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Friday, September 5, 2014

We're all Greek Orthodox this week - Fun returns for 42th Annual Greek Food Festival shout "Opa!"


As fans of the annual Greek Food Festival prepare to shout "Opa!," eat too much souvlaki, and maybe drink a little ouzo, the celebration also presents an opportunity to reflect on the history of the Greek community in Bakersfield and what its members are doing today to help victims of the strife enveloping the region bordering their homeland.

But first, let's talk food.

The menu features a number of traditional Greek specialties, including souvlaki (skewered meat) dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves), shish kebab, gyros, a large number of pastries and other delicacies. New to the menu is the "Opa! Tasting Combo," French-cut lamb chops and feta fries.

Dan Andrews, a member of the St. George parish council and coordinator of the festival, said four or five families take the lead in preparing the food, which takes about a month to complete.
"One specializes in barbecue, one specializes in chicken, one in pastries, one in gyros," Andrews said. "One week they're making the pastries, another week making sauces and marinades. Now we're preparing grape leaves."


With the clear weather, Andrews said the parish is expecting about 5,000 people to attend over the weekend.
"It takes a lot of people to do this," Andrews said. "Basically it takes the whole parish setting up and cooking.
"It's a labor of love."
Beyond the food, there are other draws, like an area for kids and traditional activities, like dancing.
"The early festivals were a showcase of Greek dancing in authentic costumes," Andrews said. "In fact, for many years our parish competed in regional dance competitions with other dance groups from parishes throughout the West Coast."
The annual festival still showcases dancing, but now invites the public to join the line.


'You don't have to be Greek to be Greek Orthodox'

Now in its 42nd year, the Greek Food Festival was started in 1974 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Greek community in Bakersfield. By 1924, there was a large enough population of immigrants to establish a formal community to promote their heritage, their Orthodox Christian faith, and also help new immigrants and their children assimilate into American culture.

Eventually, that community founded St. George Greek Orthodox Church, buying property at 401 Truxtun Ave., and later next door at 405 Truxtun. In 1932, they built the current church building. The park where the festival is held was donated in 1956.

While St. George Greek Orthodox Church and the community were founded by Greek immigrant families, Greek Orthodox Christianity is not restricted to people of Greek ancestry. All "orthodox" ("true praise") churches, which in the modern era include many of the churches of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Russia and North Africa, are part of the Greek Orthodox Church.

"You don't have to be Greek to be Greek Orthodox; you don't have to be Roman to be 'Roman' Catholic," said St. George pastor, father Joseph Chaffee.

Among the first churches founded by the Twelve Apostles were those we are hearing about in today's news: churches in what are now modern-day Israel, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Libya, Greece, in addition to Rome. Chaffee said the influence of Greek culture and language in the early church was extraordinary.

"They all considered themselves Greek and used Greek (language) for the first two centuries."
Divergent cultures of the church, influenced by the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, along with other disagreements, eventually led to a split in the Christian church, the Great Schism, in 1054, with the west governed by Rome and the east governed by Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

"After the Schism, the western church became Roman Catholic and the eastern church became Greek Orthodox," Chaffee said.

Because Orthodox Christianity embraces so many cultures, a "pan-orthodox" movement started about 25 years ago, gaining in size and scope over the last decade.
"When people came (to the United States) as immigrants, the parishes would have a very strong ethnic character just because they all pulled together," Chaffee said.

For the Bakersfield church, part of that pan-orthodoxy includes offering services in English as a way of uniting all parishioners. Chaffey said about 30 percent of the parish is of Greek heritage, about half are converts from other faiths, and the rest are new immigrants, including people fleeing the Middle East.

"They are mostly moving to the biggest cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, but they are trickling into here," Chaffee said.
The pastor currently is working with a Syrian family.

"The father and the son are here, and his wife and daughters are still in hiding over there," Chaffee said. "It's very expensive --thousands of dollars -- to complete the paperwork.
"We took care of that, but we're just waiting. There's a lot of agony here because anything could happen over there. It's time we empathize with the people over there."

Andrews said the festival will not focus on current events, as appeals for aid and support from the parish's bishop have only just come in. But he said the parish is involved in three areas as suggested by the bishop's letter: contacting elected representatives, providing humanitarian aid, and lots of prayer.

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