… Much of our group arrived in Dendroportamou, just outside the courtyard of the magnificent Church dedicated to and seeking the intercession of St. Nectarios. This Church was stunning and built by the poorest of the poor in an essentially crime ridden, cutoff western region of the city that has approximately 3,000 families, 2,000 of these families being Roma. As their name suggests, they have roamed from place to place from country to country, carrying little, but often inheriting a ghetto laden with crime. Their city here is no different.
What is different in this community though is the presence of extreme joy, a joy that radiates from the Sanctuary, through the nave and far beyond the confines of this Parish! Of course, this joy is ultimately founded in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Here though, where the vast majority of the community was not welcomed to the Church and unable to find joy – Christ – amidst the crime, the poverty, and the hopelessness, simply because they were “Roma”, joy came to their community some ten years ago and it came in the form of a youthful, humble and ever smiling priest with a vision to serve, Fr. Athenagoras.
A moment of prayer, essentially a parade through town, legos, dinner and a concert with dancing was what our night with hold. And, all with the poorest of the poor or more correctly, the richest of the rich since they have found a joy in the person of Christ that transforms every worldly woe and lament.
We arrived outside the Church of St. Nectarios and were very warmly greeted by a handful of individuals, including Fr. Athenagoras. Although Fr. Dean and I saw Fr. Athenagoras at the Clergy Laity Congress this past summer in Nashville, it has been some six years since I visited his beautiful parish. We followed Fr. Lazarus who also serves this parish, proceeding through the narthex and into the nave where we venerated a Holy Relic of St. Nectarios.
Once seated in the Church, we chanted the apolytikion of St. Nectarios and then Fr. Athenagoras began to share a bit with us about this special place – his joys, his ministry, his beautiful community of the Romas. Again, I think each of us was extremely touched by his words and the intentions of his ministry. It wasn’t until we departed the Church that we realized the true impact of this blessed soul.
As we departed the Church, walking to the elementary school that was built but two years ago, we passed home and businesses along the way. Waves, cheers, smiles…all as the neighbors saw Fr. Athenagoras. I can only compare the experience to being in a parade or with a celebrity. People weren’t running up for autographs though, but greeting him with hugs and asking for his blessing. And, as the neighbors came forth to the streets, we were continually welcomed and cheered as we worked our way to the school
Upon arriving at the school, we were again welcomed with cheers and claps, simply greeted with great joy by the parents and the children of Dendroportamou! Up to the third floor we went to watch a brief, moving video detailing the life of the Roma children; not simply the great obstacles and adversities that should characterize their lives, but also sharing some of the blessings that they’ve found in and around the Church the St. Nectarios. One of the young men then shared his story, specifically with the robotics team, which led us to the room across the hallway.
In this room, packed with children and all of us, three children discussed their involvement and leadership with the robotics team. Their peers confirmed the joys of teamwork, creativity, opportunity, logic, and, in the end, freedom to be more than they or others ever thought that they could be! Testament to this is the fact that their team took first place in all of Greece and 16th place in the international competition in the United States this past year (out of 160 teams). Who would have ever thought a group of Roma children, destined for poverty and crime, would have so embraced Christ, one another, and robotics.
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. Had he asked us for anything, it would have been given twofold. Even as we made an offering to Father in support of the children, he suggested that we simply take the experience with us, learn of their needs and do as we are able. Both Fr. Dean and I agreed that this was unacceptable, so with two against one, we left a donation and agreed to prayerfully consider and share whatever needs are discerned, especially as they begin to construct a new facility that will accommodate more children.
I neglected to mention that Fr. Athenagoras is a celibate priest. He however doesn’t live alone. If I’m not mistaken, his small home in the neighborhood has over ten children leaving there! He has adopted several and houses even more, because this is the Gospel of Christ, this is our Faith, this is incarnate love.
Upon saying our good-byes, we assured one another that we would be in contact soon. God-willing, we will also be able to promote a forthcoming full length film on the Roma of Dendroportamou, directed by a young man who has followed their story for the past three years. He’ll be moving to San Francisco for six months while on a Fulbright scholarship to complete his film, debuting it at both the San Francisco and the Los Angeles Film Festivals next year.
Oh, and did I mention that the next robotics competition will be at Lego Land in Carlsbad 2017? Let’s hope that we can welcome some of these families to our Parish and also travel to support them as they compete for their next trophy!
May our Lord, through the intercessions of St. Nectarios, continue to bless, inspire and strengthen Fr. Athenagoras and those who serve with him, softening the hearts and providing love and hope to the children and families of Dendroportamou.
We will return to Thessaloniki in the evening to meet Fr. Athenagoras, the founder of Faros Too Kosmou, http://www.farostoukosmou.gr a ministry of the Parish of St. Nectarios of Dendroporamou that serves the at risk children of the Roma community.