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  • Black Orthodox "Visual Piety":People, Saints, and Icons in Pursuit of Reconciliation

African Americans regularly join Eastern Orthodox churches in the United States. By focusing on what practitioners do with Orthodox icons, this case study explores the processes through which specific experiences and expressions of being an Orthodox Christian become possible and meaningful for African American practitioners. This article suggests that saint veneration became a compelling Orthodox practice to practitioners because it provided a unique way to connect to the divine and to resist continuing racial discrimination in the United States. With the help of icons, African American men and women demonstrated that African people were saints, that African women contributed significantly to the history of Christianity, and that African Americans performed saintly acts. In this way, practitioners aimed to cultivate a reconciled Christian community where the full and equal membership of people of African descent is taken for granted. In following how Orthodox Christians put the materiality of their icons to work to deconstruct the assumption that whiteness is a universal default for religious experience, this article urges scholars of African American religions to make room for Eastern Orthodoxy as yet another tradition that supplies African Americans with creative tools to craft a compelling way of being a religious person.


African American history, visual culture, Orthodox Christianity, religion and race in America

[End Page 84]

[Orthodoxy] allows me genuinely, authentically be a part of something much bigger, which America, no matter how much we progress, will not allow me to really feel like a part, authentically.

fr. turbo qualls

The space pulled me in, before she even spoke. I talked with Halle,1 an African American2 woman and a member of an Orthodox Christian parish in North Carolina, in her brightly lit kitchen. Its walls were covered with photos of family members, art displaying women of African descent, and icons of African Orthodox saints. As we were talking over some tea and cookies, Halle shared the narrative of her conversion. In it, she flawlessly interwove her personal stories—her divorce, the death of her brother and mother, her son's embrace of Orthodox Christianity, and her decision to engage in "inner-city nursing work" in order to help those affected by racial discrimination—with stories concerning African American people as a community. She commented on the news detailing police profiling of and brutality toward young Black men, and she told me about her cousin's family that had "a cross burned on their yard. Can you believe that? In America. Right down the street from Princeton College."3 Halle's comments identified the persistence of racial discrimination in the United States, which she experienced individually and as a member of a Black community. Then, using religious tools, she spoke against racial prejudice. She told me that the common narrative about the African slaves brought to North America is that they needed to be Christianized: they had to be converted to a "proper" religion and thus be "civilized." She insisted that this was an incorrect understanding of history: many African slaves had been Orthodox Christians because the earliest apostles of the faith traveled from Jerusalem to Africa, instead of to Europe, as is commonly assumed. "In America," she noted, "there was a thought—I know when I was growing up, there was a thought that the slaves came over here as 'heathens,' and then they got 'Christianized,' but there was a lot of slaves that were Christian before they got on the boat." "In fact," she continued, "this one book I have, that the slave got this—this slave master got this slave, and he apparently was probably Orthodox Christian, because it was right in late 1600s, and so he wanted him to work. . . . They beat him, so the slave started praying for him. He kept saying, 'Stop praying. Why are you praying for me?' . . . That probably was an Orthodox Christian, because he was Christian before he even—when he first came."

By suggesting that Africans who were sold into slavery already practiced Christianity, Halle subverted the idea of racial hierarchy prevalent in the United States. Moreover, by insisting that people in Africa embraced Orthodox [End Page 85] Christianity, which she sees as a tradition that has remained unchanged in doctrine and practice from its origins, she was able to assert that people of African descent brought to North America the earliest and most authentic form of Christian tradition—in contrast to the white European settlers who adopted post-Reformation Protestantism. In her concluding remarks, Halle emphasized that Orthodoxy was not just a Christian tradition practiced by people in Africa hundreds of years ago but also part of her personal religious heritage: "Things that my grandmother told me about my grandfather, I haven't been able to prove this yet, but he could have been Orthodox, but I'm getting pieces. I'm still studying. And since I've been to Africa, I tried to find evidence and documents and stuff of my own personal family history, and if they were Orthodox."

Halle's narrative connected Black history to the genealogy of Orthodox Christianity. In her account, Black people were historically Orthodox, and they remain the carriers of a true, authentic Christianity. These two points helped Halle emphasize that people of African descent were on equal footing with white Christians. There was more to Halle's story, however. The icons, images, and photos in the room made these assertions clear too, though much more inconspicuously. These objects visualized and imprinted on the body that which Halle communicated verbally. In what follows, I demonstrate that African American Orthodox Christians used images that pictured African and African American women and men within the broader worldwide Christian community of saints in order to emphasize that while Orthodoxy was a common religiosity shared by all Christians and an ecumenical force uniting those from different backgrounds, its specific racial and ethnic iterations were not reducible one to the other. Blackness needed to be given room, affirmed, and celebrated in the expressions of Orthodox Christianity.

By insisting on both the transcendence and particularity of race simultaneously, practitioners aimed to expose whiteness as a parochial religious experience, not the universal ideal it was often assumed to be. African American Orthodox men and women put icons to work in order to undermine this assumption and to unravel white supremacy, which they understood to work on both conscious and subconscious levels. With the help of icons, they cultivated a reconciled Christian community, an alternative to an American society that continues to be racially prejudiced.4 It was not enough, practitioners insisted, that members of a Christian community proclaim racial equality and inclusion; they must see and sense it first. Icons could make this happen. The materiality of icons mattered: they could convince the mind by convincing the body. Icons could reach far into people's senses and affect their emotions. For this purpose, practitioners placed icons in their parishes, homes, cars, and workplaces. Icons cultivated [End Page 86] a taken-for-granted presence for people of African descent within a Christian community. Using images that demonstrated that African people were saints, that African women contributed significantly to the history of Christianity, and that African Americans engaged in saintly acts, practitioners aimed to move Christians in the United States toward a state where these facts would be assumed as a given reality. "Taken-for-granted presence" may seem like an oxymoron, demanding both visibility and unassumingness for people of African descent. However, for Orthodox men and women, only this seeming contradiction—demanding presence that will not be jarring, surprising, or dubious—could move Christian communities toward true racial equality and inclusivity. People of African descent had to take their rightful place—ideally, but first materially—within the broader worldwide Christian community of saintly figures.

When I tell my colleagues and friends outside of academia that I work on a project attending to the everyday religious lives of African Americans who convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the United States, I typically encounter a look of surprise followed by the question of why they convert. Scholars studying the experience of African Americans who join other Christian traditions are no strangers to that reaction. Matthew Cressler, in his insightful work on Black Catholics in the United States, talks about being repeatedly subjected to this response; he explains that it presumes a particular understanding of religion and an assumption that African Americans are somehow predisposed to or are more likely to adopt a particular type of religiosity.5 If we think of religion as including a culturally and socially learned set of latent dispositions that instigate action, instead of purely as a set of beliefs to which individual practitioners give conscious assent, Cressler suggests, we can avoid positioning Black Catholics as "an aberration" among people of African descent in the United States, who historically have often engaged the practices of evangelical Protestant traditions. Moreover, we can avoid positing African American religiosity as having a particular essence.6 Cressler, of course, is not alone in using the specifics of his work to make broader analytical claims about religion and African American religiosity.

Scholars of religion and material culture have long argued against reducing religion to a conscious assent to discursive propositions. Their approaches instead attend to the confluence of social factors, cultural micropractices, and everyday haphazard interactions in order to better understand how practitioners of Catholicism,7 Protestantism,8 and Orthodoxy,9 among others, learn to regard images as sacred and to develop their religious commitments. Scholars of African American religions and religions of the African diaspora [End Page 87] pushed back against attempts to essentialize Black religion by examining the context within which African American practitioners shaped their religious and racial identities with the help of such traditions and movements as Catholicism,10 the Nation of Islam,11 the Moorish Science Temple of America, the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement,12 Candomblé,13 and Lucumí,14 among others. Following these scholars' lead, I examine icon veneration as a social and cultural process through which specific experiences and expressions of being "Black and Orthodox" become meaningful for African Americans.15 By demonstrating that practitioners embraced Orthodox Christianity in the process of reaching out to the divine, finding a place within a community, and resisting racial discrimination—in other words, within the fabric of their everyday lives—I aim to de-exoticize conversion to Orthodoxy and cultivate a taken-forgranted presence for African American Orthodox Christians within the field of African American religious history. Icon veneration as a practice that answered these practitioner's multiple, interconnected, and historically specific concerns reveals Orthodoxy as yet another compelling way of being in the world for African Americans. It thus makes a clear distinction between religion, race, and politics untenable, and a proposition of innate Black religiosity properly impossible.16

To trace and understand the process through which Orthodox Christianity became a compelling form of religiosity for its practitioners, I employ David Morgan's term "visual piety," which he describes as "the set of practices, attitudes, and ideas invested in images that structure the experience of the sacred."17 By emphasizing dual activity—that of the practitioner who engages with images and that of the images that engage the practitioner—"visual piety cancels the dualistic separation of mind and matter, thought and behavior," and draws our attention to "the act of looking" as contributing "to religious formation and, indeed," constitutive of "a powerful practice of belief."18 Visual piety emphasizes that religious identities—including one's ability to embrace icons as sacred objects that connect one to an otherworldly reality or one's ability to discard them as useless idols—are not naturally given. Rather, they are produced and secured through the material, cultural, and social process of engaging with visual objects and "things."19

Black Orthodox visual piety helped Orthodox practitioners establish and maintain meaningful relationships with human, saintly, and divine members of a Christian community. It also provided a material technology through which to make people of African descent visible as major actors in the history of Christianity, as well as to resist the ideas of racial hierarchy prevalent in the [End Page 88] United States. The Orthodox Christian icon veneration became compelling to practitioners as a religious practice entangled with their Black identity, which had political consequences.20 In the following sections, I discuss the historical circumstances within which practitioners joined Orthodox churches and then demonstrate how, after familiarizing themselves with icons by engaging them in routine aspects of their everyday lives, practitioners put these sacred objects to work in order to cultivate a taken-for-granted presence of African saints and African women in the history of Christianity, African American saintly figures in the history of the United States, and saints of all races and ethnicities in the history of the global Christian community.

