Author: Robyn Haas

2020 Conference: Sparks amongst the stubble, those on the margins

Through his own personal story, as well as through lessons, stories, and data from READI Chicago, Eddie Bocanegra explains the effectiveness of dealing with the trauma of gun violence through cognitive behavioral therapy and city, state, and national collaboration.

Personal story

  • I’m Eddie Bocanegra. I run READI Chicago, one of the largest violence prevention programs in Chicago. I’ve been in this business a long time—I’ve spoken to many men in prison, recently released from prison, who have shot people and been shot themselves. I always ask these men the same question: if you could go back and change one thing, what would it be? Almost every single time, the answer is the same: that moment when they pulled the trigger.
  • We hear this over and over again, and as we think about trauma and violence, we are understanding why this is: gun violence is often the result of split-second decision-making, often by traumatized individuals who have grown up surrounded by violence.
  • I know this from personal experience: I grew up in Little Village and first saw violence at the age of 5, in the form of domestic abuse at home. I witnessed my first homicide when I was 13, and I was arrested for the first time at 14. And when I was 18, a judge sentenced me to 29 years in prison.

The challenge of gun violence comes down to poverty, trauma, and justice involvement.

  • Poverty: Decades of disinvestment in communities of color have contributed to poverty, poor-quality schools, lack of businesses, unstable housing, and high rates of violence. Being born into the wrong zip code can change your life forever. Research has shown us that the neighborhoods in our city racked by poverty and a lack of economic opportunity are the same ones struggling with a cycle of violence.
  • Trauma: There is an abundance of trauma—generational and firsthand—in communities experiencing gun violence. Despite containing only 7.5% of Chicago’s population, the small number of community areas that we target account for 32% of the city’s homicides. Nearly 80% of the men READI Chicago serves have had a loved one killed by violence. Forty-two percent have been a victim of a violent crime, and 34% have been shot.
  • Justice involvement: Too much of the response to gun violence in Chicago and across the country is focused on law enforcement and the criminal legal system, both of which produce disproportionately harsh outcomes for people of color. This comes at an extraordinary cost—more than $1.3 billion was spent over five years jailing residents of the five neighborhoods we target.


  • Since I got out of prison in 2008, after serving more than 14 years, I’ve been working to
    figure out how to slow down that impulse, keep people from pulling the trigger like I did, and the solution I’ve found that READI focuses on is CBT—slowing down your thinking to create space for you to think before reacting to a stressful situation.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is exactly what it sounds like: it focuses on connecting your thoughts and your actions to help individuals slow down their thinking and respond less automatically in stressful situations.
  • In addition to CBT, our participants need a viable opportunity to make real change in their lives—we do this through professional development and a paid transitional job. We are seeing that progress happens through investment in these men and their communities—a legal, consistent paycheck allows them to sustainably support themselves and their families, and they’re putting this income back into their communities.
  • Since launch, we’ve connected more than 650 men with CBT and jobs. We’re hearing from them that it is making a difference, and we are actually seeing that through our data and the evaluation with our research partner. We are seeing that:
    • We’re finding the right participants. The men we’re serving are 55 times more likely to be shot or killed than the average Chicagoan.
    • We’re keeping our guys engaged. More than half of men eligible to start programming do so within 20 months—these rates are comparable to in-school programming for young people who are much more attached to services.
    • Most importantly, we may be helping keep our guys safer. Men who have the chance to participant in READI were 24% less likely to be shot or killed as their peers.

We see every day how many barriers our participants face, and now this year, through COVID, through issues of violence and racism coming to a head across the country, more people are seeing this and taking the first steps toward understanding how they can help. We need investment in the people and communities our city has overlooked. We need policy and legislative changes to increase access for returning citizens.

2020 Conference: The vision of deeper roots of Orthodoxy in America: On Bended Knee

By FSMB Board Member Hieromonk Alexii Altschul of Holy Archangel Michael Skete in Missouri.

This talk is based on a key principle I learned when I was doing trauma therapy in the nineties and first decade of this century. Trauma unexamined tends to be trauma reenacted. Let us call to mind the Word of the Lord to the prophet Jeremiah, “When you can extract the precious from the worthless, then you will become my spokesman” (Jeremiah 15:19 NASB). Individual, family, community, and national healing emerges after we spend time removing the log from our own eye. Then, we can see clearly to help our brother with his speck, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 7:5).

So, we will consider this idea of considering the log on a national and individual basis. The prophet and Lawgiver Moses, the restorer Nehemiah, and the prophet Daniel all modeled the idea of confessing our individual failings, as well as those of our ancestors, in order to return and cooperate with Divine Grace (Lev. 26:40-42; Neh. 9:1-3; Dan. 9:3-8).

In the time of King David, a three-year famine came upon the land of Israel (2 Samuel 21:1-9). When he sought the Lord for the reason, it was revealed that it was because King Saul had broken the treaty of protection with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:14-20). This was a treaty from 250 years before! Did King David break the treaty? No. But the commitments and debts of our ancestors are binding upon us. In settling estates, the executor must take care first of the previous debts of the one who died. In this case the breaking of a treaty with the Gibeonites resulted in a three-year famine.

When we think of the broken treaties and promises we’ve inherited as a nation, we must soberly reflect on how to restore that which we have taken and enjoyed. The worst thing we can do is blame those who suffered for our sins and continue to penalize them. Let’s take a few minutes to pause, reflect and regain our vision.

As an image of focus, let’s consider the idea of the knee, as both a point of departure and a point of return.

Wounded Knee

After I was made a monk in 2013, my bishop, His Grace +LONGIN, directed me to Mt. Athos in Greece for seven months. Also known as the Holy Mountain, monasticism has been practiced there for over 1000 years. My home monastery was the Serbian monastery of Hilandar. As I approached my time to return to the United States, something unusual took place. On separate occasions, three individual monks, and one bishop, gave me the same advice. Separately, they told me that since I was returning to the USA, the most important book I could read, to help root the Orthodox Christian faith in the USA, was Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown.

It is the story of the westward expansion from the perspective of the Native Americans. After we began the small monastic community, the skete, in Missouri, I started to read this book. For two weeks I found myself in tears at the mistreatment of the original people, by the use of religion to force people from their homes, kill, slaughter, and steal, and, the countless times that treaties were broken for the cause of progress. It concluded with the Massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota when nearly three hundred Native Americans, men, women, and children were killed by US Army machine guns on December 29, 1880.

The monks had told me until we deal with those issues revealed in the book, Orthodoxy would not go very deep and it would keep us from laying a foundation of enduring Orthodoxy. As I meditated on the book, I kept seeing recurring moral failures:

  • dehumanizing and demonizing “the other”
  • ethnic superiority and entitlement
  • progress before people, supported by force
  • failure to honor treaties (nearly 500) and keep our word.

An example of the dehumanizing and demonizing:

Colonel Chivington, a former Methodist minister, later a military officer in Colorado, called for the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants. Why? He said, “Nits make lice”. P. 89. He was responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. 105 Indian women and children were killed and 28 men. (1864)

The Cheyenne, Wyoming paper, Daily Leader, clearly expressed the ethnic

The rich and beautiful valleys of Wyoming are destined for the occupancy and sustenance of the Anglo-Saxon race. The wealth that for untold ages has lain hidden beneath the snow-capped summits of our mountains has been placed there by Providence to reward the brave spirits whose lot it is to compose the advance-guard of civilization. The Indians must stand aside or be overwhelmed by the ever advancing and ever-increasing tide of emigration. The destiny of the aborigines is written in characters not to be mistaken. The same inscrutable Arbiter that decreed the fall of Rome has pronounced the doom of extinction upon the red men of America. (Mar. 3, 1870). P. 184

What happened in the Black Hills shows the progress before people, broken treaties.

