The Role of the Icon in the Multi-Ethnic American Orthodox Church

The American Orthodox church faces many challenges today. There are liturgies being prayed in languages that are foreign to most people outside of Orthodoxy, and multiple ethnic jurisdictions with churches and even bishops in the same town. One city even has 6 canonical Orthodox bishops in it! All of this can be quite confusing to the inquirer into Orthodoxy, and can provide a scandalous roadblock. These problems will take generations for the church to work out, and hopefully the end result will be the creation of a single American Orthodox Church. What we often fail to recognize, however, is that we possess a tool that can seriously help us make inquirers and converts feel welcome when visiting our churches. That tool is the icon.

Whether we are cradle Orthodox or converts to Orthodoxy, we need to understand the role the icon plays in our faith. Icons proclaim the Incarnation and teach us the Gospel. They communicate with images what is often inexpressible with words and thus their strongest role in the multi-ethnic American Orthodox Church is as a manifestation of the communion of saints. This manifestation of the communion of saints is the very reason why the walls of our churches should be covered with icons in the first place; to bridge the gap of both ethnicity and time. People do not come to church to see the pretty marble walls or the nice architecture; they come to join in prayer with others who have similar experiences and beliefs as they do. Our churches should be full of icons to remind us that there have been people like us who have lived lives worthy of Christ and have gone on to be honored as saints. The icons on the walls make us feel welcome and remind us that we are not alone in our struggles to live lives worthy of Christ. Unfortunately, this is one of the largest challenges facing Orthodoxy in America: helping inquirers and converts feel welcome in parishes that are still for the most part largely ethnic and unfamiliar. This can often create a barrier to those who would otherwise want to inquire into Orthodoxy and possibly embrace it.

In its role as a teacher and communicator, the icon has two separate but related functions. First, it proclaims to the world that no matter what race, ethnicity or gender you are, there have probably been people from your background who have been recognized by the church as saints. In this way, the icon proclaims the true catholicity and universal nature of the Church. Icons of pre-schism western saints are very popular right now, and that is a good thing. It is not uncommon to walk into an Orthodox Church and find an icon of St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Genevieve of Paris, St. David of Wales or St. Boniface Enlightener of the Germans or any of the other pre-schism Western European saints. Similarly, we are seeing a rise in the popularity of depicting saints of African and Asian descent, and doing so with the proper skin tones. These icons proclaim that one does not need to be Greek, Russian, Slavic, or Middle Eastern to be a saint. Yes, there are Orthodox saints who are Irish, French, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, German, English, Native American, African and Chinese! By having icons of western and non-traditional saints in our temples, we are proclaiming to possible inquirers that they are welcome and can feel at home in our presence.

Any perceived cultural barriers that an inquirer might fear when entering an Orthodox Church can easily be removed through the presence of icons of varying ethnicities and races on the walls of our churches. These icons help inquirers feel welcome in our temples because they see there are Orthodox saints who have had the same skin color or ethnicity as they have, or even a similar-sounding name to theirs. The comfort that icons of western and multi-ethnic saints provide to inquirers should not be neglected. No matter how beautiful and breathtaking the Divine Liturgy is, when the inquirer is made to feel uncomfortable in the church because he sees people of all one ethnicity or the Divine Liturgy being prayed in a language he is unfamiliar with, he is less likely to return than if he is made to feel welcome. A personal example of this, to me, is St. Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre. The first time I met with Fr. Stoyka to discuss my conversion to Orthodoxy, I was nervous upon entering into the Church, because I feared it would be full of icons of strange saints that I did not know. When I walked through the Church, I saw an icon of St. Alexis on the walls and felt comforted by his presence. Here was a man who lived in a state that I had spent much of my life in, and as I later found out, was a convert to Orthodoxy from Byzantine Catholicism, just like I was. It was comforting and inspiring to know that there was a person who the Orthodox Church holds up to be a saint who lived in the very state where I lived and within a century of my own life time. Likewise it was inspiring to know that I was not the first person to consider converting from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, and that many others had taken the very same path that I was on. The importance of the welcoming function of the icon should not be overlooked.

