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|The Life of a Missionary
By Sofia Katsareli, News 24-7, Greece
English Translation by Peter Souleles
Edited by Wid Bastian
With inexhaustible kindness and purity of love, his only goal is to provide for the have- nots. In Africa, where he is known as Father Themi, he is one of those rare human beings who give without expecting anything in return. He risks his life through a sense of love without fear. His tool is faith and his dream is for a better future for the children and heroic mothers of Africa.
The story of Father Themi has drawn the attention of Hollywood and a film depicting his life is in the works. In recent months Father Themi has lived through apocalyptic scenes after the Ebola outbreak, “the worst outbreak of the virus in the history of mankind” as he himself tells us.
They call him the “Saint of Africa” because in his face they see the monk, the man with the calm tone, the “father” who extends his hand to distribute food, medicine, water and love. Without advertising, without neon lights and without fanfare, this 70 year old mixes freely with the people of Freetown and lives their lives. Even a very bad phone line connection between Athens and Sierra Leone could not diminish his apparent kindness, courtesy, humor and Greek roots.
Father Themi and the screenwriter for the film, Wid Bastian, spoke with NEWS 24-7 about the band he once played in which sent the women wild, about the unknown enemy called Ebola and about Greece which despite the economic crisis stands as an ally and is sending money and invaluable assistance for the relief of the people in Sierra Leone.
Father Themi was born in 1945 in Alexandria Egypt to Greek parents whose ancestry was from Volos and Samos. He was raised in Australia where he spent most of his years. As a young man he lead a band known as The Flies and as he says, “I thought to myself that if the Beatles could have so much success then why not The Flies as well?” And that is exactly what happened as he found himself on the same stage as the legendary Beatles and the Rolling Stones in their first tour in Australia in 1965 at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda.
His studies and knowledge awakened within him a desire to struggle alongside the poor in order that he might improve their lot in life. With Mother Teresa’s mission as a guide, he left his promising academic career and a well-paying position. He threw out his ties and suits, put on a priest’s robes and became a missionary thus beginning an entirely new life.
In 1999 he commenced his mission in Kenya following the instructions of Petros, the Patriarch of Alexandria, and was made a deacon, a priest and then an Archimandrite.
Standing by the side of women, children and the victims of the civil war, and the Ebola arrived. In 2007 the new Patriarch Theodoros instructed Father Themi to go to Sierra Leone in Western Africa. It was there that he lived through shocking moments set against a backdrop of hair raising images. The civil war left behind a host of disfigured amputees. His attention was drawn by these victims of war as well as by the women in prison in Freetown for whom he would buy sewing machines so that they might be able to support their children when released from prison.
Father Themi, as a truly noble man, joyfully responded to an invitation for an interview. Somewhere between dealing with Greece and Africa and managing the problems of the people of Sierra Leone, Father Themi arrived for our appointed telephone rendezvous. He began our telephone interview with the following words:
The situation in Sierra Leone is out of control. It is a country which has been suffering since 1992 as a result of the civil war. For approximately ten years, there was nothing but killing. The trademark actions of the guerrillas was to cut off hands and legs. When the war finished eight years ago the country was for many years the poorest nation in the world. It started slowly getting to its feet, it has a good president who is carrying out many projects, but Ebola has now struck, sending the country backwards once again.
The economy and tourism has died. Most of those who were serving with NGO’s (Non- Government Organizations) have already departed. We have to avoid the danger, but we are not sure how we are going to avoid Ebola because the enemy could be a child at school or the perspiring hand of the man from whom you buy a bottle of milk. We are living in a strange and invisible prison without knowing when we will face the firing squad.
Greece is our ally in the fight against Ebola Greece is helping us in our battle against Ebola. Not on an official level through the government, but through its people. I recently received 10,000 Euros from Greece. Greece is just one of the European nations which are assisting. Australia, China, and England are also helping and have given us one million dollars. At the present moment they are preparing to send us a container of goods from Thessalonica. God willing it will arrive within a month if they do not prohibit ships as they have already done with airline flights. We have been stigmatized and no one wants to touch us.
