John and Anastasia Stanmeyer,
What brought you to the Berkshires? Why here? And where is Otis? Those questions are often asked to John and Anastasia Stanmeyer, both journalists who lived in Asia for 12 years and who moved to Otis two years ago. Their first response is, well, another question. Why not? This beautiful portion of western Massachusetts, where the scene is bucolic no matter which way the weather swings, is located near enough to New York City and Boston, and within an hour’s drive from an efficient airport. Why live in a densely populated area with so much that the Berkshires has to offer? Especially now, with the shifting color of the leaves and the comfortably cool weather, it doesn’t get any better than this.
On that note, we are introducing a new column to this newsletter that will focus on an individual or family in our community so we can get to know each other better and appreciate the uniqueness of one another. We begin with the Stanmeyers, one of the newest newcomers to the St. George community.
First, a bit of family history: John and Anastasia Stanmeyer were married at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida. They both worked for a major metropolitan newspaper for several years in the area and then moved to the other side of the world to settle in the land of the skyscrapers. There in Hong Kong, John worked as a contract photographer for Time magazine for a decade, and for the last five years his focus has shifted primarily to National Geographic magazine. He also photographs for a myriad of other publications like GQ, Vogue and Vanity Fair, and is co-founder of VII photo agency. (You can view his work at VIIphoto.com.) Anastasia, who is Greek and whose father hails from Halki (Heybiliada) outside of Istanbul and whose mother is from Thessaloniki, is a freelance writer and has worked regularly for Newsweek, Time Inc., and a handful of U.S. newspapers. She has most recently written for Berkshire Living magazine and is working on a project through a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council to document the oral history of her community of Otis.
In all of their journalistic work, their driving passion has been to bring the human condition home to the reader or viewer, and to make us realize that we are all the same. It is just that some people are born into a world with far greater hardships than we will ever experience, yet we are all connected and, as a human to human, bound to help one another.
What drew Anastasia and John out of their home in Clearwater, Florida, shortly after getting married in 1993 and into Asia? Because it was and still is a region of rapid development and evolution, with governments adapting and straining and sometimes faltering under the heavy lifting of change. They had touched upon Asia in an earlier trip to Turkey and India, where they interviewed Patriarch Bartholomew and published a story on the Orthodox faith in Turkey. In India, they met Mother Teresa and volunteered at the Home for the Dying in Calcutta, and wrote and photographed their experience there. They also traveled to Dharamsala, India, where the government of Tibet still remains intact and in exile, and spent days there with the monks and interviewed the
Dalai Lama. A commonality existed between all these three spiritual leaders, something beyond words, yet needing to be described. It was their sense of peace, their sense of compassion, understanding and equality of whoever sat before them. Possessions were insignificant, and it was their oneness with God that allowed them to transcend the trivialities that hold many others back. Being in their presence only challenged and compelled someone even more to try to attain that same level of sacrifice and selflessness.
John and Anastasia moved to Hong Kong in 1996, just before the territory was handed back to China. There, they started a project that continued for years thereafter on the AIDS epidemic in Asia. This epidemic is deeply stigmatized, yet very much a social condition borne out of poverty, lack of basic human rights, education and any opportunity to make a better life. The project took them to Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, China, Malaysia, among other countries.
Although their move to Asia brought a shifting of culture and lifestyle, the Stanmeyers found familiarity and friendliness in whatever new situation they encountered. There was also a sense of coming home when they connected with the Orthodox church within each of the communities where they lived. When they first moved to Hong Kong, Orthodox services were being held in a Catholic church within a nunnery’s compound. Shortly thereafter, St. Luke Orthodox Cathedral found a permanent home in a converted office on the seventh floor of a skyscraper sandwiched within this metropolis. That location also served as the larger-than-life headquarters of the Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and South East Asia.
It was an enormous area to oversee for Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias, whose family was also from Tarpon Springs. His spiritual jurisdiction covered the countries of China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Mongolia, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, East Timor, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. For a period of time, Anastasia work for the Metropolitanate as his assistant and as editor of St. Luke’s newsletter. Historically, the Orthodox church has been persistent in its struggle to bring Christianity to Asia. In China, for instance, Orthodoxy first entered the country in 1685, although it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that it made great strides. The Boxer Rebellion of 1898, an anti-Western and anti-missionary uprising in China, saw violent attacks on Chinese converts to Christianity. Every June in Hong Kong, the church commemorates the 222 Chinese Orthodox who died for their faith during the upheavals.