Strange Saints

Orthodox parishes of different ethnic affiliations have claimed a presence in the United States since the early nineteenth century. African Americans explored and expressed interest in Orthodox Christianity from the turn of the twentieth century. Oliver Herbel, in his study of converts to the Orthodox Church, notes that in 1907 Robert Josias Morgan, an immigrant from Jamaica, was baptized and ordained in the Orthodox Church as Fr. Raphael, becoming the first African American deacon and priest in the United States. Morgan actively sought to invite African Americans into the fold, as he considered Orthodox Christianity as "untainted, [and] even prior, to the racially segregated Christianity of the West."21 Shortly after Fr. Raphael's death, George Alexander McGuire founded the African Orthodox Church (AOC) in 1921. McGuire, like Morgan, sought to address racial discrimination in the United States with the help of the Orthodox tradition, but he did so by seeking autonomy for African Americans within the Orthodox Church organization.22 McGuire "decided that only in a denomination of blacks with a black administration would equality and spiritual freedom be attained. McGuire's search for black equality led him to Marcus Garvey and to Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey reinforced McGuire's notion of a black denomination."23 In his insightful ethnographic work on the Church of St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane, Nicholas Baham writes that the leadership of the AOC was continuously "looking for a means to deepen the roots and broaden the branches of the African Orthodox Church . . . looking for candidates for ordination and churches for fellowship," which resulted in the absorption of the church bearing the name of the great African American jazz musician into the fold.24 According to Baham, the transition was an easy feat because AOC's commitments easily dovetailed with those of the Coltrane [End Page 89] Church. The African Orthodox Church "has consistently maintained a social activist, self-help Garvey ideology that embraces the fundamental tenets of black liberation theology," and has mandated "African iconography and cultural representations of Jesus as African."25 The AOC canonized and made icons of such modern-day saints as Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, the church's founder Alexander McGuire, and John Coltrane.26 The members of AOC claim a century-old history of drawing on the material culture of the Orthodox Church in order to resist racial discrimination and to highlight the significance of Africa and people of African descent in the history of Christianity.

This article attends primarily to contemporary Orthodox practitioners who do not directly claim membership in the AOC. Practitioners I worked with have joined either Orthodox parishes of different ethnic affiliations or those that carried the title "Orthodox" without any ethnic or national qualifiers. These practitioners converted to Orthodox Christianity within the last three decades, roughly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The lessening of the travel restrictions after this time propelled a substantial wave of immigration from Russia, the post-Soviet republics, and Europe, which allowed Orthodoxy to gain even stronger visibility in the United States. The post-1991 immigrants built ethnic Orthodox churches to recover and pass on what they considered their traditional religion and culture to their children in the aftermath of the Soviet period. For these purposes, they drew heavily on Orthodox Christian material culture: parishes they helped build and decorate, icons they gifted to each other, and Orthodox crosses they purchased for themselves and their children. These activities were noticed by curious bystanders, who started to generate writings and commentaries on Eastern Orthodox Christianity in books, periodicals, blogs, and podcasts. African Americans were active participants in this process. While women created blogs on homeschooling and started a Facebook page for Black Orthodox Christians, men initiated the brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, opened their own Orthodox parishes, and organized an annual conference aimed at "linking ancient African Christianity and the African American experience."27

When I talk to other scholars about my work, I am often asked about the population of African American Orthodox Christians in the United States. African American practitioners themselves are also curious. Olivia, a practitioner, told me that she started the "Black Orthodox Christians" Facebook page partially because she wanted a platform for figuring out "how many there are." As far as I know, she never answered her own question to her satisfaction, nor can I provide any definitive numbers here. Some have speculated about the numbers. I, however, am more comfortable talking about the scope [End Page 90] of my ethnography. This project started, more or less without my intent, when I was writing my dissertation, which documented the experiences of Orthodox Christian women in the United States. African American women were among my interviewees, and they cultivated my interest in doing a second project pertaining to Orthodox Christianity and race. The findings in this article are based on research I conducted in three states—Texas, North Carolina, and Missouri—beginning in 2013. In each state I attended several parishes, among them Antiochian, American, Greek, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Russian, and those that simply claimed to be Orthodox. Three women—with the pseudonyms Olivia, Ella, and Halle—are at the center of this work. I have known them for years and spent a considerable amount of time with them, conducting several interviews with each. However, I also talked more informally with other women during "coffee hours" that took place after the Sunday liturgy. The presence of African Americans in the churches I visited was not dominant, but I usually found three or four female parishioners to interact with, which often led to meeting their spouses and male acquaintances, with whom I also spoke. I did more than talk and listen. In the parishes, I observed practitioners venerating icons, teaching their children to interact with holy objects, and praying. Many women I talked with made me aware of their presence online and referred me to the blogs of their friends and to other online platforms they frequented. There I saw images of family icon corners, videos of family prayer time, and recorded sermons. Because the practitioners often insisted that I visit the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black website and read the Brotherhood's published collection of conference presentations, I familiarized myself with these sources, which in turn encouraged me to visit the parishes of Fr. Moses Berry and Fr. Turbo Qualls, whom I also interviewed. Observing and talking with church officials, clergy, and laypeople, I aimed to capture a range of voices that interacted and produced religious meanings together.28

Even though conversions fostered by intermarriage between African Americans and European immigrants were not uncommon, it was more typical for practitioners to become curious about Orthodoxy after noticing an Orthodox parish when they were walking down the street, receiving a flyer advertising an iconography class, or being exposed to Orthodox Christianity through a blog, podcast, or conversation with a friend or relative. In short, African American converts often came to Orthodoxy haphazardly. For example, a relative referred Halle to Orthodox Christianity. She joined the Orthodox Church by converting from Pentecostalism, after considering becoming "Jewish, because I love Torah-reading and reading the scripture, and the rituals, and the seriousness, and history. Pentecostalism really was about 1906, which is [End Page 91] long compared to some religions, but it's not that long. But I like the idea of King David and Samuel and history and long history."29 Her conversion took place after she moved to North Carolina because of economic considerations. There, she followed her son's recommendation to explore the Orthodox Church because she "felt alone and . . . needed a community" at the time. Participating in Orthodox worship immediately "felt right," and Halle started learning more about the tradition: "My son was the only African American I knew [who] was Orthodox. . . . I didn't know any [other] Black Orthodox Christians, but I didn't care, I just knew it was right. It's kind of like you just know, you just know. I just knew. Normally, I'm a real evidence-based person, and I read some books, but I just knew." For Halle, going through the catechumenal process and becoming Orthodox "was the best decision of my life."

While Halle immediately knew that Orthodoxy was right for her, her experience was not typical. For many, becoming Orthodox was not an easy feat. For most men and women, it took time to make Orthodoxy feel right. The majority of these practitioners grew up attending Protestant churches. Over months and more often years of immersing themselves in Orthodox ritual life—participating in liturgy, engaging in daily prayer, venerating icons, and performing the sign of the cross—they became Orthodox Christians. Practitioners reported that at the beginning they found these Christian practices very strange. A former Baptist minister who now actively evangelizes to other African Americans about Orthodoxy noted: "I admit, my first visits to a Divine Liturgy were confusing. Greek words, no soul-stirring Gospel music, the sermon lasting about 10-minutes, I can't have communion, all the standing . . . no pews and a few chairs, bowing, crossing (prostrations during Lent), incense, Mary the Theowhat, and kiss the preacher's hand?"30 Despite this initial confusion, continuously attending services, he insisted, slowly shifted his dispositions and made him "love Liturgy" and appreciate the "beauty" of Orthodox worship. For converts, becoming Orthodox required familiarizing themselves with new theologies and cultivating new religious habits and dispositions through immersion in the ritual life of the church. Becoming Orthodox took practice and time.

Practitioners described their encounters with icons in similar terms. Women frequently told me that in the beginning, icons, despite being presented to them as "windows to heaven" and as sacred objects meant to provide access to the otherworldly reality, proved to be unfamiliar and strange. However, after they practiced venerating them—after repeatedly crossing themselves in front of the icons, kneeling in front of them, kissing them, looking in the eyes of the saints, praying in front of the icons—these women eventually found this engagement with the divine compelling. At home, these practitioners [End Page 92] did not simply interact with icons individually but also taught their children to venerate icons, guiding their bodies through appropriate motions. These women bought their sons and daughters icons they thought to be relatable: for boys, icons of warrior saints wielding swords, slaying dragons, and mounting horses; for girls, icons of the Theotokos with her child. During church services and as bedtime stories, these women told their children about the holy lives of the saints depicted in the icons. Olivia, a mother of four girls, notes: "We have icons at home, and the icon corner, and we pray with them. . . . They all have their own little icons, they put them in a window sill all the time, have them there. There is Mary, the saints and the angels. Mainly. Mary, the saints and the angels tend to be where we start. Each kid had God, and the angels, and the Mother of God, and their own saint."31

These women also discussed the special attributes of the saints with their relatives and friends, to whom they gifted icons. They also took icons to work. With the help of their icons, these practitioners prayed to the saints about the well-being of their children and relatives, and in this way established valuable, deeply felt relationships between heaven and earth.32 Ella, for example, noted: "I do keep an icon of St Catherine of Alexandria at my library. Sometimes just looking at her reminds me of why I am a librarian because it definitely is not the money. I have other icons that I keep to remind me of family members to pray for: St Euphrosynos for example because my grandfather was a chef and my grandmother was a cook."33 Saint Nektarios is also important for Ella because he had experience with cancer, and several of her family members—her mother, father, and stepmother—had encounters with the disease.34 Lastly, for Ella, the icon of Saint Elizabeth is really special because this saint helped her to forgive her husband, who had an affair and divorced her.35 Over time, venerating icons at the parish and engaging them as constant companions—who watched over these women as they did laundry, cleaned the house, prepared meals, and homeschooled their children—helped African American practitioners find this mode of Orthodox worship compelling.36 The strange became familiar. The icons started to feel right.

