Source: The National Herald
When our forefathers immigrated here near the turn of the 20th century, they generally desired to maintain their Hellenism in America. Like people everywhere, Greeks hold fast to their inherited traditions, having protected them through centuries of inordinate persecutions in the Ottoman Empire. Understandably, these immigrants intended to perpetuate their culture and religion in their new country and accordingly established, in nearly every locality they stepped foot, local societies devoted to that task. These societies, which sponsored Greek schools, community centers, and churches, later transformed themselves into parishes, creating the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America we know today.
The origins of our parishes explain their dual-role as religious and cultural-community centers. The local Greek societies transformed themselves into ‘parishes’, maintaining their cultural-community branches under this new name, at the behest of future Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. Athenagoras promised that the new Archdiocese would protect these cultural-community functions, and each succeeding archbishop has reiterated this promise: that the Archdiocese will serve, in Bishop George Papaioannou’s words, as “the guardian of Hellenism in America.”
Yet in recent decades, we’ve seen attacks on Hellenism in the Archdiocese. Some, like the releases of Orthodox Christian Laity (OCL), have been explicit. Others have been subtle, under the slogans of ‘pan-Orthodoxy’, ‘evangelization’ or ‘growth’. Every churchgoing Greek-American has heard such statements from bishops, priests, or lay-leaders and understood their import: that, in our Archdiocese, Hellenism’s days are numbered. Churchgoers have also encountered silence bearing the same import. In the silence of leaders on Hellenism – in their hesitance to publicly affirm it – churchgoers have drawn the same conclusion.
The reasons underlying opposition to Hellenism vary. Some predict the Greek-Americans will disappear, assimilating into the wider American monoculture, especially through intermarriage (an attitude Archbishop Iakovos called ‘defeatist’). Others, pouring over metropolis and parish budgets, see the solution to financial problems in new, non-Greeks bringing their money with them. Hellenism, in their eyes, is thus an obstacle to ‘growth’. Some argue that parishes are theologically-obligated to eliminate ethnic affiliation; while others, more diffidently, struggle with a faint sense of embarrassment for their Hellenism, often brought on by different manifestations of nativism and minority-group anxieties. In short, the opposition to Hellenism is varied and emerges from a variety of directions.
While these different forms of opposition arise from real anxieties, they all contradict the original promise of Athenagoras, upon which generations of Greek-Americans have relied. For over a century, Greek-Americans have poured their efforts and resources into their local parishes, assuming that the parish will serve as their communal center. To oppose Hellenism in the Archdiocese – to argue for its eradication, dilution or gradual extinction – is to retract this promise. It is to rescind an agreement Greek-Americans long ago struck with this Archdiocese (understanding it to be a perpetual one), and to abdicate the accompanying responsibility the Archdiocese assumed. It is further to take away from Greek-Americans their central institutions and invite the likely consequences: the breaking-up of Greek communities and the loss of their traditions, especially in the more remote areas of the country (like my hometown, Omaha).
This is tragically unnecessary, as there are better routes ahead – routes which protect Greek parishes. We can leave Greek parishes intact, allowing them to pursue their dual-role, while creating new ‘Anglophone’ parishes alongside them. Already, we see such parishes springing up, comprised mostly of non-Greeks with non-Greek priests, practicing an English-language liturgy and understandably opposing Greek cultural functions. These parishes make positive contributions to our Archdiocese. But so, too, do our Greek parishes. Many young Greek-Americans wish to reinvigorate their parishes, fortifying them to thrive in the 21st century as refreshed Greek cultural-community centers. These parishes are treasures deserving protection, and they can collaborate with Anglophone parishes to fully address the interests of each while participating in the broader ecumenical movement.
We can lay the foundations for this future now. The Archdiocese could designate its Greek parishes and train seminarians for the dual-role of the Greek priest, who is both liturgist and community leader. The Archdiocese could assign these parishes priests and chanters from Greece, ready to provide a fluent Greek liturgy, teach Greek letters and lead Greek-American communities. The Archdiocese could also bring these parishes into deeper collaboration with the Greek state and non-governmental agencies, providing them with much-needed support.
It is fully within the rights of Greek-Americans to advocate such innovations within the Archdiocese. Too often, we struggle with timidity, anxious that advocacy contradicts religious piety or is even prejudicial to others, as a form of ‘ethnocentrism’ or ‘non-inclusivity’. None of this is true. As Greek-Americans, we can rightfully maintain our Hellenism through our parishes. This, after all, was the vision our forefathers had for our parishes. When we dream of parishes mobilizing their full forces toward Hellenism, we keep that vision alive.
Nikolaos Piperis is a lawyer in Omaha, Nebraska. After graduating from Boston College with an MA in Philosophy, he became a full-tuition Creighton Scholar at the Creighton University School of Law, graduating with a JD in 2023. He currently serves on the board of directors at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Omaha and as chairman of the parish’s Archive Committee, tasked with creating a historical archive of the Greeks of Omaha.