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A missional church? Orthodox Church of St Nicholas of Japan, Brixton, Johannesburg

21 February 2012

Last Sunday after the Divine Liturgy our parish had its Annual General Meeting, where various people reported on the state of the parish. There were the usual kinds of things at such meetings for a small parish — concern that expenditure exceeded income and so on. There were a couple of comments on fund-raising, but what I found interesting, and unusual, and refreshing was that most of the discussion was not on how money was to be raised, but rather on how it was spent. And one of the biggest items on the budget was outreach.

This post is not a report on the AGM, but rather a report on thoughts that it provoked in me, and reflections on the 25 years of existence of the parish.

Fr Athanasius Akunda

The parish priest, Fr Athanasius Akunda, gave a comprehensive report on the outreach ministry that he and others in the parish were involved in, from helping struggling mission congregations to caring for the poor and destitute.

Several people commented that the parish was, more than at some periods in the past, fulfilling its original vision of being a missional church. The aim of the community of St Nicholas was to be a place where Orthodox Christians in Johannesburg could worship in English, and to be a multiethnic community where people of all ethnic backgrounds would be welcome, and to make the Orthodox Christian faith better known in South Africa, and to be a South African Orthodox Church.

When we started there was some discussion about who the parton saint of the should be, and after discussing several saints, we chose St Nicholas of Japan. He was a Russian missionary who went to Japan in 1861, and planted a Japanese Church. There were never more than 5-6 Russian missionaries in Japan — most of the work of evangelisation was done by Japanese Christians themselves. St Nicholas saw his main role as teaching leaders who would in turn teach others (as in II Tim 2:2). We wanted a truly South African Orthodox Church, so he seemed a good example to follow.

Some members of the St Nicholas parish family in the early days (Pascha 1989) gathered to celebrate the receiving of some new members into the Church

The parish has remained small over  the last 25 years. The average size of the congregation at the Divine Liturgy on Sundays has been about 30-70, and at Saturday Vespers about 15-20, and we usually received new members at Pascha, often on Holy Saturday, sometimes with a party on Easter Monday to celebrate.

Yet the parish has probably raised up more people eho are engaged in active Christian ministry than any other parish in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria (most of which are far bigger and wealthier). But God has taken most of these people away to work in other places.

There have been four parish priests in the last 25 years, all of them from other countries:

  • Fr Chrysostom Frank (American)
  • Fr Bertrand (Iakovos) Olechnowicz (American)
  • Fr Mihai (Mircea) Corpodean (Romanian)
  • Fr Athanasius Akunda (Kenyan)

When we started, we met in an Anglican church hall in Fairmount, in October 1987. Then we were given the use of a chapel at St Martin’s in the Veld Anglican Church in Dunkeld, Johannesburg.

Pascha 1988 at St Martin's in the Veld, Dunkeld

Then in 1990 we began to use a Russian chapel in Yeoville, until, at the end of the year, we bought an old Pentecostal Church in Brixton, Johannesburg (the Brixton Tabernacle), and that has been our home since then.

There was a small but steady flow of new members being received into the Orthodox Church.

New members being received on Holy Saturday, 1992 - Sean Noel-Barham and Zwelinzima Nyathela being chrismated

The inflow of new members was balanced by the outflow. Some people who were members of the parish in the past are now priests or deacons, but are now serving in other places. Jonathan Proctor is now a priest in St Paul, Minnesota in the USA. At least one has entered the monastic life.

Andrei Kashinski and Fr Chryosostom Frank

One of these was Andrei Kashinski. He grew up in Russia in the Bolshevik period, and was a leader of Komsomol, the communist youth movement, and worked as a factory manager. Then his life was shattered when his wife left him, so he decided to emigrate to get as far away from the scene of his sorrows as possible, and came to South Africa, and was baptised just before leaving Russia, though with little catechesis, as after the fall of Bolshevism thousands in Russia were being baptised.

Someone he met in a bar in Aliwal North said “I know someone who belongs to your church”, and drove Andrei to the other end of the Free State, to Parys, where he met Danie Steyn, then a member of St Nicholas parish. So Andrei began to attend St Nicholas and learned the rudiments of Orthodoxy, and then decided to return home to Russia.

He went to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow, and asked to be allowed to sweep the floors. The Abbot asked him about his previous experience, and on learning that he had been a factory manager, both in Russia and South Africa, put him in charge of the rebuilding programme. In the Bolshevik period the monastery had been used as a reformatory for juvenile delinquents, and when the buildings were returned to the church by the state they were in very poor condition, and lots of rebuilding was necessary.

