I heard a telling story just last week that captures precisely the theme of this post. The local Greek Orthodox parochial school around the corner thrives on Greek parents eager to instill in their offspring the values of Hellenism, “philotimo,” Greek language and culture, and the jewels of Orthodoxy. It thrives equally on the tuition payments those parents make to send their children to it. A friend who is a single parent with one child was having difficulty affording the tuition. She spoke to the director about her situation, but unfortunately, there was nothing that could be done for her. After a few weeks, out of the blue, it turned out that her son would be allowed to attend after all. As it happened a munificent benefactor had gifted the school with a $20,000 donation to be used for children who could not otherwise afford to attend but wanted to stay true to their roots. The donor, however, was not of Greek descent–she was a Jewish.
Her story reminded me of a similar situation I had been through. During my financial struggles as a single parent, I too remember approaching the secretary of a very big and well-endowed Orthodox parochial school (associated with the most populous Greek Orthodox parish in the US) when I could not afford the payments for her after-school Greek program. Although I did want my daughter to continue learning Greek, I also was too embarrassed to approach the Philoptochos or some other benefactor for some funds. So basically my child was dropped from the program. There was no system in place to alert the hierarchy of cases worthy of need. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder as I freshened up in the bathroom of the church/school, beautifully expanded and redesigned with milky-white marble countertops and shimmering silver toilets and complimentary toiletries, how much would it have taken to help a poor struggling divorced mother pay her child’s after-school program dues in light of the hefty costs of renovating the parish wash room? It was an irony yet again. It had to take a Jewish woman to pay the dues of a Greek child; the costs of renovating a bathroom were way grander and more important than paying the dues of another.
This is typical of the way Greeks, especially Greek Americans around the NY metropolitan area, operate. Their philanthropical thrust is geared toward erecting churches, expanding parish reception halls, and naming entire wings of school building after themselves, but very few contribute to the real human church, the koinos. I can expand the concept and state that while Greeks love to contribute to the ethos of Hellenism and all of its grand ideals, they are paupers when supporting each other. They care little for supporting their blood-and-bone brother Greeks. They give their millions to expanding churches, lots of churches, but the buildings and physical structures that distinguish them, not the blood-and-body church comprised of actual people (which is the technical definition of “ekklesia”; it’s the people, not the building that makes a church.) In fact, it might just be the opposite. Due to their pride, ego and extreme independence, and quite honestly envy and ambition to be number 1, one Greek, except say when there are blood lines and familial chords that bind, might go out of his or her way to keep another Greek down. Unlike other cultural and ethnic groups we all know through our everyday interactions in this multicultural city, (ehem, they are celebrating their New Year this weekend), who stick by each other and work to promote each other’s success without too much vying for top dog, Greeks literally “vgazoun to mati tou allounoun” (“gorge the eye out of another Greek.”)
While there are so many wealthy Greeks, very few give to charities and causes that support people, especially other Greek people. Out of the 30 or so not-for-profit organizations founded around elements of Greek culture, less than ten give aid and grant programs that deal directly with community. The majority of Greek philanthropic organizations give to churches; some in fact are created just for this purpose. While it is wonderful to give to a church, not enough is done to help social issues that affect the Greek community. (Greeks suffer from many types of mental illnesses, domestic violence, drug addictions, and poverty). I have a hunch that one of the reasons this is the case is due to pride and what I call “conspicuous charitableness.” If you donate $3 million to expand a wing in a school, you can get your name emblazoned on gold lettering to name it and henceforth, all who go through its doors will know it was your charity that made it all possible. On the other hand, giving a donation to allow for underprivileged youth to attend Ionian summer camp is not something tangible.
Greeks also tend to be cliquish, especially around geographic lines (witness how many “syllogi” based on geographic origin to the mainland abound). While this drive helps inter-cooperation within a specific group, it does little to forge union and identification across national lines. In many ways, even after all these thousands of years, we have not advanced beyond the bounds of our city-states in our mentality, with so much bickering among the Spartans, the Athenians, the Thebeans, the Cretans, the Macedonians. Perhaps this provincial affiliation, more asphyxiation, is at work that separates more than unites.
I suspect the basest of human emotions, the types the tragedians wrote about, are also at play. Envy and jealousy, outrageous ambition, and the cut-throat minority mentality, and ego, of course, hubris, all have their part. I have often wondered how and why some ethnic groups have figured out that they can get farther if they cooperate and support with other members of their group instead of working against them in competition. Perhaps this is the lesson our ethnos is beginning to learn. There are inklings of change with people like Gregory Pappas, founder of The Greek America Foundation, whose aim is to advance the larger frieze of Hellenism by showcasing and rewarding live examples of real Greeks by the NIC Conference and The Forty Under Forty awards. With so many Greeks who have become successful and have made a headway in almost every major industry in this great country, we can all relax and start focusing on furthering our ethnic identity as a whole. We don’t have to worry so much about stepping on each other’s heads to make it up the corporate ladder; now we can extend our hands to the little guys still struggling on the bottom rungs.
I really would like anybody who thinks otherwise about this idea to challenge me in a written comment. Are Greeks more cooperative or competitive with each other and why? Share your stories and your thoughts.