The international mission efforts of North American Orthodox Churches began in 1962 with members of the Lenten Self-Denial Club (LSDC) of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which was under the pastoral care of Fr. Alexander Veronis. They used the money saved by forgoing meals to send religious materials and support to newly planted Orthodox communities in Uganda, Mexico, and Korea.
With the blessings of Archbishop Iakovos and Bishop Silas, Fr. Veronis expanded the LSDC to other communities, and in 1966 the Greek Orthodox Clergy-Laity Congress established the Archdiocesan Foreign Missions Committee. By 1984, the Committee had become the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Mission Center, with Fr. (now Bishop) Dimitrios Couchell as the first Executive Director.
What was once a program of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is now the inter-jurisdictionally supported Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). After forty years of a continually growing base of prayer and sacrificial support, the missions movement of the Church in North America will see the completion of the new Archbishop Anastasios and Archbishop Demetrios Missionary Training and Administration Building in St. Augustine, Florida – the first permanent structure ever built cooperatively by the canonical Orthodox Churches in the Americas. Dedication ceremonies for the new building, led by the two honorees, will be held on May 21.
This new facility’s placement in St. Augustine is appropriate both historically and developmentally. It was in St. Augustine that the St. Photios Shrine was built to remember America’s earliest Greek settlers. Named after the Patriarch credited with sending two of Orthodoxy’s most prolific missionaries to the Slavs (Sts. Cyril and Methodios), the Shrine was also home to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan Mission Center in the 1980s. Later, the Center moved into an old house which was appropriately named “The Fr. Alexander Veronis Mission Center.” St. Augustine would remain home to the Church’s mission efforts even after the Archdiocesan Mission Center became the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, the official missions agency of the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), in 1994. At that time, the Board of Directors was expanded to include representatives of all of the SCOBA jurisdictions.
From its home in St. Augustine, the OCMC has helped Orthodox Christians across North America to answer their call to share the Faith with others. Over the years, they have witnessed and participated in the resurrection of the Church in Albania and Romania after decades of communist oppression, the explosive growth of the Church across Africa, and the establishment of new communities in Asia.
Though the financial support of these Churches, which was the aim of the LSDC, remains an integral part of international Orthodox missions, the efforts of the Church in regards to this work have expanded and evolved in the decades since the LSDC. As awareness of missions grew, the availability of financial resources rapidly expanded, facilitating the training and support of priests serving mission churches around the world. In 1969, Fr. Eugene Pappas was sent by the Archdiocese to assist the struggling Orthodox Church in Korea, becoming the first of many Americans to serve in foreign lands. Fr. Dan and Pres. Nancy Christopulos arrived in Kenya in 1985, becoming the first Orthodox missionaries to serve through what would become the OCMC; and by 1987, a team of faithful from across the United States would join the Kenyan effort by acting as the first Orthodox Mission Team. Also at this time, fundraising initiatives like the Agape Canister Program and Coin Boxes were being employed to raise support for the Church’s many philanthropic projects that served to witness to people in mission lands.
Long-term Missionary service, Orthodox Mission Teams, the theological training and financial support of mission priests, and the funding of ministry and philanthropic projects of the Church abroad have become the core initiatives of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center and the primary means through which North American Orthodox Christians share the Gospel.
This is not an accidental model. The hierarchs of SCOBA have taken great care to encourage the installation of OCMC staff and board members who bring increasingly deep missiological training and understanding to an agency commissioned by them to facilitate this work on behalf of Jesus Christ and His Church. This ensures that the implementation of OCMC’s core initiatives are done in a way that preserves Orthodox theology while respecting the language and culture of a given people group.
This modality, and the Church’s vision to make disciples of all nations, has born much fruit. In Kenya, for example, North American Orthodox Christians, through the OCMC, have supported and taught at an Orthodox seminary in Nairobi, which trains priests who may receive support from American donors to serve a community, whose church was built by an Orthodox Mission Team, and whose school and clinic may have been equipped with an Agape Canister Grant.
For Orthodox Christians the sanctification of a culture and welcoming people into the body of Christ requires ministering to the whole person. Today, OCMC programs work in an integrated fashion to provide this holistic witness.
With the completion of the new Missionary Training and Administration building, under OCMC’s Executive Director Fr. Martin Ritsi, who also served as a Missionary in Africa and Albania, the Orthodox faithful of North America are poised to share the Gospel of Christ at an entirely new level and in ways that may have been unimaginable to those early supporters of missions. In 1987, 25 people served on one Orthodox Mission Team. In 2008, nearly 100 people served on 16 Teams. In 1985 only Fr. Dan and Pres. Nancy were serving as Missionaries. Today there are 12 people serving as Missionaries in three countries. Five more people are preparing to serve, and over 100 people have inquired about long-term service in the past year alone. The program to support a handful of priests in the 1980s has become a vital resource for 354 priests in 18 countries, allowing them to dedicate themselves full-time to ministry. Many of these priests were trained in the seven seminaries that the faithful in North America have come to support over the years.
In fact, Orthodox Christians, through the programs of the OCMC, have served as a living witness to the faith in some 35 countries, but this is just the beginning. The new building is a symbol to the Church’s unwavering commitment to share the light of Christ with the world, and it is a necessary tool in making this work possible. With over half of the facility’s 12,000 square feet dedicated to training new generations of Missionaries and mission workers, the new Mission Center has been built for the needs of today, with a vision for tomorrow.
The new building, along with its 20 acre campus, is an icon of Orthodox missions, and it reflects the intent of the North American faithful to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. It is a monument to those who denied themselves, including Fr. Alexander Veronis, who is still actively serving as President Emeritus on the OCMC Board of Directors, in order to support their brothers and sisters half a world away, and it is a promise that the work of missions will continue for God’s glory and the love of humankind.