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it” (from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee)

Approximately five-hundred broken treaties, primarily for gold, silver, or copper, reveals what we, as a growing nation, valued more than human beings and our words.

One example is the Treaty of 1868 at Ft. Laramie: “No white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the territory, or without the consent of the Indians to pass through the same.” Yet, by 1874 there was such a mad clamor from gold-hungry Americans that the Army was ordered to make a reconnaissance into the Black Hills…. Custer reported that the hills were filled with gold “from the grass roots down” … and parties of white men began forming like summer locusts, crazy to begin panning and digging.” (cf. pp. 261, 264-5).

The treaty was broken for the acquisition of gold. This period culminated in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

I realized these ways are so contrary to Jesus and the Gospel, that unless I and my brothers and sisters deal with these in ourselves, we will lose our saltiness completely.

The Knee on the neck of George Floyd

By now, most, if not all, know what transpired on May 25, 2020 to the 46 year old George Floyd. The handcuffed black man, restrained with a knee to his neck on the ground, after twenty times beseechingly, saying “I can’t breathe” to the police officers who arrested him. For over seven minutes this continued. He finally whispered to his mother who he hoped would see what happened, “Mom, love you. Love you. Tell my kids I love them. I’m dead.”

What happened to George Floyd sadly reflects the same perception of the “other” as we saw with the Native Americans. I want to view the knee on George Floyd from my own family history. I want to confess my sins and the sins of my ancestors regarding the same things that the Native people suffered, what George Floyd suffered. Why? Because I and my family need mercy. Because those we’ve caused to suffer need mercy. And the Divine Scriptures assure us that mercy will come to those that “confess and forsake” their sins (Pr. 28:13).

Great-grandfather William Dick Tolbert

I grew up in a family with a strong racist past. When I was 9, my uncle told me that since my great-great grandfather Josiah Tolbert was a Confederate Colonel and owned slaves, that I should know that we were Confederates. So, I donned my gray coat and would always be a Confederate when we played soldiers.

One day, my dad let us know about the life of my great-Grandfather William Tolbert, who was known as Dick, in Paducah, KY. He was a tall, large, outgoing man with a sense of humor and extremely popular in the community. He was a detective for the railroad, but also served as private investigator, assistant to the police on surveillance, and was given a wide berth in bringing in “the bad guys.” He was a common person in the newspapers, the Paducah Sun, the Paducah Daily Register, and the News-Democrat between 1904 and 1908.

It turned out the “bad guys” were commonly black men who apparently were “guilty until proven innocent.” The final act was played in 1908 when he shot a runaway African American in the back on May 12 and then my great-grandfather himself tragically drowned to death on June 12, one month to the day after he had shot the runaway. I thank God for my great grandfather, but I also realize he grew up in a system that had normalized treating black people with disdain. I ask God for mercy for him and all my family.

As I read the newspaper articles, what was most striking was how often he and the society treated his arrests as if he were always in the right before there had been any hearing or trial. The paper said of the African-American that he shot:

If a mulatto who has been lurking in the rear of the Paducah high school … is not carrying a bullet in his evil body since Monday afternoon, it is not because Patrolman Dick Tolbert, of the Illinois Central railroad’s force, did not try to kill him. If citizens of that section of the city come on the negro, the coroner is apt to have a new job…. Policeman Tolbert laid for the negro. It was early Monday afternoon when the big cop spied the brute exposing himself. Tolbert tried to slip up on the negro. The latter discovered the policeman before Tolbert could reach him. As the negro fled the cop pulled the trigger of his pistol twice. The second shot the negro cried out in pain. He managed to hurdle a fence and succeeded in loseing himself.

(front page of News Democrat of Paducah, KY June 12, 1908)

This one article reveals so many painful but important points:

  • No court hearing.
  • Seen as guilty before innocent, instead of innocent until proven guilty
  • Regarded as inherently ‘evil’.
  • An implied threat to lynch: If citizens of that section of the city come on the negro, the coroner is apt to have a new job.
  • A Brute (stereotype for less than human).
  • “Exposing himself” is a common term for relieving oneself outside.

Who knows what the reasons were? But our country values “due process under the law” in administering justice, and that someone is innocent until proven guilty. That these ideas were not passed on to all citizens, reveals a glaring failure.

(Fifty years later, 14-year-old Emmitt Till was brutally tortured and murdered for whistling at a white woman when, likely, this form of whistling was the means to overcome stuttering that his mother had taught him.)

My early life contains much racist ideology. There are just a few experiences that I will share that reflects a world view that I still seek to overcome. Looking at the same moral failures in our nation’s history toward Native Americans is a lens through which I look at myself, how I was raised, and our national history.

Just as the Native Americans were regarded as less than human, and this was used to justify killing them by the soldiers and pioneers, so racial myths were part of my own upbringing. Anytime an African American named Tolbert would be on a football team, whether college or professional, my uncle would say, “He is probably a descendant from one of the slaves who worked on our plantation!” Occasionally, there would be an off-hand comment about how fast or strong an athlete was and how they were mixed with some kind of animal. Later, I found out that this was part of early American pseudo-scientific racial theories. They were also part of the same theories of Nazi Germany for both blacks, Jews, and others that they said held less than Aryan purity, and according to them were mixed with animals. When Jesse Owens won four gold medals for his track and field feats, Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister for the Nazis remarked that it was because he was part animal. When my wife, Matushka Michaila, was young, several times she was asked if people could see her tail. Seriously! This was in the 1940s and 1950s! Racial myths continue to whisper in peoples thinking. It creates a fog. It creates a sense of the other.

For each birthday and Christmas, I would receive cards from my grandmother Dorothy who grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, addressed to “Master David Altschul.” Yes, I know that according to etiquette standards from Great Britain that is how you would address a young boy, at least until he was 12 or 18. However, the important point is that this was normally for young white boys! The ruling class in Colonial or Southern America would never address a young boy of color as Master. It was reserved for the anticipated heir of an estate or, later, to prepare a young boy to take his place of honor and responsibility. To be groomed for white entitlement. There are so many reinforcements of white cultural advantage in our culture, but because they are so pervasive, they often remain hidden. It is essential to look deeper into how, if white, we benefit from such structures, at the expense of others.

Change in the 17th Century

In the 1600’s of our nation, enduring changes were set in motion that would lead to both Wounded Knee and the Knee on George Floyd. Early in the 1600s if a slave became a Christian, the master was expected to set him free. But in 1639, it changed. As a result, if you weren’t white, you could be enslaved! In 1640, three indentured servants escaped from Hugh Gwyn’s farm. When caught, the two White Europeans were to finish the terms of their work contracts with an extra year added on, but, the third, John Punch, who was black, was ordered “to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life.”

After that they added slavery for the duration of one’s life, shortly after that Colonial courts ruled that the children were also to be enslaved. Later, they ruled that even the land of free blacks could be seized from a widow by the state because ‘he was a Negroe and by consequence an alien” (Africans in America)

How did these ideas come about?

The Puritans held to the climate theory of Aristotle (the Greeks were in between the “ugly” extremes of pale or dark skins resulting from extreme cold or hot climates, and that “humanity was divided into two, the Masters and the slaves; or, if one prefers it, the Greeks and the Barbarians, those who have the right to
command; and those who are born to obey.” Politics)

The Puritans also held to the the misinterpretation of Genesis 9, known as the curse of Ham theory. In this theory, they say, because of Ham’s sin, Noah cursed the descendants of Ham, who settled in Africa, to servitude. Sadly, seldom is it mentioned that, in the Genesis account, this curse was not to all four of the sons of Ham, but only to Canaan who would serve the sons of Shem. This then was a prophecy about Jacob’s family returning to the land of Canaan after being slaves in Egypt for 400 years and Canaan would become their homeland. It was fulfilled over three thousand years ago. It had nothing to do with skin color, Africa, or justification for perpetual bondage.

