There is nothing unusual about a priest who is dressed in clerical garb having a stranger ask him a religious question during a long airline flight.
"You ask a guy where he's from and what he does and then he asks you the same thing. Many people just want to talk," explained Father John David Finley, a missionary priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
The man in the next seat recently asked the priest a question he has heard many times: "What is Orthodox Christianity, anyway?"
Ironically, Finley was -- at that moment -- writing some comments about a contest in which participants prepared a 30-second "elevator speech" response to strangers who asked that very question. The contest was organized by the archdiocesan Department of Missions and Evangelism, Finley's home base.
This particular man was a convert to Buddhism, although he was raised in a home that was Christian, to one degree or another. He was interested in how different churches interpret scripture and how Eastern Christians pray.
"He wanted to talk about icons," said Finley. "He thought they were beautiful, but he also knew there was more to icons than wood and paint. He said, 'They're not just pictures, right? There's more to icons than art, right?' ... What you hear in questions like that is a search for beauty and mystery and spiritual power."
The term "elevator speech" comes from the business world and describes a punchy presentation of what a company does and "what it's all about," said Howard Lange, administrator of the missions and evangelism office. The idea of a national contest emerged from discussions in his parish, St. Athanasius Orthodox Church, near Santa Barbara, Calif.
"The idea is to convey the essence of your organization to someone in two or three sentences, in the short time that you're on an elevator or maybe in a grocery store checkout line," he said.
This is a hard task for all religious leaders in the increasingly diverse arena of 21st century American life. However, this challenge is especially hard for Eastern Orthodox leaders in a land shaped by Protestant history and culture, as well as the rising influence of Catholics from around the world.
Americans know, or think they know, what people believe in Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopal pews. But for many, the first word that comes to mind when they hear "Orthodoxy" is "baklava."
When Protestants talk about church, they usually jump into discussions of their preacher's pulpit skills, their children's programs, the excellence of their classical, gospel or rock musicians and other selling points. The Orthodox (I know this from experience, as a convert) need to back up a millennium or two and cover basics. Then there are the complicated -- literally byzantine -- histories of the churches in Palestine, Greece, Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and, yes, even in lands such as North America.
The goal of the "elevator speech" contest, said Lange, was to focus on broad strokes, using language outsiders could understand -- while not oversimplifying to the point of inaccuracy. The winning entry, selected through an online ballot, stated:
"Orthodox Christianity is the authentic and original Christian Faith founded by Jesus Christ," wrote Valerie Ann Zrake of New York City. "As an Orthodox Christian you can experience heaven on earth through the Divine Liturgy which is mystical, spiritual and beautiful, with it's incense, icons, and sacred music. You can transcend time and space while you meditate upon the words and teachings of Jesus Christ. It's the most pure form of Christianity -- nothing artificial added. It's the real deal."
Even in this simple statement, it was hard to avoid nuanced language. "Divine Liturgy," for example, is the Eastern rite name for what, in the West, would be called the Mass. That reference would stump many seekers.
The bottom line, said Lange, is that there is no one ideal "elevator speech" to introduce faiths that are as ancient and complex as Orthodoxy. What works with a next-door neighbor who is already a churchgoer would not work with a skeptical graduate student who walks in the door ready to argue.
"You have to be able to relate to the person who is standing in front of you," he said. "If this contest got Orthodox people to start thinking about that, then it did some good. It's a start."