NOTE: I first heard the news last night at 2am. After a brief prayer, I tried to gather my thoughts. Needless to say, sleep was impossible and I still haven’t been able to gather all my thoughts. His passing is difficult for those of us who knew and loved him. Therefore I ask that you please forgive me because I am going to be adding to this enconium as the day progresses.
8:00am. Many of us who could not be in Dallas received the call last night at 2am. His Eminence, +Dmitri fell asleep in the Lord surrounded by several of his spiritual children including a bishop (+Alejo of Mexico City) and a metropolitan (+Jonah). I’ve never been one to be maudlin but I’m presently choking back tears as I type these words. I fear that there is a gaping hole in the lives of his spiritual children. Right now, I’m planning to go to Church and will write more later.
Rest in peace dear Vladyka. We at least are confident that you are being received by our Lord and Savior with these words: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
3:00pm. Liturgy today was wonderful. Father made the announcement after his sermon. Not all of us knew and some gasped audibly. We knew his days were few but that still couldn’t prepare us when the end finally came. John, our Senior Reader (who helped me found the mission back in 2002) went to our parish hall and got the 8″x10″ photograph we had of His Eminence and brought it to Church right before we began the memorial service. Things got really emotional. We have lost our Elijah, who will be our Elisha?
I saw this morning that OCA.org put his biography front and center. It’s quite good and I think gives the reader a decent measure of the man. If you want to know the broad outline of his life, and how he put Christ front and center in his life and teaching, I would suggest that you stop reading this for now, go to OCA.org and read for yourself.
As for myself, my friends, and what he meant to our parish, I’d like to offer a few personal remembrances. Here they are in no particular order:
I first heard about Archbishop +Dmitri Royster of Dallas while reading The Christian Activist back in the mid-90s. That was when TAS was a serious endeavor run by committed Evangelicals-turned-Orthodox. Anyway, there was an article in there written by him that caught my eye. It was cogent, learned, and written for the serious Christian. When I read the short bio at the end I was even more intrigued. As a teenager, Robert R Royster and his beloved sister had been received into the Orthodox Faith Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas back in 1940 or thereabouts. They traveled from Teague, Texas, which is about 125 miles south of Dallas. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted, sent to language immersion school where he learned Japanese and served under Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo, when the latter was the American proconsul. Mind you, we were talking about a good ole’ boy from east Texas.
To say that the late archbishop was a Renaissance man would be an understatement. Not only did he know Japanese, but also Spanish, Koine Greek, passable Russian, and of course Slavonic. His proficiency with Spanish enabled him to teach Spanish literature at Southern Methodist University, which supplemented his priestly income. His love for Spanish compelled him to translate the Liturgikon into that language and his genuine love for the Mexican people enabled him to travel yearly to Mexico to set up Orthodox missions. One thing he insisted on from the start however was that any mission that he started in the South would celebrate all the services in English.
And that’s just a smattering of his legacy. His sister helped support the mission that later became St Seraphim’s Cathedral by owning a restaurant. He helped out and became a very good chef. Those who went to his house were never turned away hungry. My personal favorite was his flan, a Mexican custard that was exquisite. One of my favorite memories of his kitchen was the smattering of 2-liter soft drinks with goofy names that he picked up every time he went to Mexico. Little did I know that soft drinks in Mexico don’t have high fructose corn syrup. And then there was the coffee, a notorious concoction of chickery and other flavors that came to be known as “Bishop’s Blend.” One cup of that brew and you wouldn’t be able to sleep for 2 days. (More of that later.)
I guess if I had to come up with a money quote that encapsulated his evangelistic career, it would have to be that the joke about +Dmitri was that “he could start a mission with two old ladies and a hat.” As is now well-known, +Dmitri was elected overwhelmningly by the delegates at the AAC to be metropolitan. Of course, the powers-that-be thought it would not be seemly for a former Southern Baptist to be primate of the only territorial Orthodox Church in North America (go figure) so another was chosen by the Holy Synod in his place. That’s OK, Syosset’s loss was our gain. He was elected to be the first Bishop of Dallas and the South in 1978 and the rest is history.
The DOS at that time had only a half-dozen or so parishes. St Seraphim’s in Dallas was one anchor and Christ the Savior in Miami, the other. Because both parishes owned parsonages, +Dmitri took it upon himself to spend about six weeks in each city. When the time came to leave for Miami, he’d travel to Miami and stop along the way, meeting people and establishing mission outposts, then missions, then churches, and a few monasteries as well. He’s say in Miami for six weeks then go back to Dallas, visiting those missions and meeting other people. Six weeks in Dallas, a couple of days on the road, six weeks in Miami, a couple of days on the road, then repeat. He did this for years.
