Every kid has a dream job. Whether they want to grow up to be a doctor, veterinarian, ballerina, athlete, astronaut, scientist, a mom, a dad, or even the president, it is up to them to choose a path to follow. We, as college students, are in the ‘refinement’ section of choosing what we want to do, where we want to work and for whom we want to work. But, our human hearts crave more for our careers, we don’t just want a job, we want meaning in our work and in our lives.
Vocation is a word commonly discussed among Orthodox college students often in the context of where they want to work in the future. Let’s take a second to learn what it really means. Vocation comes from the Latin word, vocare or “to call,” therefore, vocation itself doesn’t refer to your future job, but to your actual God-given calling: to love. God calls us all to: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Vocation runs so much deeper than the job you hold or will hold.
God calls for us to become like Him, to “take up our crosses and follow Him” (Matthew 16:24). But what does that mean for us college students? It means we have to live our whole lives in God, and no matter where the journey of college takes us, following Him will always be the goal. Look at the saints! They were able to do follow Christ, all while being themselves, each on their own path. The saints led their lives celebrating their individual talents and skills as doctors, army officials, chefs, monks, bishops, emperors, mothers, fathers, and Christ, too, was a carpenter!
Luckily, our God knows us all so intimately, and He has bestowed on all of us that same calling. Your life is not going to be a straight line, there are going to be hundreds of twists and turns and sometimes you might really have no clue where to go. If you accept your vocation (to love the Lord and your neighbor) everything else in your life will fall into place, not your way, but His way. His way may not be the way you always saw yourself going–its pretty much never going to happen that way.
For me, when I decided I wanted to become a doctor, I could retrace my steps to the conversations and experiences that pushed me to be where I am today. But along the way, I had no clue how to distinguish any sign from the background noise, everything was just happening all at the same time and I was just trying my best the whole time. Today, I still don’t know where my choice will take me, but I am excited for every step of my journey, and I have faith that the Lord’s will be done. Ask me again in five years if I knew where I would be standing at that point, here’s a hint: I HAVE NO CLUE. If life was that predictable, it’d be boring.
And while modern times have made us value money and status above all else, a word of caution from the wise–do not let your job be the foundation of your identity. If you let your job become your source of self-worth and you begin to see people in terms of their salaries, you may be allowing your career to become your idol. Instead, ground yourself in Christ Jesus, and perform your job, no matter what it may be, with love and for His Glory.
Pick up the phone when God is calling!
If you feel like you may need some help, pray to St. Xenia of St. Petersburg. Check out more information in the link!
Hello from the beyond! The scary unknown that is post grad, the uncharted territory of working adulthood.
An update: Upon graduating from Pitt and passing on the OCF baton, I embarked on a new great adventure. I am spending the next two years as a teaching fellow with the Alliance for Catholic Education (which you should all check out: ace.nd.edu) and am spending the next two years teaching middle school language arts in Mobile, AL while pursuing my Masters of Education from Notre Dame.
Though I’m still a novice at this working thing, I’d like to reflect and share with you some humble thoughts.
1. You’re probably going to spiritually struggle more.
College is hard, no doubt. I don’t need to tell you that. Being on your own and navigating your relationship with God, establishing a personal faith life, etc. all the things OCF warns you about and supports you through are valid struggles. But that’s the thing — OCF is there for you. You have a support team, a lifeboat of other Orthodox college students captained by a spiritual or lay advisor who help you navigate the turbulent waters of college.
When you leave OCF, you leave the lifeboat. You’re now aboard your own little dinghy, all alone, still not really sure how to sail the waters. If you’re like me, you’ve moved WAY far from home or anyone you know. This is another huge change in your life, but without the structure, comfort, and help of OCF.
2. That being said, OCF will still help.
OCF has gifted you with an arsenal of friends, mentors, and resources. Use them! Reach out to your friends when you struggle, those who have gone before you and have this whole working thing under their belt, those who are also experiencing it for the first time, and those still in the safety of senior year. Reach out to your chapter spiritual advisor, a speaker you particularly enjoyed. Admit you are struggling and embrace it! The soil is fertile for growth, all you need to do is nurture it. You’re going to be changing and growing in so many ways — don’t neglect your spiritual struggles and changes but give them the tools they need to flourish.
