American Orthodox

Whither Will We Look?

Father Braun has written an excellent essay about Orthodoxy in America entitled House Blend. Although I agree with the general thrust, perhaps even more than he agrees with himself, I'd like to offer a comment on something Father Braun says:

Ethnic churches are simply a common strand of the fabric of the American experi­ence. And they are by no means unique to Orthodoxy. The Episcopal Church, for example, was and is an ethnic church; its ethnicity just happens to be English.

But the ethnic experience goes far beyond the Episcopalians. There are Irish Catholics, Italian Catholics, and Polish Catholics. And among the Protestants, there are German Lutherans, Swedish Lutherans, and Danish Lutherans, to name a few. And there are Scottish Presby­terians. My dad grew up in a Low Ger­man-speaking Mennonite church. My wife grew up in a Swedish Mission Covenant Church. And I have only begun to name the churches that were or still are, in some measure, ethnic.

One memorable "ethnic experience" I treasure goes back to my basketball-playing days for the San Jose Covenant Church, a church Swedish in background. I was the center, so the team roster read like this: Peterson, Pederson, Braun, Swanson, Johnson. I'd say that suggested an ethnic back­ground!

It seems to me North Americans don't look disparagingly at churches with a Western European ethnic background. But woe to those from Eastern Europe or the Middle East! They're foreigners. They are judged so severely for what goes com­pletely unnoticed elsewhere.

Ethnic churches are not de facto bad churches, and their ethnicity should never be a criterion for judging them. Frankly, I'm tired of people casting the term "ethnic" about with respect to Orthodox churches, as if "ethnic" were some nasty, but easily curable (all you have to do is become like us) disease. There are even ugly aspersions flung about with respect to whether "ethnics" are truly Christians. That is nothing more than American fundamentalist nonsense—as if you've got to speak English and be at least a fourth-generation Heinz 57 variety to be a genuine Christian in America. (American fundamentalism itself is a branch of American ethnic religion!)

If I may, I don't think "ethnic" is really the issue — even if it is the term some critics may use. After all, as the Father points out, ethnic churches are as American as apple pie. Other than non-denominational churches, the only truly, authentically American church I can think of is the LDS. Nor do I think that the issue has anything to do with being Eastern European or Middle Eastern.

I think the answer lies in the comparison between the two groups of "ethnic" churches.

I come from an area of the country where the population is largely German Catholic, an area where most of the wave of Bavarian immigrants in the 19th century settled. Streets have German names. The food is heavily German influenced. We have Oktoberfest and Strassenfest every year. Even Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is in both German and English.

However, the church is not an expression of ethnicity. The church is the church. And though you cannot miss the German ancestry of the area, the people there are thoroughly assimilated. Pickups with NRA stickers and gun racks. American flags in front of every house. People who stand for the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance, and more than a few grown men who have to dry their eyes at the end.

I don't think the distinction is ethnic, or has anything to do with ethnicity. I think the distinction has to do with being American versus being an immigrant. I think the distinction is in being American, and in true American fashion, looking forward and not back; and being "in exile," and in true Old World fashion, never looking forward but always looking back.

Again, if I may, I can use his main point to support mine:

When it comes to good coffee, caffeine lovers may be familiar with the "House Blend"—each restaurant's or coffee roaster's recipe for brewing the "perfect cup" that appeals to the greatest number of people. Not some exotic specialty roast like Mocha Java, Sumatra, or Jamaican, the house blend is designed to be a happy meeting ground, something that will accommodate the widest variety of tastes and appetites.

Mind you, not everyone who loves coffee likes the house blend. That's all right; it is not necessary, or even desirable, that they should. But on the other hand, there is surely nothing wrong with the way it tastes, and for those who understand why and how the house blend is best used, it makes very good sense.

In terms of the Orthodox Church and its establishment here in North America, I believe there is a growing need for what might be called the "Orthodox House Blend." I am talking about a "house blend" in churches, if you will—a mixture that accommodates the many and varied backgrounds of people coming into Orthodox parishes.

It happens to be my good fortune to be the pastor of a start-from-scratch "house blend" parish, and it's quite an experience. After a year and a half, we're a brew of almost everything! For openers, a little more than half our people are converts to the Orthodox Faith. But even the portion of our people who have an Orthodox background is mixed. A slender majority have been active in the Orthodox Church all their lives. Still others left the Orthodox Church and went to Protestant churches for a period of time, but they've come back. And there are those who left the Orthodox Church, for various reasons and at various ages, and went nowhere at all for many years. Now they've come back to the Church because they really like the "house blend." They feel at home because of the blend of people.

I converted into what Father Braun calls a "house blend" parish, where there was a core Middle Eastern "cradle" membership, but one that by the time I was Chrismated, was a minority within the parish. But let me discuss these core members, and you will see where I'm headed.

There were, of course, the older men and women, and yes, they tended to be more "immigrant" than American, in the sense I discussed above. But the younger and middle-aged among this core group were as thoroughly American in every respect as the gun-toting, deer-hunting, God Bless America German Americans I grew up around. Other than their family names (George, Jacobs), they were good old boys with dark hair, eyes, and skin.

Some jurisdictions are less likely to assimilate than others. That's reality. But as time goes on, the "house blend" parish will become the norm, and not the exception.


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