Orthodox Abbess Katherine Weston Talks About Faith And Racial Reconciliation

By Jovan Tripkovic

August 8, 2023

Orthodox Abbess Katherine big image
Photo Credit: Mother Katherine at St. Xenia Monastic Community garden. (Photo courtesy of Mother Katherine)

Orthodox Christianity is often seen as an ethnocentric religion — reserved for Greeks and Russians. Few are aware of cultural and racial diversity within the Orthodox Church.

However, Orthodox Christianity is gradually gaining interest among diverse ethnic groups around the world, including African Americans. Mother Katherine Weston, for example, became Orthodox in the late 1980s.

She is an abbess of the St. Xenia Monastic Community in Indianapolis (where she has served as the superior since 1992), composer and psychotherapist. Weston is also the president of the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black, a nonprofit committed to training Orthodox Christians for the ministry of racial reconciliation.

For 30 years, the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black has led the way in promoting racial reconciliation within the Orthodox Church and sharing Orthodox Christianity with African American communities. Weston’s education, eclectic interests (including composing, iconography and writing) as well as her work in the field of racial reconciliation make her a leading authority in the Orthodox Church to talk about racial injustice, reconciliation and issues of African American community.

Weston spoke with Jovan Tripkovic, editorial fellow at ReligionUnplugged.com about her path to Orthodoxy, the organization she leads and racial reconciliation in the country. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jovan Tripkovic: You come from an Episcopalian family. Your father, M. Moran Weston II, was rector at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem (New York City) from 1957 to 1982, yet you found a path to Orthodox Christianity. You credit St. Mary of Egypt for your conversion to Orthodoxy and St. Nikolai Velimirovich of Zhicha for bringing you into the Serbian Orthodox Church. Could you tell us about your journey to faith?

Mother Katherine Weston: To give some context to my journey, let’s start with Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s discussion of faith in his famous book “God and Man.” There he describes how a person’s faith develops from its initial childhood form to a mature faith in God. The child’s faith begins with trust in the report of parents, teachers, pastors. In his own time, God allows the person to have a direct experience of him. That peak moment naturally fades, but the childhood faith is now transformed into a new certainty about God. This certainty is the basis of mature faith.

So my journey began with a child’s faith during my years at St. Philip’s. I stopped attending at age 14 — the collision of my mental development with my naïve faith brought to light some distorted concepts about God. Take, for example, the beautiful passage in John 17:24, where Christ prays that his followers may see his glory — at 14, I could only understand this, forgive me, as narcissism, as self-display. Only later, reading St. Seraphim of Sarov’s conversation with Motovilov, did I understand that in order to “see” his glory, we would participate in it.

For seven years, I did not believe in my old concepts of God; rather, I learned of him indirectly through nature. Then in my early 20s, I developed a hunger for what I had lost and began to seek him through prayer. At the same time, I felt suffocated by the materialism of the culture around me then. As a spiritual seeker, I was interested in anything that professed a reality beyond this gross material world. I discovered the writings of Russian spiritualists before encountering the Orthodox faith in its purity. My first brush with Orthodoxy was in 1974, through a married man, a spiritualist, who styled himself an Orthodox bishop. Through this encounter I came to love icons and Orthodox liturgical chant. Obviously the situation was not at all canonical, but I knew nothing of canonicity at the time. Thank God my intention to be chrismated (confirmed) by him was not blessed by providence, and plans fell through.

With the door to the Orthodox Church closed — or not yet opened to me — I joined a group of spiritual seekers and came full circle. We discovered Orthodox Christianity together in the 1980s, being introduced and catechized by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood in Northern California. There I was baptized on Lazarus Saturday, 1988, in the Mad River. That July I went back to New York for an icon workshop. While I was back home, I was tonsured into the small schema by my bishop. Over time there proved to be discouraging issues with this second bishop, also.

Twelve years had passed since my Mad River baptism. I was now the superior of the St. Xenia Monastic Community in Indianapolis and attending the Joy of All Who Sorrow parish a few blocks away. We were suddenly without the sacraments and desperate to find a canonical church home. At this point in my journey, I made a full inventory of my previous spiritual beliefs and consciously renounced all my past errors. This prepared me to be received, along with my abbess and the other monastic sisters, into the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2000.