For a while Andrei thought of becoming a monk himself, but then met a girl and fell in love and married her. He was ordained as a parish priest, and now serves in a small country parish.

Fr Kobus van der Riet came to Orthodoxy at St Nicholas, and was ordained and now serves at the Church of St Constantine & Helen in Eldorado Park. Fr George Cocotos, then a deacon, ran a soup kitchen in central Johannesburg, and one of those who came to it, Phillip Marcos, was interested in Orthodoxy. Deacon George sent him to St Nicholas, and he and his son were baptised. Phillip gathered a number of people in Eldorado Park who used to come to St Nicholas, and many of them were baptised at St Nicholas by Archbishop Seraphim in July 2001. Eventually there were enough people from Eldorado Park to start a new parish there, and a house was converted into a church, and Fr Kobus celebrates the Divine Liturgy in Afrikaans, since most of the people there are Afrikaans-speaking.

Baptism at St Nicholas, July 2001. Most of those baptised on this occasion were from Eldorado Park

Dr Eddie van Wyk, a psychiatrist from Cape Town, used to visit St Nicholas when he could, from 1500 kilometres away. Eventually he too became Orthodox, and established an Orthodox retreat centre near Robertson in the Western Cape, and he is now Father Zacharias, and there too they have the Divine Liturgy in Afrikaans.

Olga d’Amico, a former parishioner, is now in a monastery at Serres, near Thessaloniki in northern Greece.

These are just a few of the stories that show that the Church of St Nicholas has acted as a kind of conduit, taking people in, and then sending them out again for ministry in other places, sometimes on other continents.

The first priest, Fr Chrysostom Frank, served from 1987-1996, and when he left there was a period of a little over a year when there was no priest. We nevertheless kept the church open, with Reader’s Services, and occasional visits by priests from other parishes, especially Fr Alexandros from the neighbouring parish of Sophiatown, who is now Bishop of Nigeria.

Fr Bert (Iakovos) Olechnowicz came from the USA in 1988, and left at the end of 2001. There was again a problem of no priest, and Fr Mihai Corpodean, who had come to serve the Romanian community, but had no church, came to help us, and most of the Romanians joined in. When he left, Fr Athanasius again came, initially in a temporary capacity, along with various other work he was doing, but gradually became more permanent, as described above.

At times people in the parish have not always been happy about the outreach ministry, and sometimes there have been grumbles about various aspects of it. All this for other people, but we don’t get much benefit. It has sometimes been rather grudging.

But at this annual general meeting there was a different atmosphere. People were pleased to see that the biggest item on the budget was outreach. And if money was short, well, we would just have to find more from somewhere.

One of the other big items on the budget now is housing for the parish priest. Fr Athanasius originally came to South Africa to help at Soshanguve, where the leaders of the African Orthodox Church had decided that they wanted to join the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Then it was decided to open a Catechetical School cum Seminary in Johannesburg, and a house was bought in Yeoville for that purpose, and Fr Athanasius moved there to be deputy dean. When Fr Mihai Corpodean and his family left South Africa to go to New Zealand, Fr Athanasius began to look after St Nicholas, and when the seminary was closed, he bscame its full-time parish priest, but now the seminary building has been sold, and he has nowhere to live, and so the parish is looking for suitable accommodation for him.

Fr Mihai (Mircea) Corpodean and family

Because St Nicholas was the first English-speaking Orthodox parish in Gauteng, it has tended to be rather eclectic, drawing people from all over Gauteng and beyond who want English serrvices. But the parish has become increasingly aware that there are relatively few local people in the church, from Brixton and surrounding suburbs — Auckland Park and Melville to the north; Hurst Hill, Newclare and Coronationville to the west; Crosby and Mayfair to the south; and Vrededorp and Cottesloe to the east. Those areas are thus our primary mission field. So some parishioners have done outreach in those local areas too.

One of the early objects of the mission Society of St Nicholas, which preceded and founded the parish, was to encourage the development of a truly South African Orthodoxy — not Greek or Russian or Serbian or Romanian, but drawing on all these traditions but also developing an indigenous Orthodoxy. What has happened, in fact, is that the parish has remained very cosmopolitan. On a typical Sunday there are people whose origins lie in Congo, Cyprus, Greece, Kenya, Malawi, Romania, Serbia, Zimbabwe and other places, and on some Sundays South Africans are less than half the population.But that, perhaps, is also an important witness in a society in which Xenophobia has sometimes been overt and violent, and even when it isn’t, is still simmering not far below the surface.

And just last month a security guard, who lives in Brixton but hails from Limpopo Province, was baptised, and perhaps he can add another liturgical language, Tsonga, to our repertoire.

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