Not a Penny at the Door

Not a Penny at the Door
Mr William Kopcha

My great-grandmother was, by all accounts, a remarkable and saintly woman.  This seems to be a general theme in my genealogy, at least for the generations that I did not have the good fortune of meeting myself – remarkable and saintly women married to decidedly un-saintly men.  Their progeny would then spend a great amount of time actively avoiding this paradigm, producing the wonderful family – both men and women, aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, cousins, and sibling – of loving, supportive, fun, faithful people that I am quite blessed to be a member of.  To thank for all this, I have my great-grandmother, who laid the foundation not only of our family, but also of the parish communities that formed the cornerstone of and provided the context for our existence since we arrived in America about 100 years ago.

My great-grandmother’s convictions were simple and strong.  I suppose that they, along with most of the essence of this remarkable woman, were forged in the furnace of a remarkably hard life.  Being sent abroad alone from a small village in the Carpathian Mountains as a teenage girl and arriving in bustling America to an arranged marriage with an angry alcoholic will do that to you, as will the years spent raising 10 children.  Through all of this, she developed two maxims that were passed on by my grandfather some years ago:

  1. Always remember our Holy Orthodox Church in everything that you do.
  2. Be quick to recognize your own sins and ask for forgiveness.

Simple.  Rock-solid.  Just like this woman.  She lived by her own words, too.  My parents relate visiting her when she was elderly – her only earthly possessions at this point were a bed, a desk, a chair, and a Bible, which she read constantly.  Her vision and direction, however, did not stop with her own devotions or the well-being of her family.  Rather, they extended also to all of her brothers and sisters in Christ, not only helping them in time of need but also unabashedly telling them when they were wrong, and quite bluntly at that.  She must have been interesting.

For example, we might still be Uniate Catholics if it weren’t for her outspokenness regarding abuses in the local Greek Catholic church, principally regarding money.  The parish, St. Michael’s, had decided that to bolster the apparently anemic funds donated by parishioners, it would start charging a sort of “entrance fee.”  Great-grandma Irene was outraged.  Rather than fulfilling its mission of being a “haven for the storm-tossed,” the practice showed the parish to be a “den of thieves,” the likes of which Christ Himself had denounced nineteen-hundred years earlier.  In dramatic fashion, she proclaimed, “I will gladly put my five cents upon the altar, but I will not give you one penny at the door!” and, promptly turning, she walked out to the Orthodox Church down the street and never looked back.

Equally important and with just as much conviction, she declared from the very beginning, “Service must be English!”  She barely spoke the language.  She learned to write just enough to send misspelled birthday cards to her grandchildren.  Yet, she was one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates of replacing the Slavonic used during her time with English that I have ever heard of.  Why?  Because she was acutely aware of Christ’s injunction to “preach the Gospel to all nations,” including her new nation of residence, the United States of America, in which English was the lingua franca for the disparate groups that became its fabric.

Great-grandma Irene loved the Church more than anything, and it showed in everything she did.  She held herself and her family to its highest standards.  She despised and denounced any corruption of its mission.  She put it above the love of her mother tongue and her ethnicity.  In short, she died to herself and lived for Christ, His Church, and the people that made it up.  This woman helped to build the foundation for a community that now helps make up the Orthodox Church in America.  The OCA was born of the grass-roots efforts of immigrants carrying with them the light of Orthodoxy and remains a grass-roots effort to keep that flame alive in our new land among new people.  People like my great-Grandmother, in every generation, are its pillars and heritage.

Christianity is not native to American soil, but is a careful and delicate transplant. The OCA is our hope for cultivating a native species of Orthodoxy that can survive and flourish here, embracing all of the blessings the “New World” has to offer, while sacrificing none of our sacred history and traditions.  The apostolic mission – to “go forth” – requires a starting place, and our ancestors have built precisely that. The faith of the apostles, preserved incorrupt through each generation, has taken root on American soil. Now, following a path paved by Saints Cyril and Methodius over a millennium ago, we are poised to spread the fullness of the Gospel of Christ, by refining, translating and articulating the theological and intellectual traditions of our faith into new languages and new contexts, to a new culture.  Many saints and luminaries have risen to the task already, each in their own unique way. But the work is not reserved for a select few; it is the responsibility of us all.

Where do we begin? It seems tempting to allow the work of our forebears to stir us into a missionary zeal. But the more tempered approach begins not with frenzied zeal and ambition, but with gratitude. As our very own Fr. Alexander Schmemman said, “Everyone who is capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.”  Not only will thankfulness and love endure and outlast temporary ambition, but perhaps thankfulness is the single best witness we can offer to our culture today.