What does it mean to be Antiochian?

Here is the second question of many newcomers to The Saint Constantine School, after learning that we are a ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese: “What does it mean to be Antiochian?” (Their first question is about Orthodoxy.) In the past, my answer was that Antiochians are the branch of the Orthodox Church in the US that was founded to serve Arabic-speaking immigrants. While this is true, I now see that it misses the point.

Personally I am a grateful product of a Pan-Orthodox spirit: attracted to the faith while studying Russian language and history; met my husband at a Georgian monastery; chrismated (converted) and married by a Serbian priest in the Orthodox Church in America; and had our children churched (received) at a Greek parish. In Houston, we started attending an Antiochian parish simply because it was the closest to our house to offer Orthodox services in English.

But now after almost three years at TSCS, I see that Antiochian is not just a particular flavor of Orthodoxy, and the school’s affiliation is not a result of chance. Our Antiochian heritage is a living source of the school’s impact.

The original Syrian city of Antioch (in modern day Turkey) was a crossroads of the ancient world. As we read in the New Testament, the Church in Antioch was one of the original centers of Christianity. St. Peter was its first Bishop, and St. Paul started his missionary journeys from there. In a sense, all followers of our Lord are Antiochian, because we “were first called Christians in Antioch.” (Acts 11:26)

As Metropolitan Joseph said on the day he took on the leadership of our Archdiocese, Antioch was always multi-ethnic and welcoming:

In our ancient great city, we lived for centuries with a great multi-cultural life. Roman, Greek, Arab, Aramaic / Syriac, and Islamic cultures lived side by side informing and supporting each other .… Antiochian Orthodox have held a Christian conscience embracing those who are different from us….. We bring this, our rich experience, to our lives here with all of the peoples of North America of whom we count ourselves a part.

Christians from the Middle East came to the new world and planted beautiful churches that now grace Houston and other towns and cities.

While founded as a ministry to Arabic-speakers, the Antiochian Archdiocese has opened its arms to other Americans, epitomized by the 1987 reception of some 2,000 Evangelicals. Among the various ethnicity-based Orthodox jurisdictions present in North America in the early twentieth century, our Archdiocese was a pioneer in the use of the English language in services.

Antioch’s welcoming spirit is also noticeable at the local level. Within my own parish, a web of baptismal and sponsorship ties relates us all, which is especially important for transplants like myself without extended family in Houston. Now getting connected with other Antiochian parishes through our school, I see that this phenomenon goes deeper.

A great example is Wednesday “Family Night” meetings held for prayer, teaching, and a meal together. At first I hesitated whether to go: my children are at college and my husband is often overseas, so my family would not be accompanying me. But the priest’s wife assured me, “No, of course you should come! The Church is the family!”

These are not just words. On a return visit to another Antiochian parish, I got an unexpected hug from the elderly Lebanese gentleman behind the candle stand. I joked, “Thank you! I feel like part of the family!” “You are!” was his earnest answer. My coworker invited me to her Palestinian-American family’s Pascha (Easter) dinner last spring, and this fall her mother asked if I would be coming for Thanksgiving?

I finally “got it” this year at Family Camp. (FAMP is a Houston-area weekend-long version of Camp Saint Raphael and Antiochian Village camp). For many attendees, the emphasis is on “Camp,” but for me it was on “Family.” At the worship services, everyone joined in: parents and children singing from memory, “O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance.…” A foretaste of Heaven—all together praising God eternally as one big family. One evening at camp, it seemed totally natural to be part of a large birthday party for the priest, celebrating with his parents, siblings, wife, and children.

At FAMP I looked around at the first, second, third and even fourth generations of Middle Eastern Christians who had served God in their home country, moved to the US, and brought their love for Church and family with them, multiplying into the ever expanding parishes we have today. I expressed amazed gratitude to one of the young adult volunteers – the same group that run so many of our parish and school events. “You never stop volunteering for the Church!” I said. He replied simply, “That is how we were raised. And that is how our parents were raised, and their parents before them.”

Our Antiochian Orthodox Church, I realized at last, is an outgrowth of these original families, who were so linked to the source of life (Christ) that they were able to replant and grow the vine in a new country, inviting other Americans to be grafted in. In the same way, our school sprang from the warmth of Orthodox priests, educators and donors, many of them converts like me who found a home in the Antiochian church family. Just as a new child is born out of the love of husband and wife, the Antiochian love for God and family overflowed and found expression in TSCS, which has welcomed more than one hundred fifty student and staff families from all backgrounds.

So let us say to all coming to The Saint Constantine School: “Welcome to the family!” You may not be Middle Eastern or Orthodox, but we can all be children of Antioch.