On our first trip to the Florida Panhandle friends recommended that we visit the First United Methodist Church in Apalachicola. It is one of the oldest churches in the area. It’s a traditional wooden church with sunny leaded glass windows and a close-knit congregation, most who have attended the church for generations. They are presided over by Reverend Themistocles Patriotis, (Pastor Themo). The first time we saw him
preach we weren’t entirely sure what to think. Themo is nothing like the reserved Methodist pastors I experienced up north. Tall, dark-eyed and charismatic, he speaks in a booming voice that makes his microphone unnecessary. Most churches I have attended are carefully scripted, and the services orderly, with great respect for the typed bulletin. Not so much Pastor Themo. To be sure there is a bulletin with listed readings, but it is more of a guideline than a script. Driven by his message and inspiration, he changes up his message on the fly. I tracked his progression through one sermon, when the bulletin said Ephesians. We went from Psalm 23, to 19, to Romans, Matthew, and Philippians. You could hear bible pages flapping as people tried to keep up with him. He must have sensed the congregation’s effort. “I thought I’d stop by Philippians on the way to Ephesians, but we’ll get there” he said. The lady in front of me turned to me with a wry smile as if to say, “that’s how our guy rolls!” He prowls the pews as he preaches, calling his flock by their names to illustrate a point. “Isn’t that SO, Michael my man?” This especially mortifies the teenagers in the congregation. Last week there was a baptism, the honoree was probably about a year old, the newest in a long generation of Methodists. Relatives came from far and wide to witness. Themo held the boy over the font, and told him to “play in the water.” The little boy
splashed around and was so engrossed he was only mildly perturbed when Themo poured water on his head. One Sunday a couple was outside taking pictures of the church’s historical marker when they were ambushed by Pastor Themo. “Don’t just take a picture, come on into CHURCH!” He swooped them up and in they came. Lucky souls indeed, because they also got to eat at the monthly lunch, which you will hear about later. Themo showers (some would say “drenches”) people in genuine affection and is a fierce advocate. There is great need of people like him in this part of Florida. Behind the fancy beach houses and pretty storefronts the area faces serious social and economic hardship. The congregation in turn loves and dotes on him, his wife, their sons and their young daughter, a beautiful child who has a multitude of “grandparents” among the pews.
On the third Sunday of the month the church holds a lunch. The long tables groan with food. Just about every southern side dish you can imagine fights for space on the long table. Stuffed eggs, sweet and savory. Grape salad. Grits. Potato salad. Green beans stewed with bacon. Pea salad. Rolls. Cornbread. Banana pudding. Peach Cobbler. Slaw. Sweet Tea. Un Sweet Tea. Call tea without sugar “unsweetened” and everyone will know
you’re from out of town. The star of the lunch is always a mountain of fried chicken from the nearby Piggly Wiggly. It arrives shortly before the end of the service, and the heavenly aroma wafts from the fellowship hall into the church. People start to squirm in the pews in anticipation. The chicken is delicious, impossibly crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. The store announces when it is fresh on its sign: “Fried Chick Today 11-2.” Arrive closer to 2 than 11 and you are courting bitter disappointment. It runs out fast. At the FUMC Apalach Sunday lunch the chicken never runs out, much like the loaves and fishes of old.
We have found a community in this little church. This year, our third was special as we have demonstrated we are something more than transients. I bring my contribution to the church lunch. We know where to sit in the church so as not to disrupt those who have sat in the same pew for 40 years. We have made friends. The woman who sits in front of us, Miss Bev is an independent thinker who makes killer potato salad, and I have come to know more of her special life. Two pews up is Miss Evelyn, sweet and feisty, a “life-long member.” There is former Ohioan Rob and his wife Lucy and several others who have befriended us, but I am partial to the Misses Bev and Evelyn. We said
our goodbyes to them on our last Sunday during the exchange of the peace, which is basically a 20-minute break to say hi and chat with everyone you talked to for the 20 minutes before the start of the service. I hugged them both, saying “See you next year!” The the sermon resumed. At the conclusion of the service, everyone hustled out the door to their after-church plans. Miss Evelyn and I chatted a bit more outside the church, and then she held my hand. “I’ll remember you,” she said. I told her I’d see her next year, and she smiled in that way older people do when they get to a point where “next year” is more hopeful than certain. The older I get, the more I understand that feeling. We headed back to our rig, to home. A few days later, we departed for Ohio. While we were on the road, Miss Bev sent us a picture of the church on Easter Sunday.
There is no fried chicken at our church in Ohio and certainly no grape salad—you’re more likely to see bowls of hummus with vegetable dippers and an assortment of salads with kale, quinoa and pine-nuts or food catered from the local Panera. That’s likely better for me than a plate of fried chicken, green bean casserole and potato salad, but to quote a line from a book about over the top southern cooking, “There is a Balm in Cream of Mushroom Soup.” There’s just something about a Sunday afternoon church food coma that induces you to treat the afternoon as a day of contemplation. On the third Sunday of the month I transport myself to the FUMC Apalach by closing my eyes at about 12:30 pm. Everyone is anticipating the time to head to the fellowship hall for the monthly church supper, and the chicken has arrived in the fellowship hall. I imagine Themo’s voice booming; “The very air is perfumed with the scent of Jesus! And right now, Jesus smells like…FRIED CHICKEN! Can I get an A-MEN,” and the laughter of the congregation, as they respond “AAAAA-MEN!”
Postscript: One of Themo’s pet projects is Paddle Jam. This event is held in October, and is a fundraiser for the church’s programs to support at-risk youth. Themo also hosts a Forgotten Coast Paddle Club and holds monthly events to promote responsible paddling. He’s a big believer in getting young people outside and getting involved in arts and music in addition to ministry. If you’re interested, here is a link to the Forgotten Coast Paddle Club’s event and more information. Paddlefest2018