A new Lenten devotional book from an African-American Eastern Orthodox clergyman aims to highlight the stories of African saints in the early Church.
“Become All Flame: Lent with African Saints” by Fr. Deacon John R. Gresham Jr. was released last month in ebook and paperback formats by Park End Books, an ecumenical outlet based in Texas. The cover art comes from Steve Prince, a Catholic-raised Black artist and graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana.
According to a press release, the text “highlights the stories of more than 50 African Christian saints from the time of Jesus Christ through the seventh century”.
“From… St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Anthony the Great to less-familiar saints like the prostitute-turned-nun St. Thais, this collection honors the holy examples of a wide variety of men and women who followed Christ in the early centuries of the faith.”
The release notes that the fervent religiosity of the nation’s 42 million African American Christians often has not translated into knowledge of the Church’s African roots, and the stories of the numerous saints from the continent.
More telling still is the dearth of African-American membership in the apostolic—i.e., Catholic, Orthodox, and Assyrian—churches.
Gresham himself is a convert from the Black Baptist tradition, wherein he once served as a pastor, and was ordained an Orthodox deacon in 2018. He presently serves as a youth minister at Saint Basil the Great Orthodox Church in Hampton, Virginia.
He is part of a movement of African-Americans who have turned to Orthodoxy from other Christian traditions, resulting in an emphasis on African (and African-American) history in many Eastern parishes and other organizations.
Among the latter is the Fellowship of St Moses the Black (FSMB), a racial reconciliation ministry started by Orthodox Christians in the early 1990s. Its annual conference and local chapters have since become outreach hubs attracting Catholics as well.
FSMB was co-founded by Fr Moses Berry, an African-American Orthodox priest in Missouri, and has had among its Black collaborators the late Dr. Albert Raboteau; Fr Paul Abernathy, a headline-making priest and activist in Pittsburgh; and Nun Katherine Weston, an author and counselor based in Indiana.
Gresham has previously served on the FSMB national board, and is presently the editor of the journal for the organization’s Virginia chapter. He writes there regularly on topics concerning African history within the Church.
His book is only the latest from within the FSMB ranks, and aims to set the historical record straight while also providing a resource for Christians interested in an African focus for the Lenten season—which for Catholics began this week, and for Eastern Orthodox Christians will begin on March 7th.
Since its release, the book has risen to the #1 spot on Amazon's rankings for books covering Christian saints.
Additionally, Gresham will appear in a live virtual panel on African saints with Abernathy and Weston, streaming on the Park End Books Facebook page this Friday at 6pm CT.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).