Last week I flew with my boss and a few anthropologists to Kodiak Island, here in Alaska.
Our team’s intention was to invite key community leaders into a new research project to prevent preteens from abusing everyday legal products. It seems that many Alaskan kids have a deviant-scientific side to them and have uncovered 1,001 ways to get high off everything from gasoline to Lysol and Ritalin.
Who would think to ask why a stinky 10 year old boy has a can or three of Axe body spray in his backpack?
In Kodiak, we met with a few community leaders, and all went methodically well. True to the island’s reputation, the weather quickly became snotty, blowing wind and cold rain every way but up. It was a fairly gray day, until we met with Father Paisius at the coffee shop for a lunch meeting.
On the subject of priests, I have my preconceptions. My thoughts on them float anywhere from Magdalene Sisters to Martin Luther to Jeff Dunham’s jokes comparing them to Michael Jackson. I’m bad, really really bad; I know it. (Pun intended.) I had no positive thoughts about priests whatsoever, and as I stood at the counter to get my drink, shaking the water off my raincoat, I knew I was staring down the barrel of an awkward lunch.
And it wasn’t that he was just a priest, but an Eastern Orthodox Priest. He looked like a character in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, complete with a black flowing robe and medallion-sized crucifix. He also had a gray beard that covered most of his chest and his long gray hair was pulled back in a way that made me think he was a Grateful Dead roadie who never made it back to the bus.
I got my drink and joined the meeting already in progress at the table. The only spot available was right next to him at the corner. I sat and joined the conversation. It wasn’t a conversation really, it was a sermon. With hands moving in wild gestures and his beard flopping as he jawed on, Paisius made his thoughts well known, about substance abuse, humanity, and society in general.
Thirty seconds into it, I realized I was wrong about him. He wasn’t so bad.
Five minutes into it, I liked him; he had some good points.
Ten minutes into the conversation, I was planning to join his monastery.
About half an hour into his monologue, I looked around the table. All eyes were fixed on him. He held this very mixed group in the palm of his hand, and we didn’t want to miss a word. With a vocabulary that won the scientific end of the table, he laid out the dilemmas that our project was going to face. With a passion that inspired the educational side of the table, he convinced us that no costs were too high and that every effort was crucial.
For the next hour and a half, I sat next to him at the table, grinning. The more he talked, the more I liked him. He was electric. He was driven. There was no doubt about it, this man was driven by a purpose much bigger than himself. The others at the table could feel it too.
He began by explaining how he handles substance abuse at St. Innocent’s Academy, which is an alternative education program for at-risk young men and some teen girls. He didn’t call it a rehab or prevention center, but said St. Innocent’s was a community that was an “antidote to modern rootlessness and lack of values.” He explained that they are very family-oriented, eating their meals together at a large table, while openly talking about everything and anything on life and God. Their methods for rehab or prevention are quite unorthodox. They don’t allow TV, iPods or video games, but they live together, work together, learn together, pray together and play together. He helps them to nurture their creativity and encourages them to delve into the arts.
They don’t “fix” kids there, he said. Instead, they come to die. He said in the first day or two at the Academy the kid will know if they want to stay or not, because the old them will have to die.
It is a community within a community that believes each individual is created in the image of God and should be given close personal attention. He said this approach fosters a sense of human dignity and worth in the kids, and helps them develop life skills they need later as adults.
Just about the time I was wondering how I was going to tell my wife I wanted to become a monk, Paisius began talking about our project. His summary was that prevention projects are good, and our program may just be good enough to eliminate every known dangerous substance from a child’s grasp. And by the look on his face I could tell there was a "But…" coming. Substance abuse was merely the introduction to something else he wanted to talk about.
He continued. “The question we need to ask is not, ‘How do we keep the hand from getting the poison,’ but, ‘Why does the hand reach for the poison?’” To illustrate, he pulled up his sleeve and reached his hand toward a container of sugar on the table. He paused just over it and asked, “If we only remove the poison, won’t the hand just find another poison to numb the mind and heart?” He then moved his hand toward a jar of jelly, “We need to understand why the heart wants the poison.”
With his right hand hovering between the poisoned sugar and jelly, he pointed at his chest with his other hand. “The poison isn’t the problem. It’s why the heart and mind tell the hand to keep reaching for a poison to numb it.” At this, he pulled his arm back into his Shyamalan cloak, tossed his napkin onto the table, and added one final nail to our project’s coffin, “As the leaders of the community these kids live in, that’s the problem we all really need to work on.”
I sat there, stunned.
The table was silent.
He had totally destroyed us. How could a science-based non-profit team do that?
I don’t know what it did for others in my team, but I felt that I had just been schooled on how to point people to Jesus without a bible verse, a flannel-graph, or a tract on Hell. He opened up the great human need right before us with just a container of sugar, a jar of jelly and wisdom of the ages. While we were content to scratch at the surface of the problem, he pulled back the layers and revealed the very core of the issue.
After lunch, I pulled him aside and revealed to him that I am a bi-vocational pastor, working to create a community much like his own where I live. He let out a loud laugh, grabbed my shoulders with both hands, and outright commanded me to stay with them whenever I was in town.
I haven’t visited Paisius’s community yet, but I understand what a unique operation he is leading. The essence of it is what my community here in Anchorage is striving to become; it’s what every community everywhere should be.
Our nation and our world need healing communities, delivering all people from their addictions and hang-ups. But more importantly we need communities that help people realize the purpose and meaning within their lives. Imagine a city, a state, or a nation made up of communities that help people understand that they each have worth.
Imagine a nation full of Paisius-like people, intentional and purposed.
This is true prevention. A person who knows their worth and purpose will not destroy themselves, waste their time, their talents, or their minds. But a person who understands their worth will overflow that meaning into others, and the effect is contagious.
I still want to go monk.
For more on St. Innocent's Academy, check out their website at http://www.stinnocentsacademy.org/.
Photo: Jesus Solana