Ancient Faith Presents…:
Reverend Fathers, My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Before I begin this evening, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the organizers of this event for extending me this invitation to speak to you all tonight: the Winnipeg Orthodox Clergy Association, the entire Community of St. Demetrios Winnipeg, the President and the Parish Council, the Philoptochos Society, and (last but not least) my very good friends Fr. Theodore and Presbytera Joanna Paraskevopoulos for their hospitality and Christian filia.
During my first visit to your city, I saw how beautiful and vibrant your city is. The Greek Orthodox Metropolis had Youth Retreats all across Canada that year, and the one held in Winnipeg was the most successful. I learned a lot about successful youth ministry during that trip to your city, and how your Orthodox Christian community was an example for the rest of Canada.
When Fr. Theodore asked me to come to your city, I have to say I was very happy that I would be with you this evening. It’s always a joy to be with other Orthodox Christians during these events at Great Lent. When he asked me to speak, though, I have to say I was kind of taken aback. “What am I even going to say?” I thought. “We don’t talk about this stuff during the year, let alone during Lent!” That’s why, though, I decided to take on this topic. This evening’s topic is a very important one that we as Orthodox Christians rarely talk or act upon – but that needs to change! I’m so happy and proud that Winnipeg is at the talking about this important topic in the life of the Church, taking a leadership role (rather than places like Toronto, which will be followers in this discussion and not leaders). So… to the matter at hand.
The term mission is one that we as 21st century Orthodox Christians rarely refer to. Our minds usually reflect on the historical missionary work of the Church (with great missionaries such as Sts. Gregory the Enlightener, Methodius and Cyril, Kosmas Aitolos, Herman of Alaska or John Maximovich, just to name a few). We usually think of the missionary activities in parts of the world that are going through economic hardship, such as Africa and South America. We’re reminded of the various commercials and public service announcements on television and online, with pictures of children trying to guilt people into giving “only $20 a month to bring a smile to this child’s face”.
If we go online, Wikipedia tells us mission involves “sending individuals and groups ... to foreign countries and to places in their own homeland.” Many remember the ‘foreign countries’ part of that statement. That’s where all the advertising is, that’s where the message is centred around, and has been identified as such for decades. Yet, that is precisely the problem with Christian mission in 21st century Canada: many of us tend to play the “shift-the-blame game” with Orthodox mission and expect either clergy or “other religious people” to worry about this miniscule thing we call ‘spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ’. We tend to forget the words of the Great Commission, found in Matthew 28:16-20, where Jesus tells His disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (vv. 19-20) This command to spread the Gospel is, of course, not limited to them; rather, it is a command for all ‘disciples of Christ’, all people who follow Him.
Every Christian is a missionary! Every Christian must spread the Good News!
Now, we have to be realistic: we are not going to hop on the next Air Canada flight to Japan or Libya to help people with the crises they are facing. Jesus is not asking all of us to do this in the passage. At that time, some disciples left Jerusalem and spread the Gospel, while some stayed in their homeland to spread the Gospel there. The same is true with us: some are called to spread the Gospel as missionaries far from here, while most can still live up to this call of Christ while staying in our own backyard.
The Lord even did us a favour: He has us in Canada, where every person (save the Native Canadians) is from another country (be it France, England, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, South Korea ...and the list goes on).
This evening, I want to talk with you about Mission at Home: Reaching out to our Local Community.
