Georgia Bulletin

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Photo By Michael Alexander
An icon of Christ Pantocrator, an image of Christ the All Powerful, is prominently displayed on the steps of the altar at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, March 6 for a Catholic-Orthodox gathering. (L-r) Father Paul Burke, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Catholic archbishop of Atlanta, His Eminence Alexios, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Atlanta, and Father George Tsahakis, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta, stand in the background.


Refugee crisis cries out for unified aid, deacon tells Catholic-Orthodox gathering

Published March 23, 2017

ATLANTA—An icon of “Christ Pantocrator—Christ, Ruler of All,” framed by flowers, was displayed at the front of the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta March 6 as members of the Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities prayed together.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and His Eminence Alexios, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Atlanta, officiated the Orthodox-Catholic Ecumenical Gathering.

The gatherings, which began in 2009 to commemorate the Year of St. Paul, are held twice a year alternating between the churches.

As a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Global Fellow Educator, Deacon Steve Swope of St. George Church, Newnan, shares stories of his personal experience with refugees during a 2016 trip to Greece and Serbia for CRS. Deacon Swope was the keynote speaker as the theme of this year’s gathering was “Sowing the Seeds of Hope: The Plight of Refugees and Migrants.” Photo By Michael Alexander

Archbishop Gregory welcomed all to the event in the common life of the churches.

“I thank all of those who have worked so hard to make these evenings of prayer so very moving and very satisfying,” said Archbishop Gregory. “Metropolitan Alexios reminded me that this particular year we share the entire Lenten season together, as we will share the feast of Christ risen from the dead. Thank you for being with us here in prayer and in fellowship.”

The theme was “Sowing the Seeds of Hope: The Plight of Refugees and Migrants.”

Deacon Steve Swope of St. George Church in Newnan, a Catholic Relief Services global fellow, was the speaker.

“It seems to me in a world that’s increasingly divisive, that frequent and public ecumenical gatherings are a sign to the world that Christians come together and are united in our faith in Jesus Christ and the demands of his Gospel,” said Deacon Swope.

The deacon shared experiences of traveling with a 2016 CRS delegation to Greece and Serbia, where thousands of refugees were receiving humanitarian aid daily after fleeing violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew emphasize the urgent need to defend the sanctity of human life, to pray and to respond to the refugee situation, which “challenges every single Christian to come together and strive for peace,” he said.

Fleeing death and destruction

Deacon Swope said many do not understand who refugees really are. The simple definition, he said, is one who is forced to flee his or her homeland due to persecution, war or violence. Refugees are not fleeing in search of economic advantage, but for safety.

With 63.5 million people forcibly displaced from their native countries, the world is experiencing the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, said the deacon.

The CRS trip helped him see the human face behind the numbers. Deacon Swope said many refugee families share unique histories, but there is also a common thread in their stories.

“Unfortunately, in a horrific way they were all the same,” he said. “All of the refugees were fleeing death and destruction that surrounded their homes.”

During the nine-day trip, delegates visited soup kitchens, clinics and refugee camps, meeting displaced people.

Deacon Swope encountered one mother, Hiat, who traveled with several young children to Greece. A mother of six, she sent her 8-year-old son ahead to seek asylum in Germany so the entire family could follow.

Her husband was killed on the way home from work in Syria as a battle erupted.

“His decision to take that particular street on that particular day at that particular time cost him his life,” said Deacon Swope.

She arrived on the island of Lesbos, Greece, after a dangerous journey with her children. Hiat had no money, no food and no expectations.

The Greek people and humanitarian agencies, including Catholic and Orthodox groups, came to her aid. Hiat hoped to reunite with her son, whom she had not seen in a year, and find safety and education for her children.

“My children haven’t lived at all. Why should they die? They haven’t done anything wrong,” she told Deacon Swope.

“Our will … must be just as resolute”

The deacon also met a father who was a civil engineer. His family home in Syria was bombed, and every place they moved afterward was also destroyed. The young father decided to flee as food and water became scarce.

“He completely rejected the notion that countries receiving refugees would be in greater danger of terrorism,” said Deacon Swope. “He said the Syrian people are peaceful and industrious and that the idea that any Syrian would want to harm countries willing to host them was, at best, irrational.”