African Saints

Icons became a compelling form of worship not only because they pulled Orthodox men and women into meaningful relationships with their relatives and the human and saintly members of the larger Christian community. Icon veneration became meaningful because it allowed for recrafting Black identity. [End Page 93] Visualizing Black saints in icons helped tell a story about Africa as a land of the saints and people of African descent as central figures in Christian life and history. Fr. Jerome Sanderson notes: "The central role played by Africa and Africans in the formation of the Church has not been taught to most African-American Christians. By introducing them to Africa's influence in the early Church, we introduce them to the rich history of saints, holy and righteous ones who adorned it."37 "By acquainting them with the truth of Christian history," he continues, "we arm them against an onslaught of deceit, misinformation and ignorance. We link them to the early Church through their forefathers."38 Michael Redmond, another practitioner, emphasizes this praiseworthy genealogy when he notes: "Spiritual life is being passed on. From Jesus to the Apostles to African Church to me and now to my sons. I have found the faith of my fathers. I have found the faith for my sons. May we all be given strength to keep it and the courage to pass it on to others."39 Fr. Jerome, Michael, and the African American practitioners I interacted with used Orthodox Christianity to create historically specific "religio-racial" identities that linked an "understanding [of] black people's true racial history and identity" to "their correct and divinely ordained religious orientation," to use Judith Weisenfeld's interpretive frame.40 For these practitioners, realizing their racial identity required a return to Orthodox Christianity, a tradition of their ancestors, a Christianity that valued people of African descent and told a story of their religious flourishing.

Icons played a role in telling this story. They presented themselves as a useful material and visual medium through which to position people of African descent at the center of religious history and to respond to systemic racism in the United States. One of the practitioners, John, states:

Being an Orthodox Christian, I see myself as transcending America's ignorant defining wall of race and embracing the ancient sense of being both black and Christian. In my icon corner, I have Cyprian of Carthage, Moses the Ethiopian, John the Dwarf and other heralded saints of Africa. As well, I have a dark skinned Theotokos. . . . The pale skinned Christ Pantocrator at the top of my corner is the 6th century icon from Africa's Sinai Peninsula. But, there is an Ethiopian icon of the Nativity beside it. I reject the American tradition of iconoclasm as it lends itself to white supremacy.41

Placing icons of African saints in their icon corners (see figure 1) emphasized that people of African descent lived exemplary lives of asceticism and prayer and contributed significantly to the shaping of the Christian tradition. Orthodoxy allows "for us to open our hearts and minds to learn about and [End Page 94] celebrate our African-Christian heroes," John notes. "Had there been no St Anthony [of Egypt], . . . the rich prayer tradition of Orthodox and Catholic monks and nuns would not have developed in such meaningful ways." John also emphasizes that Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria was a "black man who gave the church its first creed, boldly stood against the greatest heresy of his time . . . and made a list of 27 books that would be canonized as the most important collection of scriptures to Christians." "The 'Desert Fathers' of Africa," he concludes, "should and must be a part of who we African-American Christians honor during Black History Month as without them, we (and the world) might not be here and not have a true idea of who Jesus Christ is." The Orthodox practice of icon veneration allowed these practitioners, in the words of Judith Weisenfeld, to endow Blackness "with meaning derived from histories other than those of enslavement and oppression."42

Figure 1. John's Home Icon Corner. Image from The Modern Monastic Order of Saint Simon of Syrene. <br/><br/>Copyright by John Gresham; reproduced with permission.
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Figure 1.

John's Home Icon Corner. Image from The Modern Monastic Order of Saint Simon of Syrene.

Copyright by John Gresham; reproduced with permission.

Practitioners were committed to recovering Blackness by recovering this particular history. Halle commented that the desire to have access to true African American history drove her to attend the annual conference, "Linking Ancient African Christianity and the African American Experience," organized by the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black. At one of the meetings Halle attended, "they had a researcher there, and the researcher would find different African saints and find more information, discover it, which takes a lot of work."43 This researcher presented such information about "Maurice, he's an African saint that was part of the Roman army in Switzerland, and it took [End Page 95] a while to uncover his role and all, because the town of St. Moritz, a lot of people don't know that was named after an African. It's not something you would think about somebody in Switzerland." This researcher "bought all the documents, and he did a lot of research to find out why he was named that. He was a soldier, and, I guess, they were real brave. He was Orthodox, but he was also extremely brave when they were attacking. . . . I can't remember now the details, but I know I have some papers on it." Actively learning about African saints, practitioners like Halle collected stories that highlighted achievements and contributions of African people to the Christian tradition.

This type of learning was done for both personal and communal benefit. Practitioners made the information they learned public. Halle told me that sometimes she makes trips to a museum to give small public talks about Saint Catherine. "Because she's from Alexandria, and if you know anything about [the people in] Alexandria, they're dark, they live in that part of the country," she told me. However, "in the museum, they have her with blond hair. This is just a black and white of it, but they have her having blond hair, so she looks like she's from Norway." Halle told me that she had made a poster that depicts an Orthodox icon of this African saint so that she can "point out how there's a lot of pictures that are Black people, but they painted them white. There's a lot of people. . . . There's a lot of stuff in history that they change the person's race." Icons depicting Black saints, then, helped practitioners like Halle to challenge publicly what they saw as the erasure and displacement of people of African descent from religious history.

Fr. Moses Berry, in a similar vein, lamented the scarcity of narratives and visual representations of people of African descent in the history of the Christian tradition. Both narrative and visual representation are necessary for African American men and women to cultivate an authentic religious identity and to secure true equality and inclusivity within the Christian community, according to Berry. He noted that his first visit to an Orthodox church in Virginia, where he saw an icon of Saint Moses of Egypt for the first time, was instrumental in his conversion. Berry said that right next to the icon "of Jesus there was an icon of St. Moses. . . . When I was a boy, my mother said, I asked my mother, 'Why there were so many different races of people.' She said, 'Oh, that's easy, we were all flowers in God's garden. Some of us are daisies. Some of us are petunias. Some of us are roses and some of us are crabgrass.' That was a nice answer for a child. It wasn't nearly enough for an adult."44 After spending "much of my life trying to find out where those flowers in God's garden were that looked like me," he finally found them: "When I saw those icons, it seemed to me as though they were saying, 'We are the flowers in God's garden you were looking for.'" However, "I still didn't believe," Berry insisted. "I told the priest, I said, 'What is this, some sort of a statement that you try to attract Black [End Page 96] people to your church?' He said, 'No,' he said, 'traditional icons. Prototypes from seventh-century Christianity.' I went, 'Oh, okay.' . . . He said, 'The church is universal and has saints of all kinds.' I didn't know that." For Berry, icons of the African saints were significant not simply because they encouraged his conversion; they were also important "not in the spiritual sense, but in a high secular sense, because unless you think that—unless you know that sanctity is possible in your flesh, your flesh, sometimes it's hard to see yourself being sanctified." "If we are included in the bunch," Berry concluded, "it makes a difference." For Berry, icons of African saints were indispensable because they worked as a technology for cultivating a proper religious identity and had the power to move Christians toward a truly inclusive community.

Material Saints

The materiality of the icons was crucial for achieving these goals. Icons were not just texts that told a story about people of African descent. Icons shaped the possibilities of being and the attitudes toward such persons. Fr. Jerome Sanderson notes: "In the West, Christians of African descent have been deprived of the rich treasury of saintly lives that could inspire them. They need holy images, heroes and models that they can identify with. [They need] to know that some of the saints were black or African and were revered for centuries by the Christian world."45 The lives of African saints, Sanderson continues, can be a source of "great inspiration and a wonderful revelation" to youths continuously confronted with visuality to which they cannot relate: "[Looking at] the European images of Christ and Christianity in literature, art and movies, it becomes quite apparent that Jesus, the saints and even the angels seemed to be Caucasians. As a teenager, I saw the movie King of Kings. Not only was Jesus blond with piercing blue eyes but there was no one in the whole movie with so much as a good tan!"46 Sanderson states that in and of itself it is not wrong for different nationalities "to portray Christ and the saints according to their own traditions. . . . [H]owever, European images of Scriptural scenes predominate in the West" and thus cement the problematic "assumption . . . that they are historically valid. Therefore, Christ was white, as were the pharaohs, the Egyptians, the prophets and all the people in Jerusalem."47 Seeing African saints was necessary to inspire pride in Black identity and to secure an accurate representation of human experience throughout history.

