The following is a journal entry I wrote on a recent Thursday about an awful day in my ministry:
"Today was one of the saddest days of my life. I had to do the one thing that I dread most as a priest, the one thing I think most priests dread, the one thing I have now done seven times -- I had to console two parents who lost a child, I watched a 23 year old young man die.
I was working in the office when the telephone call came. An Orthodox priest was needed immediately at the hospital. As I was in the middle of an appointment, I asked the nurse on the phone was this a matter of life and death, or could I come in a few hours. She responded, "He's not going to live even a few hours, you need to come down here right now." And so I drove to the hospital, walked into the Intensive Care Unit and was shown to room 307 where I saw a young man covered in blood, with tubes coming out of every part of him, each one of them filled with blood-some was blood being drained out of his organs, a result of a massive amount of internal bleeding and some was blood being pumped into him in an attempt to keep him alive. A brain scan was done, and then an exam of his reflexes was done. Neither showed any neurological activity whatsoever. And about an hour after I arrived, this young man, George (not his real name), was declared brain dead, and every priest's worst day and every parents' worst fear was realized.
The story began Wednesday night when two best friends, George and Alex (not his real name) went out for a night of fun. As they made their way home in the early hours of Thursday morning, both had been drinking. Their car was involved in a one-car crash. The car spun around several times before striking a tree so hard that it pinned the passenger, George, in the car and crushed everything in his head.
Rescue crews had to cut the car in half to extricate him. Though it took several hours to stabilize him, doctors admitted that he was in such bad shape when he arrived at the hospital that from the moment the accident occurred, there really was no hope of bringing him back alive. Meanwhile, Alex, the driver, walked away almost unscathed, with a broken collarbone and some superficial cuts, and with the knowledge that his decision to drive a car while under the influence just killed his best friend.
At first he is sad at the loss of his friend but then becomes inconsolable as he realizes that he caused the death. It still is hard to believe that in less than 12 hours, a young man full of life lost his life; how two buddies who liked to laugh and have a good time, now one was dead and the other was the cause of the death. George had a younger sister, 18 years old. She cried and cried and cried, and embraced her dead brother and lamented, "We'll never eat ice cream again together, we'll never take another walk on the beach." That was probably the most difficult thing I had to watch. And then Alex came in from his hospital bed, and had to see his best friend, dead. Last Sunday, George was working, laughing, eating, playing. Today his body is in a box being prepared for burial."
Thursday was not only a sad day in my life, it was a pathetic one -- because it didn't have to happen. When people get old and get sick and die, we are sad, but death is unavoidable when we are old and sick. But when someone is young and makes the decision to drink and drive and dies because of it, it is ridiculous, because it is so unnecessary, it is avoidable.
Imagine if we took a group of people, like a church choir, or the parish council, or the young adult group, or the Bible study group, or even an entire church congregation and locked them into the Community Center of a church for a day, providing adequate food. Would we have a good time? Could we have a good time? The answer, I believe, is yes. Because someone in the group can tell jokes, someone else can act, others can sing, we could play a game and everyone has stories to tell. Yes, I believe we could spend a day together and have a good time, just using our God-given abilities and talents. What would it say about us if we had to introduce alcohol into our event in order for us to have a good time? I asked that question to a group of young adults recently and some answered, "It's pretty sad?" To which I responded, "Pathetic is actually the word that comes to mind, it would be pretty pathetic."
And yet drinking has become an important part of our culture. Kids look at it as something adults do, so some do it because they want to act like adults. Teens look at it as something forbidden, so they want to take risks and challenge the establishment. College students look at it as a right of passage-how much you can drink defines what kind of a man you are, so I've heard. And many adults use it as an escape from reality, they use it to unwind after a difficult day or to get wound up when they are out with friends. I know lots of people think I'm old fashioned or maybe even some think I am a prude who doesn't know how to have a good time, but I've never used alcohol for either of these things. I wind down at night by talking to my wonderful wife, not making a cocktail. And I get wound up by laughing or throwing around a football.
Some people tell me that they drink to take the edge off. And my question is, to take the edge off of what? Let's say a person is shy but becomes uninhibited and loud when they drink. To say that they are drinking to take the edge off is to say that in reality, they are taking the edge off of a shy person they don't like so they can become something they wish they could be. Again, what does that kind of thing say about us as people? All people are not the same, and that's good, because if they were, life would be pretty boring. Some people are shy and some are loud and we need all types in the world. God created each of us with unique gifts and talents. When we try to make ourselves into something that we are not, it is, in a sense, like showing ingratitude to God, lamenting something we don't have, rather than rejoicing in what we do have.
Where do teenagers learn to drink? The answer is, teenagers learn almost everything from their parents. They learn about rules and boundaries and they learn about drinking. If parents drink excessively, or routinely ignore the law, even the speed limit, children get the idea that excessive drinking is okay, and that underage drinking, while against the law, is merely a guideline, not a boundary, the same way people see the speed limit, as an example, as a boundary that can be routinely crossed.
Lots of teenagers and young adults drink for acceptance, escape or lack of self-esteem. Some teenagers go out and drink with friends. Others are already doing it alone. When no one is drinking, no one seems to care. But when a party starts and the alcohol begins to flow, many teenagers do not have the discipline to not partake, and some are even pressured to do so by their friends. Which begs the question of what is a friend-someone who is looking out for you, or someone who tries to make you do things you don't want to do?
