Chrysostom Papasarantopoulos, a graduate of the University of Athens, heard a call to go to East Africa as a Greek Orthodox missionary. He conducted a vast correspondence with friends in Greece and the United States, especially those connected with Porefthendes, and with Father Veronis. “Come and serve with me as an ierapostolo (missionary),” he urged people. “And if you cannot come as ierapovstoloi (missionaries), then become ierapostoleiv ( senders of missionaries). Christ needs both because “the harvest is plentiful and the laborers few”. Fr. Papasarantopoulos served missions in Africa for twelve years until his death in 1970.
The Greek Orthodox Church in America had not yet come to the point of sending its own missionaries around the world. Fr. Papasarantopoulos’ example, however, left a strong positive impact upon the East Africans of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and in the Congo to whom he preached the gospel with simplicity, faith and a powerful spiritual personal presence. The Africans considered him a true man of God. In his final letter to Father Veronis, a few days prior to his death at the age of 70, Fr. Papasarantopoulos wrote, “Here I am, a single old Orthodox missionary in a city of 50,000 people who desire to learn about the Orthodox Church, but I have no more strength to carry on the task.”
Father Veronis and the Missions Committee that he helped to establish kept corresponding with Orthodox clergy and lay leaders in foreign countries. With the blessing of Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of N. & S. America, he brought a number of them to America for lecture tours to talk about their mission churches, including mission students studying at Holy Cross, St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhon’s Seminaries. Among them were:
a) Dean Syracopoulos, missionary teacher to Uganda,
b) Fr. Theodore Nankyamas, later the Metropolian of Uganda,
c) Fr. Paul De Ballester, a Spanish convert who became the Orthodox Bishop of Mexico,
d) Fr. Jonah Lwanga, later Metropolitan of Uganda,
e) Fr. Amos Adonu and Fr. Joseph Labi of Ghana,
f) Helen Kalyango, Emmanuel Sskyweya Martin Kizza, Joseph Opio, Edgar Wasswas, Peter Matovu, Sarah Sempa, Ethel Lugumira, Michael Kisembo, Nicholas Bayego, all from Uganda,
g) Fr. Daniel Na of Korea,
h) Metropolitan Soterios Trambas, long time missionary in Korea,
i) Fr. Daniel Byantoro of Indonesia,
j) Dr. Andreas Tillyridis, later Metropolitan Makarios of Kenya
The presence and lectures of these missionaries created increasing interest in foreign Orthodox missions among the Greek Orthodox Christians of America.
THE GREEK ORTHODOX ARCHDIOCESAN MISSIONS CENTER AND ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MISSION CENTER
In 1966 the Greek Orthodox Clergy-Laity Biennial Congress, with the blessing of Archbishop Iakovos, established a Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Missions Committee, located in the Archdiocese. The Archbishop appointed Bishop Silas of Amphipolis as the episcopal liaison with the Archdiocese. Father Veronis served as the coordinator of this Missions Committee which operated with a 20-member Board of interested lay and clergy volunteers for the next 18 years.
In 1984 the Missions Committee evolved into the official Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Missions Center with its first salaried Executive Director, Fr. Dimitrios Couchell, and an office located at the St. Photios Shrine in St. Augustine, Florida. Bishop Silas and Father Veronis continued to head the Board of Missions with clergy and lay representatives appointed from all the dioceses of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese by their respective hierarchs.
By 1994 the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Missions Center had expanded its foreign missions programs to 25 countries with an annual budget of one million dollars. An excellent newsletter documented the progress and specifics of Greek Orthodox Missions from America. Its progress and success drew the attention of other Orthodox jurisdictions in America. In 1994, with the approval of Archbishop Iakovos and the Clergy-Laity Biennial Congress, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese offered its foreign missions program to SCOBA (Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the Americas). SCOBA accepted it, thus making the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Missions Center a pan-Orthodox Missions Program. It received a new name: Orthodox Christian Mission Center (O.C.M.C.) and was incorporated as a SCOBA Agency in the state of Florida.
Fr. Dimitrios Couchell rendered superb service as the Executive Director until his election as Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos. He was succeeded by Fr. Martin Ritsi in 1998, who had completed eleven years of missionary service in East Africa and Albania. Fr. Ritsi has proven to be a dedicated and competent Executive Director. He has traveled to the 31 countries served by OCMC and oversees all the programs of the OCMC up to the present.
The OCMC is served by a 45-member Board of Missions, with representatives (clergy and lay men and women leaders) appointed by the various Orthodox jurisdictions of SCOBA, including,
a) the GOA (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America),
b) the OCA (Orthodox Church of America ,
c) the AOCANA, (Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America),
d) the UOA, (Ukranian Orthodox Archdiocese of America),
e) the ACROD, (American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese in the USA),
f) the BOA, (Bulgarian Orthodox Archdiocese),
g) the AOA, (Albanian Orthodox Archdiocese).
The following persons have served as Presidents of the OCMC Board of Missions since its inception: Fr. Alexander Veronis, Fr. Paul Costopoulos, Fr. John Chakos, Fr. Constantine Zozos, Mrs. Helen Nicozisis, and Mr. Clifford Argue.
The OCMC ministry today reaches 31 countries and has a three million dollar budget. It supports 400 indigenous Orthodox clergy serving in their respective countries, theological education through scholarship assistance for young men and women to study in America or in Orthodox seminaries of their countries. The OCMC has sent more than 100 long term missionaries (who have served for at least two years) and 1315 short term mission team members to countries worldwide to teach and preach the gospel, to work with the indigenous churches under the local hierarch wherever they are needed, to build churches, work within schools, help with the social outreach, offer catechism and serve in medical clinics. The OCMC Magazine, published throughout the year, documents its missionary outreach around the world. Currently 10 full time OCMC missionaries are serving in Albania and Romanian, six are preparing to depart for Tanzania, and more than one hundred applicants are conversing with the OCMC about possibly entering into the mission field.
An Endowment Fund for Orthodox Missions (EFOM) was established in Lancaster, PA in honor of Father Alexander and Presvytera Pearl Veronis in 1981, which has raised two million dollars to be used for the promotion of Orthodox missions. This Fund has sponsored annual Mission Lectures at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, distributed scholarships to seminarians who have exhibited special interest in missions, sponsored professors to offer courses in missiology, and will soon endow a Chair of Missiology/Mission Institute at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
THE OCMC MISSIONARY TRAINING & ADMINISTRATION BUILDING
The OCMC recently completed its $6,000,000 capital campaign and on May 21, 2009, dedicated its new “Archbishop Anastasios and Archbishop Demetrios Missionary Training Center & Administration Building”, located on 20 acres in St. Augustine, Florida. The new center honors both Archbishop Anastasios of Albania and Archbishop Demetrios of America as pioneers and supporters of Orthodox Missions. The stated goal of the OCMC “is to bring the life-transforming and saving teaching of Jesus Christ wherever it presently does not exist and to establish vibrant Orthodox Eucharistic communities throughout the world…and to recruit, train, send and support Orthodox missionaries to preach, teach, baptize, and minister to the spiritual and physical needs of those being served.”
The OCMC presently has a staff of eighteen professionals who conduct and execute the details required in this worldwide foreign missionary agency of SCOBA. Glory to God that Orthodox Christianity continues to spread around the world, due in part to the proactive missionary activity of the Greek Orthodox Church of America over the past fifty years.