Today, as friends post images of their own father’s in honor, or in memory of their dads on this great American holiday of Father’s Day, I’m going to deviate and remember a different kind of father— a man who for almost two decades, was everybody’s father at Holy Trinity, the beloved church community where I was born, baptized and raised— where my grandparents are buried and where my own father rests in peace.
Fr. Michael Sfanos was the only priest I ever knew in my youth and young adult years. He had the complicated task of heading up a diverse community of Greek Orthodox Christians coming from all walks of life— a lot of immigrant families (like my own) as well as a lot of second and third generation American-born Greeks whose ancestors built the original Holy Trinity on Sandusky Street.
He was the priest when the “language crisis” hit the Archdiocese when Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory encouraged the use of more English in liturgies and one by one, communities across the nation started experiencing major problems.
Thanks to Father Michael, we never really had these problems at Holy Trinity. In his peaceful and magical way, he always accommodated equally the little old ladies in black headscarves in the front row, Mrs. Cherpes, Mrs. Haniotakis, Mrs. Mourtakos— whose only language was Greek. And simultaneously satisfied converts, spouses of mixed marriages and English speakers alike. He always balanced his services in such a way that people left fulfilled.
The church was full then, too— I remember the choir loft filled to capacity, with folding chairs added on the sides of each row of pews, on Good Friday and other special holidays.
He never once criticized or judged anyone for coming late— or even showing up only for communion.
“How do I know what these people have going on in their lives,” he once told me in a conversation about the matter. “One woman used to show up late all the time because she had to take care of her two home-bound parents and she did her best to make it to church as quickly as she could. Who am I to judge anyone?” he told me. “I’m just happy they’re coming at all.”
One sermon has stayed with me all my life.
He stood up on the pulpit and spoke about sin. It was a typical Fr. Michael sermon that used very few scripture readings and a lot of real life scenarios— things that the average person could relate to. And he opened his talk with the following paraphrased words— “I’m going to talk to you today about sin. And I’m not here to judge anyone, because I am as big of a sinner as all of you are…”
Fr. Michael would spend time with some of the strangest people I ever knew. My own father who was good friends with Fr. Michael would tell me about gamblers and bookies, Greeks who were fresh out of jail or the types of people who never set foot in church. When he was at my house one day for a BBQ, I’ll never forget his response when I asked him why he hung out with people like that.
The people in the pews are already there, he told me. It’s the ones who are sick, who are struggling, who are not in church who need support the most. He then encouraged me to read the Bible— not as a theological tool, but as a way to truly understand Christ’s life and the things Jesus did, the people he “hung out” with and the message he shared— or tried to share— with the world.
Fr. Michael knew the Orthodox Christian practice of ecclesiastical “economia” or a sort of pastoral leniency against the letter of the law— as long as he knew you were trying and striving. He never judged anyone. He wasn’t big on biblical verses or teaching scriptures word for word. Instead, he taught the message of these texts written by the Church fathers, as they applied in our everyday lives.
Fr. Michael’s ultimate goal was to use the church as vehicle to impart the difference between right and wrong, good and evil and most importantly— how to treat your fellow human being respectfully and without judgement— just like Jesus would have.
In memory of all of the great fathers who have passed— especially Fr. Michael Sfanos. His memory and legacy live on in many people, including me.