Jim Koulogeorge served as Orthodox Christian Laity’s first president. He had concerns regarding the concepts of accountability and oversight in matters of Church governance, based on events that occurred in 1987 within the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. He approached Andy Kopan, a close friend and a respected scholar and churchman, to discuss his concerns. Jim then held an initial brainstorming meeting at his home at 4019 Crestwood Drive in Northbrook, Illinois. This meeting was followed by a second organizational meeting which was held at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Glenview, Illinois. About thirty people from throughout the United States attended. It was decided by the founders that Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) would be the independent voice of the laity. Hence, Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) was born. It was decided that Clergy could participate and were welcomed; they did participate initially in the organizational phases. It was later decided that the clergy, who has its own meetings in local clergy associations and with their bishops could be part of OCL as advisors, but would not vote as board members. It was also decided that OCL would be organized as a not-for-profit educational association of likeminded individuals who could join and associate with each other to discuss issues within the framework of the mission of OCL. The Organization would be a catalyst for the renewal of the Orthodox Christian Church in the United States. During the first year a mission statement was developed. This mission statement has not changed during this 25 year period.
The Mission of the Orthodox Christian Laity movement is to be… “an effective advocate for renewal of the Church by challenging the laity of all jurisdictions to assume responsibility for accountability and transparency in Church Governance and by urging laity and clergy to work for the an administratively United Orthodox Church in North America”. The active participation of the Royal Priesthood — the People of God — provides balance and good order in the life of the Church. OCL does not get involved in individual parish affairs but seeks to see the big picture of a renewed Church. It does not seek to alter the theology and traditions of the Orthodox Christian Church. The focus of the programs that OCL offers is to promote Orthodox Christian Renewal through administrative accountability, transparency and unity so that a multicultural church in the Americas can more efficiently use the stewardship resources of the faithful, and provide better outreach to our children, grandchildren, neighbors, seekers, and un-churched. A renewed and unified Orthodox Church will be better able to fulfill its Apostolic mission in North America….to bring the good news to all.
The Word, the official publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, Vol. 33, No. 9, November, 1989 to the 39th General Assembly stated that:
“A group of Greek laymen …organized the Orthodox Christian Laity identified in its literature as a spontaneous grassroots reform movement….The significance of the movement lies in the attention it throws on incipient clergy-laity tensions and administrative responsibility. If it survives, a new dimension may be added to Orthodox church life in America.”
Not only has OCL survived these past 25 years, it has thrived and we find that the institutionalized Church seems to constantly react to the ideas and positions put forth by OCL.
I have been asked to write about my “term” as the second President of Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) which took place during 1989 and 1990. This is an impossible task for me because my involvement does not seem to have ended. But, as with all stories, this one does have a beginning.
My involvement with the OCL began with an invitation to attend a small dinner gathering at the home of Jim and Mary Koulogeorge in Northbrook, Illinois, more than twenty-five years ago. Jim and Mary were among the founders of the Saints Peter & Paul Parish in Glenview, Illinois, a community that I had only recently joined after moving into the area from my “home” parish of Saints Constantine & Helen in the southern suburbs of Chicago.
The invitation came from my “cousin-in-law”, the late Dr. Andrew T. Kopan, the husband of my first cousin Alice Orphanos Kopan. Dr. Kopan was a distinguished scholar, University Professor and extraordinary Orthodox layperson. He had been honored as an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with the title: “Didaskalos tou Genous” and had served the Church in many capacities, locally, nationally and internationally. He was one of the founders and early National Chairman of the Greek Orthodox Youth of America (GOYA) organization following his military service during the Second World War.
When I arrived at Jim and Mary’s home I was surprised to meet a number of guests from around the U.S., who had all come in for the meeting. They included the late Sotiri Tsoustouras, another former National Chairman of GOYA from Malba, NY, and Dr. William Tenet, a cardiologist from New York City and a close friend and co-worker of Sotiri’s in their parish, as well as a close friend of the late Archbishop Iakovos, of blessed memory. Also from New York was Minerva Stergianopoulos, a tireless Church woman in her parish as well as at the Archdiocese in Manhattan. In addition to the New Yorkers, we were joined by Jim Demetrion from Cincinnati, Ohio, Dr. James Counelis, an Archon, from Oakland, California and Leon Marinakos, an Archon from Chicago. These and the other guests at that small gathering had several things in common: they were all very devout, practicing Orthodox lay persons; they had all served the Church in many distinguished capacities over many years; and, they all shared a deep concern over the direction of the Church in America and a desire to form a grass roots movement to raise awareness and bring about the renewal they believed to be necessary for the Church to grow and fulfill its apostolic mission in America.
Although baptized and raised in the Church, and having served as an acolyte, choir member, youth advisor and Parish Council member at my home parish, I was blown away by the people I met that evening. Andy and Alice were family. I had been blessed to have celebrated holidays with them and I had attended adult bible study classes taught by Andy and Dr. Counelis at Saints Constantine & Helen while in college and law school. Every conversation with Andy was a cherished “teaching moment”. But I had never met their friends and colleagues from the “Old GOYA” days who had gathered that evening in Jim and Mary’s home. There is not an ounce of false modesty when I confess that I did not feel like I belonged in that meeting. I was there only because of the happy coincidence of my relationship with Andy … through Alice… and because, as it turned out, these folks had already decided that a lawyer was going to have to be involved to set up a non-for-profit organization and to secure a 501(c) (3) tax status for what was at that point an idea that did not even have a name.
That meeting was followed by others: lengthy discussions and healthy debates about the name of the movement. Advice from many clergy to the effect that, while open to clergy who might be willing to act as “advisors”, the movement had to be a lay movement, because only an independent movement of the laity would have the freedom to speak clearly and without fear of retribution from arbitrary and capricious Church leaders unaccustomed to calls for transparency and accountability. A grass roots movement of dedicated and involved lay persons who had not been “appointed” to a Council or Board or Committee, could not be “fired” by anyone.
In short order the name was chosen, the movement was organized, the Charter drawn up, bylaws approved, and its first news release and publications announced. Jim Koulogeorge was appointed by the incorporators to serve as the first president, until there could be an annual meeting of members convened to elect a president. Because of the nation-wide friendships of its founders, forged through GOYA, Orthodox Christian Laity became a national organization practically over-night. At its height in the 1950’s and 1960’s GOYA had more than 35,000 members and its National Conventions were very well attended and hugely successful. Local Chapters elected their own officers, and the leadership at the national level were elected at these National Conventions. According to the late Fr. George Scoulas, of blessed memory and a member of that GOYA generation and an early advisor to OCL, stated that “the generation of Church leaders formed through GOYA represents the last chance for the formation of a national lay movement because of the friendships they formed in GOYA”.
Although intentionally organized to be pan-Orthodox, since the incorporators were all members of the Greek Archdiocese, the first order of business was to inform the local Bishop and the Archbishop of the existence of OCL and to ask for their blessings. Copies of the Charter and Bylaws were sent to the Diocese on Burton Place in Chicago and to the Archdiocese on East 79th Street in New York and meetings were requested and ultimately granted.
