Hieromonk Ambrose (Sitalo) is a missionary priest in the Caribbean, visiting various islands from his base in Grenada, where he serves at the Church of St. George. Father firmly believes that his true citizenship is in Heaven, thus, having attended seminary and gone through missionary training in the courses established by Hieromartyr Daniel Sysoev, he offered his services wherever needed. He now hopes to end his days serving the flock in the Caribbean.
I knew Fr. Ambrose before his tonsure and ordination, when we attended the same Bible Study in Moscow. Having heard that he was now serving in Grenada, I decided to catch up with him and ask about his mission and about all the preparation that went into it—seminary, missionary courses, time in a monastery, work in the mission fields in Tuva and Thailand, and so on.
We also spoke about the influence of Fr. Daniel Sysoev on Fr. Ambrose’s life and mission, and about his hopes for the future.—Jesse Dominick
—I came here as a priest last summer. The congregation that requested my ordination consists mostly of Syrians of an Orthodox background. But they don’t come to services now, and those who used to come, have left Grenada. Some of them left before, some of them left just the day I arrived in March. So sometimes I have no parishioners at all. But I do have parishioners from among the local people now, and some are getting ready to be baptized.
—How did you make contact with them? Did you visit other churches; were you preaching in the streets?
—They are people I knew from before the lockdown. All the churches had to close, so I just keep it open for visitors. It was easy for me to keep it open, since I don’t have many parishioners.
—There’s no worry of having too many people packed in.
—I was worried I would compromise our church if I actively invited people, since the churches are supposed to be closed. So, I just let people know that the church is open.
—Do you have an actual church building, or do you rent a space?
—We rent an apartment that is accessible to the main bus routes. There is a small space for the sanctuary, and an area for a wash room and a private room. There is also a kitchen, so it makes a small church apartment. And there is a sign for St. George’s Orthodox Church outside.
—Who chose to dedicate it to St. George?
—It was the community’s choice when it was initially received as part of the Eastern American Diocese of ROCOR. Metropolitan Hilarion gave three options: St. Sabbas of Jerusalem, St. John of Damascus, or St. George. The capital of Grenada is St. George’s, which is where our church is, and of course St. George is a very popular saint in Syria
We have people who regularly come and go, to visit me and see how things are going with the church, and to see if they can get some help. I help people however I can, and l also ask them to help with the cleaning and cooking, or doing some carpentry, for example. You have to give people an opportunity to showcase their talents.
—Are they willing to help?
—Yes! There are some who come almost every day. They cook and they eat, and they usually bring something with them—local fruits for example. And I help them with some change to pay for the bus to and from the church.
It was miraculous, maybe, how we got this space. We were praying to St. Spyridon for a place that’s accessible, and eventually we got this place.
—You found the place through the prayers of St. Spyridon?
Fr. Ambrose's humble altar —Yes. Fr. George Maximov, my mentor priest, suggested praying to St. Spyridon. I used to live on a farm in the middle of the island and would come to services in the south. We would serve in a restaurant, or wherever we could. It was a challenge, having to change the place of worship so often, and these weren’t really appropriate places for Liturgy, but that’s what we had to do initially.
—You do what you have to do. Thank God you found a stable place for people to come to every week. I suppose that with the pandemic it must be hard, but has Fr. George or any other priest visited you?
—Fr. George used to visit before I was a priest. We had the idea of getting another priest, maybe from Africa, but it didn’t work out. You know, priests are rare things. They can’t just travel around, unless they’re a second priest. I’d like to travel, but I have my parishioners in Grenada, Dominica, and Trinidad and Tobago, and I have to explore the other South Caribbean Islands. I haven’t been to St. Vincent’s and some others.
—Is it easy to travel to between these islands?
—Yes, it’s just a half hour or hour flight. It’s just a question of finances.
—Where do you get your funds? Does the diocese help you, or does it mainly come from your parishioners?
—It comes from friends and parishioners. I encourage the people to become patrons and start tithing before they get baptized. Before that, there were also donations from the Missionary Movement of Prophet Daniel. I’m also involved in computer programming with the Caribbean Coding Academy, so once I get permanent residence status, that will be a source of income for me and the parish.
—Tell us more about the Prophet Daniel Missionary Movement, please.
—This missionary movement was founded by Fr. Daniel Sysoev at the Church of the Apostle Thomas in south Moscow, but it is now comprised of different parishes, including in the Diocese of Tuva, which served as a training platform for me, as a missionary to a different nation. Tuva is Russian-speaking, but they are a different people. So, I had that experience with Bishop Theophan (Kim).1
—And you studied in Fr. Daniel’s courses, correct?
—When I was in Kolomna Theological Seminary, I also participated in the training part of Fr. Daniel’s missionary school, including street missions, and other missions, to sectarians, for example. Our school uniquely trained people for this. When I went to Tuva, I also did door to door missions.
