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Orthodox Christian Social Action, Abp. Iakovos & Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Orthodox Christian Social Action, Abp. Iakovos & Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Charles Ajalat

MLKMartin Luther King Jr. Day will be commemorated, January 18, the day of our first FOCUS North America Board of Directors meeting for 2010. It is a good time to remember the role the Orthodox Church has played in society from the beginning, including American society through today. It is a role that must increase dramatically as we act out the mission of Christ’s Church.

The Orthodox Church, in imitation of its Lord, has been involved in social action from the very beginning, helping the poor, the sick and those in need and trying to bring justice to those who suffered injustice. Our Lord taught us: “A new commandment I give unto you: that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35; cf. James 4:11). This command has always been followed by faithful Christians, whether in the first, third, fourth or twentieth or twenty-first centuries. In the third century, for example, Christians earned respect and admiration as they, at the risk of their own lives, consoled the dying and buried the dead from the pestilences that struck Carthage and Alexandria even while the pagans abandoned their friends to their terrible fate. In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great created charitable institutions while following the commands of our Lord and teaching his faithful how critical it is to love all our neighbors, particularly those in need.

Fast forwarding to the 20th century, we see the Orthodox Church, even in the United States where Orthodox Christianity has not yet come to be widely seen as indigenous ,stand with the poor and those to whom justice has been denied. Perhaps the most graphic image of this role of the Orthodox Church in the past century is the March 26, 1965, Life Magazine cover showing Archbishop Iakovos marching with Martin Luther King and others in bereavement of the martyred white man, Reverend James Reeb, in Selma, Alabama. As the Life Magazine Cover headlined the event: Selma was a “Historic Turning Point for the Negro’s cause.” The Orthodox Church, through our friend and dynamic leader, Archbishop Iakovos, was there at this historic juncture.

Archbishop Iakovos, I am proud to say, was a friend of mine and one with whom I worked together with in founding IOCC, in making the Mission Center into OCMC, in the work of SCOBA, in organizing the first conference of bishops in Ligonier, Pennsylvania; in creating a SCOBA Task Force to create a Common English Translation of the Liturgy and in many other activities. I visited His Eminence in his home in New York after his retirement and before his death on April 10, 2005. He was a visionary, dynamic leader of Orthodox Christians. He was also courageous in the face of wrong, as the story of Selma reveals.

Our friend, Al Raboteau (he and his wife Julia as part of Emmaus House in New York City were part of the formation of FOCUS North America), described what happened in Selma (Dallas County, Alabama) in a lecture at Fordham University on April 4, 2006. The issue was the denial, in effect, of the right to vote by African-Americans. Wikipedia (which may or may not be reliable) reports that of the 15000 blacks in Dallas County of an age eligible to vote (57% of the voting population), there were only 130 registered African-American voters. Wikipedia also reports that 80% of African-Americans in the County lived below the poverty line.

On February 17, Alabama state troopers attacked marchers, and shot and killed 26 year old African-American, Jimmie Lee Jackson. In response Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders planned a march from Selma to Montgomery, a distance of fifty-four miles. They were met by a large contingent of Alabama State troopers and local police with tear gas and billy clubs in what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” causing outrage across the nation. A nation-wide call for religious and civic leaders to participate in another March was called.

In that March, the marchers retreated when the state troopers and police forces again confronted them. They waited at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church until the courts decided the legality of the march to Montgomery. That night Reeb, a 38- year -old white Unitarian minister, and two other Unitarian ministers were attacked by three white men outside a Klu Klux Klan hangout. Reeb suffered a massive concussion and died, causing a national uproar, whose death President Lyndon Johnson called an “American tragedy.” Archbishop Iakovos, after linking arms with other religious leaders and singing, “We shall overcome” spoke in Selma as part of the group of religious and civic leaders that had come to support Martin Luther King. He said, in part, “Our [Orthodox] Church has never hesitated to fight, when it felt it must, for the rights of mankind; and many of our Churchmen have been in the forefront of these battles time and again….Let [Reeb’s] martyrdom be an inspiration and a reminder to us that there are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for those basic American ideals of freedom, justice and equality.”

As reported by Raboteau, Archbishop Iakovos told King’s biographer, Taylor Branch, that he had decided to go to Selma “against the advice of his clergy and staff, who worried correctly that he would be called traitor to the quest of marginalized Greeks for full acceptance as Americans. Not a single member of the Orthodox community, he reported, appeared for scheduled events at his next stop, and he found himself alone in a Charleston hotel room.”

As Archbishop Iakovos felt the need to be present to protest the injustice of not having all Americans be able to vote, we too as North Americans need to be present and with the 6 million people (not to mention their families) who have become unemployed in the last 12 months;, the 1 in 50 children that experience homelessness and the tens of millions of North Americans who do not have enough food, while the rest of us have plenty.

Please join us through FOCUS North America, in the tradition of the Orthodox Church, to help those of our neighbors in need, whether facing poverty, unemployment, sickness, homelessness or injustice. Serve, Volunteer, Donate. May God bless you and say to you for your faith witnessed by your actions, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matt 25: 34)

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