The meeting with Bishop Iakovos at the Diocese in Chicago was cordial; coffee and sweets were served. In the language used by diplomats it can be said that the meeting involved “a full and fair exchange of views”. The mission and goals of OCL were presented to the Bishop and his blessing was requested. The Bishop noted that the Church had survived without an organization like OCL for 2,000 years and it didn’t need such an organization now. Archon Marinakis pointed out that while we all trusted Christ’s promise to be with us until “the end of times”, there is no guaranty that the Orthodox Church will survive in America without the active and informed participation of Hierarchs, Priests and laity; and pointed out the many places where the Church once was and is no longer. The meeting ended as cordially as it had begun, with the Bishop giving his blessing to all of us “as individuals”, but “not as an organization.”
The meeting with Archbishop Iakovos, of blessed memory, was held, at his invitation at the Church of Our Savior in Rye, NY. The Archbishop arranged for a gracious luncheon served by the Ladies Philoptochos, after which he listened with great interest to all of the concerns expressed by OCL’s board members as well as the mission and goals of the group, including its call for Orthodox Unity and transparency and accountability in Church governance. The Archbishop summarized what each participant had said, recognized the sincerity of everyone, noting that many were close friends and co-workers of his for many years. He indicated that he was in agreement with the broad mission and goals of the movement and encouraged us all to work hard to bring about the results we all aspired to. When he was asked at the conclusion of the meeting to give his official, formal blessing to OCL, he demurred indicating that he had “many enemies” within the Church. He recounted that he had received death threats after marching with Rev. Martin Luther King; that he had once been threatened with arrest and prosecution in Greece for advocating the use of English in the liturgy in America, and that he felt that his official blessing would “do more harm than good” to our movement. Fatherly hugs and kisses on cheeks were exchanged. A photo with the Archbishop on the steps of the Church recorded the event and OCL went forth into the GOA “wilderness” for the next quarter century.
Over the years there have been some periods of qualified acceptance (as an exhibitor at Clergy- Laity Congresses, and recently as a donor to the work of the Episcopal Assembly) and at other times non-acceptance where Churches’ facilities have been denied for OCL meetings. The tension within the OCL has always been between being an activist advocacy movement or an educational ministry working to move its agenda solely by its publications, conferences and websites. Depending upon the times and its budget, it has been both.
Over the years we have been blessed by having Archbishop Nathaniel from the Romanian Diocese of the OCA as our spiritual advisor, and a number of distinguished clergy on our Advisory Board. The growing number of board members from other jurisdictions have transformed OCL into what it was always intended to be: a pan-Orthodox voice calling for Orthodox Unity of the Church in America. OCL continues to advocate for the same things it was formed to champion… an administratively united, autocephalous local Church, under a single Synod of Canonical Orthodox Bishops, with its roots in America – reaching out to those who are searching for a home in the Orthodox Church, without regard to secular ethnicity. We are advocates for a Church that is governed in accordance with the highest standards of transparency and accountability; a Church in the New World, free from foreign domination and adaptable to new generations without compromising its doctrinal tenets and transcendental truths.
Soterios Tsoutsouras of Blessed Memory served the Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) presidency during the years 1990-92. He brought great energy, vision and dedication to the office. He was ably assisted by Nick Karakas as Vice President and George Karcazes, as immediate past president.
Soterios had the idea to develop a study of the issues related to the renewal of the Greek Orthodox Church which eventually led to the publication, “Project for Orthodox Renewal,” which was relevant to all Orthodox Christian groupings in the United States. It was a three year grass roots project. The project’s directors were selected by the OCL board of directors. They were Steven Sfekas from Baltimore, now serving his community as a judge, and George Matsoukas, a retired educator, now serving as executive director of OCL since 2000. Hundreds of faithful were involved in defining the issues, serving as focus groups, and providing input. Two annual meetings were devoted to gathering reactions and obtaining data. There were seven topics approved by the membership at the Third Annual Meeting of OCL for project development. The topics and chairpersons/authors were: “Faith, Language, and Culture” – Charles Moskos; “Spiritual Renewal” – George Matsoukas; “Orthodox Women and Our Church” – Eva Topping; “Mission and Outreach” – Father Mark Arey and Father Steven Vlahos; “Selection of Hierarchy” – George Karcazes; “Administration and Accountability” – Sotiri Tsoutsouras; and “Orthodox Unity” – Andrew Kopan.
The project was completed in 1993 and presented to Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar in 1994. It has been reviewed in many journals. The findings and recommendations of the Project for Orthodox Renewal are relevant today because the issues have not been addressed by the Institutionalized church hierarchy. It is interesting that the findings are similar to the study undertaken by a commission appointed by Archbishop Iakovos in 1986 and reported in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review 1989, Pages 283-306 but the full report came out after the publication of the “Project for Orthodox Renewal.”
During these initial years OCL membership grew and members of other Orthodox Christian groupings saw the need for an independent educational association such as OCL and began to join its membership ranks. Dr. Varghese Mathew, OH; Laura Jones PA and Keith Sterzings, TX were elected to the OCL board of directors. Their perspectives helped OCL broaden its outlook. The success of the organization remains its committed board members who are participating members of their parish communities and live within the sacramental life of the Church. They have attended all board functions and meetings all these years at their own expense and donate a yearly contribution to the organization.
In this pre internet age, The Forum Publication, edited by Nicholas Nicolaou and printed by Steve Stamatis, was the main communication vehicle of Orthodox Christian Laity. It was published three times a year and the membership looked forward to receiving the news from the point of view of OCL. The OCL mailing list consisted of over 4,000 recipients of this news forum. OCL pioneered the use of the internet as early as 1994 and in 2012 the format and the communication outlet that the internet provides was updated. Check it out at www.ocl.org.
As president of Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) I was totally committed to promoting transparency and accountability in matters of church administration within the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the archdioceses of all other jurisdictions. The dubious facts about insider use of funds for land development and issues related to the Cathedral Towers at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese were the issues of the day. These events caused thoughtful stewards of the church to see transparency and accountability as the way to do the work of the Church. These issues relating to Church administration were some of the reasons that led to the founding of Orthodox Christian Laity.
These administrative issues coincided and preoccupied my presidency and were on the minds of the lay leadership throughout the Church. I regret that in all these intervening years that the Church has become more regressive in administrative matters and seems to think that it can conduct its business as a private foundation relying on moneyed elites to protect it from disclosure of funds that relate to improprieties taking place within the Church. The Church leaders with appointed lay enablers have separated itself from its flock in matters of administration and accountability. They use secular models, viewing the Church as a business. Even the Archbishop sees himself as an exarch-leader of foreign interests- rather than a spiritual leader. This behavior is contrary to our Orthodox Christian ethos and our American Democratic ethos. Look what “cover up” has accomplished for the Roman Catholic Church!