—What would you say when you went to people’s homes in Tuva? How did you approach them?
—If it is a feast, for example, we would greet people with the feast, or you can just say anything. You can say you’d like to talk about God, or introduce yourselves as missionaries from this or that church, and ask if they’d like to come to Bible studies or catechetical lessons, or to such and such events. Or we would distribute tracts and the New Testament. You can figure out anything to say. I don’t do it much in Grenada, because people here approach me themselves and ask questions.
—Did you have any especially memorable encounters in Tuva?
—Many. They were all memorable. Tuva is mostly Buddhist, shamanist, and pagan. It can be a bit dangerous, maybe even spiritually hard, because it’s a different spirituality, not Christian. One day I was preaching with another missionary, and we decided take a walk down to the river, and there was a man there who threatened us with a knife. So we had to run along the river as he chased us. He was just a drunkard.
—He wasn’t threatening you because you were missionaries? He was just drunk?
—Oh no, he knew we were preaching Jesus, so he was chasing us. He was saying “I’m going to kill you Jesuses!” So we took off running along the river.
I don’t want to discourage people from going to Tuva. That was a lone incident.
—Well, thank God you survived! Do you feel that seminary and the missionary courses adequately prepared you for missionary and priestly work?
—During Lent and Pascha, I did services without any abbreviations, even including the appointed readings from the typikon. These services were livestreamed. This practice of singing and praying, and this knowledge of the services definitely helped me. But also, my experience at the Skete of St. Sergius of Radonezh near the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra was very formative, with that strong practice of prayer.
—Is that where you became a monk?
—No, I became a monk in Jordanville. I was going to become a monk at the skete, but then I asked Fr. George, who is the spiritual mentor for the missionary movement, if he needed me to go anywhere. First he suggested that I go to Dominica, but I eventually ended up at Grenada, by request of the locals.
—Are you planning to stay in Grenada, or in the Caribbean, long-term, maybe your whole life?
—This is what the priests in ROCOR do. They’re not rotated around, and I suspect I have the same destiny. If I die before we build the church, I would like to be buried at Jordanville. But once we have a church building here, I would like to be buried here. The normal place for church rectors is behind the altar.
—Perhaps you have hopes of eventually building a monastery there?
—For now I have a blessing from Bishop Luke of Syracuse to focus on the parish church life. That’s why I was sent here. But I would love to have a monastery.
—How did you get interested in doing missionary work in the first place? Why not be just a parish priest?
—Well, this is what Christ did when He came from His Heavenly Father, to prepare men for Heaven. I encountered Fr. Daniel’s program at an Orthodox forum, and it made a good impression on me. I was captured by their ideas and zeal to convert sectarians and other people.
I also wanted to know more, so I went to seminary. There is actually a seminary near my hometown, but I didn’t want to live at home while in seminary. I wanted to be away from home to help me feel like a stranger on this earth. That’s what I told Metropolitan Juvenaly when he asked me about it, and this was my direction from my parish priest as well.
Later I was directed to go to the St. Sergius Skete, and I fell in love with the way they celebrated the services in full, including the appointed readings. And this is what we were doing when I went to Thailand in 2014. This was my next experience with a foreign nation.
—And what did you do in Thailand?
—Throughout the week, I would help the one monk in the monastery there with the services and obediences, and on weekends, I would go to another town to help sing in the choir of the Church of the Royal Passion-bearers.
I found an icon of Fr. Daniel Sysoev there. I had the obedience of burning some things at the cemetery there, and among the items was an icon of Fr. Daniel.2 I kept it. I didn’t burn it, of course. I don’t know how it ended up there.
—That’s not something you would expect to find in the middle of Thailand.
Would you say that Fr. Daniel is one of your main inspirations in your missionary work? Or who would you name?
—I would say Fr. Daniel first. He was a great inspiration during my time studying in seminary. And then Fr. George Maximov. When I traveled to the Caribbean with him, I saw how he prepared for his missionary activity there, preparing for lectures, sending out invitations to other churches, going on the radio, and so on. He is a life example for me.
—What specifically about Fr. Daniel inspires you? It is his life, his teachings, or everything all together?
—Mostly his teachings. When you hear his homilies, you can draw from that depth of knowledge. Of course, Fr. Daniel’s life is an example of a missionary in our time. And when you see in his disciples, you see the imprint of Fr. Daniel’s approach in them. You can see the school of Fr. Daniel in them. And the martyrdom of Fr. Daniel is of course a great inspiration.
—Of course, he was martyred for the faith. Do you consider him to be a saint?
—I know some don’t. I’ve met some people who knew him and were not happy to hear that I consider him a saint.
—Well, he was killed for his missionary activity. It seems pretty clear that he is a martyr.
