Converts to Orthodox Christianity in America in the Russian Church Today

Note: This paper was given remotely to the “Links between Times: Conclusions and Perspectives on the Centennial of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad” conference in Belgrade and Sremski-Karlovci, Serbia, on American Thanksgiving Day 2021 (11/12/7530 on the Church calendar; 11/25/21 on the civil).

Pictures from the blessing of the land for our mission’s planned temple in northern Appalachia, by Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, on our feast day 2021. A sudden downpour amplified the holy water in the blessing, glory to God!


It is an honor to be included in this conference although I must confess to a conflict of interest today. I am an American convert to Orthodoxy and in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, addressing the topic of contemporary converts in America. But I also am an academic whose work deals with narratives and how to contextualize them. The scarcity of hard evidence on my topic today works in my favor hopefully, in trying to contextualize the stories of contemporary American converts in the Russian Orthodox Church. I have found relatively little deep research evidence on this still new topic, although I have found much debate and commentary. Two crucial questions loom over trying to understand this topic. First, why would Americans convert to Orthodox Christianity–and specifically why would they align themselves with the Russian Church Abroad in a period of renewed hostility by Western media and elites toward Russia and Russian culture? This relates I think to a second larger question at the centenary of ROCOR: What is the purpose of ROCOR now that the Soviet Union has fallen a generation ago, when ROCOR is fully now in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, and a regular autonomous jurisdiction of the same? I hope to return to these two connected questions at the end.

First, let me share one data point from our small Russian Orthodox mission parish in northern Appalachia, which perhaps does help to provide context for the stories of converts who have become part of ROCOR in America. Almost all our members are converts. They left mainly Protestant churches or atheism because of their search for authentic roots of Christianity and their sense of spiritual need, including dissatisfaction with the directions of modern American forms of non-Orthodox Christianity, which they saw as moving further away from any traditional roots. The small data point I would like to share is that among our convert families we have at least four (about one-seventh of the official membership) whose baptismal names are from Celtic saints of the pre-Schism West: Bridget, Brynach, Dayfdd, and Kentigern. In addition, the mission requested and received a blessing to be named for St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, in part because of his bridging of Russian and American worlds of Orthodoxy. Several of our members have been significantly influenced by the writings of Fr Seraphim Rose in becoming Orthodox. He was a notable American convert and spiritual son of St. John, and hieromonk in ROCOR. St. John himself did much to highlight the veneration of early Western saints in the Russian Church. In this connection, another convert ROCOR parish in our diocese recently held an Akathist for Alfred the Great, recognized as an Orthodox saint-king of Anglo-Saxon England. Other convert communities across jurisdictions in North America show special dedication to St. Moses the Black, highlighting African-American Christian heritage, and to Russian Alaskan saints. It seems that Orthodoxy in America generally has an appeal to converts that includes saints seen as bridging ancient Christianity and American culture, including ancestry of Americans of varied backgrounds. Albert Raboteau, who wrote a book about his journey to Orthodoxy, was an eminent African-American scholar who saw joyful sorrow as a link between Orthodoxy and historic African-American experience of Christian faith in America.

Statistical data about Orthodoxy Christians in North America today on a large scale comes from Alexei Krindatch and his extensive surveys and census of American Orthodox churches. In 2020, he found about 24,000 adherents in ROCOR communities in the U.S., and only about 10,000 regular attendees. This compares to a total of about 676,000 adherents in Orthodox churches of all jurisdictions in the U.S., mainly Greek Orthodox, and about 183,000 regular attendees overall. Those figures are all much smaller than numbers of 1 million that have been cited in the past by members of a couple other jurisdictions for the size of their own communities alone. But this research found that a distinctive characteristic of ROCOR in America is that it has many tiny communities without a full-time salaried priest. Perhaps there is a bit of an undercount for us due to a lack of support staff so to speak; alas I think our own mission did not return the survey forms. But interestingly for what I mentioned earlier about the Celtic names in our parish, as a scholar of early Irish Christian culture, I can say that the pattern noted of tiny American  ROCOR Churches across the countryside was the pattern seen in early Christian Ireland and western Britain before the Schism. These also were coupled with a heavy presence and influence of monastic communities. ROCOR has also seen the founding of some new monasteries in America in recent times alongside a preeminent influence of Jordanville.

