A brief account of the beginning
During a Vespers service in 1993, a monk of the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, had the inspiration for a unique Orthodox Christian conference. This conference would tie together the spirituality of early African Christian monasticism with the spiritual hunger of people of African descent in America. The needed food was to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ preached in the freedom of the Orthodox context. It would be important to show how Africa has been a part of the Christian story, theology, culture, and monastic development from the beginning. People of African descent did not have to migrate away from Christianity to find themselves, they needed the fullness of Christianity.
At the end of Vespers the monk, the future Bishop Gerasim (Eliel),* shared his idea with his recent godson David Altschul–now known in the Orthodox world as Hieromonk Alexii, Superior of the Holy Archangel Michael and All Angels Skete in Weatherby, Missouri. He already had connections with African Americans in the Orthodox Church–Fr. Moses Berry had baptized David, his wife, Thelma, and several of their faith community who came to the Orthodox Church together. This group had met Mother Katherine Weston and Fr. Jerome Sanderson at an Orthodox Women’s Conference in Indianapolis not long before.
The Ancient African Christianity and African America Conference was held in 1994 at the St. Mary of Egypt Church, then housed in the Reconciliation Ministries facility at 31st and Troost in Kansas City, Missouri. This ministry was founded on the city’s racial dividing line, with the intention of drawing people together in the love of Jesus Christ. The conference was held in February in honor of Black History Month. It hosted about 50 people, primarily from Kansas City, St. Louis, and Indianapolis. It proved to be a success in terms of missionary conversation, spiritual nourishment, and fellowship, and everyone wanted to repeat it annually. Finally in 1997, a core group met at Fr. Moses’s home in Missouri to discuss the founding of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black which would take responsibility for the conference.
The idea for the Conference was clear. The early Church in Africa was gathered around the Crucified Christ now risen from the dead. The path of the Cross is the path of life. The conference lectures showed that what the early Christians experienced in the catacombs and the coliseums of the Roman Empire, many enslaved American Christians experienced in the cotton fields and clandestine meetings of antebellum plantations. The suffering of the early Christian centuries produced the moral and mystical roots that enabled Christianity to flourish in the first millennium A.D. Likewise, the depth of faith and love, acquired by enslaved American Christians through their suffering, provides a link to a spiritual root system strong enough to transform willing souls on this home soil.
For the first 10 years, the conference was held in Kansas City, with the exception of 1997 in Indianapolis. What was planned as the first local conference of St. Moses the Black ended up being national in scope. This fortunate turn of events allowed for allies in the Christ the Savior Brotherhood to procure an Eli Lilly Grant to publish the talks for the first four years. These were published as An Unbroken Circle. It has now been updated and republished as Foundations: 1994–1997, the Unbroken Circle Series, Vol. 1.
After the 2002 conference, the Kansas City host team was ready to pass the baton and, since then, the conference has traveled to Illinois, Michigan, back to Indiana and Missouri, and to Oregan, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. With our foundational curriculum in print, the conferences developed a variety of themes over the years. Within those themes, a two-fold focus remained:: to acquaint African Americans with the riches of the Orthodox Church and especially to let them know about the depth of the faith in Africa, and to acquaint Orthodox Chirstians of the United States with the deep contributions that come from the Church of Africa and the African American experience in their struggle to find faith here in America. In 2020, The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black officially began using the name Fellowship of St. Moses the Black in order to say explicitly that this is for everyone.
Over the years the participants in the conference were strengthened to go back into their own parishes to pray and reach out to neighbors in their communities. This eventually led to the formation of formal Chapters for local prayer, education, and ministry. The St. Moses the Black members have also participated in prison ministries, had booths at local festivals and a variety of activities. Through involvement with the Fellowship, some have been inspired to attend seminary. And seminarians have been inspired for their future ministries. The Fellowship has developed a publishing arm called the Unbroken Circle Press which has released new titles. Over the last few years, a musical setting for the Divine Liturgy, called the Jubilee Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, has been written, inspired by and honoring the musical legacy of enslaved American Christians.
*Presently, the Right Reverend Gerasim, Bishop of Fort Worth, Auxiliary to the Diocese of the South, Orthodox Church in America.