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Priest and parish have served for 35 years

Gita and Michael Hatcher mark 35 years of service.

By Marijke Fakasiieiki

As Fr. Michael Hatcher marks the 35th year of his ordination, the multi-cultural St. Gregorios Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church celebrates its 35th year of serving in Spokane.

Bishop Zakarias Mar Aprem of the Diocese of Southwest America from Houston will lead Holy Qurbana, the divine liturgy, at 9:30 a.m., Saturday, June 18, at the church at 1725 E. Bridgeport Ave., for the anniversaries.

While an Orthodox community first gathered for prayers in 1984, they were not officially a church until 1987 when Fr. Michael was ordained and could officiate for Holy Qurbana.

Fr. Michael grew up Catholic in Clark Fork, Idaho, and Spokane, and from 1965 to 1973 was on a path to becoming a Catholic priest, with high school studies at Mater Cleri in Colbert and continuing at Bishop White Seminary at Gonzaga University in 1969. In 1973, he graduated with a bachelor's in sociology and a minor in theology from Gonzaga.

He and Gita met in 1976. She had two years of college in Madras (now Chennai), in Tamil Nadu State South India, when she came to study at Fort Wright College, earning a bachelor's in human services in 1978 and a master's in public administration from Eastern Washington University in 1985. Gita introduced him to Oriental Orthodox faith. They married in 1978.

"I liked the Eastern liturgy and its distinct ties to the Fathers and Mothers of the early church," said Fr. Michael, who did a few years of directed study plus seminars at the old seminary in Kottayam Kerala, India.

In 1979, Fr. Michael began 37 years of working in Elder Services with what was Community Mental Health and is now Frontier Behavioral Health. He did master's studies in public administration from 1986 to 1994. The parish was small and poor, so he earned a living from this work until he retired in 2015.

Gita, who helped establish the church and, as the priest's wife is called Kochamma in the parish, worked from 1991 to 2018 in human resources and civil service with the City of Spokane.

Her home state of Kerala is where the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church was founded in 52 A.D. by St. Thomas, who established seven churches there before he was martyred. 

The Hatchers had a heart for Eritrean and Middle Eastern immigrants in Spokane and drew many into the mission, which started in 1984 with 30 people—most white, plus a few Ethiopians, a Native American and a few Indians, including Gita and their three children, Sulochana, Rajiv (George) and Pradeep, who were 8, 5, and 2 in 1987.

They first rented space at the Anglican Church of the Resurrection in Hillyard, then moved to Fort Wright College. For 10 years, they rented at St. Andrew's Episcopal, growing to 100 people in 40 families.

When they moved in 2002 to a former Church of God at 2803 N. Lincoln, the congregation was a third Ethiopian, 40 percent Indian and Middle Eastern, and some Russians. Members spoke eight languages—English, Malayalam, Amharic, Aramaic, Arabic, Spanish, Russian and Coptic.

In 2017, the church moved to the former Trinity United Methodist Church at 1725 E. Bridgeport. There are now 70 families, including white Americans, Indians, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Greek, Lebanese, Jordanians, Turks, Egyptians, Mexicans, Pakistanis, Syrians and Guatemalans.

Their common language for the liturgy is English—possible because their son Pradeep translated prayers into English. Parts of the liturgy are in Syriac and Malayalam, and they sing the Lord's Prayer in as many languages as there are in the parish. 

Gita's and Michael's sons, George and Pradeep, were ordained in May 2021 as deacons.

Fr. George graduated in June 2021 from St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Seminary in Florida and was then ordained a priest. He is now assistant priest with his father with whom he trained.

Pradeep is director of multimedia and public relations at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.

"St. Gregorios' liturgy focuses on the holy mysteries," Fr. George said, "but its outreach is down to earth ministry, helping individuals and families survive materially and spiritually, keeping people fed and in their homes.

In 2003, Fr. Michael explained that the Orthodox worship takes people "out of the earthly realm and cares for a short time so they experience in a limited way the glories of heaven. Then they return to daily life with a sense of blessing. Receiving the body and blood of Christ in holy communion gives me a boost so I feel I can start the next week and hope it is better."

Fr. George said the "holy mysteries" empower St. Gregorios to "create spontaneous ministry as needed" to serve in the surrounding low-income neighborhood.

For him, "keeping the timeless faith of Orthodoxy is inspiring. Aside from good works, we are transmitting an experience of God that is beyond popularity and culture. Worshiping God for us is not tied to entertainment, comfort or materialism."

Fr. George said his father, as a spiritual father, has had to understand the spiritual needs of those in the parish who come from different cultures.

"He understands that every culture has challenges, blessings and subcultures," Fr. George said. "Then there is the culture of the Kingdom of God, which we seek to bring to everyone's culture to help them grow."

"Part of the ministry is to always be open to learning about different cultural traditions," said Fr. Michael. "It's an opportunity to learn and appreciate people's insights and how they do things, as well as commonalities.

"In terms of faith development, we recognize that immigrants may have lived in isolated communities. So we offer adult education classes so they can learn more of the Orthodox faith," he added. "We emphasize teaching adults, as well as children. For Orthodox, the liturgy helps educate us in our faith. Translation of curriculum has been key to doing that."

Fr. Michael connected with Eritrean and Ethiopian parishioners eight years ago, as another wave of immigrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea arrived in the area, experiencing culture shock more deeply than other immigrants, said Fr. George

Recognizing that this wave of immigrants did not speak English or read in their mother tongues, Fr. Michael listened to their needs to understand how to meet them where they were.

As he discovered the blocks to serving them, he invited another priest to meet with them to provide ministry for these people with many needs and a language barrier. It made sense for them to have their own congregation to focus more intensely to help everyone get on their feet, he said.

St. Gregorios gave birth to the St. Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Many Ethiopians and Eritreans stayed at St. Gregorios and visit St. Mary's liturgies. St. Gregorios stays attuned to challenges, offering liturgy in English, and maintaining African and Coptic Orthodox participation.

Fr. George said much parish work focuses on outreach to parishioners, with an increasing witness of sharing food and necessities with the neighborhood. They put in an alley light to reduce drug deals and make the facility safer.

"We spend time in the neighborhood doing outreach," he said. "We've become a refuge. Now people living on the streets come to us for help."

Parish leaders are developing understanding of servant leadership so they know how to be faithful and pass on the faith through their service, said Fr. George.

For information, call 859-7011.

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2022