Yet, supported by such misguided theories and theology, they found a convenient way to justify the perpetual holding of people of color in bondage. Why was this to the advantage of the colonists?


The exporting of tobacco back to Europe had grown from 20,000 pounds in 1619 to 38 million pounds in 1700! In the 1680s African slaves had grown to far surpass white indentured servants. Furthermore, the death rate among Africans working in the fields was less than whites and Native Americans. Eventually, the slave trade itself became big business. In one century, the model of labor in the colonies was changed from primarily indentured servants to generational race slavery, where blacks were regarded as those created to labor for the white race.

We also see the same habit of breaking promises and treaties with the African Americans, as had happened with the Native Americans. In 1865, toward the end of the Civil War, Gen. Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15. It set aside 400,000 acres for freed slaves along the Atlantic Coast in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The phrase “40 acres and a mule” emerged from this order.

It became the expectation that this would be the standard of reparations after the Civil War. But after the assassination of President Lincoln those hopes were dashed. President Andrew Johnson turned much of the south back over to many of the formerly Confederate leaders who issued the Black Code laws. The federal troops pulled out and the violence from the Klan and others reinforced these Black Codes. These Codes became the foundation of the Jim Crow laws after Reconstruction. This was not a North/South issue. This was pervasive. This was due to the clinging of racial fears and prejudice since the founding of colonies in this beautiful land.

Our Response: The Knee of Repentance and Reflection

When I first became Orthodox, some of my Protestant friends had a problem with the end of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” They would say things like, “you’re not a sinner anymore. The Apostle Paul says you’re a saint now!” But I remembered the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee said, “God, I thank you that I’m not like other men!” Whereas, the tax collector, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (cf. Luke 18:9-14). The tax collector left with freedom. The deeper we go, the more we see ourselves, and when we see that we are sinners and have a long way to go, it produces an awareness of our need for mercy, grace, power to change. It’s not “been there, done that.”

In the 1950s, Gordon Allport, in his classic work on prejudice, pointed out that it stays with you. It’s something that must be monitored and examined. In the past twenty years much research has been done on implicit bias that confirms this and expands on it. Given the recent tensions in our nation, this inner work is needed more than ever. If we are to be “peacemakers” as Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt.5:9), we must face our logs. Currently instead of helping remove each other’s specks from a place of peace (evidence of doing our inner work), we are seeing an assembly of loggers poking each other on Facebook, in church, and in public forums. The idea of racism and our collective response to it, reminds me of when my friends used to tell me that I wasn’t a sinner, that now we’re saints. In our collective experience, it’s like we’re saying, “we’re not racist anymore. We’ve moved beyond that! Obama was President!”

When I married my wife Thelma, after becoming Orthodox she was known as Matushka Michaila, some thought I had moved passed racism and prejudice, simply by marrying her! But like the bumper sticker says, “wherever you go, there you are.” I still have much to deal with. I recognize my racist past and thoughts, and yes, culture, and it indeed is a national sin that I must deal with. In the language of the desert fathers, it is a form of the passion of pride and vainglory.

When I became a monk, I was in many all-night vigils in the monasteries on Mt. Athos. I had heard about the “Uncreated Light” manifesting itself. For me? All I was seeing was my sins and failings. Then it hit me. God doesn’t send His Light to condemn, but to illumine. We see ourselves as we are. With His help, we can be purified. Included among my many sins, I began to see the passion of pride as it related to racism.

I remembered the pride of my youth and the racist comments, jokes, and thinking I was better because I was simply white!

After becoming a Christian, I remember the idea of seeing myself “doing something great for the poor blacks” not seeing the religious pride behind it — the “great white savior” idea. It was after reading the civil rights leader John Perkins, and his quote from Lao Tzu that started to change this hidden pride:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves” Lao Tzu

I remember when I wanted to marry Thelma (Michaila), well-meaning pastors called me to a meeting where they appealed to me not to go through with this because of the differences in our age, our educational levels, and our class difference. Implied in this was also our racial difference. I was shaken. I was very concerned about what people thought of me, and I knew the proverb that among a ‘multitude of counselors there is safety’ (Prov. 24:6). When I returned to talk to Thelma, she was so upset and saddened, that I went on a long walk to pray. When I was nearly home from my walk, I heard a still small voice in my heart, “You were like Peter. You were walking on the water, and you began to sink because you were paying attention to the winds of public opinion.” We got married after that right away.

I remember Thelma’s difficulty stopping smoking. I was concerned on the surface because of her health, but deeper I realized it was because of my self-image. How would it look, me a pastor, having a black wife who smoked? After I faced it, and confessed my pride, my Pharisaism, she of her own will was able to stop within the year.

I remember many times pulling up to a corner where a group of young black men were congregating, and rolling up my windows, locking my door. What was I dealing with? The stereotype! The social imprint! The message was ‘Black men were criminals’. This has been used since the time of slavery when vagrancy laws were used to keep black men in servitude with convict labor. Why? Because during the Black Code laws and Jim Crow, the vagrancy ‘crime’ was to not have a job. Yet often the only jobs available were returning to forced labor in plantation conditions! I had bought into this stereotype in my mind. Yes, it was the culture that I was in, but that kind of thinking was in me. Fortunately, this deeper reaction can be purified when we open it to the One Who is Light and has the power to heal and change us. (I still lock the car but rarely is the thought because of the racial context. Mostly now it is done because of protecting what belongs to others. Nevertheless, sometimes such thoughts still pop in there, which I rebut with the truth of my experience.)

I remember Thanksgiving, 1988. We had a free Thanksgiving meal for people in our neighborhood at Reconciliation Ministries. We partnered with Rev. Raymond Mabion and members of Bethlehem Christian assembly. After the meal, I asked Brother Mabion, how he thought it went. He said, “Well, a lot of people were fed!” But I could see something more was there. So I prodded a bit. We had a commitment of love and honesty to each other. So, he told me that several of our white volunteers had told the black grandmothers a “better way to cook and prepare the turkey. They simply backed up and let the white ladies lead.” My heart was pierced. I realized that we had put efficiency over the relationship. Some of theme had been making turkey dinners for fifty to sixty years and yet we thought we had a better way. It was painful. But it was important. Progress does not come before people. Human beings are the image of God, but in need of being restored to His likeness. This is not the time for us to seek to be lords and rulers. This is the time to seek to be servants and healers.

So, we come to the third focus of the knee. Me on the knees of my heart.

I say God be merciful to me a sinner.
I say God be merciful to me a racist.
I confess my sins of pride, vain glory and racism.
I confess the sins of my ancestors and our pride, vain glory, and racism.
I confess our sins of greed, stealing, murder, lust, rape, and kidnapping to establish and continue our country.
I confess our treating those for whom Christ died as the other, as less than human, as evil.
I confess putting progress before your children.
O Lord.
Lord have mercy.
Show us what You would have us do to help repair the breach.
Show us what You would have us do to heal the wounds.
Show us what You would have us to do.

In closing, I’m mindful of the hope in Joel 2 that if we return with prayer and fasting and change, “who knows if He will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind?” There is no magic formula or algorithm. God is One in Three Divine Persons. He cannot be manipulated. But we know that “He resists the proud and gives grace to the humble”. Lord have mercy. Amen.

2020 Conference: What color are your eyes?

By Fr. Turbo Qualls, FSMB Spiritual Formation Chair and priest at St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church in Kansas City, MO.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit!