Accountability and transparency are issues that need constant monitoring by the faithful. At the Clergy Laity Congress, of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) in New Orleans 1992, members of its parish delegations passed a resolution calling for the election of diocesan and archdiocesan lay leaders. The hierarchs could appoint a number of members to the council and others would be elected to these boards at diocesan meetings. The delegates also decried the fact that the legislative prerogatives of the delegates were being negated because the Patriarchate would not ratify the work of the Congress delegates. Because these issues were a priority for OCL, the Archdiocese reacted by considering OCL a Para-Ecclesial organization, not realizing as they would learn from a court decision initialed by them, that members of an ecclesiastical body have the right to communicate with each other. They still do not want to accept that our Orthodox Christian ethos and our American heritage enable likeminded individuals to form associations and meet and discuss issues of importance to them. Until 2004 the Clergy-Laity Congresses of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese had legislative prerogatives. Now their responsibilities are minimal, if non-existent.
Other priorities of my presidency included organizing and implementing a press conference in 1994 in Manhattan to present the completed three year study, “Project for Orthodox Renewal,” in book form. The conference was lively and included the ethnic and mainstream press. In November 1994 the book was also presented to His All Holiness at the Phanar by a delegation of OCL members who met with him. The work was reviewed favorably around the world and its methodology was cited by the National Education Ministry of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. It remains a blueprint and road map for renewal of Orthodox Christianity in North America. It is unfortunate that the Hierarchs of all groupings have not unified their resources to face the issues that still keep our faith less effective in its Orthodox Mission. The Section on ‘Orthodox Unity’ in the book suggested that a Council of Canonical Bishops be developed to move ahead toward Unity. OCL membership supports the work of such a Council which was finally established in 2008.
Other highlights of my presidency were the two delegations of OCL members that were brought to the Patriarchate in 1994 and 1995. The first delegation included George and Roula Karcazes, Lenny Zangas, Peter Marudas, George Coupounas, George Matsoukas and President Nick Karakas. We had an informal and open discussion with His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew who graciously accepted the OCL book, “Project for Orthodox Renewal.” We discussed the future of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the USA and Orthodox Christian Unity in North America. His All Holiness told us that a Great and Holy Council would be convened before the end of the 20th Century to discuss issues that concerned the faithful in the United States. Little did we realize that he had grand plans to use the American Church to shore up his Patriarchate by dismembering the Archdiocese and have our bishops’ report to him directly with their new titles as Metropolitans.
The second visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate also included a pilgrimage to The Holy Land and a meeting with Patriarch Diodoros I of blessed memory. We discussed the state of the Church in the Holy Land. We discussed the role of the Arab Christians and their relationship to the Patriarchate. We also suggested that it would be a wonderful opportunity for the Patriarchate and youth from America to come to the Holy Land like a Peace Corps experience and help the Patriarchate maintain the Holy Shrines. The trip remains a positive experience for the 35 members of OCL who participated because of the extraordinary opportunities afforded to us by our Holy Land guide Bishop Nikiforos.
OCL was excited about the Enthronement of Archbishop Spyridon 1997-1999 and a delegation attended this event. Many faithful thought it was a turning point because he was born in the United States. We were prayerful of, and hopeful for, his success. An OCL delegation met with his Eminence on two occasions. OCL, at his request, developed a study on the Challenge of Outreach and another on the Female Diaconate.
My tenure as president was successful because of the assistance and team work of board members including Soteri Tsoutsouras, Alice and Andrew Kopan, George Karcazes, Nicholas Nicholaou and George Matsoukas who succeed me in 1997, to name a few. An additional personal note that I want to convey is that no American group or organization, especially a church body, can isolate itself from the ethos of its milieu. Our churches should be fully committed to work in openness and full administrative disclosure. The laity, who are the stewards of the church, and heirs of their grandparents who built most of the buildings, need to remain vigilant and demand openness on all levels of church administration. This is their duty if they are truly committed to Orthodoxy.
The events of September 11, 1998 – fourteen years ago – galvanized my presidency of Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL). On that day the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) of North and South America, Inc as it was known then, filed a law suit against the laity of the Archdiocese. Why? It said it wanted to protect the members of the Archdiocese from “irreparable and other harm” to the “faithful of the Church from harassment, annoyance and invasion of their privacy arising out”…of the misconduct of the defendants, the Greek Orthodox American Leaders, Inc (GOAL). Two OCL board members served on the GOAL board, I as president and George Coupounas as the president elect. It was during my presidency that OCL developed a synergistic relationship with GOAL which was formed to address the issues of the GOA in transition.
If we go back a couple of years we can see the necessity of our actions. Dynamic Archbishop Iakovos ruled a fairly autonomous Greek Orthodox Archdiocese for 34 years. Iakovos was forced to retire in 1996. The Patriarchate had other ideas for this Archdiocese which continue to unfold to this day. The Patriarchate was in a quest to divide the Archdiocese and bring it directly under its control in order to shore itself as a force in the world. This was accomplished with the help of appointed lay leadership, ambitious clergy and hierarchy loyal to the Patriarchate and the caretaker archbishops who were appointed after the resignation of Archbishop Iakovos.
The Patriarch unilaterally reorganized the Archdiocese in a short window of opportunity –just after the resignation of Archbishop Iakovos and before the Enthronement of Archbishop Spyridon. He redefined the geographic boundaries of the Archdiocese and made the bishops titular Metropolitans reporting to Istanbul and not to the faithful in America or to the Archbishop. This unprecedented patriarchal action weakened the position of ‘Archbishop’ after the forced retirement of Archbishop Iakovos. Archbishop Spyridon, chosen for his loyalty to Istanbul, was nevertheless isolated in his role as Archbishop under this new arrangement. He was also resented by the American Eparchial Synod, because though born in the USA, he had not been a member of the Synod. There were, of course, other issues during this turbulent period, but these were among the most important ones.
So, what was GOALS’ misconduct in this state of affairs? It was this: GOAL utilized the mailing list of the Archdiocese to educate the faithful about the issues of the day, as part of an effort to save the Archdiocese, quite literally, from itself. Do you remember the issues of the day? They included:
- The accreditation of Holy Cross seminary which was in jeopardy
- The authority of the governing board of the seminary had been undermined
- Three professors had been dismissed
- News was circulated that there were plans to develop a new Charter for the Archdiocese.
In the end, GOAL was exonerated. The court ruled that members of the Archdiocese have a right to communicate with each other. I would like to note that OCL is frequently accused of having brought the Archdiocese to court over the Charter issue- at a later date-but this never happened. The Charter issue was brought to court by individual members of the Archdiocese. OCL did not sue the GOA nor did GOAL. Ironically, it was the Archdiocese that launched a legal attack in the civil courts against GOAL and its members. GOAL did sunset when Archbishop Demetrios was appointed.
From 1999-2004 the education of the laity over the Charter issue for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese became the responsibility of OCL. This story will be told by OCL presidents who assumed leadership in those years.
It is good to remember what happened 14 years ago and to ask ourselves, “Are we better off today, given what has happened in the GOA since this time?” It seems nothing has changed at the GOA if you read the Orthodox Observer. The same old faces are in place, the same people receive the same awards over and over again. The Charter that was imposed on the Archdiocese has taken the last remnants of autonomy from the GOA of America. It was Archbishop Demetrios who told us in Philadelphia, soon after his Enthronement, to “trust him” regarding the Charter.
