The Mission of the Malankara Orthodox Church in North America - His Grace Alexios Mar Eusebius
A Look into the Past
The history of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in North America began in the 1960s with the immigration of our forefathers and the formation of Malayalee communities across the country, particularly in major cities like New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, etc. In 1959, the Holy Synod of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church formed a single Diocese for all the parishes outside of Kerala and appointed Metropolitan Alexios Mar Theodosius as the Metropolitan. Responding to the rapid diaspora growth, in the year 1976, new dioceses were formed in Bombay, New Delhi, and Calcutta, and the parishes in America were under the jurisdiction of the Bombay Diocese. The sacrificial leadership and efforts of our pioneer priests and laity across the country led to the formation of the American Diocese in the year 1979, and the Late Lamented Metropolitan Dr.Thomas Mar Makarios was appointed as its first Metropolitan. In 1992, the Late Lamented Metropolitan Mathews Mar Barnabas succeeded Mar Makarios, and became the second Metropolitan of the American Diocese. The Diocese continued to thrive and become a notable presence in the North American continent.
Today, roughly five decades later, we are blessed to have two dioceses and over a hundred established parishes in North America. The clergymen who migrated to this part of the world have done and continue to do a great service in the building up of the church while facing numerous challenges and obstacles. Young clergymen, born and/or brought up in America, are also now ministering and catering to the growing needs of our faithful. We must also thank God for the two female laity members who have graduated from seminary and have taken up roles in the ministering to the women of our church and provide leadership to spiritual organizations, namely FOCUS and MGOCSM. There are now fifty-five established parishes across the South-West Diocese alone, and it is a blessing that over 90% of them own their church property. The Church continues to grow at an unprecedented rate in America, and we must look towards the future and determine not only how we can better serve the faithful but also how we can effectively contribute to the American society on a larger scale. The future of the Church lives in mission.
The Mission of the Church
Mission is not a simple or easy task to undertake. For the Church, Orthodoxy is not just a religion but a lifestyle that encompasses all facets of our day-to-day activities. The Tradition holds an importance not only for conversion to Christ and personal repentance but a call for catechism. A period for instruction is necessary, and individuals must know the Gospel and the Faith. One must know what the Church is and is not, what membership in the Church means, responsibilities and expectations from members of the Church, and what discipleship means among believers of Jesus Christ.
When we consider the mission of the Church in North America, we have to focus on three major realities:
1) Catering to the spiritual needs of the Orthodox faithful that have migrated and continue to migrate from India and abroad. Out of the fifty states in the United States of America, about onethird of them do not have an established parish community. It is also a fact that in many cities where our faithful reside today, there is no Orthodox Church within a reasonable distance. Thus, one of the aspects when considering the mission of the Church in North America includes the provision of accessible church facilities and communities in places where our people reside. It is also just as important to not only maintain but also grow our existing parishes by making a sincere effort for outreach.
2) The second reality we must recognize is the current and upcoming generation born and brought up in North America who do not speak Malayalam and live in a predominantly Western culture. The Church has to address their needs and keep them in the rich heritage of Orthodoxy. It is a challenge in America when many different types of groups and churches seek to attract members with the pleasing prosperity gospel and tell them what they want to hear.
3) The third reality should be considered of utmost importance as the Malankara Orthodox Church in North America has a mission to evangelize and present the nation we live in with the Holy Orthodox faith. America is a land of great potential with the opportunity to spread the Orthodox understanding of the Gospel and provide the treasure of the Orthodox liturgy to the natives of this land. This century is considered as an era of Orthodoxy because the uniqueness of Orthodox life, liturgy, observances, architecture, and art are not shallow practices. The educated mass has an attraction to it. Thus, it is the responsibility of the Church to give this great faith to those who draw near to it. We have to start mission churches and other spiritual centers to accommodate and instruct those interested in learning and experiencing the faith.
Mission as Seen in the Scriptures
An important characteristic of the Church’s mission is that it must be guided by the instruction of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Throughout the Gospels, there are several instances where Jesus Christ commissions his disciples to a specific mission. A few examples include:
1. In St. Matthew 10, Jesus sends forth his twelve apostles among the Jews with mission strategies to speak about the Kingdom of God. While executing the mission, they were warned of the possible persecution and challenges that they would face.
2. In St. Luke 10, Jesus appoints seventy others to go to every city and place. However, the target audience is still limited to the Jewish population only.