I try to live my life according to a few different mottoes. One of them is trying to put what I am into what I do. There is a difference between who we are and what we do. What we do, are things we put on and take off-like I do school, or I do sports, or I do my job. What I am are the hats I never take off. I am a man, a husband, and an Orthodox Christian. One goal of the Christian life is putting what we are, Orthodox Christians, into everything we do. So that if I'm playing soccer, or at a party, or driving my car, I am still a Christian and acting like one. Most people put "church" into the "I do" category. Like I do sports, I do scouts, I do church, as if to say I do church on Sundays, but don't give Christianity much thought the rest of the week. I'll come back to that.
Another motto I try to live by is doing the best I can with what I have on a given day. That means doing my best, with what I naturally have, not coveting what someone else has, not putting myself in some altered state of reality with drugs or alcohol to become something I'm not. It means to do the best with what I have on a particular day and learning to be satisfied with that. So that if I've done my best, and done it with honesty and integrity, and if what I'm doing is righteous in the eyes of God, I've learned to put a higher value on that, than on what other people think. I'm more concerned about doing what is right than what is popular, and sometimes that makes me very unpopular. As a Christian working my way to salvation, I think of the judgment we will all face before God, when all the books of our lives are opened and examined, and I try to make sure my book is right with God, even if it's not always popular with my peers.
And here we go to the crux of what is the church. It is a place where we pray and commune with God, where we get a foretaste of heaven, where we seek forgiveness for past wrongs. But it is also a place where we learn. Jesus was a teacher and a preacher. He made logical arguments and impassioned pleas. He went against the grain. He was ridiculed, spat upon, mocked and killed. But, as we read in the Gospel of John, "to as many as received Him, He gave them the power to be children of God" (John 1:12) A blind man who trusted Him received his sight. A woman at a well became the first evangelist. A woman caught in adultery was given another chance. The church takes on the role of our teacher and our preacher. It tries to teach us right from wrong.
And the church, if we see it as the body of Christ and not just an organization to which we belong, if we see it as what we are, rather than what we do, it goes against the grain. Society tells us we have a right to swing our fist until it reaches our neighbor's nose, rather than that anger and violence is not a good recourse. It supports drinking, so long as no one is driving, err, so long as no one gets caught.
In speaking to many adults about another young person dying because of driving under the influence, many of them have confessed, "Gosh, I've driven home drunk before," or "I believe in guardian angels with the stuff I've done before." There are student in Junior High who are drinking regularly. Why? Because they think it's cool, because we pretend we don't see it and they pretend they don't do it, because we think "our kids don't do that stuff," or even worse, because we tacitly support and even enable such behavior.
I sat down with a middle school student who drinks regularly at a retreat last year, talked to her about the dangers of underage drinking, and elicited no emotional response. I showed her a letter I received from someone who was raped and lost their virginity when they were drunk. That made her cry. She made a pledge to God to stop drinking, that she was only 14 and didn't want to end up as an alcoholic, or raped or dead. And two weeks later, she wrote to me and told me she couldn't keep her pledge, but that she was trying to cut down. But, as she said, "It's really hard to go out with my friends and not drink." She's 14, not even in high school! Will she live to see 18? Will she be the next one we read about in the paper?
People who know I work with teenagers often tell me, "well, don't tell them not to drink, we know they are going to do it anyway, just tell them to do it responsibly." And then there are those who say hand out birth control because they are going to do it anyway, or legalize pot because they are doing it anyway. I have a hard time preaching this message: It's wrong but as long as you do it in moderation, it's okay. Drinking under age 21 is against the law. We honor the civil law in our church, we pray for our civil authorities, and Jesus tells us to render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to render to God that which is God's. (Matthew 22:21) Our civil law prohibits drinking under age 21. And the law of God, which tells us that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, (I Corinthians 6:19) calls us to treat our bodies with dignity, at all times and in all places.
There is nothing wrong with drinking when you are 21 or older. But when we are drunk, whether we are 15, or 50, we are in violation of the law of God. When I'm in Liturgy and someone asks me, "Are you a child of God?" it's easy to answer, "Of course I am, aren't I acting like one?" But if I've had multiple drinks and I don't know my name anymore, or I'm acting foolish and someone asks me the question, "Are you a child of God?" how am I going to answer that question? And if I see Christianity as something I am, not just something I do, then I need to be able to answer that question, "Are you a child of God?" all the time with a positive and honest answer. And if I cannot do that, then Christianity is relegated to just something I do, not something that I am, and my creation in the image and likeness of God is a mask that I take on and off as it suits me, rather than an icon of Christ superimposed over my face all day, every day, and I am going to be accountable for that, when I come face to face with Almighty God.
We don't teach about dignity, or honesty. It's all about competition, it's all about what you have, rather than what you are. And that's wrong. And that's sad. In reading this message, some will laugh, others will think, hopefully some will change. Some think what I say is old fashioned, others think it is a breath of fresh air. What I do know, is that the scene I witnessed in the hospital the other day was so sad, because it was so avoidable. The message I leave you is to the teenagers: Stop drinking, period! It's against the law of man and the law of God. And the message to the adults is: Don't drink to excess, it is undignified. Don't model excessive drinking to your children-it's irresponsible. And the message to those who say, they are going to do it anyway, the message is, start working on their self-esteem and teach them about dignity, model genuine love and real Christianity for them and just maybe they'll stop.
I leave you with one final motto by which I try to conduct my priesthood-it come from the Gospel of John 17:12: "Of those you gave me, I lost not one." To those who think you are invincible, you are not. I hope you think about that when you decide not to wear a seat belt, or drive too fast, or drive after drinking. Each of us is only one mistake away from paying the ultimate penalty. That was the lesson I learned this past Thursday. No one thinks it will happen to them or their families. Last Thursday, I learned it could happen to anyone. I hope and pray that of all those who read this article, we won't lose anymore.
Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis is the Priest of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, Florida and is also the director of St. Stephen's Summer Camp of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta.