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Sunday, 22 November 2015

Papa-Stratis from Lesvos: the Priest of the Refugees

by Penelope Sarrou and Iraklis Filios

And I want to tell you that we came into this world where we live in order to be useful’ (Papa-Stratis)

A short while ago, the well-known figure Papa-Stratis departed this life. He was the priest at the church of Saint George in Kalloni, Lesvos, and lost his battle against cancer at the age of 57. His efforts were so great that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees called him ’the Good Samaritan’ and the New York Times mentioned him and his work [in an article on 5 August 2015].

From 2007, Papa-Stratis devoted his time to the rescuing refugees and migrants (he helped about 10,000 people), as well as to the financial relief of the residents of Lesvos, who, we all know, are suffering the consequences of the economic crisis. Together with the residents of Lesvos, he devoted himself to rescuing refugees from the sea, made them welcome, gave them food, clothing and a place to stay, as well as psychological support. This despite the fact that he himself had suffered for years from a respiratory sickness and always had to have a tube on him to provide oxygen directly into the lungs.

He had the following to say about Angalia (‘Embrace’), which was set up as an NGO: ‘Embrace started out- unofficially in 2007, officially in 2009-  as a way of providing shelter for people coming from the coast opposite’. Referring to the inspiration for the name, he remarked: ‘Our vision of Embrace came from the Cross, where Christ Crucified had His arms outstretched, embracing the whole world’.

As a man of God, Papa-Stratis acted with the words of Christ in his mind: ‘I came not to be served but to serve’. He made no distinctions in his service to people, applying faithfully what the Lord talks about in the Gospel text about the Judgment. With joy and dedication, he welcomed the divine words of the reading, according to which Christ taught: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you took me in, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me’. All of this is, of course, is engraved on the base of Christ’s teaching on love, since, according to Saint John, ‘God is love’.

Just as Christ preached to everyone, healed people regardless of their race, color, religion or socio-economic class, and spoke to the harlot, the tax-collector, the stranger, so Papa-Stratis ‘girded with a towel’, with no regard at all for any differences in the other people, dealt with human pain with self-denial and love. Concerning this he said: ‘We see neither race, nor nationality, religion or anything else; we see people. In any case, God made people, and we all have the same hunger, we all love, we all fall in love’.

At this point we ought to make an important observation. It is certainly the case that, in the matter which is the subject of this article, human kindness is the main feature. But what human kindness is this? There are adherents of the Enlightenment; Nietzsche’s ‘supermen’; and adherents of Saint Paul.  At first sight, all three teachings have the human person as their center, but there’s a telling difference between Western humanism and that of the Orthodox East.

Adherents of the Enlightenment are those who have acquired rights and the principle of equality before the law and the state, but do not recognize that these benefits come from the will of God. Indeed, they are indifferent to God. In the face of the weakness of human nature, Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ attempts to deify humankind (hence the ‘revaluation of values’ which Nietzsche talked about), though without experiencing God in this deification (i.e. as in Athanasios the Great’s sense of ‘so that we may be made gods’). Adherents of the Enlightenment and those of Nietzsche do not see the human person in Christ, nor God in the human person, as does the theology of the Orthodox East.

For Saint Paul, all people are God’s creation, whose human nature has been tarnished but not lost. People attempt, by God’s Grace, to become sharers in Christ’s sacraments. And the most important thing is, that for Saint Paul, people are individuals, themselves, standing before the Triune God, even if they’re different from the rest of us, other than us, strangers to us. According to the Apostle of the Gentiles, that stranger isn’t our enemy, nor an infidel who has to be annihilated. This stranger is an excellent and holy opportunity for us to be together as fellow-travelers and companions on the road of life, which was created by God the Father of us all. This ‘migration of love’ as Professor Stamoulis mentions in his book, is God’s love for all people all over the world.

So in his remarks about there being no difference between people, [the lack of discernment among people,] Saint Paul says boldly, in his Epistle to the Galatians: ‘there is no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free, no male, no female. For you are all in Jesus Christ. And if you belong to Christ, you are therefore the seed of Abraham and heirs according to the promise’.  Linking the words of Saint Paul with those of Papa-Stratis, the latter says that: ‘for us they’re people in need, and when you see someone cast up by the sea on the beaches of Lesvos, or a mother and child crying, you’re not ever going to open your mouth to ask whether they’re Christian before you feed them… they had some religion, they believed in some God and they had some hope for the next life’.

Papa-Stratis saw in others the stranger mentioned in the title of this article. And here we have an ontological reference to ourselves and the others. We don’t simply give something to the stranger, we embrace them and take them in, with our own different views and idiosyncrasies. The phrase ‘give me that stranger’ which comes from the wonderful, poetic doxastiko for Great Saturday, is quite different from ‘give to the stranger’. Papa-Stratis practiced this with faith and unfailing generosity of spirit. Together with the residents and volunteers of the beautiful island of Mytilini, he gave himself to the Syrian refugees and the migrants, who had left their country, their families, their homes, their native earth, not because they wanted to but because they were ‘hounded out by the bullets of war’, as Papa-Stratis put it.

This sacrificial effort on the part of Papa-Stratis is an enterprise which began with a single person, a priest and servant of the Most High, who conceived the idea but naturally could never have put it into effect all on his own. Human kindness is the special feature of Orthodox humanism and it is foreign to any form of exclusion or segregation and is far removed from trite, banal notions. In the nobility of its nature, it embraces the whole person. It doesn’t deal with one person, but with all people, all societies.  Activating people through a sense of service to others is something that affects all races, all nations. It is entirely foreign to any and all segregation be it national, racial or religious, and, as the supreme vocation towards other people, has nothing to do with nationalist fervor or religious intolerance.

‘Greece hasn’t been lost by foreigners, but by Greeks. I say this all the time. We’ve lost our morals, our customs, our traditions. We’ve built luxurious houses, but we’ve forgotten how to hug. We have to realize that we’re dealing with people here. They’re God’s creatures, they’ve been made by the same God. To love God, we must first love people. I’m not interested in religion. I’m interested in people. People who love the world’ (Papa-Stratis).

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