Other highlights of my 1997-1998 presidency of OCL include:
- The development and implementation of the OCL Occasional Papers Series. Two papers were published in 1997: Transition, Renewal: One Faith, One Church, by His Grace of Blessed Memory Bishop Iacovos of Catania and, The Theological Foundation of the Role of the Laity in the Church, by Dr Daniel Sahas. To date a total of six ‘Occasional Papers’ have been printed; three books have been published; and three audio-video productions entitled OCL Great Events of American Orthodoxy Series.
- The OCL web site www.ocl.org was pioneered in the Orthodox Christian world of communications during my presidency in 1997. Check out the YouTube presentations of speakers involved in our 25 Annual Meetings and Special Forums.
- The celebration of the 10th Anniversary of OCL held at the Harvard Club and Holy Cross Seminary was a highpoint for me. The topic and setting were significant. The event took place as the Archbishopric of His Eminence Spyridon was in crisis over the curriculum, tenure of professors, authority of the board and vision for the Seminary. The topic, “The American Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate” brought together outstanding and thoughtful thinkers. The proceedings of this meeting were published in book form under the same title and is relevant today as the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops meet and deliberate to develop a blueprint-foundation for a unified, self-governing Orthodox Christian Church in the United States.
It was a privilege to serve as President of OCL 1997-1998 but it is also a tremendous honor to serve OCL as its Executive Director since 2000. I have worked directly with all OCL presidents. Each one of them has brought a special gift to the office. They have been leaders of vision, dedication, passion, authenticity. They are devoted and devout Orthodox Christians. They love the theology, traditions, and customs of our Orthodox Christian heritage in America. They together with the board members, advisors and membership of OCL are committed to working in synergy with the Holy Spirit and the Assembly of Canonical Bishops, clergy and laity of all Orthodox Christian groupings in the USA to build a unified, self-governing, missionary- spirited canonical Church. The best is yet to come!
George Coupounas, of blessed memory, was concerned during his presidency in improving the efficiency of the administrative structure of Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) and Orthodox Christian Unity. He served on the board of the Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL) and this experience helped him to realize that the future of Orthodoxy in America would be better served if the fourteen different Orthodox groupings could find common ground and move ahead as a unified church. He was adamant that a more unified church could better utilize the stewardship gifts that the laity provides to the church just by eliminating the waste in the duplication of services each grouping provides. A more consolidated approach to clergy insurances and retirement plans would better serve our clergy and our people.
During his tenure three members of the OCL board met at the Antiochian Archdiocese in Englewood, New Jersey with Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch, Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Archdiocese, and the newly elected Metropolitan Archbishop Paul of Australia, New Zealand and Philippines just before his Eminence Paul departed for his new assignment to Australia. His Holiness Metropolitan Ignatius talked about the need for a worldwide Orthodox Christian Secretariat Office that could house representatives of all the Old World Patriarchs so that people wanting to interact with Orthodox hierarchs would have only one place to go. He would discuss such an idea with Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Executive Board of OCL under the leadership of George Coupounas also met with Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, Metropolitan Theodosius of the Orthodox Church in America and Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Archdiocese to discuss the idea of Orthodox Unity in the United States. These meetings took place at their respective archdioceses.
It was during George Coupounas’s tenure that OCL redefined the position of Executive Director and appointed George Matsoukas to that position in the Spring of 2000. Mr. Matsoukas, a former president of OCL and retired educator, has served in this position these past 12 years and has assisted in keeping the organization focused on its mission. It was during this time period that he was encouraged to meet with other independent lay organizations including the Voice of the Faithful which was located in the Boston, MA area and was in contact with the Jewish Outreach Institute, NY, NY.
The year 2001 was an extraordinary transitional and eventful time in many unexpected ways organizationally and personally. The initial Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) organizers believed the “readiness moment” had arrived in 1987 to consider forming a group to serve as “catalysts” in Orthodox Christian renewal and reform. These dedicated volunteers were well versed with the complex church-related issues and crises over the many decades and they cared deeply about the future of Orthodoxy in America.
During this initial formative period Andrew Kopan and I agreed to serve as occasional consultants since we believed in the OCL mission and our dear friends were urging us to participate in this new challenging movement. Our personal lifestyle was so heavily overloaded that we felt our involvement would be temporary and limited. Upon reflection, we were astounded that OCL’s activities overtook our lives. Our home office became the unofficial OCL auxiliary center and the reluctant Kopans became unequivocally involved in OCL’s endless and varied projects including most of the meeting planning. It even included planning and directing the only OCL Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in October, 1994.
Fourteen years later in 2001, I finally accepted the OCL presidency. Unknowingly, it was a horrific time for me to say “yes.” Like all organizations, OCL had unique challenges, but more importantly, my husband Andrew was facing serious life-threatening health issues that were difficult to diagnose at that time. Somehow, OCL’s activities were expanded. It became a year of exhaustive and increased involvement and dialogue with clergy, laity and hierarchs of all fourteen Orthodox jurisdictions.
To all the faithful groups, OCL reinforced the critical complexities facing our divided and diverse Orthodox Church in America and repeatedly underscored the NEED for jurisdictional unity by sharing with them empirical and interpretive data. Self-governance and transparency were also highlighted with the many handouts and literature that were forwarded to them. OCL urged the hierarchs to consider these issues at their synodical deliberations. In addition, OCL played an active and vital role in informing the Greek Orthodox parishes about the flawed and far-reaching implications if the proposed revised GOA charter was officially accepted at the Clergy-Laity Congress. Serious “alerts” and gatherings took place to inform the faithful of the long term consequences of approving the new GOA charter.
OCL Board members attended more inter-jurisdictional assemblies of the various Orthodox churches. In Spring 2001 Andrew and I met with the late Archbishop Iakovos at his home in New York. During our two-hour social “reunion” we were pleased to hear that His Eminence always felt that there were “good thinkers in OCL and that we must continue to seek good thinkers.” We reminded him of his 1983 Sunday of Orthodoxy Encyclical which stated…”while we belong to one another, we have actually lived and are continuing to live apart from one another…we are one Church, a Church whose survival and preservation were earned and sealed in martyrdom….”
For the first time OCL Board members and advisors worked throughout the entire year participating in rigorous strategic planning seminars in addition to our quarterly Board meetings. Our goal was to review and conduct an in-depth analysis of OCL’s mission in the new Millennium. These spirited and laborious sessions helped to chart the direction for the future of OCL.
In addition, aggressive and expanded activities took place in the areas of membership, print media, OCL’s website, and Inter-Orthodox quarterly ‘Open Forums ‘ with increased attendance and networking with local community groups. We updated the OCL “Q & A Brochure” and adopted St. Photini as our second patron saint. St. Symeon the New Theologian was adopted in 1991.
In order to reach a broader audience, OCL reprinted some of the seminal handouts for distribution. An important link included the enlarged OCL FORUM quarterly publication. As president, I also initiated a monthly Board Briefs Memo for all board members and advisors. A major goal was to try to strengthen the Board by having all members serve on committees that were functional, and to have their outstanding talents and skills utilized more effectively. And yes, they rose to each occasion admirably. We even paused to honor and “roast and toast” the outgoing editor, Nicholas Nicholaou, who faithfully served as editor for over 10 years.