My brothers and sisters, I greet you on this landmark day of our 27th Annual Conference… and although we are unfortunately not able to be with each other bodily, we can, and should take this time as an opportunity to look with a new set of eyes….to seek the Lord’s face in the midst of such uncertainties….With this hope in mind, I would like to begin my talk with a question..a question that I pray will help to address the theme of our conference…

What color are your eyes? What color are the eyes of your spouse or your child? Obviously the answer to this question is going to be incredibly diverse, according to how many people were to answer the question, and yet an interesting phenomenon is demonstrated here… In answering this question, some would say “I have blue eyes..and some would say I have brown..yet in the midst of all these answers (which individually would be correct) everyone could also answer the question by saying either my eyes are black, or they could say my eyes are white!

You see, The human eye, or at least the visible part that we identify as the eye, is comprised of three portions..the sclera which is the surrounding white portion of the eye, the iris which is the colored portion of the eye, which incidentally will also be the portion that most will refer to when seeking to answer the question, and finally the pupil, which is black and is also the smallest of the three parts…

It would be safe to say that the vast majority of people who answer this question answered by naming their iris. The iris functions by helping the pupil to regulate the amount of light that the eye receives, it is also the colored portion of the eye which happens to also point to the uniqueness of each person.. it’s that portion of the eye that helps them mark their identity.

And yet, we all share complete unity in the exactness of the pupil and the sclera! Why then do we default to the iris? If unity, and inclusion is what our society is striving for, why then do we default to that which seemingly sets us apart from one another?

On April 5, 1968, which was the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Jane Elliot, taught her brown eye-blue eyed exercise. The exercise essentially divided up the classroom into blue or brown eyes, and then gave the brown eyed students greater advantage and privilege. She observed that the brown eyed kids, who had been given greater privileges, began to treat the blue eyed children poorly. She then reversed the experiment the following day, and naturally the blue eyed children began to follow suit in
treating their fellow students poorly….. It was with this exercise that Ms. Elliot offered a great contribution to the work of dismantling the falsehood of racism; however, as with any good spiritual or moral work, we must be doers of the word and not simply hearers…

My brothers and sisters.. We are now half way through 2020. The whole world has forever changed in a matter of six months, and yet some of these changes, are seemingly particular to our country… In regard to the unrest we are witnessing around issues of justice and race, I doubt anyone would disagree that they have been fomenting for years; moreover, I don’t think it would be far fetched to point to 2017 as a shift in the attitude and fervor in which these issues are engaged in our country, and perhaps around the world? In other words, much of the tone of the racial strife we see in 2020 found its flavor in 2017, when ideas of neo-segregation and White Nationalism leaped from obscure internet chat rooms into the national spotlight….

In 2017 in the aftermath of Charlottesville, the title for my talk at the 24th annual conference was “Saul’s armor doesn’t fit”, and in it I spoke on the phenomena of voices within the church offering political commentary on those terrible events and the obvious fact that many of these same voices were often out of their depth. That the trend of Orthodox Christians and especially clergy to take to the internet and battle these issues out, with all the bluster of a late night news pundit, but with none of the blessing of a transcendent God, who rules both heaven and earth. I argued that they were seemingly blind to the obvious co-opting and burgeoning infiltration of our Holy Church by white supremacists and racial separatists…now in 2020 is see that phenomenon and danger is still ever present: however, it has morphed and multiplied…now it simply isn’t the reality of white separatist and supremacist infiltrating and dividing, its now those who would do the same but in the name of racial equality and the Black struggle…and yet, Saul’s armor still doesn’t fit….

In his first epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks to a body that is suffering from division…. he writes:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. ​ ​For we were all baptized by​ one Spirit so as to form one body—​whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free​—and we were all given the ​one​ Spirit to drink. ​ ​Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…. he goes on to say

…The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet,
“I don’t need you!” ​ ​On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, ​ ​and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,​ ​while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,​ ​so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. ​ ​If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

St. Paul’s vision of unity is striking. Not so much that it calls for a greater awareness of the other from individuals…but because it calls for those who would be seemingly at odds, and irreconcilable to be aware of each other as a ​single​ body….

We must ask ourselves, could there be any other way for the Apostle to see? Is this not the prayer and vision that our Lord offered to the Father? In the Gospel John our Lord prayed:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who ​will believe in Me through their word; ​ ​that they all may be one, as You, Father, ​are​ in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. ​ ​And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one:

St. Paul caught that vision, because he moved outside of himself…outside of his perceived​ identity for the sake of his​ true​ identity which is in Christ…In his epistle to the Galatians he writes:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.​ ​But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,​ ​was pleased to reveal his Son to​ me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;​ ​nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

For St. Paul, his identity was found to be only in Christ, more importantly it was actually in his ​abandoning​ of his earthly identity as both a learned rabbi and Jew of the greatest stock that he would be able to all the more see ​and​ obtain his true and heavenly identity which is found ​only​ in Christ!

Again, the Apostle Paul, this time in his epistle to the Philippians states:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ​ ​and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—​ ​ ​that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…

In truth, we can see not only from these selected scriptures, but from the lasting fruit of St. Paul’s work in sowing spiritual seed where none had been sown before…by calling to unity those who were at enmity with both themselves and God…and more importantly, by first abandoning his ​own​ inheritance of identity, he leads by example and without hypocrisy!

This vision of being able to truly see…to have sight beyond sight…to see the other as yourself is ​only​ possible if the one who is looking, looks without distraction of self…My brothers and sisters, it is ​impossible​ for your physical eyes to be aware of themselves in the same capacity in which they are aware of what and ​who​ they are looking upon…your physical eyes do not see themselves…they only see the other….the ​Pupil​ simply receives the light as it may….and if you will allow me the turn of phrase, the ​pupil​ only truly teaches what he’s taught…

I would like to now turn our attention as pupils to our common teacher in the faith…St. Moses…In his teachings, and in his life, we see some hard things…but do we have the vision to truly see what is being laid before us? Or do we simply take our Holy father at face value? For the color of his skin or for the fallenness of his former life and how it seemingly resonates? For many who are new to the work and community of the fellowship, I would ask you…have you studied and not simply read the life of our Holy father? Or has your awareness of his life been simply from digital snippets and social media posts?

I ask this, because like our Master, there are things that are hard to understand in his life….and I submit to you, that it is precisely the hard things that are the most needed….

For example: It is said of our holy father in the faith, St. Moses, that one day when a council was being held in Scetis, the Fathers treated Moses with contempt in order to test him saying,

‘Why does this black man come among us?” When he heard this he kept silence. When the council was dismissed, they said to him, “Abba, did that not grieve you at all?” He said to them,’ I was grieved but I kept silence”…

My brothers and sisters, when you hear this hard saying, how does it make you feel? Does it leave you confused? Does it leave you questioning the faith, or our tradition? Does it begin to give weight to the contemporary critiques against Christianity that are so prevalent in the current zeitgeist? I know that for many years it left me confused…and yet in my willingness to learn from our beloved patron I find myself closer to understanding…I find that truly St. Moses ​is​ a worthy patron for ​all​ Orthodox, for ​all ​who seek refuge in this bitter world…but ​especially​ for African Americans! For is it not the sanctity and the transformative power of a life ​dignified​ by Christ like endurance that finally broke the stranglehold of Jim Crow and Segregation? How providential that such a holy man from the 5th century deserts of Africa would experience what so many in 21st century deserts of the inner cities would experience!

But, are we learning from him, our Holy father in the faith? Are we as the pupils, teaching what has been taught?

Allow me to put that another way…What is ​our​ vision? Not just as a Fellowship, but as the Church? Do we seek to throw our interpretation of orthodoxy into the marketplace of ideas, seeking to compete with all the other peddlers of worldly authority and accolades? Are we watering down the good wine we’ve been given or are we turning the stagnant and bitter water of our lives into new wine?

