Monday, June 5, 2017

The Indian Orthodox Church in the US

Indian Orthodox Church in Raleigh
My wife and I returned to India in 2012 after being in the US for twenty years. Recently in 2017, which is after a break of five years, we visited the US.

I noticed that the Malayalee church communities are more vibrant and active in the US than in Kerala. People there are more active in the church activities. The primary reason for this seems to be that they are immigrants in a foreign land. They need to get together to see one another. The other six days they spend time with the general public, which consists of people of all races. On the seventh day, they get together to meet other people like them, to speak their own language, and to satisfy their nostalgia. The people encourage their children to be friends with others like them so that they may find life-partners from within the community itself.

Although the Malayalee community enjoys a higher living standard in the US than in Kerala, they still have a longing for the native land where they were born and raised. Although they have better food, better roads, and better comforts in the US, still they are aliens where they live, and their hearts long for their homeland. They satisfy this longing to certain extent when they get together on the seventh day in their church.

The parish I used to go while I was there earlier looked radically different. Being in Texas it gained a lot more people than it used to have. More and more people have been migrating to the south. It used to have the same vicar for over twenty years, and as he was directly involved in the administration of the parish, there were always conflicts between the vicar and some members. The bishop effectively implemented a transfer system for the priests, and this parish got a new vicar who could help the community grow to become a very lively and vibrant one. People enjoy being there.

The priest who was in charge of this parish has been transferred to another parish, where he is being successful. He is giving leadership to build a new building. This shows beyond doubt that the problem was not with the priest or with the people, but with the system. 

A transfer system is not yet implemented in the North. We had the opportunity to visit a couple of parishes in New York. The ones we visited were managed by very mature priests, who could keep the parish together in spite of the fact that they have been in the same position for a long time. I learned that they did not involve themselves in the church administration very much. They assumed the role of a father-figure, and not that of an administrator. So they could avoid conflicts with the members to a great extent.

As I understand, a priest has three different roles in his parish:

1. A Father-- leader of the community life. From this position, he is expected to care for the well-being of the community. Anyone should feel free to approach the priest in times of emotional distress. He is a leader or shepherd who will guide the community. He is also a role model young people can look up to. He should be able to counsel and teach people. From this role, his service should be available not only to the members of the community, but also to all others who seek help and support. If a community does not have a strong father-figure, it can’t have a healthy existence. In order to perform this role, one needs maturity and counseling skills.

2. A Priest-- leader of worship. A priest leads the community in conducting the worship-- its sacraments, its holy days etc.

3. A Vicar-- leads the administrative matters. Representing the bishop, he leads the group of people elected for the administration of the church property, its activities and its income and expenses. 

Of these three roles, the first one is undoubtedly the most important one. Lay people in the community, who are mature and have counseling skills, can help and support him in performing this role. Regarding the second role, only a priest can lead the community in liturgical worship.

Regarding the third one, his role has to be minimal. He may preside over the General body meetings and committee meetings, but his role should not go beyond being a moderator or a facilitator of the meetings. He can even designate a vice president to conduct these meetings. He needs to be like the president of India, without having a direct involvement in the administration. He needs to let the elected lay people directly involve in the administration. If he directly gets involved in the administration, he won’t be able to do his primary role as the father of the community. Wherever a priest gets involved in the administration, he fails as a father. He becomes the leader of one party or group, and fails to keep the entire community united.

Priests need to heed to Jethro’s advice to Moses, his son-in-law. Jethro saw all people coming to Moses with all sorts of administrative problems all daylong, and Jethro advised him to designate assistants who would take care of administrative matters, so that Moses could devote his time and energy to perform his primary role, as the father/leader of the community. Priests also need to follow the example of the apostles when they handed over the administrative matters to the seven deacons, so that they could focus their attention to prayer and preaching.

In the seminaries, where the priests are trained, they are trained primarily to perform their second role-- to lead the worship. I think a shift of focus is needed. They need to be trained primarily to perform their primary role -- as a father of the community. They also need to be taught how to be a vicar without directly getting involved in the administration.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Good Friday in Raleigh Orthodox Church

My wife and I were in the United States during the passion week. For Good Friday, we had the opportunity to attend the church in Raleigh in North Carolina. Fr. M.K. Thomas is its vicar, and Fr. Tenny Thomas serves as the assistant vicar. Fr. M.K. Thomas, well-known as a very scholarly priest, is unable to perform his priestly duties due to his ill-health. Fr. Tenny Thomas, well-known in the Orthodox church in the US, is a scholar as well as a charismatic leader. I felt happy at some of the innovations I noticed there, which I like to share here.
In Raleigh Orthodox Church

1. Fr. Tenny Thomas, who led the worship, was very people-friendly. Toward the end people were supposed to come to the front to kneel down and kiss the cross. Before that he made an announcement that those who have back pain may wait till the end, when he would hold the cross up so that they can kiss the cross without kneeling down. I was really excited to hear this announcement. 

At the time of the procession, he announced that although it is customary to exit through the south door to begin the procession, as people have their shoes outside the west door, they may exit through the west door and wear their shoes and then come outside the south door. I was excited to hear this announcement as well.

Once the worship was over, we saw Fr. Tenny Thomas outside the church mingling with people as if he was one among them. Here is a priest who cares for the people. When people realize that the priest cares for them, they will care for the priest in return.

2. I noticed that Fr. Tenny Thomas was making a conscious effort to make the worship meaningful to the congregation. At the time of the cross celebration, I noticed that he took the freedom to elaborate some of the phrases to make them meaningful. For example, instead of saying “He whom the angels serve” he would say, “Let us also serve the one whom the angels serve”.

3. Fr. Thomas helped all people follow the worship by making arrangements to project the entire worship on the walls in the front. All the songs and prayers were projected in two places in the front wall, so that the congregation could conveniently read everything and participate in the worship. This could eliminate the need for using books by the participants. Someone was in charge of doing the projection, and he did an excellent job.

4.I also noticed that in order to accommodate those young people who can use only English, many of the songs and prayers were in English. As everything was projected on the wall, people could follow everything in spite of the difference in language. Songs and prayers in Malayalam were projected in Malayalam script as well as in its transliteration in English.

What I saw in the Orthodox church in Raleigh is an example that all priests everywhere may follow. Let the people feel joyful to be in the church! Let them know that they are cared for. Let them experience love and peace there, so that they can carry love and peace with them outside in their daily life! Let the worship be meaningful to the people! Let them experience God in the church!