Also of interest, although according to the statistical surveys ROCOR shares in a decline of membership with other Orthodox jurisdictions in America, due apparently both to aging congregations and an increasingly secularizing youth culture in America, Alexei Krindatch found in a survey in 2020 that the average or mean percentage of converts among ROCOR active members is 70%, the highest among American jurisdictions. Although this was based on a small sampling of only 30 parishes, which he indicates must be received with caution, it coincides with another more recent survey of his, which showed ROCOR parishes gaining members from other jurisdictions during the COVID shutdown. That gain was due to a greater range of openness to maintaining services with relatively less restrictions in some ROCOR parishes compared to other jurisdictions. Based on percentages and anecdotal evidence such transfers likely include those of convert background significantly.

This overall picture fits what we have seen in our region in central Pennsylvania, at our mission and two long-established ROCOR sister parishes in the Pennsylvania coal country. Our mission, while small, has grown, and has acquired six acres of land including a small cemetery and is actively planning construction of a temple, although our membership is not wealthy. At our last Liturgy we had 45 people present. Our attendance has been moving upwards with families coming in the last two years both through baptisms and through joining from other jurisdictions. One of our two sister parishes has seen a rebirth recently. It has gone from being near closure to renovating its small temple and often being filled with attendees. The other parish with which our mission is associated recently acquired a new priest who came over to ROCOR from another jurisdiction, due to the developing schism over the Ukraine situation and dissatisfaction with actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in various areas. Key elements of the growth and renewal of the three ROCOR parishes in our region involve clergy from backgrounds in other jurisdictions. One, Hieromonk Claude Vinyard, is 92 years old. He was a priest for many years in the OCA. At an age when many would be deep into retirement, he decided to return to ROCOR, in which he had been received as a child, because of a feeling of affinity with what he saw as its more traditional approach to faith. He founded our mission six years ago. Likewise our current rector, Fr. George Sharonoff, was trained at an OCA seminary and originally part of the OCA, although his family has roots going back to Russian clergy associated with Harbin. Mentored by Fr Claude, he came over to ROCOR, and at one point was tending all three of our related parishes temporarily, although now he is pastoring two. Many in our mission are former Lutherans, who first came into the OCA, but became dissatisfied with what my wife, who is from Russia, characterized as a more American business approach to administration there. This involved some distressing problems locally at the time that Metropolitan Jonah was forced out of office in the OCA and also received into ROCOR.  No disrespect is meant toward the dedicated and pious OCA laity and clergy with whom we have worshipped and still love and who may have different perspectives on that.

But such controversy among American jurisdictions leads to a final area of discussing evidence about American converts in relation to Russian Orthodoxy – debate. Debate is more plentiful than research, but also indefinite. Discussion online about converts to Orthodoxy in America includes papers and blogging by writers in venues such as Public Orthodoxy of the Fordham Orthodox Christian Studies Center, the allied Orthodox Theological Society of America, and various blogs and social media. Some of this commentary focuses on criticizing the alleged “fundamentalism” of converts, and our alleged ideological baggage from American Protestantism and derided “culture wars.” Sometimes such criticism comically implies a connection between American conversions to the Russian Orthodox Church and politics associated with former President Donald Trump’s alleged Russian ties. It also suggests connections between allegedly fundamentalist Orthodoxy and alleged nationalism of the Russia Church, which is then paradoxically linked to white American nationalism. In some commentaries, I was struck by how supposedly objective intellectuals seem swayed in their commentary by unfair criticisms of the Russian Church voiced internationally by supporters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. They tend to identify ROCOR with both Tsarist politics and American nationalism, while themselves sometimes advocating for secular American trends contrary to Orthodox tradition, such as women clergy and pastoral acceptance of secular sexual anthropology.

I will read here the publisher’s summary of a forthcoming book by the American anthropologist Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, entitled Between Heaven and Russia: Religious Conversion and Political Apostasy in Appalachia. This book is to be published by Fordham University Press’ Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought series, which has links to Fordham’s Orthodox Studies Center, which in turn is aligned intellectually with and has some personal connections to Ecumenical Patriarchate circles. Dr. Riccardi-Swartz has been a prominent academic voice commenting online on American Orthodox converts, in particular those in ROCOR. She stayed with and studied members of a ROCOR parish near Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia, which community later objected to her conclusions and methods. While it may be unusual to refer to a forthcoming book’s promotion, the storyline it presents seems in line with Dr. Riccardi-Swartz’s previous presentations, and indicates a pattern of American academic narrative on this topic. It begins:

“In one corner of Appalachia, a group of American citizens has embraced the Russian Orthodox Church and through it Putin’s New Russia. Historically a minority immigrant faith in the United States, Russian Orthodoxy is attracting Americans who look to Russian religion and politics for answers to western secularism and the loss of traditional family values in the face of accelerating progressivism. This ethnography highlights an intentional community of converts who are exemplary of much broader networks of Russian Orthodox converts in the US. These converts sought and found a conservatism more authentic than Christian American Republicanism and a nationalism unburdened by the broken promises of American exceptionalism. Ultimately, both converts and the Church that welcomes them deploy the subversive act of adopting the ideals and faith of a foreign power for larger, transnational political ends.”

