St. John the Baptist
A single opening in the ceiling casts white sunlight onto icons of Jesus Christ, the Archangel Gabriel, and a host of heavenly Saints. Ancient chants fill the dimly lit hall, as smoke rises to the ceiling, flowing freely from the golden censers. The hall is separated by two rows of pews, one on each side of the room. A large horos hangs from the ceiling.
Surrounding the altar, in the farthest part of the sanctuary, are men in ceremonial white robes. These robes are embroidered with gold and shimmer in the heavenly light. Despite its opulent history, The Greek Orthodox Church of St. John The Baptist has an ordinary community: the old, the young, the families and their restless children.
“It’s just like home. I’ve been to quite a few bible studies and churches, usually after a few weeks I’d stay home. But, if they had a service here every night, I’d come,” said Denise Malleos, a dedicated member of the church.
Tucked away on the edge of the east village, St John The Baptist lives between a bakery and bicycle shop, protected by a cast iron gate and two wooden doors. Walking by on a Sunday, the doors ajar, the church seems like a mystic portal to another world where incense and chants glide forward and soft light illuminates the golden faces of martyrs.
The building, once home to a German beer hall and social center, has housed the church since 1936.
A typical Sunday begins at 9:15AM with Greek Orthos, or prayers followed by the Divine Liturgy at 10:00AM. The prayers and liturgy, sung in a byzantine fashion evoke an elevated and reverent state of mind. The proccessions and the eucharist are given by Father Archimandrite Vasilios and is followed by a short sermon. The morning concludes with a coffee hour in the basement.
Part of the reason Denise and many others stay at St. John the Baptist is because of the personable and loving priest, Father Archimandrite Vasilios. As a staple of the church, Father Vasilios radiates a Christlike kindness and charisma.
To an outsider, Father Vasilios might appear to be more like a mob boss than a priest. One church member invites Father out to lunch, another to a daughter's birthday party. Father listens to members, offers advice, and makes jokes about the older members of the church. He is the type of man that could handle himself in any situation- from the jungles of Vietnam to tea time with with the elderly.
Father Vasilios wanted to be a priest since boyhood, but life took him in different directions before he made his final vows to the church. Now 72, Father Vasilios has been a priest for 33 years, and has spent 3 of those at St. John the Baptist.
“I used to have a motorcycle business. I’ve been in the film business. I was in the army, and it was difficult. Life is tough. Not gonna say I had it easy, but all the doors were open for me all the time,” the Reverend said.
As an altar boy, Father Vasilios always wanted to stay in the church. However, dyslexia prevented him from completing his Orthodox studies. Instead, Father Vasilios went to a technical high school before being shipped out to Vietnam. Frustrated and confused, Father Vasilios asked God, “If you want me to be a priest, why am I going to Vietnam to die?”
When it seemed like God would not respond, Vasilios changed his question. “Just tell me how big you are, that’s all I wanna know.” Father Vasilios continued saying that he, “didn’t doubt that there was a God, I just didn’t know how big he was.”
Over the years, the Father got his answer. He was a hero in the war. With God’s protection, Father Vasilios risked his life to help his fellow troops.
“I got blown up by a landmine in Vietnam. I just got my ears blown out, think about that, I got thrown back ten feet, fifteen feet, nothing. So, how come, ya know? I saved about three or four guys from killing themselves. I caught a snipe VC. I mean, I can't tell you though.” Father Vasilios said.
Over time troops started to know and hear about Father Vasilios, they started calling him “Billy the Greek.” Many thought he was crazy but Father Vasilios never thought twice about his decisions, led by the Holy Spirit, he just did what he believed was right.
“I was nuts, but I wasn’t nuts. I did what I believed was right to do. So if you do what is right to do then your not nuts. You just do what you believe is right to do. And that’s what I did,” Vasilios said.
After the war Father’s work ethic and and sense of duty opened many doors in the workplace. From owning a motorcycle garage to working in film production, Father cared less about what he did, but how he did it. But while his duties were constantly changing, his heart always remained with God.
Deciding that it was finally time to return to the church, Father entered Seminary and became a priest at the age of 39. After a lifetime of experience, Father Vasilios is now able to look back and understand the answer to his original question: “how big is God?” Father Vasilios concludes that he would not be the priest he is today without the experiences of his youth.
Members of the church admire and appreciate the fact that Father is both wise and relatably human. He often teaches in stories, using the hardships and victories of his past as direction for the futures of others.
During coffee hour after the service Father Vasilios sits with a mix of children, youth, and elderly men and women. People come and go, kissing Father Vasilios on the cheek as they leave. “Stay outa trouble, call me though,” Father Vasilios says to each person, “and I mean it.”
Despite its small size, St John the Baptist is an important part of the Orthodox community in New York. While churches in America struggle with scandals and maintaining tradition in the face of modernity, St John The Baptist has remained strong.
On Sunday, March 18th, His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of American paid a visit to the church. In his sermon, the Archbishop explained the story of the demon possessed boy in Matthew 17. He asked the congregation to pay more attention to their faith, and to ask the question, “do I believe?” The sermon was short and simple, it was a reminder of the importance of what it means to be human in a world of doubt. The Archbishop left with a simple piece of advice, to pray like the book of Mark, “I believe, Lord help my unbelief.”
The sermons, and the church in general, is dynamic but simple. It ties together the paradox of an ancient religion in a modern society. Denise Malleos encourages younger generations to attend the church because, she says, “it’s the original church.” And in a century harkened by technological advances and social fluidity, St John the Baptist is able to preserve a timeless message for a modern crowd.
During a Sunday morning sermon Father Vasilios highlighted the fact that the Orthodox church is at times, at odds with modern society. This is especially true in New York City, where a secular culture tends to be diametrically opposed to the concept of ancient wisdom, particularly that of first century Christendom.
While there is constant debate surrounding the importance of conserving tradition, whether in politics or religion, the members of St. John the Baptist do not find their tradition disconcerting.
As a member kissed the Father’s hand on her way out the door, she asked him where he would like to go eat lunch later that afternoon. Father Vasilios said to pick whichever spot she liked the most, and “just text me.” She responded, “Okay father, I’ll just have a Bloody Mary while I wait.”