3. Love God, and love your neighbor.
Maybe this is more Emma – specific advice, as I spend my days with a hormonal group of 60 middleschoolers. Sometimes, it’s really hard to love them. Like, really hard, especially when they ask you to go to the bathroom for the fifteenth time that day after you already said no the first fourteen times.. No matter what field you go into, you’re probably going to have to work with people you’ll struggle to love. In college, you often have more choice about the groups with which you surround yourself — your roommates, study buddies, club members. In work, not so much. You might not like your boss or your co-workers. But, you have to love them. And don’t just love them because you have to, because it’s a a commandment. Really try. Get to know them. Find Christ within them. In doing so, you will find Christ within yourself. And your work life will be a whole lot easier.
And of course, never forget God. Pray. Love. Give glory and thanks. In a way, we always talk about the things that change in our life — college, working, where we live, who are friends are — but it’s so much simpler than that. The one thing in our life that never changes is Christ and His love for us. So, while you’re in the midst of these crazy changes, remember the constants. And you will be just fine.
Emma is the former chairman of the OCF SLB. After graduating from Pitt, Emma joined the Alliance for Catholic Education as a Teaching Fellow. She currently lives in Mobile, AL where she teaches middle school language arts and is pursing her Masters of Education from Notre Dame.
There are a few major transitions in life that you know will change your life forever. Going to college is one of them. For anyone who commutes to college, perhaps the transition is not as stark (I wouldn’t know because I’ve only lived at school), but if you’re going from living at home your whole life to suddenly living in a dorm room with one or more strangers and taking care of yourself, there is absolutely no way to be fully prepared for it.
How could you be? You’ve never experienced anything like this before. You can’t go into it expecting to know every detail of how it will be.
Despite all this, I think I handled my transition pretty well. I figured out some of the things I did that worked, and others that didn’t. And here’s the thing: now that I’m a senior in college, I will be undergoing another one of these major changes, so I’m really writing this article to myself. All that being said, here’s Paul’s Guide to Major Life Transitions (Editor’s note: trademark pending), written specifically for transitioning into college.
1) Find a church
If you haven’t done so yet, do it right now.
Look up the school you’re going to (or the ones that you might go to if you haven’t committed yet), the city you’ll live it, etc., and find a church there. Doing that is way more important than anything I have to say in the coming paragraphs, so just stop reading this and go do that, it’s a better use of your time.
Then figure out how you’ll get there. Is the church close enough to walk to? You may want to give that a go. Will you have a car? If not, get in touch with your campus’ OCF advisor, president (talk to your regional leader if you can’t figure out who that is), or the parish priest of the church to see if someone could get you to church.
I am blessed with a parish here filled with people who were constantly offering to drive me to church, which was only a mile from my school. I got rides to every service I wanted to go to for three years until I finally got a car here.
I stress to you: do this now. Before you get to school. Once you get there you will be so overwhelmed with everything else going on that church can slip away way too easily. Do your research beforehand so that you can get in the habit of going to church early.
2) Be prepared, yet adaptable
This one is more my personal philosophy that may not work for you, but I’m thinking it might. You need just the right level of mental and physical preparation transitioning to college or elsewhere. Saying, “I’ll figure it out when I get there,” is probably not the best preparation method, yet if your planning is too detailed, you will be completely thrown off the first time something contradicts your plans.
You will want some ideas of how you will approach your classes, your social life, your church life, etc., but don’t write anything in stone in your head. There are so many factors that you can’t control, so write all of your plans in pencil with a great big eraser waiting to rewrite things as necessary.
(Side note: I strongly recommend taking this same approach with your major. Go into college knowing what you like and what you might want to do if you can, but keep an open mind and be willing to make adjustments to your plan.)
3) Do stuff
College is amazing. You get to be in an environment where your job in life is just to learn as much as you can, taking it all in from the experts, so that you can go out into the world and be the best you can be at whatever you do. So go take advantage of it. For example, my school brings in a guest speaker every week and gives pizza to anyone who goes and listens to the talk. I go as often as I can regardless of the topic because that’s what college is about.
Outside of academics, keep doing what you love. In my case, I had the opportunity to keep playing trombone after I got into college, so I joined the band and the orchestra. But even more importantly, try new stuff. One of the best decisions I made in college was joining the ultimate frisbee team. I knew nothing about the sport besides the rules when I went to my first practice, and I instantly fell in love with it.