Lengthy and numerous discussions during both the 2000 and 2001 years culminated with the OCL Board’s approval to subsidize the reprinting of the informative book TOWARD AN AMERICAN ORTHODOX CHRUCH by A.Bogolepov. St. Vladimir’s Press cordially agreed to the unusual practice of a full page acknowledgment. Our spring, 2001 Board meeting was held on the campus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and attendees received “hot-off-the press” copies of the book. This reprint publication was also sent to all sixty Orthodox hierarchs by OCL.
This 2001 year was also transitional at our OCL headquarters. After fourteen years of “free” space in downtown Chicago, a detailed objective committee report was developed which highlighted various options and concerns with each possible new location. After an exhaustive review the board chose Detroit, Michigan. Much effort was exerted logistically in order to have an efficient and smooth transition by the deadline date. A few years later the OCL office was moved to Florida.
And then, America and the world mourned as we faced the tragic terrorist attack on the United States on 9/11. OCL’s press release and statement joined all citizens in mourning the loss of innocent lives and prayed for an end to the cycle of hatred and intolerance. Indeed, 2001 turned out to be an eventful and potent transitional year in so many varied ways.
“T’was the Best of Times, T’was the Worst of Times”
These lines from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, although perhaps a bit of a cliché, sum up the feelings that all of us who served on the Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) Board experienced during this crucial time in the history of our organization and more importantly in the growth and development of the Orthodox Church in America.
The goals of OCL are threefold – spiritual renewal, clarity and transparency in issues of church governance and achieving administrative unity of Orthodox jurisdictions in America. Although issues relating to these goals have been addressed by every administration, the emphasis has changed as the times changed. During my tenure as president the focus was on church governance. My colleagues and I believed that the establishment of an autonomous Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) was an essential first step to administrative unity. Other Orthodox jurisdictions had indicated their willingness to go in that direction but were waiting for the GOA to make the first move.
As we entered into a new millennium there was a great deal of excitement and anticipation that major administrative changes for our Church were coming. The Ligonier Conference in 1994 with its promise of Orthodox Unity, the “retirement” of Archbishop Iakovos as the head of the GOA, the brief but stormy tenure of his successor Archbishop Spyridon and substantive meetings within the Ecumenical Patriarchate to review and redo the charter of the GOA were all indications that change was on the way. We all believed that the GOA Clergy/Laity Congress of 2002 would be crucial in moving us to an autonomous Greek Orthodox Church in America.
However in order to better understand the historical context of the time we must take into account the turbulent tenure of Archbishop Spyridon (1996-1999), the successor to Archbishop Iakovos. Spyridon lacked strong leadership skills, was unable to articulate a coherent vision of the future of the Church and his unpredictable and often controversial management style offended many of the rank and file members of the GOA. In 1997 a lay organization called Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL) was established and lobbied for his removal. OCL established a synergistic relationship with GOAL because many of our Board members were sympathetic with the objectives of GOAL. The Archbishop was eventually removed from office.
In the summer of 1999 Spyridon’s successor Archbishop Demetrios was installed as the leader of the GOA. One of the most important outcomes of the Spyridon debacle was the emergence of an energized and articulate laity who believed that they had a stake in the governance and organizational concerns of the GOA. As a result of the awakening of the laity to the possibility of shaping the future of church governance, there was the continued synergy between OCL and GOAL and the opportunity for financial underwriting of a campaign to inform the faithful of their options. The time was ripe for OCL to take action.
Given that the issue of the revision of the Charter would be on the agenda of the 2002 Congress, OCL decided to spearhead the effort to provide the faithful with the necessary information to make informed decisions about the Charter itself and the future direction of their Church. Keep in mind that the Charter, which had nothing to do with religious doctrine, beliefs or dogma, was the instrument of establishing the relationship between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the GOA. It provided the directives for how the Archdiocese was to be governed. The Archdiocese is also a religious corporation chartered by the State of New York, and the charter spelled out the way it could be amended. Prior to the 2002 Charter, there were four different Charters, each of which had been approved and accepted by a Clergy/Laity Congress and by the Patriarchate.
In preparation for the 2002 Congress, the GOA circulated a draft of the new charter that had the approval of the Ecumenical Patriarchate but which many individuals felt was regressive. In anticipation of the charter discussion at the Congress, OCL embarked on a major educational effort. More than 100,000 Greek Orthodox faithful were reached through special mailings describing the proposed changes. Countless informational forums were held throughout the country, and parishes circulated petitions calling for the adoption of a more progressive document. All in all it was a very expensive campaign to mount but many individuals from throughout the Archdiocese underwrote the effort and OCL fortunately did not incur a large debt.
Needless to say the Congress was a chaotic affair but the outcome was favorable to our concern. By an overwhelming majority the delegates approved a document which in essence called for the creation of an autonomous Greek Orthodox Church in America, i.e. that:
- The Archbishop of the GOA was to be selected from a list of three (3) candidates proposed by a Synod of the Bishops of the GOA.
- Bishops of the GOA Synod were to be locally elected.
- The Church in America was to be recognized as both hierarchical and conciliar, meaning that there was to be full participation of clergy and laity in governance and decision making.
Unfortunately the Patriarchate imposed its own version of the revised Charter which did not include the changes requested by the 2002 Congress. OCL attempted to establish dialogue with the GOA leadership to explore options and alternatives but were rebuffed at every turn. Finally as a last resort, thirty-four prominent lay leaders including Archons, members of the Archdiocesan Council and Leadership 100 as well as former presidents of OCL initiated legal action asking that the Supreme Court of the State of New York enforce the amendment provision of the Charter. However the Court granted the Archdiocese a ‘Motion to Dismiss’ on the basis it had no jurisdiction in a religious dispute. Efforts to appeal the court’s decision were also rebuffed so the Charter imposed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate became the governing document of the GOA.
The Patriarchate also restructured the GOA and set up a series of Metropolitans directly responsible to Constantinople to replace the Auxiliary Bishops who previously had reported to Archbishop Demetrios. Finally at the 2004 Clergy Laity Congress delegates were asked to approve a new set of Regulations (Bylaws) which in many instances were harsh and authoritarian in both intent and content. Despite OCL’s efforts to defer approval of the Regulations until the 2006 Congress so that parishes could have the opportunity to review and comment on them, we were overruled and the revised regulations were passed by voice with no real opportunity for discussion.
So indeed what began as the “best of times” devolved into the “worst of times” when many of the faithful believed a breakthrough to a more open system of governance and the real possibility of the establishment of an autonomous GOA were quashed. However as part of our mission we continue to speak out for transparency and accountability in the governance of the GOA.
Lest you all think that the “charter” was the only concern of OCL during this time, other important actions were taking place, e.g. the acquisition of the website Orthodox News which gave us the opportunity to share news and commentary with our Orthodox colleagues; hosting “The Orthodox Christian Ministries Networking Conference” in Cleveland in 2003, which focused on multijurisdictional social and educational activities; the exploration of a home for our OCL archives; and, the creation of an OCL Endowment Fund which would help underwrite our activities hopefully for the next twenty five years.
