When visiting Greece, I am often asked by native-born Greeks why Greek-Americans are so ‘churchy’ – we sing in church choirs, attend church fairly regularly, wear our baptismal crosses, etc. By the same token, I have always been puzzled about why, during my visits to Greece, the only people I see at church in both villages and cities are old folks, except, perhaps on church holidays — all this in a country where there is a church in every neighborhood and a shrine around every corner. Few young families seem to attend and young people tell me they’d rather do anything than have to stand through an entire liturgy on a Sunday morning.
Granted, churches in Greece have few places to sit and most are small, forcing people to stand outside – not the most amenable circumstances for truly enjoying the beauty of a Greek Orthodox service.
In an attempt to explain why Greeks born in the U.S. place so much more value on the Greek Orthodox church as a center for Greeks to gather, I began to do some research online. The most complete explanation I found was one called The Social Psychology of Immigration: the Greek-American Experience, a study done by Chicago State University’s Alexander Makedon in 1989.
In the study, Makedon admits that some Greek immigrants began to substitute ‘Greekness’ with membership in the Greek Orthodox Church. Even though church attendance is still strongest in the Greek countryside, it has never been as central in modern-day Greece as it has become in the Greek-American community in the United States.
Makedon explains that it was mostly a sign of the times. At a time when huge numbers of Greek immigrants came to the United States (mostly around the turn of the century), the Greek Orthodox Church was by far more important in their lives even in Greece than it is to modern Greeks living in Greece today. “This was particularly true for Greek immigrants coming to the U.S. directly from places still occupied by the Moslem Ottoman Turks, where historically the “enslaved” Greeks clung even closer to their churches to survive,” says Makedon. “As modern Greece became increasingly independent from Ottoman control, so were later Greek immigrants more likely to value other cultural institutions (such as universities) as much or even more than the Greek Orthodox Church.”
But much of the growth of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States is the result of America’s systematic promotion of and penchant for religious pluralism. In fact, the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment addresses and guarantees freedom of religious belief. “This type of established religious pluralism made it easier for different religious groups to peacefully coexist and flourish than it did for different ethnic groups to keep their secular cultures in an Anglo-dominated society,” says Makedon. “Consequently, many Greek immigrants found it much easier to maintain their religion than to preserve their secular ethnic culture.
So they turned to their religion with a vengeance, building Greek churches everywhere — in places where there were just enough employed Greeks to finance them. “The Greek church came to symbolize for Greek Americans the sense of belonging, which Greek society as a whole did for the Greeks living in Greece,” adds Makedon.
So how did all this pan out in the 21stcentury? We now have a seemingly unexplainable (if not contradictory) phenomenon of completely anglicized third and fourth generation Greeks zealously supporting the Greek Orthodox Church, according to Makedon. It defines them as deeply as does one’s place of birth, or even country of origin. We took ancient, modal liturgical music and formed choirs to sing the minor-chord hymns in four-part harmony. But unlike the ‘old country’ churches, we made sure there were pews in which which congregants could sit and kneel for parts of the service, ‘cry rooms’ for mothers with young babies to run to, church halls to hold luncheons and have fundraisers, and Sunday schools to teach our little ones about their ancient Christian faith.
It is also within the context of church that Greek lessons are offered, dance groups are formed (which now compete fiercely for both talent and authenticity), and recipes from generations back are memorialized and perpetuated by immense church food festivals – usually each Greek Orthodox church’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Non-Greeks come to these festivals in droves, looking to eat our pastitsio and koulourakia, dance the Kalamatiano and to shout ‘Opa’ with us until they drop. Perhaps it’s because so many Americans have to look too far back to find a culture from which their own families identified that they have such an interest in ours.
Whatever it is, it is the American Greek Orthodox Church that continues to be the entity that heralds the joys of being Greek in America. And we like that just fine.