Again Magazine Volume 20 Number 2 Summer 1997 Page 16 – 19
An Interview with Popular Author
AGAIN: For the benefit of our readers who might not know your story, would you tell us a little about yourself? How did a nice, free-spirited gal from the States find herself falling to her knees before a statue of Jesus in Dublin, Ireland, and finally “Facing East” in a little mission parish in Baltimore, Maryland?
Frederica Mathewes-Green: It is an unusual story, I guess. I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, as a Roman Catholic, but left that faith when I was thirteen or fourteen. I spent most of my high-school and college years kind of roaming around through all the different Eastern religions. I noticed that I was very uncritical of all those religions. I could accept all of them. But what I had a problem with was Christianity. I could hear nothing good about Christianity. I always criticized it. It began to dawn on me that maybe the reason for this was that Christianity mattered to me more than any other religion.
So I was turning over that concept in my mind, very resistant to it, while we were on our honeymoon, hitchhiking around Europe. I considered myself still a Hindu at that point. I went into a church in Dublin, Ireland, and I was looking at a statue of Jesus, and I found myself falling to my knees. I could hear Jesus speaking in my heart, and saying, “I am your life—I am the foundation of everything in your life.” And it was utterly unlooked for. At that point I wasn’t even sure that Jesus had ever existed, but it was so real, I still would say it’s the “realest” thing that has ever happened to me. Nothing in my previous religious experience was so real, nothing affected me as deeply. It really was a profound experience.
Once I became a Christian, I became Episcopalian, because my husband was already in an Episcopalian seminary. I spent fifteen years in the Episcopal Church, with him as a rector and pastoring various churches. At the time we joined it, it was quite comfortable to be a renewal, revival-oriented Episcopalian. But that became less and less tolerable as time went by.
From there, we tried many different things attempting to stay. And of course we didn’t know anything about Orthodoxy. It happened that a Lutheran pastor invited Father Peter Gillquist to come speak at his house to various dissatisfied clergy of different denominations, and my husband went. Father Peter since said he thought my husband was the one person out of the whole group who would never convert. His questions were so tough—but that was evidence that his search was so sincere.
And he just began to fall in love with Orthodoxy. He began visiting churches—I used to say my husband comes home at all hours reeking of incense. At that point a tug of war began. He was going right over the edge, and he had to persuade me about it. He would take me to these churches, and it would be only partly in English and people weren’t very friendly, and it was all so unfamiliar. I was frustrated because I was not able to follow the service. So I was pretty negative. But he just kept persisting, and gradually, eventually, he got me to where I would agree to become Orthodox. I really didn’t “fall for it” until the time of our Chrismation.
AGAIN: Tell us about your book, Facing East. When did you first consider writing it?
Frederica: I guess I started writing it as soon as I considered it. It felt to me like it was a call from God that I was supposed to write it. I just had this feeling that I was supposed to write about a year in the Orthodox Church as sort of a diary of what that was like. Then I had the job of trying to find someone to publish it. The ironic thing is that I tried several different publishers who told me that there was no market for it. And yet I kept writing it, because I felt like I was supposed to.
It surprised me very much that Harper took it. But to my amazement, they were just wonderful. I have to say there is one good thing about liberals. Good liberals really are liberal! And even though I was espousing many positions in it, and a form of spirituality that often doesn’t get a hearing at Harper San Francisco, I never felt censored, I always felt welcome to say what I wanted to say, and I have to say they gave me a better hearing than many an evangelical or conservative publishing house would give to a liberal. I was grateful for that. I felt that they loved the book, they told me so in many ways.
I don’t know what they expected of the market. I know that they printed five thousand in the first printing, and that just about sold out. I keep hearing that it is flying out of bookstores and they are re-ordering. An evangelical bookstore in Austin, Texas, has told me that it is their top seller— it is their fastest-selling book.
AGAIN: Do you think the events you described in Facing East represent an isolated occurrence, or do you believe that what started out in an empty house in Baltimore and grew into Holy Cross Mission really represents a larger movement?
Frederica: I think it’s going to have its idiosyncratic differences in different places across the country—which is part of the charm—but I think it is replicable, and it is replicating itself all over the country all the time. One of the things that gives Orthodoxy such power is in fact the individuality of it—that it gets adapted for Baltimore or Iowa or Alabama, or wherever it is. But everywhere it is small groups of people coming together because they care about something intensely.