That’s a synopsis of my winding journey to the Orthodox Church, but I see that I have neglected to mention the saints — Mary of Egypt and Nikolai Velimirovich. I understood their intercession through the eyes of faith years later. High on the walls of the nave at St. Philip’s where I grew up, there are some 16 carved stone corbels holding up the neo-Gothic wooden arches. Each one of them is carved into the head of a saint, one of them being St. Mary of Egypt. So, I believe that long before I knew of her existence, she was looking down upon us every Sunday through this carved icon, praying for our salvation. In my life, that led to the Orthodox faith.

Now regarding St. Nikolai — he visited St. Philip’s in 1921, speaking to an audience of about 1,500 African Americans, and received a standing ovation. During this visit to Harlem, he walked through the streets, giving candies, “bonboni,” to the children as blessings, as pastors might still do in Serbia today. And so naturally I believe that he was praying for the salvation of the local people. Even though I was born some 30 years later, I believe his holy prayers found me and guided me to the Serbian Church.

Tripkovic: What personally attracted you to Orthodoxy that you couldn’t find in the Episcopal Church? What aspects of the ancient faith do you think could be appealing to the broader African American community?

Weston: Well, as you can see, I didn’t move directly from the Episcopal Church to the Orthodox Church — but passed through years of unbelief followed by years of seeking. Two things kept me from returning to the church of my childhood. First, my father was a liberal theologian, the product of Union Theological Seminary and other social and political influences. It was confusing to me when he spoke of early biblical figures as myth — though not in the pulpit, but at home. If the church was thinking like the world, I didn’t want that. And for me, there was no greater Episcopal Church authority than my father.

Second, if I was going to come back to church, it needed to be sacramental, and it needed a religious experience that would embrace my entire life, not just an hour or two on Sunday morning. And I found this and more in the Orthodox faith. Every aspect of our lives revolves around faith. Faith even governs what we eat for breakfast — is the day of the week dedicated to the angels? St. John the Forerunner? The cross? On Wednesday and Friday, the days of the cross, we eat fasting foods for the sake of our Lord’s betrayal and crucifixion.

Regarding the appeal of the Orthodox faith to the Black or African American community, I believe there is a similar value placed on a faith that embraces our whole lives, and faith with expectations of us, with discipline — not a prosperity gospel but one that can sustain us in times of trouble. Our spiritual ancestors during our years of servitude were upheld by such a faith — not the distorted “gospel” preached for the prosperity of others but a living gospel that was sometimes imparted directly by the Holy Spirit. In the slave narratives, there are records of miraculous occurrences reminiscent of accounts in the early desert fathers and mothers.

I think the Orthodox Church also has an appeal because it has no history in the trade of African bodies or in African colonialism. It is a church which speaks of “suffering Christianity” and has solidarity with the martyrs. It survived for decades under communist regimes and for centuries under the heel of the Ottoman Empire. And so our church, with the authority borne of experience, teaches us how to become spiritually victorious through adversity — something we all desperately need in our world.

Tripkovic: Some critics say that Orthodox Christian churches, such as the Russian, Serbian or Greek, are ethnocentric and not welcoming. What is your response to that? Have you ever felt like an outsider within the Orthodox community?

Weston: I would say that every parish is a family with its own personality or ethos. Some are certainly more welcoming to strangers than others. But some parishes were actually founded by ethnic clubs — that is, Orthodox immigrants built clubhouses for mutual aid and support. Then at a certain point they realized they needed a place to worship together as well, so the clubs built churches and then had to find clergy. Knowing that history, it’s not really fair to accuse the churches of being ethnocentric, when the ethnic clubs are responsible for their very existence.

In addition, for most of the 20th century, many of the Orthodox churches in their respective homelands were oppressed by communism, leaving the immigrants here in survival mode. Since the fall of communism in the Orthodox homelands, communities here have been able to gradually come out of survival mode and adopt a more evangelistic mindset. So I believe that over the decades the inward-facing stance for many parishes has been changing.

Regarding my personal experience — as an African American Orthodox abbess, psychotherapist and composer I don’t fit neatly into any group. I’m always bridging worlds. But that, per se, does not make me feel like an outsider. There are moments, however, that feel awkward to me — usually when people begin to discuss politics during an agape meal. That may be my cue to find another seat. As both a representative of the church and as a psychotherapist, I avoid any political appearance that could limit my ability to minister to anyone who might need me.

