As many of the world's 250 million Orthodox celebrate Christmas today, Orthodoxy is beginning to reclaim its long, but nearly forgotten, heritage as a missionary faith.
While vastly outnumbered by Protestants and Catholics on the mission field, Orthodox missionaries from the United States serve from Guatemala to India. There is a thriving Orthodox mission in Indonesia. And Romania, itself the focus of Orthodox mission efforts, has sent missionaries to the Holy Land.
"There has been a definite resurgence in missions," said the Rev. John Chakos, pastor of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon and a board member of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center for 16 years.
The Rev. Martin Ritsi, 43, is now executive director of that center in St. Augustine, Fla., which is supported by all of the ethnic Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States. But two decades ago, after he renewed his faith and felt called to the mission field, his church didn't know where to send him.
"At the time there was no mission center. We weren't sending missionaries," Ritsi said. "But my wife and I had learned about places in the world where there was no clergy and no church around the corner. Our hearts were touched to go and offer ourselves where the need was great. That interest had been in our hearts forever.. I'm sure that God put it there."
In 1985 the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese started the mission center. In 1987 Ritsi became its second missionary. In 1994 the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas adopted it as a pan-Orthodox project. It has a modest $1 million annual budget. But during four years under Ritsi, full-time missionaries have more than tripled from six to 21 and the short-term volunteers from 50 to 150 per year. The goal is 100 full-time missionaries by 2010. By comparison, while there are generally believed to be just over 2 million Orthodox in the United States, the Assemblies of God with about 2.5 million members send 1,800 missionaries overseas.
Orthodoxy shares with Catholicism an early missionary history that includes St. Paul in Asia Minor and southern Europe and SS. Cyril and Methodius in Eastern Europe. The 15th century conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks stopped much of the missionary work, but Russia continued to send missionaries until the 20th century, when the communist revolution suppressed nearly all church activities.
"Our history is of spreading the gospel. We stopped because of political and physical circumstances. As soon as those lifted, we turned right back to it," Ritsi said. The goal of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center is to serve regions that are predominantly non-Christian. But the center has projects in predominantly Christian nations with severe needs, such as Honduras and Romania, Ritsi said.
Requests for missionaries often come from native people who have discovered Orthodoxy through study of early Christianity, Chakos said. It often has more appeal than Catholicism or Protestantism, because there was no association between Orthodoxy and modern colonialism in the Third World, he said.
Many of the regions they are called to are predominantly Muslim. Orthodox missionaries are taught to deal respectfully with Muslims and never to insult their faith. But if a Muslim is interested in learning about Christianity, the missionaries will offer them the gospel, Ritsi said. While serving in Albania, "one of my most moving events was to baptize over half of a Muslim village in a river," he said.
Ritsi believes Orthodox missionaries have an advantage in Muslim societies because both faiths were forged in Eastern culture. Both stress prayer at certain hours of the day, have similar blessings for passages of life, similar music and emphasize fasting. In Albania, "It was not so much of a leap for Muslim people to become Orthodox as it would be for them to adopt a western form of Christianity. They don't have to jump cultures," Ritsi said.
Albania had endured an extreme communism that tried to eradicate all faiths. The nation, which was once nearly 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Orthodox, emerged from the Cold War as the poorest in Europe and one of the poorest on Earth. Much of the nation had no electricity, and farmers didn't know how to organize their own work because the government had done it for them. Villages carried a memory of having been Orthodox or Muslim, but few people understood what that meant. Only four elderly priests remained alive.
To that nation came Archbishop Anastasios, viewed as a living saint by many Orthodox. He started humanitarian work to help all Albanians. And, with the aid of six missionaries, he began to rebuild the church.
When Ritsi arrived in 1992, he taught in a seminary. The first 30 students were recruited from historically Orthodox villages that wanted to have a church again. Six years later, 100 Albanian priests had completed the three-year program. As the Church of Albania developed its own priesthood, Ritsi's focus shifted to helping the church develop social services, particularly schools and clinics. He believes both spiritual and material miracles have been worked in Albania over the past decade.
Today most Albanian homes have heat, electric stoves and refrigerators -- in large part due to Albanians who left the country to work but send money home, he said. And while it is very difficult to get a current estimate, about 25 percent of Albanian citizens are now believed to be Orthodox. "Compared to what happened in other parts of the world during the first five years they were emerging from communism, it was a miracle," he said. "You look at the number of people who came into the church as converts, who were trained, who built churches. The growth in the church was phenomenal."
Requests for missionaries continue to come to the Orthodox Christian Mission Center from all over the world. One of the most recent was from Micronesia. "Knowing that I don't have 50 people to send hurts," Ritsi said. "I believe God is calling people, but many people don't realize it yet."
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Read this article on Ecclesia, the Orthodox Church of Greece, website.