Black Orthodox visual piety, then, did not just point to Africa as a geographic location and Blackness as a racial designator. It also involved a critique of whiteness. It named whiteness as a parochial and not a universal ideal and exposed its unspoken claims to social dominance and privilege in the United [End Page 97] States. Bryan Massingale, an African American Catholic theologian, notes that in the United States: "'White' denotes a frame of reference that is unquestioned. It is unquestioned because it is invisible and unnamed. It is unquestioned and invisible because it is the norm by and against which all other frames of reference (that is, cultures) are measured. . . . For white Americans, whiteness is 'reality.'"48 This tendency to assume that whiteness is a universal experience to which every person can return by stripping off their racial and ethnic particularity was discernable in some of my conversations with white clergy. One Orthodox priest, whom I asked about the importance of including images of African saints in the worship space of his parish, told me: "It's not a question that we've given much thought to actually."49 He noted that he was aware that "Moses the Black is an icon that is very popular among" African American, Ethiopian, and Eritrean congregants, and he emphasized that it "would be a very appropriate icon to put up," as "he's a tremendous saint and some of the things that he said and did were just beautiful." Including the icon of Dormition in the sanctuary, he noted, could also provide an opportunity for a broader visual representation of racial and ethnic diversity within the early Christian community, as "the Dormition icon has a lot of characters in it, and . . . that would've been a place to put [a person of African descent] appropriately." These comments acknowledge that people of African descent were present and performed saintly and praiseworthy acts within the historical trajectory of Christianity. However, after mentioning the icons, the priest also cautioned:

But another thing . . . that I try to make a big point out of, is that I don't want ethnicity in this church. In other words, we want to be inclusive of all ethnic groups. If we're going to have any ethos, it'll be an American ethos, not Eritrean or Romanian or Russian or Greek or whatever. . . . We respect our backgrounds and we use them at home and we might use them in a party or even in the parish hall for the coffee hour at times, but we're not going to put them in the worship service because that would exclude, it would disenfranchise those of a different ethnic group than the one that's being emphasized.

To help clarify his point, he drew on a food simile, explaining that people coming from different ethnic backgrounds "have some very distinctively flavored . . . dishes and not everybody would be really attracted to those." People who prepared them may feel excluded and offended if they brought them for communal consumption and no one else was interested, he explained. However, he continued, "if everybody is being fed pork barbecue or brisket or hotdogs or hamburgers—everybody likes those, or pizza, so nobody's going to be really that hurt." Here, the praiseworthy goal of achieving equality and securing inclusion worked [End Page 98] with a problematic assumption that public performance of religion can be limited to the universal American ethos, which ostensibly transcends racial and ethnic particularity. African American practitioners wished to unsettle this assumption.

When John, in the statement I quoted earlier, said that the American tradition of iconoclasm lends itself to white supremacy, he meant to challenge this very assumption of universality and to propose an alternative model for Christian inclusivity. In his view, icons had the power to use visual representation to name whiteness as a parochial, nonnormative, and nonuniversal value. Icons of Black African saints challenged whiteness as the only proper default for religious experience. Iconoclasm, for John, was dangerous because it negated the possibility of this very challenge. This challenge was twofold.

First, African Americans needed to see African saints in order to actualize themselves as saintly persons. One of the practitioners described how crucial seeing Black saints was for his identity formation. "Although I have appreciated the love the white brothers and sisters have given me, for a Black man to receive the faith from Black fathers is very powerful. In this way, I have come into Orthodoxy," Michael notes. "So many things have been answered for me—the Blackness, my Blackness, is finally being shown to me. Even though I always knew it was there, I never knew how it connected. Finally, somebody is not denying the fact that we exist, that we are part of God's family and purpose, and I needed that."50 "When I come into the church, and I see the icons," he concluded, "I no longer see this white-skinned, blue-eyed Jesus that I grew up seeing. . . . Then, to read about all the different saints and get the whole story and receive the tradition from the time of the Apostles has been powerful!"51 The abstract ideal, for Michael, became reality only after it had "been shown." Seeing was believing.

To see by way of having access to proper materiality was central for the formation of a cohesive self, practitioners insisted. Fr. Turbo Qualls noted that many ethnic Orthodox churches, including white churches, take it for granted—or have "that kind of subconsciousness"—that their ethnically and racially particular materiality is representative of or useful for everyone's practice.52 "Even though for you it may lead you into this kind of deeper place of reverence," he notes, "for a lot of people [who do not look like the icons that are being venerated] it's very alienating." He notes that because iconographic and other material forms of Orthodox tradition are important for the formation of the spiritual self, it is essential that one ethnically or racially particular variation of materiality not be substituted for another:

Tradition is actually very important to me because not only have I kind of like distilled that from my studying and my life, but really I've experienced that how tradition, not just again, there are these [End Page 99] dichotomies, it isn't just the material expression of a tradition, it's that that material expression of that tradition, it actually impresses and it serves me on a spiritual level because again, it acts as a preservative. Tradition helps to make people aware of their citizenship.

Fr. Turbo resists setting a dichotomy between material and spiritual, or between Orthodox tradition and African diasporic and African American traditions. One always already informs the other. If African Americans had to worship in a Russian parish, with icons only of Russian saints, "I think that it causes some kind of distortions for people because now they're fighting against themselves to some degree," he suggested. One needs to have space to integrate one's Black and Orthodox identities and the material resources to do so. "Nobody wants to feel disordered and chaotic within them. That's where anxiety comes from. And the world is in such an anxious place. [But] when you come into the church the order and the peace of God becomes palpable." His parish contains Russian, Georgian, Greek, and Ethiopian icons as well as icons of African saints Fr. Turbo has painted personally. For him, this is "a more honest and accurate reflection of America," which contains a "plurality of cultures." In this setting he, and other African Americans, can sense "the order and the peace of God" and feel "integrated" as a person and a member of a Christian community. Within the walls of the parish that celebrates African and African American heritage, African Americans can be "themselves": Black and Orthodox. It is in this way that Orthodoxy "allows me genuinely, authentically be a part of something much bigger, which America, no matter how much we progress, will not allow me to really feel like a part, authentically," Fr. Turbo concluded.

Second, white Americans needed to see African saints in order to think of and treat Black people as capable of saintly actions. The icons of Black saints that occupied the same space as white Christian characters offered themselves as a potentiality for rehabituating the sensibilities that lead to unconscious racial discrimination. Massingale notes that if we define culture as containing not only the conscious meanings but also the preconscious feelings, sensibilities, and dispositions that attach themselves to symbols and shape human action, we can understand racial discrimination as expanding beyond premeditated acts of violence toward people of color to include subconscious attitudes that lead to the social disadvantaging of these people.53 For instance, a person who "has never known a black doctor or lawyer" may unconsciously form and internalize an opinion that "blacks as a group are naturally inclined toward certain behavior and unfit for certain roles."54 The materiality of icons, then, contains the potential to stifle these problematic attitudes by cultivating different ones. The icons [End Page 100] of Black African saints force everyone to recognize, to borrow the words of Fr. Moses Berry, that sanctity is possible in Black flesh. In disturbing and reforming the sensory familiarity of white culture, the icons of Black saints cultivate a system of values other than what is possible now. Icons work toward producing a community where the sainthood of people of African descent is assumed and sensed as a given. In The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, Edward Blum and Paul Harvey note: "White Protestants disconnected language from image and in so doing presented themselves as colorblind individualists who believed in universal rights and a universal Jesus (and hence in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr.). But they retained and even continued to create visual imagery that associated Jesus with whiteness."55 Blum and Harvey critique this historical development by declaring that "civil rights, cultural pluralism, and greater engagement with the world of racial diversity led these whites to change verbally but not materially. The result was that the white Jesus and white privilege were denounced by everyone, but they remained as still-powerful material realities."56 The icons of African saints demand and offer themselves as material for creating an alternative reality. They aim to reform not just the intellectual commitments that lead to racism but also the discriminatory feelings, dispositions, and attitudes grounded in the body and existing below the level of consciousness.

Voicing the need for this alternative reality, icons of Black saints call for deconstructing the myth of immaterial and disembodied whiteness. Throughout time, in historically specific ways, African and African American religiosity has been essentialized and posited as more primitive, naive, and material, and as closer to nature than that of whites.57 Over against Africans and African Americans, white religious practitioners constructed their own image as rational actors who are in control of their emotions and have moved beyond fetishistic expressions of religiosity and incorrect understandings of materiality.58 These tendencies persist even into the present moment in the well-meaning comments and attitudes of white Americans that posit African Americans as inherently possessing "warmth" and "faith." "There's a warmth, there's a faith, there's an enthusiasm, there's an energy, there's a concern for me immediately that they express, and you don't always see that with say, . . . [my] northern European friends or contacts that I have," one of my interlocutors noted.59 Scholars have critiqued these essentializing constructions by exposing them as part and parcel of white identity-making and supremacy.60 Sylvester Johnson, for example, explains that Marx was able to critique Europeans for suggesting that Africans falsely attributed "causation, genius, and agency to sticks and stones, or to any other 'trifling' they may come across—that is, to fetishes," while at the same time failing to recognize their own entrapment "within a fetishistic worldview" [End Page 101] that presumed an "exchange value in things" instead of recognizing "labor" and "social relations" in "the exchange of things" as the true "source of material value."61

Marx's analytical category of fetish is productive for thinking about icons as capable of challenging false assumptions. A fetish, for Marx, was an object to which power or agency was wrongfully assigned.62 As Johnson's comments demonstrate, "commodity fetish" allowed Marx to question white Europeans' false supposition that there is an inherent value in things. Icons expose a different falsehood: that embodied, material, sensorial interactions with things are not a requisite for establishing the value of whiteness. Icons expose whiteness as a fetish by exposing its assumed reality as a construct. By producing images such as Warner Sallman's Head of Christ and Heinrich Hofmann's Christ in Gethsemane that were virtually omnipresent in Protestant homes during the twentieth century, white Americans materialized whiteness as a desirable and default standard of religious experience, even as they continuously denied the material power of religious imagery.63 In historically specific ways, materiality has been used to establish the embodied sense of white normativity and superiority. Blum and Harvey note that white American Protestants' pictures of Jesus created "an often unspoken belief that Jesus was white. This made Christ's whiteness a psychological certainty. It could be felt without thought and presumed without proof. To imagine Jesus as other-than-white would demand a conscious process of unlearning."64 Icons displaying Black bodies of saints expose the fetish of immaterial white Jesus. They reveal the "certainty" of "Christ's whiteness" as a material production. Icons insist that the religiosity of every person, regardless of how that person can be categorized racially, is fundamentally material, as it requires habitual, embodied knowledge learned through engagement with visual objects and, therefore, cannot be devoid of bodily "warmth," "faith," "enthusiasm," and "energy." Historically, those with the most resources created, published, and distributed images of Christian heroes that resembled their own image. They disseminated those images to Sunday schools, to museums, and on the streets to cultivate in children and in the public ways of knowing that denied their own specificity and materiality.65

