Volume 4: Number 6

July 1, 2013

Wonder Volume 4: Number 6

Who Are We?

A vision of the OCA in the 21st century

Orthodoxy has been in the New World for over two hundred years now, with every intention of remaining as a permanent witness to Christ here in America. But the unique history of the American continent has presented the Church with innumerable challenges for keeping good order on the Western front. These challenges have required a careful, intelligent and prayerful vision of each generation as we strive to move forward, and it behooves us to reflect occasionally on our organization and its mission and vision. Who are we? What is the identity and purpose of the Orthodox Church in America? Five authors have reflected on this topic, and offer us personal experiences of our Church’s vision – a vision that sees our Church positioned to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the American continent. We hope that you find these reflections enjoyable and inspiring, and that you gain a better sense of the OCA, of who we are, and what it is that we’re working toward.

Orthodoxy Is Not Here By Accident
Fr Michael Koblosh

Anna and the Church
Fr Eric Tosi

Growing From Our Ethnic Roots
Dr Peter Bouteneff

Not a Penny at the Door 
Mr Will Kopcha

Just the Church
Mr Andrew Boyd

Orthodoxy Is Not Here by Accident

July 1, 2013

Orthodoxy Is Not Here By Accident

Fr. Michael Koblosh

“Orthodoxy is not here by accident.” FROC

I heard these words when I was a teenager in the late 1950’s attending a FROC (“Federated Russian Orthodox Club”) in New York City.  The FROC at that time was the major youth organization in the Church.  The “here” the speaker was talking about was America – the United States.  These words stuck in my mind and began to change my understanding of the church.

The church I grew up in, in the 1940’s and 50’s, was still very ethnic. The people were either foreign-born immigrants or their children and grandchildren.  Coming from Eastern Europe, the immigrants identified themselves as being “Russian.”  Services were mostly in Slavonic, although in the 50’s a “Pro-liturgy, ” served in English, was introduced.  This service – which is a Divine Liturgy, but without an offering of holy gifts and communion – was celebrated before the Slavonic Liturgy.  It was an attempt to introduce English into worship, but without abandoning Church Slavonic.  Since we went to confession and communion only once a year – during Great Lent – this service seemed to “make sense,” and was popular.

My parish in Yonkers, New York, was typical of parishes at that time:  immigrants came from Europe during the Great Immigration seeking a better life for themselves.  Slavic peoples tended to settle in clusters in cities were there was work in industry requiring little education – or in coal mining regions.  One of the first things they did was to establish a church and, since few had cars, the church was usually in walking distance of most of the members. As a child, my social group outside of school comprised of kids from the church.  We would often go to the church on our own for services or various youth programs, and lived close enough to hear the daily bells.

For the immigrants, the church was a haven of familiarity in a strange land.  Besides the comfort of worship for people separated from their families, the church was a place where they could be with “their own,” speak their native language and enjoy the food and music of their culture.  Church life in such a parish was self-enclosed with little thought that Orthodoxy had something to say to America.  Converts were few.  Those converts who were in the church were usually those who married “Russian Orthodox” spouses and joined the church.  Intellectual life in such a parish was weak or non-existent.  There were few books in English on Orthodoxy, and many of the immigrants were practically illiterate.  In response to the large number of children the 1950’s(my church had close to 100 children), books and pamphlets in English for church school programs began to appear. These materials were translations of Russian school books or pamphlets on Bible study, with some explanations of the church’s worship.  Fundamentally, though, we learned “church” through worship and through family and the people in the church.

Changes began to be felt in our church in the late 1950’s and early 60’s – the precipitation of a renewal in the Russian Church that had begun in the 19th century, and drifted West through Europe and eventually to America in the decades after the Communist Revolution of 1917. Orthodox life and thought was presented in a deeper way, through literature, and now in English.   My first encounter with this renewal movement was Father Bulgakov’s The Orthodox Church, a book I bought at the same FROC convention where I heard that “Orthodoxy is not here by accident.” For me, that book was life altering.  Although it presented Orthodoxy in a new way, I somehow understood precisely what Father Bulgakov was saying.[1]  Bulgakov revealed Orthodoxy as being universal and not just for “Russians;” as being in unbroken continuity with earliest Christianity; and as having a place in my own American culture and life as it really is.