For us to understand Mission at Home, we must take a different approach than we have so far in dealing with this topic. For our purposes tonight, I’ve named it the LENT approach:
Learning who we are, who our neighbour is and where our Community is
Eliminate barriers and build relationships
Naming programs and services we need to start and continue
Thinking past Pascha – a year-round ministry
Learning who we are, who our neighbour is and what our Community is:
It’s a hard question to answer because – in most cases – we will not say the truth. It’s a hard question to answer because – most times – we just don’t know the answer. It’s a hard question to answer because – most times – we can’t face facts: answering the question “who am I?” is something that takes a lifetime to figure out. Yet, simply addressing this question is essential in beginning our journey in “mission at home”. The ancient Greeks had the axiom γνώθι σαυτόν (‘know thyself’). Today, the internet has polls and questionnaires to tell people who is “the smartest”, who has the best “Jersey Shore IQ” and “the most Conservative, Liberal, NDP or Green”. Tonight, we aren’t here to examine this question; however, it’s important to discuss briefly about who we are. Why? Because knowing who we are will show us if and how we can participate in mission:
1. We are human beings – In Genesis, God tells us He created humanity in His image and likeness. We are not like the rest of creation: we are people who have the opportunity to have a relationship with the Lord in a most intimate and mysterious way. When we look at one another, we should see Christ, we should see an image of God. However, that image is sullen by sin.
2. We are living in a sinful reality – In the beginning, the world was made
‘good’ (and humanity ‘very good’ – καλώς λίαν) by God. Due to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, though, humanity begins to live in a sinful reality. The devil begins to show his presence in the world and his deception has been here to tempt humanity ever since.
3. We are persons who have free will – The sin of Adam and Eve did not take place because God wanted it to be so – it took place because they were free to do so. Humanity, therefore, has free will. Whatever we do in life, we do because we are free. No freedom means slavery, but God did not make us slaves. He gave us freedom so we can become His children by grace – which is what happens when we are baptized and live an Orthodox Christian life.
4. We are Orthodox Christians – Some of us were baptized as infants, while some were baptized later in life. All of us are here today, however, because we chose to be here and worship God. Although we are in the image of God, we are aiming to be in His likeness, using our free will properly to glorify God and help our fellow man. So, as Orthodox Christians, we should feel it is our duty to be spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.
As we’ve talked about ‘who we are’, we come to the next question: “who is my neighbour”? When Christ was asked this question, He told the people one of the most famous parables we have in Scripture: the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable is worth another read:
“A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 On the next day, when he departed,[j] he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ 36 So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” 37 And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Far from the theological underpinnings of the parable, the Good Samaritan reminds us that every single person is our neighbour. Samaritans and Jews – at the time of Christ – did not particularly like each other. In fact, they hated each other. It should have been the Samaritan to pass over the person on the road; yet, he stopped and cared for his fellow human being. He didn’t see him as a foreigner or stranger, but saw him as a human being, an image of God.
We do the same during every Divine Liturgy, when we pray for our neighbours: those who are the poor, the sick, the suffering, and those in captivity; for travellers by land, sea and air; the married, the single, the infants, youth and elderly; those in mines, in exile, in harsh labour; for those who love us and for those who hate us.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom has a very interesting way of seeing our neighbour: Every one of us is in the image of God, and every one of us is like a damaged icon. But if we were given an icon damaged by time, damaged by circumstances, or desecrated by human hatred, we would treat it with reverence, with tenderness, with broken-heartedness. We would not pay attention primarily to the fact that it is damaged, but to the tragedy of its being damaged. We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty, and not on what is lost of its beauty. And this is what we must learn to do with regard to each person as an individual, but also - and this is not always as easy - with regard to groups of people, whether it be a parish or a denomination, or a nation. We must learn to look, and look until we have seen the underlying beauty of this group of people. Only then can we even begin to do something to call out all the beauty that is there. Listen to other people, and whenever you discern something which sounds true, which is a revelation of harmony and beauty, emphasize it and help it to flower. Strengthen it and encourage it to live.
For, Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute, at the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty.
In Canada, we have so many “neighbours” – from the people who live next to our homes, to the people we see every day at school, at work, on the bus, at hockey, etc. If anyone looks around them tonight, they will see a room full of brothers and sisters. Either a fellow Orthodox Christian or not, they are our neighbour who we are called to love. Why? Well, “We love because Christ loved us first” (1 Jn. 4:19).