With the help of Orthodox Christianity, a tradition that has historically authorized an active engagement with visual and material objects, and developments in technology—which made reproduction of icons relatively inexpensive—practitioners could use a simple print of Saint Catherine, Saint Moses, and Saint Maurice, among other saints, to challenge this type of knowledge. While the practitioners I worked with painted their own icons and purchased hand-written images, they also often printed icons available on the [End Page 102] Internet for personal use. From parishes and homes, icons made it into public space. As noted earlier, Ella took her icon to work. Icons also appeared on dashboards of cars. Practitioners included images of their home icon corners in their blogs, suffusing the space of the Internet with images of saints. One of the practitioners, for a time, was using an icon of a Black woman saint—Saint Catherine—as her e-mail profile photo. With time, practitioners hoped their icons would stop being a cause for a surprise and would make others relearn how they imagined, knew, and interacted with people of African descent.66 Orthodoxy gave practitioners active tools to put forth this materiality, and thus to challenge visual representations of white piety. This challenge differed in mode, if not in objective, from those Protestant spaces that did embrace images of Black Jesus and saints. However, unlike a glass window of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that told its own "saga of race in America" to the passersby, icons were easily made, and more mobile.67 With a push or a click of a button, icons gained agency to greet, speak to, surprise, and delight unsuspecting viewers in advertisements and Internet links, and when they showed up in offices, vehicles, and e-mail inboxes.

Women Saints

Even though African American women sought to address racial discrimination through their engagement with icons in a fashion similar to that of African American men, they more consistently referred to both male and female African saints in their discourse and included male and female saints in their icon corners. That is not to say that there were no male practitioners who made real efforts to include women saints in the places where they conducted religious services. Fr. Moses Berry noted: "We have women saints as well. It's important for women to have women saints. . . . [I]f there were nothing but men icons, [women might ask] what's the deal?"68 By joining parishes like Berry's and by organizing their home worship spaces, women used icons to name and visualize as parochial not only whiteness but also maleness. In using Black saints, such as Saint Catherine, African American women resisted double erasure from history. Olivia notes that for "the Orthodox women it is hard" because "most of the female saints who were saints during the ancient times are unknown. They were mothers, housewives, and their stories were not written down."69 Some exceptions to this rule exist, such as "Saint Macrina. . . . And the only reason we know [about her] is because they wrote it down, but we really don't know much about her. Even the Mother of God, you don't know [End Page 103] much about what she did to be so holy." This negligence, in Olivia's opinion, is due to a false assumption that women's ordinary lives are somehow just that—ordinary—and therefore ineffectual: "Most of the saints, you can see, they are not described, if they were it would be about their everyday lives, if you were describing what the woman is doing, it would be living."

In contrast to popular assumptions, African American women saw their everyday activities—raising children, cooking food for their families and other parishioners, volunteering to staff the book or icon store at their parishes, participating in various fundraising activities that benefited local communities and served underprivileged populations—as powerful and important acts. Their everyday work was on par with priestly leadership and saintly activity. This is illustrated by Halle's comment in her discussion of a conversation she once had with other religious women who questioned her about the prohibition on women's ordination in the Orthodox Church:

This Muslim lady said to me, "Well, you have this male priest, you can be a priest if you want to." Then this Lutheran lady said, "Yeah, we have female priests." They were all saying, "Why won't you?" I got enough work to do. I don't need to have another job. I have enough work just doing the stuff I do at church. Then add priest on it? Too much work for me. But some women want to be priests, and I say that's fine. I don't want to be a priest in this line of work. I mean, because to be involved with the church, it's a lot of stuff to do, and you do it for a long time. It's not like you do it for a week and then you're done. Do it forever.70

Halle notes that she and the other women who joined a women's group in their parish, "we've given complete Christmas gifts, clothes, toys to families that are in Southeast Raleigh, which is a poor area in Raleigh," and that "we do a craft show every year, and then sell the crafts, because it's something I like doing and then the money goes to [such] things [as] backpacks for kids who's going to school who don't have backpacks, school supplies." She considers herself part of "a group of people who believe that you help people. If you're doing alright, you help people. I think that's just the way the scripture talks about." Halle knew well from her own experience, and that of the women around her, that even though their activities seemed ordinary, they were far from ineffectual. Halle and other African American women I worked with did not preach at the pulpit, but they worked in the kitchens, wrote on public blogs, created Facebook pages, organized reading groups, gave talks at museums, [End Page 104] volunteered, and did community outreach. In so doing, they educated others about the Orthodox tradition, created and shared their ideas about race and religion, and advocated for social reform. These African American women's religious commitments and work outside the altar and beyond the sanctuary challenged gendered assumptions about what activities should count as leadership and should be worthy of a "saintly" designation.71

In order to resist an assumption that women have contributed little to the history of Christianity, these practitioners embraced African female saints who shaped Christian communities in both extraordinary and mundane ways. Women commonly included the icons of Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Mary Magdalen, Saint Monica, Saints Perpetua and Felicity, and Saints Ruth and Naomi in their icon corners and shared these saints' hagiographies with other practitioners at the parish or through blogs and Facebook. They hailed Saint Mary of Egypt for simultaneously being a "woman with human needs" and a human being committed to a life of Christian love and repentance.72 They praised Saint Mary of Magdalen, who "stood in front of the emperor and explained gospel to him," for her bravery and intelligence.73 They admired the commitment of Saints Perpetua and Felicity to the Christian faith and their willingness to die for it.74 They highlighted God's love toward such worthy saints as Ruth and Naomi, indicating that recognizing God's favor toward these women helped them to feel "that I was a worthy human."75

In addition to engaging African women saints in their icon corners at home (see figure 2), these practitioners venerated these saints at their respective parishes. "There are several females. Saint Thecla is very important in our church," Ella notes.76 "She was a companion of Saint Paul. She was a great martyr, I think she was the first woman martyr, I might be wrong, I don't know." Reading and learning about Saint Thecla's life brought Ella "to a place where I was more likely to hear some of the things that Saint Paul wrote in the Bible about the hierarchy, and a place of women," because "he traveled with, preached with, was a companion with, nonsexual companion with this woman Thecla. . . . It was eye-opening to me." African American women engaged with saints as fellow women who contributed to the well-being of their religious communities through their everyday lives.

Female practitioners insisted that African women saints were among the ranks of exceptional Christians in the early church. Christianity developed and grew because of these women's everyday efforts. Halle suggested that "you want the environment [of the parishes and private worship spaces] to depict the people who were there," and she insisted that "it'll be Saint Mary of Egypt," thus demonstrating a desire to create a worship space that recognized not only [End Page 105]

Figure 2. Ella's Home Icon Corner. On the wall: Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Elizabeth Mother of the Forerunner, the Theotokos, Christ, Gabriel the Archangel, and Saint Xenia of St Petersburg. On the table: the icon of All Saints, a printed photo of Saint Nektarios, and a card of Saint John of San Francisco, Saints Ruth and Nasomi, and Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr. <br/><br/>Image courtesy of the owner; reproduced with permission.
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Figure 2.

Ella's Home Icon Corner. On the wall: Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Elizabeth Mother of the Forerunner, the Theotokos, Christ, Gabriel the Archangel, and Saint Xenia of St Petersburg. On the table: the icon of All Saints, a printed photo of Saint Nektarios, and a card of Saint John of San Francisco, Saints Ruth and Nasomi, and Saint Elizabeth the New Martyr.

Image courtesy of the owner; reproduced with permission.

[End Page 106]

Black but also female contributors to the Christian tradition. With the help of icons, female practitioners visualized the presence of women in the life of the Christian church and insisted that women mattered.

African American Saints

In the homes I visited, in the images of home icon corners posted by practitioners on their blogs, and in images shared with me through personal correspondence, the icons of African saints often appeared alongside pictures of family members. Photos of loved ones proved helpful for cultivating an understanding of and ease with the practice of icon veneration. Olivia noted that as a Protestant,

what you don't hear about is Mary, the Mother of God. She was little bit harder for me to get over, until someone basically just explained it as: you know, do you have a grandmother you love, who died, and you take out her picture, and say grandma I miss you, are you talking to the picture, is she really the picture, or are you talking to her? Oh, to her. . . . And if you kiss it, are you really kissing the picture of her, or is that reverence you are holding to her, going on to her? So that kind of helped me understand it.77

Engaging unfamiliar objects—icons—in familiar ways helped the practitioners embrace the Orthodox practice of kissing, holding, touching, and praying with icons. Ella also noted that "for a while veneration was difficult, and Theotokos too. I got past it with prayer, and a little bit of logic. I don't remember who said it, but it is someone I met online. It is pictures of family. Why people are so upset about it? I dropped a picture of my mom, I picked it up and kissed it and put it back. And then it clicked. Ah."78

To the photos of family members in their icon corners practitioners added the images of influential African American preachers and leaders. John noted that among icons in his icon corner, there are pictures of "my former shop teacher and mentor, . . . a dear cousin known for her kindness, and . . . my wife's grandfather and ministry mentor."79 With these pictures, he asserts: "I recognize the best of my African-American Christian heritage. . . . I am ever mindful of the road they paved for and the legacy they left me as I pray before them and the other icons every morning and evening." By including images of family members and other influential African Americans in their icon corners alongside the icons of African saints, practitioners defined what it means to be Black and religious [End Page 107] in established and novel ways. John states that Black History Month, during which prominent athletes, entertainers, innovators in science and technology, and political leaders are honored, needs to include a celebration of "St. Simon," whose "feast day is February 27th." Referring to Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John Coltrane, Oprah Winfrey, C. A. W. Clark, Gardner C. Taylor, Harriet Tubman, and David Walker, he noted, "Of course there are preachers, pastors, and laymen & women among our great men and women of the past. But, if we can salute these heroes, surely, we can salute the Biblical hero who kept the faith, endured a grueling contest, was an example of holy living, gained a portion of the heavenly kingdom, and lived the Gospel." Americans, he explained, need to "honor the black man who was the example of cross bearing manhood for all Christians." "Painting icons of Martin Luther King Jr. or jazz great John Coltrane as saints," John concluded, "is out of the question as they were not Orthodox and cannot be canonized as saints in the Church (although we do honor the great Civil Rights leader and can enjoy Trane's music)." In contrast, however, in Saint Simon of Cyrene "we can offer icons of the first man of any race to carry the cross of our Lord to be a part of these cultural heroes."