(Editor’s note: We will neither confirm nor deny if this is Paul.
College is about learning as much as you can and developing as a person, but that can happen outside of the classroom, lab, or lecture hall. My opinion is that if you live at school and the only commitments you have are class-related, you’re not doing college right.
4) Every once in awhile, remember you enjoy what you do.
Most college students would tell you college is overwhelming, and in my experience, they’re right. If you’ve been adding up all the things that I tell you I do, you may conclude that I’m a busy person, and sometimes I get stressed and collapse into a state of wanting to ignore my responsibilities.
But I found a trick to avoid reaching that state: it’s to remember that I actually do enjoy what I’m doing. My classes this semester are in psychology (my major), Spanish (my minor), and philosophy (I’m a nerd, so that’s my ‘fun class’).
(Editor’s note: this is also Paul.)
I chose to study that stuff because I enjoy it. I do music stuff and ultimate frisbee stuff because I enjoy those things, and the truth is that when I’m home too long for a break, I’m begging in my head for the opportunity to do all of them again. So basically what I’m saying is, have fun every step of the way.
5) Talk to adults
I didn’t do this intentionally, but a few times it came up. I’m guessing that many of the adults in your life have been to college: ask them about it. What did they enjoy? What weren’t they prepared for? What do they regret? What advice do they have? You’re allowed to learn from other people’s experiences, not just your own.
As with all my lists, these are the things that help me that I think would help you. What would you add? What would your friends in college/older siblings/parents add? I pray that your transition goes well, and that those of us currently in college can still take what we can from these lessons and apply it.
Paul Murray is a senior psychology major and Spanish minor at Franklin & Marshall College, and he attends Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lancaster, PA. His home parish is St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in New Kensington, PA, and he has spent the past three summers serving as a counselor at the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh Summer Camp and the Antiochian Village. In his free time, Paul ties prayer ropes and writes descriptions of himself in the third person for blog articles.
No matter our cultural or ethnic background, us Orthodox are huge family people. Our communities tend to be tight-knit and full of love. We raise our children up to love and respect everyone…and then we send them off to college to a different tight-knit parish where suddenly the same things that made a parish feel like home–everyone knowing each other, local traditions for certain feast days, certain people being involved in parish ministries–can make that new parish seem like a closed-off clique into which college students are simply unimportant, transient members in whom the parish need not invest much time.
Of course, most parishes don’t intend to come off this way, and we all want our college students to be accepted and cared for wherever they go. Here are five ways you can ensure that your parish is including its college students and creating a home-away-from home for them.
- Make sure they have a place at every event. Having an after church luncheon? Reserve a table for your OCFers. Big cultural festival coming up? Make sure they have tickets. If your parish and/or individual parishioners are able, making sure that the local college students are able to be a part of the parish’s activities is a great way to make them feel included. And to be honest, it takes more than just an invitation. Setting aside tickets or a table for them conveys the message that they are valued and wanted at your event as family, especially since many of them may not be able to afford attending otherwise.
- Support their participation in OCF programs and events. All year long, there are various OCF programs in which college students can participate, the biggest ones being College Conference and Real Break. In whatever way possible, make an effort as a community to support their participation in these and other OCF events. Whether that means offering travel scholarships or allowing them to fund raise at coffee hour, opening up space at the parish for an event or providing a meal when other chapters come to town for a regional retreat, you can support the good things that our OCF students are planning and participating in with your time, talent, and treasure.
OCFers from the Lexington to Columbus District gather for a retreat and are fed by Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton, OH
- Feed them. This is a college student no-brainer. Anything you can do to get them good food that they didn’t have to pay for or prepare themselves is a huge blessing. There are so many ways you can do this! You could provide monthly care packages of “study snacks” to hand out at their meetings, sponsor a pizza night, or offer them a home-cooked meal (see #4). A big part of family and community is eating, and there’s no surer way to have someone feel cared for when they are away from home than to feed them.
- Invite them into your home. I once heard that most international students never see the inside of an American home. By extension, I wonder how often out-of-town students are ever invited into a family home in their college town. It’s a great way to make a young person who is out of their comfort zone feel loved and cared for by receiving them with hospitality into your own home. There are parishes that do monthly dinners with all the college students in a different parishioner’s home each time so that they really get a chance to get to know the people of the parish and feel at home.
