Saturday, May 11, 2013

Reading, PA parish celebrates inmate initiative milestone

(Reading Eagle) - When you enter St. Matthew's Greek Orthodox Church in Maidencreek Township, it's not beautiful iconic imagery, paintings and statuary of saints; golden or bejeweled crucifixes; or the smell of incense and candles that first fill the senses. It's fragrant cooking smells and cozy, comfy thoughts associated with a family kitchen.

Most of the distinctive character of a Greek spiritual setting is either farther back in the building or on the other side of a wall.

Indeed, the doors to this strip-mall storefront church do open to the kitchen: the church family kitchen.

That's where the smell of hot coffee and a large chocolate and white sheet cake with a big red heart and the words "We did it!" bid a warm welcome.

"We've been at this location for about four years," said the Rev. Demetrius Nicoloudakis, 59, of Exeter Township, who joined his wife, Despina, 48, and a group of other interfaith women who recently spearheaded "Pound of Love 2013."

The ministry involved preparing more than 1,500 pound cakes, two carloads full, and distributing them as gifts to male and female inmates at Berks County Prison.

"It has been a very successful ministry," said Nicoloudakis, parish priest for 15 years.

"It is showing prisoners that someone cares, and we've had such wonderful support from people of so many faiths," said Despina, who started the ministry in 2009 with 68 pound cakes after serving as a counselor for female prisoners.

Berks Jews, Muslims, and Protestant and Catholic congregations, an estimated 200 women, have joined together to bake what has been called "love in a loaf" to express compassion and care.

Married for 25 years, the Nicoloudakises have five children, ages 6 to 23, and have a parish of about 30 families, about 80 people.

Only about one-fifth of the members trace their ethnic heritage to Greece. The majority is an eclectic mix of Irish, Latino, Italian, German, African and black, some of them former Catholics, Protestants and Mennonites.

Sunday, the church will observe Greek Easter in the Christian Eastern Orthodox tradition as designated by the Julian rather than the Gregorian calendar.

Suffice it to say, St. Matthew's may not be your great-grandfather's Greek Orthodox church.
While most Orthodox celebrate at midnight, we do a service at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday morning, and it focuses on and elaborates on the effects of Christ's resurrection," Nicoloudakis said.

A meal follows the services celebrating the risen Christ's bodily appearance and direct presence in the midst of followers.

Nicoloudakis said there are readings from the Gospel of John in as many languages as possible to emphasize the universality of the Gospel, transcending all racial, nationalistic/ethnic and socioeconomic barriers as expressed within each Eucharistic community. In a certain way, all of this speaks to why St. Matthew's is where it is and why it has the congregation it does.

"You know, I always tell people, my boss is Jewish," Nicoloudakis said, stressing that at St. Matthew's there is a striving to blend ethnicity, culture and faith and a conscious effort to connect religion and beliefs to real life.

"Certainly mystical aspects are all part of being Christian, but we believe God also wants intimacy with us," he said. "I am big into teaching why we do what we do, and how our faith can be connected to real life.

"We are a healing environment and a community, so if you want to hide in a church, this is not the place for you."

"In my family, I was supposed to be a lawyer, but wound up working for a business development firm for office furniture and design and as an insurance claim investigator and retail salesman."

At heart, though, Nicoloudakis is a teacher.

He has a passion for music, religion and church history. That's what he originally studied in college.

"I resisted being a priest for a while because I saw the stress level, and I just didn't want to hatch, match and dispatch, the old job description of clergy," he said.

Open to changes and challenge in today's religious landscape, Nicoloudakis said he embraces the value of ritual and beauty in faith.

But he believes even more strongly in making Christ incarnate for people within whatever traditional culture that exists for them.

"Every religion has the challenge as to how to celebrate each other, and today's church has to be an environment the promotes healing," he said.

And that seems true no matter the specific date of Easter.

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