Guest Viewpoints

Missions in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

July 3, 2022
By Fr. Luke A. Veronis – Special to The National Herald

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America began 100 years ago as a church of Greek immigrants striving for the American dream and trying to find their place in the United States. For decades the Church acted as a safe haven for these immigrants, offering a place where they could raise their families, hear their language, practice their traditions, and be with like-minded people from their beloved homeland.

Yet, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese represents not only the ancient Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople but is a part of the universal Church that the Risen Lord Jesus Christ established 2000 years ago. Our Archdiocese is part of the “New Israel,” a continuation of the chosen people of God from ancient Israel. This broader understanding of who we are took time for Greek Orthodox Church in America to realize in practice. Our Church isn’t an immigrant church only for Greeks and people of the Balkans but we are the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” established by our Lord Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This Church is for all people in every nation.

St. John Chrysostom preached 1600 years ago, “there are two kinds of bishops. One bishop is a pastor who says, ‘my parish is my universe.’ While the other bishop says, ‘the universe is my parish.’” One of the most common dangers that plagues the people of God from the time of ancient Israel until today is the heresy of parochialism, where we limit God’s universal vision to only “our own people.”

Fr. Luke Veronis with a group of volunteers during a mission trip to Mexico building homes for needy families. (Photo provided by Fr. Luke Veronis)

It took decades for the Archdiocese to move beyond its immigrant identity but eventually it began rediscovering the full universal understanding of the Church by the middle of the 20th century. In 1956, Bishop Athenagoras (Kokkinakis) of Elaias, Dean of Holy Cross School of Theology, initiated the first Orthodox Missionary Society at the seminary and invited students from Korea to study at Holy Cross. Fr. Alexander Veronis, a member of that original missionary society, would become a catalyst to inspire the Church in its missionary identity.

While studying in Athens, Fr. Alexander came into contact with the young, charismatic theologian Anastasios Yannoulatos and would be inspired by the Zoe movement. This young deacon’s dynamic sermons and writings would challenge the Church of Greece as well as the Orthodox world at large to rediscover its missionary mandate to “go and make disciples of all nations.” His influence would play a major role in the Greek Archdiocese of America’s understanding of missions.

Fr. Alexander and Presvytera Pearl Veronis began a Lenten Self-Denial club at the Annunciation Church in Lancaster, PA in 1962 to promote foreign missions. Members of this club sacrificed meals during Lent and gave the proceeds to a Missions Fund. The parish’s Mission Committee used these funds to send hundreds of boxes of religious books, Bibles, and icons to the neophyte Orthodox missions of Korea, Uganda and Mexico. This became a model for other parishes around the country. Fr. Veronis also began offering talks about missions in parishes throughout the Archdiocese.

In 1965 and 1966 Archbishop Iakovos granted permission for Fr. Veronis to bring Fr. Theodore Nankyamas of Uganda and Fr. Paul de Ballester from Mexico to the United States for lecture tours to 75 parishes of the Archdiocese. Both priests spoke fluent Greek and English. Noteworthy is the fact that Fr. Nankyamas was a dark-skinned Ugandan who visited Greek Orthodox parishes at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. This African Orthodox priest, who spoke perfect Greek, astounded Greek-Americans whose hearts he readily won over with his articulate presentations and humor. His visit paved the way for Greek-Americans to accept an African priest as a brother Orthodox Christian and to treat him with respect and love.

Fr. Veronis, together with Bishop Silas, under the endorsement of Archbishop Iakovos, created a national Archdiocesan Foreign Missions Committee at the Archdiocesan Clergy-Laity Congress in 1966. By 1984, the foreign missions committee outgrew its ability to function with only volunteers. Archbishop Iakovos appointed Fr. Dimitrios Couchell, Executive Director of the St. Photios Shrine in St. Augustine, to head the Archdiocesan Missions Center.

Fr. Martin Ritsi, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, baptizing in Africa. (Photo provided by Fr. Luke Veronis)

During this same year, Fr. Veronis worked together with Helen Nicozisis and a group from the Annunciation Church in Lancaster to establish the Endowment Fund for Orthodox Missions, which would begin offering annual mission lectures at Holy Cross School of Theology, along with scholarships for students interested in missions. The eventual goal, which wasn’t realized until 2010, was to establish a Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity at Holy Cross. This Institute now offers classes related to missions, evangelism, and outreach to all seminarians, organizes conferences related to missions, and brings in guest missionaries from around the world to inspire and challenge the students and future priests at Hellenic College and Holy Cross.

In 1985, the Missions Center sent out its first long-term cross-cultural missionaries, Fr. Daniel and Presvytera Nancy Christopulos, to Kenya to work under Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos, the Archbishop of East Africa. In 1987 the Archdiocesan Mission Program outgrew the offices at the St. Photios Shrine and moved into the new ‘Father Alexander Veronis Mission Home’ which served as the administrative headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Missions Center. This same year the Center sent its first 25-member short term mission team to Kenya for one month to build a stone church and witness first-hand the mission work occurring in the vibrant Orthodox Church in Kenya.

Later in 1987, Fr. Martin and Presbytera Renee Ritsi became the next long-term missionaries to serve in Kenya for four years and then in post-communist Albania for six years. Fr. Martin would become the second Executive Director of the Missions Center, serving from 1998 to the present.

By 1994 the Archdiocesan Missions Center was reaching out to Orthodox churches in 25 countries. Up to then, the GOA was the only Orthodox jurisdiction in America with a foreign missions program. The Board of Missions, with the support of Archbishop Iakovos and the endorsement of the 32nd  Clergy-Laity Congress, approved expanding the program to become pan-Orthodox. It was named the Orthodox Christian Missions Center under the auspices of  SCOBA.

Over the past 38 years, the Archdiocesan Mission Center and the OCMC have sent out more than 100 long-term cross-cultural missionaries and more than 2800 volunteers to participate on short-term mission teams to support the work of Orthodox churches around the world. Presently, the OCMC actively supports the Orthodox Church in 28 countries, with 34 long-term missionaries, while also partially supporting 375 indigenous priests in these lands. The OCMC also raises the awareness of the missionary imperative in parishes around the United States.

One other way that dozens of parishes and thousands of faithful of the Archdiocese have participated in cross-cultural outreach has been through Project Mexico and St. Innocent Orphanage. This is a pan-Orthodox cross-cultural ministry that has built homes for 420 needy families in Tijuana, Mexico since 1988. More than 16,000 volunteers have served and had their worldview expanded and their lives transformed by this experience. Fr. Nicholas Andruchow, a priest of the Greek Archdiocese and the executive director, has been serving there with his wife Presbytera Merilynn for 14 years.

“The parish is my universe” or “the universe is my parish.” During the second half of its centennial existence, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has striven to fulfill its role in participating in the apostolic call to “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to every creature.” (Mark 16:15)

Fr. Luke Veronis served for 12 years as a missionary in Albania and Kenya. He presently directs the Missions Institute of Orthodoxy Christianity at Hellenic College Holy Cross while serving Saints Constantine and Helen Church in Webster, MA.


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