Orthodox in the Southern World


I tend to think of myself as doing Orthodox mission work in the world of Appalachia. Geographically that is true, though much of the work I do with people are with folks who comes from somewhere other than the Appalachian region. My own roots are fairly shallow in Appalachia, though they are on the at least the fringes.

There is also the Southern aspect to mission. A culture that is steeped in contradictions. Hospitality and yet a history of slavery (I do not care to hear Southern justifications of slavery – my own family – on my mother’s side – were slave-owners and I do not seek to hear them justified). Slavery was wrong from every possible perspective – an abberation in Christianity and certainly laced with heresy.

Having said that, I love where I am from and I love its people. There is a native goodness in the places I have lived that have been a rich blessing in my life. But that has never left me free from criticism or complaint. The more you love and the more you live, the more you see and wish for something better. And the South could have been better.

But that is already a Southern way of thinking – to speak of what could have been.

More to the point as an Orthodox Christian is what could be. Anything could be. God can do and make many things possible. He has sustained me and my family in this region despite my deepest fears and misgivings.

But there are many things here that make Orthodoxy a natural. There is a reverence in some places for things that have gone before. This is a place that sings of “that Old time religion,” which Orthodoxy almost alone can claim with any sense of truth.

The South has a patience about it, an almost eschatological patience that makes Orthodoxy a hopeful proclamation.

This place loves the Bible, and nobody, but nobody, uses more of the Bible than the Orthodox.

There are deeper things, that will take many years to come to a place of real conversation. But the South has a love of nature. My parents, and all of their siblings and parents, were convinced that the natural world was so designed that there was a cure for everything if only you knew the right plant or mineral. The world of nature was good and meant to be used for good. This is an Orthodox instinct and a place where deep dialog can occur. Interestingly, no culture in the world is more deeply involved in herbal medicine than the Russian culture. My grandmother would have understood and been deeply interested.

The South has a great sense of the “lost cause.” Orthodoxy does not believe in a lost cause, but it does have a deep sense of the true cause having been delayed for a long time, and possibly not vindicated until judgement day.

There are many things that can be said about Southern culture and Orthodoxy, but the truth is that Southern culture is really only a subset of American culture which is a subset of the West. And if you dig long enough in the West you come to Orthodoxy. We were once here, in the work of St. Patrick, St. Columba, St. Brendan, St. Brigit, and so many others. My work as a missionary to the South is only an extention of a mission that began long ago, which also says I am not alone in this work. Great saints – among the greatest – prayed for the ancestors of the very people I now count as my flock. And they prayed for their descendants. And so we are here. We are here as an answer to prayer (I’m sure of it).

What a great long trek we have made to come to this place so that here we may enter into covenant with God and know Him even as we are known. This place is a holy place and our God is with us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





9 responses to “Orthodox in the Southern World”

  1. November In My Soul Avatar

    Well said. Your comparisons are very apt.

  2. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    Oh, father, you’ve hit on a very tender spot for me.

    As someone who finds himself among a group of people who have little ambiguity about their ethnicity, I find a familiarattitude in my own heart about my “southernness.”

    I am a Southerner. It is my ethnicity at a level much deeper than even my love for the united States. These are my people, my tribe. We share something between us that cannot be manufactured.

    However, that which is good and laudable in my ethnicity is not unique to my ethnicity. And that was the surprising discovery. That which is valuable and praiseworthy is common to practically all cultures.

    But there is a uniqueness to the South that I believe makes the South a fertile ground for Orthodoxy.

    Orthodoxy has always been the religion of the “common people.” It has always been innately connected to the common folks who understood their faith intuitively. I listen to some of the “fa so la” (shaped notes) hymns of my blessed grandmother and her country Baptist church and I hear the tonal system of the Appalachians, the chant of the South.

    The South was meant to be Orthodox, but Southerners will demand participation in the services. They will want to sing congregationally. They will want to know that the faith supports the veneration they have for their “dearly departed.” And they will want to be reassured that Jesus is the center of all this.

