Black Eastern Orthodox converts turn African American history into Orthodox history

Following in the footsteps of other religious movements associated with black identity, African American converts in the United States are adopting the full Orthodox doctrinal framework while adapting Orthodox forms to their history and needs, writes Elena V. Kravchenko in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (March). Her article is based on field research on the Brotherhood (now Fellowship) of St. Moses the Black, a group that was originally founded by Fr. Moses Berry of the Orthodox Church in America to provide assistance to Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees residing in St. Louis in the 1980s. Taking its name from a third-century Desert Father, the group now has chapters in a few cities, with both black and white members. Its publications not only emphasize the lives of African saints but draw a link between ancient African Christianity and the African American experience, similarly to the claims of other African American religious movements about their respective traditions.

Building on the Orthodox veneration for martyrs and exemplary people, members of the Brotherhood are “enfold[ing] Black Americans into the history of Orthodox Christianity” and recognizing African Americans who suffered for their faith, fought for the abolition of slavery, and engaged in the civil rights movement. They see the Orthodox tradition that has taken root among African Americans as “growing out of the seed of the blood of black American slave martyrs for Christ,” in the words of Fr. Berry. They reimagine African American history as Orthodox history, Kravchenko notes—although not claiming that the people they commemorate, who were never exposed to Orthodoxy, should be inserted into the Orthodox calendar of saints. “We should hold them up as confessors and heroes for ourselves and especially our youth,” writes Fr. Paisius Altschul. These people are seen as a source of inspiration for peaceful protests against injustice in an Orthodox way, with Fr. Berry declaring that “to make a change, we reach towards heaven, not the unrighteous wisdom of this world.”

(Journal of the American Academy of Religion,

Source: The Catalogue of Good Deeds, 2017