University of Georgia OCF helping out in the kitchen of St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Athens, GA
- Allow them to be a part of your parish ministries. Whether it’s guest teaching a Sunday School class, coaching a youth basketball team, volunteering in your social outreach, serving in the altar, or singing in the choir make sure that you give college students opportunities to be involved. It’s likely that they were involved as teenagers at their home parishes and may even have some great experience to share with your parish, and they’ll certainly learn a lot about what it means to be a good steward of their gifts if they are mentored by those in your parish who are living lives of service to the Church. While a parish should probably not expect college student to take on any huge time commitments, they can invite these young people to be a part of the bigger picture of the parish.
These few things will not only ensure that college students from out of town feel welcomed during their time as temporary parishioners at your parish, it will continue to instill in them a sense that they are necessary and wanted members of the Body of Christ. It will remind them that they have a calling to love as they have been loved, and what more could we want for our young people than for them to strive to live lives of love?
Nowadays, you hear a lot of talk that the value of a college degree is its earning value in the job marketplace. Take, for example, this inspiring message from The College Board (you know, the people who make the SAT and AP exams):
Thanks to all the knowledge, skills and experience you’ll gain in college, you’ll be able to adapt to a greater variety of jobs and careers. Statistics show that a college diploma can help you:
- Get a job
- Keep a job
- Make more money
OK, it may be true that statistically speaking, you are more likely to get and keep a job as well as earn more over your lifetime if you have a college degree than if you don’t have one, but if this is the primary reason for getting an education, I find it rather depressing from a Christian standpoint. This point of view woefully diminishes the greater power and purpose of being an educated person–of the opportunity the college environment provides for self-discovery, the sharing of ideas, discourse and dialogue, deepening knowledge, and experience of the world. In short, the formation of the person.
I’m certain at this point you’re probably calling to mind all the negative things that people have warned you about college life, and yes, they are certainly there–we’ll address them later in this series–but if college were just about getting a degree so you can get a job while trying to survive an onslaught of negative social experiences, I don’t think we’d all be so eager to sign up. At minimum, the sheer amount of freedom that college allows you demands that you take seriously the important questions about who you are and who you will become.
Whether it’s in philosophy class considering the writings of Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Derrida or during rush with your sorority, whether it happens in Biology 101 or in the lounge of your dorm, whether it occurs when you change your major, you end a relationship, you finish an internship, or you fail a class, college will demand that you ask yourself,
Who am I at my core?
This is not a trivial question by any means, and it is certainly not a question only for liberal arts majors. This is the paramount question we will be asked not only by the world, but by Christ on the day of judgement. Who have we become? Are we icons of Christ in our love for God and neighbor, or have we become so distorted that Christ says to us, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers.” (Mt 7:23) It’s a question we will answer not only with our intellect but with the fruits our lives have borne.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Preparing for college is more than just picking out a roommate, lining up your first semester of classes, and getting used to the bus routes on campus; it’s preparing yourself to be challenged, to question your intentions and assumptions, to seek a deeper understanding of life. I encourage you, start now. Ask yourself now, before you are asked by the world: Who are you? Why are you an Orthodox Christian? Do you know Jesus Christ? Do you know yourself–your talents and your sins? Have you sought God’s love and mercy? Do you want to be His child? In the process of self-discovery, you will have to come to terms with your own life’s story–the good and the bad. You don’t have to make the journey alone, but you will have to decide for yourself what path your life will take.
College will be a time of formation, whether you actively engage in the process or not, the question is: will you be conformed to this world or transformed in Christ?
OCFers on Real Break Alaska 2015 hail from across the country
I like to tout to the Orthodox World that OCF is the only fellowship organization (for now) which is an Assembly of Bishops agency. Who cares, you say? Well, we are the only organization (for now) that is charged by all the bishops to bring together all Orthodox Christians from all backgrounds and all jurisdictions and to do it well. This means we’ve been “doing pan-Orthodox” for a while now, and there are a few lessons we have learned that I’d like to share.
