This fall I got to visit the American south for the second time in my life. Last year I was in the greater Atlanta area and this time I was in the parish of St. Nektarios of Pentapolis in Lenoir City, Tennessee. Modern life is very demanding – to survive, Americans are expected to work at least forty hours a week. With such intensity, it is clear that time is a scare commodity. Therefore, it was amazing for me to see that the Christians of St. Nektarios eagerly spent a whole Saturday and Sunday, enthusiastically engaged in discussing Byzantine imperial history, canon law and the Inter-Council Assembly of the Russian Orthodox Church. I would love to see similar engagement in adult education classes all over Eastern American Diocese of the ROCOR. For my part, I hope that I will be able to continue my study of Dixieland. Meanwhile, I offer you now an interview with the Rector of the community, Father Job Watts. The text of the interview below is somewhat different from the recording offered here.
Deacon Andrei Psarev
Father Job, thank you for giving me this opportunity to learn about your parish, and as a result of what I learn, I would like also to share it with other people. How do you see your objective of your ministry basically – who you are, what do you do with your life basically?
The role of the priest is to reconcile men back to God. This was the role of Christ, and this is what is extended to the priesthood. In regard to reconciling men back to God in our particular location, which the southern part of the United States, most people would say that they already know God – they don’t need the priest to reconcile them back to God, because it is a very Christian culture here in the south. People are used to Christ, and they’re used to the gospel of Christ. And so, by extension, we might say as well that my role here is to reconcile not only men back to God, but back to God’s church, back to Christ’s church.
They know Christ, but what they do not know is Christ’s church, and part of that is expressing to them the need to know Christ’s church, and that’s part of the challenge of it. Trying to reconcile them back to Christ’s church I think is the, for lack of a better word – the role of the priest in the south is to make Christians members of the Church. It’s a subtle distinction since people often know Christ, but they don’t know His church. I’ve said that so forgive me for repeating myself, but it’s really a very subtle but yet it’s a complex thing.
And to convince them that they even have to know the church. Now why is it relevant to their particular lives? And in doing so, the question is how do we do this? Well, first of all we have to bring Orthodoxy to the southern culture, in the southern world, and in doing so we’ve built our parish at Saint Nektarios of Aegina. We took an old Presbyterian church, a Protestant church, and we’ve been turning it into a traditional Orthodox church. Painting it, adorning it with domes, and changing the interior of the church so that when the people pass by and see it, they’re not seeing what they’re used to seeing in the way of the Protestant churches of the south, of which there’s one on every block.
They’re seeing something that has the cross of Christ, it has the name Christian on it, but it is something that they have never seen before. They’re used to the Baptist, and the Lutheran, and the Presbyterian, and the Methodist, and the Roman Catholic even, but we’re an unknown quantity. That unknown quantity aspect of it is part of our advantage. They can’t really box us into a particular category because they don’t know who we are. We have an advantage in that, and we have to use that advantage very quickly right now to our benefit – that we’re not Protestant, but we’re not Roman Catholic. We’re something other than these two bodies, and that’s intriguing to them. They’ve accepted all the categories, now we’re something new even though in fact we’re something very old – we’re the original – and that also is intriguing. It’s a very bold statement to say we’re the old, the original, the first. We better know how to justify that and defend it.
One of the first aspects of that is that we have to make sure that we don’t take up the Amish approach, or the Hassidic approach, where we fortify ourselves into our little Russian Orthodox parish. If we’re going to be reconciling men back to Christ’s church, we have to go out to those men and show them Christ’s church. As an individual, as a priest, when I go into the world, the local common places, the restaurant, the gas station, the grocery store, I wear my cassock and I try to always wear a smile. It’s so they see the cassock, they see the cross, they see the beard and the long hair, but they see somebody with a smile on their face. I greet people, and I say “Hello”, and I say, “Good morning,” and I do so to let them know that I view them as fellow human and that I don’t view them as the gentile or the infidel – that they are my fellow citizens.
I’m trying to very much make our parish a part of the citizenship of this local city, in this local town, and so we have been involved with trying to establish a food pantry that we open every third Saturday of the month. And that food pantry – we’re not trying to supply all the needs of those who are destitute, but we’re more trying to help the local working poor. As I said before, the working poor classified as those people who do have jobs, they do work, but their income is not sufficient to get them to the end of the month, and so they run short on some of the very basics and staples of life, so we try to supplement that. We open the food pantry, and we advertise it at a local utility office, and the grocery stores, the welfare offices. So, the common people are in those places see our name. Then they drive to our church and they’ve never seen a church with a dome, they’ve never seen a priest before – but when they approach it, they realize that there’s kindness there. We don’t make any effort to convert them, we don’t talk to them about Orthodoxy, we just try to get them some things that they need, and they see us in a very softened kind of way. As a result, we’ve made some friends in the community who, whether or not they become Orthodox I don’t know, but we’ve made friends, and that’s parts of the first step. Also, we have been involved in the local right to life movement, we’ve been involved with sponsoring some of the local middle-school and high-school softball teams, and some of the high-school students may be working on special projects such as gathering toys for needy children during Christmas – we’ve been involved with some of that. So, some of the local jerseys have on the back ‘Saint Nektarios Orthodox Church’, you know, next to “Joe’s Hardware Store.” More and more we have tried to put ourselves into the daily life and experience of the people.