Along with the underground Christian churches of China, there has been a strong backlash and resistance to Orthodoxy in Asia in other countries such as India and Indonesia. On the flip-side, there has been an acceptance and openness to our religion in other countries like the Philippines. Back in Hong Kong, the Orthodox faith grounded Anastasia and her family and played an important role in their daily lives, and that is where two of their children were baptized by Metropolitan Nikitas.
That continuity carried forward to Bali, Indonesia, where the Stanmeyers moved with their two young boys in 2003. They relocated to this Hindu island nestled within the world’s largest Muslim nation because they wanted their children to grow up in a peaceful, rural environment rich in local culture. So that is where they lived, in the middle of the rice terraces within a Balinese village, and John was still able to travel anywhere in the world. Despite living in a rural setting, they were still connected via satellite Internet and functioned with their writing and photography with as much efficiency as living in the middle of Hong Kong. It was there that Anastasia became pregnant with their third child, Francesca, now 3 years old. Their two other children are Richard, 10, and Konstantin, 7.
In Bali, in a Greek restaurant in the town of Seminyak, a former Catholic priest from West Timor led Orthodox Sunday Liturgy services for a mixture of Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Indonesian, Chinese, Greek and American parishioners. The service was held religiously once a month, when Fr. Stephanos Boik Nino drove south from his small community of Singaraja in northern Bali, a three-hour stomach-turning trek starting in the early-morning darkness through twisting roads over an inactive volcano. He also took the time to visit Orthodox faithful who were sick or in jail, or held a baptism or marriage ceremony, or applied for yet another government permit to hold religious services.
Shortly before leaving Bali, Francesca and her family made the journey north to Fr. Stephanos’ small community at All Saints Greek Orthodox Church in Singaraja. The presbytera was her godmother, and Francesca was baptized Dionysia, which is the saint’s name on the day that she was born. It is within this same community where our St. George Greek Orthodox Church’s Philoptochos has recently donated money to help the children at the St. Thomas orphanage.
After realizing that Anastasia’s father in America was stricken with cancer, along with needing to find a more consistent form of education for their children, the Stanmeyers decided to make the move to America. John traveled back and forth to the Northeast while Anastasia tended to their small brood at home, and he finally came across the ideal home: a 40-acre farm in West Otis with a small 1850s farmhouse and an expansive barn that could house his studio and future photo gallery. Anastasia only saw photos of the home and wasn’t sure exactly what lie ahead in this somewhat unfamiliar country she once called home.
In July 2008, they made the move — and made it just in time for a James Taylor concert at Tanglewood. What a great introduction to the Berkshires. They lived for weeks on air mattresses on the kitchen floor as their waited for their two containers to arrive by sea from Indonesia with all their furniture and other personal possessions, but savored their new surroundings. They chose this spot also for the natural beauty, consistent with the way they wanted their children to be raised, and the eclectic community within the area.
Before even moving to the Berkshires, John located a church for their family, St. George. Anastasia started communicating directly with long-time parishioner Jim Panos
by email. It was exactly the community that they were accustomed to: small, friendly, active and family-oriented. Well worth the 40-minute drive from their hill town.
Two years on, the Stanmeyers have opened a gallery featuring a retrospective of John’s photography in the loft of their barn. The Stanmeyer Gallery, located at 1286 Monterey Road in West Otis, is open to the public on the weekends and by appointment during the week. It is seasonal and is expected to be closed for the winter at the end of this month (October). It will reopen in the spring with a new exhibit of photographs from John’s new book, Island of the Spirits, in which Anastasia wrote the introduction. The book will be available soon.
To keep Anastasia even busier while her husband is traveling around the world on assignment for National Geographic magazine, she began farming at their Dancing Fields Organic Farm and has 25 organically raised chickens. (They decided to forgo a second car and opted for a John Deere tractor instead.) She sometimes brings eggs and vegetables to the church, or else sells the surplus of vegetables at nearby general stores or in front of their farm. But her focus remains on her writing and promoting John’s work.
The next installment: Fellow “newcomer,” Fr. John Maheras, priest of St. George Greek Orthodox Church, and his family.