There is much here that would seem questionable, especially the implication that ROCOR has larger transnational ends of a foreign power in a political sense. Such implications fundamentally misread both the spiritual dimension of the stories of American converts and ROCOR’s own story as an autonomous Synod of the Russian Church, having emerged from the worst anti-Christian persecutions in history, as well as misreading Orthodox ecclesiology from a standpoint of Western bias. To understand Dr. Riccardi-Swartz’s position, however, it is necessary to understand the narratives that frame secular American academic approaches today. These involve a paradoxical emphasis on a neutral secular objective viewpoint, combined with a sense of the need to prioritize the “lived experience” of certain perspectives. Those perspectives reflect secular American concerns with Antiracism, Antifascism, and anti-patriarchalism, all related to the recent revival of what has been characterized as Russophobia in America. A few prominent but statistically insignificant cases of far-right American political extremists associating with Orthodoxy helped fuel such views. The danger of such academic framing, in its own terms, is that it can easily ignore the lived experience of converts in the context of a minority non-Western Christian tradition, with its own epistemology and teleology. Thus researcher-commentators themselves can ironically fall prey to what they themselves might call Eurocentric bias.

The promotional book summary continues: “Offering insights into this rarely considered religious world, including its far-right political roots that nourish the embrace of Putin’s Russia, this ethnography shows how religious conversion is tied to larger issues of social politics, allegiance, (anti)democracy, and citizenship… this book provides insight in the growing constellations of far-right conservatism…. Russian Orthodox converts are … an important gauge for understanding the powerful philosophical shifts occurring in the current political climate in the United States and what they might mean for the future of American values, ideals, and democracy.” The narrative frame is American, indeed.

I must add here, as an aside, that I have had the pleasure to meet Dr. Riccardi-Swartz in real life. She is personable and thoughtful in conversation, an Orthodox convert, too. I look forward to reading the book, which undoubtedly will present more details, and hopefully nuance, than the political framing of its promotion, although such publisher summaries usually are approved and written by the author in my experience. Still, negative analysis of converts in Russian Orthodox churches in America reflects not only secular academic views, but also contexts of a particular intellectual culture within world Orthodoxy, aligned with the outlook of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Beyond this, we can also recognize a deeper potential cultural bias, inherent in what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the secular age of modernity, in an individualistic distant view of self, exemplified in American culture. Taylor contrasts this with what he calls the porous or relational view of self in premodern cultural traditions, which we can see exemplified in the idea of sobornost‘ in Russian Orthodoxy. The latter differs from Western liberalism and can be hard for the latter to translate. Reviews promoting Dr. Riccardi-Swartz’ book include one from Professor Robert Orsi that categorizes the story of Orthodox converts as “political religion” in American terms. Journalist Sarah Posner states that the study transcends “straightforward ethnography” to describe “fixation with the fascist ideologues of Eurasia,” a “global movement that poses a dire threat to secular democracy around the world.”  If this description, applied to ROCOR, sounds like an old Fu Manchu movie, orientalizing Russian Orthodox faith, it indicates unfortunately how secular American academia may seek to frame the narrative of American converts in ROCOR today.

(Above) Orientalizing non-Western faith, like “Eastern” stereotypes of old? Image from the 1932 Hollywood film The Mask of Fu Manchu, part of a book and film series that like contemporary Flash Gordon serials drew on stereotyped themes of peril from the East (at a time when a significant element of ROCOR was in China, from whence came St. John of Shanhai and San Francisco to America).
___

Inside Orthodox intellectual circles, negative attitudes toward alleged fundamentalism and chauvinism of American converts go back at least to Father Seraphim Rose’s influential writings in the 1970s. He criticized what he called “crazy converts” and the “zealot party.” Yet Fr Seraphim’s writings themselves today are often attacked as fundamentalist and over-zealous by those who critique not only current-day converts in ROCOR, but also in other traditional communities in North American Orthodoxy, such as at the 17 Greek Orthodox monasteries founded by Elder Ephraim. Against the Russian Church, charges of ethno-phyletism or nationalist religion come from academics with affinities to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and draw on recent US political phobias of Russia, rooted in American neoliberalism and neoconservative exceptionalism. But ethno-phyletism ironically can be seen in American Orthodoxy that stresses Americanness. Sometimes critics of converts on sites like the Public Orthodoxy blog are of ethnic Orthodox background, but well-assimilated into U.S. culture, and some also support issues such as women clergy and pastoral assimilation of LGBTQ culture, while criticizing converts paradoxically for not being traditional when opposing such American liberalism.