Tripkovic: You are the president of the Fellowship of Saint Moses the Black, an organization dedicated to connecting ancient African Christianity with the African American experience. The organization has been active since the mid-1990s. What would you consider the greatest accomplishment of your organization, and what are your future aspirations?

Weston: At a time in the United States when many can only imagine a discussion of race to be an airing of grievance, the fellowship has found a way to tell a spiritual story. We honor spiritual ancestors who allowed the fiery furnace of servitude to forge them into saints and righteous ones. The Orthodox like to say that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. And see how spiritually fruitful the Orthodox homelands have been, built on the foundation of their martyrs’ confessions! Then in the United States, people look around and say we have no martyrs. But that’s not actually true — enslaved Christians here shed their blood here for the sake of prayer, for the sake of clinging to the sweet name of Jesus Christ. Perhaps they never heard of the Orthodox Church; perhaps they were baptized into one of the denominations, but they shed their blood for Christ. The Orthodox Church can’t formally glorify them, but we can still honor their feats, be inspired by them. We can recognize that we have unknowingly built our Orthodox churches here in the United States upon that spiritual bedrock.

Honoring the stories of the spiritual ancestors, the fellowship has hosted conferences and published books — “Foundations: 1994–1997,” “Jubilation: Cultures of Sacred Music” and “The Akathist to the Merciful Savior: Healer of the Wounds of American Slavery.” God willing, in 2024, we will reprint “Wade in the River: The Story of the African Christian Faith.” Our message of hope and reconciliation can be discovered anywhere there is internet access.

Last year and now, in this year of our 30th annual conference, we are expanding our focus to include the baptism of culture. We are not only saying that the church needs to develop more outreach to the Black community with the fullness of the sacramental gospel of Jesus Christ; we are saying that the Black community has gifts to offer back to the church. This is especially true in the area of music.

Tripkovic: Wherever the Orthodox Church is active, it tends to incorporate elements of local culture into its liturgical practices. What aspects of African American heritage do you believe should be included in the liturgical practice, and how?

Weston: Music is the most promising area because of all the arts that our African ancestors practiced — building, carving, textiles, painting … music, dance, storytelling — the last three most readily crossed the Atlantic and flourished here. But how does that meet with the needs of the church? For some time, foremost Orthodox musicians in America have been searching for sources of inspiration for authentic American Orthodox composition. Sacred Harp and African American spirituals have been suggested as the most promising sources. It is even said that the spirituals are the only music form original to the United States. So, long before the fellowship was aware of it, there was an openness in Orthodox music circles to liturgical compositions inspired by spirituals.

Interestingly, back in 2021, a panel discussion hosted by St. Vladimir Seminary Institute of Sacred Arts and Cappella Romana began to explore the theme of Orthodox music in the experience of African Americans. This panel discusses both spirituals and gospel music as sources of inspiration.

The fellowship’s new liturgical score, the Jubilee Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, is an example of liturgical music inspired by spirituals. The liturgy is set to premiere in Houston at our upcoming conference. We hope that this will serve a real evangelical need. The compositions of unnamed spiritual ancestors, spirituals have since been widely embraced by the broader culture. They are sung everywhere from children’s camps to Southern Baptist churches. And so we hope through Orthodox liturgical music inspired by African American hymnography to foster racial reconciliation and evangelical outreach.

Tripkovic: After years of your work on racial reconciliation with the Fellowship of Saint Moses the Black, what role do you think African saints could play in the upbringing of future generations of Orthodox Christians in America?

Weston: What role can the veneration of the African saints play? Knowing the church’s roots and history in Africa is important for countering the criticism that Christianity is “a White man’s religion.” And iconographers have a role to play in painting African saints to look like people of their actual background. Some African saints were in fact Greek, but many were native Africans. When parishes get that once-in-an-era opportunity to paint their iconostasis, or fresco their temples, hopefully they will include international saints. We need to see “all the flowers in God’s garden,” as Father Moses Berry’s mother used to express it. We need to remember that they will come from the East, the West, the North, and the South to sit in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29). Being constantly reminded of the wealth of cultures and regions represented in the kingdom of heaven will hopefully work to counteract narrow this-worldly mindedness.

