Picture was taken from a news article about Tony
I plan to spend 2022 thanking the people who have influenced my life. One of the biggest reasons some kids end up in jail, and others somehow avoid that path, is because of the mentors they had access to during their lifetime. Some people I want to acknowledge have died, but many are still alive - and I hope to recognize how profound their interaction in my life affected me.
It was the summer of 1988, and word had spread throughout the entire campground that there was a wild preacher in the Earliteen tent. Someone said, “he even kicked some kids out of the chapel for not listening. He’s insane!” I had to see this for myself. Ohio Camp Meeting was about meeting new kids from around the state, attending occasional worship services, and then waiting for midnight to untie ropes, so the tents would collapse on those sleeping underneath.
I rushed up the hill, where the statue of the large Mt. Vernon Eagle was displayed. There was already a long line to get inside of the chapel. Even teenagers from high school had shown up to get a glimpse of the spectacle. Stationed outside were pastors who were acting as crowd control. “You need to be in middle school in order to go in first. If there is still space, we will allow the older folks in.” I rushed past the group that had gathered and raced into the chapel.
Pastor Tony Mavrakos stood on the stage, wearing khakis and a polo shirt. I had never seen a pastor dressed down like that. He must have been angry because he was yelling on the top of his lungs. His attitude and preaching mesmerized the audience of preteens. He didn’t speak like other preachers. Every word that was formed into a sentence actually made sense. There he stood, a short, squat, muscular Italian. He lived up to the stereotype of being crass, and hot-headed; and yet convinced me through his messages that Jesus loved me, despite how despicable I thought I was. That camp meeting was none like other. Pastor Tony told the kids he would not leave the building until every single kid who wanted to talk to him had their chance.
The following year, we invited Tony to return to Ohio to speak at the Youth Rally at Spring Valley Academy. I was a freshman leader, part of the planning committee. We had spent all afternoon setting up the stage and chairs when I recognized the speaker standing around. I walked up to him, gushing like an obsessed fan, telling him how much his messages at the camp meeting meant to me. He listened and nodded, but then interrupted me. “Hey, Kumar, is there a Taco Bell around here?” I nodded my head. “Well, let’s get out of here. I’m hungry. Grab a friend and let’s go.” For the next hour, I hung out with Tony Mavrakos. That weekend youth rally was just like Camp-meeting. Hundreds of teenagers came forward and committed their life to Jesus.
Fast forward a couple of years later. I was visiting my brother in Chattanooga, where he was studying. It was a Sunday afternoon when it suddenly clicked. Tony Mavrakos lives in this town! I picked up a phone in the boys’ dorm, called information, and then dialed Tony. (I should stop here to let you know I now see the stalker tendencies. But just for the record, he once said in a sermon that you could call him any time of the day or night, and we would answer.) “Pastor Tony, this is Kumar Dixit, from Ohio. I am in town and wanted to say hello.“ He acted like he remembered me and told him to give him an hour and he would pick me up from the boy‘s dorm. We headed to Burger King and spent an hour connecting.
Twenty years later, I would reconnect with Tony as an adult. We would be serving in the same Conference as pastors. We had become colleagues, and now I got to see a different side of my hero. He had his own ghosts to reconcile with - but age, time, family, church drama had tempered him a bit. And yet, after these years, he was still passionate about Jesus.
Why was he so generous with his time? Why did he take me out to Burger King? I am sure there were many other commitments he likely had on that Sunday. If you have heard Tony preach, you will probably see some similarities in my style. Most people see a public persona that I have carefully developed. Yet, there is a darkness that broods inside of me. However, when someone reaches out to me, I often drop what I’m doing and respond quickly, remembering the generosity of Tony Mavrakos.
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