My three years of service as your OCL President was an exciting and challenging time – and without the assistance and support of all of the faithful both OCL colleagues and other concerned individuals, I would never have survived. My thanks to you all.
It was in 1999 that I realized there was only one group of Orthodox Christians working on the most important problem in our Church – unity. Unity was, and still is, Orthodoxy’s ‘Achilles Heel’. After working for fifteen years on the founding and development of St. Luke Parish in Palos Hills, IL (OCA 1984), I decided that before passing to the Lord (the Lord willing, of course) maybe could do my little part in the quest for unity here in America. After going to one of Orthodox Christian Laity’s (OCL’s) Chicago meetings I decided that this was a serious and highly qualified lay group and one to join and help.
My experience as a member of the Board began that same year in 1999 at a meeting in Ft. Lauderdale. Our meetings were held quarterly and in different locations in the USA. After a few years of this interaction I was able to get a reasonably good ‘handle’ on the position of the Orthodox at the local level. It was obvious that in most cases the local parish priest felt strongly about unity, particularly in the Orthodox Church of America (OCA) and the Antiochian Archdioceses. At this time the OCL was working hard on issues within the Greek Archdiocese under Presidents: G. Coupounas, A. Kopan and P. Haikalas. In the mean time I took on more responsibility as a Vice President working on membership and in, my mind, trying to make the OCL more Pan-Orthodox.
Soon I was able to attract members to the Board and Advisory Board. Those coming from the Antiochian Archdiocese were Frs. Peter Gillquist (Memory Eternal), Gordon Walker and Michael Massouh; and from the OCA, Fr. Thomas Hopko and Kh. Frederica Matthews-Green. Lay people included: Cal Oren (Antiochian), Teva Regule (Romanian, OCA) and Anthony Kasmer (OCA). All of these people made major contributions to our effort. For example, we were able to gain access to a large list of Orthodox people, maximizing our exposure on many of our big issues. Through the Patriarch Athenagoras (PA) Orthodox Institute we were able to gain access to important research by Alexi Krindatch and then Director, Anton Vrame for our marketing efforts. Our new Board members gave us access to properties of major significance such as Antiochian Village and Dormition Monastery in which to hold meetings . Thanks to Archbishop Nathaniel, we had a major meeting on unity with the head bishop of the OCA, Metropolitan Herman and the then Chancellor Fr. Bob Kondratick with a conclusion to meet with Metropolitan Philip to merge the two Archdioceses. (More on the steps for unity later.) Yet, given this greater exposure, membership still remains a real problem for our OCL group to this day.
In 2005 I was elected President and began my tenure with a very important planning process meeting in Baltimore, MD. This meeting culminated in a long term plan to get unity by:
- Adopting a policy of adding non-GOA Board Members;
- Seeking candidates from other jurisdictions for the Board;
- Developing a new Brochure and logo to reflect the new areas of emphasis;
- Meeting with Metropolitans Philip and Herman on unity feedback and Board Members;
- Establishing OCF campus ministry programs in Baltimore, Cleveland and Indiana University at Bloomington, IN.;
- Planning our quarterly meetings in major local Clergy Associations locations for their support;
- Creating a Unity Task Force Board; and
- Creating a Unity Fund Foundation to raise $1,000,000.
We were able, in my two year Presidency, to complete the first six plans above.
It was a lot to do. I felt very good about it especially when we opened OCL to pan-Orthodoxy with contributing Board Members. We had meetings across the country in non-GOA parishes and learned and shared so much. For example when at St. John Damascus in Dedham, Mass. we made a visit to a top quality rated nursing home built and supported by twelve pan-Orthodox parishes in Central Massachusetts at Worcester; in Houston at St. George and St. Joseph Antiochian Parishes, Fr. Gordon Walker and I spoke of the need for unity and membership; in Phoenix we met at the Romanian parish; in West St. Paul, Minn. at St. George Antiochian Church we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Evangelical Orthodox entry into canonical Orthodoxy with presentations by Frs. Peter Gillquist and Gordon Walker. In the Boston Area I presented in Fr. Anthony Hughes’ Parish at Harvard and asked for membership. There were also personal presentations on OCL and its unity effort at three churches in Indianapolis and to the fourteen Clergy Association members with Fr. Peter Gillquist.
Last, I might say that we came very close to achieving our real objective of merging OCA with the Antiochians. Thinking that this was a real possibility, George Matsoukas and I garnered booths at the National conventions of the OCA – All-American at Toronto and the Antiochian – at Dearborn, Mi. Both conventions spoke of unity and each had standing ovations for unity. We were excited and pressed the issue with both Metropolitans. Metr. Herman agreed at Dormition Monastery and made a call on Metr. Philip. A letter of agreement, written by Fr. Hopko, was sent to both Hierarchs to begin the process of the two to merge their entities. However, only Metropolitan Herman agreed to sign and in the end Metropolitan Philip insisted he could not do it without the Greeks as the third party.
In traveling around the country I found that most of our Priests want unity and that has made me feel that it is progressing at a faster pace than some think. In terms of official unity that is another matter. Our priests need one another and love meeting together and swapping experiences and solving problems at the parish level. They really get very little from the Bishop level in most cases and rely on their peers. It is unfortunate, for Orthodoxy deserves a whole lot more given the fact that we are the church of Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the Martyrs. Needless-to-say, we have a lot to offer and so I have gone back to Parish work in leading Bible Study, evangelism programs and promoting ministry work for our young people. We must keep our young people in the Church.
I enjoyed my active eight years with OCL, the fellowship was my pleasure, and for the most part, I am thankful for the associations. A number of Board Members have become my life-long Christian friends. We share church and life’s experiences. What more can we ask for in this life. With my love and hope for all OCL members I say “keep the Faith and persevere” in these difficult times.
I was the “accidental President” in the sense that I was not one of the founders, or even one of the early members. I had no involvement in Greek Orthodox American Leaders (GOAL) whose work ultimately led to the departure of Archbishop Spyridon. Nor was I involved in the famous Charter fight of 2002-2005 except through my local church, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Houston. Nor was I involved in any of the litigation arising out of these events.
My path to Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) and ultimately to a leadership role, grew out of the dismissal of our Parish Council at Annunciation by Metropolitan Isaiah in February of 2003, and the subsequent legal action that followed. Spyro Pappas, a fellow dismissed Council member, who had been very much involved in GOAL and who later came to be a supporter of OCL, urged me to write a piece about our experiences in Houston for the OCL website in October 2004; it was entitled “Letter from Houston”. I had only a small clue about what OCL was about at that time. In part, because of that letter and I am sure the persistent urging of Spyro among his OCL compadres, I was invited to join the Advisory Board and attend my first meeting with the Board at Antiochian Village PA, in March 2005.
