Contact NCC News Service: 212-870-2252 | E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org | Most Recent Stories | NCC Home
ELENIE HUSZAGH, ESQ., TO BE INSTALLED AS
NEW NCC PRESIDENT;
November 9, 2001, NEW YORK CITY ¾ Among Americas best-loved stories are those of successful immigrant families. One such story is about to get a new chapter on Nov. 15 at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension in Oakland, Calif.
That is when and where Elenie Huszagh, Esq., of Nehalem, Ore.¾ a first-generation Greek American, a longtime Chicago attorney, and a prominent member of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America¾ will be installed as 21st president of the National Council of Churches (NCC).
She will serve the NCC -- the nations largest organization in the movement for Christian unity, with 36 Orthodox and Protestant member communions comprising 50 million adherents in 140,000 congregations -- for a 2002-2003 term of office. As president (a part-time, non-salaried position, similar to chairman/chairwoman of the board), she will play a key role in leading and interpreting the NCCs life and work.
There are actually two intertwined story lines here. Ms. Huszagh is the daughter of a family and of a church¾ both now well established in this country¾ whose lives were shaped by the wave of Greek immigration to the United States in the beginning of the 20th century.
Ms. Huszaghs father first arrived in the United States (as a penniless stowaway) in 1905, when the number of Greek Orthodox congregations here was beginning to burgeon. Her mothers family arrived in 1920, as the foundation was being laid for a Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in "the New World."
Although a Greek Orthodox presence in America goes back to an experiment in colonization in Florida in 1768, it was the generation of which Ms. Huszaghs parents were a part who arrived in numbers sufficient to create the need for many new congregations and an archdiocesan structure to administer them.
Today, the two million-member Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is the largest of some two dozen Orthodox Christian bodies in the United States. With a total of more than five million adherents, Orthodoxy has become a major faith group in the United States.
Ms. Huszagh grew up in Portland, Ore., where her father had eventually settled and become a logger after an odyssey that took him across the United States, and back and forth to Greece several times.
"The part of the story about being a logger is not your typical Greek immigrant experience," she says with her characteristic understated sense of humor. Indeed at that time, "there was only one Greek Orthodox Church in the State of Oregon," she says. "It was the center of our religious and communal life. It served to bring people together, to educate us in the faith and in the culture of Hellenism."
Ms. Huszaghs mother, one of the first registered nurses in the U.S. of Greek extraction, came to that position by way of personal adversity. When she was a young woman, her leg was amputated and, consequently, she spent a great deal of time at a hospital in Lowell, Mass., the town where she and her family had recently settled. She became an informal interpreter between the staff and other Greek patients and, after so much exposure to the world of the hospital, decided on a nursing career.
Recounting these and other cherished family stories, Ms. Huszagh says, "I come from stock that never says die!"
THE ORTHODOX IN THE NCC
The growth of Orthodoxy in the United States in the last century came at a time when the modern ecumenical movement was getting underway. The Orthodox have been an integral part of that movement, including at the NCC, where today 11 of the 36 member communions are Orthodox (eight are Eastern; three, from Egypt and India, are termed "Oriental"); 24 are Protestant, and one is Anglican. Joining the NCC at different times, all the Eastern communions had become members by 1966. Yet, Ms. Huszagh notes, it is in recent years that they have become more visible in the NCC.
"Im pleased with the place of the Orthodox in the Council at this time," she says. "In the past, we perceived ourselves as marginalized and were so perceived by others, but, as the years went by, we contributed more broadly. We took our rightful place." By doing so, she says, "we bring something different to our country and to the ecumenical movement. The Eastern churches view of the world and of reality is a benefit. We expand the choices available."
That view, she explains, is based on "a living continuity" with the Early Church that is unchanged by forces that shaped Western Christianity¾ ranging from the Renaissance to the Reformation. Therefore, the Orthodox have a frame of reference that differs from that of the West and which is often described, in broad strokes, as more mystical and philosophical than legalistic.
