Civil Rights movement

From baseball to decades in a pulpit, with lots of courage along the way

From baseball to decades in a pulpit, with lots of courage along the way

When the Rev. William Greason tells his own story, he stresses that God gave him the ability to throw a baseball, but that gift wasn't what mattered the most -- because his true home was a pulpit.

Of course, that's exactly what a 92-year-old preacher is going to say hours before entering the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame for his trailblazing efforts as -- in the words of sports scribes -- "Oklahoma City's Jackie Robinson," pitching for the Oklahoma City Indians in 1952.

"The Lord laid this on my heart. He said, 'You're going somewhere where you were not wanted. … You gotta go and you gotta represent me,' " said Greason, in a guest sermon at the St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, just before the Aug. 14 hall of fame rites.

"I've been careful about asserting myself, wanting to be in positions where I didn't have any business being. … But it's been a blessing, though, to know you have a God who is able to do all things."

Greason's road to the pulpit was long and, at times, dangerous. Case in point: When the American flag was raised high on Iwo Jima's Mt. Suribachi, Greason was among the young Marines who saluted it from the beach. Watching his buddies die in combat was tougher than facing jeers and sprays of beer from racist fans.

His former Birmingham Black Barons teammate Willie Mays put it this way, in a tribute to Greason: "He was a groundbreaker in Oklahoma City, a World War II veteran honored for his service, a man of God and a good friend to many."

Greason's sermon was a revelatory moment after seven years of work building the case to honor him, said amateur sports historian Mark House. Everyone knew Greason still preaches almost every Sunday at Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church, where he has served since 1969. But seeing him in action was a shock.

After the Iakovos earthquake

When Archbishop Iakovos first became America's Greek Orthodox shepherd, he spent most of his time helping immigrants follow a familiar faith in a strange land.

That was in 1959. By the time he finished his 37-year reign, the Turkish-born archbishop faced a different challenge -- helping American converts find their place in the unfamiliar sanctuaries of Eastern Christianity.

Iakovos knew that America would change the Greeks, challenging their faith and traditions. He also knew that Americans would change his church, in ways that would help an ancient faith reach modern America. He spent the final decades of his long life wrestling with both sides of that equation.

"I cannot visualize what an American Orthodoxy would look like. ... But I believe that it will exist. I know that it must be born," said Iakovos, while visiting Denver's Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral in 1992.

"I do know this for sure. The essential elements of the Orthodox tradition will have to remain at the heart of whatever grows in this land. The heart has to remain the same, or it will not touch peoples' souls. It will not be truly Orthodox. I know that this will happen here, but I do not know when it will happen or how."

The 93-year-old archbishop died on April 10 without fanfare, although he was an almost mythic figure among Greek Americans and mainline ecumenical leaders.

Soon after becoming archbishop, Iakovos met with Pope John XXIII, the first formal meeting between an Orthodox leader and a pope in 350 years. This opened a door for later reconciliation efforts between the ancient churches of east and west.

The archbishop marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Ala., and then appeared -- in his flowing black robes -- with King and other civil rights activists on the cover of Time magazine. It was an early glimpse of Orthodoxy on the main stage of American public life.

Iakovos met with presidents, earned a Harvard Divinity School degree, led interfaith dialogues, asked Arab Christians to seek peace, lobbied for human rights and, in 1980, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The official church obituary hailed him as a "role model for American Greek Orthodox Christians, thoroughly committed to the vital democracy of his adopted country without forfeiting the ageless values of Greek culture or abandoning Greek Orthodoxy's spiritual and ecclesiastical roots in the Church of Constantinople."

Nevertheless, it was a showdown with the hierarchy in Turkey that forced his exit.

In 1960, Iakovos pushed to create the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas to promote cooperation between Greeks, Arabs, Russians, Romanians, Serbians and other Orthodox believers.

Then in 1994, he dared to chair a summit for bishops committed to "bringing our household into order" and seeking a plan for Orthodox unity in America.

The document released after that Ligonier, Pa., meeting boldly said: "We commit ourselves to avoiding the creation of parallel and competitive Orthodox parishes, missions, and mission programs. We commit ourselves to common efforts and programs to do mission, leaving behind piecemeal, independent, and spontaneous efforts, ... moving forward towards a concerted, formal, and united mission program in order to make a real impact on North America through Orthodox mission and evangelism."

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was furious, seeing this as an effort to weaken ecclesiastical and financial ties with Istanbul. Then Iakovos retired, stunning Orthodox leaders in America. His exit was an earthquake and the aftershocks have not stopped.

Today, Orthodox unity here remains a dream. But it's impossible to study the media, education and missions work that Orthodox churches are now doing together without seeing signs of the changes that Iakovos believed were coming. The problem is finding a way to express centuries of Orthodox tradition in such a pluralistic, intensely Protestant land.

"Orthodoxy still has not found its niche yet in American life," said Father Christopher Metropulos, executive director of the multi-ethnic, convert-friendly Orthodox Christian Network based in Ford Lauderdale, Fla. "It hasn't found its unique voice for speaking to this culture. I think the archbishop knew that. ...

"But it is too late to stop the changes. We are working together. We are starting to do mission work together. We are Orthodox and we are in America. That's the reality."