Last weekend I attended Divine Liturgy at Holy Trinity Church where I was born, baptized, raised and spent my entire youth and young adult life. My brother was married there, my father, his brother and my grandparents are buried at Holy Trinity Cemetery. My family has roots in Holy Trinity way back when it was a fledgling community of immigrants on Sandusky Street.
To give you a bit of background, since many of you might be new to Holy Trinity: I was the youngest person ever elected to the parish council when I was 17 years old. I taught Greek dancing and Greek language to dozens of young people when I was still in high school myself. I served the parish faithfully, bussing tables at festivals, participating in every ministry, put my time in as GOYA president and even embarrassingly donned a basketball uniform at the Diocesan basketball tournaments, probably going down in history as “the one who never made a single basket.”
Yet I was welcomed. Because unlike the current environment at Holy Trinity, things were different under the leadership of the late Fr. Michael Sfanos. Holy Trinity was an inclusive place. Whether you were poor from the Mexican War Streets, or rich from Mt. Lebanon… Whether you spoke English with a heavy accent or didn’t speak Greek at all— Holy Trinity was a loving place for everyone and anyone who sought her comfort.
Last Sunday— at a time in my life when I needed the comfort, safety and support of my church the most, I was instead afforded one of the most humiliating experiences of my life when Fr. John Touloumes warned me in a private conversation that should I ever approach the chalice at Holy Trinity, he would not impart Holy Communion to me because of a directive from his Metropolitan.
In the eyes of Fr. John Touloumes, I was not worthy to receive the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ— a gift that is not even his to offer, because I am a homosexual.
Fr. John took it upon himself to pass judgment on me, despite the fact that I consult my own spiritual father regularly, and it is my own spiritual father’s decision whether or not I am ready to take communion. I shared my experience a few days ago in a post.
I was grateful for the immediate outreach by the local presiding hierarch in Pittsburgh. I had a lengthy conversation with His Eminence Metropolitan Savas about the matter, who informed me that there was no formal directive ever issued, but that the matter of my participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion had been discussed in a private, pastoral conversation initiated by Fr. John specifically about me.
Indeed, the Metropolitan informed me that Fr. John Touloumes was technically “within his canonical right” to refuse me communion. At the same time, His Eminence Metropolitan Savas also told me that he would defer to the discretion of my own spiritual father and commune me accordingly.
So contrary to what I was told, there was no directive about the issue. Fr. John Touloumes made a specific and targeted request to the Metropolitan about me, personally.
On that note— the zealots amongst you will now copy and paste your “homosexuality is a sin” cookie cutter responses that your bible software sends you every day to your inboxes.
My response to each and every one of you is to challenge yourselves to go deeper than the words of the law and dissect the spirit of the message. Don’t just memorize verses, but try to understand their essence. It may take a bit of work, but do give it a try. Enlightenment comes with hard work and reflection.
I also invite you to consider the two-thousand year old history of the church and how the church has adapted to social and societal change. Paying interest on loans and charging interest used to be a mortal sin, according to the canon laws of the Orthodox Church. Divorce and remarriage were calls for excommunication. Election or the holding of public office, too, were grave sins against the word of God.
But in each of these instances, the Church and individual leaders within the church—priests included, took a look around, and understood the changes happening in society. Today, we are allowed to remarry, use our credit cards and serve in secular public office—NOT because canons were changed, but because character, judgment, compassion and love ultimately prevailed.
People “choose” to commit adultery. People choose to be seen by Jewish doctors and swim in swimming pools with Jews present. They choose to steal. They choose to rape. They choose to masturbate. They choose to take God’s name in vain. Every day, people make conscious decisions to commit sins that go against the teachings of the Church.
But people do not choose to be blond, or to be five foot eleven inches tall, or to have green eyes. They are created this way. And yes, people are created gay. And if you believe, including Fr. John Touloumes who preaches from the pulpit every Sunday, that we are created in the image and likeness of God, then you have no choice but to believe that I, too, a child of God, was created in this same image and likeness, as were millions of others.
And I’m not sure what you believe, but I believe that God doesn’t make things that he hates. There is a huge difference between being something and doing something.
But I am not here to preach to you, or to talk to you about physiological, DNA or other deeper issues that should be left to science and research, or even matters of Church Synods. I am here to explain to you something very human— that each and every one of you can relate to.