It includes an emphasis on the mystery of God, a high place for worship as the joint work of the clergy and the people, and an approach that focuses somewhat less on the sins of humanity and Christs atonement for them and somewhat more on the Resurrection of Christ and the possibility of the faithful in Christ to journey toward a mystical union with God.
These different "languages" of faith form a barrier that is being overcome with greater East-West contact. At a more mundane level, the growing visibility of the Orthodox at the NCC and in other settings may simply reflect the fact that, unlike previous generations, most Orthodox in the U.S. today are American born and have grown up speaking English.
Such is the case in Ms. Huszaghs family. Her aunt who lived in Lowell spoke only Greek to the end of her 85 years, while her parents taught themselves English as young adults. She herself spoke only Greek until she entered kindergarten. "Then I learned enough in a week" to participate fully in learning and play, she says. After that, the goal was to maintain her ability in Greek, which she now speaks "reasonably well." She vividly recalls that "as a child, I went to Greek school, which provided language instruction for many recalcitrant young children who attended after regular public school."
Increasing numbers of American-born members affected church life, too. "Services were entirely in Greek when I was growing up," Ms. Huszagh says. "However, since the late 60s and early 70s, the language issue has evolved. Today in many parishes the services are primarily and often entirely in English. There was no mandate for change, but each community seems to have dealt with language in an appropriate manner¾ the object being to communicate and to serve the people."
Similar processes of assimilation have taken place among other Orthodox communities, including those of Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Arabic, Serbian and other ethnic roots. "Now all of us share the same language and can communicate with each other," Ms. Huszagh notes. At the NCC, for example, a caucus that includes all Orthodox delegates to the NCC General Assembly helps to insure an effective presentation of Orthodox concerns and perspectives to the larger body. The Assembly is the NCCs highest policy-making body and is composed of delegations from all the member communions.
HUSZAGHS CONTRIBUTIONS HIGHLIGHT ROLE
With Orthodoxy well established on the ecumenical scene, Ms. Huszagh is not the first but the second Orthodox Christian to serve as NCC president. (The Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America served in that post from 1990-1991.) She is, however, the first Orthodox layperson and the first Orthodox woman to become NCC president and one of only five laypersons to serve as president in the Councils history.
Ms. Huszagh feels empowered to take on her role at the Council¾ and other church-related responsibilities¾ because of the active place accorded the laity in Orthodoxy. "We truly believe that we are all members of the royal priesthood of Christ," she says, making reference to the Orthodox practice of "chrismation," or confirmation, which immediately follows baptism and which confers full membership in the people of God and "a share in the priesthood of Christ."
On another note, she says, "I feel that, as a layperson in the church, my views may be more closely related to those of the communicants, the person in the pew," and, thus, of value in communicating the work of the Council to a wide audience.
Ms. Huszagh has more than earned the description "prominent member of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America," and has helped expand the role of women in her communion. In 1974, she was among five women who were the first women ever named to the Archdiocesan Council, a body composed of clergy and lay members that governs the temporal and financial affairs of the Archdiocese between the communions Biennial Clergy-Laity Congresses. It also has an advisory role in the election of bishops and the Archbishop. She continues as a member of that body and has served the Archdiocesan Council in many capacities, including as vice-president from 1988-1990.
She also has been involved in recent negotiations concerning a new charter for the Archdiocese, which is part of the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. She was among delegates who went to Constantinople to discuss provisions of the new charter with members of the Patriarchal Synod¾ a weighty and sensitive responsibility given that the issue of the degree of autonomy of the American church has been widely debated within the communion for decades.
In other responsibilities, Ms. Huszagh has presided over plenary sessions of the Clergy-Laity Congresses in 1988, 1990, 1996 and 2000. And she has served as a senior advisor to Archbishop Iakovos (1994-1996). Among her many commitments at the diocesan level, she is legal counsel for both the Chicago and the San Francisco Dioceses.
In 1996, she was awarded the Medal of St. Paul, the highest honor that the Archdiocese bestows upon a layperson.
