After much reflection, I feel responsible to share with you all a formative moment from my time growing up in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Growing up, GOYA and Greek School were an important part of my life. It was a golden opportunity to share my culture with other young people, in a world that didn’t always understand the nuances of my childhood as a first generation Greek-American. It wasn’t always an easy group to belong to, but I took great comfort in the bonds we shared as fellow dancers, campers and teammates.
Many of the most exciting events of my adolescence were held through the church, and the basketball tournaments were no exception. At one such tournament, sitting on the bleachers after the Sunday championships, I noticed a boy smiling at me from a few seats away.
I smiled and said hello, and we moved closer to chat some more. We laughed and joked, and exchanged contact information so we could stay in touch.
Not a moment too soon, I noticed several adults glaring at me — the kind of glare that could only mean I stepped out of line. Big time. After he walked away, I was immediately interrogated.
You might be thinking, “well obviously, you were flirting up a storm!” Let me tell you, not only is it encouraged that we form bonds at these tournaments, but I’d had the same interaction with hundreds of other boys and girls alike that weekend, and no one batted an eye. So why this boy in particular?
That boy and his siblings were the only black kids in the gym.
Members of the Greek Orthodox Community, I speak directly to you. Of all the institutions, I’ve never encountered one that so reveres tradition as the Orthodox Church.
Please hear me when I say that discrimination is not a tenet worth upholding. As the descendants of a culture that prides itself on making others feel welcome, ask yourselves, what happened to that person who was here last week? Why did their family stop coming to service? Do our youth feel safe here?
I implore the leaders of our community to set the example that has been sorely needed. Use your sermons to educate your parishioners on black, indigenous and queer histories. Structure your programs to help your youth understand, as the children of immigrants, where their rights to blast Greek music in the car, to celebrate themselves, to live freely in this country, come from. Help them recognize what a privilege it is to have the right to know and express your culture, your language, your food, dances and rituals. Ensure that every child feels safe expressing themselves, and sees their whole self reflected in your practices.
As someone who bore silent witness to many toxic behaviors within this community, I feel responsible to share these sentiments because I wish that someone else had when I was growing up. Our kids deserve a supportive, brilliant community where they aren’t afraid to speak up. I encourage others with similar stories to come forward, and for those who are still afraid to share, are too tired of sharing, or whose safety depends on their silence, I see you and I stand with you.
About the author
Eleni Contis was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. She completed the Bachelors of Architecture Program at Rhode Island School of Design this past June, graduating with two degrees in architecture and fine art.
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