A church should be a place of safety, support, compassion and love— especially during times of need, pain and human suffering. And a priest, who has been called to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and a shepherd to his flock, should share these expressions with his faithful and ensure that his church is such a place.
But let’s leave aside these issues of compassion and intangible elements that were absent from Fr. John’s heart last Sunday. These are human conditions, after all, and examples of character and not something we can impose on people. We are either compassionate, or we are not. We either love, or we do not. We are either decent, or we are not.
Instead, let’s talk church canon and rules and the bigger picture of how the church has adapted and evolved over the years, beyond the scope of the last 25 or 50 years of our own lifetimes, and especially beyond the scope of what we are watching on Fox News.
Yes, Fr. John Touloumes was within the canonical order to deny me Holy Communion in his parish. Yes, according to Orthodox Christian canons, homosexuality is a sin.
But so is seeing a Jewish doctor for treatment. And also, anyone who has masturbated or has had an involuntary nocturnal emission, or a woman who is menstruating is also breaking canon law by approaching the chalice. Anyone who has been in a synagogue is also breaking canon law, and anyone who has been at the beach, or in a swimming pool with a Jew is also against Orthodox Christian canon law and subject to excommunication.
Should Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew be excommunicated for entering a synagogue and having relations with Jews? This is against canon law, after all.
Does Fr. John ask those approaching the chalice if they have been seen or cared for by a Jewish doctor? Does he ask if they had a “nocturnal emission”? Does he ask if they have fasted or prepared properly? Does he ask women if they are menstruating? Does he ask his altar boys before communing them if they have masturbated?
No, he does not. And this is why this is a judgment issue, or more so a lack of judgment issue. Because “selective morality” subject to what we personally believe to be right or wrong, is wrong— especially in America in 2014. This is called prejudice and it is deep rooted inside a person. The problem is, if you’re going to apply the canons, as Fr. John is within his right to do, you can’t pick and choose what canons you want to apply, just to discriminate against someone or some group that you personally disagree with.
More importantly, no one has the right to deny me the gift of Holy Communion except my own spiritual father with whom I have regular contact and to whom I confess. These antiquated, Taliban-like practices have no place in American society and no place in the Greek Orthodox Church that rests in American society in the 21st century.
This type of religious zealotry and fundamentalism is dangerous. It destroys people and families, not to mention entire communities.
Priests and Metropolitans are called upon every day to make judgment calls for what they believe to be the best in their flock and their communities. And Fr. John Touloumes made his judgment call to make Holy Trinity an unwelcoming place for anyone whom he doesn’t agree with, or anyone who doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter image of what he believes a good Orthodox Christian should be.
Since this story went public, I have received more than two dozen invitations from Greek Orthodox priests and two bishops, all of whom welcomed me into their churches to serve me the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Are they wrong? Will they be breaking canon law? Is Fr. John better than them for applying his perception of the letter of the law?
But you know what— I don’t want to go there. I shouldn’t have to go elsewhere. Because for me, receiving Holy Communion is an experience I prefer to share with my family, with my mother, waking up in the morning and saying to her while I kiss her hand, “forgive me for I am a sinner”— the way Fr. Michael Sfanos of blessed memory taught me to do. It’s something I deserve to experience where I feel most comfortable and with the people I feel most comfortable with.
But Fr. John’s actions have stripped me of this opportunity. And Fr. John’s actions have also shattered the very foundations of my entire family— members of the Holy Trinity Community who are questioning their very involvement in the parish because of his lack of judgment, compassion and love.
I have to ask, was he thinking of my mother when he warned me not to approach the chalice? Was he thinking of my brother, his wife, or my three nephews?
I also have to ask, why now? And why did Fr. John approve the sacrament of baptism—and sign his name on the certificate– when I became a godfather (for the third time) a few years ago?
What was he thinking when he signed his name on that baptismal certificate, allowing me to be the godfather? And what about my repeated stewardship payments to his parish? Why were the checks of a sinner not worthy of communion who is not in canonical order with the Orthodox Church accepted and cashed?
More importantly, what prompted a call to the Metropolitan by Fr. John Touloumes to ask specifically about me? Was I the only sinner in the entire parish community of Holy Trinity that was keeping Fr. John Touloumes up at night?
