Orthodoxy Is Not Here By Accident
Fr. Michael Koblosh
I heard these words when I was a teenager in the late 1950’s attending a FROC (“Federated Russian Orthodox Club”) in New York City. The FROC at that time was the major youth organization in the Church. The “here” the speaker was talking about was America – the United States. These words stuck in my mind and began to change my understanding of the church.
The church I grew up in, in the 1940’s and 50’s, was still very ethnic. The people were either foreign-born immigrants or their children and grandchildren. Coming from Eastern Europe, the immigrants identified themselves as being “Russian.” Services were mostly in Slavonic, although in the 50’s a “Pro-liturgy, ” served in English, was introduced. This service – which is a Divine Liturgy, but without an offering of holy gifts and communion – was celebrated before the Slavonic Liturgy. It was an attempt to introduce English into worship, but without abandoning Church Slavonic. Since we went to confession and communion only once a year – during Great Lent – this service seemed to “make sense,” and was popular.
My parish in Yonkers, New York, was typical of parishes at that time: immigrants came from Europe during the Great Immigration seeking a better life for themselves. Slavic peoples tended to settle in clusters in cities were there was work in industry requiring little education – or in coal mining regions. One of the first things they did was to establish a church and, since few had cars, the church was usually in walking distance of most of the members. As a child, my social group outside of school comprised of kids from the church. We would often go to the church on our own for services or various youth programs, and lived close enough to hear the daily bells.
For the immigrants, the church was a haven of familiarity in a strange land. Besides the comfort of worship for people separated from their families, the church was a place where they could be with “their own,” speak their native language and enjoy the food and music of their culture. Church life in such a parish was self-enclosed with little thought that Orthodoxy had something to say to America. Converts were few. Those converts who were in the church were usually those who married “Russian Orthodox” spouses and joined the church. Intellectual life in such a parish was weak or non-existent. There were few books in English on Orthodoxy, and many of the immigrants were practically illiterate. In response to the large number of children the 1950’s(my church had close to 100 children), books and pamphlets in English for church school programs began to appear. These materials were translations of Russian school books or pamphlets on Bible study, with some explanations of the church’s worship. Fundamentally, though, we learned “church” through worship and through family and the people in the church.
Changes began to be felt in our church in the late 1950’s and early 60’s – the precipitation of a renewal in the Russian Church that had begun in the 19th century, and drifted West through Europe and eventually to America in the decades after the Communist Revolution of 1917. Orthodox life and thought was presented in a deeper way, through literature, and now in English. My first encounter with this renewal movement was Father Bulgakov’s The Orthodox Church, a book I bought at the same FROC convention where I heard that “Orthodoxy is not here by accident.” For me, that book was life altering. Although it presented Orthodoxy in a new way, I somehow understood precisely what Father Bulgakov was saying. Bulgakov revealed Orthodoxy as being universal and not just for “Russians;” as being in unbroken continuity with earliest Christianity; and as having a place in my own American culture and life as it really is.
During the 1960’s translations of services into English accelerated, and the meaning of worship was presented in a compelling and inclusive way. Despite the skepticism of some of the more ”˜traditionalist’ immigrants, parishioners began to go to communion more frequently, and one began to see more “non-Russians” joining the church.
“Orthodoxy is not here by accident.”
The early immigrants would probably not have understood the meaning or implication of those words. It is for the generations after them to understand that God used the immigration for His own purposes, and to incarnate those words into action. America has yet to hear the Orthodox word – a word that is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant but which echoes and resonates with the unbroken vision and preaching of earliest Christianity. Orthodoxy was brought to America through Alaska. Their writings and labor reveal that the original Russian missionaries keenly felt that “Orthodoxy is not here by accident” – a conviction affirmed in 1970 by the bishops of the Russian Church who gave us our “autocephaly.” However this autocephaly will be worked out or altered in the future, mission to and for America – in all of its dimensions – must remain the focus and work of this generation of Orthodox Christians – because Orthodoxy is not here by accident, but by the wisdom and providence of the Lord.
 Later I came to realize that Bulgakov’s writings were highly informed by the Church’s Liturgy, and the deep impression that the Liturgy had left on my soul ever since childhood enabled me to hear and respond to an Orthodox word when I heard it.