One of the things I see is that converts come into Orthodoxy from all different places along the spectrum, from all different sorts of backgrounds, and all of us feel that we want to go back out again, and bring it back to our home communities. So there are a lot of people who are targeting ways to present Orthodoxy to people who may never have heard of it before. Sometimes people tell me that they are worried about enthusiastic believers changing Orthodoxy. The analogy I find most people can understand is that of an opera. Imagine an opera that was written 150 years ago. If you could fly through time and just drop in on productions of this opera at five-year intervals, they would look pretty much the same. They would be costumed similarly, the music would be the same; the opera wouldn’t change that much. But if, again, you were to go through time and look at the posters and handbills and advertisements, they would change a great deal. I think of what we do in presenting Orthodoxy to other people as being like changing the advertisement.
Some of the things that I’ve enjoyed particularly learning about, as Orthodoxy gets presented in all of these different contexts, is the monks of the Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood of Platina, California. Some of them were punk rock musicians, and are now distributing a magazine called Death to the World: they have coffeehouses all over the country and all over the world. Father Damascene, who is also involved with that Brotherhood, came to Orthodoxy from Buddhism, and he has a special yearning to go back and bring the truth of Orthodoxy and the truth of Jesus to people who are caught in Eastern religions.
I am excited to hear about the work of the Saint Mary of Egypt mission in Kansas City, which just had their fourth African-American Orthodox conference. They are doing things like putting ads on the local Reggae station for the “African saint of the day.” This is a way of trying to break into a new framework, a place that may not have heard of Orthodoxy before, but Orthodoxy was certainly the Christian Faith of Africa.
We see Rose Hill College in Aiken, South Carolina, as a way that a former Episcopal priest, Owen Jones, who has always been interested in youth and education, now can reach them through establishing this Orthodox college.
Finally, a story I always enjoy is the story of Father Joseph Huneycutt, who has a parish in North Carolina, in the Appalachian mountains. He says that he is thinking about having a tent revival to reach people there. He says, “We’re going to sing hymns, hear the Word, eat barbecue and learn about the Theotokos.” His e-mail address is Orthodixie. So there is a place for that as well.
It is a shame in a way that we always say “Eastern Orthodoxy.” That gives people a certain narrow image in their mind, but Orthodoxy is global, Orthodoxy is for every time, it doesn’t have any fences around it. So that is one of the exciting things I see, as converts bring Orthodoxy to America in the many different ways they are reaching out.
AGAIN: Another area of great concern with you is the area of abortion and the pro-life, pro-choice debate. Your book Real Choices addresses that issue, and yet it is quite different from the standard, in-your-face style of writing we often see from both groups. What are you hoping to achieve with this approach, with this book?
Frederica: Something that has been very important to me has been trying to break through the deadlock on abortion. It seems like the two sides have just been shouting at each other for twenty years and not making any progress. I find this when I travel, if I try to have a conversation with the person next to me about abortion, all they will tell me is bumper-sticker slogans, from both sides. It’s like “sound-byte” moral reasoning. It has no depth, and no consistency, because they are completely capable of believing all these different things are true at the same time.
So I wanted to break through that, and I’ve had some success, I’m pleased to say, with Real Choices, and with my approach in different contexts. What I did in this book was I put on the back burner the whole question of abortion being illegal. I am a pro-lifer, I believe that abortion should be illegal, but I also don’t know that I’m going to see that any time soon, so what do I do in the meantime?
So that, in itself, is disarming to pro-choicers, because they expect that all you want to talk about is making it illegal, “taking our rights away,” as they would say it. In this book my goal was to look at the reasons that women have abortions. I thought that if we could find out what the reasons were, then we could analyze what resources we had to meet those needs, and to solve those problems. So the Real Choices project was actually very practical.
What I found as I did the work was not what I expected. I expected to find that women would say, “First I need housing and second I need money and third I need medical care.” That would be a lot easier to solve than what I did find, which is that over and over again women said. “I needed a friend.” “I had the abortion because someone I cared about told me I had to,” either the boyfriend or husband in most cases, or a parent—most often the mother, tragically.
So these women would feel pressured either by someone coercing them—”you have to or I will throw you out of the house,” “you have to or I will divorce you”—or else, insisting to them that it was in their best interest. They found themselves weakened, and worried, and short of resources, and would succumb to this pressure. So when I asked, “What could anyone have done to help you?” they said. “I just needed someone that would stand by me, I just needed a friend, somebody who would walk with me on this difficult road.” And that is something that we can do. That is something that crisis pregnancy centers are doing all over the country all the time.