During the 1960’s translations of services into English accelerated, and the meaning of worship was presented in a compelling and inclusive way. Despite the skepticism of some of the more ‘traditionalist’ immigrants, parishioners began to go to communion more frequently, and one began to see more “non-Russians” joining the church.

“Orthodoxy is not here by accident.”

The early immigrants would probably not have understood the meaning or implication of those words.  It is for the generations after them to understand that God used the immigration for His own purposes, and to incarnate those words into action.  America has yet to hear the Orthodox word – a word that is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant but which echoes and resonates with the unbroken vision and preaching of earliest Christianity.  Orthodoxy was brought to America through Alaska.  Their writings and labor reveal that the original Russian missionaries keenly felt that “Orthodoxy is not here by accident” – a conviction affirmed in 1970 by the bishops of the Russian Church who gave us our “autocephaly.”  However this autocephaly will be worked out or altered in the future, mission to and for America  –  in all of its dimensions – must remain the focus and work of this generation of Orthodox Christians – because Orthodoxy is not here by accident, but by the wisdom and providence of the Lord.


[1] Later I came to realize that Bulgakov’s writings were highly informed by the Church’s Liturgy, and the deep impression that the Liturgy had left on my soul ever since childhood enabled me to hear and respond to an Orthodox word when I heard it.

Anna and the Church

July 1, 2013

Anna and the Church

Fr Eric Tosi

In 1930, a 16-year-old girl named Anna stepped off a boat from Bremen, Germany and onto Ellis Island. She and her 13-year-old sister Mary had come from a small village in Slovakia to join their father, who arrived in the United States nine years earlier to escape the chaos and renewed tensions in Europe. He had survived the Russian front in World War I and the death of his wife following the war. Anna and Mary had been placed in the care of relatives, but their father had promised to send for them when he had established himself.

Time passed and Anna and Mary grew up in the very volatile post-war period. Occasionally, they had heard from their father, who had started to learn the construction business and had remarried. As the prospect of a reunion in America gradually evolved, he placed them in the care of a relative — a bishop who lived in Preshov — whom he knew would ensure their passage to America as the opportunity presented itself.

After a journey that began in their village and took them through Preshov, Prague, Germany, and eventually onto the US-bound ship, they arrived in America. They knew that their father and their new stepmother were waiting for them as they underwent the usual — and lengthy — immigration formalities. Finally, their long-awaited reunion took place in what to the girls was a strange land with strange languages and strange customs.

At the time, the parish priest and his wife had assisted many similar young women and men who had turned to their parish with the hope of acquiring a skill and building a new life in America. The priest and his wife welcomed the girls and took them to the church basement, which was filled with rows of tables and sewing machines. The priest’s wife taught them to sew while the priest taught them the basics of the English language. When he was confident that the girls had attained a level of proficiency in both disciplines, he went to a local factory to secure employment for them. The parish, however, was the focus of the girls’ spiritual and social lives, for it was there that they eventually met their spouses, married, and began their families.

Over the years, this story has been recounted many times in my family, as Anna was my grandmother. The only two items she had brought with her to America were displayed in a prominent place in our home: her village style, home-sewn dress, which she wore on Sundays and special occasions (and which each of her granddaughters and great granddaughters would invariably try on at some point in their lives), and her Izbornik (a bulky volume that contained personal prayers and the texts of various services celebrated throughout the year), which had been given to her by the bishop in Preshov, who was later canonized as a confessor.

But this story is not unique to my family. In a certain sense, it represents who we are as the Orthodox Church in America and what the vision held by and for the Church on this continent. Its essence is not found in my grandmother’s ethnic customs or the details of her journey to America, for similar stories abound in nearly every American family, whether they are Orthodox Christians or of another faith tradition. The essence of the story lies in the centrality of the Church as family and community, as the foundation of their lives, and as their refuge in new and unfamiliar surroundings. Regardless of where similar young people eventually settled, the Church was there and the stories were the same. The clergy cared for them — imagine today a parish in which the priest and his wife offered training and advocated employment opportunities! The parish community nourished them — their world centered around the cycle of prayers, services, and social events. (How well I remember my grandmother in her icon corner, reciting her evening prayers simply and quietly).

