Last July I sat down with Fr. Silouan (Brown) to ask him about his upcoming mission trip to Kenya, on behalf of the charitable organization “Orthodox Africa” he founded as a way for the global Orthodox community to be able to participate in the furtherance of God’s Kingdom by providing a means for the average layman who may not be able to travel to faraway lands, to participate in global missionary work. The organization works with several mission and shelters in Kenya. In this follow-up interview, Fr. Silouan shares his thoughts and reflections on the trip, how it compared to expectations, what he learned about how to better serve the people of Africa, and about the bond of Orthodox Christians worldwide, rooted in our common faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
I took this interview with Fr. Silouan over Skype a month after his return, with the trip still fresh in his mind. We publish the interview now, when “Orthodox Africa” has an updated and revamped website.
Fr. Silouan was born in 1983 in Denver, Colorado and later enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and was stationed in Japan and later the Al Anbar Province of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Fr. Silouan became a monk in 2011 and is residing in Florida, working towards a MSW degree (Master of Social Work) and a LISW (Licensed Independent Social Worker) so as to professionally and clinically counsel, help, and guide veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI, addictions and homelessness. Fr. Silouan currently serves as Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) District and post Chaplain with over 3200 veterans enrolled in his district.
—You went to Africa, and now you’ve been back for a month with time to reflect. From talking to you and from looking at your Facebook page I can see that it was a busy trip. Can you tell us how it went?
—I was impressed by the Kenyans’ willingness to work with us. One of the things that struck me was how we are one in Christ, despite the racial differences. I was a “mzungu,” which is Swahili for “white man,” but it didn’t matter so much, or at least I didn’t feel the racial tensions sometimes encountered in the West, which was nice. One of the main messages I kept driving home was that we are one Body in Christ. As Orthodox Christians, we’re all connected. As you know, I was in Russia just before my trip to Kenya. The abbess at Sts. Boris and Gleb Monastery outside of Nakhabino gave a speech about how we’re really one in Christ—you are with us, and we are with you. It really blew my mind at the time. I couldn’t understand it; it didn’t make sense to me, but it really came together when I was in Africa. We really are one Church, one Body.
—Is there something specific you could point to—an experience, or their overall behavior—that helped you understand this?
—Part of it is that I had to push the message because the Kenyans really feel isolated from the rest of the Orthodox world. Protestant sects have largely convinced them that we’re just a new-fangled denomination. They don’t have the historical grasp of just how large Orthodoxy is on a global level. I was asked by the priests I visited to specifically address this. Part of it was saying over and over again that we are one in Christ.
—And you could see that they were receptive to this?
—Absolutely, and the love they demonstrated was quite overwhelming, especially the children. That added another level to my idea of missions. Before it was always about Matthew Chapter 25—we have to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, take care of the widows and orphans; but now it became more personal. These people are my right leg, my left arm. We’re all one Body. Just as you wouldn’t neglect your wife or child—here are our brothers and sisters who are really experiencing very tough times. I tried to give them this message of unity and being all together, even if we can’t see each other—that they have millions of brothers and sisters around the world praying for and with them and that we have thousands of Africans brothers and sisters praying with us was very clear. That continual synergy that we have between different Local Orthodox Churches was very impressive and something I really wanted to build on.
—What you said reminds me of what Fr. Schmemann wrote against the idea of the Church being identified as a social organization. He said it’s so easy to think about the good of the “movement” and forget about the people, but that because of the Person of Christ, Orthodoxy is personal. I think anytime we can put this personal touch on our mission work it changes hearts more than just sending money or clothes.
—Part of what I want to do is to help develop a method whereby people can interact with the children they’re helping. We looked at video conferencing options. One saint said, “How can you talk to people about social matters when they’re hungry?” Their basic needs have to be met. No one who is starving to death or sitting in the rain and soaked in mud is going to be first worried about religion. In taking care of those needs we demonstrate our love and care for our brothers and sisters. I think that’s part of why Christ is so specific about what to do. I’m continuing to build that message of synergy of one Church around the world—not just Greek, or Russian, or Arabic, or Romanian, and so on.
—Before going to Kenya I didn’t realize how tribal they are. There are forty-two different tribes and no two of them care for each other very much.
—Why is that? Is it bad blood or is it just how they are?
—It’s some of both, and it varies as to how bad it is. There are certainly very violent acts that take place. For instance, last year during the elections, various tribes publicly perpetrated some violent acts against one another. It’s a real issue. Two of the missions that I work with are run by Kikuyus, which is the majority tribe in Kenya and runs the government. The other is run by a Luhya. They don’t really trust each other based on years of tribal tradition, so I’m constantly “beating them over the head” with this message of unity.
—Do you feel like this message has begun to sink in? If they can feel like one in Christ with you, then why not with other tribes of their own nation? Did you at least see the walls begin to crumble?
—Absolutely. The Church is the only thing that really saves people. Election time becomes really violent in the Kibera slums, where all the minorities from the main areas have been pushed to. Everything gets burned, except for the St. George Orthodox Church. Everyone respects the Orthodox Church and hundreds of people flee there when everything becomes violent. They sleep in the dirt around the church. It’s the one entity uniting people so that they’re not just separate groups. In the Church they can come together and overcome tribal differences. One priest mentioned that he was from one tribe but could work with people from every tribe, and that the relationship within the Church was overcoming all racial or tribal barriers. It’s exciting to see that.
As I understand it, Patriarch Theodoros is breaking new ground in the Church of Africa by actually consecrating African bishops, which is really exciting because in times past they didn’t have any. My personal opinion is that it’s a really good thing.
—It’s good to see such forward-thinking Greeks.
—The Orthodox Church has been in Africa since 65 AD, but how often do you hear about Orthodoxy there? The problem is the ethnic issue. As we start to overcome these ethnic boundaries we’ll start to see a much stronger Church, so it’s very exciting to take part in that and help build synergy between brothers and sisters of different nations and tribes.
—Some people are turned off from Orthodoxy because it seems just like an ethnic club.
—But if people can see St. Paul’s words—neither Jew nor Greek nor slave nor free—being put into action, it will help them come into the Church. Your mission should have repercussions beyond Africa.
—Exactly. This is what we really need to overcome. They see how the Church saves people on a physical level throughout the persecutions and riots, but if we can continue that image into how the Church saves people spiritually, that will bring more catechumens.
One of the bishops mentioned to me that one of the struggles of developing Orthodoxy in Africa is finding a balance between it being African so that Africans can embrace it, and maintaining the same Orthodoxy so that anyone from any place can come and recognize the same Liturgy. The intention is there, and it’s really growing. In the last fifty years or so we’ve started to see some phenomenal growth with the Church in Africa, and in Kenya in particular.
I was invited to a little village where there’s a grass roots effort to build a parish. One of the villagers offered her land to start a pig farm, so the villagers pooled their money to buy three pigs. The people in the video dancing in joy are from that parish. They’re hoping to raise the pigs to support their mission community and evangelical work.
—Have they gotten to the point of supporting a priest?
—Yes, they have a priest. As far as I know they’re not turning a profit yet, but it’s a basic investment. They’re young pigs so they have to wait a while to start breeding them.
—Last time we talked you said you wanted to talk with the bishops about developing a means of becoming self-sustaining, so that the missions could reach a point where they no longer need support from “Orthodox Africa.” Were you able to have these talks? Were they any new insights or progress made?
—Two of the bishops that I met with said they loved the message and gave their full support and blessing. They offered anything we might need, which is great, because our main focus is on how to evangelize as many people as possible, working with other organizations where possible and if need be. The best way I know of to help people and bring them the Orthodox faith is to start addressing some of the basic issues they have. It comes back to not talking to someone about religion when they’re starving to death.
— How did those conversations go? Did any new concrete ideas for becoming self-sustaining arise?
—They officially “signed up.” We discussed various business things. I visited an NGO in Kibera to see what other organizations have done to help people. The best way to help people out of poverty is to give them a skill, so one organization brought in a bunch of sewing machines and taught everyone how to sew good quality dresses, in a traditional African style with traditional fabrics. They’re absolutely beautiful. They gave them a skill and thought it would get them out of poverty. From an American or Western European standpoint it makes perfect sense, but the problem is that they learned to make a product that nobody there can afford or needs. So they’re sitting on their hands, still in the same place they were before. They have to wait for tourists to come, or reach out to an international market.
The message I delivered to the priests was that any self-sustaining project has to be needed by the Kenyans, driven by the Kenyans, and affordable for Kenyans. I made it very clear that I want to be as hands-off about this as possible. I don’t want to influence their decisions or how they look at it, any more than I have to. I’m not there building the Church in Africa. The priests are there on the ground doing it, and as “Orthodox Africa” we’re coming behind asking, “How can we best help you?” I’m not the missionary—Fathers Methodios, Agapius, and Constantinos are the missionaries. We’re just offering some support.
—Of course they have a greater understanding of what their people need and are capable of.
—Right. At St. Tabitha’s they want to raise some money to buy computers and open a cyber café, because not everyone has access to the internet. Anyone can use the internet for a small hourly fee, and the money will go to supporting all of their orphans. There’s one young lady there who wants to get a scholarship in computer science, and they’re hoping she will be able to take online courses while she supervises the café.