That experience “sealed the deal” for me in many ways: Long walks and talks with Anthony Carris, interacting — during the sessions and in between — with men who had been at the forefront of the twin quests for Unity and Accountability for decades but who remained active in their local churches, and connecting my own Orthodox spirituality with a much wider world in that special holy place in the countryside east of Pittsburgh. At one of our sessions, I vaguely recall having to leave the room to deal with some business on my cell phone. On my return I was invited to join the Board as a full member. They offered and I accepted “in a New York minute” as we sometimes say. I think my passion about the issues, my fresh face and several new ideas, my Texas and southern roots (I’m only ½ Greek), my “youth” – I was only 59! – and, the fact that I was nominally Antiochian Orthodox by that time, having physically at least parted company with Annunciation. Then followed a series of Board meetings under Lee Kopulos’ leadership – at the Monastery of the Dormition, Rives Junction, MI, June 2005; at Dedham MA, October 2005; at Phoenix AZ, January 2006; at Houston TX, June 2006; and finally at Baltimore, November 2006 where I was elected President at the end of the meeting.
My first Board meeting was held in February 2007 at Miami Lakes, FL (Cathedral of Christ the Savior – OCA). Fathers Gillquist, of blessed memory, and Gordon Walker, joined us with Archbishop Nathaniel. We discussed the continuing development of our Endowment (by Andy Kartalis and Nick Pappas) and heard from Deacon John Zarras, of blessed memory, about the reorganization efforts within OCA, in which he was deeply involved and which would later bear fruit. Deacon John believed and the Board believed that steps taken at OCA would help point the way to the structure of a future United American Orthodox Church.
The Executive Committee and I determined that we needed to reduce our meeting schedule and do as much of our business as feasible in conference calls. We had two objectives: to reduce the need to spend our time organizing and funding the events and to reduce the burden, especially on younger and less affluent members, of the expense and time involved in frequent travel. Our first such call was April 2007. Ten Board members and our Executive Director participated. We affirmed our support in principle for the “charter law suit” and to continue to serve as funding agents, though we were not plaintiffs or otherwise directly engaged in the litigation.
In 2007 we celebrated two 20th Anniversaries – the 20th Anniversary of the movement of more than 3,000 Evangelical Christians into the Antiochian Archdiocese, and the 20th Anniversary of the founding of OCL. Both Anniversaries were highlighted at our June 2007 meeting in Minneapolis-St Paul (St. George Antiochian) at which Fathers Gordon Walker and Peter Gillquist recounted their process of “coming home” to Orthodoxy with their 3,000 brothers and sisters. But the grand finale was at our Chicago annual meeting that November. At that event we collected a series of video-taped interviews of participants, hierarchs, priests, and laity, who had worked in achieving OCL’s mission of unifying the church. We produced a 20th OCL anniversary video, published on a CD. We later published a CD that featured a wonderful film made of the 1994 gathering of most of the canonical Orthodox Bishops at Antiochian Village, “A New Era Begins” and “Welcome Home” films made shortly after Fathers Walker, Gillquist, their associated pastors, and their Evangelical flocks moved into the Orthodox Church. Our goal was to begin shifting OCL’s traditional focus on education through print media and public events to communicating via electronic media, including, ultimately, the internet.
With the end of the charter law suit, when the plaintiffs decided that pursuing an appeal in the US Supreme Court was likely to prove fruitless, and with the movement by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and his brother heads-of-national Orthodox churches towards bringing the disunited – and uncanonical – “ethnic” Orthodox churches of the Americas and Australasia, we began the process of trying to work more closely with hierarchs, especially in the Greek Archdiocese. Ironically we began to make progress with Metropolitan Isaiah – the very hierarch who had dismissed the Parish Council on which I served in Houston. First, he publicly congratulated us on our 20th Anniversary and commended our program for the Anniversary celebration in Chicago, just noted. Then he gave his permission for us to work with Father Lou Christopulos and his parishioners at St. Catherine’s Greek Orthodox Church, Greenwood Village CO, to organize a Board meeting and public event at their church in June 2008. At that event, Fathers Walker and Gillquist spoke on the relationship between Pentecost and Orthodox Unity. They reminded us that when we re-unite the Orthodox Church we are returning, or at least beginning the return, to the vision of the Church represented by Pentecost. In that sense, OCL’s vision is for a “Pentecostal Orthodoxy” — my words not theirs.
Unfortunately our progress with – and my personal reconciliation with – Metropolitan Isaiah was not to be followed at our meeting at Drexel University, whose President, Constantine Papadakis, now of blessed memory, was a strong supporter of OCL. We obtained no support from the Metropolitan and in fact, just before the meeting which was intended to highlight the progress of Orthodox collegians active in Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), the local OCF sponsor emailed all the collegians in the region that they should not participate since OCL is, paraphrasing, “against the Church”. Fortunately, enough young men and women – and priests – participated to make it a worthwhile meeting. Father John Cassar of Mother of God Orthodox Church (OCA) in Princeton NJ gave an inspiring talk as did several OCF organizers. (Father John is the son-in-law of one of my OCL mentors, Anthony Carris.) My son Alex, then doing graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, related his experiences in OCF. Shunned by the Greeks, so to speak, we were welcomed by the Albanians with a reception and meal at their St. John Chrysostom Church (OCA) in downtown Philadelphia. In the tradition of OCL, our “heads were bloodied, but unbowed,” or rather our hearts were pained, but not pierced.
The final OCL event of my tenure was at the Antiochian Village where we celebrated the 15th Anniversary of the 1994 gathering at that place of most of the Canonical Orthodox bishops in America. Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA and the Archbishop Melchisedek (OCA) of Pittsburgh participated. Father John Cassar was our master of ceremonies and we were blessed with more than 100 participants. We reviewed the progress towards unity or lack thereof since “Ligonier”, shorthand expression of that meeting, over the last 15 years. At close of that meeting we elected my successor, Bill Souvall of Salt Lake City.
The high point of my tenure as President of OCL was an important event in World Orthodoxy that was in many ways a culmination of the efforts of OCL to nudge the Church towards Unity: the gathering in Istanbul in October 2008 of all – or almost all – of the heads of Orthodox Churches – Patriarchs, Metropolitans and Archbishops — to renew the effort to bring the churches together in a Great and Holy Council. OCL leaders had received a promise from His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew in their meeting with him at the Phanar in 1994 that such a council was imminent. I suppose for Orthodoxy, a decade or more is imminent. That meeting set in motion a series of preparatory meetings that led to the creation of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of [North and Central] America (ACOBA), which has among its many assignments the mission of bringing the Churches into “canonical order” – Byzspeak for “Unity”. I wrote to the Ecumenical Patriarch commending him on his initiative, urging that the ensuing process be open and involve laity as well as priests, and offering the support of OCL in this endeavor. His answer was, I think, positive, though frankly, somewhat obscure. The several translations I received – none official – despite the best efforts of the translators, one in Greece and one in the US, were almost as opaque as the original Medieval Greek of his letter. Nonetheless, the very fact that he responded was a good sign. In any event, early in Bill Souvall’s tenure, a number of OCL leaders subsequently met with His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, and continued what was to be unfortunately a rather short episode of OCL-Greek Archdiocese “communion”. We continue to be bloodied, but unbowed; our hearts pained but not pierced.
I will begin this little note about my presidency of Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL) for the past three years by explaining how I first became aware of OCL and why I subsequently decided to be involved.
