Ethnicity, Faith Intersect in Greek Orthodox Community

St. Demetrios is the only Eastern Orthodox Church in Cape May County and is designed in the shape of a Byzantine Cross as are all Orthodox Churches.

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NORTH WILDWOOD – “We are proud of our heritage,” George Klingos said June 16, seated at a table in the empty dining room of the Vegas Diner, in North Wildwood. Klingos and partner Michail Angouridakis shared their experiences as Greek Americans and the delicate tapestry of how culture and faith intersect. Yet, as Rev. Nicholas Rafael, of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, in North Wildwood, explained, the Orthodox faith is not dependent on ethnicity alone. 

How do the twin realities of faith and ethnicity coexist, and why are they important? According to Rafael, the Greek Orthodox community of North Wildwood is part of a wider context more properly known as Eastern Orthodox. The term Orthodox comes from two Greek words: “orthos” and “doxa.” “Orthos” carries the meaning of “straight and right,” while “doxa” means “opinion.” 

In a phone interview June 19, Rafael explained that Orthodoxy includes a wide range of ethnic groups; i.e., Russians, Albanians, Ukrainians, Romanians, and Serbians. Connected in belief and practice, an Orthodox Christian is part of the broader Eastern Orthodox Church. According to Rafael, “anyone can be Orthodox.” 

“The center of our church is the life and death of our Lord,” Rafael explained, referring to Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Orthodox believers hold to the Nicene Creed as established by early church fathers in 381 A.D. 

Many beliefs held by Roman Catholics, such as confession, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, communion, and veneration of saints are also believed by Orthodox congregants. Rafael then shed light upon the “split” between the Catholic and Orthodox Church going back a thousand years. 

In 1054 A.D., a dispute grew into the Great Schism. Three words were added to the Nicene Creed regarding the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity. Western Catholics, who looked to Rome for spiritual leadership, said that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” This addition became known as the “Filioque” clause in Latin, meaning “from the Son.” Leaders in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey, adhered to the original writing, saying that the Spirit comes from God the Father. 

The second major difference centers on the Pope. Orthodox believers do not believe that anyone is “infallible,” or incapable of making mistakes and sin. 

“We believe that every man is fallible. Only Christ was infallible,” Rafael said. Dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox leaders is ongoing and relations are cordial despite differences, according to Rafael. 

Orthodox Christians do not believe in purgatory and allow priests to marry. 

The members of St. Demetrios are part of the living legacy of Orthodox teaching. St. Demetrios’ story is also the story of Greek immigrants who came to North Wildwood – the two are inseparable.  

Angouridakis came to America on a work visa in 2010, from Velvendo, Greece. Angouridakis told the Herald that the majority of Greeks in the Wildwoods come from Velvendo, a city in northern Greece.

“I had friends who are Greek Americans,” Angouridakis said. “I came and saw how it is. I got married. I stayed.” He grew up in the restaurant business and is now part of North Wildwood’s hospitality industry. As a young entrepreneur, Angouridakis said his grandparents’ world revolved around the Orthodox Church. Today, with the pressures of life and running a business, younger people are generally less observant. 

Klingos came to America for higher education and attended the University of Illinois, studying business administration. Although he did not graduate due to financial constraints, Klingos found work as a busboy in a Chicago restaurant and worked every position in the industry. Through hard work and perseverance, Klingos achieved the American dream. 

“I came to America with $50 in my pocket,” Klingos reflected. 

Both Angouridakis and Klingos are proud to be Greek Americans and explained that belonging to the church provides a cultural connection. Klingos said his adult children are bilingual and understand both American and Greek culture. 

“This helps prevent xenophobia,” Klingos explained. Assimilating into a new nation is necessary while still knowing one’s history. 

“In America, we’re Greek,” Klingos said, “and American in Greece.” 

According to Klingos, most of the Greeks in Cape May County are part of the restaurant/hospitality industry. A seasonal lifestyle makes church attendance difficult during the summer, yet Klingos and Angouridakis are glad to help support St. Demetrios financially. 

St. Demetrios was completed in 1968, and the hall was added in 1982. Before the building was constructed, Orthodox congregants either drove to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, in Atlantic City, or Greek Orthodox Church of St. Anthony, in Vineland. 

The history of Greek Americans is another element of America’s rich diversity. Many immigrants fled from wars as Greeks and Turks clashed in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, in the early 1900s. Thousands poured into New York and New Jersey, settling in mostly urban areas. Discrimination varied from place to place, but was not overwhelming, according to historical records. 

St. Demetrios’ story continues today, as a church and in the lives of individuals who seek their way in a modern world, between tradition and progress. 

Rafael said that faith lives in action – the deeper your beliefs, the more your faith will grow, demonstrated in how you live. 

Faith Matters is an ongoing series exploring the connection between individuals and their faith, impacting their families, community, and beyond. Those with a story of faith to share should contact the writer at rrogish@cmcherald.com.