These memories depict the Church at its very best — as community and family. It is a model that we must continue in our own time. I often think about our own young people (my son is about to turn 16) and wonder whether they, in similar circumstances as that in which my grandmother had found herself, would have found similar strength in the Church, whether the Church would “be there” for them. Nevertheless, the Church is precisely that place of community and communion, in which all should bring their spiritual as well as physical/material needs and find fulfillment. Our vocation as Church, as the People of God, should — and must — be to gather the flock under its protective wing so that, in the end, Our Lord may be glorified.


Our vision of the Church has changed little since Anna and her sister arrived in America. It is a vision for which you, the new Annas, are responsible in the future. The needs are always present. Young immigrants continue to arrive in America, often with feelings of isolation and loneliness as they search for their place in the world. They too face the pressures of divided families, divided interests and divided messages. And in the midst of this, the Church is our source of consistency, meaning, community, peace and hope. The Church needs to be the center of our lives so that we can find our own center in the midst of new manifestations of chaos and confusion. It is the place where we can meet other Orthodox Christian youth and establish life-long relationships with them, sharing in our common faith. It is, in short, the place where we discover God and His love for one and all — the Kingdom of God yet to be fully revealed, but already fully present in its worship and fellowship..

This is the only vocation of the Orthodox Church in America… and it’s just that simple.

Growing From Our Ethnic Roots

July 1, 2013

Growing From Our Ethnic Roots

Dr. Peter Bouteneff

It is good to ask, at certain stages of our life, who we are. It is an opportunity to take stock of oneself, what you are doing, and how you are measuring up to the vision or vocation that you have. Each of us must do this as a person, and we must corporately do it as a body of persons – the Church. In this instance, we are doing it as that local body of the Church that is known as the OCA. Who are we?

I teach a class at St. Vladimir’s Seminary called “Orthodox Christian Identity,” and it is a good opportunity to explore some of the things we take for granted about ourselves. We look at how we define “Orthodox” – sometimes in opposition to “the West”, sometimes through external elements such as vestments, sometimes through intricate theological definitions, sometimes through liturgy. And we think about where we would most *want* to see Orthodoxy, in other words, what really matters most about Orthodox Christian identity. And that inevitably comes to: the right knowledge and praise of God, through his Son Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit – all expressed through a right and loving relationship with people and with the world. In short, it means being a true Christian!

If we want to come to the essence of our identity, we want to tease apart the essentials from the non-essentials. But this is not as easy as it sounds. I will take here just one example that has accompanied the entire history of the OCA, namely the “ethnic” question: the OCA has decisively Slavic roots. To what extent should these roots be part of our ongoing life and identity as Orthodox Christians in America?

What makes this a complicated question, apart from the crucial pastoral issues (the needs of the people, on the ground), is that the Orthodox Church, and more-so all the local Orthodox churches, are products of history. They are all embedded in cultures. This makes it more difficult to identify some of the “non-essentials.” Some would say that all ethnic trappings are in that category of expendables, but how realistic is that? All theology, and all right-living, is expressed in specific contexts, in specific times and places. Would you strip off the ethnic and cultural trappings of the Gospel narrative? Our Lord spoke in terms that could be understood by farmers and fishermen: sheep, seeds, and nets. He spoke in terms of first-century near-eastern social customs too, and we have to come to know some of those customs if we are to understand his parables.


The marks of history – the influence of Greek culture on our theology and our Creed, the influence of Jewish customs on our liturgy – are indelible. We simply do not have theology without them. Likewise, think of the inevitability of Syrian, Slavic, and other cultural vessels – earthen vessels – that carry the treasure of the gospel (see 2 Cor. 4:7).

All of this is a long way of saying that when we consider OCA identity and vision, we are right to ask questions of how long, how much, and in what ways our Slavic heritage is to remain a part of who we are. But the centuries of our life in America have shown that they do not have a simple or uniform answer.