So, saying who we are and who our neighbour is, it is easier to identify what our Community is. It is:
a. Our Parish
b. Our City
c. Our World
The Community is where we worship together, co-exist with others, raise our kids, go to school, work to put food on the table. Yet, Winnipeg is not the only “community” we are a part of: there’s the “Facebook community”, the “Twitter community”, the “MSN” and “Skype” community that we’ve all been thrust into – and let’s not forget the “Fox”, “CBC” and “CNN” communities we’re all a part of, simply by owning a Blackberry, iPhone or a PC (or, in Father Ted’s case, an iPad 2).
Our Community is something totally new – something that we haven’t really witnessed in our world. So, it’s important that the local Community is not forgotten in the midst of globalization and the global community we encounter every day the moment we wake up or go to sleep. The local community is a microcosm of the world as we know it…but it’s also the place we can start to find the truth of the Gospel. That is why – if ministry is to be successful – we must also…
Eliminate barriers and build relationships:
If there were no barriers, there would be no need for mission. Which person would not go and feed, clothe and take care of their brother or sister, if they saw them out on the street in need? Very few people would say ‘no’ to this. Having said that, this statement only pertains to the “brothers and sisters” in the flesh – and not our spiritual brothers and sisters, our true neighbours. All of us put barriers when it comes to mission:
1. Race – How many times have we put a ‘mark’ on people because they look different than us? ‘If they’re not “Greek”, they can’t come to a “Greek Orthodox Church”,’ we say. We tend to say, “if they are this- and-this race, they must be thieves, drunks,” and the list goes on. Racism is one of the greatest sins, because we degrade the human being, who is in the image of God, into a ‘thing’. Ethnophyletism is a heresy – a heresy that, as Canadian Orthodox Christians, we must fight.
2. Economic Class – People say that we are an ‘inclusive’ society and we don’t separate anyone…unless they aren’t in our pay bracket. If we see someone who is destitute, a lot of people don’t have a problem saying, “get a job” or “hey, don’t touch me!” Division based on economic class has been around for millennia, but Christ sat with the rich and the poor. We are called to do the same.
3. Political Stripes – There’s election fever (or, probably, dissatisfaction and apathy) in the air with another Federal Election on May 2nd. In Ontario, we have a provincial election coming up, too. Some people are apathetic, but others won’t talk to you if you’re a Liberal, Conservative, NDP, Green or a member of another party. I remember talking with a friend the night Obama was elected, saying he would be a good President. She yelled at me and said “those people [i.e. Democrats] are not Americans” and didn’t talk to me for a good month. Dividing people based on political stripes is ridiculous, but can also be very divisive in families and the community in general.
4. Faith – Unfortunately, I once ran into a person that would ask those he didn’t know, “are you Orthodox? The Orthodox Church prays for you, but not with you.” (A priest friend of mine called him “the spiritual police”). While studying for my Masters Degree at a Protestant seminary, a classmate of mine said, “if you’re not Protestant, you’re going to hell.” (I answered to him, “see you there”...not the best answer, yes). How many wars and conflicts begin because faith divides instead of bringing people together? As Orthodox Christians, we are called to pray for “the whole world”. As Orthodox Christians, we should emulate Christ – who healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman (who was a pagan) and whose Gospel is proclaimed to both Jew and Gentile.
For mission to succeed in our local community, these barriers need to come down. Jesus did the same in His ministry: when the Roman general’s servant was ill, Jesus did not say “I’m only here to help the people of Israel, I’m not here for you.” He cured the general’s servant without hesitation. The Apostles did not restrict themselves in evangelizing only to the Jews of the world: St. Paul is known as the “Apostle of the Nations” because he made it a point to go anywhere and everywhere so people would have the opportunity to get to know Jesus Christ and believe in Him. His beautiful verse in Galatians 3:28 says it all: “there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, because you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
So, for us to begin mission in our local community, we need to build relationships. The relationships we need to cultivate in mission, of course, start and end with Jesus Christ, as He is the root of our mission. God- centred mission gives hope to the success of the mission. Mission can be separated into three categories: the family itself, the unchurched and the suffering.
