What’s Happening in New York? An American Priest on the Protests, Violence and Pandemic
First, the largest city in the US became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, it is now shaken by protests provoked by the death of an African-American, George Floyd, at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Protopriest Serafim Gan, Chancellor of the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in New York and Rector of St Seraphim Memorial Church in Sea Cliff, NY, shares his thoughts:
I hesitate to speak on behalf of the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, since the Synod of Bishops has not yet convened to discuss today’s upheavals, but I can share my personal opinion.
Any kind of chauvinism was always alien to the Orthodox Church. In our Church calendar, for instance, all nations are represented, because all are in Christ, as Apostle Paul says, there is no Greek, nor Jew, there is neither male nor female… And though we Orthodox Christians are just as sinful as everyone else, we have the ideal of holiness—Christ, to Whom we must strive and Whom we must try to emulate.
In my opinion, when problems arise in society, the victimized side should always be calmly heard, so that other could feel their pain. In this scenario, serious, thoughtful and sober discussion should take place. If evil is repaid with evil, then it will only increase evil. If we react to problems in society as did Christ, that is calmly witness the truth and peacefully denounce untruth, then we will stop evil, gain respect, achieve dialog and change.
If we answer evil with evil and violence on the streets of our cities, then this reaction to the ills of society will lead to self-destruction, and the young generation will not see in us a good example of how to resolve conflicts. We should pray for the soul of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis, for his friends and relatives, for the softening of human hearts, so that Christ would reign in human interrelationships, for we are all the children of God.
Procession in the Sky
Despite the lawlessness and quarantine, the Synodal Cathedral in New York continues the full cycle of daily divine services, behind closed doors, with a limited number of worshipers.
We recently made an unusual procession with the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign" in the sky above New York, at the request of parishioners in the area addressed to the Synod of Bishops. I received the blessing of His Grace Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan to discuss the possibility of such a flight with one of my parishioners at St Seraphim Memorial Church in Sea Cliff, Vladimir Sushko. When circumstances permitted, we took a small plane piloted by Vladimir and flew over the entire are known as “Greater New York,” that is, the city and its suburbs.
I had heard that the Kursk Icon already made such flights in Russia. The miracle-working icon has a reputation of constantly traveling, visiting all corners of the world, especially where believers of the Russian Church live. As far as I know, though, this was the first time the Kursk-Root Icon made such a flight in the US.
Of course, one can pray on earth, which we do, visiting the homes of believers with the icon, as well as hospitals and many other places. But this procession bore witness not only to the prayers of the Mother of God but our appeal to Her.
I can’t say that we sensed that something supernatural was taking place. We embarked on this effort with a feeling of responsibility and fear of God, since we knew that our parishioners adamantly asked for prayers for the city.
There are various points of view about such airborne processions, but when people appeal to clergymen with requests for prayer, we always try to satisfy them. We are called to hospitals, prisons, and this time to pray above the city. We feel obligated to respond to earnest and crucial needs of believers who seek consolation during difficult times. It is so important to feel that no one is left alone in their sorrow, that the Church prays for each and for all. The airborne procession is one more opportunity to bear witness to this common prayer for each other, to faith that the Lord, despite everything, desires our salvation, and we are reminded of the constant intercession for us by the Most-Holy Mother of God.
Naturally, many are upset that they cannot participate in divine services, this was especially keenly felt during Great Lent. But people participate in services and join common prayer thanks to livestreaming on the internet.
Of course, everything depends on a person’s attitude. If he tries to accept everything as a gift from God, then he will give thanks for both good and even for the terrifying—and will remain absolutely at peace. If you look at events differently, then enduring such tribulations is much harder.
As priests, we see our duty in this difficult time to console people and try to guide them to make use of what we have—in this case, the internet—to pray at home, to use the time which the quarantine gives us: contact our relatives, read, learn something, draw lessons from these events.
The hardest thing for us priests is talking to and spiritual guiding people in hospitals. We couldn’t visit them, we weren’t allowed, and there were instances when people died alone. Hospitals are still closed to us.
I suffered greatly for these people: you don’t know how to help them, our hands are tied. Of course, you can lend them verbal support, send them videos. Still, when a person knows that he is dying, and is preparing for death, leading such conversations with him by phone is very difficult. They are difficult in any case, but holding face-to-face discussions is much easier: you see the reactions of the other person, you see his mood.
For me, the most important thing during these phone conversations is to remind the believer that God is always at hand. Even when we feel completely abandoned, and maybe don’t even feel His presence. He is always with us, and He is our closest Friend, His firm hand will always support and guide us.
Even Christ Himself, on the Cross, felt solitude and abandonment by His Father. As we endure everything that befalls us, we must remember that the Lord Himself felt the same thing, and now suffers together with us.
In today’s situation, I see not only the negative, but the positive. I think that the quarantine gives us the opportunity to feel our helplessness, our weakness, the limitations of human possibility—and teaches us to rely on God. I believe that it’s a good lesson of humility for both clergy and laity. We must humble ourselves to the will of God, surrendering ourselves to Him fully, and joyously: “Do with me, Lord, as You deem necessary.”
The coronavirus, I think, is if not sent by God, then allowed by Him. Why this is may be a good question, and in my view, every person has his own answer.
In this regard I have my deeply personal experiences that I would not like to share. But in general I would say that this virus, though it passed me by, but it force me to humbly bow my head before the Hand of the Creator. In this small way I was made to submit to God, and I thank Him for it.
Of course, this virus has caused panic among many, some even think that it’s the end of the world. But even if so, there is no reason to fear. The believer knows that the end of the world leads to the final victory of good over evil, to the Second Coming of the Savior. If we believe in God, then He will care for us and will prevent our doom.
Also, we have no right to make assumptions in this: the angels do not know the day, nor the hour, when this will happen. It is better for us not to worry about it, but to accept everything as a gift from God.
If we are to talk about miracles during this pandemic… The main miracle is seen in people’s eyes, how their lives are changed. You see the shine of Divinity in their eyes, and sense His presence in them—what could be more wonderful?
Prepared by Dmitrii Zlodorev