After a lifetime in traditional black churches, Robert Aaron Mitchell discovered the sights, smells, sounds and ancient traditions of the Orthodox church.
“I discovered Orthodoxy while I was on the Internet one day back in 2001, and I was so drawn to it that I had to go attend a liturgy,” Mitchell says. “I had no frame of reference for these traditions, but suddenly, I felt like this void was filling in my life. I felt like I was finally coming home.”
Mitchell, 48, a project manager for AT&T in Detroit, is among a small but growing number of black Americans, many of them professionals, who are joining Orthodox churches. That’s the branch of Christianity that split with Rome about 1,000 years ago and is known for colorful icons and the ethnic traditions it preserves in religious customs.
The attraction, Mitchell says, lies in discovering that for thousands of years, Africans played a vital role in the Orthodox world.
The Rev. Moses Berry, an Orthodox priest and pastor of Theotokos “Unexpected Joy” Orthodox Mission, Ash Grove, Mo., began his career as a Protestant preacher, a family tradition reaching back into the 1800s. Then, in 1983, he visited an Orthodox church in Atlanta and was so moved that he retrained to become a priest in the Orthodox Church in America. He also helped to organize the coalition of clergy, scholars and lay leaders coming to Detroit.
“Reconnecting with the Orthodox tradition connects us with the earliest Christian traditions,” Berry says. “It means that, when our ancestors were brought here as slaves, they didn’t arrive here with just a collection of tribal religions. They didn’t all discover Christianity here. In fact, many Africans already were part of the ancient Christian church.”
That was especially true for Africans with roots in the eastern part of the continent, Laike-Mariam Misikir, 50, says. An automotive engineer from Ann Arbor, Mich., Misikir is from a family of Orthodox priests that extends back many centuries in Ethiopia. In Detroit, Misikir serves as a subdeacon, assisting priests during liturgies.
“Unlike many of the African Americans who have come to Orthodoxy, I was born into the faith in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia,” Misikir says. “The traditions are so deep, so beautiful.”
“I can remember as a small child, attending all night liturgies with my grandparents. I would be down there near their feet, listening to the chanting and African drums, watching everything going on around me. It was like being transported into heaven.”
Mitchell nodded as Misikir described the scene.
“The Orthodox church fills your senses,” Mitchell says. “You smell the incense, see the icons and the candles burning, and there’s movement, too. People are crossing themselves. There are processions sometimes. So much is happening all around you in the church.”
Misikir says, “It’s a little difficult to explain all of this to most Americans. At first, when I tell people I’m Orthodox, often they don’t understand me and think I’m Jewish.”
Christianity in Africa
The history of the Christian church in Africa is a complex story, as branches of Christianity crisscrossed during 2,000 years.
Following are a few key facts about African Orthodox traditions:
The patriarchate of Alexandria, Egypt, the oldest Eastern Orthodox authority in Africa, says it was founded around the year 42 by one of Jesus’ followers, St. Mark, who served as bishop in Alexandria.
Because of theological differences through the centuries, most Egyptian Christians belong to another branch of the Orthodox church, the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Book of Acts in the Bible describes the Christian conversion of an Ethiopian government official who was visiting in the southern part of what is now Israel. Other historical sources say the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia was founded in the 4th century. It remains one of the oldest continuous Christian churches in the world.
Today, there are nearly 40 million Orthodox among the 400 million Christians in Africa.