Already, three nurses and four doctors have died and others have left through fear. Urban myths have captured the imaginations of many people. For example, there are some who believe that washing yourself with warm water and salt is a protection against Ebola. Now, they have even started to drink this mixture and in the process they are poisoning themselves to death.
I am paying for the sins I committed as a rock performer. When the virus broke out, I kept telling them that it would come here. They did not believe me because they were under the impression that the government was simply trying to obtain funds from overseas. When Ebola did arrive, more myths circulated because they did not want to believe the truth and now the situation is out of control.
I am distributing masks which I have received in large quantities from Australia. I also distribute gloves to the poor. We do what we can. We have the Virgin Mary, the Saints, Holy Communion all of which are our spiritual weapons and our spiritual army. I asked Father Themi if he ever fears for his life and he replied:
I am not afraid, but I feel uneasy. I have not become paralyzed. Fear brings panic. When you think with fear you do not think clearly. What Ebola has given us is a great deal of uneasiness. That I do have.
I am now paying for my sins that I committed as a young rock artist, he says with a laugh and the conversation turns to the film.
In the beginning I was not in agreement, because as a monk my life should not be visible. You must not seek fame and glory. You must ask for it to be given to others. But as time went on and I gave it some thought, I told myself that Orthodoxy is not as heard of in the West as Catholicism is. Things are heard about Mother Teresa and the Pope. When the Patriarch of Alexandria was killed in an airplane crash close to Aghion Oros (Mt Athos in Greece) nothing at all was heard. If it was the Pope it would have been the main news. They say nothing about Orthodoxy. Not only are we forgotten but we are also viewed with a suspicious eye. The West sees Orthodoxy as an out-dated system which follows the old road.
And so I said to myself, If Hollywood is interested, let’s do it, so we can show the West what we are doing rather than what they think we are not doing.
Wid Bastin : Father Themi has a huge heart for the whole world, Wid Bastian, the screenwriter for the film, was eager to speak about Father Themi and the upcoming feature. We did so by Skype. A few months ago Wid Bastian received a call from the producer, John Tsambazis, who asked him if he was interested in writing the screenplay.
I was very interested in doing it. From that moment on I started talking to Father Themi. We began work in the middle of May. The screenplay will be done in September and is being looked at by Peter Andrikidis who is a well-known producer in Australia.
The film covers all of his life to the present time. We are very pleased that the actor Jonathan Jackson, who won an Emmy Award for his role in the General Hospital daytime drama, wants to play the role of Father Themi in his younger years. We have many well- known actors under consideration to play the role of Father Themi in his later life.
Father is opposed to every form of violence. Father Themi has a heart for the whole world. In Kenya where he was previously, and in Sierra Leone, he takes care of the have-nots as head of the Orthodox Mission.
I am not exaggerating when I say that he has had over fifty near death experiences. They have threatened him with a knife to the throat and by other means, but he managed to escape each time. Father Themi is opposed to every form of violence. He will literally turn the other cheek if struck on the cheek. If you steal from his one pocket he will also give you the contents of his other pocket. This is Father Themi.
A rare combination of kindness and ingenuity Father Themi is a man with a great sense of humour. He is unbelievably clever. Before Christianity won him over he was interested in social justice. Now that he is a priest he continues to be interested in social justice. He identifies himself with those that have less and to them he has dedicated his life.
Father Themi loves the whole world without discriminating between people. His love is genuine, it is authentic. I have never met anyone who cares less about himself and more about others.
As a man, apart from being a priest, Father Themi has unbelievable depth and an incredible knowledge of philosophy, politics and art. Despite never having studied screenwriting he came up with some ideas that even I had not thought of. But more than anything else, he is a noble man with a noble soul.