Interviewed by Donn George Varghese (Editor of International Affairs) – OCP Articles – 20/10/2020
A brief chat with Subdeacon Alexander (Pradeep) Hatcher, Director of Communications at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS).
Subdeacon, please provide a briefing about you and the background you hail from?
I was born into a Malankara Orthodox family in Spokane, Washington in the Northwest of the United States. I am the youngest of three children of Very Rev. Michael Hatcher Corepiscopos (Chor-bishop) & Gita George-Hatcher Kochamma (Matushka).
My father, Fr. Michael, is of Irish-American heritage but was received into the Malankara Orthodox Church before he married my mother. He was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and attended a Roman Catholic theological seminary as a young man. He fell in love with Orthodoxy Christianity after he met my mother, a Malayalee Malankara Orthodox Christian raised in Chennai, India, who had come to the United States in the 1970s to complete some undergraduate studies. He was eventually sent for further studies and training and ordained to the Holy Priesthood by the hand of His Grace, Thomas Mar Makarios in 1987, and he was assigned to serve a diverse community of Oriental Orthodox Christians and inquirers in the city of Spokane.
That community, St. Gregorios Orthodox Mission Parish still exists today and is comprised of approx. 80 families of Oriental Orthodox Christians who hail from multiple countries and traditions. That includes European-, African-, Asian-, and Latino-Americans who converted to the Oriental Orthodox Faith by God’s grace, through the efforts of St. Gregorios Mission Parish. The parish was established by the late Bishop Makarios of blessed memory to both serve cradle-born Oriental Orthodox Christians of all traditions in Spokane as well as to evangelize to the non-Orthodox in the surrounding community.
So I come from a bit of a different background than most Malankara Orthodox Christians. Not only am I of mixed ethnic heritage, I grew up hearing the services of the Church—Holy Qurbana, daily prayers, Holy Week services, sacraments, etc—almost exclusively in English because the parish had to serve the majority of parishioners who were non-Malayalees and be able to evangelize and welcome non-Orthodox people to the Church. In fact, I never really encountered Malayalam used liturgically on a regular basis until I moved to Seattle after college and began to attend St. Thomas Malankara Orthodox Church.
Undoubtedly in part because of my upbringing in a multi-ethnic mission parish, teaching and sharing our incredible faith has always been important to me. I attended St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in Yonkers, NY and graduated in May 2013, and I was ordained to subdeacon the following October.
I moved back to Spokane afterwards and continued serving at St. Gregorios but returned to the East Coast after I married my wife, Soosan, who was born and raised in New York. I ended up getting hired by St. Vladimir’s Seminary to work in various capacities. I now work in the Seminary’s marketing department.
My wife and I are proud and incredibly blessed parents of a little boy, Joseph.
What circumstances made you join SVOTS?
As a seminarian, a few things drew me to SVOTS. Firstly, there was already a strong relationship with the Malankara Orthodox Church at St. Vladimir’s, and many of our clergies had studied at SVOTS. I met and befriended some people who were seminarians there around the time I was considering enrolling in a seminary, and they strongly recommended it to me because of the high academic standards at SVOTS. Secondly, the school set aside a chapel space for Malankara students, so we got to experience praying Shhimo (The common daily prayers of the West Syriac and Malankara churches) and learned to serve and worship according to our tradition. I craved learning more about our traditions, so being able to live them daily without having to go to India to study (which was not possible or practical for me) was absolutely wonderful. I also loved that they had Syriac courses at SVOTS. Unfortunately, the professor became ill during my first year so I couldn’t take Syriac while I was there, but I appreciated that it was offered under normal circumstances. That speaks to another reason I was drawn to SVOTS: it was evident that St. Vladimir’s, an Eastern Orthodox institution, was incredibly welcoming and accommodating of Oriental Orthodox students. Growing up, I saw and personally experienced tension as a result of the Eastern-Oriental divide, so the environment at St. Vladimir’s was a breath of fresh air, and it made me hopeful unity would happen soon between the two Orthodox families.
I ended up working at St. Vladimir’s a few years after graduating. They had a job opening around the time I was desperately searching for employment following my move back to New York. They graciously took me in, and I’ve been there ever since! I never thought I would be able to work for an Orthodox institution, so I was—and still am—thrilled!
As an Oriental Orthodox Malankara Christian, how do you find it working in a predominately Eastern Orthodox environment?