In my short time working with non-profit organizations, I learned that duplication of services is not best practice, and I would submit that we as the body of Christ, and more specifically as a fellowship would be wise to heed that practice…. That we do not seek to offer what the world has to offer; instead, that we offer the ​one thing​ that no one else can…

The search for racial identity is a seemingly natural pursuit for a people who have in many ways lost their identity…but what if that identity wasn’t actually lost? What if it was actually being formed and lived out as we speak? What if, like the pupil, or the iris, that identity was to be actively experienced and ​not ​observed as if it was some sort of trophy or goal to gained?

The domination of identity politics and particularly for African Americans in this country has in fact left the very community that it supposedly meant to serve blinded and groping in the ever darkening landscape of the western world…As our Lord had said, that those who seek to find their life must lose it, and that those who lose their life for His sake will find it…No words could better address the seemingly inescapable trap
that African Americans find ourselves in.

But I believe that we ​can​ escape this trap..but only with God’s Holy help!! Money ​won’t fix it​..millions are poured into social programs and yet African Americans still struggle…Political power and policies ​won’t fix it​…In a recent op-ed, Walter E Williams, a professor of economics at George Mason University, addresses this reality of the false black power of political gains, He writes:

In 1965, there were no blacks in the U.S. Senate, nor were there any black governors. And only six members of the House of Representatives were black. As of 2019, there is far greater representation in some areas – 52 House members are black. Nine black Americans have served in the Senate, including Edward W. Brooke of Massachusetts, Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama of Illinois, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California. In recent times, there have been three black state governors. The bottom line is that today’s black Americans have significant political power at all levels of government. Yet, what has that meant for a large segment of the black population?

My brothers and sisters, I would submit to you, that these political gains are the only fruit of identity politics…but it is fruit that is rotting on the vine and on the ground! If we were to measure what African Americans are wanting and needing, it seems that your only course of action would be to look at the conglomerate of corporations and political pundits sponsoring BLM, and if one was to go strictly by that, you would have to come to the conclusion that African Americans are a helpless and pathetic lot, that we have scraped and stumbled since we came out of the mire of slavery….and that in fact, we won’t be actually whole and healed as a people until “we get what’s ours”.

But what is it that we are supposedly looking for? What is this continuously elusive prize that we simply cannot attain for ourselves, that only by demanding a forced apology and begrudgingly given reparations from those who we are told, ‘victimized us’ can we truly be dignified and whole?

I believe that what the world and the devil has duped both African Americans and those who would be our allies into continuingly questioning what that prize is, and that it is something that we don’t already have. My brothers and sisters, I submit to you, that we in fact, already own this elusive prize. Moreover I would submit that this prize has not only failed in satisfying us as a people, it has in reality poisoned us. That prize is Power, worldly power, to be more exact. And like all who seek power, once a taste has been given it is never enough…it can never satisfy.

I imagine many of you who are hearing this, might be shaking your heads, and wondering what in the world I am talking about…How can I say that African Americans have power? Then I will ask you this question…Who dominates the pop charts? What community has successfully shaped the artistic and creative landscape for the last 100 years? From Jazz to Hip-hop!? Whose buying power was 1.4 TRILLION in 2019, which happens to be more than the GDP of Mexico? Ive already mentioned the various political seats held by African  Amercians…And still, will you say we have no power? Yes..we have power and as I said earlier, it obviously doesn’t satisfy…we still thirst as a people…

But our Lord said that He has water that if we were to drink of it, we would never thirst again! Holy Orthodoxy, being the fullness of the faith, or if you will, the depth of that sweet well that is Christ. It is our faith tradition alone that offers what is necessary to quench the thirst of African Americans, for in this well, both Nation and individual find the drinking gourd by which this deep water can be drawn with..In his 5th cent on love, St. Maximus the Confessor writes:

Spiritual knowledge unites knower and known, while ignorance is always a cause of change and self-division in the ignorant. hence nothing, according to sacred scripture, will shift him, who truly believes from the ground of his true faith, in which resides the permanence of his immutable and unchanging identity. For he who has been united with the truth has the assurance that all is well with him, even though most people rebuke him for being out of his mind, but without being aware that he has moved from illusion to the truth of real faith and he knows for sure that he is not deranged… he has been liberated from the fluctuating and fickle turmoil of the manifold forms of illusion.

This fickle and fluctuating turmoil is temporal identity, ego, self, power….it is an illusion, and yet we are still grasping for it!

There are so many things that can be said….but what can be done? My brothers and sisters, we must cast a vision for the people. A vision that is heavenly, indestructible and beautiful! WE must give people Orthodoxy. But in order to do that, our vision must be clear…we must see our tradition for what it is..The Ark by which beasts are turned into men! The place where beauty is given for ashes, and by which the broken are healed and the captives are liberated!

But in order for us to accomplish this, we must see the truth of where people are actually​ broken, the truth of where people are​ actually​ in need of healing and the truth of where people are ​actually​ held captive!
Plato wrote:

Self-knowledge can be obtained only by looking into the mind and virtue of the soul, which is the diviner part of a man, as we see our own image in another’s eye…Orthodoxy gives the means, by which purification, illumination and deification are possible…and this is only possible by becoming, and knowing, that the search for true identity is only salvific, life giving and possible in the Body of Christ. This is the lesson given by our Holy Fathers…But will the pupils teach what’s been taught? Will we see the unifying principle, and hold this out as the way forward? Will we learn and teach that in ​every Icon of Christ, the pupil is black, and the sclera white?

In closing, I would like to ask one more question…if you were to lose your eyes….if you lost your sight, what would you miss the most? Again, like the first question, the answers will be infinitely varied..​but​, I would say to you that all the answers could be boiled down to one word….BEAUTY…this is what you would miss…this is the ultimate purpose and function of the eye…to behold BEAUTY…

Identity politics have blinded too many…it has left too many groping in the dark for something that is best left alone…and more tragically, it has blinded too many from what is so desperately needed…Holy Orthodoxy is the pursuit of true beauty..of holy wisdom..the pursuit of God, and this is what ​all​ people are looking for…And we as the Church alone, can give it to them…this reason alone is why we exist. Let us now be faithful in fulfilling this command. Let us Love.

2020 Conference: Racism and Its Grounding in Shame and Disgust

By Fr. Stephen Freeman, pastor of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN.

“For there is a shame that brings sin; and there is a shame which is glory and grace.” (Sirach 4:21)

There is a popular definition of shame that describes it as “how we feel about who we are.” Along with this is a definition of guilt as a feeling of “how we feel about what we have done.” Those are oversimplifications but they are a useful place to start. Because race in our culture is a central part of how we see ourselves (“who I am”), it is inherently the case that shame is involved. But today, I want to take us much deeper into the phenomenon of shame and see what is really going on, how we can deal with it, and how it affects our relationships. Finally, I will offer some thoughts on the place that shame holds in our spiritual life, both shame that is of a sinful nature, as well as healthy shame which is glory and grace.

We are hard-wired for shame

I pray this is not a distraction – but it is worth considering, before anything, the actual neuro-biological basis of the experience of shame. The psychologist, Sylvan Tomkins, first identified nine structures in our human “wiring” that he labeled as “affects.” They are: Distress-Anguish; Interest-Excitement; Enjoyment-Joy; Surprise-Startle; Anger- Rage; Fear-Terror; Shame-Humiliation; Disgust; and Dissmell. These are reactions that are inborn. For example, the “surprise-startle” affect. When we play “peek-a-boo” with an infant, the child does not need to be taught how to play the game. They know the game because it consists in our “surprising” them, engaging a reflex that has been there from the beginning. Tomkins theorized that these primitive affects combine with our life experience over time to form emotions and the major aspects of our personality.

