by Tudor Petcu
Another in our series by Romanian writer, Tudor Petcu. Tudor is a graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest, Romania. His work focuses on the evolution of Orthodox spirituality in Western societies. In this article, he interviews Fr. Turbo Qualls – the unofficial winner of the aware for the ‘Best Clergy Name’ ever.
1.) First of all, please, explain me what should we know about Saint Moses the Black and why is he considered so important for the orthodox community of black Americans.
St. Moses was one of the Desert Fathers who lived in the early part of the 5th cent. According the Hagiographical accounts of his life, he was an unruly slave, who became a notorious thief, murderer and gang leader who would later find profound repentance as a monastic, priest and spiritual father.
His life is of particular importance for many Black Americans due to the social, moral and spiritual parallels between his life and ours. More importantly, we see in his response to the struggles that beset him, a path towards salvation and becoming more Christ-like.
2.) How would you describe the history and evolution of Orthodox community of Black Americans in the US and what would be its main uniqueness in the orthodox world, if I can call it like that?
I would say that the history of Black Americans within Orthodoxy is still very young and developing. Much of the reason for this is due to the social barriers that many of the first immigrant Orthodox communities adopted in order to fit in with what was perceived to be the “American” mindset. In other words, historically there hasn’t been as welcoming and evangelistic attitude towards Black Americans by the Orthodox Church due to the racism that has been both explicit and implicit in American society. Thankfully that is slowly starting to change.
In respect to the uniqueness, I would say the the experience of Black Americans in the U.S. is much closer to the experience of many of the “old country” Orthodox than that of the average “White” American. It must be noted that when this term is used, it should be generally interpreted as WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant). The reason for this is due to the reality of the experience of being treated as a second class citizen and often times being persecuted unto death. Both the Russian and Romanian Christians experienced this under communism. The Greeks and Serbs under the Turks. The Syrians under Islam, etc.
Most “White” Americans do not have a working memory or experience of this type of suffering; where as, Black Americans do. It is helpful if you understand that slavery, Jim Crow and the general struggle of Black people in America is both ongoing and relatively new. For instance, my Grandfather was the son of Slaves. That is not far removed from me at all. The ability to endure suffering in such a way that it will bring one closer to Christ is one of the key facets of Orthodoxy, and the Protestant and Roman Catholic experience which is more prevalent in America does not have the means to expound on that experience. Although the majority of Black Americans are Protestant historically, the experience of being Black in America is indivisible from the experience of suffering.
Therefore, the inability for Protestantism to articulate and expound on that reality is one of the main reasons that many Black Americans have over time left Christianity altogether for some other faith or even atheism.
3.) Which are the main reasons why some Afro-Americans have taken the decision to convert to Orthodoxy from your point of view? According to the question above, I would be very glad if you could talk a little bit about your spiritual road to Orthodoxy, about your pilgrimage in the Orthodox Church.
From my perspective, the key reasons why Afro-Americans convert to Orthodoxy, (which is to find the true and historical Church of Jesus Christ) are identical to all other folk, except in one case. That one exception is to reconcile the racism that is inherent in American Christianity, which is namely Protestant. For many Afro-Americans, the experience of Christ is so powerful, and has sustained our families and community for generation upon generation, but the racism and oppression that has been enacted in the name of Christ is often too much to reconcile. This is a large part of the reason why the growth of Orthodoxy among Afro-Americans is not as rapid as it could be; namely, because Orthodoxy is still unknown in this country, many Afro-Americans arent aware that there was a Church that did not participate in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and that did not promote the racism of the West.
My journey given here at the website for a parish I attended when I first became Orthodox (11 years ago). Here is the portion of the article discussing my journey. The link to the whole article is below.
For many years the crop of inquirers and catechumens of all ages came from more traditional Evangelical, Anglican and Charismatic backgrounds. Then one day Turbo Qualls, a young African American tattoo – artist (and now developing iconographer) showed up. His background included drug use, witchcraft and Magick before he became a Christian as an Evangelical. He had been leading a Monday night Bible study and discussion group at “Sid?s Tattoo Shop” in Anaheim, California with other young, disaffected, punk-rock counter-culture kids, turned off by the overtly materialistic American culture and looking for solid truth.
One of Turbo’s first encounters with Orthodox Christianity was the book “Youth Of the Apocalypse” published by Saint Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California (founded by Fr Seraphim Rose). It had been circulating around the southern California Christian punk rock scene he was part of. Once he read the book he discovered that some of the lyrics and ethos of the punk rock music scene had in fact been inspired by Orthodox Christianity, without being directly attributed to it.
Turbo was looking to find his place.
“I grew up often being the only “black guy? around, so I was hungry for “identity?.
The Christian punk scene provided that for awhile, but while the church I attended provided community, it did not really provide an „identity,?” Turbo explains. Through his reading and exploration Turbo discovered the Eastern Orthodox Church of “St Moses The Black”, the fourth-century Ethiopian Orthodox monk from Egypt. St Moses was formerly a suspected murderer and leader of a gang of fierce bandits, before hiding out at a monastery in Egypt and being drawn by the peace and tranquility he discovered there. Turbo visited St Barnabas and became a catechumen. Soon others like him, some only marginally Christian – some sporting dredlocks, tattoos, multi-colored hair, Mohawks, lip and nose piercings – began to show up with him. Like Turbo they were drawn by the reverence, the beauty and the depth of Orthodox Christianity.
When asked what impact Orthodox Christianity has made on his life, Turbo reflects before answering:
“Our family?s prayer and devotional life is now the center of our home life. That?s probably one of the biggest changes.” He continues: “I also realized I needed to be kind to my wife and be a truly “good? man; not just to maintain some Christian veneer, but real goodness, because I know I will be judged.”
4.) How does the dialogue between the Orthodox community of Black Americans and the historical orthodox churches looks like at this moment?
It is not as monolithic of a situation as one might think. There are countless Black denominations just like the rest of the Protestant world. There are pockets of communities that the Brotherhood of St.Moses are speaking with, but currently, I find that the greatest obstacle to impact-full dialogue is the lack of a unified Orthodox voice in America. If the Orthodox hierarchy were to denounce the heresies and atrocities that were committed and still unrepentanted of in the West, you would see a record movement of Afro-Americans coming to Orthodoxy.
5.) Could you say that the Orthodox community of Black Americans has a certain voice in the American society or if it will become stronger in the future?
Yes. Those of us who have had the doors of Orthodoxy opened to us understand the profound power that is hidden. This power is trans-formative and liberating; more importantly, it is the very validation of our refusal to deny Christ, even though society, history and other Black folk call us fools for being apart of what is wrongly considered a “white mans” religion. We understand why others think and say that; however,
we have tasted of the Cup of Immortality and know that there is no other place for us to go. (John 6:68)