Interview with Protopriest Alexis Duncan, Rector of the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Albany, NY during his visit to Russia in September 2013.
Some five years ago, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia reunited. It is difficult to imagine what lay behind the official chronicle of this event. Were we in fact separated? Did we really unite? Protopriest Alexis Duncan, Rector of the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Albany, NY, who is visiting Russia with a youth delegation. We discussed the viewpoint of Russian affairs from across the ocean with Fr Alexis.
-The unification of the Churches met many obstacles: our Soviet past, theological differences, conflicts over property. Maybe we unified too soon?
-Yes, we remember the damage the Soviet Union did with regard to the Church for many, many years. It is impossible to erase all problems and bring healing to everything. But gradually, this is happening… I think that unification was spiritually beneficial for both Churches. We see the progress in your country in its attitude towards the Church in recent years. But problems remain. For instance, we notice the thousands and thousands of people in churches on holidays. But in small churches, were help is probably needed, there are very few. We have the same problem abroad, and this is a problem for society. I think we need to cooperate on this. We have good missionary departments both in Russia and in the Church Abroad.
-Many are skeptical about the prospects for Russian development in the 21 st century. What do you think?
-In my opinion, the fall of the Soviet Union, the division of the Orthodox world, was a provocation by the West. We are all Slavs, Orthodox Christians-Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians-and there is no difference between us. Rebuilding is only beginning now. Maybe with time we will be healed, covering everything with love and patience. This is what we are hoping for. Our Patriarch Kirill is a very wise man, for instance, his visits to Ukraine unite Orthodox Christians, he is received there as a Patriarch. I hope that with God’s help we can become a unified Orthodox world, step by step.
-What does ROCOR think about the fact that the USA equates homosexual unions with normal marriage, and what is your personal opinion as an American citizen?
-We received an official decree from our First Hierarch which discusses the impossibility of recognition of this legislation from a human point of view, and that this is an act in defiance of the Gospel. As a pastor, if a man or woman suffers from this ailment, we must not shun them, but be understanding and merciful. If they repent, we, as the Church, accept them and try to help: this is a sign of Divine love. But in general it is a difficult question. When I was young, I would say that we live in a Christian nation. But I can’t say that anymore. Maybe this is post-Christianity, I don’t know, God knows. This is not a specific issue with regard to the recognition of same-sex marriage or something. It is a sign of apostasy from God in general.
-Have you ever pondered how similar and how different Americans and Russians are
-I grew up during the Cold War among very religious people. Now America is a different world. We hoped that after the fall of the Soviet Union, only the best of what is found in the West would appear in Russia. Unfortunately, Russia adopted some of the very worst. In America, it seems to me, there is almost no culture. We have good people, individually, but society as a whole behaves terribly sometimes. The things we see on TV… Of course, this has a great effect on young people. When I was young, morality still existed in society. Now they live without morals. We see the same in Russia. The influence of the world is very powerful… there are temptations everywhere. Walking the streets of St Petersburg, we saw some disgraceful things.
-How did you and your parishioners feel about Russia’s new “Dima Yakovlev” law?
-This is a complex question for me. I was always against it personally; I think it is a great sin that we take children out of Russia: they have Orthodox roots, but in America, France, Italy, etc, they will be raised Protestant or Catholic… For this reason I feel that children should not be given away to other countries. But if the children are set up with an Orthodox family, then by all means…
-Many saw that the Church should change now to correspond with the times. Do you think that the Church needsreformation?
-I think it would be a mistake to allow changes in the Church. People seek consistency, which is very important. We do not need to modernize our teachings. We have such heroes of faith as St John of Kronstadt, the Optina Elders, St Ignatius Bryanchaninov, all brilliant theologians. We know that there is no faith outside of Orthodoxy-this is something we should say plainly.
-Tell us about your parishioners. You are a descendant of the first wave of immigrants, the ones who fled right after the Revolution.
-Actually, I am not Russian, I am a genuine American; I came to Orthodoxy on my own. We have a lot of recent immigrants from Russia in our parish, but there are also people from the post-War generation. There are many Americans, like me, who converted to Orthodoxy. Our divine services are in Slavonic and English. But we consider ourselves part of the Russian Orthodox Church, and try to preserve the traditions of Russia: the divine services and rules.
