Suzanne Magerko: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for this issue of the St. Nina Quarterly, Maggie. Are you familiar with the publication and do you receive it?
Maggie Bovis: Absolutely, I do.
S.M.: Let's begin then, with your telling a bit about yourself. Where were you born, and what was the Church like at that time?
M.B.: Well, to start, I am single and retired for a number of years from the neurochemistry department at the University of Minnesota, where I worked in research. I was born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, which was a railroad center in the 1920s and a lot of immigrant workers would winter over there when they could afford to lose a month or two of work. I have heard that at one time there were about two thousand Greek bachelor railroaders in town, and it was they who began the Church. Many of that number dispersed to bigger cities, and some returned to Greece, but Sioux City was left with about three hundred members (including families) in a truly thriving Greek community. Iowa was such an unlikely place for this sort of thing - a real Greek community with a large church and a Greek school. My earliest contacts were all Greek, and most of the children I played with learned English at school, because our mothers did not know English. It was my mother who was probably my greatest influence in Orthodoxy, because our home was Orthodox. The Church calendar set the rhythms of the household - we lit the kandili and censed the house every Saturday night or on feast day evenings before Liturgies. We fasted and feasted for feast days and kept strict church attendance, our prayers were said in Greek. I really do not remember celebrating birthdays. That came later. But we had great feast day celebrations for my father and brothers. So I was pretty much steeped in Greekness.
S.M.: What was your Orthodox experience as a young person?
M.B.: I had only two books on Orthodoxy as a youngster. One was by Metropolitan Anthony Bashir, an early Antiochian bishop in America, who once spoke at our church. It was a hardback edition of an Orthodox catechism, and I got that when I was in my early teens. It cost me three dollars, which was big bucks in those days when my allowance was only a quarter a week! The other was a small book with Orthodox prayers and a translation of the Liturgy, which was published for Orthodox members of the armed forces. That was the first time I had seen the Liturgy in English.
I was the first young person at that time to have envelopes for the payment of church dues. I thought it was important that we support the Church if we could. I had picked that up from my Catholic friends who were young and attending college with me. They worked very hard to get themselves through school, and they still gave the Church a very generous amount. It occurred to me that I did not give anything, so the Catholics set a good example for my giving, and I felt more a member of the Church.
S.M.: What was your first involvement in the Church?
M.B.: I got started in Sioux City when I became the Sunday school director at a rather young age - in my late teens. I set up a curriculum of sorts and had lesson plans based on that Bashir catechism. Previously we had been taught mostly by the priest in Greek school and by women who had married Greeks and converted. It was they who began the Sunday school - a rather foreign innovation for Orthodoxy at that time. They taught us Bible stories and a few prayers. We also learned the song "Jesus Loves Me" among others. I thought that there was more to Orthodoxy than this, especially since I was now in a Catholic college where doctrine and dogma, the Presence in the Eucharist, and other more serious matters were addressed. So I ran the Sunday school for a few years until I left for Minnesota after my college training.
S.M.: How did you become involved in the ecumenical work that you do in Minneapolis?
M.B.: It was at St. Mary's after I had been in Minneapolis for a few years. It was in the fifties. After a Sunday Liturgy once, the priest's wife said that there were some visitors in attendance who had some questions. "Do you think that you might just walk them around - sort of a gesture of hospitality - and explain some things to them?" It was a fairly easy thing to do and quite pleasant to share information about my Church. After that the priest asked if I could take charge of what we called "tours of the church." That was the beginning of my contacts with other Christians and my exposure to their practices. I was invited also to speak on Orthodoxy at other churches. Father Anthony was extremely supporting and gave me a number of opportunities to represent our church.
I have to mention that we here at St. Mary's have been very blessed with excellent priests, Father Anthony Coniaris being the first that I came into contact with, when I became a member here. And those following have all been excellent preachers, very astute, and liturgically sound. We are given a certain amount of freedom here to offer our gifts in service to the Church. In doing this work on behalf of the Church here I became its ecumenical representative. I am invited to St. John's Ecumenical Center from time to time for "consultations," as they refer to their meetings, and this is one of the finest and most rewarding experiences in my Orthodox life. I lecture also on iconography, both to Greek Orthodox and other groups. My last talk on icons was to our choir conference group. Lent is a popular time for these types of talks to other Christian denominations, and I have some few scheduled already.
S.M.: You became involved, then, because there was a need, and it seemed to match something that you enjoyed doing. So what do you strive to accomplish in your ecumenical activities?
M.B.: When I talk about Orthodoxy I want others, particularly Protestants, to relate to us, to understand our tradition of the "big T" as we refer to it - not as concretized ritual, but rather, as one of our theologians referred to it, the ongoing witness of the Holy Spirit from generation to generation. I try to explain what we shared at one time before we became so terribly and sinfully divided. We discuss similarities rather than dwell on differences. The Orthodox Church is a living part of their Christian heritage. At the same time we are not a Byzantine museum but a vital, living, organic Church. When I introduce children of confirmation classes to the Liturgy, I direct them toward the litanies, which are so very useful. We all need what they petition for - security in travel, an abundance of good crops, a peaceful death even. They are all applicable, they are simply packaged in a different container. With the use of English now the language barrier is down.
S.M.: Tell us about the challenges and obstacles you have encountered, and also the successes you have witnessed.
