Fr. Deacon John Gresham is an ordained deacon in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and author of Become All Flame: Lent With the African Saints. The devotional features the stories of 49 early church saints from the African continent, paired with a meditation and Scripture references.
In Become All Flame Gresham focuses on such figures as Simon of Cyrene, the African pilgrim who was compelled to carry Christ’s cross and Monica of Africa, commonly known through her son Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions.
In the following interview, Gresham, who serves at St. Basil Orthodox Church in Hampton, Virginia, discusses his experience as an African American learning about these early Christian African saints and what their stories have to offer us today. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
First, I want to talk to you about reading the stories of the saints as a devotional practice. How do we spiritually grow when we read the stories of these spiritual heroes?
It’s written in Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” There have been people in our past to have the same difficulties, the same challenges, the same struggles; might not be quite with the same technology, but the central struggle is still there. Reading about the saints helps to encourage us to go beyond those difficulties and find peace in God, so that we can overcome them.
For example, St. Moses the Black… he had to battle his temptations to lust for well over 10 years. Of course, in modern society there’s all sorts of nudity all sorts of pornography. But the essential battle is what? Lust. And what do we find when we read about St. Moses? We find that his Abbott St. Isidore takes him to watch the sunrise and encourages St. Moses, saying, “Look, you only become a perfect monk slowly and gradually.” So that’s to tell us who are dealing with sexual issues or whatever issues we might be dealing with, keep striving! You’re not going to be perfect immediately, but you keep striving for the perfection.
How has your reading, writing and devotions with the saints helped you in your ministry?
It’s a doorway to share my faith with other people, and in particular with the African American community. Most of us, you know we’re familiar with Malcolm X, and then I quickly tell them, do you know in the last chapter of Malcolm X’s Autobiography he mentions the Desert Fathers? Do you know who they are? No? Good, good. Let’s sit down and talk, I can tell you about them… We make sure we teach our children American history, which is good. And just last month, February, was Black History month, which is good. So if American history is important and Black history is important and world history is important, why not the history of the Christian faith?
You mentioned in another interview about doing your genealogy and learning about your ancestry. How did you feel about those things when you learned them?
A friend of mine, who I went to high school with, one of his ancestors owned one of my ancestors, which was interesting. We’re still friends! There are some possible links of my family history to at least two famous Virginia families. On my father’s side of the family, there was one who was owned by the Lee family, the Stratford Hall Plantation, which was owned by the Lees: William Lightfoot Lee and Robert E. Lee … And then, on my mother’s side of the family, the Royal Gov. of Virginia William Berkeley, so slavery does go quite deep.
“So to find that there were Christian communities there in Africa reinforces that idea that first of all, Christianity is not a White man’s religion; and number two, that the Christianity that we were given in this country is not the Christianity we have to adhere to.”
But not only with slavery, but even after the slavery period I had ancestors that were Chesapeake Bay watermen. In fact, most of the oystermen along the Chesapeake Bay were African Americans who made a living off of the water. Typically you hear about the period after the Civil War, the Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and how many black people were working on plantations; the thing is that if you lived in Tidewater, Virginia, and you had a boat, a pair of oyster tongs or a net, you didn’t have to work for a White person if you didn’t want to. You made your own money, and a lot of African Americans did in this area; part of my heritage is the watermen heritage. It just reinforces a connection and a love for the area that I have. I’ve lived in Tidewater, Virginia, just about all my life.
How do the African saints figure into that genealogy for you? How do you connect with them as spiritual ancestors?
I consider all of the saints to be spiritual ancestors, but in particular the Africans because these were the ones that looked like me. I’m not saying that every last one of them were my complexion — some were lighter, some were darker — but the thing is we African Americans consider Africa to be the mother continent and our motherland. And though we were taken from that motherland by hook or by crook, we still have an affinity for that continent. So to find that there were Christian communities there in Africa reinforces that idea that first of all, Christianity is not a White man’s religion; and number two, that the Christianity that we were given in this country is not the Christianity we have to adhere to.
That’s not saying that we didn’t develop a sense of Christian spirituality in America. Fr. Paul Abernathy’s book [The Prayer of a Broken Heart] makes that quite plain, and so did the late Albert Raboteau in his book Slave Religion. [Raboteau] talks about how the invisible institution of the Black Church really developed the spirituality that was quite different than the spirituality of the American slave master. So yes, we did develop a Christianity here, but there’s deeper roots of the Christian faith for African Americans. We need to embrace both of those roots of Christianity. Not just what we developed here on this side of the Atlantic, but what was developed on the other side of the Atlantic, and that would deepen us in our pursuit of Jesus Christ.
Who do you hope will read this book?
My target was really people who are interested in the African saints and don’t know where to begin to look and didn’t want to do all the homework. The book is not just for Lent. Most of these saints have feast days all through the year… If you want to celebrate Black history all year long and you want to see that Christianity is not a White man’s religion, go ahead, pick up the book.