Perhaps in our day, the question has changed, or is changing in ways that we ought to encourage.

It’s no longer a matter of whether we are Russian, or were Russian; it’s no longer about whether we hold on to the musical, iconographic, liturgical traditions that are particularly Slavic. They’re with us; they are beautiful and time-tested vessels of the Right Praise of God. Even the language issue is slowly dissolving, as more and more parishes rightly adopt the language of the community, which is in most cases English. The question now is about attitude and attachment. Just as the problem with money and riches isn’t the stuff itself – as Luke 18 shows us, it is our attachment to the stuff – so it is with Slavic forms. They can be cherished vehicles, but not idols.

In my current parish, where I help direct the choir, we are talking about reintroducing bits of Slavonic, for pastoral reasons. There were times when this would have been seen by some people as a sad retreat to the past; I see it as a healthy and unforced move forward, with the past. “Forward with the past” describe a lot of what Orthodoxy is about.

As we pursue a genuine Orthodoxy in our land, it helps to remember that, really, there is no other “American Orthodoxy” than the Orthodoxy that bears its ethnic roots. In fact, what can be more American than a Church with multinational roots?

My hope and prayer for the OCA in the 21st century is that it is well on the road to a healthy – detached, free, realistic – relationship with its roots. We had to go through strongly Slavic periods. Then, especially in the lead-up and aftermath of our autocephaly in 1970, we had to be in turmoil about casting off our Slavic identity. Here we are now, in post-modern America. Let’s deal with it as sanely as we can, and let’s always keep our eye on the prize: the right praise of God, stemming from and leading to a God-pleasing life in service to the world. That’s what it’s about. And as we keep our gaze fixed on Our Lord, let’s shun idols wherever we find them.

Not a Penny at the Door

July 1, 2013

Not a Penny at the Door
Mr William Kopcha

My great-grandmother was, by all accounts, a remarkable and saintly woman.  This seems to be a general theme in my genealogy, at least for the generations that I did not have the good fortune of meeting myself – remarkable and saintly women married to decidedly un-saintly men.  Their progeny would then spend a great amount of time actively avoiding this paradigm, producing the wonderful family – both men and women, aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, cousins, and sibling – of loving, supportive, fun, faithful people that I am quite blessed to be a member of.  To thank for all this, I have my great-grandmother, who laid the foundation not only of our family, but also of the parish communities that formed the cornerstone of and provided the context for our existence since we arrived in America about 100 years ago.

My great-grandmother’s convictions were simple and strong.  I suppose that they, along with most of the essence of this remarkable woman, were forged in the furnace of a remarkably hard life.  Being sent abroad alone from a small village in the Carpathian Mountains as a teenage girl and arriving in bustling America to an arranged marriage with an angry alcoholic will do that to you, as will the years spent raising 10 children.  Through all of this, she developed two maxims that were passed on by my grandfather some years ago:

  1. Always remember our Holy Orthodox Church in everything that you do.
  2. Be quick to recognize your own sins and ask for forgiveness.

Simple.  Rock-solid.  Just like this woman.  She lived by her own words, too.  My parents relate visiting her when she was elderly – her only earthly possessions at this point were a bed, a desk, a chair, and a Bible, which she read constantly.  Her vision and direction, however, did not stop with her own devotions or the well-being of her family.  Rather, they extended also to all of her brothers and sisters in Christ, not only helping them in time of need but also unabashedly telling them when they were wrong, and quite bluntly at that.  She must have been interesting.

For example, we might still be Uniate Catholics if it weren’t for her outspokenness regarding abuses in the local Greek Catholic church, principally regarding money.  The parish, St. Michael’s, had decided that to bolster the apparently anemic funds donated by parishioners, it would start charging a sort of “entrance fee.”  Great-grandma Irene was outraged.  Rather than fulfilling its mission of being a “haven for the storm-tossed,” the practice showed the parish to be a “den of thieves,” the likes of which Christ Himself had denounced nineteen-hundred years earlier.  In dramatic fashion, she proclaimed, “I will gladly put my five cents upon the altar, but I will not give you one penny at the door!” and, promptly turning, she walked out to the Orthodox Church down the street and never looked back.