Certainly he has known me, my family and “who I am” for the past twenty-one years that he has been pastor at Holy Trinity. My homosexuality was no secret to him.
Why didn’t he call my spiritual father in Chicago, whom he knows personally, to ask if I was worthy to take Holy Communion? He made this about me, after all—so why not fulfill his priestly obligation to me—instead of using canon law as an excuse to back his own Metropolitan into a corner and receive the answer that he, himself wanted to hear, so his own alleged bigoted and personal agenda be fulfilled.
Clearly, I don’t need to answer these questions, as you all know the answers.
Fr. John Touloumes had an opportunity to be a leader, to show love, decency and compassion, and to truly attempt to imitate Christ. Instead, he became a self-righteous authoritarian, selectively imposing what he believed to be the letter of the law, but not applying the same letter of the law to others who might be in violation of church law.
He showed his true character— or lack of it— and his ultimate goal of cleansing the Holy Trinity community of anyone he perceived to be different or unworthy.
Incidentally, I have received almost two-dozen messages from former parishioners at Holy Trinity— former GOYAns that I grew up with and people whose grandparents and parents are buried on the hillside in Allison Park. These people too, were turned away for one reason or another.
I have to ask the esteemed members of the Parish Council— is this the type of community you want to have at Holy Trinity, where we care more for the shiny iconography and the beautifully adorned new edifice in the North Hills than the people who have been turned away?
We constantly hear about the success of the “new converts” to the faith and the new members of the community— but do we hear about the losses? Do we hear about those turned away? Do we hear about those who were warned not to approach the chalice? Or do we brush all of this under the rug and shine the dome of our new church so that it sparkles from the outside.
The best message I received was from someone who served the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and parishes nationwide for many years and one of the most respected Greek Orthodox Christians in this country. I will keep his name anonymous at his request, but his message should resonate with every single one of you.
“I was very grieved to hear about your experience in your home parish and I am not only deeply saddened by this, but very troubled by the apparent rationale, rationalization and just plain prejudice. It’s one thing to have its own standard and values, quite another to be so Pharisaical about it. When was love trumped? When did the responsibility to lead by example become an excuse for sanctimony? And when did those called to imitate Christ decide it was the better to follow Pilate? I am very sorry indeed this happened to you, and even more sorry for the Church. Let’s hope that such ill-conceived edicts are short-lived.”
To the parish council of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church:
Take a long, hard look around. Take a look at yourselves, your children.
You might be surprised to know that some of your own children are homosexuals and might be struggling with the very matter right now. You may also be surprised to know that amongst yourselves, some of you are adulterers, some of you masturbate and even worse, according to the existing canons of the Orthodox Church, some of you might even be in the medical care of a Jewish doctor.
Ask yourselves what kind of a community do you want.
Do you want “witch-hunts” to have a place in a community that is supposed to be compassionate and welcoming? Is this the Holy Trinity you want to serve and build? Is it more important to have a shiny dome with a rusted, rotten core, or a welcoming place for all who seek Holy Trinity’s comfort with as much beauty on the inside, as there is on the outside?
I won’t be back to Holy Trinity as long as he is the pastor of the parish. And unfortunately for Holy Trinity, this isn’t an isolated incident. Since this issue has gone public I have received more than two-dozen messages from former Holy Trinity parishioners who have shared similar experiences with me of their own dealings with Fr. John Touloumes—parishioners whose families built this church.
So the decision is yours to make.
I won’t be back to Holy Trinity because Fr. John Touloumes’ lack of compassion, judgment and love has forced me—and many others— away from the community that my grandparents helped build, my parents dedicated their lives to, my brother and I were nurtured in, and now—the fourth generation of Pappases, my nephews are a part of—Four generations of Pappases at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Pittsburgh.
Because of one man’s personal agenda to create what he perceives to be a pure moral and righteous environment, love was trumped. Compassion and human decency were thrown out the door and a community that boasts a shiny new dome in the North Hills of Pittsburgh is suffering. People have been hurt; families have been torn away from their beloved Holy Trinity.
Only the parish council of the community can act now—if they, themselves, have the courage to do so. And of course, so can the Metropolitan of Pittsburgh.
I guess I will wait and see.