Sunday, August 15, 2004

Go all out for the House Blend

Right now I'm thinking quite a bit about Fr. Jon Braun's wise thoughts of church diversity in his article called "House Blend" ( http://www.antiochian.org/745 ) , because if our parish church had only considered the point that he makes, we might not be presently facing the very real possibility of closing doors permanently in the next several months.

In "House Blend", Fr. Braun calls on Orthodox parishes to consider the makeup of their congregation: is it mostly convert, mostly ethnic or mostly cradle? It's not the way that we're used to looking at our memberships, and the point of taking it into consideration isn't to denigrate the contributions of any of these backgrounds, but to assert the strength to be found in a church that contains all a mix of all three -- a "house blend".

"Where an atmosphere of suspicion and belittling tends to peak is in those environments where cradle and convert are effectively separated from one another. And, conversely, those issues fade when they are together. At my parish, the proportion is 55% convert and 45% cradle. (I’m probably the only one in the parish aware of those figures.) But we don’t think of each other as cradle or convert. We think of each other as broth­ers and sisters in Christ: we see each other as Orthodox Christians, and members of the same Body. I must admit that when I’m outside my own parish and meet some cradle Orthodox, I occasionally still feel the suspicion so strongly, I’m sure they feel the same coming from me. But in my “house blend” parish, we don’t have that problem."

This strikes me as a very gutsy comment to make, and one that many Orthodox may not want to hear. Surely we don't stereotype each other, surely we who have inherited the richness of the faith handed down to us wouldn't abuse it by judging other Orthodox simply because they haven't used the same road to get to church that we have. But we do, and the only thing worse than behaving in that way would be to blind ourselves to it.

Fr. Braun goes on to lay out the advantages to be found in the "house blend" and ends with a concise point of perspective that would sound extreme if it were not (in my very limited experience, at least) the truth:
"... the house blend must not be overlooked, and we will see more and more of these parishes as the distance in time and culture from homelands grows, converts increase in numbers, and Orthodox life grows stronger on this continent.

In other words, the Orthodox churches in America that want to succeed won't ignore the aspect of being not just convert, ethnic or cradle but a mixture.

If only someone would've been looking out for our little church with this in mind! We are a small church with perhaps 10 families. Our foothold was never very secure, and yet the parish managed to hold on for decades. But our core group is all from one background -- cradle Orthodox and closely related (the Old World model of extended family being one of the things, for better or for worse, that ethnic Orthodox have in common). So are their needs for the church bad? No, but this group is present in such a high proportion that their needs are overwhelming. There is simply too much of one kind of understanding of what church should supply and too little tolerance for what others might want. The people involved love this church -- they want it to go on forever. But they are suffocating the thing that they love the best.

Lest I sound like I'm only coming down on one side of this, the church I moved away from in another state had the opposite problem. It was peopled almost entirely of converts from the EOC movement of the 80's (of which I'm also a "graduate") and was in the midst of some severe growth pains because it couldn't let go of what it was and accept the input of those Orthodox who had been worshipping in the Church since childhood. The core group was, again, too much of one thing. And I've heard recently that that church is facing some dire possibilities in the immediate future.

It's a sad and terrible thing to watch the end of a parish church. I don't mean to speak ill of either of my two churches by airing their difficulties this way. But there are things that could have been done differently, and it seems to me worth being blunt in the interest of passing on the lessons we should have learned.

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