It is useful to identify this, I think, because when we speak of “shame” – we tend to have in mind that more-developed emotional experience with all of its associations. But it’s useful to think about it in its most fundamental aspects, particularly when we come to think of what is called “healthy shame.” And it will be necessary to speak of healthy shame in order to discover the route past toxic shame towards healing.

At this primary level, “shame” is an affect that is our “self-protection” signal. It marks a “stop” in our experience. It can be as innocent as signaling a boundary. Interestingly, it is also the affect that is perhaps most deeply involved in the experience of the holy. Think for a moment about someone entering a “Holy Place,” such as an old cathedral. We instinctively (meaning an affect is involved) become quiet, lowering our voice to a whisper. It is the instinct of “self-protection” – there is some sort of vulnerability we are undergoing (Aslan is not exactly a “tame” lion). We “hide,” in a certain way. It would be possible, I think, to do an entire presentation on this alone. But we have much harder work to do.

This fundamental affect of “self-protection” easily becomes mired in very negative, dangerous experiences. The body remembers these things. An immediate question for us is, “How does this have anything to do with the “shame” question of “How I feel about who I am?”

A good story for thinking about this is the Genesis account of the Garden. Created by God, we were “naked and unashamed.” There is no boundary of vulnerability between the man and the woman and God. They are utterly safe. With the first sin, they become aware of their nakedness – there is a new feeling – that of being unsafe and exposed. They hide – it is the most primal reaction of shame. Commonly, we experience shame most notably in the face. Embarrassed, blood rushes to our face. We turn our face away, we look down and cannot make eye contact. We hide.

Nothing is more “exposed” or “exposing” than our sense of self-identity. Most of our lives are spent “hiding” in one manner or another. God “clothed” Adam and Eve with “garments of skin.” We have continued to “clothe” ourselves with garments that seek to define our identity, or hide it, etc. Tattoos, for example, serve to “clothe” us with marks of identity. And, of course, the “clothing” of our racial characteristics provides another such identity marker (one that cannot be hidden). The same is true of language dialects. All the various clues to our identity risk exposing us to unwanted and even dangerous attention. As such, we spend a fair amount of time seeking to control precisely whatever it is that we expose of ourselves to others. We join groups whose music, style of dress, use of words, etc., mark us as members, creating a sense of safety and protection in our belonging.

It is worth noting that it is in adolescence as we move outside of the protective intimacy of the family and into the more social world that will eventually become the place of our adulthood – it is there that we begin to make these first forays into creating identities. Adolescents and teens are extremely prone to clump themselves into cliques. It is also the time where we begin to see bullying come to the fore – as some seek to define themselves by exerting dominance over others. Shame is brutal.

Our intimate relationships, of course, are “intimate” precisely because it is there where we expose ourselves the most. As such, they are potentially the most “dangerous” places in our lives (and, potentially, the safest places in our lives).

While I am speaking about the shame affect, I also want to touch on Disgust and even Dissmell. Disgust is our signal to spit something out. Dissmell tells us to avoid something. Anyone who has raised a child has probably seen both of these many times at the dinner table! But they are hard-wired and difficult to ignore. As we begin to think about racial identity (particularly as experienced in American culture) these affects are also very much in play. It’s to the racial applications that I want to now turn.

Story from my childhood

My first conscious experience of race was a Baptism into full-blown, Southern racism. I was 4 years old and was with my mother in a local department store. Thirsty, I went for a drink of water. This is 1957. She found me drinking from the fountain marked, “Colored.” She snatched me up and scolded me lightly and said that this was the “fountain for colored people” and that I was not to drink from it. She said nothing more. She did not explain that we were racists and therefore did not drink from the same fountain. Since there was no explanation, I was left with a 4 year-old’s imagination to ponder the problem. The only reason I could think of not to drink from something was because it was unsafe and unclean. The obvious conclusion was that “colored people” were somehow unsafe and unclean. I recall wondering all day long if I had caught something and whether I would start to turn black.

It’s a silly, tragic, example of the many thousands of lessons woven into the experience of the Jim Crow South. Those lessons included not just ideas, but primal, neurobiological reactions. Disgust and Dissmell are far more primary than mere racial theory itself. Ideas are easy to change. Neurobiological reactions are something altogether different. I first heard actual racial theory when I was 10 years old, attending a Baptist youth camp whose counselors were from Bob Jones University. Three years later, I attended a Baptist Church for the last time when my older brother, then a Freshman at Clemson, walked out on a sermon that was preaching segregation and railing against the planned integration of Furman University. I went with him – he was my ride home. It was my introduction to politics, and the beginning of a journey out of my Southern childhood.

While reading Mother Catherine’s small book on race, identity and reconciliation, I was thinking about this deep programming of hard-wiring in our culture. Jim Crow laws are gone, but there are many subtle ways in which these things still remain. If I take these thoughts to something less charged than the racial context – say Appalachians (my own subculture) – we can see some of the same things at work. A strong Appalachian dialect is equated in our culture with laziness, crime, stupidity, lack of cleanliness, etc. It is a strangely acceptable prejudice, with tv shows, commercials, etc., that make use of these stereotypes without compunction. I hear echoes of it in my head: “trailer-park trash,” “Walmart people.”

The world has changed a great deal since my childhood. Inter-racial marriage is now rather common, when it was unheard of and illegal then. There is greater interaction. However, as many have noted, there are “structural” or “systemic” aspects of racism built into many parts of our culture. I think of the world of shame and disgust as part of the “deep structure” of any culture. There are no laws that can touch these things. They require the difficult work of healing within the human heart. I think it is also the case that these deep matters of shame, disgust, and dissmell, are themselves terribly embarrassing. It is relatively easy to talk about economic injustice and police brutality. It is frightfully difficult to admit the presence of these very deep-seated reactions – “passions” of a sort. But it is those deeper reactions that form the psychological framework for injustice that marks our culture.

Healthy Shame and Healing

To think about the work of healing, I want to take us to the place of healthy shame. As noted in the quote from Sirach – there is a shame which is glory and grace. I’ve been asked any number of times by various people why use the term “shame” to describe healthy shame. Isn’t it confusing? The reason is simple – the underlying mechanism for healthy shame and toxic shame is the same. They differ in intensity, and cause. Toxic shame is painful in the extreme and can be completely paralyzing. Healthy shame is painful (in a very small degree) and is essential to living a healthy life. It signals boundaries – a life without boundaries is very unhealthy, indeed.

I will take us back for a minute to the example of the Cathedral. We enter, and instinctively become quiet. It is an architecture that is designed to convey the divine. The German Theologian, Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy, 1917), famously described this experience as that of the “Wholly Other” (ganz Andere), or the “numinous.” In its presence we are “completely abashed.” In colloquial terms, this primary experience of God says to us, “You’re not Him.” This same experience also reveals the naked truth of ourselves to us. Adam and Eve see their nakedness and hide. In a healthier story, there is Isaiah’s vision. He sees the Lord, “high and lifted up.” At the cry of the Seraphim, Isaiah exclaims, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips!”

Job sees God and says:

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5–6)

“Therefore I despise myself.” Though it might sound like it, this is not toxic shame. It is a healthy acknowledging of the truth, and, thus, the beginning of a true and authentic existence.

Some years back, when I began doing study on the topic of shame (out of a deep personal need), I spent some time with Archm. Zaccharias of Essex. He writes a bit about shame in his work. St. Sophrony, his teacher, instructed him when he first began to hear confessions, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” In my time with him, he spoke about sitting in the presence of God, acknowledging whatever shame I was feeling, and praying, “O God, comfort me.” At its best, this can take place in confession.

I will add parenthetically, that shaming others is not the job of a confessor and can be extremely toxic. The abuse of shame is the very heart of spiritual abuse. Please note this.