(Above) Father Seraphim Rose of blessed memory, a spiritual son of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. An American convert of the 1960s, his writings were influential in both America and Russia. He criticized “crazy converts” and over-zealotry, but his traditional perspectives now would fit some definitions of “fundamentalist” by writers with affinities for Ecumenical Patriarchate intellectual culture today.

So the academic landscape for examining the phenomenon of Orthodox converts in America remains poorly formed and politically charged. We await deeper and fairer assessments. Perhaps the epistemology of secular academics in America in this era hinders understanding stories of Orthodox conversion in an objective way. But to take a leaf from postmodernity, the lived experience of the converts needs to be taken into account more fully in an Orthodox context. From that standpoint, I can say that in our Appalachian mission parish and neighboring ones, there is not much interest in Russian nationalism or in a particularly positive view of the Russian government politically. There is however investment for example in traditional Christian anthropology undergirding family and the right to practice and express marriage and sexuality in a traditional Christian way, and to have the freedom for that to be taught as a legitimate life in education, media, professions, business and public spheres apart from the new secular US ideology of pansexualism. I detect a lack of interest among our network of converts in either American neoconservatism or neoliberalism in relation to foreign interventions and systems of global economic control. But there is interest in the Christian ethos of service, in which many parishioners are involved in their work and spiritual lives, a commitment to what the American academic convert Donald Sheehan called self-emptying rather than self-assertion, in building community. This is in line with Orthodox tradition voiced by the exile St. Jonah of Hankou and Manchuria, who in the 1920s stated that podvig is to live for our neighbor.

That final observation links to a hunger among many converts, with, like all human beings limitations and sins, myself the worst, to commit to the Orthodox Christian faith — not to capitalism, communism, fascism, or any other ism. This leads back to the main questions asked at the start of this paper: Why are American converts attracted to Orthodoxy, and why may they currently end up in apparently higher percentages in ROCOR communities than in other jurisdictions, and in a pattern of relatively tiny worship communities? And what is the role of ROCOR today? I would answer these connected questions by indicating from my experience in several American parish communities with predominantly converts, that converts are attracted to Orthodoxy in America most of all by authentic spiritual experience and by sobornost‘ or spiritual unity in our Lord Jesus Christ’s Church. The fact that Russian faith survived the extreme persecution of Communism and with the prayers of all the new martyrs and of the saints of exile in the past century such as St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco and St. Jonah of Manchuria, makes the authentic faith of Orthodoxy that much more legible in depth to converts in America today. I felt this years ago while reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago when it first appeared in English, as a high schooler searching for a Christian faith. That was a decisive moment on my path to Orthodoxy. The old saying that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church is again in our time and place showing forth its yield of fruit, God willing, however humbly and unworthily. This also addresses the role of ROCOR today at 100 years old. It bears witness from the martyrs of the greatest persecution of Christians in history in a recent age, to a West that is lost today in the depths of great materialism and confusion that shape a new and different kind of emerging cultural totalitarianism, hostile to traditional Christianity. The mid-20th-century Russian Orthodox exiled philosopher S.L. Frank, himself a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy, provides an underlying explanation in the title of one of his books, borrowed from Scripture: “The Light Shineth in Darkness.”

***

End note: Thanks to the conference co-organizer, Fr. Dn. Dr. Andrei Psarev, Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Holy Trinity Seminary, and my former instructor in Church history at the St.John of Kronstadt Pastoral School, for all his work on the conference, and for inviting me. Thanks also to researcher Alexei Krindatch for his kind help from his in-depth studies, and to Walker Thompson for his technical assistance. Being able very unworthily to participate in a conference on the centennial of the Russian Church Abroad was a great blessing and the highlight in terms of venue of any academic conference in which I have participated (even if remotely conducted in my case!). The conference was held in Serbia because that is where the ROCOR Synod was headquartered for many years between the world wars and into World War 2, after its move to Constantinople with elements of the White Army and other refugees from the Red Terror in 1920, into the old patriarchate palace at Sremski-Karlovci, whence ROCOR had sometimes been called the Karlovsky Synod. There it kept alive a free Russian Orthodox Church for many years, before continuing to do so from its new post-World War 2 headquarters in New York City. I would be remiss also, given that geographic and historic locale of the conference, if I did not thank on a personal note Fr. Vedran Gabric of St. George Serbian Church in Hermitage, PA, and parishioners there for ongoing generous hospitality to our family. May God always prosper the friendship and historical link between the Serbian Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

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