Last summer my son, Niko and a group of other Greek Orthodox young people, traveled to Tijuana, Mexico as part of a mission group. Project Mexico is an ongoing program which involves Orthodox youth and adults in the building of homes for Mexico's poor. It is sponsored by St. Innocent's Orphanage. The orphanage takes in homeless boys, clothes them, feeds them and teaches them a skill before they set off on their own at age eighteen. It is doing amazing work.
Niko has been talking about Project Mexico for years since many of the Camp counselors at the Metropolis Camp in Coontocook, New Hampshire are alumni of the program. Each participant has to raise 2500 in contributions from his parish in order to fund his travel and the building supplies needed for the construction. The home once built is given to a needy family chosen by the local civil authorities and is not based on that family's religious preference. For most of the participant's it was a life changing experience. Nick had never seen real poverty up close until he arrived in Tijuana. Within the time it takes to fly and drive to Tijuana, he and his friends were transported from their carefree middle class American existence to a place where people are living in ramshackle huts made of cardboard and whatever other materials are available, no running water, no inside toilet, and very often, no hope.
The construction work was difficult back breaking work, nevertheless boy and girls worked together. At the end of the day they returned to the orpanage where they were able to eat an evening meal, spend time with the kids who lived there, pray and to rest.. Within a week they completed a two room that might not be up to the standard that many of us are accustomed to but is a real improvement in the quality of life for in what is essentially a third world country.This is not an attempt to pat anyone on the back. The participants got that when they stood in front of the home they built with the family of four that would occupy it.
Last night I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by a young man who is an Orthodox missionary in Albania. Nathan Hoppe, an Orthodox convert along with other members of his team has been doing tremendous work under the auspices of the Archbishop of Albania. What was particularly interesting in the talk he gave was his recounting of the childhood he spent as the son of Christian Missionaries in Colombia. His parents with three small children traveled by foot for days to live with a remote Indian tribe high in the mountains. Only after twenty years of ministering to their medical needs and living like them were they finally able to baptize a member of the tribe. Sitting there listening to him relate this remarkable story I was nothing less than awed by their courage, faith and love for other human beings. They truly epitomized the two key ingredients of a Christian life, faith and works.
In Western Europe during the 16th century, a German monk rebelled at the prevailing
understanding in the West that salvation depended on human works of
merit, and not upon the grace and mercy of God.
This Reformation debate in the West was a non-issue in the Orthodox East. As far as Orthodox Christians were concerned the issue had been settled since the apostolic era. For them, salvation was granted by the mercy of God to righteous men and women. Those baptized into Christ were called to believe in Him and do good works. It has never been "faith VS. works" or "faith OR works," but "faith AND works."
The Orthodox understanding of salvation differs from the Protestant view in
several ways. First, Orthodox Christians
see justification by faith as a covenant relationship centered in union with Christ. Second, Orthodoxy emphasizes it is first God’s mercy – not our faith – which saves us.Third, for Orthodox Christians, faith is a living dynamic, continuous effort. Faith is not something a Christian exercises only at one critical moment, expecting it to cover all the rest of his life. Being a Christian is not just a decision, it’s a way of life.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Orthodox Church has a strong tradition of missionary evangelism. Unlike certain missionary endeavors by western-minded Christians, the Orthodox missionary tradition does not include attempting to impose or promote the specific culture of the missionaries because "God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:34-35). Orthodoxy affirms and utilizes the local language and even customs as long as they are not contrary to Christian beliefs, in worship and prayer. Orthodoxy enters into the culture, embracing all those aspects of a culture that are compatible with the Gospel, thereby "baptizing" the culture with its own citizens. In this way, Orthodoxy was first established in North America-- through the independent missionary activity of Russian and layman and monastics like St. Herman. This efforts led to the conversion of thousands of Aleuts, Eskimo, Tlingit, and other indigenous peoples of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest and brought Orthodoxy to the Americans.
Today this missionary zeal continues. An overview of worldwide Orthodox missionary efforts is beyond the scope of this post. These efforts can be found and are bearing fruit in countries all over the world. For aditional information visit the Orthodox Christian Mission Center Website here.