When I was growing up, my family went to church every Sunday. Squeezed into the car, we played a game as we approached Saint George Greek Orthodox Church—who was first to spot the steeple as it came into view. We were not Greek, but of the two Orthodox congregations in the city, this was closest to us culturally. The other one was Russian and had a gilded onion-shaped dome. As Orthodox Christians from the Middle East, we had more in common with the Byzantine than the Slavonic tradition.
We were reminded that we were not Greek. My mother’s contributions to the women’s auxiliary cookbook were not included in the final publication because they were “not Greek,” though it did include recipes for things like pizza. My brother got bumped from playing the little drummer boy in the Christmas pageant in favor of a little drummer boy who happened to be Greek-American.
Despite our presence, and the presence of second and third generation Greek-Americans, worship was entirely in Greek.
When my family moved to a city that had more than one congregation in the Antiochian archdiocese, whose primary bishop, or patriarch, was in Damascus, Syria, the experience changed. Made up primarily of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, we were no longer cultural outsiders. Worship was in English and Arabic.
Church was more than a congregation of the faithful. It was also a cultural ingathering of Arabic-speaking immigrants, many longing to recreate something of the old country on the cold and snowy shores of North America. One of the first institutions immigrants from Lebanon and Syria built on this continent when they began arriving at the end of the nineteenth century were churches, which aided new arrivals and provided solace for the homesick. Gathered together around shared language and culture, these churches were islands of the familiar in a strange new world.
Ethnic and religious traditions were inseparable in our home. In addition to our birthdays, we also celebrated our “feast” day, the day of the year dedicated to the saint we were named after, complete with cake and ice cream. On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, in late June, we usually went to the beach to celebrate.
I used to think that we made special foods—a thick, sweet pudding of apricots, wheat, aniseed and other spices called bourbara—on the feast of Saint Barbara because my grandmother, the family’s matriarch, was named Barbara. I didn’t realize at the time it’s a major holiday for Arab Christians.
Saint Barbara’s day was followed by Saint Sabas the next night and Saint Nicholas the night after that. On each night, we left out a plate of sweets on the dining room table. The saint whose feast it was each night visited us. They left coins for us on the edges of the saucers. We were forbidden to touch the candy until the final night—Saint Nicholas Day—when we collected our money and ate the candy. At Christmas, we decorated an evergreen tree, and then sat around the illuminated tree in the dark singing carols in English and Arabic.
During Lent, there were meatless meals that seemed to always involve lentils. (For years Lent and lentils in my mind resonated together). Years later, as a university student with a limited income, I ate plate after plate of mjuddareh (lentils, rice, and onions) wondering when that particular Lent was ever going to end.
The fast of course culminates in Holy Week and Easter. On Palm Sunday, we brought home the palm leaves from the church service. I never could learn how to fold and tie them into the shape of the cross, but other family members could. They would be tucked behind the corners of the icons that decorated our home—images of Jesus, the saints, the Theotokos (the “God-bearer,” as Mary is known).
During Easter, everyone was greeted with the words: al-Masih qam! (Christ is risen!). For Easter, we decorated Easter eggs and played a game of cracking them. You held your egg in your fist, and your challenger would tap their egg against the top of yours and the one whose egg cracked lost the game. And whoever cracked everybody else’s Easter egg was that year’s champion. Other foods we made (and by “we” I mean “Mom”) and ate at home included date-filled pastry (kaik) that, because it was shaped like a donut was said to symbolize the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear, and another nut-filled pastry (ma’amoul) represented his scepter.
The foods, habits, and traditions of my ancestors were inseparable from the religion they practiced. Our identity as Arab-Americans was expressed in cultural practices of both home and church. Church was the only place, outside the home, that I heard Arabic being spoken. Church, the religion, was the container for a great deal of our ethno-linguistic identity, the repository and source for our culture.
The Orthodox Church in North America is usually thought of as an “ethnic church.” Most Orthodox Christians trace their roots to Eastern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean. Ethnicity, from the Greek church of my early childhood, to the Arab church of my later childhood and youth, was a central ingredient of who we were together as the church.
When I could no longer in good conscience practice the religion, I went about searching for a spiritual home. I landed upon my local Unitarian congregation because they promised to welcome all of who I was. Advocates for peace, social justice, inclusiveness and the dignity of gays and lesbians, Unitarian Universalists were my intellectual, political and spiritual kindred. I joined as soon as I was able.
What makes an “ethnic church” an ethnic church? Is it when most of the people there share an ethnic or cultural or linguistic identity? Most of the Unitarian Universalist congregations I have served and known are overwhelmingly white and Anglo Saxon. Why do we not imagine Unitarian Universalism to be an “ethnic church”?
The hegemonic culture experiences itself as universal. I am reminded of this when I frequent a supermarket full of food and then find the aisle labeled “ethnic foods.” Because Anglo Saxons don’t have an ethnicity, the way that heterosexuals don’t have a sexual orientation, and men don’t have a gender. At church, this can mean that Western European culture is simply “music” or “literature” or “hymns.” And not “European music” or “Anglo hymns.” But on some special Sundays, we’ll have Latino music or African-American hymns or South Asian literature.
The “universal” culture of Unitarian Universalism is Protestant and Anglo. This is an historical fact, not an accusation. There is nothing wrong or shameful about Anglo Saxon or Western European culture. Because I assumed this false universal, it took me a long time to even realize the translation that had taken place in my religious life, from a Mediterranean medium to an Anglo one. It just took me a while to recognize that I had in fact gone from one ethnic church to another. And that I had lost something in that translation.
It was only after I began to bump up against prejudice toward Arabs and Arab-Americans among Unitarian Universalists that I began to wonder about such things. UUs are not immune to the ignorance about (and even suspicion and hostility toward) Arabs and Arab culture that is ubiquitous on this continent.
(There’s no reason to rehearse all the hurtful and ignorant things UUs have done and said, but I want to mention my favorite. I’m often asked when my family converted to Christianity, which is particularly rich since we are from Palestine, with roots in Jerusalem that go back hundreds of years. Where do they think Jesus was from, anyway? Europe? I usually answer, “Oh about two thousand years ago!”)
I’ve loved every Unitarian Universalist church I’ve been in—even the ones that were hard to love. UUs are my people. And at the same time, UUs are not my people. My people are also ones who revere icons and put out saucers for the saints and eat lentils during Lent. My ethnos is made up of people who speak Arabic (and speak it loudly) and pepper their speech with references to God—God willing, God forbid, praise God.
Unitarian Universalists ask, “How can we become more multicultural? How can we attract more members of different cultural communities to our congregations?” These are good questions. Let’s also ask, “What do members of different cultural communities lose when they join a Unitarian Universalist congregation?” Because the losses can be significant and can include being cut off from a major source of ethnic pride, connection and identity—the “ethnic” churches from which we came.
At times I have felt at home among the Unitarian Universalists and at times I have felt exiled among the Unitarian Universalists. Following the dictates of my conscience and the leadings of the Spirit has simultaneously meant finding a community of faith and losing an important access point to the culture of my ancestors. I found a place that speaks my religious language but that only speaks it in English.
Of course, there are other ways of remaining connected to my ethnic community—none of them are woven as tightly or thoroughly into daily life the way religious traditions are.
Except for food! Have you noticed how much I mention food? The food I eat and make has become the carrier of cultural traditions. I don’t speak Arabic in my household, but I do often eat Arabic food—even when it’s called by non-Arabic names like pita or baklava or even Turkish coffee.
And I rest assured that should my Unitarian Universalist congregation ever put together a cookbook of parishioners’ recipes, my contributions will be welcomed and included.