So when I speak at crisis pregnancy center banquets. I always say—since money is always short with them—you might imagine that someday you are going to go in and all you are going to be able to do is unlock the doors and turn on the lights and sit in the chair, and you have nothing to give. No more diapers, no more baby formula, nothing else you can give away. All you can do is just be there, and be a shoulder to cry on. And I always say, “Then you are doing the most important thing, because that is the one thing women told me they needed. They didn’t need material aid, they didn’t need money nearly as much as they needed that personal support. And if you can do that one thing, just open the door, turn on the light, and sit there, you are being what women all over the country told me they needed.”
So I always want crisis pregnancy center workers to know that they are the most important force in this country for stopping abortion. A lot of times we think, “It’s this powerful senator—or powerful speaker—this person or another of influence.” But really it is one to one. When you consider that four thousand women every day are having an abortion, we’ve got thousands of crisis pregnancy centers all over the country trying to help them. It’s a humble work, and I think a very Christian work. And that is where the difference is made.
I think that maybe God has even let victory delay for us, so we can learn humility. But I’d sure like to see victory too!
AGAIN: What do you think is going to happen with the future of Orthodoxy? What lies ahead in the next five years or so?
Frederica: I remain somewhat sobered by what someone told me, “We get so excited when a church of a hundred or so comes in, but that was the size of just the inquirers’ class at my old mega-church.” My friend David Neff, who is the editor at Christianity Today, said that he thought Orthodoxy would grow, but it’s not going to be some kind of spiritual blockbuster. We are not looking to make a mass movement. Something that’s a mass movement, I think we would rightly have reason to question its spirituality.
But I believe that Orthodoxy will continue to grow, and to grow deep, and to grow for the generations ahead, and for the millennia ahead. That it will take root. And because it forms adult Christians, not baby Christians, these are people who will be able to endure in the long haul.
One question is, “What is going to happen to Orthodoxy in America in the next five years?” I guess what I have to balance that against is, “What is going to happen to America in the next five years?” Why are we seeing this rise in paganism and in spiritualities that are destructive? I think that mostly Christians have been geared up to fight rationalism since 1780 or so, it’s all been the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and we’ve tried to bring rational arguments to prove that God exists, and that Jesus was the Son of God, we are sort of stuck in that mode. What we are finding now is that America shifts to a pagan culture. People are quite willing to entertain the concept of God and Jesus and all of that, but they want to put alongside it channeling and every other kind of weird thing. It’s going to be an entirely different kind of battle for us.
I think that these have been the two classic forces that have stood against Christianity from the beginning. If we are not fighting rationalism we are fighting paganism, or both at the same time. Now we are going through a shift, and we have to be very nimble to see that shift happening.
One thing in our favor is that as people become more open to seeking for spiritual things, there will be a lot of visitors to our Orthodox churches, because it is about the fanciest, most spiritual form of Christianity available. So we will have an opportunity to do a lot of dialoguing with New Agers and pagans. The challenge for us will be, as I was saying earlier, to adapt only the advertising, and not to adapt the opera. Never to make Orthodoxy easier or less challenging. The built-in protection we have is that Orthodoxy is centered on repentance. That is the one thing that doesn’t apply in paganism or the New Age. There is no concept of repenting or being grateful to God, or of recognizing sin. And as long as we keep emphasizing that particular thread, of repentance, that will be the thing I believe that separates the true seekers from the thrill-seekers.
The front line for this is going to be the parish priest. It’s not going to be the national leaders, it’s going to be in every single parish all over the country as New Age sinks deeper and deeper. People will come to your church, say “groovy,” and then want to take Chrismation classes, because this is just so tantalizing and mystical and pretty. The front line of this battle is going to have to be priests who are sometimes willing to say “no, you are not ready.” To say to people, “I don’t think you get it yet, I don’t think you understand what the blood of the Cross means, I don’t think you understand repentance. This is not a feel-good relationship, this is not about your self-fulfillment, this is not about woo-woo spiritualism,” and that is going to be tough, I think, particularly for some priests who are not expecting any converts, and so are pleased to have any at all. That’s the bottom line, I believe— that it’s going to be on the shoulders of our priests to keep Orthodoxy pure.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is a regular commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and a syndicated columnist for Religion News Services. She is the author of Facing East and Real Choices, as well as articles in many periodicals. Shelly Houston, marketing director of Conciliar Press, conducted the above interview with Frederica Mathewes-Green on June 5, 1997, at Frederica ‘s home in Baltimore, Maryland.