by James Rouman
I was baptized in a wash tub as were both of my brothers. It’s true. I really was. My aunt Helen was married in an Orthodox ceremony performed in our house as well. I recall liturgies celebrated in our dining room with Fr. Chrysostom whispering words in a Greek language that seemed somewhat different from the one we spoke at home. I remember the decorative cloth depicting Christ that was spread on the table, along with a cross, a bejeweled book, and the hot water my mother always provided during every service. And there was plenty of incense burning too. Drowsy from having been awakened at five in the morning and without anything to eat or drink, I fidgeted constantly before receiving communion. After breakfast, I was off to school and to a world quite different from the one experienced only minutes before. That’s how it was three to four times every year during my childhood. It was, in fact, my introduction to Orthodox Christianity.
Where and how did this happen? “What’s the story here?” one might ask. Almost a century ago, a caring and pious priest traversed the towns and hamlets of Northern Wisconsin, preaching to Greeks throughout the area. He spoke about God’s kingdom and told us to be strong in the Faith of our forebears. It was, after all, his ministry and the steadfast efforts of my parents that made me the Orthodox Christian I am today.
The story of Greek immigration, as told by sociologist Charles C. Moskos, is no different from that of other ethnic groups who settled initially in urban centers and later left for places near and far. Little is known or said, however, of folks like my parents, who, for one reason or another, found themselves scattered throughout America, in communities devoid of elements that fostered faith and ethnicity. Such was the case regarding my family and about the place where I was born.
How we came to be in a small Midwestern town in the early 1900s is a story for another day. Yet there we were, one family of Greeks living among Northern Europeans a hundred fifty miles from an Orthodox church before and after the Great Depression. In our town, we were the “other” and different from our neighbors. We spoke Greek at home, professed an unfamiliar Faith, ate different foods, and pretty much kept to ourselves. At school, my brothers and I excelled as students, and, as we later learned, were the envy of many who knew us. Our house was adorned with icons, which my mother censed as she sang troparia memorized as a child. She was a deeply religious woman, whose belief in God was strong and unabashedly displayed. How to transmit the Faith handed down to her was a challenge she faced in the wilderness where she lived. She could teach her sons all she knew about the history and saints of the Orthodox Church and how our religion differed from our neighbors, but in her mind, that alone was not enough. Believing church attendance to be important in the lives of children, she struggled to understand how it should best be implemented in the absence of an Orthodox presence. Such was her dilemma, even if in her mind she had options to consider.
The pastor at St. Mary’s parish and the nuns of the local hospital wanted us to attend their church, but only if we became Catholic. In those days, proselytizing was the name of the game, and Rome was offering bonus points for successful conversions. Sunday School at a Congregational church nearby, although convenient, was hardly a source of serious catechesis.
St. Barnabas, on the other hand, needed altar boys, and there our family was warmly welcomed. “Come,” said Fr. Benjamin, an Episcopal priest. “No need to convert. We’re a mission parish and short on numbers.” Moreover, my parents had read in the Atlantis, a Greek newspaper from New York, that Archbishop Athenagoras, of blessed memory, was encouraging Greeks to attend Anglican services in places where an Orthodox church did not exist. And so it began for me and my brothers, dressed in cassock and surplice on Sundays, with the Book of Common Prayer in hand, learning to pray in the Episcopal Church without ever participating in its sacraments. “Yours is not the true Faith,” my mother would remind Fr. Benjamin, who often drove us home and stayed for lunch.
I was twelve years old when I experienced my first Paschal celebration in Minnesota with family and friends. Before then, mine had been a parallel journey to Christ, which often caused me to wonder where I was being led. The beauty of those Holy Week services, however, made me realize for certain where I truly belonged.
As a member now of a major Orthodox cathedral parish, I understand how the history of Orthodoxy in America has been told largely from the perspective of ethnic communities in large cities. But there is an important history waiting to be told: the history of immigrants living in small towns and in isolated places, who did the best they could with what was possible because they were determined to raise their children as Orthodox—even if that meant baptizing them in a wash tub.
Dr. James Rouman is an anesthesiologist and member of St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral parish in Hartford, CT. His particular interest is religious education for adults.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.