- Make no assumptions. Someone once challenged me to count how many churches in which I’ve actually worshiped in the U.S., and I think the number sits right around 55 parishes from seven different jurisdictions. You might say I’ve been around the block when it comes to Orthodox traditions. What I’ve taken away from all those experiences plus the 10 years I’ve been involved in OCF is that you really can’t assume anything. I’ve met Greeks in OCA parishes, Eritreans in Greek parishes, a ROCOR priest who didn’t know a word of Russian, a Bulgarian priest who grew up Jewish, and converts from every denomination of Christianity as well as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and paganism. Pan-Orthodoxy is most successful in an atmosphere of openness to any possibility and a willingness not to comment negatively right away on what we find (see #3). This seems like a no-brainer, but I think it needs to be said. Too often Orthodox people are surprised by Orthodoxy’s diversity.
- Know the narratives. Everybody–and every jurisdiction, for that matter–has a story. How we got to where we are today is a long and complicated story individually and collectively. I’ve noticed that while the assumptions we often make about each other often don’t hold a lot of weight, people from different backgrounds often do bear a particular narrative of Orthodoxy in America. For example, I was raised in a Greek church where the community was very ethnically diverse so I assumed until I went to college and found out otherwise that all Orthodox people went to Greek Orthodox churches. It was never my intention to marginalize, you know, the rest of Orthodoxy, I just didn’t have any other experience yet. A good pan-Orthodox leader/program/organization is aware of the common narratives that come into play from each jurisdiction. Creating opportunities to uncover, discuss, and break down these narratives in a loving, judgment-free manner is a huge step toward understanding.
- Respect not ridicule. Please, please, please–I’ve said it before–stop making fun of each other. Yes, we all have our weaknesses and sore spots as different Orthodox communities, but what heavenly purpose can possibly be brought about by deriding and ridiculing those weaknesses? We can all take a little joke now and again, but the whole “You-know-those-Russians…” and “What-can-you-expect?-They’re-Greek…” thing has got to stop. If you’re doing it, you’re breaking rule #1 and cutting off any opportunity for #2. Just. Stop. Please.
- Celebrate culture. It’s such a bummer when people equate pan-Orthodoxy with the suppression of our diverse cultural heritages. The Christian faith is universal: it’s meant for everyone and every culture. You don’t have to stop being Greek to be Orthodox nor do you have to become Ukrainian to truly understand the message of salvation. How can we practically express this in pan-Orthodox efforts? Eat, drink, dance, sing! Whether its dancing the dabke or learning the Virginia reel, eating borscht or roasting a lamb, singing colind at Christmas-time or decorating pysanka at Pascha, share and experience the beauty of our many cultures! OCF has this one down pretty well. Instead of banning cultural expressions, we offer everyone a chance to celebrate on equal ground: from the Greeks v. Arabs soccer game at College Conference East to the beatbox jam sessions at College Conference West, from Real Break Alaska to Real Break Slovakia on to Guatemala, Constantinople, Romania, and Jerusalem, a foundation of our pan-Orthodox mission is to celebrate whatever is good and lovely in the lives of Orthodox everywhere.
- English is key, but not king. Language is a touchy subject for us, but here’s how I’ve seen things played out in OCF. English is, obviously, the language that you can pretty much guarantee that all American college students understand. I mean, I’m not writing this blog in Old Church Slavonic or New Testament Greek. On the other hand, it’s not safe to assume (see #1) that English is the only language in which a young person (or any person) can worship or even that it’s the most comfortable language for that person in church. Our unofficial baseline is that services are held in English for OCF events, but when our students can share their other languages or when we are visiting places where English is not the first language, we are blessed to be able to confirm the universality of our Christian faith through its varied linguistic expressions (see #4).
- Learn to sing. Or find someone who can. Right up there with celebrating culture and language–or perhaps more important–is a need for us to understand and celebrate each others’ liturgical expressions. A beautiful Byzantine Paraklesis and a wonderful Russian-style Akathist of Thanksgiving should be something we can all share. Often more than language, people are accustomed to a certain liturgical melody which their heart sings even if their lips do not. Successful pan-Orthodoxy should try to incorporate various melodic traditions whenever possible.
OCFers at College Conference West offer up the Akathist of Thanksgiving every year
- Love one another. It bears repeating St. John’s advice in the context of pan-Orthodox efforts. It’s not an easy task, but it bears the sweetest fruit. When we are open to each other and in each other’s presence, we find that, on some level, we are united. Perhaps it is not the full unity we so desperately need, but our worship is united in spirit and in truth, and we are called to a unity of love. Doing pan-Orthodox right unsettles us from accepting the status quo of jurisdictional division. In all my experiences across those 55 churches and in all the College Conferences, Real Breaks, regional retreats, and OCF chapter meetings I’ve attended and led, one thing has become abundantly apparent to me: once we’ve been together, we don’t want to be apart!
