Serbica Americana as a Challenge and an Accomplishment

Unity in Diversity on the North American Continent: Hypothesis, Feasibility and Executors of a Project

Round Table "The Role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Preserving the Diaspora's Identity"
Serbian Unity Congress and Ministry of Faith and Diaspora, Belgrade May 21, 2012

Bishop of Western America Maksim (Vasiljevic)

Esteemed Members, Honorable Fathers and Brothers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thanking the organizers of this auspicious gathering about the significance of the relationship between the homeland and diaspora, first of all on beneficial stimulus and consciousness regarding the importance of preserving the Serbian Diaspora's identity, as well as upon your heartfelt invitation, I will try to give my humble contribution to the important question of the relationship between the Serbian Diaspora and the Serbian Orthodox Church. On my part, I would like to try within the framework of the general theme, "The Role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Preserving the Diaspora's Identity", in brief point to some of its aspects, through presentation of an idea about Serbica Americana within the framework of an important problem, unity in diversity. Then I would like to present the work of the Serbica Americana Center in research, documentation and information of authentic Serbian academic-scientific, theological-church, and cultural-art accomplishments in North America.

All of mankind living on planet Earth generates superhuman efforts to solve the ancient question of identity as unity in diversity. Although this problem received answers throughout history, in more or less satisfactory forms, it appears that our time, especially from the time of the French Revolution, wrestles with it in its sharpest form. At the beginning of the 21st century, the relationship of the Serbian Homeland with its Diaspora in the West in a great way reflects this problem, within the framework of a broader relationship of Serbian people with the West.

It is certain that life, place and role of a nation depend upon solving the quintessential question of identity, unity and diversity within the broader family of one world which has become one big neighborhood. When we speak of Serbian people, I think that it is important to come to a human and civilized consensus within the boundaries of our nation without which it would be difficult to have a normal relationship with and an understanding of others and those different from us. We are witnesses, unfortunately, that instead of spiritual-social and civilized functioning wisdom, today we have clearly political and economic interests which have pushed out the above mentioned wisdom and skills with the thirst for "informative contents", meaning that the utilitarian principle wins over our ability to live together. Therefore we are witnesses of the end of culture (western and oriental) as a whole ethos and an integral system of knowledge, belief and behavior. The future, or actually current, international community becomes a community of national interest groups, rather than a union of countries. Sometimes we are under the impression that the Serbian State and the Serbian national territory become more and more diaspora themselves. It appears as if we, walking toward modern currents, are confronted with a dilemma, to give vain, often just illusory, and anachronistic resistance, or bravely, with well thought out actions, but foresightfully wrestle with historic, or so called cosmogonial challenges.

The criterion of the relationship between the Homeland and Diaspora cannot be other than ecclesiastical. In the Christian tradition, history is looked upon, contrary to the Hellenic world (in its gnostic and neo-platonic version), not as an obstacle to togetherness with God but is a basis for this togetherness. Through the Incarnation, the Truth of being and all creation, becomes immanent to man and world, resides in the heart of history, in the foundation of mortal and corrupted creation. As a measure of piety in a diocese or a parish we have to initially look at its sacramental life (and understanding of the same), as an illustration, but also topos, of the connection between history and eschatology. God's Kingdom is, therefore, a future event that has to come, but is also anticipated (received as a down payment) in Church, mainly through the Holy Mysteries. A fundamental characteristic of Orthodox historiography is "eschatology that is anticipated and not realized" (Florovski). The Orthodox parish, as a living prayerful and liturgical community, is an assembly of persons baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity and anointed by the Holy Spirit in one Body of Christ. Without Eucharistic togetherness (participation in communion) there is no parish. When a certain parish celebrates a jubilee or anniversary, then the measure of its maturity, success and scope, is the dynamism and pulse of its Eucharistic life; therefore a criterion of priestly "success" would not be impressive churches and halls, but quality of life of the living members of the Body of the Church, their growth "unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" and their victory over sinfulness, corruption and death.

Serbian interest in the history of the Diaspora and search for the will of God in it, reveals faith in God's presence and labor throughout history. The life of the Serbian Church in the USA unfolds on the field of dramatic history which is interwoven with God's providence. A great number of Serbs who find themselves for longer or shorter periods of time spread out throughout the world – departing after difficult decision – remain connected to the land of their birth or ancestors, living a double identity. Departing into the Diaspora could be compared to leaving to a "monastery," as a type of alienation followed by deprivation, fasting, prayer... It appears that the lone institution which can today sustain continuation and connection of Serbs throughout the world is the Serbian Orthodox Church, more than anything else because of the quality which we call togetherness. This in itself brings an enormous responsibility. It is my deepest conviction that the Church plays this uniting role among the Serbian people thanks to her eschatological dimension and ability to accept history on account of her children.