-Is your community large? What is the average age of your parishioners?
-By American standards we have a large parish, but by Russian standards, it is small. On Sundays we have about a hundred people. We have a lot of divine services: the feast days, feast days of great saints, during lent. We are a very active parish. On Sundays after Liturgy we have open trapeza luncheons and youth events. Our parish is like a big family, we are all very close. There is no difference between the new and old immigrants, Americans and Greeks, whom we also have in our parish. This is a great gift from God.
-What is your relationship with recent immigrants? Do you help them adjust to their new surroundings?
-Of course, we try to help. If they don’t have enough money for food, for an apartment, we help in any way we can. But the most important thing for them is to sense that they are loved. In this regard there is no difference between new immigrants and Americans. We all seek God. Of course, we have problems sometimes, but I don’t sense any difference between types of parishioners.
–What language do you use for your sermons?
-Both English and Russian. Of course, it is difficult for me to formulate serious ideas in Russian because of my lack of proficiency, but I try to prepare in advance.
–You are involved with the project known as Project Tikhvin. How did this idea originate?
-We have a scout camp called St Seraphim’s, organized 25 years ago with the blessing of our late Metropolitan Laurus (he worked towards the reunification of the Churches). There are about 50 people in the camp now. Once a girl called me from St Petersburg and said that there is a youth camp in the city of Tikhvin, maybe we would like to connect with them? We liked the idea, so last year I brought some youth to Vvedensky Monastery, under Abbess Tavifa, where we worked. It made a great impression on the kids, and I think it was good for all of us. In America, children live in material well-being, so it is important for them to see another world. We lived in cramped quarters, which was a rude awakening for everyone. But they labored, prayer, and it became of spiritually-beneficial event. By the will of God, we will go there every year. Tikhvin is an ancient city. This year we were lucky enough to attend the celebration of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God, together with Bishop Mstislav, Bishop Nazary and Bishop Markell. It was splendid. Vladyka Mstislav served at Vvedensky Monastery. He is a kind , warm person . The kids sensed the love . When we stood together in church, we felt at home. This is very important in rearing children .
-When did you make your first trip to Russia?
-Seven years ago. I went to St Petersburg, Tikhvin, Lodeynoye Polye. I immediately fell in love with St Petersburg, and now I feel that it is my second home.
-What struck you most of all in St Petersburg?
-Its beauty. I love art and architecture, and it was remarkable. There are so many good museums. The city is clean, one could walk in safety, enjoy the wonderful rivers and canals. Magnificent churches, good choirs, in general, church culture is being reestablished…
-How did you come to the Orthodox faith?
-Interesting story. Imagine, I was a young student, and you know that students are always hungry. My friend was a choir director and often invited by to attend services. But I had no interest, so I would refuse. Once he told me that they were planning a Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, and afterwards a free lunch. I agreed, hoping to get a free meal. During Liturgy I looked at an icon of John the Forerunner and suddenly sensed his gaze upon me. It was a remarkable feeling. Since then I have been a member of the Church. Whoever asks me why I converted to Orthodoxy specifically, expecting to hear a story about seeking out the truth, reading theological works, and what do I say? It’s funny…
-How did your friends react to your decision?
-They thought I was crazy. Orthodoxy is not an easy religion, one needs to apply asceticism, fast twice a week and half the year. But my genuine friends understood. My mother and father also became Orthodox, but unfortunately, they died, and I have no other living relatives, except my matushka, of course. I found spiritual brotherhood in Russia .
-Tell us about your wife. How did you meet ? How did she become Orthodox ?
-We met in Chicago; Anya was already Orthodox and sang at Holy Virgin Protection Cathedral. I was a student at Holy Trinity Seminary. We met and soon married.
-What books did you read in your youth which may have helped your spiritual search, or did you have spiritual guides?
-Theology is certainly important. But I always loved to read the lives of the saints of Northern Russia. A cell-attendant named Constantine lived in London and long time ago, and he recommended reading the lives of the saints every day. I think that this is very important. It is important to read St John of Kronstadt’s My Life in Christ. I remember one bishop of the Church Abroad asking another bishop: If you found yourself on a deserted island, and had only one book, which would it be? He replied “My Life in Christ.”
Originally published in “Voda Zhivaya”.