Wednesday, November 10, 2010

An interview with Matthew Namee of SOCHA

The Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA) recently began a membership drive on their very popular orthodoxyhistory.org website. As a fan of the Society, I took this an opportunity to interview Matthew Namee on this effort and on SOCHA in general. Please feel free to link or repost this interview (with a hat tip, please) if you are so inclined.

(SOCHA) - The Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA) began last year with a small number of members — our three directors and the members of our advisory board. Since then, we have been amazed with the level of interest people have shown in American Orthodox history. Today, we are throwing the doors open to general membership. If you are interested in the history of Orthodoxy in the Americas, please consider joining SOCHA.

Right now, there is no charge for membership. Eventually, we’ll charge a small fee to cover our expenses, and in return, members will get access to a peer-reviewed journal, a monthly e-newsletter, members-only online resources (including a register of historical clergy and a primary source archive), and other benefits. Our future plans also include SOCHA-backed books and conferences. But, as we said, there are no initial fees. By responding now, you are basically letting us know that you are interested in SOCHA and may want to become a dues-paying member when the time comes. This will help us begin to prepare a budget and begin planning expanded offerings.
1. Tell us a little about SOCHA.

The idea of SOCHA came about in 2005, when Fr. John Erickson, Alex Liberovsky (the OCA archivist), and I had pizza in a Long Island restaurant. There were obviously a lot of people out there who were interested in American Orthodox history, but most of them were totally unaware of one another. An historical society seemed like a good way to network those people, share source material, and generally increase the historical literacy of American Orthodox Christians. Fr. Oliver Herbel was an early ally in this project, and we talked for several years about starting the society. Right around the time that Fr. Oliver earned his Ph.D., we made contact with Fr. Andrew Damick. Fr. Andrew was the driving force behind creating OrthodoxHistory.org, and the web presence enabled us to reach a large audience.

Part of the problem that we’d like to address is the compartmentalization of historical knowledge. Each jurisdiction has its own historical narrative, and usually those narratives are independent of all the others. There have been a few attempts to write overarching histories of American Orthodoxy, but in general, OCA folks know about OCA history, Greeks know about the history of the Greek Archdiocese, and so forth. And even there, a lot of the knowledge is focused on bishops, with only tiny pockets of awareness of history “on the ground,” so to speak. Our hope is that SOCHA can promote a better understanding of American Orthodox history as a whole.

2. There seems to be quite a following for the website and podcast. Did you expect such a large amount of interest?

Oh, not at all. We’ve been very surprised. When we created the SOCHA Facebook group, we expected perhaps a few dozen people to sign up. But the numbers almost immediately reached the hundreds, and today we’ve got over 3,500 Facebook fans. A lot of people really care about our history in America. It’s been very gratifying.

3. Recently you announced a membership drive for those interested in keeping abreast of SOCHA activities. Can you speak a bit on what prompted this effort?

All along, we’ve planned to open up SOCHA to general membership. We’re still working on the nuts and bolts – incorporation, nonprofit status, etc. – but the first issue of our peer-reviewed journal is coming out in the spring, and we thought it would be a good idea to get people on board in advance of that. We have a lot of projects in the pipeline, and it just makes sense to get as much participation as possible. Up to now, SOCHA has basically been identified with OrthodoxHistory.org. But we’re more than just a website.

4. What historical material can readers of the website or podcast listeners expect to come out of the society in the coming months?

Well, personally, I’m working on numerous research projects. I’m in the middle of a series on the arrest and trial of St. Raphael in 1905, and I’ve launched a reader-participation project to come up with the most influential people in American Orthodox history. Fr. Oliver will now be writing a monthly column for the website, and we’ll be introducing another regular columnist in the near future. Nicholas Chapman (who discovered Orthodox converts in 18th century, colonial Virginia) has continued to make exciting discoveries, and we’ll have more from him in the coming months as well. Nicholas is almost single-handedly rewriting the earliest history of Orthodoxy in the New World, and we’re proud to feature his work.

The podcast has been on hiatus for a little while now, as I’ve been very busy with law school. However, I plan to re-start it soon.

5. How can those interested in researching the history of Orthodoxy in the New World help the society?

Well, first of all, get in touch with us. We’re very interested in learning about the research people are doing. We also love featuring guest articles on the website, and I’d encourage people to submit articles to us if they’d like to have them published. We’d love to help you get your research in front of a wider audience.

If I may… personally, interacting with others interested in our history has been the most gratifying thing about SOCHA. I love to research and write about American Orthodox history, but I would hardly consider myself an expert, and I am constantly learning new things from our readers.

6. Can we look forward to books (like the recently published "Wichita’s Lebanese Heritage") in the future?

Absolutely. I’ve got a book project in the works right now, dealing with some of the more obscure aspects of Orthodoxy in the “Lower 48” from roughly 1860 to 1920. I know that Fr. Oliver is also working on a book. You can expect to see more SOCHA publications in the coming years.

7. Have you heard much in response to your efforts from Orthodox hierarchs in America? What has been their response?

I’ve heard from probably 5-10 bishops, and I know that many of the more web-savvy hierarchs in America read the website. We’ve received nothing but encouragement from the bishops. We’ve gotten some great contributions from various hierarchs on the subject of the Episcopal Assembly, and other bishops have been very generous in referring people to our work.

8. Thanks for your time. Understanding the history of Orthodoxy in America can certainly help us put the current state of Orthodoxy here into perspective and give us some idea where Orthodoxy might go in the coming years.

It’s been a privilege. Thanks so much!

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