When I was writing this presentation, I called a friend of mine in Chicago who has been on various missions trips. I thought, “she’ll be able to give me some great ideas about mission at home.” The first thing she asked me was, “did you mention anywhere in your talk about ‘the home’ itself?” I would have never thought of it, and many people usually don’t – however, it’s the place we should always begin.
The home is a place where we should come together and grow in Christ. Mission within the household is expressed through the different roles we have. Our vocation is to be a good father, mother, son or daughter. All too often, however, we have adults who live their “vocation” as a lawyer, doctor, politician, accountant… but not as a parent for their children. We have children living their “vocation” as – for example – a student or athlete, but not living their vocation as a child in their family.
The relationships of parents with children (and amongst each other) need to be nurtured in order for the family to be an example for all, almost like a
‘little church’ (κατ’οίκον εκκλησία) where Christ is the centre. If a child is raised in the faith, he or she can show their peers about the Church and witness the truth of the Gospel, no matter how simple the language. (A perfect example of this is “Camp Metamorphosis”, with youth making it a Christ-centred experience they will remember for a very long time). The same is true for parents: if a mother and father of a family are committed Orthodox Christians, they can “rub off” in a positive way to their peers.
It’s a struggle with the family, because it’s a part of “mission at home” that lasts literally for a lifetime. This mission begins when we’re conceived and ends when we shut our eyes for the final time on this earth. Yet, that’s what makes this mission so rewarding, too: we’re serving God in helping the people He gave us.
We give them “interesting names”: sometimes they’re called “Easter Lillies and Christmas Poinsettas” or “the C-N-E’s” (Christmas ‘n Easter or Christmas Nameday Easter Christians). They were baptized at some point but, somewhere along the way, they lost touch with the Church – except for the occasional visits during Pascha, Christmas, maybe their nameday and, of course, attending the “C-N-E trinity” (weddings, baptisms and funerals).
If we think of the Church as a beautiful mosaic, these people “missing in action” is as if an entire part of the mosaic was ripped off and discarded. This part of ‘mission at home’ is very important, but a part that is probably the most difficult. Why? There is not a lot of support for people that leave the Church. There is no “A.A. meeting” they can go to, no person that will usually call and say “hey, I haven’t seen you at church for a while.” Studies show that if a person makes no effort to contact the unchurched within two to three weeks, you usually have lost them for the year (if not longer), coming back for the ‘high holidays’ mentioned above.
Whereas the unchurched can be people you’ve never met before, this issue almost always arises in our own families, with parents and/or children not having a connection with the Church. This witnessing is then amongst the family members. There are times that a family member does not want anything to do with the Church for various reasons. This is when the rest of the family – prayerfully – comes together to witness to the one who is off the path of the Kingdom. It is as simple as acting Christ-like to the person, being kind – especially when they might be hurtful or rude.
The important thing with the unchurched is not to pass judgment on them. It is easy to sit back and condemn them as “sinners who are not welcome at church, anyway.” The unchurched are people that God also wants to see in His Kingdom. The power of prayer is great! Remember Christ’s words: “let your light shine before all people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.” (Mth. 5:16)
The suffering is the last group of people that we need to be missionaries to here at home. They are people that may be poor and destitute, they could be part of the so-called “middle class”, or even the very well-off. The suffering are not contained in a single ‘pay bracket’. They are not people that are one particular race, creed, gender or faith. One thing is certain: every single one of these people need someone to reach out to them and guide them to the Truth.
But, where are these people guided from? Where do these people begin their journey? They are guided from the difficulties of depression, isolation or rejection from their peers. They are guided from the dark alleys of prison, drugs and alcohol abuse. They are guided to from the bed of illness, the problem-filled house or workplace.
Why do these people suffer? Some people have physical suffering due to illness (either afflicting them or those close to them). Others suffer due to abuse, which can be self-inflicted or inflicted by others (physical, sexual, mental or emotional). Others still experience suffering after emotional trauma, such as a death, a break-up, an impending divorce. There is no ‘set list’ of reasons that people suffer, but we can always feel its effects.
