Sunday, May 17, 2009

America’s Eastern Orthodox Communities Show Tolerance, Diversity

Survey shows congregations as middle class, politically moderate

By Jaroslaw Anders
Staff Writer

Washington -- Among more than 200 places of worship in Flushing, Queens, arguably the most religiously diverse neighborhood in the United States, there stands St. Nicolas Orthodox Shrine Church, the largest Greek Orthodox parish in America. It is just one of many Eastern orthodox parishes in the larger New York metropolitan area.

Among them are the parishes of the independent Orthodox Church in America and the Moscow-affiliated Russian Orthodox Church in the USA, as well as Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian and several other Eastern Orthodox churches.

This diversity within religions is encountered in many areas in the United States with large immigrant populations, and reflects the rich, complex and sometimes contentious history of orthodox Christianity in North America.


Today, Eastern Orthodox Christians constitute less than 1 percent of the adult U.S. population, with the highest percentage in Alaska. But orthodox Christian communities can be found nearly everywhere in the United States, especially in the Northeast and the West.

According to the Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the majority of American orthodox church members belong to the middle class and nearly 30 percent report annual family income higher than $100,000. About 50 percent have college educations.

According to the survey, orthodox Christians in America are committed to their faith but also tolerant and inclusive. (See “Survey Finds Americans Are Religious, Tolerant, Nondogmatic.”)

While more than 70 percent declared their belief in God to be “absolutely certain” and about 34 percent participate in religious services at least once a week, 68 percent said they believe there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.

The majority of Eastern orthodox believers in the United States describe their political views as “liberal” or “moderate” and take middle-of-the-road positions on such issues as abortion or social acceptance of homosexuality, according to the survey.

Church of the Holy Ascension (Courtesy of the National Park Service)
The Church of the Holy Ascension on Unalaska Island, Alaska, was built in 1826 for Father Veniaminov. (National Park Service)

In those respects, Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States fall well within the American mainstream. But despite attempts to create a single, multiethnic American orthodox jurisdiction, most of them worship in churches affiliated with mother churches in Europe and the Middle East.


Russian Orthodoxy in America started when a group of monks arrived in Alaska in 1794 to start missionary work among the native Aleuts, Eskimos and American Indians. Among them was Father Herman, an ascetic and defender of native rights against exploitation by Russian traders. In 1970, Herman became the first saint to be glorified by the Orthodox Church in America.

The first Native American saint was one of St. Herman’s converts, an Aleut trapper Cungagnaq, known as Peter, the martyr of San Francisco. Captured by the Spaniards in California in 1815, he refused to renounce his orthodox faith and died under torture.

Those hardy frontiersmen of faith included quite a number of colorful personalities. One of the most celebrated is Father Ivan Evseyevich Popov-Veniaminov, bishop of Kamchatka, the Kuriles, and the Aleutian Islands, and later the senior bishop, or metropolitan, of Moscow.

Veniaminov came to Alaska in 1824 and gained recognition as a tireless missionary, and author of scholarly books on Aleut languages and culture. In 1977, he was glorified as St. Innocent, enlightener of the Aleuts and apostle to the Americas.

In 1870, the American mission of the Orthodox Church of Russia was transformed into a North American diocese. In 1900, its site moved from Sitka, Alaska, to San Francisco, and in 1905 to New York. As it expanded its jurisdiction over all of North America, it attracted increasing numbers of non-Russian orthodox faithful from Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East.


After the October Revolution of 1917, the Church of Russia faced political pressures, persecutions, property destruction, and for several years its administration practically was paralyzed.

In 1924, the North American diocese declared autonomy from the mother church and assumed the name of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in America, also known as the Metropolia. The move met with objections from parts of the Church of Russia, which established its own missions in the United States.

In the early decades of the 20th century growing numbers of non-Russian immigrants from Eastern Orthodox countries sought affiliation with mother churches in their native countries.

In 1970, the ruling body of the Church of Russia granted the Metropolia full autocephaly (autonomy where the head bishop does not report to any higher church authority) as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), one of 15 independent orthodox churches in the world.

Today, OCA and the Church of Russia work side by side in many parts of the United States and cooperate, together with several other independent orthodox churches in America, on educational, charitable and missionary activities.


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