OPF Report to North American Bishops

Here is the report I gave to the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) at their conference last summer. It was a good time to become acquainted with the hierarchs. They asked about our focus, noting we have a wide umbrella of concerns, whether or not we are political, and, if we were to send peacemaking teams into conflict area for practical assistance, how we would approach this in the long term. They also asked to be kept informed about our conferences and other initiatives. I said that we are encouraging local chapters by creating start-up kits and developing an organized support system and that our long-term goal is to provide more practical assistance in areas of division and conflict. I stressed that we are not political, though we work to be sensitive to issues involved our responses to issues that generate division and conflict. The bishops were encouraging. I look forward to reporting to them again.

Sheri San Chirico

Coordinator, OPF-North America

Your Eminence, Your Beatitude, your Eminences, and your Graces. I come before you as the North American coordinator of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God, also known as OPF. I bring greetings from our international secretary, Jim Forest, who lives in The Netherlands. Thank you for the opportunity to share with you who we are as a fellowship of Orthodox Christians, our projects for the last year, and our hopes for the coming year.

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship is an association of Orthodox Christians belonging to different nations and jurisdictions trying to live the peace of Christ in day-to-day life, including situations of division and conflict. We publish a quarterly journal, In Communion, maintain an online fellowship and discussion group of our members, and hold regular conferences and workshops. We also have local chapters, the most active of which is in Minneapolis, currently raising funds to open a house of hospitality.

Issues of In Communion often have a theme, and our most recent was on Peace- making in the Parish. Hopefully you all have picked up a copy from the display table. It included three articles entitled, “Parish Ethics and the Teaching of Jesus,” “When Taking Cover Is Not Enough,” and “Seeking the Peace From Above.” In Communion also often includes excerpts both from the news articles which are shared on our online fellowship and from the discussions that ensue.

In July 2005 we held our most recent conference at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York. Our theme was “Salt of the Earth, Light of the World,” and we brought together ministries from the eastern half of North America that were actively ministering to marginalized people. Joe May, Director of Matthew 25 House in Akron, Ohio, and Fr. Paisius Altschul, Director of Reconciliation Ministries in Kansas City, Missouri, were our main speakers, and the ministries provided workshops during the day that taught the participants both about the vision of their ministries as well as the nuts and bolts of how the ministry began and was conduct- ed on a day to day basis.

This past May, we held a peacemaking workshop at Matthew 25 House through which a small group learned from a long time peacemaker and member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams. He and his wife both travel yearly to Palestine and Iraq witnessing to the need for peace in violent and often dangerous situations. We learned techniques of peacemaking from him and spent much time sharing with each other about the foundations of peace in the Orthodox tradition, drawing on the Scriptures, the Fathers, and from wider Church history.

Peacemaking can mean many things. So let me briefly describe some of the peacemaking techniques that we learned. We learned how to befriend over time the very soldiers that were harassing Palestinians, and how to connect with an angry aggressor so that he or she will not attack. We discussed the need to face our own possible sacrifices in putting ourselves in areas of conflict, and how our Orthodox faith gives us examples of saints who have done so and theology that backs up this action.

We have stated in OPF that our three main tenants are theological research, publications, and practical assistance in areas of conflict. Our challenges ahead are mostly comprised of ways to increase the third area of practical assistance. As our members are spread across the continent and world, and many are committed to living simply, it is difficult to gather together due to the costs of travel. Our workshop in May was a first step in training our members in how to offer practical assistance. We learned ways to be a presence in violent areas without becoming a third party in the violence. We will continue to conduct training projects in order to increase availability to our members in the hopes that we will be ready to provide this practical assistance in areas of conflict. This is our long term goal.

OPF is also looking toward the continued development of local chapters in order to further our mission. In fact, the creation of local chapters represents a relatively new endeavor for OPF North America. We are now developing start-up kits to provide better support for members who are interested in starting their own local chapters. We hope that through these local chapters, projects will be initiated and will reach out to the marginalized people in their own community. Our goal is that these chapters and projects will be connected to the parishes to which the OPF members belong.

Finally, we are planning a conference in Portland, Oregon, where there is interest in beginning a local chapter, for spring 2007 with the theme “Living Peacefully, Locally.” I’ll finish by reading an excerpt from Fr. John Breck’s article, “Parish Ethics and the Teaching of Jesus,” in our last In Communion.

Unless our parish life reflects at its deepest level that most fundamental concern for love, then we cannot claim that our parish is truly “of the Church” at all. That love, however, needs to be directed to the inner life of the church community as much as to those who live beyond its walls. Within the parish dwell both the Publican and the Pharisee, both the Prodigal and the Older Son. Yet only God can judge the category into which any of us falls. It is never our place to attempt to do so. Parish life – communal life within the Body of Christ – is appropriately marked by an ongoing struggle on the part of each of its members to move from hypocrisy and sinfulness, to repentance and humility. Because we live in communion with one another, that movement or spiritual growth involves not only ourselves as isolated individuals. It involves us together as a living community, united in faith and love in the Name and in the Person of Jesus Christ. This most simple and basic truth has momentous implications for specific relationships, and the resolution of specific problems, within any parish setting.

I read this quote because it highlights that our fellowship is committed to peace not only on the big scale, concentrating mainly on war, but within each person, in the family, in the parish, in the nation, internationally, and in the environment. We are committed to seeing peace as our ongoing struggle to move from sinfulness and hypocrisy to repentance and humility, especially in how we interact with others in our families, parishes, nations, internationally, and in the environment. Thank you for the support you’ve given us over the last two years. Thank you also for the gracious reception you have given to my daughter Lucy over the past few days. It has been a joy to be with you. OPF looks forward to continuing our efforts with your blessing in the years ahead.

Sheri San Chirico is coordinator of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America.

In Communion number 44 / Winter 2007