I. The Making of a Missionary
For over a decade, Fr. Luke and Presbytera Faith Veronis served as Orthodox missionaries in Albania under the spiritual leadership of Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos), with Fr. Luke directing the Holy Resurrection Theological Seminary in Durres. The Veronis family has now returned to the U.S., where Fr. Luke pastors Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Webster, Massachusetts, and is Adjunct Professor of Missiology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School and St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Below, Fr. Luke offers an invigorating account of life in the mission field and what it takes to be a long-term missionary: In Love, For Love, and By Love.
Do everything in love, for love, and by love.
RTE: Father Luke, what makes a good missionary?
LUKE: Something obvious but central, and that is love. I once spoke with an old Greek monk, Fr. Antonios, from St. John the Forerunner Monastery in Kareas, near Athens. The Kareas Monastery has sent out missionary-nuns for over twenty years and when he came to Albania, I asked him, “Give me some advice on being a good missionary. What should I remember from you?” He said, “If you remember this you will do well. Do everything in love, for love, and by love. If you do this, you will be a great missionary.” This sounds simplistic but it is absolutely central to what a true missionary wants to be. Everything that you do when you are trying to adapt to a culture, struggling to learn a language, or understand a people, you do out of love for them.
One of the first things a missionary must do is to learn the language, no matter how hard it is. This is a sign of love for the people, a sign that you respect the dignity of their culture, and this respect must be communicated before you ever proclaim the gospel. His Beatitude, Archbishop Anastasios of Albania says that when you go into a country, you keep whatever is good in the culture, even if it is different from the way you do things. Anything that is completely incompatible with the gospel you have to reject, but there are many things that can be baptized and given new meaning.
An ambassador of God’s love
Also, you need to enter the mission field with extreme humility. You are not going to “save” these people, and you are not going simply to teach. First and foremost, you are going as an ambassador of God’s love, to offer a witness of His love in concrete ways. Your emphasis should be, “I’m on a journey – let me show you where I am going, and if you are interested, join me on this journey.” I may be leading the journey for part of the way but there are going to be times when the indigenous Christians will lead me; I will be learning from them, even about spiritual life. We are taking each other’s hands and walking towards the Kingdom of God.
This is extremely important because too often I see western missionaries come with extreme arrogance, ignorant of the culture they are entering and uninterested in learning about it. They are arrogant in thinking that they are bringing the gospel for the first time, as if they are the saviour. They forget that Jesus Christ is the Saviour; we are simply His ambassadors. We must always remember that we are still working out our own salvation, but along the way we can invite others to join us on this journey, to travel together.
I’m on a journey
Archbishop Anastasios gives a great example when he says about himself, “I am simply a candle that is lit in front of an icon. I shine so that people can see the icon. One day my candle will be snuffed out. When my candle goes out, someone else will have to come and let their light shine before the icon. The important thing is the icon, not the candlelight.”
My suggestion for new missionaries is to spend the first year just learning the language, the culture, the ways of the people, and not focus too much on preaching the gospel. Of course, you preach first and foremost with your life. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” By focusing on the language, culture and individuals, you show that you are interested in them as people, not solely in making them converts.
RTE: In your book, Missionaries, Monks, and Martyrs, you included St. Macarius (Gloukharev) of Altai, who is a fascinating example of preaching with one’s life. He went to a remote part of Siberia, where he taught in village after village, with no success. After years of fruitless labor, he left and returned later to go at it differently, through active service with homeopathic medicines and simple offers of help. Only then, was his gospel message received.
Another aspect that is extremely important for missionaries in the field is to identify as best they can with the people, to live at the level of the indigenous people. Now, this isn’t always possible. We from the West may give up a lot of our comforts and live at a level far lower than in our home country, but still live far above their means. We have to struggle with this, and like many things in our faith, we have to live in the tension between the goal and what we can actually do. Constant effort and growth are the keys.
I remember asking Archbishop Anastasios what he considered his greatest contribution to the mission field – and we know that he has made many significant contributions as a churchman, a hierarch, a professor at the University of Athens, a missiologist, and as a missionary. Reflecting on his achievements, he said, “I feel that the greatest contribution I’ve made in Africa and in Albania is that I’ve lived among the people and tried to identify with them.” In Africa, he traveled to the most remote, poverty-stricken communities, visiting and encouraging people. In Albania, he flies by helicopter to inaccessible villages far up in the mountains. He wants to be close to his flock, and he always feels at ease with everyone. More importantly, the people are at ease with him, and see him as someone who loves and identifies with them.
When Albania fell into anarchy in 1997, the army storage facilities were broken into and the anarchists stole machine guns and hand arms. You could buy a Kalashnikov on the street for five dollars, and little kids were shooting Kalashnikovs into the air outside my apartment and all over the city. Total anarchy reigned throughout the country, and the embassies began evacuating their citizens. Almost every foreigner left. Although the archbishop is Greek, and could have been evacuated with the Greek Embassy, the thought never crossed his mind. He was the archbishop, and he had to stay with his people. I also stayed, along with a handful of other missionaries. We wondered how we would protect the archbishop if armed bandits broke into the archdiocese – and we were pretty sure this would happen. We watched one day, as ten armed and masked men broke into and looted an electronics store across the street. We expected the same thing to happen to us.
He was the archbishop, and he had to stay with his people
We understood what a terrible message this would give
People often ask us if we considered leaving with those who were evacuated. To be honest, we didn’t. We understood what a terrible message this would give. People would think, “Look at these missionaries. At the first sign of danger, they abandon us.” We had to show them that we would stay with them in times of danger, in the midst of anarchy and chaos. We were one with them, and the love of God knows no bounds! We may never be able to identify completely with the indigenous people, but we must show them, as much as possible, “We are with you!”
I remember another story of the archbishop’s that exemplifies this missionary outlook. When Archbishop Anastasios was archbishop of East Africa, he often served in simple village churches with mud walls, tin roofs, and paper icons on the mud iconostasis. In the early 1980’s he was invited to attend a conference in Leningrad, and for the Sunday liturgy, he served in one of the beautiful Russian cathedrals, perhaps St. Isaac’s. He celebrated liturgy surrounded by magnificence, and he began to wonder, “Where is God? In the midst of this opulence, or in the little mud chapel in Africa?”
God is wherever the Eucharist is
So when it came time to preach the sermon he raised this question: “Is God in the mud churches of Africa with their paper icons, or is He in these magnificent cathedrals in Russia?” When he asked this, the translator was a little embarrassed to repeat the question, but Fr. Anastasy continued, “As I travel throughout the world and worship in many different types of church structures, I understand that God is wherever the Eucharist is. He is in both the mud churches of Africa and the beautiful cathedrals of Russia.
RTE: Also, these cathedrals were built with sacrifice and love by thousands of people, rich and poor, who wanted to give the best they had to beautify God’s house.
FR. LUKE: Right, and the point is that we have to feel comfortable everywhere, and realize that Christ works everywhere. It is not our role to judge, but to offer a witness for Christ.