This gentle exposure, an exercise in vulnerability – in the presence of God – unjudging, forgiving, comforting – is profoundly healing. On a personal level, in therapy sessions, I have worked with personal shame in the context of EMDR, processing those powerful emotions into a place that is “bearable.” It is deeply therapeutic.

Some psychologists have described shame as the “unbearable emotion.” It is painful, even in small amounts. Most of us avoid embarrassment, its lightest form. Rather than experience shame, we most often transform it, almost simultaneously, into a different emotion – most commonly, anger or sadness. That we are a culture that is currently caught up in a vortex of anger is symptomatic of the prevalence of shame. Those with whom we disagree are not just wrong – they are “evil” (or so we think and feel). The language of shame has become mainstream. It is also not a language practice that brings about transformation. It brings about anger and depression and all that goes with it.

And this brings us to the Orthodox Christian practice of bearing a little shame – healthy shame. We understand that repentance is made possible by God’s grace – but that God’s grace makes us aware of our sins – it reveals our shame. But in doing this, God is not crushing us. He is revealing Himself to us, and, in that Light, we see light – the light of the truth of our own self (and our culture as well). It is good to understand that God Himself has led the way in this: “I turned not my face from the shame and the spitting.” In His Pascha, Christ enters the depth of human shame. St. Sophrony of Essex said, “Christ has entered the depths of hell and has promised to meet His friends there.”

I am the descendant of slave owners. The culture that created slaves is part of my inheritance. There have been material benefits that come from that fact. Worse still, part of my inheritance has been a heart that was darkened with shame and disgust – not just racially but elsewhere as well. The entire culture of “Black and White” is itself born out of slave culture and is marked by numerous lies. My authentic existence cannot be found within such a culture – only in the light of Christ.

But we need to sit with the truth, including the shame that goes with it. We should sit with it quietly in the presence of God. “I have quieted my soul like a weaned child at its mother’s breast.” That is a place where healing begins to take place, a transformation of the heart.

America and its modern mythology seeks political solutions for every ill. Doubtless, there are areas of justice that can only be addressed by governing authorities. But such attempts at justice do not and will not heal shame. And shame is the far greater disease.

As an aside. Historically, human beings have used various liturgies, or liturgical events, in the healing of collective shame. American culture struggles with this. Often, its liturgical events are coopted by division and recrimination, thus only making the problem worse. Strangely, the Civil War can be seen as a liturgy of sorts – a bloody effort to exorcise a demon that had inhabited the land for so long. Hymns such as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” reveal the deep religious nature of that conflict. Of course, over time, it failed. It was insufficient and was swallowed up in the institutions of Jim Crow. I think that the civil unrest, protests, riots, etc., of the recent past are themselves “liturgies” of a sort. I do not think they will be effective in the healing of shame. Indeed, they are dominated by the language of shame – whether deserved or not.

The role of the Church, and thus, the role of Christians, is to live fully and completely in the role of Christ Himself. We walk as He walked. We live as He lived. It’s in that train of thought that I offer suggestions as the conclusion of this talk.

If we think carefully about the texts of Holy Week, we’ll notice that the Church focuses not so much on the pain of Christ’s death. Rather, it is the mocking and the shame. The nature of the Crucifixion is that it is a shameful death (“even death on a Cross”). It is, therefore, part of our path to acknowledge and bear the shame created in racial relations – we bear it, so that, in Christ, it might be healed. The hallowed ministry of “fools for Christ” consists of a willingness to bear shame, and, in bearing it, to heal it in others. These are four “strategies” that seem appropriate:

  1. Tell the truth – especially about yourself to yourself. We will not be healed by our excellence (“I am not a racist!”) but by our weakness. Think through your story and look for the feelings of shame and disgust within it.
  2. Bring the truth into the light – and sit with it. We can do this with trusted persons, including in the context of confession. I will emphasize that this must be voluntary. No one can or should demand that we exposure our shame. And be sure that you’re in a safe context, with a safe person, when you do expose it. Safe means – not judging.
  3. Overcome barriers where possible. We cannot be reconciled to others when we do not know them face to face. Recognize that these barriers are charged with shame and embarrassment. I think one of the great values of this Fellowship of St. Moses the Black is that its presence and conversation reminds us all of a shame we would like not to admit – and that to be the Church in North America – we must acknowledge and give attention to its healing.
  4. As much as we can, we need to “bear” our shame and not displace it. Even though many of our thoughts and feelings are a product of a culture we did not create, we have to take responsibility for ourselves. In this, I think, the role of the holy fool is an important example. I could easily imagine an American version of the novel Laurus. The bizarre behaviors would doubtless scandalize us all – and reveal the depths of our hearts. Christ, I think, is walking that path somewhere in our midst. I pray for us that we will have the courage to take up that path when it is made clear to us.

2020 Conference: The Impact of Education Innovation in Grades K-12 for Communities of Color

Presented by Gregory M. Weston, Trustee of Democracy Prep New York Schools

The Challenge

Communities of Color (COC) in the U.S. are challenged today as never before. The disparate impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on Communities of Color have laid bare the existing inequities in our healthcare system. Prior to the pandemic chronic health problems have plagued such communities at much higher levels than the general population. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease and asthma are ever present while access to quality health care is increasingly difficult and often impossible, given increased attempts to roll back the Affordable Health Care Act.

With that backdrop, COVID 19 has created a catastrophe for COC. According to the CDC, African American and Latinix residents are three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors and nearly twice as likely to die. In some counties the infection rates for POC or six to seven times that of white residents. The prevalence of chronic health problems and the disproportionate number of people from COC that are considered essential workers are primary factors of the health disparities.

The pandemic has also created in economic crisis in COC. As with healthcare, significant disparities existed pre-COVID. For example, the median wealth for Black families is $17,600 vs. $171,000 for white families – 10%! Now with COVID over 45% of Black businesses are at risk of failure.

As all of these issues were playing out in 2020, the vicious murder of George Floyd galvanized attention on another set up disparities – criminal justice. For decades, police violence, mass incarceration and gun violence have plagued COC in ways that are just receiving recognition of much of the country.


The challenges facing COC often seem permanent and unsolvable and indeed, the intersection of these problems complicate the possibility of meaningful change. However, the path for future generations does not have to be bleak. The zip code that a person in born in does not have to create an impenetrable ceiling of progress. The promise of free education for all Americans has provided a path for upward mobility for many generations of Americans. Unfortunately, that promises has remained unfulfilled for most COC. Due to historical racial segregation and wealth gaps, zip codes far too often dictate outcomes for K-12 students. For many COC schools not only fail students but through the frequent criminalization of discipline incidents have created a School to Prison Pipeline. Recognizing this fact, an effort to reform current public education has created a number of initiatives designed to impact outcomes. At the federal level, examples include No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and 2010 Common Core States Standard. Locally, voucher programs and charter schools have offered more private sector approaches to educational reform.

Charter Schools

In many communities, including COC, charter schools have offered a successful model for quality public education. So, what is a charter school?

Charter schools are schools that are publicly funded but operated by independent groups. The name comes from the contract, or “charter,” that a group gets to operate a school.

First it must be understood that charter schools are public schools, rather than private academies or schools. However, they don’t have to follow the same regulations from states, municipalities and school districts as traditional public schools. In general, charter schools have more flexibility to set curriculum and school hours and rules than traditional public schools. And because they’re not bound by union contracts, they also have more leeway to hire and fire teachers. They also have flexibility to incentivize teachers with merit based bonuses. In exchange, they have to meet accountability standards. About 15 percent of charters nationally have been closed for failing to do so.

