The Death of
"E Pluribus Unum"
Rev. Simeon Stefanidakis
My mother and father immigrated to this country from Greece in the late
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
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 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
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
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
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
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! Floridians are trying to recover from the devastation
of Hurricane Irma, 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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