Black Americans make up a tiny percentage of Orthodox Christians in the United States. Considering how difficult it is for someone from our American culture to convert to the Orthodox faith, it makes the stories of the seven Black individuals in the most recent issue of Jacob’s Well—a magazine of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey (OCA)—rather amazing. Orthodoxy, from the outside looking in, can seem foreign, complicated, and confusing. But perhaps Black Americans are better positioned than any ethnic group in this country to traverse the convert’s journey. They are a people experienced in being “the stranger.”
Earlier this month, Jacob’s Well published a special issue featuring seven interviews with Black Orthodox Americans. It may be the first publication in more than 20 years devoted to Orthodox Christians who are Black Americans (the last we’re aware of was the essay collection, An Unbroken Circle, published by the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black in 1998). The issue was noteworthy both for the diversity of its interviewees and for the commonality among the stories. There were men and women of different ages, some descendants of American slaves, others recent African immigrants or of Afro-Latino backgrounds. They spoke English, Spanish, and French. Some came from Catholic backgrounds, and others from Pentecostal or traditional Black churches. Yet, threads of shared experience ran through them all.
It is encouraging to see young scholars and emerging Greek Orthodox leaders entering the conversation about anti-racism. In a posting in this forum, Nikolaos Piperis and Stavros Piperis, scholars at the Creighton University School of Law and Youth Directors at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Omaha, Nebraska, contribute to the discussion from asociopsychological perspective:theysingle out fear as a key variable explaining the Southern Greek-American reticence to openly side with the Civil Rights movement en masse.
Their position connects social psychology, immigrant material realities, and the violence of white supremacy. The immigrants’ public support of the Southern anti-racist movement, they point out, would have meant risking one’s business and endangering one’s personal and family life. “These Greeks feared their businesses would be blacklisted, their windows shattered by bricks or their loved ones killed,” they write. The authors designate the inhumane cruelty of Southern segregationism as terrorism, asking that our critique acknowledges the Greek-American predicament under Jim Crow terror. Were we in their position, would we have risked the destruction of our hard-acquired possessions? This angle of seeing the issue makes those who did defy Southern racism but also racial injustices elsewhere all the more laudable.
We are thankful to hear from two distinguished Greek Americans, Dr. Aristotle Papanikolaou and Dr. George Demacopoulos, who recently published an essay about the injustices African Americans face. The authors encourage us to step into their shoes, and we agree that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese has a role to play in the struggle for justice. We do not, however, ignore or apologize for our grandparents’ generation. As Archbishop Iakovos attested to, our grandparents are examples for us to emulate in today’s struggle.
Papanikolaou and Demacopoulos argue that the generation of Greek Americans who lived during the Civil Rights movement did not understand its moral necessity. They paint a picture in which many Greek Americans were racists and maligned Archbishop Iakovos for marching at Selma. Yet His Eminence painted a different picture. Following his appearance, he issued this press statement:
On June 4, the leadership of four interfaith organizations—Religions for Peace USA, Parliament of World Religions (PoWR), United Religions Initiative (URI) and the Interfaith Center of New York (ICNY)—issued a statement: “This Perilous Moment: A Statement from Religious Leaders and Communities on the Crisis of Racial Injustice and Inequity and Current Protests.” This statement is important, as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’i, Humanists, Indigenous, Jains, Sikhs, Taoists, Unitarian Universalists, Zoroastrians, and many others signed on to the statement and were able to address, in one voice and with a sense of urgency, the systemic evil of racism that plagues our country. Drawing inspiration and empowerment from the spiritual resources of their respective tradition, each faith community is underscoring their commitment to justice, peace, and reconciliation.
The Orthodox Church, as an active member of the Interfaith Organization Religions for Peace USA, is also a partner in this interfaith witness. Her participation in these efforts reflect her ethos as it has been authoritatively expressed in the Great and Holy Council (Crete 2016) to seek inter-religious understanding and co-operation for the advancement of peaceful coexistence and harmonious living. His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in his address to the Global Peace Conference of Al-Azhar and Muslim Council of Elders (2017), expressed the belief of the Orthodox Church in the need for human solidarity and the commitment of the Orthodox Church in advancing that goal through interfaith collaboration building a culture of justice and peace. He stated that the credibility of religious communities in today’s world depends on whether they are active advocates and guardians of human dignity and freedom of all people. His All-Holiness has suggested that it is only through dialogue and collaboration that faith-based communities, governments, and civil society are able to respond together to the challenge of building a just and peaceful world.