COMING HOME: Apalachicola pastor on journey to Cyprus
The Rev. Themo Patriotis is going home but it’s a lot further than on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, where he grew up.
In fact, it’s about 6,000 miles further, to a village in Cyprus, the island nation in the Mediterranean Sea that for centuries has been a central funneling point in the flow of Turks and Greeks, of Jews and Arabs, of Europeans, Asians and Africans, a gateway to three continents.
It’s where both his parents grew up, and where he, wife April and daughter Shirah are taking their leave, on a missionary journey to one of the most dynamic transit points in a roiling world.
The United Methodist Church minister and his family left earlier this week for New York City, and from there a flight to Larnaca International Airport, and then on to Tochni, a small seaside village on the southern edge of the island, where they will be living.
For the next 10 months, their 8-year-old daughter will be in the second grade at the Greek-speaking village school, where she’ll have an opportunity to speak fluently the language of her grandparents.
“She’s excited, she’s been there three times,” said Patriotis, who spent six months there last year with his family.
Young Shirah will not be wanting for the closeness of family, because there will be plenty of them. “We have more family in Cyprus than in the United States,” said Patriotis.
That’s because each of the 59-year-old pastor’s parents came from the same village in Cyprus, before each immigrated separately to America by boat in the early 1950s.
His mother came to Ellis Island as a teenager in 1954, speaking not a word of English, while his dad was a well-traveled European, serving with the British merchant marine aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Queen Mary.
After meeting in the U.S. the two married in 1958, and went on to live the American dream with a success story as restaurateurs.
“Mom’s whole family, five brothers and a sister came to the US, but Dad’s whole family, his four brothers and a sister, never left Cyprus,” said Patriotis. ”Shira has 30 cousins there, a large extended family.
For four month last year, Shirah attended an international school in Lanarca, where she was in a class with students from 20 different countries.
“She’s very much an international person,” said dad. “It’s been a process for her.”
Mom's death helped prompt decision
The decision to move to Cyprus, at least for the next year until they return to visit Apalachicola in the spring, comes as part of a larger family story for Patriotis, who has pastored the UMC church here for 14 years.
He began the family leave July 1, and has been succeeded by the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Bishop, a 55-year-old St. George Island resident, who served for 30 years as a Baptist clergyman in Tennessee.
Patriotis and he are good friends, after he officiated at Bishop and wife Julie’s wedding on St. George Island five years ago but dropped out of touch until the Bishops began attending the UMC church last year. Bishop has been working as an online professor of evangelism at Liberty University.
“God opened the door,” said Patriotis. “We started a conversation in May and he stepped up and volunteered to be the next pastor.”
May had been a difficult month for the Patriotis family, with the death of the pastor’s 85-year-old mother back in Maryland.
Themo and April, his spouse of 28 years, had been contemplating retirement in 2022, after 20 years in the ministry, but events had their way of changing course.
“It was a time for us to step away,” he said. “We threw everything we had in the ministry here for 13 years. I realized after my mom died, I was out of gas.”
In June, Patriotis traveled six times back to Maryland, to wrap up family business, and affording him plenty of contemplative time about his future.
“I knew my two-year window of retirement had just shut,” he said. “April turned 50, her jubilee year, and we thought about taking a year, stepping away from pastoral ministry, without defining exactly what that means.”
Once the couple made their decision, they visited their four sons in different parts of the country. The youngest, Micah, 20, is in the Coast Guard in Louisiana, while Joshua, 22, is in the Air Force, stationed in Minot, North Dakota. They rendezvoused with him at Grand Teton National Park, in Wyoming.
Elisha, 25, is married and living in Pensacola, where he attends the University of West Florida, studying to be an athletic trainer, a career not unlike his mom, who is retired after 35 years as an aerobics instructor and exercise professional.
Their eldest, Vasili, 27, is married and living in Gainesville, where he works for Philips Electronic as a manager at an MRI manufacturing facility.
Patriotis’ journey to full-time missionary work began nearly three decades ago, when he first met April. He had been raised as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, but had strayed in his youth.
