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"My Grenada" ‒ Part III ‒ From the Diary of Hieromonk Ambrose (Sitalo)

Read Part I here. Read Part II here.

September 10, 2019.

Anna said yesterday that on the island of Tobago, her friend Elias, a member of the Thaer family who had been visited by missionaries the year before the last, was shot during the attempt to rob his store. He is already dying. Anna says that Elias is Orthodox, even wanted to become a priest, but in connection with the move from Syria this was not destined to come true.

I conveyed her [request for] prayers for him to Orthodox friends.

September 14th.

Elias died while in ICU. I contacted his family to express my condolences and my desire to go to Tobago to pray for him. They agreed with the Catholic church on the place of burial and asked me to fly to Tobago soon.

September 17th. Trinidad.

To fly to Tobago, I flew to Trinidad first and met Anna. Although some call Trinidad the "Mecca of the Caribbean," on this first visit of mine, I dreamt that the name "Islands of the Holy Trinity" will be returned to it. Mr. Raja, her acquaintance, gave us wine for Liturgy and agreed to host me for a few days. We began to [determine] the possibility of serving Liturgy in Trinidad on Sunday. The Catholic priest Father Mendes, with whom we spoke, said that Metropolitan Ignatius from Mexico (from the Antiochian Patriarchate) regularly comes here (about once a year), asks for permission from the local Catholic bishop, and serves. He suggested that we take the same path, but at that moment it was impossible to contact this bishop, since they had a conference until Monday.

Later that evening, I flew to Tobago and I stayed in a hotel.

September 18th. Tobago.

In the morning at 7 o’clock, I was taken to the house of the deceased, where the immediate family was gradually gathering. I invited a family member to read the psalms, but he began to read to himself; apparently, reading aloud seemed unusual to him at that moment. I prepared to meet the body to serve a litia. When the coffin was brought in, one woman joyfully sang and clapped her hands, and then fell to the floor and began to cry. Those present surrounded the coffin and it was difficult for me to cense [it]. Someone filmed and broadcasted to the mother of the deceased, who could not arrive. Only a few people prayed at the litia; the rest did not pay attention to what was happening. Thaer and several other young men helped me. Then they all got into their cars and immediately drove to the church.

When I flew to Trinidad, I thought that Elias was Orthodox, as I was told. However, upon arrival it turned out that some believed that he was a Catholic and it had already been agreed that the funeral and burial should take place at the Catholic church. These requests unfortunately became common for Orthodox Syrians in the Caribbean, [many of whom convert to Catholicism].

I thought for a long time about what to do in this situation, especially since this is not the first time I have encountered the problem of falling away from Orthodoxy into Roman Catholicism in the Caribbean, due to the lack of Orthodox [services]. As a result, I decided not to refuse to conduct the service due to pastoral considerations, which require the priest to show condescension in case of doubt, that is, to act by mercy (economia).

When we arrived, I decided to wait in the park. Priest Emmanuel came in from the street, and we once again discussed the [course of] action. I got vested and talked with a Syrian man who was Orthodox and my driver for the visit. He asked me for prayers for health.

Protestant songs came from within. When the time approached, I went to observe the grave, instructed the grave diggers, and when they brought the coffin, they laid it down, opened it, and I served a litia (some helped me in Arabic) and read the [dismissal] prayer, [giving] the body of Elias to the earth. At the exit from the cemetery, we met a reporter with whom we agreed on an interview.

After the funeral, there was a memorial dinner, during which I talked with young Syrian men. We talked about how good it would be for one of them to become a priest for their migrant community, and what is needed for this. I am very upset by the wide veneration of Charbel by the Orthodox, even though they do not know that he was a Maronite. I invited George Hourani, the owner of the house to celebrate Liturgy the next day for those who did not receive Communion in the Catholic church this morning. He replied that this, of course, was necessary for all family members. In the evening, I was brought to the hotel, where I had a good rest.

This is a great disaster, of course, that the faithful here, feeling the need for the Church, turn to Catholics and Protestants for help to resolve their spiritual problems. What to do in this case? I didn’t have any instructions to punish anyone, only to accept through Confession with a promise not to receive Communion from non-Orthodox. If someone withdrew from their Faith so that they become a Roman Catholic, then I should accept them, as I understand it, through a handwritten petition with the renunciation of errors. And if someone became a Protestant or an infidel ‒ then through anointing (Chrismation). With limited religious education, people feel lonely, sitting at home with their families, they feel like pagans who do not go to church. They do not have the opportunity to visit Orthodox places, and a priest is not always available.

In this situation, it is very important to teach people how to utilize and treat with reverence the prosphora and holy water and icons, how to equip the holy corner, train them to light candles in front of the images, in order to come to our senses and to help other people.

By the way, even practicing Catholics do not have a special sense of holiness in their culture. When I was recently on another island (Dominica), I was shocked by the fact that for a whole year after the hurricane, the cross on the existing church remained broken and turned upside down and no one was concerned about it.

September 19th. Tobago.

After the first Orthodox Divine Liturgy performed in Tobago, one woman came up and expressed her wish that a church be built near the deceased’s house. May God grant it.

Later that evening, I went back to Trinidad by airplane.

September 20th. Trinidad.

My friend asked me to baptize his wife and marry them.

I went to meet his wife at her workplace ‒ in a restaurant where she is a cashier. When I spoke to the Catholic priest, Father Mendes, a couple days ago, he said that this woman is a Muslim in her heart, and she needs to know the Faith first.

