Padre X: The Rap, the Cross and the Banner

At the age of 36, Father Christoforos Schuff has already had several lives. He is now the "refugee priest" of Lesbos. Unclassifiable, it is under his pseudonym Padre X [JustX] that he defends his convictions in his rap, far removed from the litanies of the Orthodox Church. Even to crush his hierarchy.

Text: Clémence Bragard and Léa Dauplé Photos: Léa Dauplé/ESJ Lille

Terminus Europe: April 7, 2016

"If the Church excommunicates me, I have other hats to wear. I do not define myself solely by being a priest." Viking physics, long blond hair, capped head, it is certain, the man who pronounces these words doesn’t seem to fit with his cassock. He found himself somewhat by chance in a monastery on Lesbos, in the early 2000s. Many miles from his native California. He who thought to stay two months finally laid down his suitcases on the Greek island. He still officiates there, and today occupies a new role. Since the summer of 2015, he has been struggling to help the refugees and to fill the lack of involvement of his Church. At the risk of displeasing. For Father Christoforos Schuff was never a choir boy.

On this sunny Tuesday, sitting on a terrace in the port of Skala Sikaminias, Father Christoforos - his name at birth being Christopher Michael - is concerned about his possible exclusion from the Orthodox Church. In a few weeks, he is expected by his peers in Paris, where he was ordained in 2007. An encounter, he feared, that could sound the death toll of his ecclesiastical career. His stances in favor of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights are not for nothing. "I have publicly supported same-sex marriage, for I defend love in all its forms, and this has earned me criticism from my hierarchy."

"The Church is not doing enough for the refugees"

The American priest does not care to go back to his religious brothers. He has calmly listened to the remonstrance of shocked superiors, to death threats received from anti-refugee activists, and the complaints of conservative believers. Some of the faithful, outraged by his speech, preferred to desert a church where he officiated in Norway. Not discouraged, the black sheep of the Orthodox Church promises never to give up his convictions. "I am a small drop in the ocean of a change that must come. And if for this I must suffer, I accept it."

This is all the more true since he decided to help the refugees. For the insular priests who dare to lend a hand are few. There are hundreds of churches on the island, but their doors remain closed. "The Church does not do enough for refugees and immigrants," the priest said. According to him, some bishops are afraid that the refugees will "destroy the Orthodox faith". An argument long since swept away by the great blonde with the black dress. Raised in California, he witnessed the usual racism against Mexican immigrants, something he found he was "not quite comfortable with"

He does not throw the stone at all priests. Another priest of Lesbos, Papa Stratis, has known this well [Edit. Note: Father Eustratios Demou died in September 2015]. "I've wanted to carry on his work with refugees." Obviously, this has bothered more than one. "Some churchmen have told me mockingly: 'I heard that you've been playing the Good Samaritan.' " Accustomed to attacks and punchlines, the priest rapper remains unperturbed. "They have forgotten the ideals of the Church," he says.

The "Big Boss" of Volunteers

An E.M.T. in his past life, Father Christoforos has already been confronted with death and crisis situations. "If I can help, I do it because my conscience dictates my actions, not my hierarchy. I am human above all, that is why I help refugees.” Without the financial help of the Church, it is thanks to the private donations that he pays the rent of the land occupied by the NGO Lighthouse. Known to all volunteers, he takes his role as a "priest of refugees" very much to heart. His radio headset is in place and he is permanently connected to the radio waves shared by the Coast Guard and the volunteers. As soon as a boat arrives, he is immediately informed.

He recalls the difficulties coordinating between volunteers and locals. He has since improvised as a mediator and tensions have subsided. He was, however, far from imagining himself in the role of "péfthinos" - "big boss" in Greek. "The High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) wanted to take care of the arrivals of boats and so a system had to be put in place to form a cooperation between different parties helping the arriving refugees on the beaches and the establishment of a new transit site (Stage 2). I had to take charge of negotiating between the different actors, the local community, the UNHCR and volunteers, something I hadn’t done on that scale before."

The clothes do not make the man

Father Christoforos continues his work for refugees, cassock or not. He is tired of the great gap between his ideas and the mainstream position of the Church. "I sometimes wonder if I can continue to wear the same dress as priests who have ideas totally opposed to mine.” The father, however, has not only enemies: "Priests have called me to express support for my ideas. But they do not want to say it in public.” If he should be defrocked, his speech is already ready. He took over a motto that Tupac would not have denied: "God will be my only judge. "

A few hours after the interview, it is around a campfire that he sips on some tea, surrounded by members of the anarchist community Platanos. "Some people call me the communist priest," he says with a burst of laughter. With them, he acts for refugees. From their camp, a few meters from the water, one can see the Turkish coast from where the boats arrive. Priests who rub shoulders with the antifas are a rare thing to see. But his ideals are closer to those of a far-left activist than to those of a bishop.

Controversial men inspire his struggle. Like Níkos Kazantzákis, Greek author of “The Last Temptation of Christ” and fiercely anticlerical. In his books he discovers the love of the poor, the weak, and the enemy. "I knew that I had to embrace this love and not merely idealize it.” He identifies himself with this writer who had inscribed on his tomb: "I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free." Free to sail according to his life. To be surprised by the extravagances of the future. Aware of his originality, he likes to joke. The smirk. He goes as far as joking about being a drug dealer when asked about his past. Before laughing, quite proud of his joke. His bohemian spirit is fully assumed and no one is surprised to learn that he was once a B-series actor.

Also free to compose his texts. For him, art carries a message: "music also speaks, and allows us to communicate ideas.” Formerly a mariachi singer, the Greek priest becomes Padre X  [JustX], his musician/rapper persona. One of his songs, the rap "War And More", released in 2011, denounces with more force than Jean-Luc Mélenchon the damage wars have triggered by the powerful, but have been suffered by the common people. A committed rap, where messages of tolerance and love find their place in the midst of neat beats.

With his stride of a rock musician straight out of the Hellfest, he always takes pleasure furrowing the island on his bike. His style is backwards. His words detonate. "People are listening to me all the same," he says. Yet he knows that the threat of excommunication still hangs. Father Christoforos entered into the orders a decade ago. But he still does not quite fit in the ranks.

[By Clémence Bragard and Léa Dauplé. Originally published in French at Terminus Europe, April 7, 2016]