“I was not a practicing Christian of any kind,” he said. “I was about as hedonistic and as far away from religion and spirituality as a person could get. I was running a bar, a family business, and had no interest in church."
Living near Fort Meade, Maryland, Patriotis married his future wife, descendant of a long line of Maryland fishing families, when he was 32. “We were married in a Methodist church and then in an Orthodox church the same day,” he said.
“I didn’t have any idea what a Methodist was. I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said.
Hurricane Fran nearly kills him
Eight years later he started a journey to become a Methodist minister, thanks to a hurricane on Sept. 6, 1996 that had a profound effect on his life.
It was at 1 p.m. in Chester, Maryland, where he was running a seafood business with his brother and brother-in-law, buying blue crabs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Hurricane Fran came roaring up Chesapeake Bay and slammed into the seafood business. “I was evacuating crabs out of the building, and I went into a room and got carried out,” he said.
Patriotis had walked into room where there was a soaking wet, steel rack, and when he took his gloves off, and grasped it, a metal conduit running behind the rack sent an electrified shock that “lit me up.”
The shock knocked him off the rack and wracked his body with potentially lethal voltage. “I spent a day in a hospital,” he said. “Basically they said ‘you’re like a raw drumstick, or somebody put in a microwave for two minutes.’ I could not walk for a week.”
Patriotis was spared long-term damage, but the effect on his spirit would be long-term.
“After that it became a journey of finding out why I didn’t die in that room,” he said. “Why did this god who I did not know or acknowledge spare me?
“The year I spent recovering was a year of reading the Bible, exploring who is this god,” he said. “There were people praying for me. This was a community in which my life had been raised, very much like Eastpoint.
“They were praying for this heathen Greek guy she married,” Patriotis said.
A decade after the storm, the bishop in Florida invited Patriotis to relocate here from where he was pastoring three churches in Maryland.
His Greek background, April’s family having worked on the water in Maryland for generations, all figured in to the decision. “They saw it as good fit for the community,” Patriotis said. “It was a very unique situation that brought us here.”
Headed into a crossroads
Now, 20 years after he had his ‘come to Jesus” moment, like Moses at age 40, Patriotis is returning to his family’s roots in Cyprus.
“We feel called to the mission field,” he said.
With 12 million displaced people within a 100-mile radius of Cyprus, many fleeing the war in Syrian, the island has become even more the crossroads for Europe, Africa and the Middle East that it long has been.
“It is a steppingstone for anyone seeking asylum, from religious or economic persecution,” Patriotis said. “We feel called to go this place to make a difference.”
He said he and his wife have meet refugees from as far as Sri Lanka and South Africa there. “We met people fleeing the fallout of apartheid,” he said. “I was oblivious to so much unrest in South Africa.”
Patriotis, who was active in Hurricane Michael recovery, plans to draw on those lessons in the months ahead and use “some of the skill set we developed in developing a mission base here.
“Our first year will be pressing in in prayer to hear what the heart of God is reaching out to people in need,” he said. “We’re not going there to save anybody. Our primary purpose is to go and meet people of prayer and praying for Cyprus and for the region and for Apalachicola. We still have strong ties with Apalachicola.
“We’re going as ambassadors as well of the Apalachicola church,” he said.
One experience they are sure to confront in Tochni, where in 1974 a massacre of Turkish Cypriots took place as part of bloody ethnic strife on both sides, is that of the Moslem-Christian interaction. In the north, the Turks control a portion of the country that includes the villages where his parents were from.
In Tochni, it’s mostly Orthodox, although Moslems and Jews also live in peace there.
“This village is unique in many ways,” said Patriotis. “God has invited us to step in to what he is doing in this village. We’re stepping out on a limb there.”
And so, after testing negative on Monday for the coronavirus, and with the benefit of dual citizenship that grants him entry into Cyprus, Patriotis is set to begin a new chapter
“I grew up hating Turkish Moslem people and now I’m called to go into a place and to be a person of prayer with each seeking reconciliation,” he said. “We’ve met Somalis, Moslems, Iranians, Persians, people seeking asylum from Africa and Asia.
“What do you do with people fleeing persecution and how do you address their needs of safety?” he said. “It’s not on most people’s radar.”