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7.29.09 On Romanian Unity

From the Outside Looking In
by Ms. Valerie Yova, San Diego CA

Although I’ve never been to Romania, whenever someone asks me my ethnic identity, I’m always very proud to say “I’m Romanian!”  And then we inevitably get into a discussion of just HOW Romanian I am.  “Well, I’m full-blooded, or as full-blooded as any Romanian can be.  All four of my grandparents were born in Romania.”  On the other hand, my father’s skin tanned VERY darkly in the summertime, and I was way too at home singing the opera Carmen, so I suspect there might be some Gypsy or Turkish blood in there somewhere.   (…So much for being a purebred anything in this complicated world.)

I don’t speak the Romanian language.  I understood enough of it by my teen years so that my parents couldn’t use it anymore as their secret language at the dinner table.  If my life depended on it, I could make mamaliga, stuffed cabbage and scovers, but probably not my grandmother’s homemade sausage, noodles or colac.  I don’t eat Romanian cuisine that often anymore, but when I do, I enjoy the taste as well as the good memories, sense of identity and warm fuzzies it brings.

While it’s true that the Orthodox parish in which I was raised was the ethnic enclave that contributed most to my sociological formation and ethnic identity, it was the character, integrity, commitment and deep spirituality of the people in that community that was responsible for much of that formation, and not the food, language or connection to the Mother Land.  And I don’t mean only my grandmother, but also the many bunicas in the parish who I referred to as “Grandma so-and-so. “  I’m talking about that amazing group of people who fled Eastern Europe in the early 1900s for the promise of a better life and a democratic society; the ones who no sooner got settled here when the Great Depression hit; the ones who built hundreds of Orthodox parishes in this country; whose calling was to plant the Church here and whose ministry was to help each other survive.

My grandmother was not a formally educated woman, and yet she carried the Church within her heart.  She was spiritually “educated” enough to know that every second of life was a gift, every mouthful of food a blessing, and every action a prayer.  She was constantly whispering prayers under her breath: when she came into the house, when she went out of the house, when she got into a car, onto a bus, or into a train, when she started any task.  Her life was one long Psalm.  Her spirituality was organic, totally woven into the fabric of her life.  And she loved being in church.  It was the anchor for her spirituality, and it filled her with great joy all the way into her 89th year.  She wouldn’t think of missing an opportunity to be there, even when that meant being there in a wheelchair after the stroke that eventually took her life.

Grandma never regretted leaving Romania and she didn’t want to go back there, especially after Communism got a strangle hold on Eastern Europe.  While she may have come to America for a better life, she also sensed in her gut that the winds were changing in her country when she took that long boat ride to her new home.  She had already experienced political unrest as a child when her Transylvanian border village became part of Hungary for a time and she was forced to learn Hungarian.  In fact, the one condition she had for her marriage suitors when she was a teenager in Romania was that they be willing (and planning) to come to America.

Grandma was comfortable praying in Romanian, but she was MORE comfortable knowing that her grandchildren could hear the services in their own language —English — and she loved having them in church with her.  She did not demand that the Church make HER feel comfortable or cater to her needs.  Like St. Peter, St. Herman and St. Innocent, she got it.  She understood instinctively what it would take for Orthodoxy to take root here in America, and she did not resist this.

It was not the cognoscenti and the scholars who planted Orthodoxy here in America.  It was the dedicated, courageous, uneducated peasants like my grandparents who were willing to do whatever it took to have a place to worship, to learn, to gather without fear of persecution or punishment.  And it was their children who did their best to take things to the next level, to build upon their parents’ vision and hard work.  It was my parents’ generation that “eked” out of their already strained monthly budgets the financial contributions that paid the mortgages on the lovely suburban churches many of us are now enjoying for free.

As I have observed this debate about administrative reunification of the ROEA with the “Mother Church” of Romania, I have often wondered what my grandmother would say from her grave about this issue.  I’m pretty sure she would have a few choice words.  Perhaps something like: “Are they nuts? Why would they want to get back into bed with the devil?”  OK, it doesn’t translate very well, but you get the idea.  For grandma, the Church and the Romanian government would always be interconnected, no matter how many years had passed since the supposed collapse of Communism.   Is it paranoid, or perhaps realistic to think that ideals shaped by a Communist mindset and ways of “doing business” cannot evaporate in one generation, even within the Church?  Logic says that it’s unlikely.

