(September 21, 2020)
“At the sight of the crowds, [Jesus’] heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:37)
As an Indian-American living in the US, I often feel like a sheep without a shepherd.
Firstly, I grew up attending Roman Catholic parishes, many of which promoted an image of a white Jesus and had parishioners who looked nothing like me. This made me feel like an outsider who did not belong.
Secondly, as an Eastern Catholic, I found it difficult to integrate with the Roman Catholic community. Subconsciously I felt different, and that I had to change to be accepted.
As a child, I developed a distaste for Syro-Malabar liturgies because the language and the prayers were so foreign to me since I became more accustomed to the Latin Rite.
I adopted a Roman Catholic identity that wanted to do away with my Eastern Catholic heritage. In retrospect, this saddens me, but I do blame the pressures I felt to integrate rather than take pride in my background.
My Eastern Catholic heritage ought to have been celebrated, not viewed as something strange and foreign.
Moreover, I also have a Syrian Orthodox heritage. My maternal grandmother’s family was Syrian Orthodox, and converted to Catholicism when she married my maternal grandfather.
I grew up believing my Syrian Orthodox heritage was inferior relative to my Catholic background (i.e. the “true Church”), however as an adult I am appreciative of my Orthodox roots.
God is not confined to one rite, one language, or one church.
Thirdly, I feel like a sheep without a shepherd because as a Catholic, the bishops in the US have been divided and ambiguous in their stance on racism, especially in their inability to condemn white nationalism, white supremacy and white privilege.
As a Person of Color, I am a sheep who desires a shepherd to defend me and all who are vulnerable to racial injustice.
The Roman Catholic Church in the US no longer feels like home. But maybe it never was home.
The Orthodox Church, while imperfect in its own right, offers powerful witnesses from two bishops in their responses to racism in the US:
Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
Archbishop Elpidophoros proclaimed in word and deed that Black Lives Matter.
“I came here to Brooklyn today in order to stand in solidarity with my fellow sisters and brothers whose rights have been sorely abused. This was a peaceful protest, one without violence of any kind, and I thank all of those involved, because violence begets only more violence.
“We must speak and speak loudly against the injustice in our country. It is our moral duty and obligation to uphold the sanctity of every human being.
“We have faced a pandemic of grave physical illness, but the spiritual illness in our land runs even deeper and must be healed by actions as well as words.
“And so, I will continue to stand in the breach together with all those who are committed to preserving peace, justice, and equality for every citizen of goodwill, regardless of their race, religion, gender or ethnic origin.”
His Eminence continued a tradition in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of standing with Black leaders in their fight against racial injustice.
Archbishop Demetrios, the predecessor of Elpidophoros, also marched in Selma with President Barack Obama in 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of the event. Additionally, Archbishop Iakovos marched in Selma with Martin Luther King, Jr.
An important element in Archbishop Elpidophoros’ witness is his experience of structural inequality as a Christian in Turkey, which gave him a perspective that many of the US Roman Catholic prelates lack, being beneficiaries of White privilege.
Geevarghese Mar Coorilos, Metropolitan of the Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church
As I shared in a previous article, Dr. Geevarghese Mar Coorilos delivered a Pentecost message condemning the murders of Black persons and the persisting racism in America.
He connected these injustices as to the Spirit of God being suffocated as Eric Garner and George Floyd experienced.
The “killing of George Floyd was an outright violation of the spirit of Pentecost…Without saying a word about this incident, our churches commemorated Pentecost. If God [were] present in such a worship service, God’s Spirit must have wailed. ‘I cannot breathe here.’”
The Metropolitan called on Christians to speak out against racial injustice in solidarity with the African American community.
“The commemoration of God’s Breath, the day of Pentecost, asks us to build a resistance of life-giving breath against those powers that choke us… In these abominable times we can say along with the African Americans that we cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. Can you?”
Both Archbishop Elpidophoros and Geevarghese Mar Coorilos offer much needed examples of an unambiguous stance against the sin of racism.
If the Roman Catholic Church in the US cannot follow in the example of these two Orthodox leaders, the Church risks abandoning many of its sheep who are Black and Persons of Color.
When the needs of the marginalized are not cared for, the Church fails in its duty to Christ, who had admonished, “‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me’” (Matthew 25:45).
The sin of racism divides Christians, and therefore also divides the Body of Christ. When the Roman Catholic Church in the US cannot uniformly denounce racism, it cannot reflect the Heart of Christ.
Since the fullness of God does not reside in any one rite, language or church, I urge the Roman Catholic Church in the US to learn from these two Orthodox bishops how to feed and tend the sheep (cf. John 21:15-17), rather than abandon them.