I’m so proud and humbled to work for St. Vladimir’s. They have given so much to the Orthodox world in the 20th and 21st Centuries—both Eastern and Oriental—through great scholars, teachers, clergy, and others who have come from there as well as the Orthodox literature they continue to publish through St. Vladimir’s Seminary (SVS) Press. And for me, an Oriental Orthodox Christian, I am especially proud of my employer because of St. Vladimir’s played a huge role in the most important Christological dialogues that have happened between the Eastern and Oriental churches since, arguably, the Council of Chalcedon in the 5th Century. Fr. John Meyendorff of blessed memory, one of the deans and most famous scholars to have come from St. Vladimir’s was a central figure in the theological dialogues that began in the late 20th century, along with Malankara’s own Fr. V.C. Samuel. To this day, I feel that desire for reconciliation strongly from the Seminary’s administration. They are incredibly forthcoming about their belief that the Oriental and Eastern families should be one church and don’t shy away from it, in spite of whatever criticism they may receive from some Eastern Orthodox people or groups about it. It’s worth mentioning that His Grace, Zachariah Mar Nicholovos of the MOSC’s Northeast American Diocese is on St. Vladimir’s Board of Trustees, along with His Grace, Bishop David of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of New York and New England. That speaks volumes.
I’ve never felt like an outsider or that I didn’t belong at St. Vladimir’s. In fact, once during my time as a student, I cried in front of the school’s trustees and administration as I professed my gratitude at how open the school was toward Orientals, and how I believed the school would play an important role in the eventual reconciliation between the two Orthodox families. I was embarrassed to have cried in front of so many people, but I couldn’t help it. I’ve always dreamed of Orthodox unity, and though there seem to be so many disappointments on a regular basis regarding unity, St. Vladimir’s is a place that makes you believe it’s going to happen. And I’ll always be thankful for that.
As far as being there day-to-day, I personally love being in a place where you can experience so many Orthodox traditions in addition to my own. I’ll always prefer the West Syriac/Malankara tradition I grew up with, but I truly love and appreciate the profound and divine beauty of all Orthodox traditions.
What are the major challenges of your assignments at SVOTS?
For a small, non-profit graduate school there is a lot going on at SVOTS! It is a busy place, glory to God, so there is always a lot to do. Of course, the most challenging thing overall is probably the constant need to raise funds for the school. People may not realize we are not funded by any church institution (though we are a seminary of the Orthodox Church in America [OCA], so we rely on the generosity of people who give what they can to the Seminary, so she can continue to educate leaders and scholars for the Church, produce books about the Orthodox faith, and so forth.
Can you tell us a bit on the Pan-Orthodox engagements of SVOTS?
Actually, our most recent annual report was about Pan-Orthodox at SVOTS. There was a great quote by a bishop we included, who said, “Pan-Orthodoxy is not just a dream at St Vladimir’s. It is lived here.” I don’t think I could say anything more perfect than that.
You can read the report here, but I’ll summarize by quoting the president of St. Vladimir’s, Fr. Chad Hatfield. I apologize for the length of the quote, but it answers your question so well and so powerfully. I don’t know if people realize just what goes on at St. Vladimir’s sometimes, and how remarkable it is (I know I sound like the PR guy at St. Vladimir’s, and I am…but I truly feel this way!).
At our chapel, in our classrooms, and even at lunch, one cannot help but notice how Orthodox Christians from just about every jurisdiction and continent stand side-by-side in worship, study, and fellowship. You will see, among other things, how vespers and matins every Thursday are served and chanted according to the rubrics of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese; how unique courses in music, liturgics, history, and more are offered every semester for Orthodox traditions outside of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), including Oriental Orthodox traditions; how chapels have been established on campus for students from the Coptic and Syriac/Malankara traditions to learn and practice serving in their respective rites; how special scholarships have enabled seminarians from Serbian, African, Georgian, Syriac, and other churches to be educated and trained here at St. Vladimir’s (and the list of scholarships is growing!); and how at every Seminary gathering or event, Orthodox Christians of every background you could imagine engage in loving Christian fellowship and high-level discussions. Oh, and one of the highlights of 2019 was our celebration to commemorate fifty years of cooperation between St. Vladimir’s and St. Nersess Armenian Seminary.
Does this kind of activity—or even could it—happen on this scale and with this frequency anywhere else in the world? Everywhere you look, jurisdictional disputes abound, and too many Orthodox churches are arguably becoming even more insular. But we continue to buck that trend. In fact, we are constantly in discussions to increase our cooperation with other Orthodox jurisdictions and to create new offerings in our curriculum to better cater to the needs of their respective traditions.
