Growing up in a Southern Orthodox community – St. Seraphim Cathedral – had its challenges as well as distinct advantages. To be sure our membership did not have social and educational resources provided for in other congregations by generous budgets. Neither did it possess the benefits of spacious facilities enjoyed by larger Churches: in fact, quite the contrary. The Cathedral’s initial building in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was a converted, one story, four room, wood frame home. The community itself boasted a membership numbering just a handful of families and single adults. Later the small converted home became exclusively the fellowship hall, when the community built a modest, insulated sheet metal chapel. Eventually the membership grew and the current two-story St. Seraphim hall was constructed in the early 1970’s. The new temple enjoyed today by the Dallas congregation was consecrated in April of 2001.
As a youngster, however, I never felt that our parish – given its modest size – was deprived of anything. The Church was our home, our spiritual family, and that experience which revolved around the liturgical life of Orthodoxy, made early St. Seraphim’s seem ten times larger than it was. Our considerable resources resided primarily in the hearts of the people whose faith, work ethic and comradery left a lasting impression on many. I consider myself extremely fortunate – blessed – to have grown up in a family oriented, close-knit Orthodox parish, with serious-minded clergy, as well as lay elders (men and women) who led by example. Pre-eminently of course, the presence and prayers of Archbishop Dmitri were a considerable help and inspiration, from St. Seraphim’s start in 1954 until His Eminence’s repose in 2011.
Being an Orthodox Christian in the Bible Belt forced a person to learn the fundamental precepts of his or her Faith – even as a child – so that an intelligible answer could be given to the question, “What is the Orthodox Church?” Addressing that question and speaking with others about the Church was something one came to expect. The idea of local missions and outreach was taken for granted by our parishioners. Conversions and baptisms were common experiences. Ours was an English speaking but multi-ethnic community, with cradle Orthodox as well as converts from various backgrounds, a congregation which enjoyed the company of inquirers regularly at liturgical services.
As a child and young teen, I was occasionally confronted with religious differences both at school and around my neighborhood. If nothing else I was asked by friends about “this Church to which I belonged” that had services on Saturday night, and for unheard of feasts; this Church that celebrated Easter on a different date than everyone else. In those days Western Good Friday was a school holiday, but I was always allowed an extra day off for Orthodox Good Friday, a “perk” that made my non-Orthodox friends somewhat envious. As a matter of fact, one of my neighbors accompanied us yearly to the midnight Paschal Service to check out and enjoy differences in Easter traditions for himself. It was his only regular exposure to Orthodox worship, but needless to say he found it fascinating. His family belonged to a local Protestant Church so our ways of celebrating Pascha stood in stark relief to Easter customs with which my friend was familiar: i.e. the Orthodox tradition of singing “Christ is Risen” repeatedly; the reading of the Gospel in various languages; the Paschal procession around the Church; the contrast between a totally dark, then brilliantly lit temple upon re-entering the building; the inspiring sermon of St. John Chrysostom; the blessing of Paschal baskets with rich foods not eaten during Lent; getting home at sunrise after three hours of worship and three hours of fellowship, and so forth. Yes, as youngsters we were a little tired on Bright Monday when we returned to school, but our fatigue was like a badge of honor: we had been through something uniquely special that weekend (not to mention that entire Holy Week) and we felt better for having experienced it.
Even though sharing Orthodoxy with others was part of our experience early on, it was not until later that I personally became aware of the profound significance of this sharing. Although relatively small in the 50’s and 60’s, given the Cathedral’s diverse cultural makeup and the example set by leaders, it just seemed natural – the thing to do – to speak about Orthodox Christianity with others and to welcome people into the fold, even young friends curious at first about the differences between Orthodoxy and their respective Churches.
I specifically offer at this time of year, these youthful recollections – partly out of nostalgia – but primarily as reminders of the importance of the sense of community for parish development. This emphasis is especially significant now, as we experience the rich traditions of the Lenten and the Paschal seasons, through which the messages of brotherly love, forgiveness and unity are repeatedly stressed. On Pascha night for example, we will sing, “Let us call brothers even those who hate us, and forgive all, by the Resurrection…” I also wish to encourage adult members of the Church to lead always by example as we encounter Christ, the very Image (Icon) of compassion and mercy, through Orthodoxy’s profound sacramental, liturgical life.
As we all know, Orthodox Christians residing in Texas find themselves in an area where the Orthodox Church is relatively unknown and sometimes misunderstood. Our children are certain to be asked religious questions and will have to respond to these inquiries to the degree that they understand the Faith, and in ways that are consistent with their respective ages and activity in Church life. The hope would be with our young ones, that their identity as Orthodox Christians, their love for the Faith attained through the experience of community, the “badge of honor” referenced earlier, acquired through Lenten and Holy Week efforts, that these will be so ingrained in their minds and hearts from little on, that they will be delighted to ask others to “come and see;” that the distinct character of their “religion” will be cherished and something they will want to share. At the same time, we adults must also try to embrace the challenges, both to foster a sense of Church family, and to make disciples of those around us, remembering that we are responsible for passing on the Orthodox Christian Faith to future generations. In a very real way however, it all begins now, with this Lenten season of repentance, of rededication and renewal.