History of Serbian spirituality, science and theology on the entire territory of the Diaspora, and in a narrower concept on the North American continent, is very complex and requires an analytical and synthetic approach. The complete study includes: data gathering, researching archives, personal memories of older parishioners and other institutions, contacting older and younger parish priests. For writing this history all relevant data is welcomed, especially those related to: the founding (who, when, how), the functioning (relation parish-priest-church board), historical events (holidays-slavas, jubilees). The most important for history, is primarily written history, either of individuals or institutions. "Who has thought to write the history of the Serbs in America from the beginning to the present, is already very late. Since, two Serbian generations have left to God's judgment, and the third is at its end, three generations are still active in the American arena of life, as the seventh is crying in the cradle. It is impossible to find out first-hand what was in the past. Innumerable efforts, sacrifices and pains and good deeds and examples of honor and heroism and tragedies and success in this country are left unrecorded. Nor would any history of American Serbs be complete, if it didn't describe all of that which Serbs from America have done for their foremost fatherland from the beginning to the present", writes St. Nikolaj Bishop of Zica, in 1951. Having in mind his above-mentioned words, from the beginning of my arrival upon the throne of the Western American Diocese there was a need for this type of missionary work, in the spirit of our well-known predecessors, Sebastian Dabovic and Nikolaj Velimirovic. Since we do not have such a center in the US, we have advised our priests to start collecting historical data, testimonies, periodicals, and similar writings in their parishes. Creation of a missionary center of Serbian theology and culture in both Serbian and English languages would be beneficial and a blessed endeavor, significant for contemporary as well as future generations of Serbian and American peoples in North America.

It is important for us that this history contains an ecclesiastical-social scope which faithfully describes the church conscience of Orthodoxy in the USA. Serbian Orthodoxy in America has acquired an important ecclesiastical-social scope which faithfully describes the church conscience of all Orthodoxy on this continent. This conscience is reflected through the identification of church as well as a national component which played an important role in the history and life of the Church in this milieu. How did we arrive to this identification? What consequences does this have for future history and life of the Church in the USA? These are the questions worthy of our attention. It is also important for history to study various tones of the concept "church-school congregation", which has given motive for its separation from a hierarchical structure of the Church. As a consequence of this "historization" of the Church in the American West, the tendency has appeared for the imitation of worldly structures. This has brought about many conflicts between bishops and parish boards, culminating in the refusal of the latter that the bishop has any decisive role... There lies the answer to how "independence", autonomy, etc., has precedence over the dimension of community. Besides that, we should ask, which concept of authority was dominant in the "Diaspora"? Why were "concours", set by parish boards, more decisive in the election of a new parish priest than the will or even just the opinion of the local bishop?

Among the majority of church delegates, still prevalent is the understanding of the role of the Church as a moral and spiritual force in the emigrant ethnic community by preserving the ethno-community, her folklore, culture, etc. However, the Lord has called us for much greater accomplishments. An enormous question lies before our parishes in this hard historic time when at the door of Orthodoxy knocks postmodern pluralism and relativism, which asks how to preserve tradition and ethos that originates in medieval Serbia in our world dominated by modern and postmodern values? How can a church understood as "svetosavska", constituted in culturally unified "ekumen" (Byzantium-Serbia) adapt to a pluralistic society and learn to live besides other faiths and confessions, or moreover, besides people indifferent to religion? The Serbian Church-national community on American territory was and still is confronted with this key question. The answer to this question varies from person to person, from community to community, and before us lays the assignment to research this problem. Have former histories taken into consideration a structural approach, which understands social structure as an historical and dynamic category which is heterogeneous and contradictory? Cultural explanation of the phenomenon of Serbian presence comes from ecclesiology, ethnology and cultural anthropology. What kind of cooperation was there between the Church and other nationally oriented institutions in the Diaspora, and on what level of coordination was achieved in their joint activities?

In the light of everything mentioned above, and in short, I present to your attention the motion of facing the challenge of "unity in diversity" on the North American continent. This project we named S e r b i c a  A m e r i c a n a. Serbica Americana is the center for research, documentation and information of authentic Serbian academic-scientific, theological-church and cultural-art accomplishments in North America.