Many people spoke of her as Muslim-born and claimed she was raised in a Muslim village in Syria. But I saw her with a cross, and her Muslim parents do not oppose to her conversion. Her fiancé would like her to be baptized and he also confirmed that her parents have accepted her conversion as a Christian. There is a saying in Syrian culture that if a Muslim woman leaves her village to marry a Christian man, she cannot return to her village and likewise, if a Christian woman leave her village to marry a Muslim, if she returns, her family could either punish her or abandon her. But in Trinidad and Tobago, where this woman is now showing an interest in Christianity, she is welcomed into the community she chooses without punishment or abandonment.

She reads the Creed well. She even knows the [Lord’s Prayer]. In the Creed, the woman did not know who Pilate was. She was curious about Pilate and then she asked me about him. When I asked her about her religious belief, she somehow hesitant to answer. After seeing such a thing, I decided, with the help of her husband, to perform the rite of renunciation of Islam over her. I asked her questions and her husband, who translated for her, gave her options to reply because the language barrier made it challenging for her to understand me.

It all ended with the ritual of the woman spitting and renouncing her previous and old religious errors. She was then united with Christ by bowing her head to Him and accepting Him as Christ and God right at her workplace, where I put up the icons. Although she was distracted by the clients, she maneuvered her mind to focus on the rite. When I proposed [performing the rite of renunciation], I did not [at first] think that clients from among Arabic-speaking local Muslims, who are quite numerous in Trinidad, [might] approach the cash register. Therefore, I advised them to be careful in case of the presence of extremist Muslims, although if they kill us, we will become martyrs and our sins will be forgiven. Her husband instead, seeing a Muslim buyer, began to force him to kiss the priest’s hand.

After that, he showed me his house and he was unhappy that I did [not stay with] him.

Today I also gave an interview, which was later published in the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian newspaper on October 16th, 2019.

Russian Orthodox Church comes to T&T

Shastri Boodan

The Eastern Orthodox Church (EOC) is slowly but surely gaining ground in the region. Priestmonk Ambrose shared some insight into the EOC’s presence and its future in T&T.

Priest Ambrose Sitalo was born in the USSR and was ordained in May 2019 after studying in Moscow, Russia. He was then sent as the Parish Rector to the Parish of St Georges, Grenada, Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, one of four EOC parishes in the region. Priest Ambrose was invited to Tobago by the Syrian community. He conducted the final rights or absolution prayer for Elias Dabourah at the graveyard, who was buried on September 18, 2019 on the grounds of the St Joseph RC Church at Scarborough. Dabourah, a migrant to T&T, who was born in Syria, went into priesthood at some point in his life and was raised Orthodox was shot in the head a week before his burial by bandits who robbed his establishment at Crown Point.

Father Ambrose said when he learnt that Dabourah was in hospital prayers were said for him. However following Dabourah’s death he attended the funeral and conducted the last rights in Arabic and English. Father Ambrose said many Eastern Orthodox Christians who flee prosecution in Syria gravitate towards the Roman Catholic Church where they find a sense of belonging and comfort in spirituality in a world they have to adjust their lives with their emotional struggles and detachment from what they were accustomed to in their homeland. He said the Christians in Syria are persecuted by Isis and Terrorists and are forced to leave their homes to take refuge in other parts of the world where they try hard to keep close to their faith.

Father Ambrose said other Orthodox churches are located in Antigua, Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe and its parishioners consists of migrants from Eastern Orthodox countries and locals who have converted. Father Ambrose said he has been approached to look at ways to set up an Orthodox church in T&T. He said there are well over a thousand persons of Syrian and Lebanese heritage living in T&T who have historical ties to the Orthodox church and are eager to see the start of an Orthodox church. Local Trinidadians and even immigrants who feel connected to the Orthodox Church are also eager to become part of the Orthodox faith. Father Ambrose said many have approached him to volunteer their services and some have already offered land to construct the church. He said a petition has to be sent to the Metropolitan Bishop to take the prospective parish under his jurisdiction. Once that goes smoothly a priest would have to be trained and appointed. He said it is up to the local community to decide on the way forward. Priest Ambrose said several persons have indicated their interest in being baptized in the Orthodox Church. He said the local flock are also eager to satisfy their pastoral needs as baptism, confessions and marriage. Priest Ambrose said during his short stay in T&T he had performed baptisms and entertained requests for marriage.

About the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

 The Christian community that developed into what is now known as the Russian Orthodox Church is traditionally said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, who is thought to have visited Scythia and Greek colonies along the northern coast of the Black Sea. According to one of the legends, Andrew reached the future location of Kiev and foretold the foundation of a great Christian city. The spot where he reportedly erected a cross is now marked by St. Andrew's Cathedral.

By the end of the first millennium AD, eastern Slavic lands started to come under the cultural influence of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 863-869, the Byzantine monks Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, both from the region of Macedonia in the Eastern Roman Empire translated parts of the Bible into the Old Church Slavonic language for the first time, paving the way for the Christianization of the Slavs and Slavicized peoples of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Ukraine, Northern Russia, Southern Russia and Central Russia.

The ROC is often said to be the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world. Including all the autocephalous churches under its supervision, its adherents number more than 150 million worldwide about half of the 300 million estimated adherents of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Among Christian churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church is second only to the Roman Catholic Church in terms of numbers of followers.

Today in Trinidad, I met an Indian man from Tobago who works in Trinidad. He is convinced that the Eastern Orthodox Church is original and that he is going to be baptized on my next visit.

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