By Anastasia Kaliabakos
There is no doubt that the past few years have rocked the United States of America and its citizens. A global pandemic, economic uncertainty, and campaigns for justice have lately been inescapable topics at the dinner table for most Americans. Sometimes, the way that the world looks today may be discouraging to those who think that the gaps that have become so apparent in our society can never be bridged. However, it is always important to hold on to faith and hope, keeping in mind that acts of kindness and love are not as infrequent as mainstream media outlets would lead you to believe.
The plight of immigrants has been a hot topic in the United States for many years, but it is certainly not a new phenomenon. Many groups of people, upon coming to America, were not always treated with open arms; however, the choice they made was based upon necessity to flee oppression in their own native countries much of the time. Greek immigrants were a substantial group coming into the U.S. in the early 20th century, as they were fleeing the cruelty of the Ottoman Empire. Although Greece was a free country after their war for independence in the early 1800’s, their suffering was ongoing even nearly a century later. Many Greeks were still displaced within the Ottoman Empire in a subservient state to the Turks in many regions.
An example of a Greek man who sought to overcome injustice not just for himself, but for other minority groups was Archbishop Iakovos. Born Demetrios Kouzoukis on the island of Imvros in Turkey in 1911, he would go on to be an extremely influential religious figure. Early in life, he left his home to follow his Orthodox faith, becoming an ordained deacon in 1934. Five years later, he was invited to serve as Archdeacon to Archbishop Athenagoras, and soon after was ordained a priest in Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1945, he achieved what very few people—and much less immigrants-—could: he earned a Master of Sacred Theology Degree from Harvard University, one of the most esteemed universities in the United States. Then, in 1959, he succeeded Archbishop Michael as primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, serving in this position for nearly 40 years. His journey from being a young boy in occupied Turkish territory to becoming one of the most influential Orthodox figures in the world is inspiring and moving, to say the least.
Archbishop Iakovos’ legacy is not only limited to his endeavors in the faith—in fact, he was extremely involved in the fight for racial justice. Greek Americans had actually long been allies to those facing bigotry, as demonstrated by the formation of AHEPA, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, in 1922, an organization which stands for civil rights and against discrimination. Iakovos in particular is commonly regarded as one of the most iconic Greek Orthodox figures of interracial solidarity, and his actions continue to shape Greek Orthodox activism even today.
In 1965, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, renowned for his activism during the Civil Rights movement, led a march in Selma, Alabama. This demonstration was not just a turning point in American history (contributing to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in particular), but it was also a significant moment for Greek Americans standing against racism in the U.S. Archbishop Iakovos knew what it was like to experience oppression (albeit of a different type) and wholeheartedly and vocally supported Dr. King along with other activists during the Civil Rights movement. He was the only church leader of the time to walk with Dr. King and other protesters during the famous march in Selma, rallying with them against segregation and supporting their desire to vote. It is important to note that this type of action was quite uncommon for a man of Iakovos’ stature—although we can clearly see in 2021 that what he did was undoubtedly right and just, many at the time did not think that was so. He received threats, was called a traitor and un-Christian, and was told he should be ashamed of himself.
However, Archbishop Iakovos was a true ally to the Black American community and never backed down in the face of criticism. Iakovos himself said, “I came to the United States from Turkey where I was a third category citizen, so when Martin Luther King Jr. had his walk at the courthouse of Selma, Alabama, I decided to join him because this is my time to take revenge against all those who oppress people.” He thought it was his duty from God to always stand for civil and human rights as long as he lived.
Upon Iakovos’ death in 2005, Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s wife, said: “At a time when many of the nation’s most prominent clergy were silent, Archbishop Iakovos courageously supported our Freedom Movement, and marched alongside my husband, and he continued to support the nonviolent movement against poverty, racism and violence throughout his life.” In our current times of division, it is important to remember what is right and what is wrong. Even when faced with relentless criticism, it is paramount to never back down and forsake your values for an easier path. Let Archbishop Iakovos be an example of how to be a good and decent ally.