—Of course, but as happens with anyone, I guess some people didn’t like something about his character, or they disagree with something he taught. He did have some critiques of ROCOR from before the reunion, but the reconciliation happened, and you can feel the humble spirit in ROCOR, especially with Metropolitan Hilarion (Kapral) and Bishop Luke (Murianko) of Syracuse, who is also the abbot at Jordanville.
I really miss the Jordanville Monastery and brotherhood; the American and Canadian Orthodox brothers there, and their style.
—How long did you spend in Jordanville?
—Remember, I had spent a good amount of time at the skete near the Lavra. So I spent a week as a novice at Jordanville, and became a monk on May 13. A week later I was ordained to the diaconate and then the priesthood in New York, and I was sent back to Jordanville for forty days of Liturgies. So altogether, I was there for about two months, and it was an unforgettable experience. I had to go to church every morning and serve the Liturgy, and I think I will never have that honor again in my life. When you’re a freshly-ordained priest they usually give you the first place; you preside at all the services. You don’t have the right to hear confessions, because it’s a monastery and only some priests do that there, but you preside, and you don’t have any obedience other than that. It was amazing. I could confess frequently. I can now confess on the phone, but it’s strange to me, although lots of people have to do that now because of COVID.
—So, if I may ask, do you personally pray to Fr. Daniel to help you in your priestly and missionary ministries?
—I don’t normally read specific prayers to him, but I do mention him in the Litiya now. I think of it as a spiritual affinity. Mostly, I see him in dreams.
—You see him in dreams?
—Yes. I don’t know if it’s good to talk about, but I see him as alive, and I ask him to come and help with our mission. I pray to him when I’m dreaming, you could say. My spirit is searching for this kind of help in the daytime.
—And do you feel that he’s helping you?
—Of course! I also have some of his blood from Fr. George.
I have a dream of building a whole theological school in the vein of Fr. Daniel’s school of thought. And maybe it could be implemented especially in America, in ROCOR, connected to Jordanville’s online school or Bishop Irenei (Steenberg)’s Sts. Athanasius and Cyril Academy, or something like that.
It could be online training for Orthodox Christians all over the world, with a blessing, of course. They could have conversations with people of other denominations or other religions, and they could keep journals and track their activity.
There are a whole bunch of Fr. Daniel’s books and audios that could be translated and commented on too, if there were would be funding for this work. This is my vision.
—That would be great! There is so much material from Fr. Daniel, between his lectures and books and videos. There is so much that could be translated.
—And each piece provides so much information. For instance, he has a lecture where you can find a whole treatise on slavery: the history of slavery, the Biblical and Patristic attitude, what it looked like in the East, in the Russian Empire, in America, etc. Some of these pearls could be gathered together into an article.
You know, Fr. Daniel used to help other students write their papers in seminary, automatically, on the fly.
—Yes, he had encyclopedic knowledge; he could do that.
—And he could just quote people, like St. Maximus the Confessor. I’ve found the majority of the quotes already, although there are some that might be in some other books that I haven’t come across.
But, when you see that Fr. Daniel’s views contradict those that are commonly accepted, you shouldn’t call it a mistake, but do your own thorough research.
When you have a theological school, they all have their positions that they don’t question. Unless it’s a heresy, you don’t have to doubt it. This is the kind of school I envision, with a common understanding, where your fellow students agree. If you don’t have that common understanding and agreement, it’s hard to cooperate. You have to have certain axioms that you don’t doubt. For instance, that our citizenship is in Heaven—the teaching of uranopolitism, which Fr. Daniel emphasized. In my school, this would not be questioned, because it is Biblically based. Rather, you would challenge why you are too tied to your local place. Why don’t you want to go and share your faith with other nations? And this school would be online, available worldwide.
The idea of a missionary movement is very brilliant, uniting bishops and priests who understand the need for their local congregations, and they can support the missionaries who come from other places and those laymen who are interested in helping.
—And what language do you serve in for your local congregation?
—English. I download liturgical texts from one website that has lots of materials, and I search online for readings on the feasts by the Holy Fathers. I also try to translate readings from Slavonic and Russian when necessary.
—Is there a majority religion in these places? Are most of the locals Catholics or Protestants?
—There is a heavy Catholic influence in Grenada. In Trinidad you’ll also see influence from the Church of England and especially Hinduism as well. The islands of the commonwealth—Grenada, Dominica, and the eastern Caribbean, where you have the Queen of England on your money—are mainly of a Catholic background. The other part is Protestant of all sorts—Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, and so on. There are also Rastafari here.
—Have you met any Rastafarians? Do any of them come to church?
—Almost all local men who have dreads are called Rastas by the locals, even if they aren’t really affiliated with the movement. This is part of their identity, or I should say, our identity, as I identify with them too. There was one couple in the parish; the man had dreadlocks, and he would come to church and ask for prayers. He helped build the kitchen. He himself doesn’t identify as Rasta, but the locals would consider him to be one. I told him that at Baptism, you bring your first sacrifice to the Lord—your hair. I told him I was going to cut his dreads off.
