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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?
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.
June 2–15, 2019
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