Not only the home icon corners but also the spaces of the Orthodox parishes contained photos of African American "cultural heroes" and "loved ones." The Orthodox church of Saint Mary of Egypt in Kansas City, Missouri, housed within its walls photos of African American leaders and the relatives of those who attended the parish (see figure 3). These images were placed on the desk at the entrance to the sanctuary and adorned the walls of the parish hall alongside the icons of African saints. When I asked Fr. Turbo about these photos, he told me: "That connection to your history and where you come from, it's something that is viable, it encourages you to . . . it's kind of cliché, but in order to know where you're going you have to know where you come from, and so seeing the struggle that ancestors have gone through, it encourages you, number one, to not spill the grace or to spill the work that they've done, and it also, again, just puts you into this mindset to understand that there was work before you. . . . So on that table downstairs, those are loved ones who have passed on" and whom we "remember" in our prayers.80 With the help of Orthodoxy, practitioners enfolded African American history into the realm of the sacred.

The practitioners were careful not to explicitly label their family members and African American leaders represented in images as saints and icons. Ella noted: "I'm canonical and anyone that starts an Orthodox church should be one of the canonical churches. Now, there was a church—the African Orthodox Church—that was started and it got weird. . . . It kind of went off on some kind of tangent. . . . That's where Saint John Coltrane came from. They sainted this jazz player John Coltrane. Go figure. So, there was that."81 Nonetheless, [End Page 108] practitioners approached these images with reverence. There was little difference between the photograph of one's grandmother and the icon of the Theotokos, as both were kissed the same. The presence of one was felt as intensely as that of the other. Even though these practitioners resisted identifying the images of family members, influential African American leaders, and role models as saintly icons—in contrast to the practitioners belonging to the African Orthodox Church, who embraced and venerated icons of Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, Alexander McGuire, and John Coltrane82—they positioned them at the center of their Orthodox worship space.83 In doing so, they made their Black Orthodox visual piety do the work intended by the AOC practitioners: to materialize and visualize the beauty, achievements, and sanctity of people of African descent who lived in America.

Figure 3. Photos of African Americans on a table at the entrance to the sanctuary, Saint Mary of Egypt Orthodox Parish, Kansas City, Missouri. <br/><br/>Photo by the author; reproduced by permission of Fr. Turbo Qualls.
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Figure 3.

Photos of African Americans on a table at the entrance to the sanctuary, Saint Mary of Egypt Orthodox Parish, Kansas City, Missouri.

Photo by the author; reproduced by permission of Fr. Turbo Qualls.

World Saints

African American practitioners did not compile their icon corners by exclusively using the images of African saints and African American saintly figures. They also included saints who were significant in the European and Russian Orthodox [End Page 109] cultures. John emphasized that he has an icon of "Christ that was written in the Slavic tradition and the Kursk-Root Icon of the Theotokos which is one of the holiest images of the Russian Orthodox Church."84 He noted that with the help of icons, "I have taken my African-American identity to the table where Moses the Black speaks with John Chrysostom. I stand with Ephrem the Syrian and Cyprian of Carthage. I take from the chalice of Ireland's Patrick and Egypt's Mary. . . . I have brought my faith to the older and broader Church." Ella stressed that she has an icon of the new martyr Saint Elizabeth, the Grand Duchess of Russia, with whom she built a special relationship as she was praying to her and learning from her the virtue of forgiveness.85 Fr. Moses Berry insisted that including African saints in Orthodox worship neither meant excluding others nor justified representing Russian and other European saints as having dark skin: "I think people can carry that a little too far, because they make all kinds of—like Saint John, Russian saint, make him dark-skinned. You can't make a white guy Black, you can't do it. But there are plenty enough, such as Saint Maurice, and so many other ones."86 By practicing radical inclusion—by alternating the icons of African, European, and Russian saints in their icon corners—and emphasizing that every Christian equally participates in the practice of icon veneration, African American men and women cultivated a commitment to Orthodox Christianity as a universal church. Even as icons helped practitioners to advocate for a distinctly Black Orthodoxy, they also helped them to embrace Orthodoxy as a faith that unites all Christian people around the world into one human community.87 Icons, then, allowed these African American Orthodox Christians, in the words of John, to participate in "the faith of my ancient African, Middle Eastern, and European fathers & mothers."88

Practitioners' practices with icons reflected their broader aspiration to create a reconciled Christian community.89 Gatherings of icons at the Orthodox parishes and personal icon corners were its microcosm (see figures 4 and 5). Fr. Moses Berry notes that he invested time and effort into starting the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black "because we wanted to develop a group of people who were like-minded people and some people say this is for Black people. No, we have more white people in Brotherhood of St. Moses than Black people by a long shot. We're talking about like-minded people. People who want something more. . . . They want people to accept them as brothers and sisters."90 Ella also stressed this ecumenical commitment, in her own way: "I would not like Orthodoxy to become one of those other churches that are segregated on Sunday morning where Black people go here and white people go there."91 Her comments are mirrored by those of Halle: "There are churches, in fact, Dr. Martin Luther King said, 'The most segregated hour is Sunday morning.' . . . When Martin Luther King marched, there was an Orthodox [End Page 110] priest marching with him, because that's part of Orthodoxy, the unity, the reconciliation," and that is why "I love Orthodoxy."92 "There's white churches that don't want Black people there. There's Black churches that don't want white people there," Halle continued. "What is that about? How can you say you're a Christian? That's a problem, if you say you're atheist, I get that, but if you say you're a Christian and you love God, how can you have that in your heart?" "I like that the Orthodox [Christians] are trying to reconcile. Not all Orthodox believe in it, I know that, but we believe that. I think, the church is, that we all are God's children and that you're my sister," she concluded. "Your skin is different, your height is different, your weight is different, but you're my sister, so I have to treat you like my sister." The icons of world saints manifested a desire and a possibility of imagining, imaging, and cultivating a reconciled community, where people are treated as brothers and sisters, regardless of their skin color. African American practitioners' engagement with icons helped to achieve "the end goal . . . of integrat[ing] all of the races and the ethnicities in the church as one family" not by transcending racial difference through whiteness but by forcing whiteness to acknowledge its own particularity and by imbuing all races with humanity.93

Figure 4. Icons at the Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" Orthodox Parish, Ash Grove, Missouri. <br/><br/>Photos by the author; reproduced by permission of Fr. Moses Berry.
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Figure 4.

Icons at the Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" Orthodox Parish, Ash Grove, Missouri.

Photos by the author; reproduced by permission of Fr. Moses Berry.

Figure 5. Icons at the Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" Orthodox Parish, Ash Grove, Missouri. <br/><br/>Photos by the author; reproduced by permission of Fr. Moses Berry.
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Figure 5.

Icons at the Theotokos "Unexpected Joy" Orthodox Parish, Ash Grove, Missouri.

Photos by the author; reproduced by permission of Fr. Moses Berry.

In Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, Albert Raboteau discusses four models "by which black Americans have related religion and race": redeeming the religion of the master, erasing the color line, identifying religious and racial origins, and searching for community.94 These models [End Page 111] are helpful for understanding the work that practitioners did with the help of Black visual piety. Practitioners used the last two models simultaneously: they "reject[ed] . . . [Protestant] Christianity" in order to follow "new myths of origin that counter the myth of black inferiority perpetuated within American society," while simultaneously emphasizing "religion as an ecumenical force for overcoming all divisions, including racial, ethnic, and religious divisions themselves."95 Practitioners insisted that Blackness matters in religious practice. However, they did not advocate Black nationalism. They sought equality within the global Christian community.96 Fr. Turbo captured this double impulse well in the following comments. First, he noted that when "trying to reach to the neighborhood here, which is not quite predominantly but a large part African American . . . having the icons reflect that cultural reality was important. So when people would come in, they would see that in the church there's people that look like them as well. And that's something that a lot of parishes don't really think about."97 "African Americans," he asserted, cannot be forced "to be Greek or Serbian or Russian" in order to become Orthodox. Instead, "what they need to be is themselves and Orthodox." Second, he concluded: "I'm so thankful to all the Russians and the Georgians and the Greeks and the Lebanese and the Syrians who have brought Orthodoxy to America and preserved it, and so now the thing is getting them to a place where they can make room at the table now. It's not about getting away from the table, just make room at the table because there's plenty of room at the table, so that we can truly be the catholic church, be universal."