    Orthodoxy uniquely provides for all the soul knowledge Southerners already have concerning faith. They want to be Orthodox. We just have to share it with them.

    I will not be happy until the average “Bubba” with a pick up truck with a shotgun rack in the back window and a “Hell no I ain’t fergettin’” sicker on the windshield makes the sign of the cross from right to left.


  3. Steve Avatar

    My mom read that little tract “Finding the New Testament Church” when she was here this past weekend. Last night on the phone she told me she “really likes your church.”

    Kind of funny. I have icons and books laying around at home, but I’ve never sat down and really argued for Orthodoxy with my parents. They visited once (and my mom visited St. Seraphim’s in Dallas once with me), but haven’t really asked much about it.

  4. handmaidleah Avatar

    Paula Dean Said something interesting on a talk show recently about being agoraphobic; she became afraid to leave her home after the early death of both parents in their forties. She said that being raised in the Baptist church everybody told her that there was a reason for their deaths and that she didn’t ever accept this, as God will’s reasoning, and she turned away from death, hence her fear of everything. Finally she accepted her death, she looked at the audience and said, “I hate to tell y’all this but y’all aint getting outta this alive!” I kept thinking, that’s an Orthodox way to think, we are taught to keep our deaths in our minds and prepare, not in a morbid way but,to prepare to meet our Lord and Savior. To be joyful about it, its a good thing, though one of the fearful occurrences in our lives if we are not prepared spiritually.
    I have a Bubba in my family and I am originally from Memphis, still have family there and throughout the southern states.
    So just a thought or two, Orthodoxy has the potential to be the bridge between communities, first is out of love for our neighbor and their salvation, we have a duty to spread Holy Orthodoxy to the Black Community, especially because they are being deluded by Islam as being the historic religion of Africa, which it is not, Holy Orthodoxy is and before that Africa was/is pagan, animist. Islam is the younger religion.
    I guess what I am driving at, is do we want to keep the old southern man and his stereotype or do we want him to put on a new man in Christ and Holy Orthodoxy?
    That would mean that sadly, some redneck behaviors would have to change, hopefully not the funny ones…
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The South is quickly changing. Much of what I knew in my childhood is being swallowed up by other values and norms. There’s still much that is southern about it, but not the South of the 1950’s or 60’s. Globalization is on the march even in the South. Populations are very mobile so that unless you are in a very rural area, you are unlikely to be in the midst of a dominantly Southern group.

    There is a folk singer, Kate Campbell, who sings some distinctly southern songs. She has one, “We’re all living in the New South,” that hits home very hard.

    Regardless, the Orthodox faith must be preached. But the audience is quite mixed. My Tennessee congregation has everything from ex Catholics to ex Baptists, PHD’s and wage workers. Foreign nationals and even Japanese and Chinese members. Fortunately the same Orthodox faith can be preached to all, but it is clear that my audience is far more than Appalachia. The world’s getting very small.

  6. David_Bryan Avatar

    Excellent post, Father. I mean quite literally, and in a way quite different from the “Lost Cause” days: God, save the South! (for it has not happened yet)

  7. Visibilium Avatar

    How would Orthodoxy integrate with an essentially Ulster Scot culture?

  8. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Slowly, is my best answer. To a degree, we are doing it here in Appalachia. The Bible would maintain a high visibility for one.

  9. David Aiken Avatar
    David Aiken

    Upstate South Carolina raised: I was born from the Ulster Scots/Quaker English stock who settled these hills and foothills long ago. I adore our history and despise our shortcomings all at the same time. My father is an Independent, Fundamental, Born-Again ,Bible-Believin’ , King James Only Baptist. My Great Grandfathers were bootleggers and moonshiners, my 3rd Great Grandfathers fought for the Confederacy and one of my Grandmothers was a granny witch. I still squirrel hunt, pass on folk ballads and stories, love bluegrass and clawhammer banjo, cut “okrey”, dip snuff, and drive a truck etc. Yet despite all this, Orthodoxy has grabbed my heart. From the way I see it, Orthodoxy could eventually take a good hold on Southerners. It truly is Catholic.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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