The African-American community is being drawn to Orthodox Christianity, inspired by its roots in Africa, claims to authenticity, and reverence to black saints.
The Rev. Moses Berry, an Orthodox priest and pastor of Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Mission, Ash Grove, Mo., began his career as a Protestant preacher, a family tradition reaching back into the 1800s. He grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Then, in 1983, he visited an Orthodox church in Atlanta and was so moved that he retrained to become a priest in the Orthodox Church in America. He also helped to organize the coalition of clergy, scholars and lay leaders coming to Detroit.
“Reconnecting with the Orthodox tradition connects us with the earliest Christian traditions,” Berry says. “It means that, when our ancestors were brought here as slaves, they didn’t arrive here with just a collection of tribal religions. They didn’t all discover Christianity here. In fact, many Africans already were part of the ancient Christian church.” Karl Berry, now known as Father Moses, is one of a few black Americans to be ordained an Orthodox priest.
He said he’s “always had a love for Jesus,” but he wasn’t sold on the Christianity he was being exposed to.
In 1983 Berry walked into an Orthodox Church for the first time and was surprised by what he saw: icons of black saints.
“My first thought was that these were just some very liberal white people who were doing some outreach and trying to appeal to black people,” Berry told The Daily Beast.
The priest told him that they were actually replicas of third century icons, linking back to a Christianity that originated hundreds of years ago.
“And that was my first introduction to the universal church, not just in theory or in words but in actual depictions of saints from different countries who were always part of the development of Christendom,” he said.
In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that an increase in racial diversity also applies in the Church. The number of people of color ascribing to Orthodox Christianity went up by 6 percent between 2007 and 2014.
“I think that the generation of younger people are looking for something more substantial. They don’t want necessarily a feel-good religion,” Berry said. “They want something they know will have to be a little difficult in order to be transformative.”
African Americans Turning to OrthodoxyThat was especially true for Africans with roots in the eastern part of the continent, Laike-Mariam Misikir, 50, says. An automotive engineer from Ann Arbor, Mich., Misikir is from a family of Orthodox priests that extends back many centuries in Ethiopia. In Detroit, Misikir serves as a subdeacon, assisting priests during liturgies.
The Brotherhood of St Moses the Black is a pan-Orthodox nonprofit organization. Its mission is to minister to Americans the gift of Orthodoxy. In an effort to be good stewards of the manifold grace of God (I Peter 4:10), the organization presents an annual conference that targets those who have little exposure to Orthodoxy as well as the African roots of Orthodoxy. Its vision is to bring Americans closer to Jesus Christ.
Mother Katherine Weston, an Orthodox nun, told The Daily Beast that outreach to African-American communities began in the early 1990s with a series conferences on the ancient church and the African-American experience which continue to this day.
Eventually, Berry and some other conference attendees founded the Brotherhood of Moses the Black in 1997 when he lived in St. Louis. The city was seeing an influx of Orthodox refugees from Africa who lacked support networks, and the Brotherhood sought to provide them with aid and community.
“Our tradition does not begin with slavery. It’s a part of it, and it’s a major part of our tradition in this country. But it also began with our church in Africa. And people need to know that,” he said. “If you don’t know anything about your heritage, you run the risk of not being too stable.”
Several hundred people attended the latest Moses the Black conference in October, Berry said, which was held to inform people and to connect those who might sometimes feel isolated within the church.
But they weren’t all black. In fact, the attendees were about evenly split, and many of them were young.
“They really don’t suffer the same way that my generation did with race,” Berry said.