Conference celebrates African roots of Christian Orthodoxy

By Sharon Dargay
O&E staff writer
21/8/2011

It was a moment of revelation for Sharon Gomulka.

The Livonia woman, who was raised a Missionary Baptist and converted to Lutheranism, visited an Orthodox Christian Church one day several years ago and watched as white worshippers kissed the image of a dark-skinned man. It was the feast day of St. Moses the Black and the congregation had lined up to venerate his icon.

“I didn’t realize it was his feast day and I didn’t know about venerating icons. I had a paradigm shift of the many Caucasian people kissing this black man,” Gomulka recalled. “And I began to question what kind of church is this? Who are these people that color does not seem to truly matter?”

The answer became evident as Gomulka and her husband, Ted, studied Christian history and learned about the “desert fathers,” African saints who helped shaped the early church. The couple discovered that Orthodoxy not only recognized its African heritage, but also offered a deeper understanding of their Christian faith, a “fullness of Christian teaching.”

“Being Orthodox became so right for us, said Gomulka, an African-American.

The couple and three of their children — their eldest daughter remains Lutheran — joined the Orthodox church and are members of Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Livonia.

Creating awareness

Gomulka also chairs the Detroit Metro chapter of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, a national organization of African-American Orthodox Christians. The group will hold its 18th annual Ancient Christianity and African-American Conference Aug. 26-28 at Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, 36075 Seven Mile.

Cost, including registration and meals, is $100 for two days, $50 for one day and $25 per day for high school and college students. Visit www.mosestheblack.org to register.

The Rev. Matthias Moriak, Bishop of Chicago and the Midwest of the Orthodox Church in America, is the keynote speaker on the conference theme “The Ancient Faith for Modern Problems.” A full schedule of activities is available on the Brotherhood Web site. The conference will include panel discussions, prayers, vespers, guest speakers and demonstrations, including a session on the connection between Orthodoxy and Negro spirituals.

Personal story

The Very Rev. Moses Berry, pastor of Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Church in Ash Grove, Ark. and the founder and president of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, will explain how the ancient faith can free individuals from modern spiritual and mental prisons. He’ll also offer a session on the African roots of Orthodoxy and the African-American experience.

“What Father Moses did that was pivotal for me was bringing in family artifacts,” said Gomulka, who is familiar with his presentations. “He is the gate keeper of his great-great grandfathers’ slave shackles. He has his great-grandmother’s auction tag. He brings in quilts and talks about the oldest Negro cemetery in the Ozarks. It became this glue that I could attach myself to … and understand that this is my story, too.”

Gomulka said organizers hope to reach three distinct audiences with the conference — the Orthodox faithful, those who don’t know the Gospel message, and African-American Christians.

“Many of us start our spiritual journey from the plantation … tracing back to the point we got off the boat or just before we got on.” But African-Americans can find their Christian roots in the early church, with the desert fathers. “It started much earlier.”

“We invite clergy to come and grow with us on this spiritual journey of understanding African spirituality and roots.” The invitation is designed to strengthen relationships and not to proselytize.

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black’s mission doesn’t include evangelizing. It aims to create awareness of the Christian Church’s African roots and heritage.

“That’s another thing I like about the Orthodox Church. It doesn’t proselytize. It’s not out to get you to leave your church. Christians are Christians. We don’t need to shuffle them around.”

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