An American Orthodox pioneer

It takes extra luggage to hold the Byzantine miter and all the ornate vestments an Orthodox archbishop needs on a road trip.

Packing is even more complicated when Archbishop Dmitri Royster heads home to Dallas, because the faithful always give him gifts to please his hardcore Tex-Mex palate. Just before his suitcase snapped shut last week in Knoxville, Tenn., he slipped several bottles of fiery pepper sauce in among the layers of purple, gold and white silk brocade.

Archbishop Dmitri is a real Texan, even though his flowing white beard makes him look like an Orthodox archetype. But when the 75-year-old prelate speaks, the voice isn't from Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe or the Middle East. He grew up Southern Baptist in tiny Teague, Texas, before moving to Dallas.

"I think my sister and I were the first people who showed up at the Orthodox church in Dallas and wanted to convert," he said, laughing. "There might have been one other boy who married a Greek girl, but that was about it. ... It was three weeks before anyone noticed us."

That was 1941, decades before a rush of Orthodox converts in America and England began making headlines. The young Robert Royster was an American Orthodox pioneer.

The archbishop spoke fondly of his Baptist roots, which gave him a "deep commitment to Jesus Christ" and a love of scripture. However, he and his sister became disturbed when they noticed other churches had a radically different and much more ancient calendar. This was especially true just before Easter.

"Holy Week seemed to pass with little more than a nod," he said. "We really started asking questions when our church had a picnic -- a hamburger cookout, no less -- on Good Friday. ... There wasn't too much to Easter, either, other than singing 'Up From the Grave He Arose.'

The two teens found a history textbook, did some homework and began visiting the Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and others. The Orthodox sanctuary was full of icons, the air was full of incense, the music was Eastern chant and the rite was, literally, Greek to them.

"It was a total assault on the senses and a real culture shock," said the archbishop. "But there was also an incredible sense of reverence. It seemed like we were taken outside of time. Soon, it didn't matter so much that everything was in Greek."

During World War II the young Texan learned Japanese and was trained to interrogate prisoners of war. Then he taught Spanish literature at Southern Methodist University. In 1954, he learned Old Russian and was ordained a priest in the Orthodox Church in America, which has increasingly emphasized worship in English. Dmitri became a bishop in 1969 and, years later, his Bible Belt heritage still makes him stand out in the Orthodox hierarchy.

While there are 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, the 5 million in America have remained a well-kept secret, in part because the flock is divided into a dozen jurisdictions, each with ethnic and historical ties to a mother church abroad.

Dmitri watched in the '50s and '60s as Orthodox children slipped into American culture and a trickle of converts married into the church. Then many Orthodox Christians -- especially retirees -- moved into the Sunbelt and, in 1978, the Orthodox Church in America formed the 14-state Diocese of the South, with Dmitri as its bishop, and began mission efforts. The diocese newspaper includes pages in Russian, English and Spanish.

The growth of convert-oriented churches continued when a network of evangelical churches -- led by several former Campus Crusade for Christ evangelists -- joined the Antiochian Orthodox Church in 1987. Then, a controversial 1994 assembly of the Western Hemisphere's bishops issued a call for a truly American Orthodox Church.

"Orthodoxy now has a unique mission in America. We are past the age of the Diaspora," said Dmitri. "We are surrounded by so many changes in this culture. We used to be able to count on other churches to hold on to the major doctrines -- such as the Incarnation and the Trinity.

"But now it seems that many churches do not want to hold on to anything. ... So the Orthodox Church is having to come to the rescue."