By Phoebe Farag Mikhail
Throughout my childhood and to this day, the conversation with people who are not Orthodox Christians always goes something like this:
“What does your father do?”
“He’s a priest.”
“I didn’t know priests could get married!”
“Orthodox Christian priests can.”
“Oh wow. They should let Catholic priests get married.”
Sometimes, the conversation goes a different direction:
“What’s it like being a priest’s kid?”
After years of being unable to fully articulate how my life was any different, I have finally figured it out. As a priest’s kid (PK), I had to share my father with a church congregation of hundreds. He is my father, and he is also theirs. We had difficult days and nights; many nights after taking confessions he came home too emotionally spent to deal with his kids. A death, especially a tragic or unexpected one, would cause an absence of several days as he comforted the family and supported them in the funeral process. Once, he lost a young man who had recently come to the US from Egypt in a terrible house fire. This loss troubled him for a long time. The difficulties he saw among other families might have led to greater strictness with us, but the strictness may have also been the fears of any immigrant parent raising children in a new place.
There were also blessings, blessings I’ve recognized more as I’ve grown older. As a PK I did not lose my father to a congregation; rather, I gained an extended family. I found many fellow congregation members genuinely cared about my siblings and me, asking about us when we traveled and marking milestones in our lives with congratulations and even gifts. I feel an unexpected kinship with people my age who see my father as their father and their spiritual mentor.
As a PK I was surrounded by resources about my faith. My father surrounded us with books, and there were no questions left unanswered. He taught us to know our faith and be strong in our identities, and was not threatened by knowledge or science. He did this by his own example – a doctoral candidate at Columbia’s Union Theological Seminary, he hailed from a conservative and traditional Christian church in a very liberal and diverse environment. To this day he laughingly tells the story of how they asked him, the Egyptian student, to do the reading from Exodus during a visit to campus by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He also did this by taking the time to teach us the Coptic language at home, with a blackboard and all.
Our home was filled with books not just about our own faith but about other denominations and religions; about literature, science, history, and psychology. I had access to all of these. Once, a college student who had just started a course in biology came to my father, asking him for books that argued against Darwinism. He told her, “first learn about what evolution actually is before studying the arguments against it.” We learned from him how to learn, and how to think for ourselves.
My father’s unusual schedule also made him available to us in ways he might not have been if he had worked a “normal,” nine to five job (my mother did that instead). While he was often occupied in the evenings, he drove my four siblings and me to school every morning and picked us all up every afternoon, even though our schools were walking distance from our home. I did not realize until later how this daily commitment saved us from the bullying and other dramas that happened after school to our other classmates.
There’s a huge temptation for parents to talk about work at home in front of their children; for my dad, however, this was impossible. People at church who gave him a hard time were people whose children were friends with us; other clergy were people we had to respect. And so neither he nor my mom ever discussed church politics in front of us when we were growing up. We would eventually see these things on our own, but we would be old enough not to allow these problems to shake our faith in God.
Incidentally, my children are now also PKs, and I keep these examples close to me as we navigate our own way as a family. We try not to discuss church politics in front of our kids. My husband and I drop them off and pick them up for school every day. We’ve filled our house with books as well (though we will not surpass my dad) and use our family prayer time, bedtime, and other conversations as opportunities to teach our children about their faith and their heritage. And I feel joyful when I see my children growing up with other children in the church who regard my kids’ dad as their father also.
Happy Father’s Day to my father, my husband, and to all the fathers out there who share God’s loving Fatherhood with everyone.
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