A couple of weeks ago, we observed a very special anniversary at the Greek Evangelical Church in Athens where we regularly and deliberately worship. The church recognized eighty-six years of life. Churches, like all social institutions, are shaped by history and by the actions of other social institutions in their milieu. As evidence, this particular church was birthed in the midst of and at least partly as a consequence of a gigantic social upheaval. During the period that some refer to as the Great Catastrophe, powerful forces in the region and beyond made decisions directly impacting the Greeks.
One historian has recounted that, by September, 1922, an estimated 30,000 Greek refugees were arriving in the city of Athens every day, in fear of the Turkish army. The Great Population Exchange, agreed to the following year at Lausanne, meant that 1.3 million Greeks would be expelled from Turkey to Greece, while 800,000 Turks would go from Greece to Turkey. In this instance, a rarely successful social tactic known as partition was once again attempted as a solution between conflicting ethnic groups. Despite the upheaval that ensued from such a massive, two-way migration, our Greek Evangelical friends, however, find much redemption in it, because it was the cultural and historical womb in which their church was conceived. God-fearing and non-Orthodox Greek Christians who had formerly been members of Greek Evangelical churches, especially in Smyrna, Turkey, came together and, under God’s leadership, formed what is now known as the Second Greek Evangelical Church in Athens.
At church that day, special activities were planned. Since it was the first of these observances in which Janice and I had been privileged to participate and since we love this church and share the members’ happiness on having survived for so many years, we looked forward to the celebratory event. The big affair was to be a luncheon, somewhat like what Americans call a “Pot Luck Dinner.” Everyone was encouraged to bring a special plate with enough food for their family and then some; the tasty dishes were stowed away in a room adjacent to the worship center. At last, when worship was completed, with proper thanks and commitment given to God for the past, present and future, tables were brought into the worship center and all were invited to the big feast!
Midway through the worship service, earlier that day, I noticed something that, in all my church experience, I have never before seen. Standing to sing the Greek hymns, I noticed that the man on the pew in front of me had brought a bottle of wine. With no attempt to hide the bottle, there it was, “as big as Dallas!” In Greece, of course, it is common for guests who come for dinner to bring a bottle of wine for the meal. Later, when the food was spread that day and all of us gathered around the improvised tables, the Pastor and one of the church’s Elders came to our table to offer wine.
I could not help but compare this to my previous experiences in Baptist churches in the South, where official resistance to alcohol and wine is usually so stringent that, contrary to our supposed strict and literal interpretations of Scriptures, even Communion wine is not really wine, but grape juice! In my experience, if/when Baptists bring their own bottles, they are usually much more discreet than my Greek brother!
I’m still reflecting on that experience and wondering what, if anything, it means. It reminds me, of course, that different religious groups, impacted equally by their life and social experiences, select varying social behaviors to resist and yet others to embrace. If the partitioning of conflicting groups is never the ultimate solution to long-held animosity, then how can it be helpful to partition the Christian family by selected social behaviors and the animosities that so often accompany them? Of course, it is always easier for me to make decisions for other people; so, I am confident that Greeks and Turks must learn to get along while living in close proximity. Likewise, I wonder if Christians who drink in front of each other, those who do not and those who drink nothing at all must also avoid partitioning their lives and find a way to accept and respect each other, regardless of which interpretations of the Bible they choose to emphasize or ignore. After all, in Christ, we have all been invited to the banquet!