OMAHA, NE – Many Greek-Americans would like to believe that prejudice is something experienced only by other ethnic groups and minorities, or that it doesn’t exist at all anymore. But that is not the case.
In a scene out of the 1950s, high school student Maria Piperis of Omaha, NE was asked to go to the homecoming dance and then the invitation was rescinded by the boy who told her he couldn’t go with her because he heard she was not a Christian.
Maria had several different options she could have followed in response to the blatant prejudice and ignorance she was confronted with, but she chose the best response, the truth.
Here is what Maria wrote, “I am a Greek Orthodox Christian and a baptized, confirmed member of the Apostolic Christian Church formed in 33 AD. I believe in the Holy Trinity, the Saints, the seven Mysteries/Sacraments, and was named after Mary, the Blessed Mother of Jesus, my Lord and Savior. As the Church of the East (Constantinople) was one Church with the Holy Catholic Church of Rome until the Great Schism which occurred in 1054 AD, we pray at every liturgy/mass that the Saints (the same ones you venerate) intercede for the unification of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I always wear a komboskini on my wrist that was made by hand by a monk in a monastery on Meteora in Greece as a prayerful reminder of my faith. It has 33 knots representing the years Jesus walked the earth and a cross symbolizing His glorious resurrection. So, yeah, I’m a Christian.”
She continued, “Oh, and you have no real understanding of history and Christianity, whose Gospels I hear every Sunday in my church in the language they were originally written – Greek.”
The sophomore at Marian High School, an all-girls school, attends St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Omaha.
Maria’s mother, Christina, told TNH that “we tell our children to be very proud of being Greek Orthodox because our language was the vehicle that carried Christianity to the rest of the world and we preserve the doctrine of Jesus Christ as his disciples preached it. Young people don’t like being different from their friends, especially in communities like ours where the number of Greeks is small, but if they know their Greek heritage and what Orthodoxy means and the role it played in the spread of Christianity they take great pride in their difference, as our four children do.”
Maria told TNH that “defending my faith – not just sharing it – to kids and adults alike, is something I have to do on a daily basis. I refuse to be wishy-washy in my faith, values or morals.”
Both sides of the family are from the Peloponnese – Maria’s father Peter’s parents came from Nemea and her mother’s parents are from Pyrgos, Ilias. As Christina told TNH “all’s well that ends well. After defending her faith to the guy that rescinded his invitation, Maria ended up being asked to Homecoming by another young man who appreciates her Greek heritage and Orthodox faith.”
The Greek community in Omaha is not unfamiliar with prejudice. The infamous Greek Town riot of 1909 took place in the city after which nearly the entire Greek population fled Omaha. Greek immigrants unaware of the labor issues at the time arrived as strikebreakers in the meatpacking industry and the railroads, so the local sentiment was not in their favor. A Greek immigrant and a young woman teaching him English were arrested in February of 1909 for what the police officer, Edward Lowery, called “an inappropriate relationship.” As they were being taken into custody, the Greek pulled a gun and fatally shot Lowery in the leg. The Greek was soon caught, and held in the South Omaha jail. According to the February 22, 1909 New York Times, two state legislators and an attorney gathered 900 men, rousing the assembled crowd with anti-Greek speeches after which a mob of 3,000 was raised to lynch the jailed Greek. He just barely escaped with his life and was moved to another jail, but the mob rioted in the Greek quarter of South Omaha. A Greek boy was killed and several other people attacked, including Italian and Romanian immigrants who were mistaken for Greeks. Greek businesses were looted and homes destroyed. According to the Times, the Demos confectionery shop was targeted and “Mrs. Mary Demos and her aged father, who were in the store, narrowly escaped death at the hands of the mob.” The Greek prisoner was sentenced to death for shooting the police officer, but the sentence was overturned on appeal. The Nebraska Supreme Court found he had not received a fair trial. The second trial found him guilty of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 14 years. After five and a half years he was released and deported. The Greek vice counsel to the United States asked for an explanation from the federal government for the expulsion of the Greeks from Omaha and why the authorities had failed to protect the Greeks of the city, but no explanation was ever given, according to Lawrence Harold Larsen and Barbara J. Cottrell in The Gate City: A History of Omaha. The Greek community never quite recovered from the riot, but some did return to Omaha to build the vibrant community that continues today. With young people like Maria standing up for the faith and helping to defeat ignorance and prejudice, the future of the community looks bright.