This summer, a children’s publication called ByziKids dedicated its August issue to the African saints. On the cover we see an Orthodox boy venerating a large icon of St. Moses the Black. They asked me to do a short piece on the fellowship for the issue. This is how the veneration of African saints can help bring up future generations of Orthodox Christians.

Tripkovic: Last year, National Public Radio published a story about Orthodox Christianity and far-right American converts. As an African American, do you think the Orthodox Church is welcoming towards minorities?

Weston: Some important research went into that story, and it points to real trends. But these “far-right converts,” as you call them, need salvation through the fullness of the Orthodox church as much as you or I do. I don’t want a church of people who only look or think like me. Wouldn’t that be an idolatrous desire? Jesus Christ came to save sinners — in acknowledging ourselves as sinners, we have perfect equality. The church should remain open to everyone regardless of “race” or ideology. Hopefully, over time, some will realize how superficial ideology is in that it has no place in the future age. Hopefully they will grow deeper in the faith. So, to answer this question more specifically, I don’t think that by welcoming one kind of convert, the church becomes unwelcoming to other groups. But these trends also point to why the church needs the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black.

Sometimes a picture comes to my mind: Our Christ is hanging on the cross, his arms outspread to embrace the entire human race. One group is pulling on the right arm of the cross and another on the left arm, each wanting Christ for their own side. But their pulling stretches the crossbeam, increasing His torture. So then I wonder if perhaps the crossbeam isn’t his very love for those who hate each other. If we want to imitate Christ, we have to be willing to have our hearts wounded by loving people who don’t love us and who don’t love each other.

Tripkovic: Is the Orthodox Christian community in America well-informed about issues of racial injustice and reconciliation? Is this a topic that is often overlooked in Orthodox parishes across the country?

Weston: It’s the primary work of the church to teach us to love God and neighbor, and to heed Matthew 25:31–46. If the church does this, then its members will answer a call to various works and professions out of compassion for their neighbors. Some will provide medical assistance to the poor. Some will offer legal defense. Some will foster and adopt children. Some will feel called to work more directly for racial reconciliation. Many paths can bring God’s mercy to places of human injustice.

In response to the church’s primary work, some people will band together, as the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black has, in order to address these issues as a body. The fellowship has local study groups and chapters, and there is growing interest in founding new ones. Some local groups are parish-based, while others are regional. In addition, for the last few years we have run a virtual book study group that was able to include people who were not near a local chapter.

Tripkovic: What do you believe Orthodox Christianity can contribute to the process of racial reconciliation in America?

Weston: Much of our animus in this country is rooted in the existence of three competing “civil religions,” or three competing “denominations” of our American civil religion. The concept of civil religions is that they are quasi-religious narratives that citizens of nation-states live in, giving them an origin story and binding them together in a common cause. Since the 19th century, the U. S. has had three competing narratives and three competing “denominations” of its civil religion. One comes out of New England — think of the “city on a hill” and “manifest destiny.” One comes out of the early Southern states — this one supports the narratives of a landed gentry and the idea of the “happy slave.” The third one comes out of the African American community, in which slavery is seen as the “original sin” of this nation. The first prefers an authoritarian government to protect the values of the group. The second values individualism and hands-off government. And the third values the protective aspects of government. Do you see how these fissures still underlie our national divisions and compromise our attempts at bridging them? Political alignments may have shifted over time, but the fissures have stubbornly remained.

The church can help us see that our primary identity is as children of God and that our civil religion should be secondary to our biblical religion. The figure of Columbia, a virginal young woman in a flowing white gown, has long been the personification of the United States. We see her on coins; she was depicted on Civil War flags. Some see her in the Statue of Liberty as well. Knowing that the Theotokos is in fact the pure Virgin Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, we don’t need to fight over the narratives of Columbia’s purity versus the “original sin” of our nation. As Orthodox we know that there is no perfection in a fallen world—perfection only exists in God’s Kingdom. This nation is a project of imperfect people regardless of the slavery question. It’s no disrespect to our parents or forebears to say that; we are simply affirming the church’s teaching. As Orthodox, we know that even saints are sinners, so we don’t have to base our self-esteem, our self-concept, on a civil-religious myth of perfection. We can repent and every day try to do better, all the while knowing that we are beloved children of God.

