Surfing the Waves of Immigration
by Fr. Michael A. Meerson

A new wave of immigrants from former Communist countries is coming to the US, and many of them identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. We as the Orthodox Church in America have our pastoral obligation toward them. As an American church that numbers more than two hundred years on American soil but still has Slavs and their descendants as its main body of the faithful, the OCA seems to be the perfect place for new Orthodox immigrants. But who are they?

In this brief article I will try to picture their profile, based on my own pastoral experience of serving in the same OCA parish for 21 years. In 1999 our Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Manhattan celebrates its 75th anniversary, and throughout its history it has ministered to Russian immigrants. Fifteen years ago three generations of Russians worshipped in this parish together. Some were old people who remembered the Russian Revolution, fought in the Civil War, emigrated, and then spend most of their lives in exile, as they called it, in Europe and the US. For them this parish remained the only spot in New York City that reminded them of their old Russia with the Tsar, the state supported Orthodoxy, and pale shadows of their privileges in what they still imagined as a stable empire. Some were the representatives of the so-called Second Wave of Emigration. They survived the Communist and militantly atheistic Russia of the '20s and '30s, the Second World War, Stalin's Gulag or/and Hitler's war prisoner camps. Of course, they were content with America as a haven of security and freedom, a big contrast to everything that they had managed to escape and survive. Yet in their religious life, they retained the self-awareness of a closed ethnic community; they did not feel compelled to witness their faith to or amidst Americans. Few went to the OCA. Mainly, they were attracted to the Russian Church Abroad (the Synod) which appealed to them because of its ethnocentrism and militant anti-Soviet political stance.

The so called Third Wave came by way of the Jewish emigration. It brought to the American shore a totally secularized generation without a shade of religious upbringing. But in its midst there were some Orthodox Christians who were inspired by the idealism of the Russian underground religious revival of the '70s and '80s, with its vision of a free, missionary and dynamic Orthodox church, the closest approximation to which they found in the OCA.

Now, there is what one might call the Fourth Wave which has flooded the US after the collapse of the Communist block. This wave differs from all previous waves in that these immigrants do not experience any irreversible separation from their motherland. Most of them are educated, and many are professionals who have found good paying jobs in the US. They also emerge from a society with the uninhibited communication of the Internet age. On some level, their "americanization" had begun long before they came here. At least superficially, the post-Communist Russia has adopted the American way of life with its promise of personal happiness, independence and self-reliability. In reality, many "new Russians," like other immigrants to the US, are coming here to escape the economic disaster and political disintegration in their own countries, or as minorities whose rights are curtailed. Immigration to the US allows them to realize the "American" promise that remains unfulfilled in their home countries. But the door back home stays open. New immigrants can and do return to their native countries. As soon as they are settled in the US and achieve some financial stability, they go back to their homelands for vacations taking their children back to their grandparents and friends. If they "make it" in America, they often return home as American business representatives and partners in joint ventures, or they move in with American firms that do business with their home countries.

Because of this cultural mobility, new immigrants, in many cases, do not shy away from the use of English in the church. They do not see liturgy in English as the betrayal of their deepest religious identity; they may even welcome it as a sign of deeper integration into American life. Their willingness to be swiftly assimilated does not imply, however, that they abandon their own cultural and ethnic background. On the contrary, since the fall of the red border, Russian cultural life has flourished in the US as it had never before. Numerous Russian papers, channels on TV and Radio, food and bookstores, and restaurants witness that Russians have become a successful ethnic community in the US. No longer a community of political emigres, it is now connected with the Russian metropolis and is appreciated by it. Recent events and receptions in the Russian Embassy in Washington --the largest of them dedicated to Pushkin's bicentennial--where various generations of immigrants have mingled and cooperated with the Embassy staff, diplomats, visitors, and businessmen from Russia - have given one the impression that Russia's establishment now openly values the Russian emigre community in the US, seeking further cooperation with it.

In spite of the growing sense of Russian Orthodox identity, this community, however, does not have a church of its own; it is not represented religiously. To be sure, Russian immigrants are of diverse background. A large part of the Russian-speaking community has a Jewish background and draws its support from the American Jewish Community, although many former Soviet Jews do not necessarily identify with it religiously.