Fr. Turbo's desire for room at the table is being fulfilled, as is evidenced by the influence his voice and those of other African Americans had on the white clergy, who now choose to fill their parishes with African saints. Fr. Mark98—who ministered with Fr. Moses Berry in Saint Louis for several years until Berry's departure to Ash Grove—opened his own parish, bringing images of African saints with him and situating them next to European and Russian saints. Among the African saints are an icon of Saint Moses of Egypt, the "Saints of Africa" icon, and an icon of dark-skinned Theotokos. In our conversation about these icons, Fr. Mark noted that their inclusion in the worship space was very "important."99


When Fr. Moses talked to me about the icons at his parish in Ash Grove, Missouri, he noted that some of the hand-painted icons housed there were commissioned and made specifically for his church. Others, however, were gifted by different people. One woman gave Berry icons that no one else desired: "No one wanted it, it was made in 1936, and no one wanted it. She said, 'Would you like to have it?' I [End Page 112] said, 'Of course.' She said, 'It's not exactly the style.'"100 Berry told the woman that images can be powerful and meaningful even if they are not done in "the style."101 To emphasize, once again, the point that the power of icons cannot be pinned down to one thing, he shared a story about Saint John's monastery in New York, which was formerly a Roman Catholic monastery and sported a Sacred Heart of Jesus statue outside its gates. Berry told me that when attempts to remove the statue were made, on the argument that the statue was "theologically unsound" (that is, Jesus, and not only his heart, was sacred), one of the monks explained: "Don't you know how many people have prayed in front of that statue and asked God to have mercy on them? . . . People went before the icon with tears in their eyes and asked for help." Here, Berry stressed that people were able to find the statue powerful and meaningful despite its theological unsoundness. Neither style nor theology seemed to be the singular determinant of an icon's sacrality. Berry concluded his conversation with me by referring back to the icons gifted by the woman, saying: "This may not necessarily be the style that's most popular. Probably wasn't even written by a professional iconographer, but nonetheless, to me, they're the most beautiful ones. And I have them out here for that very reason." Berry's comments emphasized that objects are not inherently sacred and can hold a variety of meanings. There is always a story to be told about what makes icons compelling and the "most beautiful ones" for practitioners.

Veneration became a compelling Orthodox practice for practitioners because they made icons constant companions in their daily lives. Practitioners saw saints watching them pray, clean, and educate their children in their homes and parishes. This act, over time, transformed the strangeness of icons into familiarity. Icons also became compelling, in part, because they provided a way to challenge the idea of racial hierarchy prevalent in the United States. Black Orthodox visual piety embedded the practitioners in meaningful relationships with each other, their relatives, saints, icons, and the divine. It also assigned significance to their African and African American heritage and positioned them as rightful and equal members of an ancient Christian community. For practitioners, to become Orthodox and to embrace veneration of the saints meant to unveil one's true racial identity and history in tandem with one's authentic religiosity.102 Practitioners simultaneously advocated a particularity and a universalism of race as they practiced Black Orthodoxy and universal Orthodox Christianity concurrently. This double move exposed the limitations of models that sought to achieve racial equality in Christian communities by defaulting to whiteness. With the help of icons, African American men and women visualized their own ideas about religion and race and worked to reform American society by cultivating an awareness that whiteness is not a universal ideal and by producing more respectful attitudes toward people of African descent. [End Page 113]

Recent scholarship on Islam,103 Protestantism,104 Catholicism,105 and new religious movements—such as the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement,106 and Black Israelite religions107—has productively addressed the processes through which these religions have become compelling to African American practitioners. By focusing on and examining the specific social, cultural, and material contexts within which belief took place, scholars complicated our understanding of Black religion in a way that prevented essentializing it. In this article, I have pursued this same goal by focusing on icon veneration as a practice that shaped and was shaped by practitioners' multiple commitments and sensibilities over time to make Orthodox Christianity a meaningful religious identity. Unlike the non-Christian and Protestant practitioners in other studies, the Orthodox men and women discussed here drew on a Christian tradition that was entangled in various ethnic and national identities and emphasized heavy reliance on iconography in order to engage with the divine, form a religious self, find a place within a community, and resist racial discrimination.108 However, even though these practitioners were using new and distinct religious tools, they, like so many other religious African Americans, cultivated a compelling mode of understanding and being in the world with their help. As a result, I urge scholars to recognize Eastern Orthodoxy as an important reality in the field of African American religious history and to take notice of claims such as that made by Fr. Turbo Qualls: "Even though society, history and other Black folk call us fools for being a part of what is wrongly considered a 'white man's' religion. We understand why others think and say that; however, 'we have tasted of the Cup of Immortality and know that there is no other place for us to go' (John 6:68)."109 [End Page 114]

Elena Kravchenko
Washington University in St. Louis


. I am grateful to the practitioners for sharing their stories and thank the members of the WashU RS group and Vaughn Booker, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, and Lerone Martin for reading earlier versions of this article.

1. All names of practitioners I worked with are pseudonyms. In those cases where the person is a well-known public figure, I used real names and titles. In those cases where my interlocutors have also had a public presence on an Internet blog and my work necessitated quoting from and referring to this source, I identified the person by the name they supplied there. In those cases where I quote a published source, I use the names provided by the practitioners in the publication.

2. I use African American and Black interchangeably. I capitalize Black in my own narrative and when transcribing interviews to indicate Black as a constructed category and an identity marker. I do not capitalize white, because, as Jacob S. Dorman explains in Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) by referring to Martha Biondi, this category has historically "been deployed as a signifier of social domination and privilege, rather than an indicator of ethnic or national origin" (22). When quoting from blogs and other published sources, I preserve the categories, capitalization, and punctuation as they are used by practitioners and appear in the sources.

3. Halle interview, July 21, 2017.

4. I invoke "alternative" to indicate practitioners' desire to envision and produce a space that resists and reforms the current configurations of race as a category and its consequences. I do not employ other scholars' theoretical category "otherwise," yet keep it in mind, as it allows me to see the processual similarities between the activity of these Orthodox Christians and other contemporary African Americans. Laura McTighe and Deon Haywood talk about how Women With A Vision employed histories, spaces, and practices available to them in post-Katrina New Orleans to expose and resist "the acute violence and quotidian terror of white supremacy," to generate "new black feminist possibilities," and to realize "the New Orleans landscape anew." McTighe and Haywood locate the actions of WWAV in the lineage of "often-hidden resistance histories" and identify them as "growing, moving, and transforming our present into 'worlds otherwise.'" McTighe and Haywood, "Front Porch Revolution: Resilience Space, Demonic Grounds, and the Horizons of a Black Feminist Otherwise," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 1 (2018): 25–52. In a way, I am identifying here a similar impulse: the practitioners wish to cultivate a different state from the one that is given. My case study traces a specific way in which "otherwise" is imagined and cultivated through Black Orthodox visual piety.

5. Matthew Cressler, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migration (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 51. See also Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration (New York: New York University Press, 2017).

6. Cressler, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic.

7. Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

8. David Morgan, Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Morgan, Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Sally Promey, "Taste Cultures and the Visual Practice of Liberal Protestantism, 1940–1965," in Practicing Protestants: Histories of Christian Life in America, 1630–1965, ed. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp,‎ Leigh E. Schmidt,‎ and Mark Valeri (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); Promey, "Hearts and Stones: Material Transformations and the Stuff of Christian Practice in the United States," in American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity, ed. Catherine A. Brekus and‎ W. Clark Gilpin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Birgit Meyer, "'There Is a Spirit in That Image': Mass-Produced Jesus Pictures and Protestant Pentecostal Animation in Ghana," Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, no. 1 (2010): 100–30; and Meyer, "Aesthetics of Persuasion: Global Christianity and Pentecostalism's Sensational Forms," South Atlantic Quarterly 109, no. 4 (2010): 741–63.

9. Daniel A. Winchester, Assembling the Orthodox Soul: Practices of Religious Self-Formation among Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy (Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Publishing, 2013); Amy Slagle, The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011); Elena Kravchenko, "Loving Objects: Icons as Witnesses and Cataloguers of Orthodox Women's Memories" (M.A. Thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 2014); and Kravchenko, "Orthodox Women in America: The Making of the Conservative-Liberal Subject" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 2017).

10. Cressler, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic; Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (New York: Orbis Books, 2010).

11. Edward E. Curtis IV, "African-American Islamization Reconsidered: Black History Narratives and Muslim Identity," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73, no. 3 (2005): 659–84.

12. Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming.

13. Paul C. Johnson, Diaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

14. Elizabeth Pérez, Religion in the Kitchen: Cooking, Talking, and the Making of Black Atlantic Traditions (New York: New York University Press, 2016).

15. "Black and Orthodox" is an identity taken up by most of the practitioners. For more detailed accounts of its application see, for example, Nun Katherine Weston, Race, Identity, and Reconciliation (Indiana: Weston Counseling, 2017); or John Gresham, "To Be Black and Orthodox: Part of My Story," Journey to Orthodoxy, April 15, 2016,

16. Curtis J. Evans, The Burden of Black Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). In his insightful work, which carefully traces the historical production of "Black Religion" and its ramifications for the lives of African Americans, Curtis J. Evans concludes that even scholars desiring to get away from essentializing unwittingly produce analytical models that perpetuate it. He suggests that we try to get away from such models that try to locate an authentic way of being religious for African Americans at either end of the assimilation–protest spectrum, and instead focus on "varied religious motives and activities of black religious persons" (279). In highlighting contextual factors that interacted and, in this way, made icons compelling to practitioners, I seek to heed Evans's call.

17. Morgan, Visual Piety, 2–3.

18. Ibid.

19. David Morgan, "Defining the Sacred in Fine Art and Devotional Imagery," Religion 47, no. 4 (2017): 641–62.

20. In New World A-Coming, Judith Weisenfeld urges scholars not to reduce the religiosity of African American practitioners to economic or political factors, but rather to explore how multiple concerns figure within their everyday religious life. This, she suggests, moves scholars away from setting problematic and often unhelpful binaries, such as those between religion and politics and between religion and race.

