Taking the Ancient Faith to Today’s African Americans
August 27, 2011 Length: 35:20An impromptu choir led by Dr. Carla Thomas, Vice President of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, sings three Orthodox hymns and then Subdeacon Paul Abernathy, a recent graduate of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary, talks about his work with FOCUS North America.
Presenter: I’m so pleased to introduce a fellow Subdeacon, Paul Abernathy. He’s a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University, taking his Bachelors in International Studies. He has a Masters of Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh. He serves as a combat veteran of the Iraq War with the rank of Staff Sergeant. He has a Masters of Divinity from St. Tikhon’s Seminary. He goes to St. George in Bridgeville, and he is the Director of FOCUS Pittsburgh. So if you want more information about FOCUS, I suggest you pull him aside later and ask him. To bring us a word from the Lord, may I present Subdeacon Paul Abernathy in his own way.
Subdeacon Paul Abernathy: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. Christ is in our midst. He is always shall be. Your Grace, Bishop Matthias, Reverend Fathers and Mothers, brothers and sisters in Christ, The Ancient Faith for Modern Problems, it is the topic isn’t it?
Why don’t we add something? The Ancient Faith for Modern Problems facing African Americans, because Lord knows there are some, aren’t there? 70% of children in African American homes are born into broken families. 4,749 out of 100,000 African Americans are incarcerated compared to 708 whites out of 100,000 who are incarcerated.
Although African Americans only make up 12% of the population, 35% of abortions occur among African Americans. And we know when black folks move into a neighborhood, the property value goes down. There are problems facing African Americans in this day, and it is ours. This gift that we have, the Holy Orthodox Faith, we are called to share with and address those problems.
Some may ask, how is it that we proclaim this gospel of hope amidst such chaos? Well first we have to remember that it is indeed a gospel of hope, despite such chaos. And the Lord said in the Gospel of Matthew, in response to people wondering how do we know which ministers are from God and which are not. And the Lord said, “You shall know them by their fruit.” “You shall know them by their fruit.” And brothers and sisters, there are not enough people that know us by our fruit, because we have more fruit to offer in these neighborhoods that are suffering greatly.
Now just recently in the news, on Thursday, I saw that less educated Americans are losing their religion. The recent study less educated Americans are losing their religion. And perhaps that’s because we find it easier to evangelize among most educated folk, and we find it easier to evangelize in stable neighborhoods, and we find it easier to evangelize among people who have more similarities with ourselves than with differences.
But this isn’t what we’re called for. We are called to go to those who are indeed suffering; to help them carry their cross; to offer the gifts that we have to them; to let that grace, that Father Jerome spoke of, spill out unto them so that they may share and participate in the holiness that we experience.
Part of the reason that this occurs is that we aren’t living our faith with the same tenacity of the Early Fathers. We aren’t living our faith with the same tenacity that St. Anthony wrestled with demons in the desert. We aren’t living our faith with the same tenacity that St. Athanasius fought Arius with. And we aren’t living our faith with the same tenacity that St. Moses the Black overcame in fifteen years of struggle, his passions. We aren’t living our faith with the same tenacity of the Early Church. But when we go into our world and live our faith with that tenacity, it has a positive effect.
Now we have to do this in a way that is nonjudgmental. You know, it’s an easy thing to look at people and to say, “Well, you know, they live in a bad neighborhood, and they come from a poor upbringing. They don’t have much of a chance.” In fact, just Thursday, John Norman, Faith Foult, and myself and some other young men in the city of Pittsburgh were in the neighborhood of Homewood. We were delivering furniture to a recovering drug addict, a woman, who had no furniture and who had no job.
And we went in this house, and the only thing in this house was two mattresses and a TV. There were six children I think. There was another mother, a young mother maybe fourteen, and some of the children were hers. But they were laying in the mattress and this young mother didn’t even have the presence of mind to get out of the mattress when we walked in the room to deliver the dressers.
And we leave and we say, “What kind of future do those children have?” Well, not much, unless we live our faith out amongst them and bring the Holy Orthodox Church to them. And that’s what we are called to do. Now St. Gregory Palamas reminds us that some people, because their minds have gone so long without nourishment, lose their desire to eat and so do not notice the harm they are suffering.
St. Gregory Palamas reminds us that we are to be merciful with those who are living in despair; who have been without hope for so long that they see no other way, because no one has shown it to them. So we bring the Holy Orthodox Faith, and we bring it in love.
And those of you were there when we mentioned that young man, Rich, who was afraid for his life; who came to us yesterday a few days ago in the city of Pittsburgh. There are many young men who come to us just like him. And we have found that when we love them in an Orthodox Way, they respond. They respond in a repentant way.
Now I’m going to tell you about Tyrone. Tyrone is a young man who did his time in jail, and he’s on parole currently. He’s a young African-American man, and he came in to us the first time in FOCUS Pittsburgh to do his community service. He’s been back many times since then.