Tripkovic: Some scholars claim that Orthodox Christianity is not compatible with modern concepts such as democracy or human rights. With that in mind, do you believe that the Orthodox Church in the country is adequately equipped to address issues of racial injustice, discrimination and reconciliation?

Weston: I’d like to begin with reference to the church fathers, who use the term “passions” to refer to our habitual sins. These passions operate much like addictions, using the modern terminology. In society’s fight against addiction, some are grappling with the root causes of addiction, and some are offering harm reduction — needle exchanges to prevent the spread of disease, or Narcan. So likewise, the church helps us battle sin at the root, in the human heart. Human rights, racial justice and such are necessary “harm reduction” in a world where sin is rampant. If everyone warred against the sin in their own hearts, there would be no need to struggle for rights and justice. So I don’t think it’s a question of the church being compatible with democracy or human rights. They are operating in different spheres. You could say that we need the “harm reduction” of human rights in hopes of surviving long enough to find salvation in the church.

Tripkovic: In the summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyd sparked protests and violence that spread across the country. How did Orthodox churches, such as the Antiochian, Greek and Serbian churches, respond? Did they play an active role in condemning the murder of George Floyd and addressing the issue of racial injustice in America?

Weston: In the summer of 2020, many in the church were trying to find their bearings and wanted help in understanding current events — and they turned to the fellowship for guidance. We were ready to offer a “profitable word” because we had been reflecting on and responding to the issues at hand for decades. In particular, the Antiochian and the Greek Archdioceses reached out to us and recorded various panel discussions and interviews. Deacon — now Father— Adam Lowell Roberts hosted the panels for the Antiochian Archdiocese. And Archdeacon John Chryssavgis hosted them for the Greek Archdiocese.

The Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops issued a statement on June 2nd of that year condemning the murder and other acts of violence, and calling people to prayer. This was not their first statement. After the Charlottesville mass murder in 2017, they had previously issued a very powerful statement in which they likened racism to phyletism (religious nationalism), which the church has long since condemned as a heresy.

Tripkovic: Archbishop Iakovos of America was among the first national religious leaders to actively participate in the civil rights movement. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965. Have Orthodox leaders in this country carried forward Archbishop Iakovos’ legacy of civil rights activism? What lessons from Archbishop Iakovos’ stance on racial injustice and reconciliation do you believe the Orthodox Church can draw upon for the future?

Weston: While His Eminence Archbishop Elpidoforos participated in a peaceful protest in New York in 2020, in general, I would say that Orthodox participation looks different now. For one thing, marching and civil disobedience, led primarily by Protestant ministers, are no longer the primary driver of the quest for justice and reconciliation as they were in the 1950s and ’60s. Now there are more activist ministries, and there are more Black, Hispanic and mixed-race people in the Orthodox Church. And so the fellowship has allies in Detroit, Kansas City and Pittsburgh who are interrupting violence and providing “trauma-informed care” in poor neighborhoods. And I’m confident that the Orthodox faithful are doing similar things in other communities that I’m not aware of.

Those are things happening on the ground level. In addition, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops is sponsoring a mental health initiative. This helps indirectly because it destigmatizes mental health struggles and it encourages pastors and parishes to become knowledgeable in “mental health first aid.” Since psychological distress is a consequence of violence, racial trauma and generational poverty, this can give us Orthodox faithful a better mindset and better tools as we engage with the communities around us.

A deep, personal commitment to human rights and justice was embodied by His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos. After all, he grew up as part of a disadvantaged minority in Turkey. That same level of commitment is seen today in Orthodox priests, deacons and laity. Their work is not just on the community level but also on the national level. For example, Eddie Bocanegra, an Orthodox violence interrupter from Chicago, has been appointed to a position as senior adviser for the Community Violence Intervention office at the U.S. Department of Justice. These activities are just as significant as the strategies of the civil rights era. A photograph seen ’round the world can galvanize people quickly. But everyday Orthodox people, inspired by their faith in Jesus Christ, are making a real difference behind the scenes. May God bless their labors!