All of us do not need to turn on our T.V. or go online to see suffering. Most times, all we need to do is sit down and talk with someone. I had a mother who wanted to talk to me after a Divine Liturgy four Sundays ago and I thought she wanted to talk to me about Sunday School. “Just for five minutes”, she told me. The ‘five minutes’ turned into a half hour, as she began to tell me about how her son was diagnosed with autism. It was a day that broke my heart, because her son is just 3 years old.
Having said that, all of us – as missionaries for Christ’s Gospel to be spread – need to remember that these are individuals that need to be ministered to and cared for by us! If Jesus calls us, as Christians, “the salt of the earth… [and] the light of the world” (Mth. 5:13, 14), we are called to reach out to those people in pain and do the simple things. We would never let our family suffer alone; so, we shouldn’t let a brother or sister in Christ suffer alone, either. As we mission in our local community to these people, we not only build a relationship that could blossom into a great friendship; rather, we are helping people remember that God loves them – a message that sometimes gets lost in sermons on Sunday morning.
These relationships will help put Jesus’ words into practice: “love your neighbour as yourself”. Making this command a reality, though, is not simply done by establishing relationships, but…
Naming programs and services we need to start and continue:
In helping name the programs and services, one needs to look at St. Basil the Great and his wonderful visionary complex, Βασιλειάδα. In
Βασιλειάδα, he was able to feed people both spiritually and materially. Not only teaching people about the faith, St. Basil taught Christian
compassion through Βασιλειάδα – a great Cathedral Church, a shelter for the deprived, a house for the aged, a hospital (with many doctors and nurses to help those suffering), a residence for the poor, a leper colony.
Spiritually, the programs we should offer must begin with a renewed look on the spiritual relationship with the Church. The Sacramental life of the community (the Eucharist, Repentance and Confession, etc.), along with things such as Re-Catechism, Bible studies and other information sessions on the Faith (in person - like this one tonight, hopefully – or online, like iEcclesia, iSermon and other programming found on websites such as Ancient Faith Radio) should help people who are already involved in the Church learn more about Christ and His love for humanity. For people that do not feel comfortable getting involved in so many programs because they belong to the CNE group (for whatever reason), it is important for us to not shy them away but to offer them that positive atmosphere that Christ gave to the woman who was found in the act of adultery. She was condemned by everyone, ready to stone her, but He stood and said, “Let the person who hasn’t sinned cast the first stone.” So, let’s not throw any stones of hatred or jealousy to these people who do not go to our services. Let’s treat them with love and compassion, being there to help them on their spiritual journey. Who knows – as we talk with them, we might be looking at a future glorified saint of the Church.
Along with feeding people spiritually, we need to make sure the programs are there to feed people materially. Although there are so many other programs we can offer to those in need, I’d like to mention two.
1. As “the friend of the poor”, the Philoptochos Societies of our parishes should be a leader when it comes to mission in our local communities. They are the group that should organize the food/clothing/toy drives. They are the ones who should be heading out to feed the homeless at the shelters in our communities. They are the ones who should visit the shut-ins and offer any assistance to people who visit our churches and need a warm meal later on during the day.
Unfortunately – in most of the country – we view Philoptochos as people who merely help out with meals at the church, fundraise for certain projects and are ‘great volunteers’ – except when it comes to Philanthropy . Unfortunately , I’ve encountered many chapters that merely say “we help at Christmas and Easter, but people need to come to us for help.” Therein lies the first problem: we’re being reactive and not proactive. Few times do our churches go out and say, “we’re going to set up every week at this homeless shelter or this mission, so that we can feed the poor.” Only by pointing the finger at ourselves and by recognizing our faults, brothers and sisters, are we going to take the next step in our ministry, in our mission to our local community.
Another small problem with the Philoptochos society is one that might be a bit controversial, at first listen: the Church only can have half its members in this organization. It’s an organization that is exclusive to women, with men usually being on the Boards of Directors or other committees. Philanthropy, however, should be limited to one gender. Philanthropy is something that should be of paramount importance for every single Christian! We hear in the Gospel of Judgment Sunday that if we have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, visited the sick and suffering, it is as if we have offered these gifts to Christ.