Members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, Sovereign Order of Malta, The Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus and Archons of St. Andrew of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople attend the March 6 Orthodox-Catholic Ecumenical Gathering. Photo By Michael Alexander

The aid workers the delegation met were enthusiastic, delivering care and guidance to others without consideration of faith or nationality.

“They work for one purpose and that’s to help the refugees in need. Their efforts are more important today than they were a year ago,” said Deacon Swope.

An emerging nationalism closed many European borders to refugees and many were returned to Turkey. Others are “frozen in place” in Macedonia, Greece and Serbia.

Former transit stations have become detention centers for refugees, and many fail to meet habitation standards. Hundreds are still coming to Greece daily.

“It’s clear that the human will and desire for peace is stronger than any obstacle, any wall, any hardship and any suffering. Our will to come to the aid of the refugees must be just as resolute,” said the deacon.

Deacon Swope spoke about the concern of terrorists hiding amongst refugees.

“While this concern may or may not be valid, it can’t be an excuse for us,” he said. “It can never be an excuse for us. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus tells us that our mercy and compassion can’t be contingent on our personal safety.”

Like Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, people’s hearts must be united in prayer.

“My brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe that we need to show great unity in our response to this global refugee crisis,” said Deacon Swope.

Nations will be judged

The deacon reminded attendees that the well-known Gospel passage of the last judgment in Matthew 25 is called “Judgment of the Nations.”

“In these words, Jesus tells us that we, in the nations, will ultimately be judged on one simple criteria. We’ll be judged based upon our reaction to human need,” he said. “We have in front of us, profound need. Refugees are hungry, thirsty, unwelcome, naked, sick, and are truly in prison. Our unity, our empathy, our generosity in reacting to their need is important.”

Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation Chantors (l-r) Nickitas Demos, Romilos Ioannides, Nicodemos Economos and Joshua Boyd sing The Great Doxology during the processional of the March 6 Orthodox – Catholic Ecumenical Gathering at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta. Photo By Michael Alexander

A compassionate response will help refugees retain their dignity and survive, but will also help save the life of the giver, he suggested.

“It’s important to you and it’s important to me. It’s important for our salvation. Let us act swiftly with unity and with compassion,” said Deacon Swope.

Archbishop Gregory and Metropolitan Alexios led the Lord’s Prayer, exchanged a greeting of peace, and also led a prayer for refugees and migrants.

The Chantors of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the choir of Holy Spirit Church provided music.

Attending the service were members of the Sovereign Order of Malta, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, the Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus, and the Archons of St. Andrew of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Lent is “spirit of love”

Metropolitan Alexios gave remarks regarding the refugee situation and the spirit of Lent. He said the spirit of Lent should not only be defined as one of denial of food.

“Don’t forget, it’s also a spirit of love, a spirit of thinking of others,” he said.

Metropolitan Alexios then led a chant to the Virgin Mary for protection.

Father Paul Burke of the archdiocese and Father George Tsahakis, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta, organize the gatherings. Mr. and Mrs. Solon Patterson, a Catholic-Greek Orthodox couple, sponsor the events. Non-perishable food was collected for local refugee families.

Father Burke said the theme of the ecumenical gathering typically reflects the liturgical season or highlights an issue of common concern.

“After consulting with our hierarchs, Father George and I meet and we put together some proposals and possible speakers, and we bring that research back,” said Father Burke.

Past themes have included religious liberties, sacredness of life, and struggles of persecuted Christians.

In an email, Father Burke said the gatherings reflect the desire of St. Pope John Paul II for the church to breathe with both lungs, the East and the West. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis continued the work of their predecessor.

“The goal is that we be one, according to the will of Christ. Both churches have all seven sacraments, and so much unites us,” explained Father Burke.

Organizers hope the gatherings will grow and planning is underway to bring Catholic and Orthodox priests together with their bishops for a common day of prayer and reflection.

“What has emerged as a result of these gatherings is a beautiful friendship between our churches as reflected by the great affection and respect between Archbishop Gregory and Metropolitan Alexios; they come together as brothers, as Peter and Andrew did,” said Father Burke.