Another issue is that there are quite a few Orthodox elementary schools, but no secondary schools. We get quite a few converts from the elementary schools but then we pass them off either to the government or other denominations and sects that run schools, so we lose a lot of people. St. Barnabas’ is hoping to put together a facility that would attract high-caliber teachers for a secondary school. They can use the tuition from Kenyan students to support their orphans and provide education for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. To continue to nourish people in an Orthodox environment as they come up is very important. If we’re not there to nurture them in faith then it doesn’t do much good to convert them.
—And it’s worse to become Orthodox and fall away than to never become Orthodox. If we’re going to start the process then we need to see it through.
—Exactly. We hope to build up an Orthodox community around these programs and increase visibility. St. Irene’s would like to open a community health clinic, as there’s a lot of need for basic medical care, which people often can’t afford or get. That could be their mission to the area. We’re working on business plans to pitch to investors or donors, so people who are good with numbers will realize it’s sustainable and not just some “half-baked” idea.
—Do they already have people with medical knowledge?
—There’s already a clinic in Kibera, attached to St. George’s, with a doctor of pharmacology taking care of basic medical needs. There’s always a need for more doctors but there are some local ones. They’re really hoping, especially in Kibera, to get an OB/GYN, because women dying during childbirth is a big problem. I think all these plans are really solid ways of caring for our brothers and sisters and reaching out to the world around us, while generating enough income to support themselves and their missions.
—It must be nice to see your plan bearing fruit. It seems like God is blessing it, with everything moving along according to “plan.”
—I never know what the plan is. It has become much more than I expected. When I started, I thought it would just be a website and we’d support one mission and tell their story. We outgrew the old website so we’ve completely rebuilt it. We set up a regular board of directors and we’re working on the paperwork for a 501c3, and I there is a schedule of presentations around the country, so it’s moving ahead. We have about a dozen volunteers working as close to full-time as their schedules will allow. We’ve developed into more of a regular non-profit.
—Last time you spoke about not being a 501c3 and said you liked having no overhead. What caused the move to becoming a 501c3?
—I realized something in Africa. Due to colonization, there’s a strong sense of “the white man feeding the black man,” as one of the priests told me. The people are used to handouts, so we realized how important it is to build self-sustaining missions, and that if we continue sending money directly to the missions they won’t be able to save it. They’re always going to see another child starving in the street and they’ll use the money to help him. There’s always something more pressing. Part of the accountability and discipline is setting a goal of self-sustainment, and we can’t do that if all the money gets spent just on daily needs. We decided that we need a savings account in America to pool the money towards a cyber café or a secondary school, and once we have enough to begin construction or buy land, then one of us will go to Africa with the money.
Transparency and accountability are the pinnacle of everything we do. There are no secrets. As an official 501c3, all the money is in one place, and anyone can see where the money is going. We decided that this is the best way to assure our donors that everything is completely legitimate.
—It lessens the worry about fraud that we talked about less time.
While you were there, were you able to vet any new missions or did any new missions come to your attention?
—I did see two more missions that I would like to be able to adopt at some point, but the Board of Directors agreed that we shouldn’t spread ourselves too thin. The need is overwhelming and we could adopt all sorts of legitimate missions, but we can’t accomplish their self-sustainability if we spread ourselves too thin, so right now we’re concentrating on the projects that are already in front of us. We want them to reach their goals, and then we can cut them loose and pick up other missions.
—I think it would be very hard for someone to say no to any program.
—It’s very difficult, and that’s part of why we needed the savings account. How can you say no? If you see a child suffering, lying in the gutter, then you’re going to pick him up and feed him. But, if we have long-term goals, then hopefully in a couple of years they’ll have the income to be able to care for that child. This is one of the issues I ran into with one of the priests—he has a wonderful heart, but he can’t say no. It doesn’t do the children much good if you take them in but can’t afford to take care of them. How are you really helping them? Unfortunately, we’re at a place where we do have to say no sometimes, but the goal is to be able to not have to say that as often.
—Twenty-two or twenty-three.
—It sounds like your trip was pretty successful in all ways. You saw new people coming into the Church, made personal connections, made progress helping all these missions, and it seems to me that in general it was a very blessed trip.
—It absolutely was. It was a great privilege, and the people want me to come back. Our next idea is to bring one of the priests from the missions to America, hopefully next summer, so people here can feel more of a connection with them. Fr. Daniel from Indonesia has come to America many times which has helped people to feel more connected with Indonesia. We’d like to accomplish the same kind of thing.
To donate to the important work of “Orthodox Africa” see here.