Source: The National Herald
By Steve Frangos, TNH Staff Writer
Of all the many cultural institutions Greeks brought with them to North America none will prove more lasting than their efforts at permanently establishing in this nation the Eastern Orthodox Church.
To be sure, Greek immigrants did not accomplish this goal alone, nor were they even the first among the various branches of the Eastern Orthodox faithful to do so. Yet it is also clear, to any who attend church even on an irregular basis that we are now every much in a period of transformation. Two issues occupy the conversations Greeks have among themselves concerning church the ever growing presence of converts and the current total management of church business by the clergy.
Since the end of World War II most cultural problems within the Greek Orthodox Churches, at least, were managed in the large metropolitan areas in any event, by individual parishes coming to be dominated by distinct groups. So, one parish would be composed of Greeks who had arrived after World War II, another parish in the same city would be largely composed of the children of the 1880 to 1920 generation of Greek immigrants, another church by those who were of mixed marriages, parishes of different economic classes were established in the early 1890s and many have remained so until the present, yet other parishes were made up of those who wished a more ardent religious focus for all services within the parish, and other parishes drawing upon their origins in the eastern Mediterranean have never been a part of the Archdiocese in New York City but are affiliated and administered by the Patriarchates of Jerusalem or Alexandria. These divisions based on personal preferences are not simply limited to large cities.
One has only to look at the parishes surrounding Tarpon Springs, FL to see a large cluster of such churches established and maintained largely by Northern Greek and Greek-American retirees. But wherever one goes in the United States everyone is very much aware it’s not yiayia’s and pappou’s church anymore.
In the troubled conversations about what will become of the church, among Greek-Americans with whom I have spoken, the future of their individual parish is primary. They wish to pass on what they had received from their parents. As with all things Greeks this hope is also mixed with the wish that they have improved on what they were given. There is no question that the huge cathedrals and beautifully appointed individual parishes are a gift to all future generations that was difficult to initially build in an American society openly hostile to Orthodoxy, maintain in the hard times of the Great Depression and more so to improve upon since the end of World War II.
With the Greek clergy now legally in charge of individual parishes all church owned properties can be sold without consultation with the congregation. Annual fees of individual parishes to the various Metropolitans can be changed and have been. These new rates are set without consultation with the individual parish boards, with no explanations for their increase given even in the face of drastically changing general economic conditions. A further level of grievance by the individual parishes is that no public accounting of Metropolitan or Archdiocesan funds is offered. All in all the Archdiocese and the various Metropolitans can legally close individual churches and recall priest as they elect.
I came to hear of these persistence concerns by various parishes around the nation as I have been contacted about individual church histories. Many parishes are closely reviewing their historical documents not so much for learning about their collective past but to determine their legal relationship with the Archdiocese.
A commonly expressed rumor by those persons of Greeks descent I have spoken with is that the Archdiocese has already determined that many of the smaller parishes are filled with converts. As this urban legend goes given that the Archdiocesan clergy is largely Greek-born the determination has been made to simply let go of these parishes and only retain the Greek dominated parishes of the major cities. This tale actually includes demographics such that of the over 350 Greek Orthodox parishes now in the United States only some 200 will be retained by the Archdiocese and those kept in the fold will have to become more and more Greek-oriented or they too will be dropped. This scenario is clearly a merger of two separate topics: a resentment of the new converts and the current legal status of the clergy over the parishioners.
While I do not hold with this rumored tale of dark conspiracy, I can see that uncertainty about our collective future as an individual church in North America is clearly on everyone’s mind.
Given my own view of the world, I would look to the past to see the possible futures available to Eastern Orthodoxy in the Western Hemisphere. I am not alone in this point of view. This sees no better proof than in terms of historical investigation and publication. Eastern Orthodox Christians are experiencing perhaps the most dynamic moment in our faith’s presence on American shores. Dozens of new books, a virtual flood of essays, the issuance of a seemingly endless stream of locally produced parish histories, websites, conferences across the country and the formation of ever new organizations aimed at documenting our history are all available to any who will but seek them out.
Something is underway that no one is investigating; why are so many people undertaking such studies? I would venture to say that it is because these researchers do not see their own experiences or their own culture in the general American histories now being written. In the past I have written about the New Preservation Movement among Greeks in the United States. Greek-Americans are writing and publishing a wide array of individual parish histories, autobiographies, documentary films and even works of fiction all aimed at documenting our collective past.
Without consent from any outside authority figures Greek-Americans around the nation are making every attempt to systematically preserve their history and cultural heritage in North America. As never before, Greek-Americans are establishing museums, historical societies, archives, and libraries. Already, various organizations have amassed a wide array of historical photographs, documents, and artifacts. Beyond the hard task of preservation, many of these groups have also issued books, documentary films, and catalogues based on their collections, exhibitions, lecture series, and ongoing research.
Clearly this is one of those moments in history where a spontaneous social movement is emanating from deep within the Greek community. Once again, Greek-Americans are collectively seeking to solve a community-based problem. All of these organizations have essentially the very same goal: To collect, preserve and share with Greeks and non-Greek alike the Greek-American historical experience – as understood and interpreted on a community level. But I may have been short-sighted in the true nature of this movement. But more may be underway.
According to the United States Bureau of the Census Greeks among the most educated and economically prosperous in the nation. Logically, then, this group of well-educated, socially successful, moneyed individuals would, one would think, issue finely-researched, readable, filled with historic photographs and related church documents all produced in physically handsome volumes of history. And in point of fact they have.
But are Greek-Americans the only ones undertaking such historical studies? What of the Arab-American Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Rumanian/Serbian orthodox and all the rest? It may well be my focus was too confined? What if all these forgotten ethnics in North America are all—each in their own fashion—involved in such a self-examination focusing on what could be called a historical re-discover project?
As can be seen in the explosion of historical studies on the presence of Eastern Orthodoxy in the new world clearly all these fellow Orthodox faithful are fully engaged with recovering and documenting our church’s actions since, at least, the 1700s. According to the late Fr Alexander Doumouras, by the 1830s clusters of Orthodox faithful were worshiping together in seaports around the nation. A few Greek-American researchers are among those undertaking these new studies. I believe becoming more aware of our collective past will offer us new directions in which to chart our collective futures. Thinking through problems has always been a Greek-American practice. Are we to do less to preserve the future of our faith in the Americas?