What makes a community? What are the informal practices, building of institutions, rituals, history, memories, commemorations, words, gatherings, gestures that bring about the sense of sharing and belonging that the notion of community entails? In this writing I reflect on the idea and a reality of the U.S. Greek Orthodox community. What makes a Greek Orthodox community beyond the obvious connecting thread of faith? My point of departure is the following tribute to a person recently lost to a local parish in Columbus, Ohio: “Mike moved his family to Columbus from Youngstown (Campbell) ... . He had a prolific career and was well respected by his peers. And for me, Mike embodied the Youngstown mentality I have known my entire life of a strong work ethic, always giving back to our local community and our church, a passion for maintaining a strong Greek culture, and most importantly the love of family and so many friends. But it is his work with the Columbus Greek Orthodox church and Greek Olympic Society, where we learned how passionate he was about sustaining a Hellenic community in central Ohio. Mike truly provided powerful leadership in shaping the direction of our small Greek community from the 1980’s to become the largest church community in our diocese. He spent countless hours with me and our Greek Olympic board members guiding us to choose wisely with our donations for causes locally and internationally and even donating to individuals in an effort to make a difference in their lives. Mike’s honesty, integrity, humor, witty comebacks, laughter, kindness, compassion for others, work ethic and his drive to do the ‘right thing’ even in times of adversity will forever remain in my heart.” (from the Greek Olympic Society Facebook site) These words of praise speak to a particular Greek American ethos: the propensity to work tirelessly for building a community and advancing its interests. The venue of commitment to the community in an educational and cultural organization, namely The Greek Olympic Society, which is attached to the parish and its organizational structure (http://www.greekolympicsociety.org/). The aforementioned ethos is recognized as pervasive feature and fixture to a particular locality. But it extends its operation elsewhere, the midwestern city of Columbus, Ohio, pointing to a wider regional resonance. In the Midwest where I live I have been witnessing for many years the many practices that materialize this Greek American world: the volunteering of professional work (architecture, art, cooking expertise) among parishioners toward building–literally and metaphorically–community life; writing for the community's magazine and funding its publication (see, https://immigrations-ethnicities-racial.blogspot.com/2016/02/writing-about-community-publication.html); grass-roots volunteering in festivals, language schools, religious and heritage organizations; acts of charity and cultural philanthropy such as supporting University Modern Greek Studies Programs. Notably, this is work regularly performed as a labor of love, mostly undertaken without fanfare, with no expectation of formal recognition. It speaks to a wider historical trajectory: the commitment to an institution, the parish, that historically has functioned not merely as a place of worship, but as a place enabling all sorts of social relations, including, significantly, that of mutual support. It speaks to a deep consciousness that this community matters, a consciousness translated into real involvement. The power of this ethos is that it is enacted concretely and materially, in countless everyday micro-practices, which also include professional and social support to young people. It is through these social practices that many parishioners and their children experience ethnicity in the United States, in all its cultural expressivity (food, dance, social intimacy) as well as social and economic benefits. Beyond its obvious religious implications, the meaning of being Greek Orthodox in Greek America is shaped through participation in numerous family, social, and professional networks, which often overlap and reinforce each other. I am not idealizing community here. Authors and scholars have documented the community’s fault lines, points of rupture, disagreement, exclusion, even outright conflict and fragmentation. But I feel it is necessary to point out the operation of an ethos that we cannot afford to ignore if we wish to understand “community” making, and ethnoreligious reproduction in Greek America. The commemorative tribute above contributes an answer toward a broader question. How is community produced? And what kind of community is constructed and lived? Community in this sense entails the collective recognition of a person’s habitual commitment to an array of virtues–hard work, “giving back” to the community, heritage preservation, faith, family and enduring friendships. These are the normative values offered as a template to be emulated. They are the symbolic boundaries around which the parish constructs itself. Offering a definitive answer to the question of community, the tribute raises several others. What is the “right thing” to do as a Greek Orthodox? How is this negotiated and decided within community politics? How is it practiced? (see, https://ergon.scienzine.com/article/articles/do-the-right-thing) Ethnographers and sociologists are best positioned to explore this terrain. But authors and filmmakers also engage with these questions. I will pursue this subject in future postings, discussing the insights they offer and the vision of a community that they project. Yiorgos Anagnostou June 2–15, 2019 Related publications: https://immigrations-ethnicities-racial.blogspot.com/2016/12/narrating-community-history.html
This summer I decided to devote time into putting some order to the pool of Greek American articles, magazines, newsletters, pamphlets, posters, postcards, photographs, brochures, newspapers, community publications, catalogues, LPs, CDs, letters, announcements, and notes I have been accumulating through decades of research. This personal archive of largely public documents covers the recent past between the early 1990s, when I started graduate work, up to 2010 or so, when I started e-filing most of the relevant resources.
