To Priest, Religion Is an Adventure; Martin Ritsi Finds God in Church and Beyond

Article excerpt

Byline: TONYAA WEATHERSBEE

Martin Ritsi is a Greek Orthodox priest. But he's never been one to commune with God solely behind sanctuary walls.

Instead, he'd rather commune with God through adventures that connect him to the world the creator made.

That's one reason Ritsi, who lives on St. Augustine Beach and is executive director of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, surfs. He even kite surfs - which is a more challenging way to ride the waves.

But that's not all.

Ritsi has also made four-hour rides into the Kenyan desert, in 108-degree temperatures. He also hikes - and was recently in the midst of freeze-drying peas, strawberries, apples and beef for a 200-mile trek this summer into the Sierra Mountains in California. He's doing this to raise $100,000 to help the Turkana, a Kenyan tribe, build a well.

But while Ritsi's adventurousness might seem unusual to people used to seeing priests in pulpits, in reality, surfing and hiking fit right in with who he is - spiritually and otherwise.

"There's a real peaceful side to surfing, which puts you in touch with the world and nature," he said. "So you get out in the water, and with the sun coming up you see the birds diving, you feel the wind coming up ... because you're surfing on the water, you place yourself more in tune with your surroundings ..."

It took Ritsi a while to get in tune with God, though.

Now 51, Ritsi grew up in San Clemente, Calif., a place where surfing was popular. His father was an aeronautic engineer, and his mother owned a needlepoint shop. But his middle-class upbringing didn't deter him from taking a radical route in high school when, after reading Ayn Rand's book "The Fountainhead," he declared himself an atheist.

"I believed that religion was being used to control you, and if you use your mind, you'd understand that religion is about controlling your mind," Ritsi said. "As a young man searching for truth, I bought into that."

However, Ritsi said, he began to change once he entered college. He decided that, to be respectful to his mind, he had to allow for the possibility of God's existence. It was then, he said, when he moved from being an atheist to becoming an agnostic.

"I continued searching," Ritsi said. "Finally, I came to look around, and see a spiritual realm around us that's active, that touches us, and people who are trying in their life to get in communion with that ... so I started on a religion search."

That led Ritsi to Christianity, and ultimately to the Greek Orthodox Church. But not before some more adventures along the way.

After Ritsi graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz with a psychology degree, he was still searching for spirituality. So he hitchhiked to Alaska and worked in a cannery and on a fishing boat to make money so he could travel.

Ritsi said he wanted to travel because if he was going to go into psychology, he wanted to be able to help people - and one way to help people was to be able to look at the world differently.

But as Ritsi was raising $3,000 to go to Latin America, his brother-in-law challenged and inspired him to become a Christian. He also had applied to the Peace Corps, and a priest had urged him to apply for the seminary.

"On the same week, my acceptance came from the Peace Corps, my bank account hit $3,000, and I was accepted into the seminary," Ritsi said. …

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