21. Oliver D. Herbel, Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 76.

22. Ibid., 79.

23. Archbishop Philippe Laurent DeCoster quoted in Nicholas Louis III Baham, The Coltrane Church: Apostles of Sound, Agents of Social Justice (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2015), 153.

24. Archbishop King quoted in Baham, Coltrane Church, 152.

25. Baham, Coltrane Church, 153 and 157.

26. Archbishop King quoted in Baham, Coltrane Church, 153–54.

27. For more information about the conference see the website for the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black,

28. While such studies as Oliver Herbel's, which focuses primarily on the commitments of the male clergy of the Orthodox Church, are helpful, they can at the same time be limited. By attending to lay practitioners and their practices in parishes and homes, I supplement these studies to include a wider range of actors in a narrative that traces the construction of religious meanings.

29. Halle interview, July 21, 2017.

30. The Modern Monastic Order of Saint Simon of Syrene,

31. Olivia interview, November 10, 2013.

32. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth; Morgan, Defining the Sacred.

33. Ella e-mail communication, January 24, 2014.

34. Ella interview, January 5, 2014.

35. Ella interview, June 29, 2014.

36. In my other work I discuss these daily interactions with icons and how they figure into the process of Orthodox identity formation. Also see Winchester, Assembling the Orthodox Soul; and Slagle, Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace.

37. Fr. Jerome Sanderson, "African Pillars of the Church," in An Unbroken Circle: Linking Ancient African Christianity to the African-American Experience (St. Louis: Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, 1997), 16.

38. Ibid.

39. Michael Redmond, "Finding My Fathers: The Search for Family in African Christianity," in An Unbroken Circle, 157.

40. Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming, 6.

41. The Modern Monastic Order of Saint Simon of Syrene.

42. Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming, 6.

43. Halle interview, July 21, 2017.

44. Fr. Moses Berry interview, January 13, 2018.

45. Sanderson, African Pillars of the Church, 16.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid., 24.

48. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, 22, italics in original. I would like to thank Alexia Williams for recommending Massingale's work and Dorman's work for analyzing the religious work that African American Orthodox Christians do.

49. Fr. Paul interview, July 5, 2017.

50. Redmond, Finding My Fathers, 156–57.

51. Ibid.

52. Fr. Turbo Qualls interview, June 23, 2019.

53. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church.

54. Charles Lawrence, quoted in Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, 28.

55. Edward Blum and Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 250.

56. Ibid.; Blum and Harvey are referencing the work of Darren Dochuk and George Lipsitz.

57. Cressler, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic; Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Chad Seales, The Secular Spectacle: Performing Religion in a Southern Town (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Su'ad A. Khabeer, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2016); Dorman, Chosen People; Evans, Burden of Black Religion; and Promey, "Taste Cultures."

58. Cressler, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic; Johnson, African American Religions; Seales, Secular Spectacle; Khabeer, Muslim Cool; Dorman, Chosen People; Evans, Burden of Black Religion; and Promey, "Taste Cultures."

59. Fr. Paul interview, July 5, 2017.

60. In The Burden of Black Religion, Curtis J. Evans helpfully demonstrates how imaginings of African Americans as inherently religious have historically functioned to reveal "what whites desired in blacks and what whites hoped to reclaim as their own through their projected images of blacks" (277).

61. Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000, 106, italics in original.

62. Karl Marx, Capital: Critique of Political Economy (Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1918).

63. Morgan, Protestants and Pictures; Morgan, Visual Piety; and Blum and Harvey, Color of Christ.

64. Blum and Harvey, Color of Christ, 15.

65. Ibid.

66. In The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), Mayanthi L. Fernando suggests that Muslims (a category that is racialized) who are made to justify their practice of Islam over and against secular republican values are subject to the persisting dynamic of colonial power that extends far beyond France. African Americans who wonder why they have to justify their images of Black Jesus and saints to others (when the whiteness of Christian figures is never questioned) are doing something similar to Muslim French who want people to stop asking them questions about Islam and why they veil when the dress choices and practices of secular republicans are never questioned. Both situations emerge out of a global pattern of power that normalizes some particular worldviews and forces groups not adhering to them to explain theirs. While African Americans, who find themselves in the latter position, experience contextually specific forms of marginalization and social disadvantaging, the power that produces them is not limited to the United States.

67. Blum and Harvey, Color of Christ.

68. Fr. Moses Berry interview, January 13, 2018.

69. Olivia interview, June 6, 2015.

70. Halle interview, July 21, 2017.

71. Judith Weisenfeld, "Invisible Women: On Women and Gender in the Study of African American Religious History," Journal of Africana Religions 1, no. 1 (2013): 133–49; Weisenfeld, African American Women and Christian Activism: New York's Black YWCA 1905–1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997); Ann Braude, "Women's History Is American Religious History," in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); and Elsa Barkley Brown, "African-American Women's Quilting," Signs 14, no. 4 (1989): 921–29.

72. Ella interview, January 5, 2014.

73. Ella interview, July 19, 2015.

74. Ibid.

75. Ella interview, January 5, 2014.

76. Ella interview, July 19, 2015.

77. Olivia interview, November 10, 2013.

78. Ella inteview, January 5, 2014.

79. The Modern Monastic Order of Saint Simon of Syrene.

80. Fr. Turbo Qualls interview, June 23, 2019.

81. Ella interview, July 7, 2017.

82. Scott W. Hoffman, "Holy Martin: The Overlooked Canonization of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," Religion and American Culture 10, no. 2 (2000): 123–48; Baham, Coltrane Church. See also Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church,

83. I am currently working on a separate project that attends to this common objective and its specific manifestations for groups that grant full traditional sanctification and beatification to such figures in African American history as Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman, as well as those who, like the practitioners described here, treat them informally as saintly figures.

84. The Modern Monastic Order of Saint Simon of Syrene.

85. Ella interview, June 29, 2014.

86. Fr. Moses Berry interview, January 13, 2018.

87. In Turning to Tradition, Oliver Herbel makes a somewhat similar observation when describing the commitments of Fr. Moses Berry: "Berry sought out a Christianity that included engaged multiple races and ethnicities and was open to all. In this sense, one might argue, he sought catholicity. Yet he also sought an otherworldly Christianity, one that looked to God's transcendence as well as understanding that God could be present within one's own immediate suffering. Berry instinctively sought both catholicity and otherworldliness through a restorationist lens, looking to ancient African Christianity" (101–2).

88. The Modern Monastic Order of Saint Simon of Syrene.

89. For a detailed articulation of "reconciliation" see Weston, Race, Identity, and Reconciliation, and the website of the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, The ideals of reconciliation, however, are not taken up exclusively by the male clergy and nuns. Halle notes that reconciliation means that everyone in a Christian community recognizes that "racial tension" in America has a "long history," acknowledges "that people need an apology," and formally performs it in "a reconciliation ceremony" (Halle interview, July 21, 2017). Reconciliation, for practitioners, cannot take place without white Americans acknowledging the history of racism and recognizing how it provided them with social and economic advantages while disenfranchising African Americans.

90. Fr. Moses Berry interview, January 13, 2018.

91. Ella interview, July 7, 2017.

92. Halle interview, July 21, 2017.

93. Fr. Paul interview, July 5, 2017.

94. Albert J. Raboteau, "Relating Race and Religion: Four Historical Models," in Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience, ed. M. Shawn Copeland (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009). I thank Lerone Martin for recommending this essay for analyzing how these Orthodox practitioners relate religion and race.

95. Ibid.

96. I thank Laurie Maffly-Kipp for urging me to acknowledge that "this nexus of universalism/racialism" marked "a long history within African American Protestant churches," and thus to position the Orthodox Christians I discuss here in the long line of African Americans who related religion and race by drawing on African saints and the catholicity of the Christian church. For a more detailed discussion of this history see Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Setting Down the Sacred Past (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

97. Fr. Turbo Qualls interview, June 23, 2019.

98. In my conversation with Fr. Moses Berry's friend and colleague, it became obvious to me that he strongly values his privacy, even as he is a public figure. As a result, I decided to use a pseudonym instead of his actual name.

99. Fr. Mark interview, February 2, 2019.

100. Fr. Moses Berry interview, January 13, 2018.

101. Berry's point can be productively analyzed through David Morgan's theoretical framework, which urges scholars to pay attention to the cultural, social, and material assemblages that make specific meanings of objects possible in order to recognize the unstable nature of "things." For Berry, icons were made sacred not through their artistic style but through their presence in the devotional life of the practitioners, which supports Morgan's point that "the provenance of devotional images vouches for a different sort of authenticity [from fine art]. . . . It does not matter how much the object cost and it may not matter what it is made from. What matters is who gave it, why, and where it was acquired" (Defining the Sacred, 19). However, some of the practitioners I worked with emphasized the importance of the African artistic style and African origins, as well as the exclusivity of the icons with which they engaged, as important aspects of what made these objects sacred. Therefore, these practitioners challenged Morgan's dichotomy, which identified the "sacred" of fine art, and not devotional imagery, as that which is concerned with an object's "uniqueness" and the ways that it is "invaluable" and "the real thing."

102. Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming, 6.

103. Carolyn Rouse, Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Khabeer, Muslim Cool; Ula Yvette Taylor, The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

104. Maffly-Kipp, Setting Down the Sacred Past.

105. Cressler, Authentically Black and Truly Catholic.

106. Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming.

107. Dorman, Chosen People.

108. I thank Laurie Maffly-Kipp for identifying these two characteristics of Orthodox churches (that they are entangled with various ethnic and national identities and that they emphasize iconography) as contributing in a distinct way to how contemporary African Americans practice their religion.

109. Journey to Orthodoxy,

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