In 2012, Fort Ross, the Russian settlement in California, is celebrating its 200th anniversary. On August 25, divine services were celebrated under the open skies, in which several hundred Orthodox Christians of America participated, along with two metropolitans, five bishops and several dozen priests from the United States and Canada, Australia, Russia and even New Zealand. Two choirs sang at Liturgy: one in Church Slavonic, the other in English. For the year or so that I have lived in the USA, this was the largest gathering of worshipers at one time I have ever seen.
Who are these Orthodox Christians in America? One could reasonably divide them into two groups.
The first are emigres (Russians, Serbs, Greeks, Romanians), some having arrived a century ago, others twenty years ago, some only last year, as well as visitors from Russia on work visas. Russian and English was being spoken everywhere. At some distance from the worshipers, kids in native Russian costumes were running around.
Imagine on the opposite side of the globe, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, girls in colorful kerchiefs, the traditional blouses and sarafans, boys wearing embroidered shirts. Their parents were obviously trying to draw their children to the historic Russian culture. Among themselves, the kids rattle on in English, but they speak Russian to their parents, with some effort, which is understandable, for America is an English-speaking country, and the children only hear Russian at home, and only very rarely outside of it.
Russian emigres look different in church than believers in Russia. Where in Moscow will you find a woman wearing a business suit to church, in heels, with jewelry and a hat? Will you see very many men in a jacket and tie? In America, it seems, church-goers always put on their finest. I get the idea that this is a pre-Revolutionary custom—to appear in church as though you had an audience with the king.
The other type of Orthodox Christians are people who are not tied to any ethnic tradition, even Russian.
There are Americans who were baptized and became members of the Russian Orthodox Church. They have nothing in common with Russians; they are not emigres, they have no relatives in Russia. As a rule, they converted to Orthodoxy from other faiths. They speak little or no Russian, but they participate in the services, even if they are conducted in Slavonic. In American Orthodox churches (in practically all the jurisdictions of America), as a rule, part of the service, or the entire service, is performed in English, which helps English-speaking parishioners participate in common prayer. Such people in the Russian Orthodox Church are bound not by culture or tradition, but by faith in Christ. And for us this is truly remarkable, for these people did not inherit the Orthodox Faith from their parents.
There are Orthodox Christians you would never dream are Orthodox: African-Americans, Asians, Mexicans, and these people joyfully confess Christ and are active missionaries.
Within Orthodox Christianity, the borders of nationalism, of race and skin color, are all erased. All these differentiating factors do not matter at all. Recalling the words of Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Collosians: “But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth. Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” It is a great joy for us, who are all so different, to be bound by faith and despite everything, to be brothers and sisters in Christ.
Photo-report: “Images of Orthodox California” by Protopriest Peter Perekrestov