Charter school laws vary from state to state, and some states have no charter schools at all. The first charter school law was enacted in 1991 in Minnesota. Over the past two decades, the number of charter schools and students in the US has grown explosively. About 5 percent of all public school students now attend a charter school. In some districts, including Washington, the proportion is much higher. In NYC the figure is 11 percent. Just like traditional public schools, charter schools can be effective or ineffective, depending on teachers, leadership and other factors. But some have achieved notable success in helping low-income and minority students achieve high test scores and prepare for college.

Democracy Prep

The mission of Democracy Prep Public Schools (DPPS) is to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship. Democracy Prep began as one middle school in Harlem in 2005. DPPS was founded to show that regardless of what ZIP code they are born into, students can perform at high academic levels. Democracy Prep seeks to transform not only the lives of the students at Democracy Prep but also the expectation of what public schools can achieve.

After great success in New York, the school grew to a national network. DPPS now operates 21 high-performing charter schools and one program in New York, NY; Camden, NJ; Baton Rouge, LA; Las Vegas, NV; and San Antonio, TX. DPPS educates over 7,000 citizen-scholars. It also aims to strengthen communities by graduating young adults who are prepared for career success, who will vote in their local elections, run for elected office, volunteer and serve others, and donate to worthy charitable causes. All students learn the mantra “Go to College, Change the World” and take it to heart. One example of living that mantra is that DPPS currently employs 30 alumni as teachers and administrators. 55 of our alumni work as Alumni Captains supporting DP scholars on their path to and through college right from their college campus.

DPPS Impact on Voting and Civic Engagement

A study by Mathematica found that there is a 98% probability that enrolling at Democracy Prep produces a positive impact on both voting and voter registration. Democracy Prep increases the voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increases the voting rates of its students by about 12 percentage points. The study also found that there is a 98% probability that enrolling in a DP school produced a positive impact on voting in the 2016 election.

College Access and Acceptances

Last year, despite the pandemic, our nearly 400 seniors and now graduates, persevered and received an average of 4.57 college acceptances each. 75% of college acceptances were to schools ranked “competitive” or higher. DPPS scholars have been accepted into a variety of Historically Black Colleges & Universities, including Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, North Carolina A&T, Hampton University, and Grambling State. In addition, we congratulated our fourth college graduating class in Spring. They have earned college diplomas from Yale, Barnard, Columbia, West Point, Duke, Smith, Harvard, Brown, Boston College, SUNY Albany, SUNY Plattsburgh, Middlebury College, and so many others. These results are even more remarkable given the economic challenges facing most scholars, over 90% of whom are First Generation college attendees in their families.

Examples of Innovation at Democracy Prep

  • Korean Culture & Language. The mission of the Korean Culture & Language Program is to provide students with a unique, in-depth immersive experience and foster a development of identity, cross-cultural awareness, and language proficiency. Students will step out of their comfort zone and have an opportunity to broaden their perspectives through culture and language.
  • Visual Arts. Scholars contribute to their school’s arts culture through regular showcases, concerts, exhibitions, and other opportunities to share creative output.
  • Speech & Debate. Democracy Prep’s strong Speech & Debate team consistently wins awards at the national level. We made history at Nationals as the first school to have two finalists in Duo Interpretation. Democracy Prep also earned the highest distinction which is only awarded to the top ten high schools in the nation. Last year, the Speech & Debate team traveled 16,940 miles!
  • Music Academy. Grade 3-12 scholars in our NYC schools enjoy complimentary access to the DPNYC Music Academy, which meets after school and on Saturdays from October to June. Music Academy participants learn how to play the keyboard, read music, and pursue excellence as a musical ensemble.
  • Global Travel. DPPS scholars are groomed to be world citizens. While most come from COC will little opportunity to travel, DP scholars visit dozens of elite college campuses and have opportunities to visit London, Ecuador, South Africa and Seoul Korea.


College Matriculation

During the 2020 application season:

  • Democracy Prep seniors received an average of 4.8 college acceptances.
  • Our scholars were accepted into a variety of Historically Black Colleges & Universities, including Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, North Carolina A&T, Hampton University, and Grambling State.
  • Seniors got into all eight Ivy League schools and six of the Sister Schools.
  • 75% of all acceptances were to schools ranked “Competitive or above.”


As noted above the challenges facing Communities of Color are significant, interrelated and long-standing. All of those challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is no silver bullet, history shows that quality education remains the best solution for families to provide their children with life altering changes in their opportunity set. Rather than navigating the School to Prison Pipeline, diminished work opportunities and low wealth probabilities students attending quality K-12 schools can truly enjoy the American Dream.

Sadly, with few exceptions, family wealth and location usually dictate the ability to access quality education. That is where innovation is needed. While innovation takes many forms good charter schools are a viable solution to this dilemma. The great success of Democracy Prep Public Schools provides a vivid example of how innovation in education can transform students, families and communities.

Letter from His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon to the attendees of the 2020 Annual Conference

October 9, 2020
Protocol 10/007

Fellowship of Saint Moses the Black
2020 Annual Conference

To the Reverend Fathers and Esteemed Faithful present,

Christ is in our midst!

With this letter, I greet all of the attendees of the 2020 Conference of the Fellowship of Saint Moses the Black, I congratulate all of the conference organizers, and I ask for God’s mercies and blessings upon the work of the conference. May the Holy Spirit guide you all to greater wisdom and understanding!

This conference meets at a very difficult moment in American history. Our country, politically polarized for some years now, was hit with the horrible COVID-19 pandemic in the early spring of 2020, and this caused pain, suffering, and loss. But it was in the late spring of 2020 that something much more evil happened: the torturous murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin in a city street in broad daylight.

When we see a man murder another man, when we see a brother murder his brother, we think of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel were two brothers, the first two brothers to ever exist. When Cain gave a lower quality sacrifice, God was better pleased with Abel. This difference provoked Cain to jealousy and hatred, and he murdered his brother in the field, out in the open, in broad daylight.

This evil of murder, this evil of brother killing brother, is the first sin after the fall of Adam and Eve. And what sin can be greater than murder? The murder of a brother, the murder of one of a different race, the murder of an unborn child, are all abhorrent. For all of us are equal children of our Father in Heaven, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and the power of the Spirit He has given us.

And this is why we must protest the great evil of hatred and murder. We must let our speech be heard, to build up and edify our fellow children of God. We must let our voices ring out, so that the Gospel which unites all humankind in Christ may be heard. We must let our light so shine before men, so that they may see our good works, so that they may recognize their Father who is in Heaven, and glorify Him for the gifts of unity, fellowship, and communion that He has given to all.

Concerning our spiritual life, we must not only condemn every kind of murder and hatred that we see around us, but we must individually endeavor to uproot any traces of murder and hatred that lie within us; for we cannot change what is out of our control, but we can change what is within our control. Each of us must recognize that we too have failed in many ways, that we too have been led astray by the lies of the Serpent, and that we too have become subject to death in our sins. If we strive to be honest with ourselves, we see that we do not love one another as we should, that we have not reached out to our neighbor, and that we have not made reconciliation with our fellows, who are children of God with us.

When we do this, when we make this personal, individual battle to uproot the sin within us, we become less like Cain and more like Abel. We find the kingdom of God that is within us, and becoming bearers of the light of Christ, Christ will shine out from within us, and bring greater unity and peace to the world, bit by bit.

May we always be encouraged by the word of our Lord, in the same night that He was given up to be slain, when He said:

The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:32-33)

Despite the tribulations in the world, may we always focus on the one thing needful, and be of good cheer. For our Lord Jesus Christ has overcome the world, and if we make space for Him to abide within our hearts, we will learn to see one another as the children of God that we are, and will spread this message of unity to the world.

With Archpastoral blessings and prayers on your behalf, I remain,

Sincerely Yours in Christ,

+ Tikhon
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada
Orthodox Church in America