A small group was already gathered around a banquet table when Father Vasilios Bassakyros descended the creaky stairs to the basement of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Manhattan. The linoleum floors were scratched and well-trodden, and the musty room’s polyester red chairs and wood paneling appeared more like relics from the set of the Brady Bunch than surroundings fit for a weekly bible study. Bassakyros, 68, wearing a navy New York Giants zip-up over his floor-length black cassock, was unfazed by his surroundings – his voice boomed upon entering. At first glance, he seemed more concerned with the assortment of snacks than the gospel reading of the day.
“We got dark chocolate and milk chocolate today, huh?” he said, taking stock of the Entenmann’s cake lining the kitchen counter. He teased one participant about her tardiness. He smacked a stick of gum. He swaggered to the head of the table, taking his position.
Bassakyros, with his shock of gelled white hair, thick beard and a tart Brooklyn-native tongue, is not one to ignore a newcomer. I soon realized that the notion of being a fly on the wall would be a far-fetched hope on Bassakyros’ turf. He volleyed question after question to me, seeking to establish common ground.
“Shayna?” he asked. “Is that Irish?”
“Yiddish,” I replied.
He stroked his beard pensively.
“Ah, we had a girl in here once named Shalane. That’s what I was thinking of.”
Soon, he was inquiring about my upbringing, and where I attended synagogue. Earnest deflection was impossible. The bible study members gamely played along, nodding and laughing, as he kept prodding. Five minutes later, Bassakyros and I had determined that his lifelong friend owned my mother’s favorite Greek restaurant in Los Angeles (“tell her to ask for Demetri next time,” he commanded). Bassakyros clasped his hands, now satisfied.
“You see,” he announced to the table, somewhat conclusively, “there are no coincidences in this world. God has a hand in everything – the Jews believe that too!”
Bassakyros was born to Greek parents, and he was raised in New York as a Greek Orthodox. He followed a circuitous path before finding priesthood at St. John the Baptist, located at 143 E. 17th Street in Manhattan. He served in Vietnam – his battalion nickname was “Billy the Greek” – worked in broadcasting and later restored motorcycles.
“We have a pastor with a past,” Gloria, a bible study member with gray-flecked hair, said with a laugh.
Bassakyros briskly shifted direction following his grandfatherly interrogation, as he rose to lead the 10 participants in the Lord’s Prayer. He bowed his head solemnly, the group effortlessly mirroring his words and his gestures.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day for our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”
“This is one of the best pieces you’re gonna get in order to know what we’re about,” he affirmed, introducing the weekly selection from the gospel of John.
He began reading from John 17:14 – the bible study members followed along with Xeroxed copies, with some underlining text as Bassakyros read.
“‘I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world,’” he recited from John.
Bassakyros glanced up from the page, making eye contact with an older man seated across from him.
“Think about what John just said,” he implored. “What do you think this means?”
The room remained silent, with gazes steadied upon Bassakyros. He spoke definitively.
“We pass through the world just as Jesus passed through the world,” he explained. “Our bodies may remain on earth, but we aspire for our souls to go elsewhere – to heaven.”
Bassakyros demonstrated a penchant for anecdotes and analogies. He spoke wistfully of his time living in Egypt’s Sinai Desert as a young seminarian, studying under the tutelage of a clairvoyant priest. He referenced power of prayer, relaying the story of a cancer patient to whom he delivered last rites, only for the patient to experience a full recovery. He likened the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to water, ice and steam.
And when returning to the text of John, he ventured toward the topic of epistemology – differentiating belief, justified belief and true justified belief by employing imagery of a Hawaiian volcano.
“A belief is knowing lava will come from the volcano, but justified belief is seeing the lava, bubbling on the side of rock,” he announced, the sides of his mouth crinkling to form a smile. “True justified belief is watching the volcano explode, and seeing the lava flow down the mountain.”
He continued, linking the parallelisms commandingly, as if he were standing upon the church’s altar: “This is why the gospel of John is so significant. He lived throughout the life of Jesus! He is the one with true justified belief!”
Bassakyros glimpsed at the basement’s clock, as the time resigned him to read a final excerpt. He settled upon John 17:20, “Prayer for All Believers.”
“‘The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,’” he read, enunciating each word deliberately. “‘I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.’”
He placed his right hand on the table, closing the gospel book. He tugged at his jacket.
“John tells us that we get a golden rule from god,” he said. “But the rest of it? The rest of it is up to us.”