His Eminence Metropolitan Nathanael (Symeonides) was chosen to lead the Greek Orthodox Christians of the region this year, formally assuming his role on March 24. Supervising fifty-eight parishes and two monastic communities spread across Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri, Metropolitan Nathanael follows a predecessor who led the Metropolis for 38 years. Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1978, he served as a priest in New York City-area parishes and as Director of the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
I sat down with Metropolitan Nathanael to talk about his particular background and interests, and what he envisions for the role of his church in the region.
What are your impressions so far of the city and the region?
Chicago is kind of a smaller version of New York. Much cleaner. People are friendly like people in New York. It’s a big city that has everything that you could ever want. The churches themselves, our Orthodox churches, are very similar in makeup and the kind of services they offer.
But then whenever you get into the outer states, that’s very different. In Iowa you have churches that are three hours apart from one another. You have churches that are forced to figure things out on their own because they don’t have anyone else around them, priests that are at the mercy of their parishioners. There’s very little support around them.
In the other states, are these long established parishes or are they missions? Are they both?
In Sioux City I have a church that’s celebrating a centennial, and our national archdiocesan presence is less than 100 years old. We have parishes that were established long before the Archdiocese was formally incorporated. We consider them mission parishes because they’re not as large.
But I’d like them to be more centers of evangelism, because our understanding of missions in the United States is more like a small parish that’s figuring things out. A startup rather than a place for expansion. I’d like for these churches to teach us how to be better evangelists. Because here when you have a church with a thousand families you forget that we all have that same mission to go and share the gospel. We just get comfortable and content with a thousand people. Whereas the [small parishes] have no choice but to be evangelists.
You have a background in ethics and bioethics. There are major centers of research and higher education in the Chicago area and in the region, as well as industry and agriculture. Bioethics seems like an area where there is there’s a lot of important things happening and where the church might have a distinctive voice. Where do you see that background coming into play in your in your work here?
Bioethics can be applied on a daily basis. Most of what we eat has some sort of genetic modification in it. Plastic and chemicals seep through the bottles that we use and that affects our biologies. We have some of the largest medical centers here in Chicago and in the Midwest. People are coming to take advantage of advancements in biotechnology. People will ask the church to offer some insight on how to approach some of these challenges—whether it’s artificial or assisted reproduction, organ transplantation, automated cars, and slowly moving into artificial intelligence. How is that going to affect who we are in the interplay between humanity, biology, and technology?
It will be helpful that I can understand the science behind all of this. As we confront new challenges and new opportunities, it’s always good for the church to understand where science is coming from before we respond to it. At first these things begin outside of the scope of daily use but eventually they become more and more common. It’s good for us to respond in an informed way and to use that as a way to engage in a dialogue with the rest of society.
You were part of the committee of church leaders commemorating the Selma anniversary a few years ago. The history of race in Chicago is a complicated and painful one. The role of the churches in that history has been interesting and complicated as well. Where do you see that emphasis in your prior work going in Chicago and what are your priorities in that area?
In the United States churches may have been involved in advancing racism as much as they’ve been involved in putting an end to racism. Dr. King was a man of the church. He was a pastor and so brought racism, racial justice, and voting rights to the fore in his ministry. Not many white churches at the time spoke up in support of that.
The Greek Orthodox Church was front and center in Selma. Our Archbishop at the time, Iakovos, was a very good friend of Dr. King. So when he started his work in Selma the archbishop was there with him. Our Greek Orthodox Church’s experience in the United States is very similar to the African-American experience and the historical black churches. Our people were abused and mistreated in many ways similar to the African-American community. Obviously we were not enslaved in this country, but our people were enslaved for 400 years under the Ottoman Turks. We experienced being treated as a commodity, an object that’s bought and sold, that has value as much as you can perform a task, as less than human—experiences that have generational impact.
That’s why Archbishop Iakovos could do nothing but go to Selma, because he was he was born in Turkey and his community was still treated as a second class. In 2015 there was the fiftieth anniversary of that [event]. I came in and helped our archdiocese again be part of that moment in our nation’s history. Our Archbishop, Demetrius, was present. We worked with Dr. King’s children and we wanted to be vocal again. Just because people have the right to vote doesn’t mean that there isn’t racism. Our Archbishop was also present in Charleston after the shooting at Mother Emanuel. We wanted to be there in solidarity with the people who were mourning who were killed largely because they were black.
