The Pioneer Who Dared to Brave the Spanish Flu and Racism

Archimandrite Raphael Morgan. Pic - Wiki

Archimandrite Raphael Morgan. Pic – Wiki

OCP Articles – Samuel Davis – 17/4/2020

1918 and 2020, Race, Faith, and America’s Response to Epidemics

In May 2019, I was able to uncover the final resting place of Archimandrite Raphael Morgan; found at the historic Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania. Archimandrite Raphael was the first ordained Black priest in the Orthodox Church to serve in the Americas. Although Morgan initially considered establishing an independent confession, he also hoped for a furthering of better relations between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy, Morgan soon decided against such an idea. Rather than continuing the tradition prevalent among protestants, the breaking from one’s previous confession he attempted to restore the Early Church and her Apostolic Tradition. Orthodox Tradition and Faith offered Morgan precisely that!

He saw in Orthodoxy a tradition that could stand on its own apart from racial problems that were rooted in Western Christianity. Indeed, he saw the Orthodox Tradition steadfast in its tenants and adherence to the New TestamentChurch rather than those purported in the Western confessions of Christianity. After his initial spiritual journey, Morgan became Orthodox. Subsequently, he was appointed Apostolic-Vicar to America by the Patriarch of Constantinople with the primary purpose of missionizing fellow Africans in the diaspora. Later Morgan established a monastic order, The Order of Golgotha in Philadelphia, PA.

Immigrant Orthodox Christians in America and Black Americans share many parallels in their unique experiences. More notably of such experiences is the period of socio-economic need and the national pandemic. Archimandrite Raphael like thousands of Orthodox immigrants in 1918 took part in the devastating effects of the Spanish Flu. Due to their abject poverty, Orthodox immigrants and Black Americans suffered major losses during such said pandemic. It was the traditional tenants of Holy Orthodoxy that kept Archimandrite Raphael and Orthodox immigrants during this time of loss. That “old-time religion;” the Faith of the Apostles; founded on the Rock “Petras”; beckons us to the old hymn,

“Rock of Ages.”
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save me from its guilt and power.

Traditional Black Spirituals and Hymns are born out of the unique Black experience in America. More so, in the fervent belief that our Lord saves and heals. Archimandrite Raphael realized this and searched Early Christianity to find the true path towards humanity’s Salvation. Ultimately, he learned this through the Orthodox Church. The One, true Church established by Jesus Christ. This occurred in time were no answers, aide, or direction were forthcoming from the Protestant confessions. Today, Black American pastors and leaders are also looking for answers, aide, and direction to no avail. In recent years, the identifying factor of success in the Black Church has been the model of the “mega-church”, material gain, and success.

During this pandemic of COVID-19, financial prowess, and the American Dream has been laid barren. In desperate need of spiritual direction; where else should we turn to other than the Orthodox Church?

St. Mary of Egypt who is celebrated on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent crossed the Jordan in an attempt to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. After her enlightenment through the prayers of the Most HolyTheotokos, she crossed the Jordan again to live a life of repentance for 47 years. These African deserts became life-giving springs filled with tens of thousands of holy monks and holy women. These experiences were so purifying that even in this modern age they remain a staple of inspiration for all Christians. These holy men and women did not retreat to the desert to live their lives in self-centeredness or personal gain. But, rather bear witness to the forgiveness of Almighty God.

Let us recall the words of the memorable spiritual, “Swing low, Sweet Chariot.”
I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home

In American pandemics, the race is, unfortunately, a preexisting condition. The Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 and COVID-19of present day, race continues to be a determining factor whether Americans will receive proper medical attention when they become ill. The CDC estimates, the Spanish Flu of 1918 infected 500 million people worldwide and resulted in 50 million deaths, 675,000 cases of which were American.

Viruses do not discriminate; people and governments do. In cities across the nation, Black Americans infected by the Spanish Flu were left to fend for themselves. They received substandard care in segregated hospitals, where they were herded into close quarters either in basements, or Black-only hospitals.

Today, it is important to examine the social dynamics of the Spanish Flu and how its legacy continues to shape our public health systems. Betsy Schroeder Schlabach, a professor of history and African American studies at Earlham College in Richmond Indiana, explained how discriminatory housing policies created ghettos. Black Americans were relegated to specific parts of the city. Housing was overcrowded, and landowners became slumlords. In addition, tenants were charged rents that were 15-25% higher than their counterparts. During the Jim Crow Era, Black Americans who lived under such dire conditions were less susceptible to the Fall 1918 flu pandemic. This was due to the third wave of higher exposure to the less virulent Spring and Summer waves which decimated their communities.

Even as they were subjected to poor medical facilities, Black doctors and nurses pressed on with treatment amid adverse ridicule and criticism. However, Black Americans found ways to make the best of these horrible conditions. The effects of some of those in our nation and the lack of adherence to the Constitution and its amendments precipitated the policy of separate but unequal situations during the 1918 epidemic. It not only created disparities for those who received treatment but also how to receive treatment. Public health historians note that prejudice and racism in the American health system have once again risen to the forefront with the recent pandemic of COVID-19. COVID-19 has heightened the degree to which racism now affects treatment and care.

Sadly, the Spanish Flu of 1918 as with COVID-19 are both connected to racism and xenophobia. During the 1918 pandemic, Philadelphia hosted a massive parade to sell war bonds to pay for the American war effort. Coincidentally, this very same parade marched past the Morgan home on 12th St! It is one thing to serve during the era of Jim Crow America. An era filled with lynching and persecution that terrorized Black American communities simply for being made in the image of God. Then to compound the era with the plight of the Spanish Flu is nothing to be minimized. In this time, we look to the prayers of Archimandrite Raphael Morgan in our time of crisis, especially as COVID-19 gravely affects the lives of Black Americans, Latinos, and other minority communities.

Lord our God, You who are rich in mercy, and with careful wisdom direct our lives, listen to our prayer, receive our repentance for our sins, bring an end to this new infectious disease, this new epidemic, just as you averted the punishment of your people in the time of David the King. You who are the Physician of our souls and bodies, grant restored health to those who have been seized by this illness, raising them from their bed of suffering, so that they might glorify You, O merciful Savior, and preserve in health those who have not been infected. By your grace, Lord, bless, strengthen, and preserve, all those who out of love and sacrifice care for the sick, either in their homes or in the hospitals. Remove all sickness and suffering from your people, and teach us to value life and health as gifts from You. Give us Your peace, O God, and fill our hearts with unflinching faith in Your protection, hope in Your help, and love for You and our neighbor.

For Yours, it is to have mercy on us and save us, O our God, and to You, we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever, to the ages of ages.

Archimandrite Raphael of Philadelphia, pray unto God for us!
-A priest

Samuel Davis