M.B.: When I started giving talks twenty-five years ago, we asked each other what our differences were. Today we are asking, what are our similarities? I think I began that turn about fifteen or more years ago. I would have to look up what each Church was all about and where we could find these commonalties. And then, of course, the bad thing is that they would ask to take Holy Communion and I would have to say I'm sorry, we do not have the sharing of the cup. And that became very painful. I think it might have been Fr. Alexander Schmemann who said that the Holy Eucharist is not a stepping stone to unity but a crowning of unity. Otherwise, it is a mockery. If you have a group that does not believe in the community of saints, if they don't believe in the actual presence in the cup, then we are not in communion theologically. We don't think alike about all things. So it is something we'll have to suffer through until we do reunite the Church, which is Christ's last command to us through His prayer to his Father - that we love one another and become one as He and His Father are one. I think we should pay very careful attention to that commandment, and that means getting involved in ecumenical activities. That's very important.
I love the fact that we have monasteries coming in as a witness to Orthodoxy.... They are a sign of our maturity here in the U.S. and we are obliged to support them.... The Fathers tell us to do that to help the Orthodox witness of total dedication to God - which is what monks and nuns do! So, I'm thrilled with the rise of monasticism in the United States. Along with this is a burgeoning Orthodox press with books and periodicals made available now in English. Educational institutes such as St. Vladimir's Liturgical Institute held annually and retreats for mission work and iconography - these are all tremendous successes of the recent years.
S.M.: What do you think still needs to be done today?
M.B.: I think first of all we ought to stop losing all this energy in internal Church politics and direct it more toward social justice. A lot of people in the Church would say, no, that isn't our deal. It most certainly is. The Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments are our field of activity as Christians. We have a daily active role that we have to show more. I have never been so cognizant as recently of how social we are in the Church and how almost asocial we are in the larger community. What I am complaining about isn't the totality of Orthodoxy. There are a lot of good people. I just don't think we're as aware of our religious obligation in the marketplace as we could be. It sort of begins and ends in the Liturgy, and a lot of our other contacts within the Church are social. But in every community I think there are many who are truly Orthodox and good workers. And the more Orthodox they are, I think, the more ecumenical they tend to be, and the more Christian they tend to be.
S.M.: Do you see women having a particular role in the Church?
M.B.: I think that most of the changes that have come about have come as women are given more and more responsibility within the churches. I was one of the first women elected to the St. Mary's parish council, and it took a long time to get on. As women, our contributions within the parish seem to be overlooked. We teach Sunday school, we work on Philoptochos, we sing in the choir, we organize functions, but our work seems to be taken for granted. It took me three elections to get on the parish council, even though I had been handling the tours of the church and taught and sang and was contributing in many ways. And my experience wasn't unusual. It has happened to women in many Greek Orthodox churches. Today we have more women involved, productive, Orthodox women, who are mothers and professional women, and who are good thinkers. We need to continue to encourage more women to have a direct hand in church councils where the decisions are being made. We need more seminary-trained parish workers to assist the priests, and we need to consider the reinstitution of the ministry of deaconess.
I am a feminist. For a long while I wouldn't call myself a feminist because that would automatically associate me with people who want Greek women to become priests. I happen to believe that women will be priests someday but this will come about in God's time, not mine. It is a matter for prayer and guidance. Meanwhile there is much other work that can be done, and I can apply myself to that. I believe that if Orthodoxy was practiced in its fullness there would never be a need for feminists. As a matter of fact, I don't fare too well with feminists of other religious groups.... I am not radical enough for them, and within my own circle feminism is a label that brings on instant hostility. But I don't mind now calling myself a feminist, because I am concerned about women's issues within and outside the Church. There is much unfairness concerning women in this world.
S.M.: What is your vision of the Church in the future, with regard to your area of contribution and in general?
M.B.: The Orthodox today don't want to take any risks, and they lay this at the door of the tradition.... Well, we have a bit to learn. History reveals that we have always been flexible in form and in cultural adaptations...if we don't bend we will break. Sociologists say that it is easier to change religions than to change cultures. And we as a people are faced with a rapid acculturation to the west - to the U.S. in particular - the most materialist of nations. If we do not do more than we are doing, we are going to wonder what happened to Orthodoxy. Statistics show that we have a declining membership year after year. Acculturating does not mean we have to change doctrine or dogma - that is not a price we would be willing to pay. But there are some good choices out there.
S.M.: What does acculturation mean?
M.B.: Culture is a vessel in which Orthodoxy is contained. And culture cannot be overlooked or denied. It takes on the coloring and frequently shapes itself to accommodate religion. We can modify that vessel without changing Orthodoxy, but by finding a newer expression of it here in the West. Orthodoxy has always done this in the past and succeeded in converting nations. Recently, however, we find that Greek culture is clinging stubbornly in a nationalistic way to the Church here. Take the language question for example; that deters the spreading of the Word.
S.M.: What would the "vessel" look like in the U.S.?
M.B.: American form allows for more give and take. This is not to say that the Church should be a democracy.... We do not vote on truths of the faith, but rely upon synergia with the hierarchs and clergy and laypeople. By acculturating the Church will become more fully Orthodox. It will actually be truer to its traditions. And it will lead us first to closer unity with our Orthodox brothers and sisters and to other Christian faiths. I recently read some statistics that show that if we continue at the current rate of church drop-offs, the upcoming millennium will show fewer than 25 percent Christian church-goers in our population. We are already a minority in the world. We cannot afford to be separated from each other. We need to do battle together. If that means we have to lose some of our Greekness, whatever that means now, then that's what we need to do. And I am very emotionally attached to my heritage. It won't be easy. But it has served its purpose and we must realize that we are now a native Church.
S.M.: Thank you very much.
M.B.: You're very welcome.