Actually, while I was out of the office one day, and Faith was in the office, there was a woman who walked in while Tyrone was sitting on the couch. She was a woman from the neighborhood, but she said, “You know, you got to get your act together. Parasites in this neighborhood keeping us down.” And she walked away and Tyrone said to Faith, “You know, that’s why I really like coming here, because you treat me like I’m human.” It was a new experience for Tyrone.
One day, we were working in a warehouse that we have for furniture that we take to needy families, and Tyrone was working in the warehouse. That particular morning, he showed up and he was telling us about his aunt who was starting a business. He was so proud that his aunt was starting this business. I mean, he cannot find work because he has a record.
In Pittsburgh, we have the highest poverty rate of working African Americans in the country. In hard economic times, a brother with a record trying to get a job is not very likely. But his aunt was starting this business to clean houses, a simple operation. But he was so proud, because if she started this business, she told him she would give him a job.
And later that day, we were working in the warehouse, and there was a laptop computer. Tyrone noticed the laptop computer, and he said, “You know, my aunt could use that for her business.” And we hadn’t offered that computer to anyone. It wasn’t reserved, so we said “Tyrone, you can have that computer for your aunt’s business.” We said, “Tyrone, you can have a phone too for your aunt’s business.” He said, “Nah, we have a phone. I’d rather someone who needs it, get it.”
Tyrone went about the day, and we did what we had to do. We came back to the office and we said that we had a computer in the back of a truck. And when Tyrone was getting ready to leave we said, “Make sure that you get your computer.” And he goes back and he grabs his computer in the box, and he comes back in the office and said goodbye to everyone.
And he takes two steps toward the door, and he stops and he says, “Do y’all take donations?” We say, “Yes, Tyrone. In fact we do take donations.” Tyrone said, “One minute.” We knew that he didn’t have a job, that his family was a poor family. But the extended family, the whole family, they had one car. It was a beat up, old Buick. He shows up in this beat up, old Buick for community service that morning.
So he goes outside and he puts his computer in the back of his beat up, old car. And then he walks around and he proceeds to take the floor mats out of each side of that car. And he comes back in and he says, “I’d like to offer these for someone who needs them. I wish I could give more, but this is all I have.”
We know in the Orthodox Church that repentance does not simply mean that we are sorry for our sins. Of course there is a sorrow that moves us to change our lives, and that’s what repentance is, to redirect our lives in a new direction. And that moment for Tyrone was repentance in the most Orthodox sense, because in that moment, he was not only sorry for what he had done, but he was changing his life, because he learned by being loved in an Orthodox way.
It’s an amazing thing to bring these young men together, young men that many other people won’t work with. And that’s part of it, isn’t it? To go out boldly and love in an Orthodox way, not only the poor, but the poor who no one else will love; the poor who have records, who sell dope on the corner, who kill people on the street, who have prostituted themselves for money; to love them first and to love them boldly and to bring them together and to see what kind of effect it has.
Now one of the things we have in Pittsburgh is a parochial mindset; all these neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. It’s a dangerous thing for a black man to go out at night, because if he runs into someone from another neighborhood, there might be gunplay. It’s very territorial out there.
And one of the things we have been graced to do is to bring these men, not only from the Hill District where we’re located, but from Homewood and from Lincoln and from Larimer and from East Liberty, from different neighborhoods who at one time were at war with one another, together in the same place doing good, not only for other people in the community, but for themselves.
I’m reminded of the Russian emissaries who went into the Hagia Sophia; went to eventually bring back Orthodoxy to Russia. And they went in Hagia Sophia, and they said they didn’t know if they were in Heaven or on Earth, and we think what a moment that must have been. Well, we can live that moment right now over and over again.
One day, we took these young men, who were once at war with one another, to pick up some furniture at an Orthodox Church, a beautiful Orthodox Church just like this. Then, we took them into the sanctuary to experience the beauty of the iconography of that temple. We brought them up, away from the chaos of their neighborhoods. We didn’t say very much at all. In fact, we said nothing at first, and allowed them to take in the beauty of the Church; to see their faces and the awe and the appreciation for the beauty of these windows into Heaven.
We could tell that for a brief moment, despite the violence and poverty of their lives, that they did not know, standing in that place, if they were in Heaven or on Earth. After that particular occasion, we took those guys to Kentucky Fried Chicken, and we got them a meal family style. And we sat down at a table, and we put down the buckets of chicken and biscuits and mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
And as these young men were getting ready to dig in, John Norman said, “Why don’t you bless the food, Subdeacon?” And we had just come from the beauty of that temple, and there was a peace about those young men. They bowed their heads, and we prayed. And in that moment that was from the peace that we brought from the glory of the Orthodox Church, we weren’t anything else but a family. We were a family. They weren’t enemies. They didn’t have histories with one another. They didn’t want to shoot each other’s friends. We were a family, and we prayed in an Orthodox way.