Most recently we were part of an ecumenical movement to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of MLK. We hosted an ecumenical service that launched a nationwide initiative of the churches to end racism called End Racism Now.
They asked if we would be willing to host it for a number of reasons. One, because the Orthodox Church is very good friends and partners in the ecumenical sphere. But also because each particular church sends a message. If they went to the National Cathedral—which makes sense, it’s the biggest church—they thought that would be a white privilege church. If they went to one of the historical black churches, they were afraid that would be seen as always going back to the black community. So they looked at the Orthodox Church as, on the one hand, not a black community but yet also not a white privileged community. So they thought that it would fit nicely. We could bring everyone together without necessarily having a political message by virtue of being there.
I believe strongly in reconciliation, understanding, accepting of what we’ve done wrong in the past, repentance of our sins, and hopefully learning also to let go of grudges. Some of the negative things that we experience create a complex in us. And so we’ve got to find a way to overcome that. It’s got to begin with repentance, reconciliation, truth and honesty.
Is there a sense in which orthodoxy in general, perhaps Greek Orthodoxy in a particular way, can play that distinctive role: not Roman Catholic, not mainline or evangelical Protestant or a historically black church?
People don’t know what to do with the Orthodox Church. I know one particular bishop who wears a cross around his neck. And people think that he’s Jewish because they’ve never seen an Orthodox Christian, they just see a guy with a beard wearing black.
In many ways you know the Orthodox Church doesn’t fit nicely in any of these molds. That allows us to partner with everybody. But also it allows us to step outside of the conventional. We have a nuanced approach to a lot of issues that other churches can’t. The Orthodox church for 2000 years has always looked at these issues from the brokenness of humanity. Our starting point is God became man so man could become God. We were so broken that it took God to take on human flesh to heal us.
It’s not so much on guilt on the part of the sinner. We go to Christ to be healed or we go to Christ as our father. So there isn’t judgment. Even though we always mess up there’s always the opportunity for that reconciliation in the Eucharist, in our services, and the daily interactions with each other. That probably informs everything that we do and everything that we are—the opportunity to reconcile our differences, whether it’s the races, governments, nations, parishioners in the pews, the bishop and the priests.
So yes we can work with historical black churches because we have some of these same experiences of slavery and racism. Our people were hung, actually, and abused and considered less than desirable in the United States. We can work with Catholics because we have a common history. We can work with Protestants because Protestants tend to be very open, practice-oriented and to advocate for issues and about the plight of man. We can work with evangelicals and charismatics because we too feel that with the spirit moves us all. We can we can work with everyone. And yet when the time is needed sometimes we can speak with a different voice. Our problem is our voice sometimes isn’t loud enough. So we don’t have the machine that the Catholic Church has. We don’t have the charismatic leadership on television like some of the Protestants do.
So the church looks to strategically partner with people, looks for people that may discover our opinion and and project it, and help us do that.
In a region where religion and ethnicity are tied together in a lot of ways, and maybe in a national landscape where religion and politics get tied together in some ways that are confusing to some people, what are the distinctive aspects of orthodoxy?
It’s what we give emphasis to. When I was in seminary, our archbishop asked us, “How do you know that the Orthodox Church is the authentic church?” We’re thinking we’ve got the doctrines, we’ve got the seven Ecumenical Councils, tradition, history. And you know he said something that has stayed with me. He said “We know that the Orthodox Church is authentic because it’s the most human.” It actually acknowledges the human condition most, and helps heal the human condition the most.
God created us out of love, his creation denies him and distances itself from him. Yet he’s constantly sending opportunities to come back, waits, is gentle, offers as the law, prophets, angels. And we couldn’t do the right thing on our own because we’re broken. So he sent his only begotten son Jesus Christ to become human and only after we crucify him do we know that God becoming man helps us, just does it for us. We don’t need to do anything else because we can’t do anything beyond that.
The Orthodox Church accepts and believes firmly that the disciples of Christ are not of this world. We’re not products of this world and we’re not something that the world has established. Our reference point is heaven.
We also accept that we’re in this world so we’re not running away from the world and what’s going on in society. But we believe that we are in the world to help save the world. Orthodox Christians are pious but we don’t believe we can be saved alone. So the piety is not an exercise in isolation. It’s something that occurs in community. Salvation occurs first and foremost for my neighbor and then for me.
