I continually hear about the work Father Themis is doing in Sierra Leone, and I have been inspired enormously by its sheer quantity but also by its incredible quality. I have been impressed by his sensitivity to the local population and by his unwavering dedication. This year, when I realised that there was a possibility for me to fit into my schedule a work-visit to Sierra Leone, I grabbed the opportunity. Communicating directly with Father Themi, he agreed for me to go to Sierra Leone and engage, in an exploratory way, in adding a psychosocial dimension to the work he and his team are already doing in that country. I am grateful that, through my University, I received a very modest grant to enable me to undertake this work-visit. I must admit that I was particularly excited that this was the very first time in my humanitarian career, which stretches over 45 years, that my work was going to be conducted entirely within an Orthodox Christian context.
What I witnessed in Sierra Leone confirmed my initial impressions and strengthened them considerably. What Father Themi succeeded in achieving in that country is short of a miracle. In an astonishingly brief period of time (less than 8 years) he did wonders. He built churches, schools, a college, clinics, created a sizeable Orthodox community with priests, deacons, chanters, teachers, established an Orthodox Youth Fellowship, etc. Setting up all these projects is not just an outstanding accomplishment – maintaining them and sustaining all of them, and still planning for substantial expansions with more projects is an even more significant success.
I know fairly well the challenges in working in Africa and I can appreciate that achieving what Father Themi did is far more than an extraordinary feat. It requires a multiplicity of incredible abilities, skills and resourcefulness. What I observed and experienced during my work-visit was that his work is a testimony to his sensitive diplomacy, endless patience, sheer determination, dogged endurance, ingenious creativity, imaginative flexibility, unyielding devotion, steadfast perseverance, boundless energy, proven effectiveness, to name but a few. However, above all, what he succeeded in introducing was a genuine Orthodox spirit in everything he did, and this cannot be achieved only with worldly talents. His entire work is imbued by his own strong faith, ascetic simplicity and Christian love for his neighbour, especially the one in need. He succeeded in transforming his academic scholarship and entertainer’s charisma into a new quality that is characterised by Orthodox humility, pastoral care, love for those who suffer, infectious enthusiasm, without ever losing his good-humoured nature.
Father Themi’s ability to multitask is simply astounding. While talking with me in his office, he would also attend to planning permissions for the new orphanages he is building, construction details with the engineer, banking complications, arrangements for car repairs, re-adapting the daily schedule of his commitments due to unforeseen circumstances, caring for his clergy’s, parishioners’, and staff’s spiritual welfare as well as their financial, health, housing, educational, personal and family problems, the list is endless.
The catalogue of his activities every day is phenomenal. In one day, together, we visited two Deputy Government Ministers (the one of Health and the one of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs), the School for the Blind, met with the Orthodox Youth Fellowship, attended to a boy who was disfigured by a large tumour on the side of his head (Father Themi arranged that the boy and his parents were brought to a medical specialist, we visited the specialist in advance to prepare him to examine the boy, we went back again to the specialist when he was conducting his investigations on the boy so that Father Themi finds out, himself, about the boy’s condition, he made enquiries to send the boy for treatment to London and Ghana, he started fundraising to collect the money for the boy’s treatment), in addition to celebrating the liturgy in the morning and leading the vespers in the afternoon, as well as, caring ceaselessly for his clergy’s, parishioners’, and staff’s needs, and working endless hours to keep up with the everyday never-ending tasks. Breathtaking and exhausting! He does not stop from dawn to late at night.
My own work seems to have been received well and, as a result, we planned with Father Themi that, as from next year (2017), I start offering a training on ‘Psychosocial Care for Adversity Survivors’ at the Orthodox College, which will be attended by selected Orthodox clergy, College lecturers and school teachers, staff from relevant Government Ministries as well as staff of International and Non-Governmental organisations working in Sierra Leone.
My work-visit was a pilgrimage for me. It was a great blessing for me that I had the opportunity of meeting with Father Themi and working with him. It is a privilege that I was able to contribute, extremely minimally, to the godly work of the Orthodox Christian Mission of Sierra Leone, which operates under the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. I have never seen such work both in terms of its huge volume and its unbelievably nourishing impact. Father Themi succeeded in creating a most efficient set of projects that are deeply embedded in the Orthodox spirit of love, humility and service for the neighbour.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries on earth, with the highest infant mortality rate and lowest life expectancy – only 44 years, which came out of a civil war and the Ebola crisis only recently. The multiple adversities Sierra Leoneans face are unimaginable to us who live in Europe, North America and Australia. The needs and challenges are enormous. The work of the Mission is not limited to the Orthodox community. In a true Christian way, Father Themi has extended his help to all members of the Sierra Leonean community. He is well known and respected by all, and he has personal relationships with many officials, Government Ministers and with the President of the Republic, himself. He is a well known and much loved personality in Sierra Leone.
It was a most humbling experience for me to have been able to be involved for nine days with this Mission, I look forward to developing closer ties with them and continuing and increasing my contribution to their work.
Renos K Papadopoulos, PhD.
Professor and Director:
Centre for Trauma, Asylum and Refugees,
MA/PhD in Refugee Care,
University of Essex.
Honorary Clinical Psychologist and Systemic Psychotherapist:
The Tavistock Clinic, London.