Ancient faith spreads word in new ways
The Rev. Tom Soroka, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks, reaches the Orthodox throughout the country and the world through an Internet radio station called Ancient Faith Radio.
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While most Americans slept, Orthodox Christians gathered outside their churches last night carrying icons and candles for a midnight procession in which they would restore light to the darkened interiors, celebrating Jesus' Resurrection from death.
Easter -- Pascha in Orthodox parlance -- is the joyous highlight of their liturgical year. But most of their neighbors are oblivious to it because different church calendars and calculations usually set Orthodox Easter at a later date than the Catholic and Protestant Easter.
Now, thanks to Internet radio, Orthodox Americans can surround themselves with music and teachings of their church 24/7 on Easter and every other day.
"In my personal opinion, it's been the hand of God working in all of this," said the Rev. Tom Soroka, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks and a popular teacher on Ancient Faith Radio.
"It's unquestionable that it has brought a daily presence of Orthodoxy into the lives of Orthodox Christians, for whom it's often impossible to come to church every day."
Orthodoxy developed in Eastern Europe and Asia when Christianity split into Orthodoxy and Catholicism in 1054, primarily due to conflict over papal authority.
Immigrants brought it to America, where it developed into a collection of overlapping ethnic jurisdictions with overseas leadership, such as the Greek Orthodox Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church. One recent exception is the Orthodox Church in America, a daughter of the Russian Orthodox Church that became self-governing in 1970.
Both Orthodox Internet radio networks are supported by donors and pan-Orthodox, meaning they embrace all ethnicities, but their talk shows are in English. Both offer many podcasts.
OCN, which started as a half-hour program on broadcast radio, is an official ministry of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. It offers two channels that mix talk and music. One features traditional chant, the other contemporary music -- think rock songs about saints. OCN also offers blogs and Web TV.
Ancient Faith Radio has two channels, one for music and the other for teaching.
Easter week is the most listened-to week on Ancient Faith Radio, said founder John Maddex, of Chesterton, Ind., president of Conciliar Media Ministries, an arm of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Last Easter season he was thrilled when the station hit 100,000 downloads a month, but it had 270,000 last month.
OCN, like Ancient Faith Radio, is all-Pascha-all-the-time today, and its contemporary music took a hiatus for Holy Week. Its best known podcaster is Rod Dreher, author of the book "Crunchy Cons" about eco-friendly conservatives. Based in Florida, it draws listeners in 160 nations, but is intended for Americans.
"What we are bringing to the table is an ancient, historical church of Christ that has stood the test of time. Our hope is that people will receive inspiration from the teachings of the church," said the Rev. Chris Metropulos, executive director of OCN.
Ancient Faith has more than 40 podcasters. One of its headliners is Frederica Mathewes-Green, a popular author of books on faith who chronicled her conversion to Orthodoxy.
The Rev. Thomas Hopko, a prominent theologian who retired and moved to Ellwood City, talks about topics from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to President Barack Obama. For liturgical wonks, an ecclesiastical seamstress explains vestments on "The Opinionated Tailor Talks Shop."
The station will soon carry podcasts from Metropolitan Jonah, the new leader of the Orthodox Church in America, who is creating a stir with his call for an American Orthodoxy without overseas governance.
OCN and Ancient Faith Radio are helping to forge an American Orthodox identity, said Terry Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, DC.
"Clearly we are watching the emergence of American pan-Orthodox expressions of Orthodoxy, and you can see that in both of these ministries."
Ancient Faith Radio is better known in Pittsburgh, perhaps because some of its best-known teachers are local. But Father Soroka also hears from English-speaking listeners in Australia, Korea and Germany who have no access to a priest.
"I received permission from my bishop to hear confession over the phone," he said, which is very unusual.
"It has become an extension of my own congregation. As a priest, I've been able to minister to people I never would have been able to reach otherwise, and who might have been lost in some sense to the church."
Ancient Faith began as a ministry of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, whose pastor, the Rev. Patrick Reardon, is a convert and a former professor at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge. His sermons average 5,400 downloads as podcasts -- hardly viral, but still huge.
"Do you know how many people the average Orthodox priest preaches to? If he's got 100 people he's doing well," he said.
Ancient Faith Radio is the creation of a convert.
"This is just a dream come true," said Mr. Maddex, 59, who had an earlier career in evangelical radio, primarily for Chicago's Moody Broadcasting Network, but also at Focus on the Family.
"To be able to use 35 years of radio experience to help serve the church is beyond our fondest imaginations," he said.
About 13 years ago, his daughter became engaged to a student at Moody Bible Institute who had converted to Orthodoxy after discovering it in a church history class. Mr. Maddex knew nothing of Orthodoxy, but was sure it was idolatrous superstition due to its veneration of icons, or images, of Jesus and the saints. He agreed to read a book on it, intending to talk his daughter's fiance out of it.
"It kind of backfired," he said.
He started Ancient Faith Radio as a part-time hobby four years ago and made it his full-time business after he left Moody in 2007. Because Web programming is inexpensive and his podcasters are unpaid, the station has a budget of just $160,000.
"On a smaller scale, we want to be the [National Public Radio] for Orthodoxy, with high quality, compelling programming," he said.
Ms. Mathewes-Green, a Baltimore resident and former commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered," said she enjoys Ancient Faith more because she has fewer restrictions on time and content. Her "Here and Now" podcasts have covered topics from an experimental music festival to liturgy.
She recorded Holy Week reflections on Sixth Century Akathist Hymns, which range from a dialogue between Jesus and his mother on the way to the cross to a humorous piece about the Good Thief who died next to Jesus but found a hostile cherub refusing to admit him to Paradise.
"Younger people who have iPods and are already listening to podcasts are the ones who keep up with Ancient Faith Radio and OCN," said Ms. Mathewes-Green, 56. Her husband, an Orthodox priest, has never heard her podcasts because he doesn't use that technology, she said.
But Internet radio has the potential to carry messages farther than most people would imagine, she said. A few years ago they made a pilgrimage to Ur, in Turkey, the birthplace of Abraham.
"It's about as primitive now as it was then. People are still living in mud huts, but on the roofs of those mud huts were solar panels and satellite dishes. They had TVs, laptops and cell phones. They were able to leap over the 20th century and go wireless without ever having been wired," she said.
Helene Krenitsky, 26, an engineer from Point Breeze, discovered Ancient Faith Radio while she was a student at Penn State. She listens primarily to the music channel but, "if I have a question on a specific topic, I can search through the podcasts and often find something to answer my question," she said.
Kristie Mertz, 40, a stay-at-home mother raising four small children in Greenfield, relies on Ancient Faith Radio for intellectual stimulation.
"I put it on when I'm cleaning so I can forget about what I'm doing, which is pretty boring," she said. "You can get Bible studies, and writings from the early church, from the third century or so, as well as contemporary things."
The programming helps her to create an Orthodox culture in her home, where few of her neighbors understand the traditions.
"To have something like Ancient Faith Radio is priceless. It makes you feel you are not so strange after all," she said.
First Published April 19, 2009 12:00 am