Equally important and with just as much conviction, she declared from the very beginning, “Service must be English!”  She barely spoke the language.  She learned to write just enough to send misspelled birthday cards to her grandchildren.  Yet, she was one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates of replacing the Slavonic used during her time with English that I have ever heard of.  Why?  Because she was acutely aware of Christ’s injunction to “preach the Gospel to all nations,” including her new nation of residence, the United States of America, in which English was the lingua franca for the disparate groups that became its fabric.

Great-grandma Irene loved the Church more than anything, and it showed in everything she did.  She held herself and her family to its highest standards.  She despised and denounced any corruption of its mission.  She put it above the love of her mother tongue and her ethnicity.  In short, she died to herself and lived for Christ, His Church, and the people that made it up.  This woman helped to build the foundation for a community that now helps make up the Orthodox Church in America.  The OCA was born of the grass-roots efforts of immigrants carrying with them the light of Orthodoxy and remains a grass-roots effort to keep that flame alive in our new land among new people.  People like my great-Grandmother, in every generation, are its pillars and heritage.

Christianity is not native to American soil, but is a careful and delicate transplant. The OCA is our hope for cultivating a native species of Orthodoxy that can survive and flourish here, embracing all of the blessings the “New World” has to offer, while sacrificing none of our sacred history and traditions.  The apostolic mission – to “go forth” – requires a starting place, and our ancestors have built precisely that. The faith of the apostles, preserved incorrupt through each generation, has taken root on American soil. Now, following a path paved by Saints Cyril and Methodius over a millennium ago, we are poised to spread the fullness of the Gospel of Christ, by refining, translating and articulating the theological and intellectual traditions of our faith into new languages and new contexts, to a new culture.  Many saints and luminaries have risen to the task already, each in their own unique way. But the work is not reserved for a select few; it is the responsibility of us all.

Where do we begin? It seems tempting to allow the work of our forebears to stir us into a missionary zeal. But the more tempered approach begins not with frenzied zeal and ambition, but with gratitude. As our very own Fr. Alexander Schmemman said, “Everyone who is capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.”  Not only will thankfulness and love endure and outlast temporary ambition, but perhaps thankfulness is the single best witness we can offer to our culture today.

Just the Church

July 1, 2013

Just the Church

Mr Andrew Boyd

A really expensive renaissance fair, a self-help group that has you perpetually stuck on “Step-11”, a cultural center with great food but terrible music, a gym that focuses on developing your calf muscles, a self-referential society with unlimited Ryan Gossling jokes. Our Orthodox Faith, Christ’s Church, our traditions and practices, can be just about anything you want to make them into. And most of us, as imperfect beings, want to make it into anything but what it is. What is the Church? The Church is Christ, communion with Him in His Kingdom through His mystical and sacramental presence. Is that why you go to Church? Is that why our “Church” organizations and institutions exist?

The uniqueness of life in the Orthodox Church in America, is that our collective vocation is so simple. All we have to do is be the Church, just the Church and nothing more. We have freedom of self-direction, the freedom to take risks, to make mistakes, to correct ourselves or open ourselves to the correction of others. Most of all, we have the complete freedom to preach the Gospel of Christ to the world in which we live. That’s what makes us “apostolic:” the content of our preaching, the Fullness of the Gospel of Christ, our God incarnate and crucified, raised and glorified. Now enthroned with His Father, He offers himself as the vehicle for communion with eternal life in the Kingdom. It’s the solution to all our problems (though our ‘problems’ are always and ever just our sins). Christ died, being God and fully Human to free us first from ourselves, to give meaning and life to our lives. He came not just so we would have life, but have it abundantly.

