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The Death of "E Pluribus Unum"

By Rev. Simeon Stefanidakis

 

My mother and father immigrated to this country from Greece in the late 1930’s.

 

When I was a young boy, our family lived in a four-family apartment, owned by my great aunt and uncle, Helen and Alexander. It was in the middle of a street located behind the Central Square area of Cambridge, Massachusetts. To say the least, it was an eclectic neighborhood. On the corner was the convent of Saint Mary’s Catholic Church. There was a tall brick wall, seemingly segregating the nuns from the rest of us. I cannot tell you how many times I wondered what lay behind that towering wall. Having grown up in the Greek Orthodox Church, I was never privy (other than through what others told me) about the Catholic Church and the nuns who wore those ostensibly uncomfortable habits.

 

The remainder of our small street was inhabited by a wonderful mixture of Whites, Blacks, alcoholics, some indigents, and mostly hard-working people, trying to scrape a living for their families. Our four-family apartment house was, of course, inhabited only by Greeks.

 

In so many ways, they were wonderful years. Every night, I would eagerly await the ringing of St. Mary’s bell ring at 6 PM, for I knew that, about that time, my father would be turning the corner, after a long day working as a tailor, to come home to his family.

 

Despite the somewhat deteriorating neighborhood, it seemed to be a relatively safe place to grow up. I had my friends and I got along well with the neighbhood kids. One hot summer evening, while the family and the other Greeks in the building were sitting on the front porch and enjoying each other’s company, along with some bread, feta cheese, and Ouzo, I noticed something that caused me to ponder. Some of the neighbors looked at my happy-go-lucky family with an odd gaze. I could not quite put my finger on it, but it made me feel uncomfortable. I felt as if the looks were those of condemnation and disapproval.

 

“What’s wrong with us?” I remember thinking.

 

As I got a bit older, I noticed another dynamic in our neighborhood. At the end of the street, across the way, was a building, not unlike mine, of Puerto Ricans. Even at such a young age, it was blatantly clear to me that these people were to be avoided at all costs. I didn’t know them; I only knew to avoid them, or else something dreadful could happen to me. I was around six years old at the time and now, in my mid-sixties, I can still “hear” people on our street complaining about the Puerto Ricans across the way.

 

To this day, I cannot remember how the thought of fear about those people was implanted in my young mind. Was it my family? Was it the neighbors? Was it just the way things were? All I know is this: at a young and innocent age of six, I was introduced to prejudice and bigotry. I did not come into this life with bigotry and prejudice, any more than anyone else does. It was implanted into my mind, as it is in the minds of countless young people, against my will! But, I was, and still am, a tough old soul. I refused to allow this feeling of fear to overwhelm me. So . . . . . .

 

Every morning, on my way to school, I intentionally crossed the street at the end of my street, so I could walk in front of the building that housed the dreaded Puerto Ricans, and guess what. Nothing happened! Nothing happened! Not only did nothing happen, one morning, on my way to school, a young boy came out and joined me. Eventually, this “dreaded” Puerto Rican became one of my best friends. How wonderful! Yet, how very sad! Why? Because, I dared not tell my parents that I was hanging out with Emmanuelle, let alone going inside that building. Perhaps, my parents would have thought nothing of it; perhaps, they even knew that their youngest son was welcomed into the arms of a loving, kind, and wonderful Puerto Rican family. But, I dared not take the chance in sharing this good news. That was my first act of cowardice in this life. I shall never know what my parents’ reaction would have been.

 

When I was 9 years old, my family finally realized the Great American Dream. They bought a lovely little home in the suburban town of Arlington. It was nothing fancy, but it was our home, bought and eventually paid for by my hard-working parents. The neighborhood was nothing like Suffolk Street, Cambridge. There was, shall I say, no “color” to the neighborhood. It was a uniform shade of white. That shade of white permeated the whole of the Town; in the Grammar School, the Junior High School, and the High School. I placed all thoughts of ethnicity and prejudice aside. That colorful part of my youth was left behind amidst the streets of old Central Square.

 

In the fall of 1968, I started college at Brandeis University. What a shock! Once again, I was brought back to my early days in Cambridge. Brandeis was a kaleidoscope of color and ethnicity: White; Black; Asian; Hispanic; Jew and Gentile. I reveled in the diversity of the campus; but, it also scared me. For the past 10 years of my life, I was cloistered and sheltered from any form of cultural diversity. My whole family life was encased within Greek Orthodox culture and spirituality. My whole social life was equally encased within “White America.”

 

One morning, while going to my science lab in Brandeis’ Ford Hall, I was confronted by a group of African Americans who had boycotted the building. To my great regret and shame, instead of talking to them, getting to know them, and trying to understand why they were boycotting Ford Hall, I walked away, like a coward, and hid myself in the comfort of my small world. That was my second act of cowardice in this life.

 

That episode at Brandeis, however, transformed me forever. Amidst my fear and trembling at being confronted, head on, by the ugly face of social injustice and bigotry, I made a decision: I decided that I would not become a doctor, a teacher, or an Orthodox priest; rather, I would endeavor to understand the Spirit and the “Spiritual-ism” behind the human person. And, here I am, in my mid-sixties, still trying to comprehend WHY?

 

What does all this traveling down memory lane have to do with “E Pluribus Unum”? It has everything to do with everything. Recent events and policy changes in our great country have brought me back to those days when I was taught to fear the Puerto Ricans. They have brought me back to my first two acts of cowardice in this lifetime.

 

When I look at the events in Charlottesville, along with certain responses to those events, my head asks, yet again, “WHY?” My head asks, but my heart weeps.

 

With recent decisions about immigration and racial profiling, my head asks, “WHY?” and my heart weeps.

 

With the pardoning of a sheriff who represents the worst of humanity, my head asks, “WHY?” and my heart weeps.

 

With the undermining of DACA, my head asks, “WHY?” and my heart weeps.

 

Far be it from me to understand the political undertones of such catastrophes, but I do understand very clearly the implications of such undertones. Texans are trying to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, and they will. Whether we recover from such political devastation remains to be seen.

 

On our money are etched two important and profound statements. They represent the very best – in fact, the whole – of what it is that makes America great: “In God We Trust” and “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one).

 

Out of many, one! Out of many, one! I want to shout this from the rooftops.

 

I am old enough to remember the days when we began each school morning with the reciting of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” It ends as follows: “One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

 

I want to close by asking a very simple question: “Which one of these eleven words does anyone not understand?”

 

Thank you and God Bless.

 

 

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