An uncommon friendship

It was quite a scene. A Greek-American pastor and a Russian Orthodox priest sitting in a Chinese restaurant on Mercer Island. The occasion was one last meal with The Reverend Doctor Samuel G. Sawitski, pastor of the Congregational Church on Mercer Island. After five years of ministry in our community, Sam has accepted a call to a congregation in suburban Phoenix, Ariz. Because my vacation would prevent me from attending his farewell celebration, I opted for a personal time to say goodbye.

As the eyes of the world turned toward the Summer Olympics in Beijing, my eyes studied the menu at Han’s Garden. I finally decided on Mongolian Beef. So did Sam. Because there is so much about our lives that is different, I found no little joy knowing that we had ordered the same thing.

Over the past three years, I have grown to deeply appreciate my colleague with the flowing white beard who drives a dark green Jaguar and always dresses in black clerical apparel. Sam’s unmistakable Russian accent requires that I listen carefully to what he communicates. But the effort in listening is well worth the effort. Hanging on his every word with the tenacity of an Olympic gymnast, I discovered just how different our life (and ministry) experiences have been.

While I grew up in a stable pastor’s home, dabbled in public relations and broadcasting before going to seminary, have served four churches in three different states over the past 30 years and have written several books, Sam’s vita is much more diverse and impressive.

Sam told me he was orphaned as a child in Russia. Before pursuing his undergraduate education and then attending seminary, he served in a special branch of the Russian military. After beginning his pastoral ministry in 1974, he did postgraduate work in the Department of Psychiatry, earning licentiate in psycho-analysis, psycho-pathology, psycho-therapy and cognitive therapy. While serving a Moscow congregation with a membership of 5,000, he also counseled drug addicts and social misfits. In addition, Sam moonlighted in the Kremlin as a master sculptor, stone carver and a restorer of icons, frescoes and murals. Amazing.

Sam informed me that he and his wife came to the United States in 1978 with their three children. Prior to coming to Mercer Island in 2003, he served a church in Nazareth, Pa., that suffered a tragic fire. Concurrently, he also taught Ecclesiastical Art and Eastern Spirituality at Lehigh University near Philadelphia.

Whereas I combat stress by walking, playing golf, writing poetry or going to a movie, Sam’s favorite ways of relaxing include yoga, becoming immersed in the contemplative prayers of the Church Fathers, practicing the martial arts and cooking gourmet meals.

As Sam and I manipulated our chopsticks and savored the beef and steamed rice, I realized what a special friend Sam has become despite our differences.

Whereas Sam and I do not see eye to eye on every nuance of Christian doctrine or ethics, we share more in common than a love of Mongolian Beef. We share a belief in a God who made the world and created humans with the need to have friends. My life is richer for having known Sam Sawitski.

Israel’s most famous king once made an entry in his journal that reminds me of my friendship with Father Sam. It was King David who wrote in Psalm 119:63, “I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts.” It is an entry that challenges me to reach out to those in my community who come at life differently than I do, yet who acknowledge the Creator.

Pastor Greg Asimakoupoulos is the head of the Mercer Island Covenant Church and a regular contributor to the Reporter.

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