The work of the center has the following scope, field and focus:

  • Collection of theological material and historical documentation (books, periodicals, newspapers, ethnographic material, life stories...)
  • Printing into the English language works of the most important theological writers of the 20th century: Fr. Sebastian Dabovic, Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic, Fr. Justin Popovic, Bishop Danilo Krstic, Bishop Amphilohije Radovic, Atanasije Jevtic, Patriarch Pavle, as well as younger Serbian thinkers and theologians
  • Organizing expert meetings, public speaker platforms, popular lectures, visitation by scientists, publicists, writers etc., with theological, cultural, historical and other themes
  • Formulating clear and long-term goals of serbian diaspora
  • Printing of a periodical (for instance, a quarterly paper) in which will be published short reports about theological research, interesting segments of the material, etc., as well as announcement of future work
  • Organizing supplemental classes and different courses about national and spiritual culture for young people of all ages at diocesan centers (in collaboration with similar institutions)
  • Organizing study visitations of young theologians who could, beside their personal professional work, assemble and organize scientists with similar interests from their field
  • Maintaining constant collaboration with other theology schools in the Homeland and Diaspora, with the coordination of joint activities
  • Formation of a compact nucleus of well-known leaders with a clear vision and dedication
  • Coordination of professional and cultural work in other organizations who are interested in the preservation of spiritual and national inheritance (church, national press, national associations)
  • Including (through material and logistical support) young theologians from the Homeland and Diaspora in theologically directed research
  • Copying and distributing certain cultural and historical values (material, tape and long-play recordings, rare books, etc.)
  • Establishing departments for library work and collection of material in cities with a larger population of Serbs
  • Creation of continent-wide web "representatives" to collect data about local communities in various areas of the USA and Canada, as well as to record important informers (priests, politicians, cultural workers) who possess certain material or could write memoirs or similar writings
  • Preparation of material for presentation in the Homeland and Diaspora to inform the Homeland of theological achievements, needs and projects
  • Coordination of work departments for Slavic, Byzantine, Balkan and similar departments in universities in the USA and Canada (standardization and supplementation of existing curriculum and programs with suggestions and sponsoring of new postgraduate courses)
  • Scholarship awards for Serbian students and stimulus for doctorate dissertations (generally: scientific training of Serbian theology in America)
  • Media (propaganda in general) presentation about the importance of the mission of Serbian theology on the North American continent. First laborers: Sebastian Dabovic and Nikolaj Velimirovic
  • Writing the history of the Serbian Church in the USA; creation, life and formation of the Serbian Church in the USA, parishes and monasteries (schematizm)
  • Serbian military, political and science history in America
  • Scholarship awards for researchers within the framework of Serbica Americana
  • Consulting in the sense of realization of Serbian goals

As it originates from the given, the goal of the center is to help the Serbian population in North America by the following: fostering and preserving Orthodox spirituality, "Serbian style and experience"; development of strong ties to roots of Serbian identity; help for clear articulation of policies of the Homeland towards the Diaspora (and vice-versa), through rebirth of our own specific cultural character, own church spiritual national identity; own political goals and own organizational belongings. With its work, Serbica Americana can establish spiritual, social, cultural (and political) consensus for the work of organizations who have presented themselves and registered as Serb-American. This is attainable by using civil, cultural, spiritual and technical experiences of others. Serbica Americana wishes to help the Church to represent its people as its most important religious and cultural institution before the face of others, peoples of the same or a different faith. Advocates of the project are the Western American Diocese, Institute for Theological Research (Belgrade), Srpsko Blago, Sebastian Press, and collaboration with the Ministry of Faith and Diaspora of the Republic of Serbia, as well as other institutions in the Homeland and Diaspora is anticipated. The Center has archives, a library and its own website; research findings will be published through Center publications (written or electronic).

It is not easy to live in a "mythical" time as having two lives, as "man who stands in two boats holding it with his legs so they would not separate, with one part in one reality, and with the other part in the second" (V. Pistalo). Identity building is key for every man, but immigrants begin anew, a road sign to it everyone has to personally discover, understanding that geographic-national identities could function truly only when spiritual identity and focus are stable. Only then it makes us free and is unrestraining. Such identity rescinds antagonisms with which we attain death, showing that we do not have enemies since Christ has abolished enmity by giving us power not to die.

Prayerfully wishing a successful solution, in practice and in life, for this important question for us all, I believe that the history-social life of our Serbian people in North America picture above all else a vision of the Kingdom of God which comes in glory. Also I believe that St. Sava will invoke our Lord Christ in the Holy Spirit that Orthodoxy continues to translate in life, which is existentially translated into cultural and social aspects, spontaneously – and fruitfully – giving contemporary and future Christians certainty and freedom to face all challenges, either that it comes for the East or from the West, and for the benefit of the entire human race.