Reflecting on Education on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

by Fevronia Soumakis

January is the month that we as U.S. Greek Orthodox celebrate Three Hierarchs Day and Greek Letters and Learning in our churches and parish schools as well as commemorate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Despite that the Hierarchs and Dr. King lived centuries apart, it is important to build an intellectual bridge between the two and consider how these individuals still impact our lives today. The fourth century Hierarchs we know as Basil of Caesarea (330-379 CE), Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389 CE), and John Chrysostom (347-407 CE) were not only defenders of the church but also prolific writers, intellectuals and social activists. They sought to achieve nothing less than a social and cultural transformation of the fourth century Greco-Roman world they inhabited. Martin Luther King Jr. drew inspiration and strength from his Christian faith to advocate for equality and civil rights and a radical transformation of American society through nonviolence.

Perhaps by better understanding and linking these figures we can shed light on recent events––the Black Lives Matter Movement, the response to the global pandemic, the violent assault on our democracy, and the staggering inequities in American education. The New York City public school system, for example, is the largest in the United States, more segregated today than it has been in the past, and where one out of ten students is homeless. Studies demonstrate that the pandemic has adversely affected the educational opportunities of socioeconomically disadvantaged students who are predominantly black and brown and who live in segregated communities.

What we can learn from the writings of King and the early Christian thinkers is that pursuing and achieving equity in education is a collective responsibility. Each of us should be invested in students from all communities, but especially the most vulnerable ones. Greek American educators, whether working in public schools or parish schools, have the knowledge and expertise to weigh in on important public issues; they should be more visible in their local communities because of their long history and commitment to education. American society has much to gain by orienting their work and intellect to serving the broader public. The pandemic has prompted a closer collaboration among Greek American and Greek educators in the United States and Greece and between the church and secular Greek and Greek American institutions, resulting in a dynamic exchange of ideas. It is time to think more critically, collectively, and proactively beyond our church communities. King and the early Christian bishops harnessed their faith to the power of their education to refashion the ways we think about humanity. Greek American educators possess the cultural blueprint to direct transformational thinking into praxis.

Fevronia K. Soumakis is an adjunct assistant professor in the European Languages and Literatures Department at Queens College, The City University of New York.

Cover Photo Credit: FK Soumakis, Brooklyn, 2021.