A Spiritual Migration, Greek Easter and the Love of Strangers

Today is Eastern Orthodox Easter (Pascha). A day of rebirth, renewal and reflection.

Growing up Greek Macedonian American, in a wealthy predominately white Anglo Saxon neighborhood, I was living in a world that was split. As a child, I participated in the same activities as other children in my school and neighborhood such as skiing, camping and hiking.  Once a week, however, I left my anglo world behind. On Sunday mornings, while my friends were on hiking excursions or taking visits to amusement parks, I was expected to attend church school and liturgy, and listen to a man dressed in an ornate robe chanting in a foreign language, with full participation of the parishioners and choir. 

After the service, we would visit friends or relatives from our church community, or they would come to our house, where children were expected to sit and listen to the stories of their elders, eating Macedonian foods, like spanikopita, lamb, and fasolada (bean soup) while listening to Greek or Macedonian music. My parents would make me play the piano, since I was taking lessons at the time, and I was advancing quite well. I only knew 10 or 15 songs. 

My mind would always travel to a friend’s house where we would ride horses, hike, play sports and eat hamburgers and hotdogs. I was always amazed at how my friends’ cabinets were lined with loads of unhealthy, great tasting snacks. My mother never bought junk-food and cooked homemade meals and baked goods daily. We had to protest that she buy Mac n Cheese, as an after school snack. She drew the line there. 

For the most part, I kept the details of my ethnicity to myself. It was easier to not bring up that side of my life, when the most I could do was clumsily explain. When my friends would ask me what faith my family practiced, I would reply, “Eastern Orthodox” or “Greek Orthodox,” and they would immediately cry out, “What?” When I repeated my answer, they would ask in bewilderment, “What’s Orthodox?” In my neighborhood, you either attended Greenfield Hill Congregational Church, St. Timothy’s Protestant Church, or St. Pious Catholic Church. My friends always accepted me and welcomed me no matter what my ethnic background, and for that, I’m so grateful.

When I entered high school, the chasm between what I called “my parents world” and my world grew even larger. I pretty much turned my back on my ethnicity and my faith, since I wrongfully assumed the two went hand-in-hand. I realize now that my parents, even my father who was born in this country, experienced the same cultural pull, but in the opposite direction: they could identify more closely with their Greek Macedonian roots, while I could identify more closely with my American roots.

Both my parents gave me two gifts for which I am grateful. The first was the gift of faith. At the same time, they also encouraged me to think for myself and to question the world. One Saturday morning, the day before Pascha, these two forces collided, and I I decided to stop attending church. I began to give my parents such a fight on Sundays that they finally succumbed and allowed me to make my own mind up about attending church. I respected them for not forcing me to continue and for not judging me, because if they had, they might have totally snuffed out the littlest bit of passion that was still present. My mother insisted, however, that I attend Church on Christmas and Easter, and that I take part in confession and communion once a year.

I can’t say that the only reason for turning away from my faith was because I associated it with my ethnicity. There was also the seduction of secular American culture. But as a child, when it was so important to fit in, the biggest factor in my leaving the church was that I wanted to be “more American.”  As a result, my two sides did not equal one. In fact, they were often at odds with one another. The result was that I felt short at both ends, and I missed out on a large part of my identity, both my Orthodox faith and my ethnic roots.

As I approach middle age, I still have to work at it, but the traditions on either side of my ethnic and American life mingle more easily, one outshining the other depending on the day. What a difference from my earlier life, when I repressed both my ethnicity and faith and there was no such way to identify with those sides of myself. I am once again a practicing Orthodox and immensely enjoy the traditions of my Greek heritage. I seldom eat junk food and cook Greek dishes often, or other approximations of Mediterranean cuisine. 

Philoxenia is a Greek tradition and way of life I embrace daily, which was passed down to me from my parents, grandparents and Greek community. It literally means “the love of strangers.”  In Ancient Greece, hospitality was a value ranking highest on the list of virtues. It was vitally important to welcome a stranger from out of town into one’s community and home and sinful against God to turn away a weary or hungry traveler or visitor. 

Helping a stranger in need was an opportunity for one’s own salvation, good standing and health for the entire community. The belief was, and still, is that people and communities benefit greatly, physically, mentally and spiritually, to step outside of oneself/itself and their comfort zone and give a hand up to those in need, welcoming  and accepting others to become insiders, rather than remaking outsiders.

An immigrant’s journey is founded on departure before it evolves into a sense of arrival. Today, I celebrate Orthodox Easter with my family. Today, I am Greek Orthodox, celebrating my ancestors and their traditions, especially that of philoxenia. 

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