So, what happens is that when I go out into the community where Saint Nektarios is, and I go through a little drive-thru to get a soft drink, the people see me and they say “Are you the priest at the church with the blue domes?” They’re starting to recognize me now; they’re starting to see me in these places. The police, and the local restaurant owners, even if they’re not wanting to talk to me, [they’re] kind of accepting us as a fixture of the community. It’s a slow process to put yourself into a community, but they see that we’re not opposed to them. We’re not aloof. We don’t view ourselves [as] we are the chosen, and you’re the unfortunates who are outside of it.
So as a result the people in my parish are imitating this, in their local workplaces, in their businesses, in the places where they shop. They talk about the church, they talk about Orthodoxy, and they talk about the beautiful things that we have. For example, one of the things that we do is every other year we have a group from St. Petersburg called Lyra and they’re a marvelous singing group, and they sing a set of hymns that are the traditional church hymns and they sing those in the parish. Then they go to the parish hall, the refectory, and they sing Ukrainian-Russian folk songs – and they do both. We open this up to the community and people come every year, and there’s always repeats, but there’s always new people who come. And again, they get to see the interior of the church, they see the people, and they see that we’re just – we’re wanting to share everything that we have.
We don’t view them as infidels, we don’t view them as outside of our church but – and as I said, when we started the food pantry I was explaining earlier, yes, I wanted to help the poor and the needy for the sake of obedience to the gospel which requires us to do these things. This is the parameter of the last judgment: “Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? Did you visit the sick and the infirm and those in prison?” Those are the parameters of the judgment. And as a priest, and I’m preaching the judgment to my people, I have to also help them fulfill those parameters and show them how to do it. Well the opening of the pantry is a way that our parish can do that. So, in part it was a way of helping my people keep the commandments, and fulfill the law of Christ, the law of love. But at the same time, it was a way of exposing ourselves to our community.
Right. Father, in our previous conversation, if I pick it up correctly, you mentioned kind of – my sort of interpretation of this – that kind of you are filling fuel in people’s tank on Saturday. So, they come to church, and you help them to carry on from one week to another. So that once they converted, they go through this little triumphalist stage, and then “romantic phase” is over and now it’s day in day out. Almost as if they got the best deal and now how does this best deal work for them on a daily basis?
Yeah. Well you know, that’s exactly the point. When we first convert it is very triumphalistic, it’s very edifying, it’s very new and there’s a freshness to it. But when you engage in the day to day life and struggle of fighting your temptations and your passions, but we do so in a world that’s not Orthodox as a culture. So, when they go back to work on a Monday morning, and throughout their week their world is going to have its own philosophy, its own ideals, it’s all going to have its own pressures, its own temptations, and it’s in competition for the church.
So, every Sunday, for me as a priest and dealing with my people, is the one time I’m going to have them all together. In that time, I have to seize that moment to build them up in their faith, as St. Paul says, to strengthen, to edify them. To remind them that God does love them, and that the struggles and the difficulties – that they are not eternal, that they won’t completely overwhelm them. And if they should fall, if they should collapse in it, that they’re not alone. They have their priest, they have their church, and that every effort, every Sunday, is that when those people walk out of that church, and they go back to their life, that they’re feeling edified, and renewed. They’re filling with hope, filling with joy, and this is the constant effort. On Sunday afternoons, I often give a spiritual talk and it’s always – I may take something from the Fathers of the saints, or speak on the immediate feast that’s upon us, or the gospel that day. But always I’m trying to find the best, the most edifying, the most strengthening, because we get worn down.
We get worn down with our sins, and we get worn down with the drudgery of day-to-day life. And trying to show them that even in our falls, there’s something salvific in it; we can be saved in our fall. And not only – in the world, to stop maybe looking at the drudgery of the day to day life as something that’s not really part of my Orthodoxy. No, that’s where your Orthodoxy is really going to be tested, and tried, and proved, and made real. And viewing the world as not necessarily as an enemy, as something that Christ created. So, when they go into the world, they’re not going in with animosity and a fighting type of mindset. That they’re looking at something “This is good, God has made this,” and these people are potential brothers and sisters in Christ. Christ loved them and died for them as well. If you can change your perspective on it, it really, interiorly, creates a joy in your heart.
You and I were talking the other night. I said the Orthodox Christian should be the funniest man in the room. He should have all the best stories. He should have the most joyous and largest heart. He should be the most giving. He should be the one that when he walks into the room, he lights the room up and everybody is attracted to him – that should be us. If it’s in the workplace, or if it’s in the grocery store, or if you’re just visiting your in-law’s house and they happen to be Protestants. When you come, you should light the place up. That’s what we’re supposed to be. Because we should, because we have all the joy – we have Pascha. We have Pascha, you know, we have that. That’s what they need, and that’s what they want. So, when they see us, then they will ask us the question that St. Paul said they should ask us “What is the reason for the joy that you have in you?” And then we can tell them about the Orthodox Church.
Thank you very much, Father Job.