The growing majority of Russian immigrants who do identify themselves with Russian Orthodoxy find themselves divided among three church jurisdictions. Yet none of these three gives this Fourth Wave community enough support. Many immigrants first turn to the Synod, the church they heard about still in their home-country as the "Free Russian Church Abroad." They find there familiar features: parishioners speak Russian; the services are in Slavonic; there is traditional spirituality, ethnic food and Russian Sunday schools for their children. But soon they begin to feel uncomfortable. Eventually they encounter an outdated political philosophy, a heavily mythologized representation of their home country, and the sectarian attitude that separates the Synod and themselves from their mother church and from other Orthodox churches. They also encounter a religious narrowness and cultural backwardness or indifference. These are expressed in fear and hatred toward anything which is not "Russian Orthodox" according to the Synodal Church's definition --often arbitrary-- and in its total insensitivity, both deliberate and involuntary, to the secular background in which these new comers were raised. The Synodal Church also expects them to conform to a rather idiosyncratic, heavily mythologized pattern of cultural behavior that is at best alien to them, and at worst connotes to them the coy and vulgar exoticism of an emigre made-up Russia. In short, Russian immigrants may enter the Synodal Church, and even enjoy it for a while. Eventually, however, they often find it too narrow and restrictive for their spiritual growth and too anti-American for their practical goals. Further, the separation between these goals and their spiritual lives often --quite naturally--tears them apart. In and of itself, this separation is dualistic and cannot therefore produce a healthy spiritual climate.

The churches of the Moscow Patriarchate are few. Also, despite some signs of reform, they still function in the old country way. They cannot help immigrants much in their struggle for survival on American soil.

The OCA is eventually the most relevant choice, and yet new Russian immigrants know little about it. When they visit an OCA church, the only familiar features are icons. The rest - the pews, the English language, and American flag - remind them of all other American churches, foreign and uninviting. This impression can and must be corrected. Like all people, these Russians will feel at home, if they will feel welcome. Some presence of Russian language, books and pamphlets, bilingual prayer and liturgy books, some church ushers who would speak Russian and welcome them, some advertized programs for newly arrived immigrants - like English lessons, for example - can make a dramatic difference. Some expression of concern about, and understanding of, immigrants' problems and fears, as well as right counseling, can turn an alien into a friend. As a rule, those who are invited and feel welcome, eventually find out that OCA is the right place for them. That happened to me, as well as to many others.

Twenty five years ago Fr. Alexander Schmemann made me feel at home at St. Vladimir's seminary, and since then the OCA has been my ecclesiastical home in all respects. I am convinced that the OCA can become home for this coming wave of Russian Orthodox immigrants. Orthodox and American at the same time, remaining faithful to the Russian spiritual and liturgical tradition and Slavic customs, the OCA nonetheless addresses the American secular society, trying to preach, teach, and worship in the language of this society. This helps "the Forth Wave" to unify and correlate their daily life with their faith, when they are both in Russia and abroad. Since English has now become the common language of contemporary civilization, it is extensively used in Russia today. Admittedly, the OCA may not necessarily condone the contemporary culture of consumerism; it also criticizes its values when they become blatantly anti-Christian, and even pagan. Yet our Church does not fear this culture, knowing how to speak its language and being fully aware of the importance of being in the world yet not of the world. This awareness is particularly necessary today - as necessary for the "Fourth Wave Russians" as it is for Orthodox Americans. After all, this awareness presents the only way to avoid double standards, to correlate the terms of one's daily life with one's spiritual life in the Church. In short, OCA is a free church; and its institutions and structure reflect this freedom.

It is therefore our imperative pastoral task to help these new comers to recognize this freedom and learn how to live with it. The immigrants of the Fourth Wave are not spoiled or over-demanding, but they come from a different background. They often have no basic rights in this society. They find themselves in a disadvantaged position, and they naturally expect that the church they join will help them. In order to help them, one does not necessarily need to be fluent in Russian, though it definitely helps, but one has to understand the bitter lot of being "an alien." One needs to have a pastoral - i.e., to be patient and forgiving - attitude and a charitable disposition. These two traits are what the Gospel requires of us anyway. These are enough to host these people in our congregations and to eventually transform them into full-fledged communicants and stewards of our Orthodox church in America.

 

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