Rastas and Orthodoxy
Part Seven of Seven!
RTE: I hope you both get there. Looking back, after this wonderful journey, what do you feel that you’ve brought to Orthodoxy from your Rasta experience that could help other Orthodox converts, especially those from a more middle-class background?
MICHAEL: Living simple. Seeing your brother as yourself. Seeing people not just as a part of you, but as a part of God because He created them. The real Rasta people saw that, and these were the things that first attracted us.
I think that Orthodox people as a whole need to do a lot of work on their diet, nutrition, a simple lifestyle. I’ve attended churches where folks are friendly, but sometimes Orthodox people can look pretty worldly too. Rastafari was such a part of our spiritual journey that I know I’ll be connected to Rastas for the rest of my life. In fact, not long ago, I met a man from a Jamaican Rasta group called the Bobo Dreads. Their founder, Prince Emmanuel, passed on years ago, and if you’d met them in Jamaica you’d have thought they were a black supremacist group, but they were really a Bible-based commune. In the first years of being Rasta, I wrote back and forth to Prince Emmanuel and he prayed for us.
When I met this man from the commune, I told him about how years ago I’d written to Prince Emmanuel, and when I said something about my son, Nesta, he looked at me, raised his hands to heaven, prayed aloud, and said, “That’s who Nesta is!” For years, there had been a picture of this white baby on their prayer board. No one knew who it was except that his name was Nesta, but because Prince Emmanuel had put it there, they always prayed for him. I felt so blessed by that. They’ve prayed for him for over twenty years.
RTE: They carried him along. Do you think that Orthodoxy could spread in Jamaica?
MICHAEL: It has, in the form of the Ethiopian tradition. Thousands of Rasta people have been baptized in the last ten years into the Ethiopian Church. Rita Marley built a huge Ethiopian Orthodox church in Kingston and besides the first abba that His Majesty sent, there are now many other priests from Ethiopia. I would guess that the Ethiopian Church is probably the second largest church in Jamaica, after the Anglican. Rastas are becoming aware of Orthodoxy. For example, a well-known Rasta from the group Boom Shaka has been to the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina. I`ve heard since that his whole group was baptized, but I don’t know the details.
RTE: What do you see in our Chalcedonian Orthodoxy that could appeal to Rastas? How can our middle-class convert and ethnic parishes make them feel welcome?
MICHAEL: Well, be more like St. Mary’s – non-judging. The biggest thing with the Rasta people is their dreads and the way they dress. The reason we wore our hair and clothes like that is that we were making a statement,
“I’m not of this world,”
which is what Christianity is really all about. We called this the “Nazarite Vow,” to not cut our hair or beard. I know that I’ve walked into certain Orthodox churches and felt unwelcome because of my appearance.
Also, the idea of “dogma” would be hard at first for most Rastas – it leaves a bad taste in the mouth – but the cycle of Church services, the teachings, the desert fathers and mothers – all of this I can talk to a Rasta about at a first meeting. There’s also self-image to get through. We’ve conditioned ourselves to be our own entities,
“They can’t tell us how to think, they can’t tell us what to eat.”
Then, all of a sudden, when you meet Orthodoxy and get closer to God, you find that there are all these rules, traditions, fasts… of course, it’s natural that you rebel against it at first. Even though it’s what you’re seeking, your psyche kicks in and says,
“Wait a minute, what’s this about?”
For me, it was the initial contact with an Orthodox priest, and then the Ethiopian icons, the multicultural background that made this church special. It was like home. Teresa and I have always been about helping other people, the have-nots, and have lived on the fringe of being have-nots ourselves. We are all God’s children and that’s what drew us to God. I volunteer here in the bookstore and I end up handing out bags of food. This is what I love, taking care of people.
In the six years before I was baptized, I would come for a while, and then leave. Once, when I came back after a long absence, Fr. Paisius told me that he likes to think of his church as having a revolving door – you can come, you can go, and you can come back again when you’re ready. At St. Mary’s it’s not about how much you can tithe each week. Here I feel that we are working on our salvation, on getting closer to God. We actually work on our weaknesses. If someone is crying in church, it’s not like, “Wow, what was the matter with her today?” We’ve all been there, we’re a family, and we’re working out our salvation together. This is what our lives and Rasta were all about. Teresa and I had always hoped for a spiritual family that wanted to get closer to God, that wanted to pray together, to help people in God’s name, and that’s why we’re here.
That’s St. Mary’s, and this is what would appeal to most serious Rastas.
The biggest connection for a Rasta to Orthodoxy, though, is through Haile Selassie. There are lots of Rasta people who have His Majesty’s picture on their wall, but don’t have a clue as to who he was and what he believed. If you study his life, you’ll become Orthodox. That’s what he talked about, and that’s what he tells you. Some Rasta people walk with a veil over their face, and when they take that off and see Orthodoxy and His Majesty as he was – that he was a man like us all, a sinner, but a great leader and deeply religious – when they see that, they will become Orthodox themselves.
RTE: If you could say anything to Rastas and non-Rastas about Orthodoxy, what would it be?
MICHAEL: It’s home. It’s love. It’s Christ’s love. It’s everything.+
Note from Michael Wilson: If anyone reading this would like to contact us, our e-mail is:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Postal address: Michael and Teresa Wilson, 837 E. 800 Rd., Lawrence, Kansas, 66047.