The sheer immensity of sorting through pile after pile of paper dwarfs me. Even this relatively small-scale archive looms as an overwhelming task. It does not help that I have no training as an archivist. I cannot devote myself full-time to this ordering either, as summertime is the time of the year calling for reading and writing.
The site provides motivation and meaning in turning a journey of private collecting into an act of public sharing. It is fulfilling to know that I contribute, albeit in a tiny way, to a larger archival project gaining momentum in Greek America.
Numerous archival initiatives, some funded by international foundations, others by prestigious national organizations, and some by local communities, are in full swing in Greek America. This institutional recognition of the value of the archive and the willingness to invest resources for digitizing it is gaining momentum, expanding and enhancing its public visibility. It preciously adds to the vast–and largely underresearched–available archive (www.mgsa.org/Resources/gkam.html).
Sorting through my documents has been far from a mechanical enterprise of neat arrangements. Like any archaeological excavation my delving into the disorganized, I admit, microcosm of paper chaos, holds the prospect of exhilarating findings. The randomness in the order in which some documents appear next to each other produce all sorts of delights (but also frustrating realizations). An editorial declaring pride in ethnic success next to an issue of a valuable magazine now defunct, unable to sustain itself. A document whose existence I had forgotten and so relevant to my current writings. Contradictions abound. Serendipity stretches itself in triumph. Unexpected connections call attention out of random juxtapositions.
The excavation of this material proves productive for bringing into fuller view several contours of Greek America, for making discernible some uncommon linkages.
I trace one contour along the lines of several magazines that left a considerable public imprint before receding from public view, morphing into something else, or ceasing to exist.
Another contour is barely perceptible, dotted by fragmented traces of conversations framed by volumes of silence. We know little if anything at all about the reasons why a cultural initiative which incited interest among some failed to animate interest among others, eventually fading away from contemporary concerns.
Yet another contour points to a well-marked line of interests that continues to make headlines in the popular media.
Through the practice of archiving, a seemingly amorphous terrain starts taking shape into a cultural space crisscrossed by identifiable continuities, recognizable shifts, or perceptible ruptures. And still, it feeds the imagination with a multitude of unknown recesses, unexplored areas, unrecognized resonances. Also, other angles and terrains that escape me.
My archive asserts a presence while making visible, alarmingly so, a gaping absence. I am overwhelmed by the realization, once again, that these documents (scattered but available in the public record) remain largely unexamined. For a substantial volume, if not for all, of this cultural network, there is absolutely no analysis; no scholarship; no public discussion. Consequently, there is no understanding of the processes through which certain projects gained prominence while others faded away.
I return home from the office late at night, blanketed with a sense of dejection. Inevitably, or so it seems. Once again, the urgency to animate the archive presses itself.
To animate an archive, like any past, is to infuse it with another life: study it, circulate the findings, identify its contemporary significance, challenge and inspire researchers, contribute to cultural understanding. It is about linking the archive with the making of books, dissertations, articles, essays, reviews, blogs, commentaries, and documentaries that frame and reframe its significance.
Several dedicated archival activists, academics, researchers, and public intellectuals work intensely and intensively as we speak to materialize these linkages.
But it is not a secret, we all in the field of Greek American studies know what is missing. The critical mass of human resources necessary to fill the multiple gaps, to chart the multiplicity of connections in the record is not (yet?) available.
Perhaps this is what defines the experience of doing Greek American studies, a field that finds itself in lack of cultural and material capital. (Relative lack in some quarters, dire lack in others.) Practicing this field cultivates a heightened consciousness of incompleteness, a partiality in tension. On the one hand, the condition of an underresearched archive feeds the feeling of expansive prospects. On the other hand, the reality of resource scarcity, both material and human is limiting. In turn, it drives the urgent obligation to keep cultivating the archive for greater relevance, for the sheer determination not to allow it to wither; not to allow the displacement or silencing of certain histories and knowledges.
And hence the productive tension residing in the coexistence between opening prospects and limiting aspects, offering, for me, an ethical and political purpose that makes the dust of the archive and the thrust of achieving its animation a well worthwhile project.
A pioneer in archive building and museum making, Helen Zeese Papanikolas (1917–2004) never tired of encouraging Greek America to build its archives and make its museums. Late in her life, in fact three years before her passing, she took the opportunity of a talk sponsored by NYC's Greek-American Women's Network to urge Greek New Yorkers to create a museum in the city. The urgent call was made. The response, fifteen years later, still to come...