This Gospel, when preached, is what gives legitimacy to our claim to be the one, true faith – the true expression of Christianity, the true followers of the true God in the pantheon of modern deities. The Church, therefore, is the group that preaches and lives that Gospel. That sounds really nice and theological, but what does that look like? It looks like a simple monk standing up to his compatriots and peers in defense of maligned, maltreated, and abused native population (St. Herman). It looks like a talented bishop working hard to use every means to take the Good News of Jesus Christ to a people who have never heard it (St. Innocent). It can look like a young man refusing to give up even an ounce of the fullness of the Gospel taught to him in the face of harm and violent torture (Peter the Aleut). We have so many bright and concrete examples of what it means to be the Church here in our Land. For them, communion with God, with the crucified Christ, was a constant source of Life and energy – not simply to live a “nice life” with a good job, health insurance, and a 401K plan, but to share the abundance of the Kingdom with all.

“Well, that’s nice, but I’m no saint,” you might be tempted to say. Well, my response would be “Yes you are, start acting like it.” For every example I can hold up from the thousands of canonized saints we have, I have one for some amazing person I have met in this Church who aren’t officially “saints.” What does it look like to be the Church? It looks like the priest who leaves his meager savings to pay off the mortgage on one of our Monasteries so it can continue to serve the world in humility and prayer, it looks like 90 year-old woman on a fixed income who paid for my gas to get to Church in college, it looks like the small parish that paid for my textbooks in seminary, it looks like a circle of people asking for and giving each other forgiveness on a cold, February afternoon. To me, we always looked the most like the Church at Paschal Vespers, where everyone is clearly exhausted, often in the same clothes as the night before, yet physical limitations and common logic are always defied and the  proclamation of the most important message ever, “Christ is Risen” acts as fuel to fire our joy. That’s the Church, joyful and active, in the face of physical limits and worldly logic.

At the recent 17th All-American Council Father Thomas Hopko gave a memorable sermon on this topic. “Leonty, Alexis, Raphael, Nikolai,” he said, “ they were all here in this land, and they all said the same thing. There has to be a Church here that’s nothing but a Church. It’s not a culture center. It’s not a heritage museum. It’s not a summer camp. It’s not a therapeutic center. It’s not a way of mystical progress. It’s just the Body and Blood of Christ, the household of God, the pillar and bulwark of the Truth, the fullness of Him who fills all in all against which mystically the gates of death will never prevail.”

Many of us, especially those who are the most involved in the life of the Church, try in vain (consciously and unconsciously) to recreate the Church in our own image, to save it from some imagined impending doom, or to retreat into the safety of “orthodox” sub-culture. The vocation we have all been gifted is to loudly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, sometimes against logic, often with difficult limitations, but always with joy and with certitude that Christ is life, and death has no power anymore.

Cross russian against alaskan sky

Volume 4: Number 6 Authors and Contributors

July 1, 2013

Volume 4: Number 6 Authors and Contributors

Archpriest Michael Koblosh graduated from St. Tikhon’s and St. Vladimir’s Seminaries. He was ordained in 1969 by Metropolitan Ireney and has since served parishes in Los Angeles, East Meadow, N.Y.,  Terryville and Bridgeport, Ct., Whitestone, N.Y.  Began a mission in Southbury, Ct, as well as serving on various departments of the Orthodox Church in America. Fr Michael has been married for 43 years, with two daughters and five grandchildren. He is currently retired and living in Alexandria, Va,. (because my daughter lives here)  and began All Saints of America Mission in Alexandria – which is growing and in need of larger quarters!

Archpriest Eric G. Tosi is the Secretary of the Orthodox Church America. He is the former rector of parishes in Montana and Nevada, and the former chair of the Department of Evangelization. He is completing his doctoral studies on evangelism and communities at the University of Toronto.

Mr William Kopcha is a psychics and chemistry teacher at a private high school in Connecticut. He grew up in Connecticut and Vermont. He attends Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Southbury, CT. William holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and a Master’s Degree in Chemistry and Materials Science from the University of Connecticut. He is a past member and former president of the University of Connecticut Orthodox Christian Fellowship.  He is a frequent contributor to this blog.

Dr. Peter C. Bouteneff, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in Systematic Theology at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He holds a D.Phil in Theology from Oxford University. Check out his podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, “Sweeter than Honey”, and his book of the same name.

Mr Andrew Boyd is the Director of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministry for the Orthodox Church in America. He is a graduate of the University of Connecticut’s School of Business and the Master’s of Divinity program at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. He works in corporate communications in New York City.