Maybe then, brothers and sisters, it is time to re-think what Philoptochos is for us in our Churches. Our women have offered so much and have helped countless people. Maybe it’s time for the gentlemen of the parish to be involved a little more in being ‘friends of the poor’. Maybe it’s time, also, for the Philoptochos to embrace both genders and move forward united for the glory of God.
2. Whereas the Philoptochos is there to assist people with day-to-day needs, Social Work, Counselling and Crisis Intervention are three big areas where we need to help people with the emotional scars or other problems they might be facing. As I mentioned before, our communities have people who need to hear about the love of Christ and ways for them to stop their alcohol and drug abuse, to help deal with the problems they might be facing with family, friends and/or other relationships. This is something we have not really focused on as a Church. If we are to continue as a Church to minister “to all nations” in our local community, this is a necessity. Whereas secular counsellors are “problem-focused”, we should have a more holistic approach, with an overarching goal being spiritual betterment.
Obviously, this program must be dealt with by the proper people. A person without the right training cannot deal with people who have suffered drug problems, alcohol abuse, suicide, etc. That is why people in our community hopefully will receive a calling to assist the parish priests with this very important ministry. Orthodox Christians should feel a sense of mission by the commandment of Jesus Christ: “love one another as I have loved you.” That is why we shouldn’t hold back in asking these people – doctors, psychiatrists, counsellors and others – for their help. They can create a world of difference for those who are suffering!
The rest of us can support these programs by supporting them spiritually (through prayer), by spreading the word to people that we know are in need (advertising is always important) and financially (because “if we have two tunics, give one to your neighbour” – and we have many tunics we can give for these neighbours who are in need).
Now, there are other programs that can be brought up. I found out, though, that we will have a Q-and-A after this, so I would like to hear from all of you what programs you believe we should have to minister to the local community. All programs should not merely confine us to spreading the Gospel through our words: they should reflect our discipleship, our call to serve our neighbour.
Thinking past Pascha – a year-round ministry
Although tonight I named it “The LENT Approach”, this call to ministry is not limited to any time of year. Jesus did not say “miracles will only happen for these 40 days” or “for this feast and that feast”. Lent and Holy Week are times of spiritual reflection and a chance to ‘recharge our spiritual batteries’. Pascha is not, however, an end to ministering to the poor until Christmas. It is just another stepping stone to the Kingdom, a call to further continue the ministry set before us. I think this story is a perfect example of this:
In Greece, during the depression, there were very few rich people. There was, however, a rich woman who decided that, every Christmas and Pascha, to spread some of her wealth with her fellow citizens. On Christmas, she went to the priest of her ancestral village and said, “Father, here are 1000 drachmas – spread the wealth and give to whoever is in need.” She left for Athens after Christmas and stayed there, thinking she had done a wonderful deed and received some ‘spiritual brownie points’. Pascha came along and, once again, the woman went back to her village with another 1000 drachmas. As she was ready to give it to the priest, he kindly refused the money and went towards the Church. “Father! I can’t believe you! I’m giving you so much money and you tell me you don’t need it!?” The Priest replied: “My child, I would take your money and give it to the needy…but, sadly, there are no more needy left. They all died during the last few months, as we had no food in the village.”
Hunger, thirst, poverty and the chance for mission never take holidays. As a community of Faith, guided by the Holy Spirit, let’s all begin – or continue – this journey of faith to the Kingdom, helping our brother and sister in need, remembering the words of St. Anthony the Great (“our life and death is with our neighbour”) and those of our Lord (“Love the Lord God with your whole heart, our all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself.”)
If we remember these things (and I say “we” because I was talking to myself in this speech, too – the one who preaches usually preaches to themselves first, because they need to ‘walk the talk’, too) – So, if we remember these things, mission at home and reaching out to our local community will become second- nature for us as Orthodox Christians and we truly will be the brightest lights of the world.