—How did he respond?
—At first he objected, but he later said he wanted to cut it off because it was too heavy and making his neck hurt. Maybe I made a mistake telling him I’d cut it off; I don’t know. When I first came, I was trying to be more liberal, especially for those of a Syrian background. But then I started trying to do things more strictly, to make sure the people understand everything and undergo a full catechism, and read the Gospels and pray and fast, and all the rest. I have several people preparing for Baptism and I still haven’t baptized them.
You know, in Russia, if they come to two or three catechetical talks, they’ll get baptized. But I decided not to be in a hurry. When you go to another island, you might find someone who wants Baptism, and if you know you won’t be back for a whole year, maybe you can make this condescension for them. But in Grenada, with my regular parishioners, it’s different. There are different levels of preparation. I’m not in a rush, and, of course, I pray that they don’t die unbaptized.
There is also one vagrant who comes and prays at night sometimes. He says he would like to join. He has the advantage of being able to read (many cannot), so I unofficially hired him as a reader. I give him some change, but I also give him food for free. But the thing is, the drug addicts need change to buy drugs. If you give him food, it has to be food he can’t sell and then buy drugs with the money. I see a good effect on him, although he’s still on drugs. But he tells his drug buddies about the Church, he teaches them how to make the Sign of the Cross, and he is slowly coming back into his right mind. You couldn’t even talk to him before, but now you can talk to him and explain some things to him. He’s a former Jehovah’s Witness.
—Thank God for such a transformation!
—I think he’ll be a long work in process, but it’s possible with God, I believe.
In the ancient Church, they baptized people on Nativity, Theophany, Lazarus Saturday, and of course Pascha, and Pentecost—when we sing, “As many as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ”—so maybe those who are preparing can be baptized on one of those days.
But I also think that if I travel away, I should make sure that at least somebody is baptized, in case I’m not allowed back in.
—I’ve read prayers to make five people catechumens.
—That’s a good start.
—I encourage them to follow the services online, because of the pandemic. So I have to be online more and interact with them.
—Are the people generally open to learning about Orthodoxy? Or does the Catholic church oppose you, for instance? Is there any hostility towards you?
—Yes, there is some hostility from the Catholics, who are part of the Syrian community. They don’t even talk to me, because they say that the Russian Church came to divide the Arabic-speaking community.
—They should know that the Russian Church helps Syria a lot, right?
—Yes, but they expect you to give Communion to all the members of the community, regardless of whether they are Catholic or Orthodox. They are suffering, so they try to stick together.
—So, there’s pressure to be an ecumenist in a way.
—Yes, we all worship Christ, and Jesus Christ never knew about Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestants, they say. All the divisions are manmade. You wouldn’t say God is Orthodox or God is Catholic. God is God, is what they say.
Many of them are tied to Roman Catholicism and are looking for something similar, so there is interest. Yesterday a man of a Pentecostal background who had read the Philokalia came and was looking for that kind of spirituality. So apart from the hostility, which makes even Orthodox Syrians hesitate to come, because they would be shunned, there is also interest.
—How did this man find the Philokalia?
—He just learned about it online. He ordered some books and he read it through. There is a Methodist minister who knows about the Eastern Fathers, including St. Basil and St. Gregory, and he is friendly to the Orthodox. There is also another church that studies the ancient Fathers—Grace Community International. It’s open to that kind of spirituality.
—It sounds like a very interesting community overall, with lots of various denominations.
—Yes, you can see Baptists, Pentecostals, and all kinds of churches on our road. And there are Catholic and Anglican buildings, though some of them are abandoned.
—Even if they’re Catholics, do you receive them by Baptism?
—Yes, this is an important question. In our jurisdiction, you receive everybody by Baptism, since the 1970s, I believe.
And as people are baptized and as the mission grows, so will our needs, of course. I would be very grateful to anyone who can help support the mission, including my traveling from island to island, and they can help the poor parishioners. Trinidad is a richer island, and the people there help, but then there is Dominica, where the people need help just getting food and making ends meet.
Bank transfers can be arranged very easily online through Western Union or such services, with the following information:
Receiver: Alexei Yurevich Sitalo (СИТАЛО АЛЕКСЕЙ ЮРЬЕВИЧ)
Acct. #: 40817810038294441779
Receiver’s bank: Sberbank (Сбербанк России)
Bank Identification Code: 044525225
Correspondent acct.: 30101810400000000225
Tax Identification #: 7707083893
Bank address: 21 Spartakovskaya St., Moscow (г.Москва, ул. Спартаковская, д. 21)
—We would be glad to help however we can, Father!
—Thank you, and may God bless and keep all the readers of OrthoChristian.com!