Americans of Greek descent are not always looked upon very favorably by our brothers and sisters in the Patrida (ancestral homeland). We are often viewed as too rich, naive, brainwashed, unable to speak Greek properly, out of touch with our Greek heritage and basically unable to rein in our out of control government. Many have a bleak view of the future of Hellenism in America. Greek immigration to the United States which started in earnest around the beginning of the twentieth century, is a complicated story. Many of the immigrants who came in the early years were young men who came to escape the grinding poverty of their rural villages. Sons in Greek families were not allowed to marry until their sisters were properly married off and that could only happen with an appropriate dowry. The lure of America back then is hard to imagine. An account in 1909 describes it thus: "In every village the farmer deserts his plow, the shepherd sells his sheep, the artisan throws away his tools, and all set aside the passage money so that they can take the first possible ship to America and gather up dollars on the street before they are all gone." These early immigrants suffered discrimination, violence and onerous working conditions similar to that experienced by other immigrant groups. As often happened with immigrants however, although their sojurn was always considered temporary, many ended up staying in America and later importing brides from home, in order to raise families in the New World.
Public education in the United States was built around the "melting pot" concept. Many immigrants sought to Americanize their names and blend in to the larger predominantly Anglo-Saxon society. If they were second class citizens in the Patrida because they were poor, they were determined to do whatever it took to succeed in their new home.
In many respects Greeks in America began to over emphasize a shallow view of their ethnicity that was built around Greek festivals, folk dancing, parades, and Greek food. Lost in all of this was the ability of immigrants to pass on many of the important aspects of their culture and heritage. Despite the efforts of many in the community, with each passing generation, more and more of the language, history, literature and the connection to Greece is being lost.
The unifying element in maintaining a sense of Greekness, even a substitute for it, was the Greek Orthodox Church in America. It is central to the community and a very important part of their lives, much more than it is for modern Greeks in the Patrida. In fact, the Church is as vital to the survival of Greek Americans as it was to Greeks that lived under Ottoman domination. Greek immigrants helped establish Orthodoxy in America and they clung fast to their faith and passed it down to succeeding generations. Despite its huge importance, it is currently undergoing a subtle transformation towards a more Americanized version due to the influx of other ethnicity's to Orthodoxy through intermarriage and conversion from other faiths. The Orthodox Church in America is poised to expand exponentially with more and more Evangelicals, Catholics and Episcopalians discovering the rich traditions of Hellenized Christianity. The more the Church reaches out the more it ensures its mission and the survival of some form of Greek ethnicity.
For Hellenism to survive in America and help America itself, it must feed the spiritually hungry and expose them to Greek Christian values. The other side of the coin is that Americans of Greek descent must rediscover their Hellenic heritage in order to help other Americans experience the benefits of Greek paidea as practiced by our Ancient Greek fore bearers. Many Americans do not realize that our country was founded on the principles of Greek democracy and the founding fathers were philhellenes. They were the beneficiaries of and proponents of Greek Paidea. Paidea means education. It was an important Hellenic concept embraced by the Ancients. It embodies all the processes involved in creating a citizen that is able to think, dialog with others, and inquire constantly. More than technology today, we need highly civilized human beings. As the moral philosopher,Isocrates said "Anyone is a Hellene who partakes of our education." In order to do so we first have to find and understand our common Greek roots, no matter who we are. After all, if we study Greek history over the millenia, we invariably come to the conclusion that anyone who feels, thinks and considers himself Greek is Greek. Diasporan Greeks can spearhead a return to the fundamental Western values that were forged by the Ancient Greeks by reacquainting themselves with those values and ideas through paidea. In so doing, Diasporan Greeks may even help their kin in the Patrida reinvigorate not only Greek Orthodoxy in Greece but also the very things that constitute our common Greekness.