The official biography mentions that he was able to maintain this rigorous schedule because of his robust physical health. That’s very true. When I first met him in 2001, I was surprised at how tall he was even though he was in his late seventies by then. (I’m 5’11″ and I had to look up into his face when talking to him.) As I got to know him, I found out that in high school he had been a wrestler. Though tall and gaunt in his old age, he was brawnier as a young man. His size and beard reminded us of Gandalf the Grey, an Old Testament patriarch, and kindly grandfather all rolled into one.
His sense of humor was legendary. Self-deprecating and humble, he always had a smile and story for everybody. I’ll tell you a one or two. Once not all that long ago, he was back in Teague receiving an award, something along the line of “local boy makes good” or whatever. He and his trusty sidekick Milos Konjevich (the Treasurer-for-life of the DOS) were standing waiting for a table in a famous restaurant in nearby Fairfield called Sam’s. As always, he was wearing his cassock and skullcap with cross. Mind you this is East Texas. Anyway, another patron went up to him and nervously asked “you’re not from around here, are you?” +Dmitri replied with a chuckle, “I was.” Taken aback, the first fellow said, “well, you’re not a Baptist!” The Archbishop said, “I was!” Hearing him tell it was a real knee-slapper.
Another story involved a time when he was in the old Soviet Union and he was being “minded” by a KGB agent who attended all foreign delegations. +Dmitri told us that this man’s name in Russian had something to do with chickens and farming (I can’t remember what it was.) Anyway, he broke the tension by asking the agent in question if he was a Methodist. The agent, told him “of course not, why do you ask?” He replied that in the South circuit riders in the Methodist Church were usually paid by being fed chicken dinners by grateful congregations. Both he and the agent guffawed uproariously.
There are others but just thinking about them makes me sad. I have to stop for now. More later.
4:00pm. OK, I’m back.
Well anyway, the thing about Bishop’s Blend. Sometime in the late 80s, Milos Konjevich (affectionately known as “The Serbian Kid” because of his cowboy hat and boots) moved to Dallas and joined up with +Dmitri. Having worked for the federal government in sorting out the Savings and Loan scandal, he became the Treasurer for the DOs. As His Eminence started aging, Milos joined him on his many travels. He told me that Vladyka and he had the science of coffee down to an art; how many cups they’d need to drive x-number of miles and so on. Then they’d break out the candy bars for that extra boost. I believe the Lord sent Milos to Vladyka to help him in his mission. Given their penchant for humor it was easy to view Milos as Sancho Panza to +Dmitri’s Don Quixote, but they had a serious side too and then it was all Paul and Barnabas. As kind and gentle as these two evangelists were, they were serious about missions and they were equally as serious about solving any problems that came up. There was a time for fun and games and then there were times when we listened and accepted their advice.
Vladyka didn’t lord it over people and he listened patiently to all sides. Once hearing all sides, he spoke deliberately and that was that. He had a way of getting to the heart of the matter which made me respect him even more. He had no time for ortho-dorkiness or the nonsense-dressed-as-piety and once he spoke on a matter, it was resolved for all time. His Southern Baptist background kept him grounded on the centrality of Christ and His Gospel and it was a bracing corrective for duplicity that presently engulfs much of American Orthodoxy, particularly in the realm of moral theology.
Another story: Two years ago, during Mid-Pentecost, the Holy Synod was present in Dallas for his retirement. As the luncheon was winding down, we received a visit from His Eminence +Isaiah of Denver (to my mind, the standout bishop in the GOA). This was after +Jonah’s speech at Dallas about the need for the OCA to remain independent of foreign involvement. I was outside because it was crowded and I wanted to smoke. +Isaiah was most gracious and after he spoke with +Jonah and +Dmitri, I saw him come out with a smile on his face. We spoke about old times and then I said how elated I was to see him and how unfortunate our divisions were. +Isaiah brushed this aside and cut to the quick. He said something along the lines of “You know, George, it’s not every day that we get to know someone like +Dmitri, a truly holy man. These divisions mean nothing.” I wish I could remember them word-for-word but he was right: in the grand scheme of things we either know saints or we don’t. Tears were running down both our faces.
There are other stories but I’ll stop for now. It’s not as if my words mean anything as they are vain and foolish. But his was a life that meant something. His was a ministry that mattered.
8:30pm. P.S. As was the case with my late father-in-law, I will observe a three-day moratorium in memory of His Eminence. As of now, the DOS has announced that his funeral will be proceeded by liturgies and pankikhidas every day at 9am and 6pm respectively, with a liturgy and funeral on Thursday at 9am. Unless events warrant otherwise, I will not post any blogs ’til after he has been interred. All are free to comment as before.