I’m sorry, again, for my long response, but I hope people read what Fr. Chad had to say!
Would you comment a bit on the community outreach programs of SVOTS?
There are a number of ways St. Vladimir’s reaches out. Of course, SVS Press is an evangelistic tool meant to make Orthodox Christian literature more available in English, and we have international partners to help us distribute globally. But one of the things the Seminary does every year is to partner with another nonprofit organization on Giving Tuesday. Part of the funds we raise that day go toward that partner. For example, in 2019, the Seminary partnered with The Northern Uganda Self-Sufficiency Project to benefit Orthodox faithful there. And, of course, two years ago, SVOTS partnered with The Malankara Orthodox Church Kerala Flood Relief Project. Actually, recently, we helped with the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America’s fundraising efforts for Lebanon, following the explosion in Beirut.
Whenever there is an opportunity, the Seminary tries to help out however we can. Also, we have a group of seminarians and community members who regularly volunteered at a nearby soup kitchen (pre-pandemic) and many of the student interest groups on campus engage in a lot of outreach. One of them, the St. Innocent Mission Society is holding educational sessions online this fall for the community in Uganda. Normally, a team of seminarians would travel to other countries or within North America to do some service work, but the pandemic has necessitated doing things virtually. Chaplaincy work in hospitals and prisons in the past has been part of the Seminary’s curriculum. We have special scholarships available as well so that people who may not have the means to pay for seminary education are able to. There are more things the Seminary does in addition to the things I’ve mentioned. But the Seminary leadership wants the school to always be contributing to the local and global community in some way.
Subdeacon, are you hopeful about Pan-Orthodox unity?
Yes and no. I believe that the will of God is unity, so it will happen eventually. But I’m not as confident that pan- and inter-Orthodox unity will happen in my life-time. I used to think it would, but things seem to be getting worse. There are so many disputes and divisions within Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy at the moment, including the sad conflict in Malankara.
Orthodox churches can’t seem to resolve even the most basic of jurisdictional disputes. As my father says all the time, jurisdictional disputes are the Achilles heel of Orthodoxy. What frustrates me in regards to the conflict in Malankara is that both sides have been fighting it out in the secular court, which is clearly against the spirit of 1 Corinthians 6. The fact that we have not been able to find a resolution and peace amongst ourselves as Christians is an indictment on all of us. I’m also disappointed nothing much has happened since the joint agreements between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox since the dialogues in the twentieth century. But I’m naturally a pessimist, so I hope that I’m wrong and Orthodox unity will happen very soon. It is encouraging that the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was able to heal its schism in recent times.
What are your thoughts on the post-COVID scenario and its effect on Seminary education?
I’m very happy St. Vladimir’s was able to open up again this fall for residential, in-person education (albeit with many safety protocols and restrictions in place). That’s really the best was to form servants for service in the Church. So lockdown was difficult because things had to be done exclusively online for much of last spring. It’s also not ideal we still can’t have in-person events for the public which are normally a big part of seminary life (and another example of outreach to the community).
But SVOTS will press on, even if things get bad again in the New York area. One thing the pandemic revealed is that so many organizations, including St. Vladimir’s, can adapt to difficult situations. Human beings are incredibly resilient. Glory to God!
What is your advice to all potential candidates, who wish to join SVOTS?
Pray a lot about it! And do not be afraid or think that only certain kinds of people study at the seminary. The Church needs so many different kinds of leaders and servants. The Seminary doesn’t just train priests and deacons. There are also scholars, teachers, missionaries, writers, iconographers, musicians, chaplains, and others who do a number of different things with their seminary formation and training—men and women, younger or older, married or single. Definitely talk to your spiritual father and people who have gone to or are currently in seminary. And definitely reach out to us at St. Vladimir’s as well to ask questions!
How do you find it associating with Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE, Pan-Orthodox Christian Society?
I really appreciate all you do to publish and promote information about Orthodoxy and Orthodox Churches through OCP Media Network. I really admire the passion for Christ and His Church OCP clearly has. OCP Media Network has also been extremely helpful in sharing what’s happening at St. Vladimir’s and sending us information of interest to our students and community. Thank you so much for that, and God bless your efforts! Thanks so much as well for this interview. Glory to God if it was helpful or beneficial in some way.