He was ordained by his spiritual father Archbishop Iakovos, forever immortalised in the photos which captured him walking alongside Martin Luther King. At a dinner to commemorate his 21st anniversary at Saint Sophia, parishioner Tom Hanks was the MC, addressing a guest list which included the likes of Nia Vardalos and Melina Kanaredes. Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson both used his knowledge and advice on their films Prince of Egypt and The Passions of the Christ.
Priest, husband, father of four, Adjunct Professor of Theology at Loyola Marymount University, and fluent in Greek, English and Spanish, Father John Bakas is a fascinating person to encounter. Born in Kalamata, Greece he migrated to the United States in 1959 where he completed his studies and went on to become a police officer in New Mexico, working in high crime Latino areas due to his fluency in the language.
One day he was called to a shooting and arrived to see the body of a friend he had been church altar boys with many years prior. “I could see he had a bullet hole in his chest,” says Father Bakas. “Through tears I performed mouth to mouth resuscitation and he regained consciousness and said ‘Yianni, you’re a cop. I thought you were going to become a priest. Do it, do it,” then he died. This tormented me for weeks. I was eventually presented with an opportunity to become a priest, and I was ordained and ended up at Saint Sophia.”
Tireless in his efforts to give back to the community and help those in need, his accomplishments have been many. He has served as Chaplain and President of the Valley Children’s Hospital Foundation in Fresno, California where he led the fundraising drive to build a new 170 million-dollar facility, now in operation as the nation’s state of the art, premier children’s hospital.
In redevelopong and renovating the Parish and its surrounding areas he formed the Byzantine Latino Quarter. He also founded the Camp Axios camping program for Los Angeles inner city at risk youth, the Project Nino-Mexico offering free medical care for poor children in Mexico through Rotary International, and the Rotary Greek Amphitheatre in Fresno, a 2,500 seat outdoor theatre built as a mini Epidauros of ancient Greece.
Articulate and unconventional, engaging and educational, he has been on the receiving end of everything from criticism to bullets from drug gangs trying to intimidate him at a time he was attempting to disperse the gangs, prostitution and illegal medical supplying in the area.
The first to admit he is not the cookie cutter priest, he is at pains to point out that the Church needs to make some changes in order to stay relevant and connected, including changing the language of the Divine Liturgy from Koine Greek. His sermons give much food for thought to the masses, particularly his discussions about how the ethnic gets blurred with the religion, citing the example of Easter where people hear “Christos Anesti” (the religious aspect) and then rush home to the magiritsa and festivities (the ethnic aspect), “there is room for the amen and room for the opa,” he says, “it’s often about getting the ratio right.”
His goal is to continue with the job at hand, wanting to plan how the church can reach the current and future generations and stay relevant. “You can quote from the fathers of the 5th and 6th centuries and that’s great but how is it relevant to a society which faces pornography, drug abuse and an inability to connect with anything of value,” says Father Bakas.
Asked what gives him joy, he replies with a smile that it could be a child running to hug him in church, and the fact that he was able to find a purpose in his life. “My purpose was to do exactly what I’ve been doing here for the last 20 years,” he says. “To keep Saint Sophia alive, to define our spiritual talents and to help us stay connected to God.”