Alexis de Tocqueville, observing the young United States in the 1830s, wrote, “Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association.” In the midst of recent tragedy — the untimely death of Fr. Matthew Baker, a Greek Orthodox priest killed in a car accident this past Sunday evening, leaving behind his wife and six children — it is a source of hope to see that this American associational persistence is still alive in the present.
Without hesitation, friends of Fr. Matthew set up a page at the crowd funding site gofundme, and they have already raised a tremendous sum to support Presvytera Katherine and the children.
The loss of Fr. Matthew has been felt far beyond Orthodox Christian circles and close friends. Americans across the country, utilizing modern technology for this good work, have come together across confessional lines to help a family they have never personally known.
As for myself, I had only just begun to know Fr. Matthew. I regret that is all I can say. We both were contributors to Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and belong to a Facebook group related to our writing there. I had just spoken with him (via Facebook) the previous night, not even 24 hours before his death.
It is tempting to think that just because fewer people belong to bowling leagues, for example, American civil society is in decline. In fact, there is some good evidence to support that claim. But there is also evidence that our associations are not so much disappearing as transforming. In this case, at any rate, I am thankful to see this same associational spirit in America today.
Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick wrote a wonderful memoir earlier this week in memoriam of his departed friend. The following especially connected with me. Though I did not get a chance to see Fr. Matthew in this way, I cherish those in my life like him, “whose genius opens you up and helps you feel that you can be better.” He writes,
There are some geniuses whose genius makes you stand in awe as you gaze upon something you could never do yourself, and you see them as beyond you. And there are some geniuses whose genius opens you up and helps you feel that you can be better, be more, that you can be invited into that same world of light and joy. Fr. Matthew’s genius was that latter sort. He was always inviting you in, always ready to engage.
Fr. Andrew has also been compiling a hub for the many tributes to Fr. Matthew that continue to pour in here.
If you would like to support this family in this time of loss and need and carry on that great American associational tradition, you can do so here.
Lastly, I cannot speak of the death of a man who had given his life to the Gospel of Jesus Christ without a reminder of what hope that Gospel promises those who receive it. In the midst of all the tragedy, disorder, death, and evil in this world, Christians do not worship a god aloof from the world nor one who is a mere part of it and subject, with us, to the whims of fate and fortune. Rather, we proclaim every Pascha (Easter), toward which we now journey in the bright sadness of Great Lent, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” He is the God who so loved the world that he took all its evil upon himself and proved himself to be greater than every source of our despair, even death. And in him, we are given the grace not to escape this world of evil, but to transfigure it into something good and beautiful once again. As the Apostle John put it, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4). So too, it seems, was the effect of the grace of Christ through the faith of Fr. Matthew.
In the words of the Orthodox memorial service, “May your memory be eternal, dear brother, for you are worthy of blessedness and everlasting memory.”
Memory eternal, Fr. Matthew. Requiescat in pace.