Orthodox Christians open doors to brotherhood
Open house invites African Americans to learn about the Eastern church
August 11, 2007
By David Crumm
FREE PRESS Columnist
Later this month, a handful of Orthodox Christians will make a fresh attempt at changing the sad truth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s description of 11 a.m. Sunday as "the most segregated hour in this nation."
They're organizing a first-of-its-kind Orthodox open house for local African Americans who are curious enough to spend a day learning about the domed, icon-decorated Eastern churches sprinkled across southeast Michigan.
"A lot of people would never expect to find African Americans in these churches," said Subdeacon Robert Aaron Mitchell of Detroit, an organizer of the Aug. 25 program. "But we have always been here. Orthodoxy has a huge history and saints of the church in Ethiopia, Egypt and other areas of Africa."
Orthodoxy is the term for the branches of Christianity across Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa, most of which have been separated from the Rome-based Catholic Church for about a thousand years.
Earlier this year, Mitchell and Sharon Gomulka, a member of an Orthodox Church in Livonia, cofounded the Detroit Metropolitan Chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black. It's a nationwide group that promotes an awareness of African branches of the Orthodox world.
Last year, both of them participated in the group's national convention held in Detroit.
St. Moses the Black, born nearly 1,700 years ago in Egypt, spent an early part of his life as a sort of Egyptian Robin Hood who hid in the desert rather than the woods. However, he eventually encountered the ancient Christian monastic movement known as the Desert Fathers. He converted, abandoned his life of crime and became a famous sage.
"In this new chapter we've formed, we're not encouraging people to separate people by race," Gomulka said. "Just the opposite."
Mitchell said, "We can't turn Orthodoxy into an exclusive, Afro-centric experience. That's not our goal."
Gomulka said, "What we're trying to show is that Orthodox churches embrace all tribes and nations and tongues. As African Americans, we have roots in this church, too."
That's the question raised in the title of the program: "Are There African Roots in the Ancient Church?"
One of the half-dozen speakers that day will be Mother Katherine Weston, an Orthodox nun and iconographer from Indianapolis who creates icons for churches across the country. She feels especially drawn to St. Moses the Black's story because as a pastoral psychotherapist she works with minors who are incarcerated.
"I especially turn to St. Moses and his story when I'm working with young people with difficult problems like addictions, because St. Moses' story is so inspiring. He was able to leave his old life behind," Weston said by phone.
Gomulka said she loves seeing a diversity of faces, including African and Asian saints, displayed in icons throughout the Orthodox year. She and Mitchell are converts to the church from other branches of Christianity. She was Lutheran; he was Pentecostal.
"The Orthodox church is such a broader family of many different peoples," she said. "I remember the first time I saw St. Moses' icon brought out and everyone in the church that day was venerating his icon."
Mitchell nodded and said, "What you realized was: Everyone was looking at someone just like you."
"That's right," she said. "That was such a pivotal movement in my life. Everyone in the church, wherever they came from, was looking at his face and using that icon, that day, as an example for all of us. That's when I truly felt that all of us could be a part of this fabric of faith."
You may read another news release about this chapter here.