Sunday Lunch: A Past Memory

This past week, His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios invited 18 of my parishioners to discuss ways to overcome the obstacles and look for new opportunities to support our “interfaith” couples. During our meeting, we discussed the paths that these couples had taken to become part of the Orthodox Church: whether by baptism, conversion/chrismation, or by respecting and supporting the freedom of two spouses to follow separate and distinct Christian faiths.

Photo taken by Ethel Gjerde on 1.26.16.

Photo taken by Ethel Gjerde on 1.26.16.

As I listened to varied experiences from participants who were sharing their interfaith family encounters, I remembered an uncomfortable incident that occurred from an erroneous assumption a family friend had made about my parents’ interfaith marriage more than 30 years ago. (My father had died before this event took place.)

It was Holy Friday night. My family was sitting near the back of our church where we always sat. The church was packed. We had arrived early so we could sit in our regular seats. We were following along in our Holy Week books for one of the most revered services of the Orthodox Church, “The Lamentations at the Tomb of Christ.” Sitting around me were my two brothers, one with his wife, another with his girlfriend, our mother, and my wife.

Quite unexpectedly, my mother felt an abrupt tap on her right shoulder. Looking back, she realized a parishioner (whom I will refer to as Penelope) wanted to tell her something. After my mother leaned back, Penelope whispered loudly enough for everyone to hear, “It’s a good thing that your husband is not alive to see your three sons at church tonight with their ‘Αμερικανίδες’ (Greek word for “American women”). He would be so ashamed!”

Yes, it’s true. My older brother and I both were married to non-Greek women and our brother was dating an American girl. Absent from her critical remark was the fact that my wife willingly had chosen to become Orthodox and leave her Baptist faith before we were married, and so had my sister-in-law. Penelope used the Greek word, “Ντροπή“ (“how shameful”) not just verbally; her judgmental gaze and derogatory facial expressions telegraphed its meaning even more.

In response, with a patient and forgiving smile, my mother replied simply, “I don’t think my deceased husband would mind… after all, he married an ‘Αμερικανίδα’ (“American woman”) first!”

Until that night, that parishioner assumed my mother was a Greek woman. She either had forgotten or never was aware that my mother was a convert to Orthodoxy. Perhaps what fooled her was that my mother did look very “Greek” – her skin coloring, hair, and body build all reflected the classic features of Mediterranean women.

Further, my mother’s regular church attendance with her husband and children, her steadfast support of Philoptochos, her many years of teaching in Sunday School, and her support for building our new church all masked the fact that she was a convert. While she became Orthodox later in life, she embraced it with equal fervor as my father who was born into the Church in his native Greece. My mother looked forward to coming to church, and by standing next to my father, she connected me and my two brothers to living our lives with faith and with love with God. Rather than being a handicap, her past life as a non-Orthodox and as a non-Greek offered support and encouragement to many in our parish.

John & Charlotte Catherine Tsahakis

John & Charlotte Catherine Tsahakis Photo from wedding, 6/18/1951

Being reminded of these memories, I was grateful to be part of a team of people our Bishop wants to offer even more support to our families today. This week, I felt encouraged and uplifted to witness so many people respond to a call to help improve our parishes’ support for interfaith couples.

Returning to Holy Friday of many years ago, I recalled how full of embarrassment our friend, Penelope, appeared from her mistaken judgment and petty remark. Perhaps, my mother later explained to me, Penelope was upset that her four grown children were missing from church that night and her family’s presence and support may have triggered resentment. Perhaps Penelope’s ego had to find fault with my mother to overcome her feelings of pain that she had not raised her children to love the church with the same fervor as someone who had. Maybe she was jealous and in her attempt to “feel good at the expense of another” she felt she had to point out a non-existent fault she felt would justify her own personal disappointments and failures. Notwithstanding, we remained friends for years following that night, and we never held a grudge for the judgment we received. But the memory still exists, and it was freed and healed with Metropolitan Alexios’ new ministry to serve those in interfaith marriages.

How proud I am of my mother’s patience and resolve to overcome obstacles like I just shared. Our interfaith couples meeting reminded me of how difficult it is for converts to overlook the undeserved shame and demeaning behaviors they receive from those who feel threatened by converts. Indeed, this memory caused me to wonder if others marrying Orthodox today undergo similar encounters, and likewise, those who marry non-Orthodox… do they fare as bad, or even worse?

It may be difficult to imagine, but when my parents married in the 1950’s, they experienced contempt and sometimes ridicule from those in our parish who felt that Greek men should only marry Greek women. After our meeting, the Bishop told me that even worse, when He was growing up in Greece, Greeks from His village were discouraged from marrying Greeks from even the adjacent village. Unfortunately for my parents, some non-Greeks felt the same. When my parents were purchasing our family home, my mother years afterwards would confide that more than one of her and my father’s neighbors circulated petitions seeking support to demand that Greeks not be allowed to purchase homes in our neighborhood. They were not worthy and they were likened to Jews, Irish, Italians, and Negroes. These neighbors espoused that Greeks and those who married them were to be shunned and their choices restricted.

During our meeting with Metropolitan Alexios, since no one offered a recollection like I just shared, I was hopeful that past prejudices and biases have disappeared. At least we now have an opportunity to reinforce healthy parish practices and encourage welcoming and supportive models. I learned much from the stories of those seated around the Bishop when we met a few evenings ago. Some recalled how they converted to Orthodoxy either before or after their weddings, and others noted that while one spouse did not become Orthodox, the interfaith family can still live in peace and harmony as a two-faith family. I am thankful that I was part of a new ministry team that acknowledges that convert spouses and non-convert spouses are accepted and can live their married lives firmly entrenched in an Orthodox parish.

My mother had chosen to become Orthodox after more than two decades of faithfully living in the Lutheran faith. My father taught us to respect her faith, and when we visited our beloved grandparents, along with her sisters and brothers (our aunts and uncles) who are Lutheran, we respected their beliefs and went to church with them if visiting on a Sunday. We didn’t think twice in sharing an opportunity to be brothers and sisters in Christ.

I confess I was mad then, but thankful now, that times have changed, attitudes improved, and the horizon is full of signs of opportunity and hope that visitors and converts in our parishes are welcomed, accepted, and respected, whether they become Orthodox or not.

In closing, I now have a new topic for my family’s upcoming “Sunday Lunch”… one that involves my past and gives me hope and enthusiasm for the future. What a privilege to inaugurate with His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios, along with Paula Marchman, our Family Life Director, a group that will ensure those who may join the Orthodox Church, as well as those who never do, feel welcomed, valued, and part of the Body of Christ. I feel my parents of blessed memory are rejoicing in Heaven over this development. Likewise, my wife, Presbytera Marinda, my son-in-law, Steven, my sister-in-law, Debbie, and all those who shared at our interfaith meeting are happy that we see the importance of this new frontier.

And finally, to those who remain Catholic or Baptist, or whatever, please know you have a place in our Church family. Through God’s guidance, and the leadership and vision of Metropolitan Alexios, we join together to ensure that we follow St. Paul’s words: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) AMEN!

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