Orthodox coming to our church from another country are often surprised at the number of converts and seem shocked that Americans, especially Ozarkians, can show such zeal for traditional worship. “You drive so far, and seem happy about it,” a woman from Moscow once remarked. She had just moved with her husband and daughter to Branson. “It’s very hard to be an Orthodox Christian in America,” she said. “Here it takes effort to go to church. In Russia it’s easy. There’s one on every corner.”
I remember thinking that none of us was exactly happy to travel so far, especially when we also had churches on every corner—our family passed up a veritable buffet of them every Sunday morning to get to Unexpected Joy—but I also knew what she meant. We live in the Missouri Ozarks region, the buckle on the Bible Belt. Our joy at having an Orthodox church within a two hour drive must have been to her a thing almost tangible. And it must have seemed very odd too, so deep in the Ozarks, to find a wooden Russian-style church topped by onion domes and filled with American converts lighting candles and fervently crossing themselves.
Although I spent my childhood in Western Pennsylvania, I’m an Okie, born into a family of Christians of various evangelical flavors, a fair portion of whom are now Orthodox. But the Ozarks have been home for a very long time. And the sight of a man born and raised in these hills serving like an angel at the holy altar can still move me to tears.
I am moved because Ozarkians are by nature shrewd, independent, self-reliant and cautious, characteristics that should make it almost impossible to desire the mystery that is Orthodoxy. Almost. Each of those traits also allowed Ozark people to endure poverty and hardship and together form the rocky, top layer of a deeper, richer character. No matter how young, within the chest of any Ozarks native beats an old, longing heart. To the ear of such a heart, Orthodox worship can strike a familiar chord.
Ozarkians, like all humans, yearn for paradise. Naturally, heaven is the soul’s true home. We are all strangers and pilgrims. But while modern music tries to numb the pain of that knowledge, to distract us from our homesickness, traditional American folk music—the music of the Ozark Mountains—did the opposite.
I know dark clouds will gather ’round me
I know my way is rough and steep
Yet beauteous fields lie out before me
Where God’s redeemed, their vigils keep.
For the people of this region, lush green hills hid a hardscrabble life and an often bleak future. Death was real and close at hand. Heaven was realer, and the hope of life.
I’m gonna tell God all my troubles
When I get home.
I’m gonna tell him
the road was rocky
When I get home.
Hardship and struggle fosters deep faith. And deep faith, like death, is a great leveler, equating kings with beggars. Cosmopolitans with hillbillies. Sometime around 987 AD a Kievan emperor’s emissaries entered Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople to observe Christian worship. More than a thousand years later a handful of curious Ozarkians happened into a tiny Orthodox church in rural Missouri.
All found heaven.