NEW YORK – Six months ago, the Rev. Dr. Archimandrite Themistocles (Fr. Themi) Adamopoulos was at the epicenter of one of the worst plagues in recent times – the Ebola crisis – that hit hard among the people of West Africa, especially the Republic of Sierra Leone, the poorest country in Africa, where he is based.
He serves as vicar general of the Holy Archdiocesan District of Sierra Leone, under the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Guinea, which also includes the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Liberia and the Cape Verde Islands, all under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Alexandria.
The disease, which Fr. Themi termed “the new HIV,” raged from Nigeria to Mali, but Sierra Leone, where he has served the small Orthodox Christian population the past six years, was especially hard-hit. The disease is native to the Congo and takes its name from the Ebola River. Of the nearly 10,900 deaths in West Africa since the first outbreak was reported on March 25, 2014, nearly 3,900 occurred in Sierra Leone, a nation of 6 million people and the size of Washington state in area.
“The outbreak reached its height in November and December,” he said. “There was a national lockdown and we couldn’t move from one area to another.” Symptoms include fever, severe headaches, muscle pain, weakness, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and unexplained hemorrhaging.
Unless someone who contracts the disease (usually by direct contact with an already infected person) receives immediate medical help, death is likely. Carriers of the disease include bats and monkeys (the latter of which serves as part of the West African diet). By January and February the epidemic began to subside, though some deaths have continued to be reported through the first half of April.
“Ebola is still here but at a dramatically reduced level,” Fr. Themi noted. “We are now down to low single-digit casualties per day. Thank God the horror is over though, we cannot be completely relaxed about it here. Many parents have died and left thousands of children as orphans,” Fr. Themi said. “The question is, ‘Who’s going to take care of them?”
The situation was deemed safe enough for him to travel to the United States in March at the invitation of Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, spiritual advisor to the Order of St. Andrew–Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and pastor of Dormition of the Theotokos Church in Southampton, N.Y. He invited him to address their national retreat on March 27–29 and to serve as retreat master. Theme for the Lenten Retreat was “The Salvific Social Gospel of the Orthodox Christian Church.”
Fr. Themi also spoke at other churches and organizations in the New York and Boston areas to solicit help in building an orphanage.
He was accompanied by Fr. Peter Sourtizidis, of Clifton, N.J., a longtime friend.
On March 18, the final day of his 21-day quarantine period, which also included 14 days in isolation, he spoke with the Orthodox Observer. During this period, he was required to wear thick gloves and making no human contact. “If I don’t get Ebola today, I’m Ebola-free,” he declared reassuringly. Fr. Themi also stated that no Orthodox Christians had contracted Ebola.
In his presentations to the Archons, Fr. Themi presented gut–wrenching videos that brought home the intense suffering taking place in West Africa. “A lot of people don’t want to take care of them (the orphans), fearing that they’re carrying Ebola, but they’re not,” Fr. Themi told the Observer. “My responsibility is to the orphans of the Ebola victims,” he continued. ”We get a batch, then send them out for adoption. We can’t take care of all of them at once,’ he said, emphasizing the urgency for building an orphanage. “Right now they’re living in the streets or with relatives. They live on a dollar a day.”
He added, “In rare cases a relative may exploit a young girl.”
Fr. Themi, along with several volunteers, works from a headquarters compound in Freetown, the capital, where he has established a teachers college to train young men and women to become teachers at the early childhood and primary school levels.The compound also houses about 120 disabled homeless people.
“We could give out charity,” he said, “but it’s better you train someone to earn their own money, instead of having them be dependent.” He provides scholarships “to those who are hopelessly out of cash,” to attend the school.
In addition, the priest-monk has founded two primary schools and a junior secondary Orthodox Christian school with about 1,600 students.
In the suburb of Waterloo, he started an Orthodox Christian school with two sections – kindergarten/nursery, the Light of the World Orthodox Nursery School, and a primary school. Enrollment is about 300 and he estimates it eventually will reach 600 students. “I want to put Orthodox schools everywhere,” he stated. The schools are non-profit. Children receive catechism training to take care of their spiritual needs. “They have a chaplain who also holds vespers services,” said Fr. Themi. “Besides academic work, they’re growing up in an Orthodox environment. Kids who grow up in the schools will be authentically Orthodox.”
Also at Waterloo, a large dining hall is being built that will offer daily hot meals and a planned medical clinic will offer free medical services to any disabled person.
The inspiration behind Fr. Themi’s drive to build schools in West Africa is an 18th century saint, Cosmas Aitolos, who traveled throughout Greece in the 1700s establishing schools. “I use him as my mentor. He said ‘If you build schools, they will build churches.’” To which Fr. Themi added his own axiom, “A church without a school is not as good as a church with a school.”
Sierra Leone and West Africa is a transition zone between Islam, the dominant faith in North Africa, and Christianity, which predominates in sub-Saharan Africa.
For the most part, relations with Muslims in his area are good, but the specter of Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorist group responsible for the kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian school girls and for many killings in that country, is not far. Most recently, the group has established ties with ISIS.
“There is that threat,” Fr. Themi said, “but, up to now, it hasn’t reached us.”
The Church in West Africa has a broader role in its ministry to the people, including dealing with homelessness, other diseases and, most notably, hunger.
Speaking about the humanitarian efforts by all Christian Churches on the continent, he noted, “If the Churches pull out of Africa, an estimated 40 million people would die within two months.
“In the Third World we are the niche that supplies and keep up the people. We are the ones who feed, clothe the people, give jobs and provide services.”
He called philanthropic activity “one of the major functions of the Churches in the Third World.
“It’s a priority of the church besides liturgical function. St. John Chrysostom said ‘it is a greater miracle to feed the poor than to raise someone from the dead.’”
The priest-monk was critical of a consequence of the Western lifestyle where food is left uneaten and thrown away. On an annual basis, “One third of the food casually thrown away can feed one billion people,” he told the Archons.
Fr. Themi said a single mother with five children and little or no money “has to make choices” and this extends to deciding whether to care for a child with a serious illness, such as polio.
“Polio in West Africa is considered a curse,” he said. “West Africa is the home of voodoo (there known as ‘juju’) and many believe if you have polio you have been struck by a curse or a snake has bitten you.”
In the 1970s and ‘80s there was little vaccine available against polio and some suspected that the introduction of the polio vaccine was a CIA plot to limit population growth, he explained.
As a consequence it was a “logical choice for a mother to abandon a child with polio” and that child would crawl into the city, find other polio victims and live by begging. “We need to be understanding and not judgmental,” he stated. One other “obstacle” he faces hasn’t prevented him from energetically pursuing his multi-faceted