The Small Place of Christian Service

by Monsignor John G. Nolan
photos by Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

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In Eastern societies, Christians are a minority. This position gives them an experience of faith quite different from what many Western Christians know. They are often overlooked, shunned, and persecuted for their beliefs.

As much as their rich and troubled histories have shaped them, Eastern Christians find their identity in their current experiences. This trial of faith is a test of fire which burns the chaff while it tempers the metal. What emerges is a living witness harking back to the fidelity of Jesus’ earliest followers.

Rather than merely defining their faith in terms of doctrines, they express their faith in their actions. Their distinct liturgical expressions are ancient and honorable traditions which maintain their identity, revealing who they are and where they came from. Just as it is important how they express their faith within their own communities, it is equally important how they express their faith within the larger community of the national culture, which may be dominated by other faiths, such as Islam or Hinduism, or by atheism. They may be forbidden to preach or to gather for worship.

Without protected and privileged positions, some Christians in places dominated by other faiths find reason for conversion to the majority. They give in to social pressures and cultural norms. They allow their Christian identity to be diluted and absorbed in the vast sea of popular beliefs.

Yet for those deeply rooted in their faith, the situation forces them to reevaluate its meaning in their daily lives. They open themselves to this experience with confidence in the Spirit to guide them. They clarify their identity through reflection and prayer, and respond in obedience to the Spirit.

These true followers of Jesus put their faith in the context of a timeless Church, the mystical Body of Christ. Without the special powers and privileges supplied by political and economic structures, they proclaim the Good News by imitating the actions of Jesus and His early followers. They care for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the elderly, the orphaned, the widowed, the homeless, the victimized, the dispossessed, the mentally ill, the disabled. These are the ones overlooked when people and societies are more concerned with building a worldly kingdom.

By joyously accepting the inferior position in their societies and by willingly casting their lot with the disadvantaged, these Christians remove themselves from the conflicts and competition which divide people. History shows that conflicts to establish or extend earthly kingdoms merely create insufferable hells, as the violence in Lebanon, in Iran and Iraq, and in Afghanistan shows. As imitators of Jesus, Christians do not get caught up in the rise and fall of worldly empires. Instead, they serve the peaceable kingdom of the One God.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Unity Eastern Christianity Church of the East