While her record has demonstrated the important role that lay women can play in Orthodoxy, Ms. Huszagh is among those pressing for the ordination of deaconesses. Advocates point out that, if such a development were to occur, it would re-institute a long discontinued practice of the Early Church. "It is interesting to note," Ms. Huszagh says, "that writings on the subject of the role of women in Orthodoxy have evolved over the years and that the pressure to ordain women deaconesses¾ as is historically correct¾ is increasing throughout the Orthodox world."
GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH TAPS MS. HUSZAGH
Ms. Huszagh is a longtime member of the Greek Orthodox delegation to the NCC General Assembly (and its predecessors, the Governing Board and General Board), but says that when first appointed in 1979, "I knew little about the ecumenical world. The opportunity to extend education about my communion appealed to me greatly, but I soon learned that its not enough to come only with our agenda. We need to come with a vision broad enough to be concerned about the whole constituency and their issues. I got better at it!"
Recalling those early years, when she was the only woman on her delegation and when the issue of womens ordination was high profile in other circles, she says jokingly, "I was very popular with other delegates in terms of people asking questions about womens ordination and the Orthodox. A bargain of sorts was struck. I would tell them why the Orthodox do not ordain women and they would tell me about ecumenism."
That Ms. Huszagh had already become a seasoned ecumenist by 1984 was reflected in her election as an NCC officer¾ to the position of recording secretary¾ for a 1985-1988 term of office. Over the past two decades, she has been called upon to serve many NCC committees and task groups, including the Nominations Committee (1996 - 1999), Constitution and Bylaws Committee (1983-1985), and the NCC committee that from 1986-1987 helped resolve a conflict between the Campbell Soup Company and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which represented farm workers in the tomato and cucumber fields of the Mid-West.
By 1988, "I felt it was time for someone else¾ perhaps a younger person¾ to have the experience of being a delegate," she says, and she stepped down for five years. Persuaded to return in 1993 by her close friend, the Greek Orthodox ecumenical officer Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, Ms. Huszagh still felt "I had given everything I had to offer," and was surprised to learn, in 1999, that her name was being put forward as a possible president of the Council. She accepted the nomination after thorough discussion with her family, including husband Richard, also an attorney, and their grown son, Peter, a commercial real estate broker.
In 1999, the General Assembly unanimously made her NCC president-elect. In that capacity, she has functioned as an officer of the Council, participating in key Council decisions, and has presided over the NCC General Assembly and Executive Board on occasions when the current president, Ambassador Andrew Young, was obliged to be absent.
MS. HUSZAGH SAYS NCC HAS A "FAR-REACHING" ROLE
Ms. Huszagh points to many examples of "how far-reaching" the work of the Council can be¾ and lifts them up as the kind of action that continues to be needed in todays world.
She cites the NCCs intervention in 1983 on behalf of Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, who was then under house arrest when the government withdrew recognition of him as head of communion. At the urging of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of North America, an NCC member communion, the Council sent a delegation to Egypt that met with Pope Shenouda, President Hosni Mubarak and other government officials. "The Copts educated us about this issue and the Councils response helped secure the release of Pope Shenouda," Ms. Huszagh says.
In 1985, she participated in a groundbreaking NCC trip that took nearly 300 U.S. Christians on a study tour of the former Soviet Union at the time when US-USSR relations were thawing. The trip was a natural outgrowth of decades of NCC effort to keep in contact with the Russian Orthodox Church and the numerically smaller Protestant churches in the Soviet Union during the Cold War¾ a consistent demonstration of Christian unity across geo-political barriers. "We witnessed what happened to religious tradition in a state of oppression, how the churches survived it and how they came out of it," Ms. Huszagh notes.
And in 1986, Ms. Huszagh was part of an official NCC delegation that visited religious and political leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Cyprus.
The group returned with a message that had prescient parallels with todays struggle against terrorism. The delegation said that greater interfaith cooperation could show that Middle East tensions were essentially political in nature rather than religious¾ despite the fact that religious passions were being drawn into situations of conflict.
