“Ecumenism and Social Ministry/Outreach” by Fr. Michael Plekon

The Orthodox Peace Fellowshio has an online forum and this talk by Fr. Michael Plekon was sent to me a while back. Some of what is said may raise questions among Orthodox Christians who would consider it to be improper to engage in ecumenical ministry alongside non-Orthodox Christians. But the needs in this world are great, and in creating workable ministries this may, in some circumstances, be the only way to amass the necessary resources to meet the need. Love is the goal and one must assess the situation and make the best of it for the needs of others.

Margaret and I have continued with the evangelical Protestant Christian organization Friendship Community for this reason- we have forged relationships with four persons with developmental disability, relationships of trust that call for our fidelity.

Love calls for adjustments. Of course, worship is another matter- we must be true to who we are in Christ- Orthodox Christians. And then, as Orthodox Christians, we proceed to be servants to all. ***

Here is the text of a talk given by Fr Michael Plekon at conference
on the theme of Ecumenical Social Week / “Help Your Neighbor!”
held in the Ukrainian city of Lviv from June 9th to the 15th.
-Jim Forest
* * *

Ecumenism and social ministry/outreach:
some notes from America and the Orthodox Church

By Father Michael Plekon
(Sociology/Anthropology, Program in Religion and Culture, Baruch
College of the City University of New York; a priest of the Orthodox
Church in America)

“The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment
I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises,
nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked,
Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the
prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and
imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was
sick and in prison..'”(1)

There could be no more powerful or direct and clear statement of the
New Testament understanding of social ministry than these words of
St. Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945). She was committed not
only to protecting those whom the Nazis wanted to exterminate but
also to providing food, shelter, clothing and compassion to many left
homeless and jobless in the Great Depression in the 1930s. A
colleague of hers in the Russian emigration in Paris, Paul Evdokimov
(1900-1969), similarly worked in the Resistance during World War II,
protecting the targets of oppression and then afterwards, directing
hostels for immigrants and foreign students. Here is what he had to say
about Christian involvement in the world:

“The only true revolution will come from the Gospel, for here it is
God himself who will overtake us in order to bring about the Kingdom
and establish its justice. In the Book of Revelation, Christ is ‘the One
who is, who was and who is to come…’ But eschatology is a two-
edged sword. It is never enough to speak of the end of the world if this
means a kind of passivity or a theological obscurantism and
indifference to our world. The eschatology of the Bible and the Fathers
is explosive, demanding solutions in this earthly life in connection
with the Apocalypse and the deepest meaning of our present crisis is
that the visible judgment of God upon the world and the Church.”(2)

We, at this Ecumenical Social Week in Lviv, the first to be held in
Ukraine, ought to take away several important lessons from these two
“living icons,” true saints of our time.

1. In the words of my favorite Beatles’ song, we need to be reminded:
“All you need is love.” Now the temptation of course is that we think
that ALL we need to do is keep the rules of God and of the church,
that is, attend the services, keep the fasts, light candles, say our daily
prayers. But St. Maria and Paul Evdokimov, who understood that the
love of God requires the love of the neighbor, urge us to recognize that
the care for those who are in need is in fact orthodoxia, real worship.

Just as fascinating, though enigmatic, for us is the expression “liturgy
outside the church.” The church liturgy and the words spoken in it
give us the key for understanding this truth. We hear: “Let us love one
another, that with one mind we may confess . . .” And further on:
“Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for
all.” These “others” whom we love with one mind in the church also
work with us outside the church, rejoicing, suffering, living with us.
And those who are his and of him, offering unto him on behalf of all
and for all, are indeed “all,” that is, all are possible encounters on our
way, all are people sent to us by God. No, the walls of the church do
not separate some little flock from the rest of the world. Further, do
we not believe that the eucharistic sacrament offers up the Lamb of
God, the Body of Christ, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world? And,
being in communion with this sacrificial Body, we ourselves are
offered in sacrifice – “on behalf of all and for all.”

In this sense, the “liturgy outside the church” is our sacrificial ministry
in the church of the world, adorned with living icons of God, our
common ministry, an all-human sacrificial offering of love, the great
act of our divine-human union, the united prayerful breath of our
divine-human spirit. In this liturgical relationship with others, we are
in communion with God; we really become one flock and one
Shepherd, one body, of which the inalienable head is Christ.(3)

2. In Mother Maria’s and Paul Evdokimov’s houses of hospitality, no
one was asked their church affiliation — whether they were Orthodox
or Catholic or Protestant or even Christian.