Our theology of creation speaks to issues of the environment. We have desert fathers—who are saints that lived in the deserts, in the woods, in the wilderness—who speak about how holy the environment is, how holy the planet is. So we use that in our approach to modern day issues related to climate change and the environment.
And so the other thing that makes us very different than most other churches is our ancient homeland. We’re not a Western European church. Our ancient homelands are in the Middle East: in the Holy Land, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Turkey. We have our origins there. And so our community is from inception multicultural. It’s multi-ethnic. It’s in contact with other religions. We can handle the situations where it’s not homogenous. We can handle the need to work with other religions. We can handle different cultures within our own faith tradition, I think better than other churches that developed in pockets of Western Europe in modern or medieval history where the ethnic identity was largely primary. Orthodoxy develops from the start in a melting pot, it’s a meshing of different cultures, languages, and faith traditions. So I think we can deal with the different cultures and ethnicities here in Chicago in different ways than other religious traditions.
We believe that religion is the enemy of faith. Religion in many ways erects barriers between God and man.
So along those lines that orthodoxy has a very rich and profound theological and liturgical tradition and heritage. It can also be rather intimidating or opaque to outsiders, even other Christians. What does it mean to the people around Orthodox churches to have this center of liturgical and sacramental life happening there?
Sometimes if a person walks into our services off the street and doesn’t know what we are, chances are they’ll enter a service where they may not understand what’s happening. It’s a long service, usually two to three hours.
But they are available to all people. The benefit of having the Orthodox Church within society is that it is the meeting between heaven and earth. It’s not a telling of a story. It’s not a re-enactment. It’s actually the meeting of heaven and earth. It’s where we come to receive the Eucharist. That sanctifies the people who are in the church, then calls them to go out into the world and help sanctify the rest of the world.
So our community does not live in a bunker. We don’t establish churches just so that we can say we’re meeting the spiritual needs of our hundred families or two families that are Orthodox. But we’re there to sanctify these individuals who come or anyone who comes to the church and through them help sanctify and save the world.
Our church believes in the freedom of the person to accept or reject God. Our worship fosters and encourages freedom in ways that transcend the civil rights freedoms or rights that are guaranteed by law. We become free when we come to Christ, so we offer that to people because they may not feel that they are free, or they may not be free to express their voice in society or in their jobs or at home.The church is the place where people come to experience that divine freedom, to let go of what they what they carry and not to be burdened by them anymore.
You said something in your enthronement address that I found kind of interesting which was shortly after the March for Our Lives. You made mention of that and then said: “Ιt is daunting to consider that these young people—our young people—are not marching to church to find refuge or a place to voice their concerns. They sadly take to the streets because they feel that no one cares about them in their homes, in their schools, and in other familiar places, yes, including the Church.” What is it that the churches should be giving or doing for young people who are facing some of these public questions and trying to decide who to heed and what to value?
I think the church needs to do a better job of listening to the young people and then allowing them the chance to come and voice their concerns in the church too.
We can’t forget that our young people are part of the church that they make up the church. They may never step foot in our churches but we should go and you know follow in their footsteps.
Go find them, embrace them help them, encourage them. Really love them.
Young people today feel like their calling is to transform the world. I think that should inspire the church to learn how to do things differently also because we have the same goal.
The church is looking to transform the world. Young people who are part of the church are trying to transform the world. They’re doing it outside of the church. They’re making it happen in spite of our absence in their lives. They’re offering themselves the best they can. It’s up to the church to empower them to do a better job, to harness their energy, to give them greater focus and to show them, if the church is here to save the world, we’re going to do it through them, not because of the bishop.
If we are giving kids the authentic Christ, not just something plastic, then kids will come. I think the fact that they’re not coming more and more is not so much because there are so many distractions out there, so many things pulling them from the church, but because we have forgotten how to be authentic.
What’s ahead for the church in Chicago and the area?
You know I don’t know what the future holds but I know that the future of the church is not the bishop. I can say for sure the future is not me. It’s always going to be the same, it’s always Christ.
And so I’m prepared to actually step aside to let Christ retake the central position in the life of our church and the life of Chicago, really.
My hope is that the future is grounded in Christ. Because if it’s grounded in Christ it will respect the past but also look to the coming ages and eternity.
So it’s not just about now, or the future—it’s about eternity. Hopefully I can go along for the ride, but I’m definitely not at the center of that future.
Benjamin J. Dueholm is Pastor of Worship and Education at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois. He is the author of Sacred Signposts: Words, Water, and Other Acts of Resistance.