In March of 2004, my Uncle George Souvall asked me to his home in Phoenix so he could explain why he was a plaintiff in the Charter lawsuit against the Patriarch and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. A meeting was being held with other like-minded faithful Orthodox in the Phoenix areas. He knew I had been serving on our Salt Lake City Parish Council for many years and thought it was important that I hear “the other side of the story”. There was only one possible answer to Uncle George’s request because of my love and immense respect for him, and I happily accepted his invitation-probably more so to get a chance to see him and his lovely wife Ann.
George Karcazes from Chicago, and Andy Kartalis from Cleveland, two men who I have come to love, admire, and respect were part of the discussion group. They were both plaintiffs, as individuals, in the legal action. I could immediately see that these men were the “Real Deal”. Just like Uncle George, they were faithful, serious, and accomplished men, and more importantly, everything they said made perfect sense to me. I was ‘all in’ with OCL after that meeting.
That same year I became a delegate to the 2004 Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) Clergy/Laity Congress in New York City where OCL members and other delegates put up a valiant but hopeless fight to resist the imposition of the new GOA Charter that had been “granted” to us by Patriarch Bartholomew in a way that was absolutely contrary to the prevailing terms established in the Charter of 1977, which was still in effect at that time. It became crystal clear to me that the new Charter left the laity in the GOA completely marginalized and future C/L Congresses would be nothing more than rubber stamps for anything the Patriarch and GOA wanted to do.
This realization was validated again at the 2006 GOA C/L Congress in Nashville, where I was once again a delegate from our Salt Lake City parish. The new Uniform Parish Regulations were ratified and adopted, putting into effect on the local level all of the harsh and punitive dictates of the new Charter. Once again, OCL and like-minded delegates put up a good fight, but most delegates don’t know or study the issues and few understand what is at stake so they go along with the GOA initiatives, which they believe are in the best interests of the Church.
That is why OCL is so important—to educate and inform the Laity about the un-canonical anomaly that exists with different ethnic jurisdictions and numerous Orthodox bishops of overlapping geographic areas. OCL is trying to inform the Laity that there are solutions to this anomaly, which will lead to the solutions of other related problems, including transparency, accountability and laity participation in Church Governance.
I have been attending OCL meetings all across the country from 2004 to the present so I got to know the OCL Board and they got to know me. I was asked to consider becoming President in 2009, and I accepted because I believed so strongly in the cause.
The subsequent three years from 2009 to the present have definitely been a series of ups and downs for me personally, which has impacted my ability to effectively lead OCL and accomplish the goals I had in mind. I lost both of my parents, my mom unexpectedly, five days after returning from Ligonier and my dad in 2011. They had been married 62 years. May their memories be eternal. I hope and pray that I have been and will continue to be as great a parent to our children as my parents were to me.
By far the biggest challenge I had personally was a relapse of Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer that I was originally diagnosed with in 2005. I had a stem cell transplant in July of 2005 which worked wonderfully for five years and far exceeded the doctors’ expectations, Thank God. Near the end of 2010, I did another chemo regiment and needed another stem cell transplant in 2011. Thank God, everything went very well once again and I am now feeling tremendous. My endurance isn’t what it once was and I need much more rest now, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing at my ripe old age of 60. We also had many wonderful blessings in the past few years as our three beautiful daughters’ marriages brought us three new sons, a first grandchild in 2011 and another one on its way in January of 2013. Thank God for my beautiful bride of 32 years, who is still a marvel and who has the energy to take care of young kids (and old kids like me!).
We were able to accomplish some really important goals and advancements to the OCL cause in the past three years, in spite of the fact that I was pretty much out of the loop for most of 2011. During that time, Andy Kartalis was Acting President and he did an absolutely phenomenal job, especially in steering the New Website Project. Andy has many remarkable skills, and he is particularly adept at bringing people with differences of opinion to the table in order to keep projects moving forward. He is a tremendous consensus-builder and without him stepping up during my illness, the Website project and other important work would have been log-jammed. He is continuing to lead this project, Thank God. His help and guidance have been immeasurable and I can’t thank him enough for his outstanding leadership. He really should be writing part of this little commentary as he was in charge for a good part of my term of office. God Bless Andy.
The main projects we have been working on over the past three years are as follows:
1—By-Laws Revisions. We worked on and passed much needed revisions to OCL by-laws, which was spearheaded by Evan Chriss of Baltimore, Maryland. Thank you Evan for your hard work on this project.
2—Website Revision and Upgrade. We recognize that technology is the way people seek information today, especially younger people who are so important to the future of Orthodoxy in America. We decided to upgrade the OCL website to be more comprehensive and modern to increase our appeal to all demographics. This is a very challenging project and requires people who have a solid understanding of this technology to make it a successful undertaking. Thanks to all of those wonderful people who have worked and continue to work on the Website committee, including Andy Kartalis, Cal Oren, Deacon David, Father Hans Jacobse, Father John Peck, Dean Calvert, and George (Elmer) Matsoukas.
We knew this project would be costly, particularly with OCL’s limited budget so we sought a major donor/sponsor for this project. I immediately thought of my Uncle George, knowing how important OCL’s cause was to him. He passed away in 2005 so I called his wonderful widow, Ann. She was extremely generous and gladly gave the lead gift of $21,000 for this project. We have had additional donations for the continuing refinement of the website from Peter W. Souvall (my father), Andy Kartalis, George Karcazes, Peter Petkas, George (Elmer) Matsoukas, and others. We certainly welcome and appreciate additional donations.
3—We raised $20,000 to help fund the first Assembly of Bishops in NYC in May of 2010. We supported this endeavor early on. The Assembly of Bishops includes all canonical bishops in all Orthodox jurisdictions in America. This Assembly was created at the direction of the Old World Patriarchs in order for our bishops to come together and resolve the canonical anomalies which currently exist. It is a unique opportunity because this directive is in complete harmony with OCL’s goals. We seized the moment by not only issuing statements in support of this Assembly, but I was blessed to lead a delegation of OCL members to meet with Archbishop Demetrios in NYC to express our support and present our $20,000 gift in April 2010. The delegation included Peter Petkas, George (Elmer) Matsoukas, George Karkazes, and Dr. William Tenet. It was a wonderful meeting and I hope and pray real progress can be made in future Assemblies.
Early on in my presidency, I realized that nothing would really happen without George (Elmer) Matsoukas, the Executive Director of OCL. He does all the day to day stuff to keep a volunteer organization such as OCL operating. We always get the absolute most ‘bang for our buck’ because he is ever vigilant. He subsequently earned the nickname “Elmer” because he is the glue that holds OCL together. Many thanks to Elmer and God Bless him.
I also want to thank the OCL Advisory Board, the Board of Directors, and particularly the Executive Committee for their confidence, guidance and assistance. Without such outstanding people, a volunteer organization like OCL would be greatly challenged to survive and be relevant. God Bless them all. I believe our goals and mission statement are in harmony with God’s will for our beloved Orthodox Church so God provides the right people at the right time to keep things moving. However, we can always use more help, so please consider giving OCL a small part of your Time, Treasure and Talent.
Lastly, I want to thank my beautiful bride and family for their love during the past three years. No man could ask for a better support system. And of course, Thank God for leading me to OCL and allowing me to be part of this wonderful organization. God Bless our Holy Orthodox Church.