Now in the Early Church, there was a lot of suffering, and there was a lot of persecution. People, generally speaking, didn’t run to the authorities. In fact, the first place they went was the Church. In the 5th Century, St. Cyril of Alexandria, an African Saint, was a very beloved shepherd. There was a lot of tension in those days between the pagans, the Jews, and the Christians. One incident here and one incident there, and the persecution occurred against Christians.
And although it was within their right to seek protection from the Roman authorities, a mob of Christians frightened, terrified, and concerned for their well-being went to St. Cyril of Alexandria, because they knew that as their shepherd, who loved them so as Christ called him to do, that he was the first place they should go in time of trouble. They knew that when things got rough, the Church was the first place that they should go.
There’s a young man, a very gifted man, whose name is Kenny. He spent seventeen years in jail and like these other young men can’t find a job. And we knew, from the first time we heard him speak, that there was something special about this young man. And he’s asking, “Where are the black leaders of my generation? We have no Martin Luther King. We have no Malcolm X.” And the whole time I’m thinking, “It’s probably you.”
Seventeen years in prison. And he started out with us doing community service, but then he starts coming around on his free time because when he’s with us he’s in a safe place. When he’s with us, nobody is knocking on his door to come and do something bad. And when he’s with us, no one is going to be hunting him down to hang on the corner he used to hang out.
Kenny came and helped us one day to deliver some beds to a minister in the Hill District. A few days later that minister called me up. He said, “That brother who helped us deliver the beds. Is he around?” I said, “He is. He’s coming today in fact.” I knew he was coming. He said, “Listen, I have a favor to ask. My nephew Rashawn is starting to get in the streets, and I don’t know where else to take him, but I was hoping if I brought him to you that maybe Kenny could talk to him.”
That minister brought Rashawn down that afternoon Kenny was there. And I pulled Kenny aside and said, “Would you mind talking to Rashawn to try and keep him out of the streets.” He said, “No, I’d be happy to do that.” Rashawn came down and he sat in the chair for two hours, probably two of some of the most profound hours of my life. And Kenny told Rashawn how he was sorry that he had spent the last seventeen years in jail; how he was sorry that he could never get that time back.
He told Rashawn that his mother was now dying of emphysema, because when he was locked up she started smoking four packs a day. He told Rashawn how when he killed a man in prison, a year and a half after his sentence began, the first thing he thought was, “Is God ever going to forgive me?”
We don’t know the kind of effect Kenny’s words had on Rashawn, but we do know this: in time of trouble, our place, which Kenny affectionately refers to as “The Church,” this Orthodox minister knew that this was the first place that he should come. And that is the Early Church and that is the Ancient Faith.
I’ll just close with this one brief story. We were talking about FOCUS Pittsburgh. Well, we had an event and we mentioned the Hill District. It’s predominantly an African American neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It’s a lot of rich culture and history just like Fr. Moses spoke about yesterday. And we mentioned that we were taking this Orthodox ministry to the Hill District.
There was this woman standing in the audience, and her jaw dropped and her eyes filled with tears. She couldn’t believe that the Orthodox Church was going into the Hill District. So when she got a chance, she pulled me aside and said, “There’s a story that I have to tell you.” So she proceeds to tell me, after pulling me outside that she had been a city school teacher. She was a Greek Orthodox woman.
And she said that she had taught art and received a grant at one point to teach inner city kids about Greek culture and in the process had arranged to take them to that very same Orthodox Church, All Saints Orthodox Church in Canonsburg, that very same church that we took those young guys in. She brought these little children, from a bus, from the inner city, to this Greek Orthodox Church and as part of the grant to learn about Greek culture, they had priests and deacons talk about Orthodox music and the Orthodox faith and iconography and the Church.
And this priest was up there speaking, and the children were enamored. They were asking questions, and the questions died down. There’s this young, young African American boy by the name of Darien. And Darien, looking up at the beauty of the iconography, says, “Why can’t we have something this beautiful in The Hill?” It wasn’t long after that that young Darien was sitting on his front stoop, just at that moment a gunfight broke out and a bullet hit Darien and killed him.
Now that woman said at the time, when he said what he said, “Why can’t there be something that beautiful in The Hill,” how wonderful a dream that would be, but how impossible. And with tears rolling down her face, she said she was sure now that we were there because young Darien was at the foot of Christ’s throne praying that finally the beauty of Orthodoxy come to The Hill.
That’s the Ancient Faith. That’s what we are called to share and how we are called to share it. And for all of us, we can only do it if we are deeply rooted in the Orthodox Faith; if we participate in the sacramental life of the Church, if we accept our cross and carry it willingly. If it wasn’t Fr. Moses, Fr. Paisius, and everyone else here in the brotherhood, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing right now.
This conference is a blessing, for all of us together are blessed by one another. So I’m honored to be among you. And I look forward to getting to know each one of you and growing in the Lord together, because great things are happening. May God bless you all. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
"It keeps me tethered to my newfound faith when I am not at church. As a choir member, it keeps my mind on the music of the liturgy."