In addition to visiting with partners in the Middle East Council of Churches, who represent a beleaguered Christian minority in the region, the group responded to a heretofore unprecedented invitation from the World Muslim League, with whom it developed a memorandum of understanding for continued Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Recalling the Middle East tour as "distressing and enlightening," Ms. Huszagh says it is sometimes hard for Americans "to understand at a distance why passions in the Middle East are so intense. But when you come face to face with the extreme views that are to be found in every group and that are lived 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and when you see the poverty and the despair, you understand why these things are possible."
Now, in the period following terrorist attacks on America and the worldwide ripple effect they are having, the challenge will be to work effectively with international partners in these and other regions "when we are at the beginning of something we dont truly comprehend," Ms. Huszagh says. What is clear is that "the condition of the minority Christian community in the Middle East, Indonesia and elsewhere is a concern," she says, adding, "My hope is that we as a Council will examine their situation and speak to it over the next two years. How can we be most helpful?"
On the domestic scene, she welcomes NCC efforts to educate Americans "about what is and what is not Islam," noting that "we should also assist in efforts in the Islamic community to educate their people about Christianity and American pluralism¾ make it truly a two-way street."
In addition to a heightened level of interfaith work, the Council continues to develop two interrelated emphases that the General Assembly adopted in November 2000: a ten-year effort to reduce poverty in the United States that is being carried out collaboratively with many faith groups and other non-profit partners, and efforts with many of these same partners toward a larger, more inclusive vision for Christian unity in the United States.
"In the process of working toward these goals, we must not lose the most important aspect of the NCC: its prophetic witness to the public life of America," Ms. Huszagh says. "We must not diminish that role in order to expand."
Although the Councils prophetic voice "is a great contribution to American society," she says, "how often the NCC has been vilified, castigated for being ahead of its time. I think of issues such as relations with mainland China, with the Russian Orthodox Church during the Cold War, with North and South Koreans working for the reunification of Korea ... the list goes on ... situations where we were prophetically correct. "
No matter what controversial issues may come before the Council in the next two years, the NCCs role, in her view, is to bring the perspectives of all the Councils members to bear on them. "In effect," she says, "to deal with the Council is to deal with all 36 communions and their churches" in all their diversity of experience and history.
Even when the members do not agree, "issues that are important to us ought to be out on the table," she says. "We owe it to ourselves and our faith. Excessive courtesy and politeness is not always the best way to go," she says, acknowledging that "I tend to be direct, even a little blunt, if you will."
A LAWYER IN THE LEAD
Ms. Huszagh says that as an attorney, she hopes to bring to her new NCC duties "analytical skills -- the ability to focus quickly on what the issue really are and to understand our alternatives." Until 1999, Ms. Huszagh maintained a legal practice in Chicago, where she specialized in matters of bankruptcy and commercial litigation.
Among international work in which she has engaged, she is legal counsel to the World Council of Hellenes Abroad, an international entity created by act of the Greek Parliament and comprised of representatives of Hellenic organizations throughout the world outside of Greece. She is a founding member of the Hellenic-American Chamber of Commerce, Inc., established in Chicago.
As attorney for the Ukrainian Federal Credit Union in Chicago, she provided recommendations for the development of business in Ukraine and consulted on the establishment of credit unions in that country. And, in 1991, she consulted with government leaders in the former Yugoslavia, regarding legal (technical) services related to many aspects of a proposed commercial legal framework for the country.
Earlier in her career, she was a partner at Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi (1990-1992) and Boorstein & Huszagh (1986-1990), both based in Chicago. She was a founding partner at Miller, Forest, Downing & Huszagh, Ltd., in Glenview, Ill., where she practiced from 1970-1986, serving as managing partner from 1970 -1982. From 1963-1970, she was an associate attorney in Chicago.
A graduate of Chicagos John Marshall Law School with a juris doctor degree, Ms. Huszagh has been admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, the 7th and 9th Districts of the U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois and the Supreme Court of Illinois.
Before entering law school, Ms Huszagh received the bachelor of arts degree from the University of Chicago, where, at age 16, she was an early entrant and which she attended as a Ford Foundation Scholar.
About the National Council of Churches
NCC Home Page