AMERICA OF MY HEART
5,000 Native Americans baptized Orthodox Christians in Mexico
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
The conversation published below took place in early December 2009, during the visit of Metropolitan Jonah (OCA) to Russia to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Moscow representation of the Orthodox Church in America, and is devoted to the activities of the Church in Latin America.
-Your Beatitude, in which Latin American countries is the Orthodox Church in America represented?
-The jurisdiction of our Church extends to Mexico. Previously, we also had some parishes in Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. But some of them left for the Russian Church Abroad, the others were closed.
Several communities in Latin America want to join the Orthodox Church in America. We would be happy to take these believers, but there is no one to care for them, because we have very few priests who speak Spanish or Portuguese.
A priest – I hope he will soon become a bishop – began a mission in Ecuador in Guayaquil, where there settled a major Palestinian colony. Unfortunately, in recent years, his good initiative was dampened. I heard that in Central American countries, particularly in El Salvador, there are many Palestinians. Curiously, they do not go to the parishes of the Antiochian Church, and have been asking to be accepted under our omophorion.
The Ecumenical and Antiochian Patriarchates prefer to care for the Greek and Arab diaspora. We do not understand this. The Church must give pastoral care, first of all to local spiritual children. This is the principled position of the Orthodox Church in America.
-When was the Mexican Exarchate established?
-The Mexican Exarchate exists since the early 1970′s. At that time, the bishop of the Mexican National Old Catholic Jose Church, Jose (Cortes and Olmos), got in touch with our Church, and together with his community came to Orthodoxy. Because of his work, hundreds of Mexicans penetrated the Orthodox faith.
Recently, 5,000 Native Americans from 23 localities in the State of Veracruz were baptized Orthodox. However, such a huge mass of parishioners have only one priest. In the Mexican Exarchate there are in general very few clerics. All of them Mexicans, including the ruling bishop – Bishop Alejo (Pacheco-Vera).
-Have you ever been in Latin America?
-I just visited Mexico. I’m now planning to go to Guatemala. My friend, Abbess Ines (Aiai), lives there; she is Abbess of Holy Trinity Monastery which is in the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Antioch.
In Guatemala, my attention is drawn to a group of thousands of people wishing to convert to Orthodoxy. Most of them are Mayan people. If we accept these, my Guatemalans, as well as representatives of indigenous peoples of other countries in Latin America, the Indians, could become the main ethnic group in the American Orthodox Church. Personally, I would be glad.
-It is clear that you are sympathetic to the original inhabitants of the Americas …
-I feel very warm feelings for the Indians. At university I studied anthropology, was fond of the Mayan and Aztec cultures. They are great and wonderful civilizations.
I like Latin America as a whole – its art, music, literature, cuisine. Latinos love life, they are open and hospitable people. I grew up in California – one of the most Hispanicized states in the US. From my Mexican friends I learned a little Spanish (although I speak it badly). The priest, having united me to the Orthodox Church, was a Mexican. His name was Father Ramon Merlos.
-What are the similarities and differences in the missionary work with the Native Americans of the United States and Latin America?
-Frankly, I do not know … Our church has a missionary experience in Alaska, where a wonderful priest, Archpriest Michael Oleksa, serves; he’s an anthropologist by profession. He is Carpatho-Russian, and his wife comes from an indigenous Yupik community. Father Michael wants to hold in Alaska a conference of Orthodox American Indians. It will be an extremely interesting event.
While serving as rector of the seminary, Father Michael invited the community from Guatemala, which is hungering for Orthodoxy, to send two of its members to obtain theological education. The idea is certainly good, but people accustomed to a tropical climate, are unlikely to bear Alaskan cold.
-Are there Hispanics among your parishioners in the U.S.?
-Of course. In California, 35% of the population is Hispanic; in Texas it’s even greater. Latins are present in both the flock and clergy of our Church. St. Tikhon Seminary has a Mexican student with Indian roots; he’s named Abraham. He is a subdeacon. One subdeacon in San Francisco is of Colombian origin. At the end of November of this year, I consecrated a new convent in honor of the Nativity of Our Lord in Dallas — where the abbess is Brazilian.
-What, in your opinion, attracts Hispanics to Orthodoxy?
-Latins love our liturgy and icons; they are captivated by a deep reverence for the Mother of God, inherent in the Orthodox Church.
I must say that the Catholic Church is rapidly losing influence in Latin America, because of her close ties with the upper classes of society. Many of the poor who are the majority of the population of the region are disappointed in the Catholic pastors and joined the Protestants, Mormons and other sectarians.
Metropolitan Andres (Giron), the head of the Order of white clergy of St. Basil the Great in Guatemala, was formerly a Catholic priest. He saw that his leaders were focused on the rich, and in the early 1990′s left the Catholic Church, because he wanted to work for the people. Recently, Metropolitan Andres told me: “I’m already old and sick. Please, take my people to your church for their salvation.” His community can hardly be called Orthodox, but gradually it will learn the faith and will be united to the traditions of the Orthodox Church. In addition to Guatemala, Bishop Andres opened parishes in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities in the United States where his countrymen settled.
-You are not afraid of a conflict with the Catholic Church? Despite everything, Latin America is still considered the “principal diocese of the Vatican.”
-There will be no conflict. The Catholic Church is loyal to Orthodoxy. Moreover, I see great potential for co-work with the Catholic Church, particularly in opposing sectarianism.