The second important realization is an ecumenical one. We are ALL
children of God. God’s love is given to all of us, and of course, all of
us are sinner—as we pray just before receiving communion: “…of
sinners I am the first…” in the words of St. Paul. In America,
members of a Lutheran parish collect food and serve dinner at a
Catholic Worker center. Members of my own Orthodox parish do
likewise for an ecumenical soup kitchen/dining room open to all who
are hungry. After the hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans,
Orthodox but also Catholic and Protestant Christians, along with every
other faith community collected funds, went down even to volunteer to
care for survivors and rebuild the city. Throughout Manhattan,
volunteers of every religious background collect food from the finest
restaurants, then bring it to those too old or sick or poor to feed
themselves. On the sides of the trucks is the name of their group:
“God’s Love—we deliver.”

One Sunday morning, Anglican writer Sara Miles morning saw Christ
in the eucharistic bread and cup offered to her at St. Gregory of Nyssa
church in San Francisco. It was her moment “on the Damascus road,”
like St. Paul. Years later, she not only communes people at the liturgy
as a deacon but she feeds hundreds in a food distribution center
opened to any person who is hungry.(4) I am not saying that in
America we have the answer to everything. Far from it. We are racist,
prejudiced, stubborn. But we also have learned to respect each other,
to work and live together and I can think of no better hope for the
Christians of Ukraine—to let the walls that divide Greek Catholics
from the Orthodox and Protestant Christian fall down. The
commandment to love found in the 25th chapter of St Matthew’s
gospel or in the First Letter of St. John contains no requirements based
on church membership or ethnicity.

3. Christians need not be embarrassed, afraid to reach out in the name
of God. All Christians have to do is to be faithful to the God who
loves them, who is called so many times in the Divine Liturgy “The
Lover of humankind.” If anything, Christians then will find what binds
them in solidarity with those of other faith communities whether
Jewish or Islamic or whatever. Again, Mother Maria:

“Christ gave us two commandments: to love God and to love our
fellow man. Everything else, even the commandments contained in the
Beatitudes, is merely an elaboration of these two commandments,
which contain within themselves the totality of Christ’s “Good News.”
Furthermore, Christ’s earthly life is nothing other than the revelation
of the mystery of love of God and love of the neighbor. These are, in
sum, not only the true but the only measure of all things. And it is
remarkable that their truth is found only in the way they are linked
together. Love for man alone leads us into the blind alley of an anti-
Christian humanism, out of which the only exit is, at times, the
rejection of the individual human being and love toward him in the
name of all mankind. Love for God without love for man, however, is
condemned: “You hypocrite, how can you love God whom you have
not seen, if you hate your brother whom you have seen” (1 Jn 4.20).
Their linkage is not simply a combination of two great truths taken
from two spiritual worlds. Their linkage is the union of two parts of a
single whole. These two commandments are two aspects of a single
truth. Destroy either one of them and you destroy truth as a whole.”(5)

4. Last of all, we need to demand of other institutions in our society
that they become compassionate to those who suffer—those of the
government at every level, also schools, hospitals, and especially the
churches. American sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues
stressed this.(6)

Many admire American individualism and commitment to hard work
— the way to prosperity, the real “gold” with which the streets are
paved in America. Yet Bellah points out that we would have hell
rather than heaven on earth if it were only a pursuit of self-interest in
America. Rather, he says, there has always been a sense of
community—of concern for the neighbor, of generosity and sharing.

It can never be just what is good for me, but what is good for us all.
After World War II, the Marshall Plan was created not to dominate
Europe but to help rebuild hospitals, schools, homes and feed and heal
those hurt by war. So many philanthropic groups continue this work
today: Doctors without borders, Save the children, Habitat for
humanity, Care. Perhaps it is not too long until Ukrainians themselves
contribute to assistance of those in need, after having received such
help themselves.

* * *

1 Pravoslavnoe Delo (Orthodox Action, Paris, 1939, 30), cited by
Sergei Hackel, Pearl of Great Price, Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s
Seminary Press, 1981, 29-30, from Constantine Mochulsky,
“Monakhinia Mariia Skobtsova,” Tretii Chas, no. 1 (1946), 70-71.
Pravoslavnoe Delo (Orthodox Action, Paris, 1939, 30.

2 “The Church and Society,” In the World, Of the Church: A Paul
Evdokimov Reader, Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov, eds. &
trans., Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001, 73-4.

3 “The Mysticism of Human Communion,” in Mother Maria
Skobtsova :Essential Writings, Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2003, 79.

4 Sara Miles, Take this Bread, NY: Ballantine Books, 2007.

5 “Types of Religious Lives,” Essential Writings, 173-174.

6 Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American
Life, University of California Press, 1985, 1996.

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