April 17, 2013

“Fear Not, You Worm Jacob”

For I, the Lord your God, will hold your right hand,
saying to you, ‘Fear not, I will help you.’
“Fear not, you worm Jacob, You men of Israel! I will help you,”
says the Lord and your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 41:13-14)

Segregated Street Car
Segregated street car at a museum in Birmingham
Fr Alexander Fecanin & Met Tikhon
Father Alexander Fecanin & Metropolitan Tikhon at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham
St Symeon the New Theologian Church
Saint Symeon the New Theologian Church
Fr Alexander Fecanin & Met Tikhon

Israel flip-flopped between feeling arrogant in their chosen-ness and feeling as low and weak as a worm. That mirrors much of the history of the Church as well. It also mirrors the way many faithful feel in their own personal spiritual struggles as Orthodox Christians. On balance, we’re on much safer ground as churches and as individual believers when we begin with a sense of weakness. God can’t do much with arrogance except break it down. But he can lift up anyone who already feels like a worm. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

I had a lesson in how our weakness can be turned into God’s strength these past few days in Birmingham. Metropolitan Tikhon and I returned late last night, but not before we had a chance to visit the Civil Rights Institute and learn more about the history of oppression faced by African-Americans and the struggle to overturn the unjust laws that kept segregation in force.

Birmingham got its start in 1871 with coal mines and steel mills. Blacks worked alongside immigrants, many of them Orthodox from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But as Jim Crow laws tightened up blacks and whites who worked side by side could not live in the same neighborhoods, eat at the same lunch counters or drink from the same water fountains. The Birmingham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was the largest in the US.

One of the striking features of the movement to overturn all this was the courageous role of the churches. In spite of threats and bombings, many were willing to trust in God and put themselves at risk. 60 of the local Black churches held at least one mass meeting to organize protests. But in 1956 there were 400 Black churches in the area, which meant that plenty of churches were too afraid to take active steps. The history of white churches on this score is not very edifying.

The local OCA dean, Father Alexander Fecanin, of Saint Symeon the New Theologian Church, met us for breakfast, gave us a tour of the church, and then went with us to the Institute.

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