3. In St. Matthew 28, Jesus Christ expands the mission of the disciples by entrusting them with what is known as the Great Commission. After the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His appearance to the disciples, He entrusts them with a call to mission and says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
This is the mission that has been entrusted to the Church. We, as the Church, are reminded by the Great Commission that the whole of humanity should be united in the building up of the Kingdom of God. The Orthodox mission is to establish the Kingdom of God on earth; thus, we have to seriously consider the spirit of the Great Commission and be a part of the mission to grow the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
The mission strategies of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church can be compared to the concepts of centripetal and centrifugal forces in science. Two simultaneous movements need to take place at the same time in order for mission to be successful: one that draws inward to a center point and the other that moves out from the center and extends out.
Centripetal mission is based on the establishment and influence of spiritual centers. These centers act as a medium for mission and the spiritual energy they exude draws people closer and allows them to witness Christ. All of the Orthodox Churches have made great use of centripetal mission. The great monasteries of Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and in other parts of the world are spiritual centers that have attracted and led people to experience the life of the church. A simple lifestyle combined with silence, meditation, and other spiritual disciplines that are practiced daily and cyclically in these centers are the main source of Christian repentance and conversion. Many of the great Saints of the ancient Church were Gentiles but after experiencing life in these spiritual centers, they were transformed and became instruments for change in the world. Two major fruits produced by these spiritual centers are icons and literature including liturgies which have become a source of charisma for mission. Many of the literatures are considered holy books that Orthodox Churches across the world venerate as divinely inspired. The origins of liturgical services take roots in these spiritual centers, and now, the world praises the beauty of Orthodox liturgy, architecture, and art because of them.
For countless years, these spiritual centers have functioned as a centripetal force attracting the whole world to Jesus Christ and Orthodoxy. In the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, we have different monasteries and spiritual centers that were initiated by the Great Fathers of the Church which can be classified as centripetal missions. The initiatives of St. Gregorios of Parumala and monasteries like Bethany Ashram, founded by the great visionary Late Lamented Metropolitan Alexios Mar Theodosius, and Mount Tabor Dayara in Pathanapuram founded by Late Lamented Thoma Mar Dionysius, are well-known examples in our Church. Another pioneer for centripetal mission in our Church was Late Lamented Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Osthathios who established orphanages and charities across India that have become a great part of the mission of the Church.
The second category for mission is centrifugal mission. The premise behind centrifugal mission rests in the Church going out to the people and interacting with them in their particular situation and environment. The Church provides an opportunity for these people to witness Christ by exemplifying Christ within their midst. This is the great mission that was initiated by the apostles.They went out from Jerusalem to different parts of the world and proclaimed the Good News to the the people in their midst. It is through this mission that St. Thomas arrived in India and how we became the fruit of his labor. In a sense, we are Christians today and belong to this ancient church through centrifugal mission. The pioneers of this mission in the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church were the Late Lamented Metropolitan Pathrose Mar Osthathios and Metropolitan Stephanos Mar Theodosius. The mission of Mar Osthathios to the outcastes of Hindu society is well-known throughout Kerala. He spent his entire life uplifting the standard of living and bringing the love of Christ into the midst of the lower castes. Through the work of this great missionary and social reformist, over twenty thousand people were able to witness Christ and convert to Christianity. The same strategy was used by the founder of the St. Thomas Mission Bhilai, Mar Theodosius. His goals for the mission of the Orthodox Church in north India was instrumental for the positive strides in education and social reform, but more importantly, his vision was to change the perception of the Malankara Church from a Malayalee Church to an Indian Church. His work in the north Indian villages and his merciful deeds to the community became a model for the centrifugal mission of the Church.
The Future Mission of the Church
As we think about and discuss a mission strategy for the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in North America, these two methods must be studied in detail to see how it can effectively and Efficiently be made applicable within the context of North America. There should be spiritual Centers that can radiate positive spiritual energy into the community and attract people to the Church to witness Christ. At that same time, we need to reach out to people who have not received Christ in their life. These two strategies should be implemented together and merged as one plan of action as the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church seeks to build up the Church and expand the Kingdom of God.
Within our Diocese, there are parishes and members of the clergy who have expressed great interest in facilitating the mission aspect of our Church in North America. For our Church to continue growing, we must remove the misconception that we are simply an ethnic group believing in Jesus Christ. We must work to share the abundant blessings we receive from God not only with our Malayalee community but with the North American society as a whole. The perception must be transformed that the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is limited to Malayalees but welcoming of all ethnic groups. The Church must grow to reflect diversity. We must reach out our hands within the community and allow others to experience Christ through our actions. It is an opportunity for those who have never experienced Jesus Christ, for those who have lost faith, and for those who may have strayed away to return and become partakers of the divine and experience the unconditional love of God. Each one of us should attempt to become a missionary and become an example for others through our life and the proclamation of the Gospel with our deeds. At times, we may fall short of the glory of God, but we are to be reminded again and again of the Great Commission entrusted to the members of the Holy Church by Jesus Christ and continue to strive forward with humility.