This welcoming function of the icon has been furthered by the use of the vernacular in the inscription on the icon. It has always been the way of the Orthodox Church to present the liturgy and teachings of the Church in the language of the people who it is reaching out to. When bringing the Gospel to the Slavic people Sts. Cyril and Methodius created an alphabet for Slavic use so the Gospel could be put into Slavic languages. When bringing the Gospel to the Alaskan people, St. Herman used the language of the Alaskan people to preach the Gospel. The Church has for the most part done a great job in making sure the icons on the walls of the Churches in the United States are inscribed in English. By doing this the Church has removed what would be a language barrier and again told the American people that all are welcome to worship with us.

The other function the icon has in welcoming inquirers into Orthodoxy is to proclaim to 21st century Americans that saints are not just people who lived hundreds of years ago in a country far from American soil. In this way, the icon tells the inquirer that the universal nature of the church not only crosses nations and continents but also crosses time as well. Saints can often look irrelevant to our modern lives because they lived in countries on the other side of the world or in times much less modern than today. However, there have been 13 North Americans who have been proclaimed to be saints in the less than two centuries that Orthodoxy has been present in North America. One of those saints, St. John of San Francisco, lived in California in the 1960s! St. John lived in a time where the cultural influence on American life was similar to that of today, where automobile traffic was very common and where he could be faced with such modern inconveniences as a traffic jam. And yet, St. John found a way to follow Christ through all of this. How more relevant can the life of a saint get than that?

For those who are inquiring into the Orthodox faith from other faiths, the lives of the North American saints can take on an even more personal role. The icon and life story of St. Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre, Confessor and Defender of Orthodoxy in America, can be a real comfort to inquirers because as I have already mentioned, St. Alexis himself was a convert from Uniate Catholicism. The scenes in the life of St. Alexis depicted in his icon proclaim to the inquirer that he was married, lost his wife and child to early deaths, was ordained a priest, and was sent to a far land where he was rejected by his own bishop and led a congregation of several hundred people to join the Orthodox Church. Most people can relate to at least one of these occurrences in their own lives. Here was a fellow inquirer into Orthodoxy who found a home in the Church and lived a life that the Church later deemed as being that of a saint.

The same is true of having icons of African and Asian saints in our Churches. Many black Americans do not realize that the Orthodox Church came to Africa very early on in the time of the Apostles, and that prior to the Muslim invasion of Africa, there were hundreds of Orthodox dioceses across Northern Africa. A popular icon of African saints shows 21, but there are far more than that. Saints Monica and Augustine , Mary of Egypt, Moses the Ethiopian, John the Dwarf, Anthony the Great and all of the rest of the Desert Fathers were all African. In spite of the Church’s having not been present in eastern Asia as long as it has in Northern Africa, God has still blessed eastern Asia with many saints. An icon of St. Mitrophan of the Boxer Rebellion would be good to have in our churches. Here we have a Chinese priest who gave his life for Christ, and led many others in doing the same. St. John the Child of the Boxer Rebellion would be an even better icon to have because he was a child who believed and gave his life for Christ. Similarly, the icon of St. Peter the Aleut sends the same message as does St. John’s icon. Having these or similar icons in our churches says to an inquirer of any ethnicity or culture who might inquire into the Orthodox faith, that he or she is welcome and encouraged to pray and attend church with us. These icons send the message loud and clear: you are welcome in the Orthodox Church.

Unfortunately, one of the perceptions of the Orthodox Church by Americans unfamiliar with it is that it is ethno-centric and that the ethnic divisions create great boundaries that can’t be crossed by people who would be otherwise open to Orthodoxy. Having icons of saints from multiple ethnic backgrounds on the walls of our churches serves to make people of those backgrounds feel comfortable in our churches and also serves to correct any perceived ethnic boundaries that inquirers might fear. It is our sincere prayer that the jurisdictional mess that exists in North America will someday be corrected and we will have a true American Orthodox Church which will put its faith and resources together and preach the Gospel as one body in Christ. Until that day, we welcome people of all backgrounds through our multi-ethnic icons, and preach the truly universal nature of the Orthodox Church.

Copyright 2014, Michael Goltz. All rights reserved. Use of the icons depicted in this essay is strictly prohibited by copyright law without the express written consent of Michael Goltz.