Who am I to have the nerve to write an essay about this complicated issue?  Well, for starters, I grew up in the ROEA, I went to the Vatra camps, I taught music at the Vatra camps, I was on the national board of AROY and a very active member of my own local parish and AROY chapter.  I served as the Music Director at St. George ROMANIAN Cathedral in Detroit for 14 years from 1989-2003.  My father, Protodeacon Paul Yova, served his entire adult life in the ROEA, first as a choir director and chanter, National President of A.R.O.Y., Parish Council president and Building Committee Chairman in his parish, and then for 25 years in an active ministry as a deacon.  Although I am now serving as Music Director in an Antiochian Orthodox parish, I gave a huge amount of time, energy, sweat and heart to the Romanian Episcopate of America, as did my parents, grandparents and siblings.  My mother and many of my very dear friends are still members of the Episcopate.  Although I don’t have a right to vote on this issue, I certainly have a right to express my opinion about it.  In fact, anyone who has an opinion about it has a right to express it, because, well---this is America.  Remember?  Freedom of speech and all of that?

Here’s my point, if it’s not clear by now:  I love my Romanian heritage.  I love everything about it.  I’m grateful to have been born into the Orthodox Church by virtue of the fact that my grandparents were Romanian, but ultimately I had to separate my DNA from my spiritual choices.  I did not choose to be Romanian.  I did make a conscious choice when I was in my teen years to be Orthodox, and I feel blessed to be in a country where it has always been my choice.  Like many second and third generation Orthodox and thousands of converts, I feel no connection or loyalty to any “Mother Church.”  The Church in America is my Mother Church, just as it was my grandmother’s.

It’s easy for those who consider themselves scholars in Church history or ecclesiology to dismiss us “little people” who couldn’t possibly understand the intricacies of Church politics.  Well, try us. The fact that most of us who grew up in the Romanian Episcopate during its golden years still do not understand the potential benefits of reuniting with the Mother Church says a great deal.  I have talked to some very bright, well-educated individuals, including theologians both inside and outside the ROEA.  None of them can explain or even guess what the JDC (Joint Dialogue Commission) is thinking or how they could justify reunification as something good for their flock, much less ecclesiastically sound.

The fact that anyone who asks pointed questions is considered a traitor or at least made to feel “inappropriate” also says a great deal.  It sure looks like there’s a “flip-flop” in loyalties here.  Isn’t the JDC supposed to be representing the best interests of the ROEA/OCA?  If so, would they not welcome questions during a period of due-diligence and inquiry, and be eager to answer those questions?  For someone who used to be on the inside of the ROEA/OCA but is now looking at things from the outside in, it’s difficult to determine who is on which team.  And if you are naïve enough to think that there are not two teams, you must have already drunk the cool-aide.  There are some who are wondering if the members of the JDC have something to gain personally from reunification with the Romanian Church.  The promise of personal gain is certainly one logical explanation for clergy I thought I knew pretty well sending their hard-earned autocephaly down the river on a raft with their parishes tied to it.

While “trust us” seems to be the mantra of the JDC, I find no scriptural support for blind trust, except for trust in God, and even God allows those who love Him to question.  His own mother questioned His messenger, the Archangel Gabriel, about Jesus’ conception within her. If trust between God and humans can be earned, so much more so between us as humans, and it is based on past experience and behavior.  To ask an entire episcopate to trust the JDC and/or the Church of Romania blindly on such an important matter as this is unrealistic, unkind, un-pastoral, insulting and even “un-American.”  That kind of clericalism is the M.O. of days gone by, of churches tied to empires and governments, of a Church in which the parish priest was the only one with a formal education.

When I observe all of the time, energy and financial resources that have been spent thus far on this dialogue, and when I read and hear about the personal attacks and division that this dialogue has inspired, I don’t see the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  It’s not a judgment so much as an observation.  It seems like some tsunami-sized distraction—the devil’s way of keeping the clergy in the center of the storm from attending to their REAL work—the salvation of their flock; not to mention evangelizing to their neighbors, and ministering to the poor, sick, orphaned and widowed.

If the idea of reunification is the first of a number of chess moves in some grand and complicated game of ecclesiastical chess with its goal being to “buy back” real autocephaly, then why not just say so?  But the thing is, we don’t NEED to buy it back.  We already have it.  We just need to finally OWN it.

I do understand that unity in America would be much neater, cleaner and quicker if we could somehow undo the last 200 years of Church history, rewind the tape, and make the Ecumenical Patriarch and other patriarchs happy. But the life of the Church on this continent did not happen as they might wish, and we can’t rewrite history.  We can and must forgive, but we should not forget.  Personally, I’m in favor of trusting in God rather than “princes and sons of men,” and in going forward rather than backwards.  No matter how well intentioned it might be, the JDC’s proposal is a step backwards.  Instead, let us move forward with something more canonical: ask the Patriarch of Romania to release all of the parishes under his jurisdiction in the U.S. and Canada into the Romanian O.C.A. Episcopate!

Valerie Yova
St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church
San Diego, California

*This essay represents the views of the author only and not any group with which she may be associated.


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