This past weekend was the 35th annual Nashville Greek Festival. I am not Greek, no one in my family is Greek, and yet, we packed up our family of four and made the pilgrimage across town for the promise of homemade gyros and baklava. The event is relatively small, as far as festivals go, it doesn’t have fancy sponsorships or a professional staff, and it all takes place in a church parking lot. And yet, for us, it’s worth the drive.
The food is incredible, there’s a whole fellowship hall full of pastries, and you can watch groups of 50-60 elementary school kids (and half a dozen mildly embarrassed teenagers) dress up in traditional garb and perform dances, to much iPhone recording, enthusiastic clapping, and intermittent shouts of “Opa!”
Part of the event includes tours of the hosting church, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. We carried our babies inside to check out the tour and stood in the back, allowing our little ones to soak in all the beautiful iconography that covered the walls. Our babies have been in a lot of churches (thanks to mom’s line of work) but never one that had a fraction of this much color. The priest pointed out different icons and their rich symbolism, as he explained the history of the Greek Orthodox Church. I couldn’t help but have a moment of wonder at a sanctuary full of people sitting quietly listening to an older man in vestments explaining the importance of the council of Nicea.
I am not sure what the original goal or purpose of the Nashville Greek Festival was. I don’t know who organized the first one, or what their dreams for it were. But looking around at this room full of quietly listening people, and walking out into the busy parking lot, where hundreds, even thousands, of people gathered around a stage to watch children perform traditional dances, it was obvious this community had pulled off something incredible.
This event seemed totally respectful of the Greek Orthodox community’s cultural heritage, beliefs, and traditions. And at the same time, it was radically hospitable and welcoming to people outside of that tradition.
There is a temptation to believe that if you want your community to be welcoming, if you want to bring new people in, you need to make yourself as palatable as possible, you need to make sure you are in line with all the trends, you need to shake off the quirks and historicity of your community in order to be cool. People who try to push their communities this direction often face pushback from those who refuse to give an inch of who their community currently is in order to make room for what it could be.
We at Ministry Incubators hear about this kind of tension all the time: an innovative pastor feeling hamstrung by vocal elders, or a board of trustees, because they can’t make the changes they want to make to invite new people into their community. In the same vein, as a career youth pastor, I often saw youth ministries err on the other side; reinventing entire programs, re-branding, cycling through staff, in a desperate attempt to keep up with what was “cool.”
What if these two problems are really two sides of the same problem? And what if this party of baklava and souvlaki offered an answer to both?
Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church very clearly has an event that gets new people in the door, and they leverage that exposure well, using the time to teach people about their history, culture, beliefs and more. But the event doesn’t draw people because it’s hip and in line with the trends. It draws people because it’s unique.
Because the event is a reflection of this community’s unique gifts, talents, joys, people, history and culture, it is totally one of a kind. It is joyful, authentic, friendly, and never feels like a performance. Even the literal performers are just local kids whose parents have made them learn the same dances they had to learn as children.
In the same vein, just as it’s respectfully connected to Greek Orthodox culture, it’s also welcoming. The priest didn’t shy away from discussion of their community’s theology and history, but they were also happily accommodating of our babbling babies interrupting the lesson. I saw volunteers explaining the significance of the long candles available for lighting, and offering to light one with a participant in honor of a loved one. No older church ladies looked down their noses at the tourists taking pictures inside or the children climbing over chairs. No one corrected mispronunciations of “gyro” or rolled their eyes at me asking entirely too many questions about the production of olive oil.
I think the answer lies in knowing who you are as a community, so that you can invite people in without anxiety that outsiders somehow threaten you. This is a community secure in its history, its place in our city, and its salience in its people’s lives; and that allows it to welcome in new peole with open arms, knowing that new and different isn’t a threat but an invitation.
When we don’t know who we are as a community, we can easily get sucked into a trap of replicating the trendy, instead of leaning into what is authentic to us. So spend some time this week considering:
- If our community were to host a festival,
- What food would it serve?
- Who would perform?
- What would you want to show guests?
- How would you want it to feel?
- What makes your community special?
- How can you celebrate that?
And once you have an idea of what unique character you bring, consider:
- How do you share your community with others?
- Does it make them feel welcome?
- Do visitors meet unfair expectations?
- How do people treat them?
And maybe we can all take some inspiration from my friends across town, and make our communities a bit more welcoming, fun, and most importantly true to themselves.