When Ethnicity Becomes A Barrier
Over the years I have heard many grief stricken parents and grandparents lament the loss of their children and grandchildren from the Church. Sad as it may be, I'm not usually surprised, for over and over I've heard the sad truth behind this exodus from the Church. These parents did not raise their children to be practicing Orthodox Christians. They may have had their infant baptized, but the frequency of church attendance was not important, other than the need to keep those ethnic links to the "old country."
Parents, unless they are serious about their faith, often look upon baptism as the moment when their child is made Orthodox, but fail to realize the Mystery of Baptism is only the beginning of a life in Christ. These same parents know childhood inoculations against diseases are important, and they understand their child's long term health requires sound nutritional planning, exercise, and loving support for good mental health. Being loving parents, they wouldn't think good parenting ends with that one inoculation, yet they treat baptism as though it is a magical formula that assures their child is forever connected to the ethnic heritage of the family tree.
Orthodoxy cannot be seen as the ethnic link to a family's history, anymore than ethnic dancing and ethnic food, makes one Orthodox. It is fine to be proud of one's ethnic heritage, and want to preserve one's ethnic language and ethnic traditions. But our ethnicity does not save us. Only Christ saves us! Being Greek or Russian will not save us, for there is no grace in one's ethnicity. It is only the putting on of Christ, and becoming One Body in Christ, that will bring about salvation. We must not link ethnicity preservation to our Orthodox Faith, for in Christ there is "neither Greek nor Jew..." In Christ, we are one nation.
It is always sad to witness churches that are packed with Sunday worshipers who are only there because they want their cultural hit for the week. Getting together with people who are from the "old country," and who speak the language of their former country, is not what makes one Orthodox. Knowing the traditional dances from the old country, and eat ethnic foods that connect them with the old country, is fine. Yet, if these ethnic bastions only serve up cultural hits for the week, they are in danger of becoming barriers to knowing Christ. As well, if these parishes place so much emphasis on cultural and linguistic links to the old country, they are in danger of becoming nothing more than walled citadels of ethnic purity, keeping "outsiders" from entering into the Gates of Paradise. If visitors (potential seekers) to our Orthodox parishes find themselves outsiders in their own country, Orthodoxy will be seen as an ethnic club that is closed off to them.
This is the reason I so strongly believe Serbs, Greeks, Russians, Bulgarians, and all other immigrants, coming into the United States to better their economic life, should be welcomed by Orthodox parishes that instruct them in the Orthodox Faith, allow them to worship in the language of their adopted nation, and help them to become pious American Orthodox believers.
If we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past, that led to the exodus of the children and grandchildren of the last mass immigration, we must not repeat the same mistakes. If our children and grandchildren do not understand the language of worship, the faith will not become their own. And, if their friends are not made welcome in our churches, our children and grandchildren will eventually leave the Faith of their Ancestors, and we will stand, alone, wondering why our churches are empty, yet again.