We often get asked by chapters how and where they should open a bank account for money they raise for their activities throughout the year. Here are our top three suggestions:
- Option #1: You can find out if student activities or the campus ministry department on your campus offers banking options for recognized organizations. Sometimes, there is even funding offered through the school if you are recognized.
- Option #2: You can work with a local parish to set up a fund through the parish. How that is done would be at the priest’s discretion and probably with the input of his parish council president.
- 2A: The parish could open a separate account for you that could be managed by your priest and lay coordinator (ie, they would sign the checks).
- 2B: The parish could add your chapter’s funds to the parish’s operating account. Basically, your OCF chapter would be a line item in their annual budget, and any money you bring in would be earmarked in the main parish account for chapter events.
- Option #3: You could open a separate account on your own at a bank of your choice. You can even apply for your own EIN number here. We don’t particularly suggest this option–it’s more of a last resort–simply because it will just cause you extra work when students graduate in passing on the account information, signature approval, etc.
If you have questions on setting up your account, send them our way at email@example.com!
I am thankful every time we get a call or an email from a parent, priest, Philoptochos chapter, or parish council asking what they can do to help our young people get connected to an OCF chapter, reach out to their local campus, or assist in the growth of the National, pan-Orthodox ministry of OCF. It reassures me that we as a Church are committed to seeing our students succeed and grow as Orthodox Christians.
Well, everyone, here’s your chance.
Students offer prayers for passersby on campus as part of Day of Light.
College Student Sunday is the day designated by the Assembly of Bishops for every parish to recognize their college students, raise awareness about Orthodox campus ministry, and contribute to Orthodox Christian Fellowship. The date now falls during OCF’s Orthodox Awareness Month. So while our students are loving striving to spread the word about Orthodoxy on their campuses and in their lives, the rest of us have the opportunity to loving spread the word about and support their good work and the ministry of OCF.
So what can your parish do this year to make College Student Sunday a success?
- Give a presentation. Invite your local OCF chapter or a student from your parish to give a short testimonial to the impact OCF has had on their lives.
- Do something to recognize your college students. Host a lunch, make care packages, or even just mention OCF and Orthodox Awareness Month from the pulpit.
- Designate a Parish Liaison. This year, we would like parishes to designate one person–a Sunday School teacher, a secretary, a parish council member, any willing volunteer–to be the OCF parish liaison. Through the Parish Liaison Program, we will be able to keep your community informed about all that we do and collaborate with you on initiatives such as the First Forty Days. If you are interested in learning more, click here.
- Make a donation. We ask that you pass a tray on behalf of OCF this year and send your collection to the National Office. You can also direct your parishioners to ocf.net/donate to set up both one-time and recurring donations.
- Become a Parish Partner. For those parishes that would like to make the strongest commitment to Orthodox campus ministry and our Church’s young people, we encourage you to become a Parish Partner. In addition to designating a Parish Liaison to keep your community informed and prepared as advocates for Orthodox campus ministry, your parish would make an annual financial commitment to OCF to ensure its continued success and growth for generations of Orthodox college students to come. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details about Parish Partnerships.
Whatever you do for College Student Sunday this year, we ask that you keep our students–your students–in your prayers as they hold fast to the Tradition of our Orthodox Faith in the face of the many challenges which campus life presents. Your love and support make possible so many beautiful opportunities for these students to encounter Christ and deepen their faith.
Click here for College Student Sunday materials!
A recent testimonial from a student on their OCF experience.
Imagine this: you walk into a new parish for the first time in college. You’ve been a faithful member of your home parish all your life, and you know it’s important that you make an effort to be at Liturgy. Maybe it’s taken you a few weeks of getting settled in to your new life and figuring out how to get to the church for you to make it, and you’re feeling a little nervous about coming through those doors. But right away when you walk in, you feel a sense of home: the smell of incense, the light of the candles, the icons surrounding you in worship. You find your way into the nave just in time for the beginning of Liturgy (whew!) and open up the Liturgy book you got at camp last summer.
And then it happens.
The first “To Thee, O Lord” has passed and the choir starts singing–but nothing matches the words in your book. In fact, you’re pretty sure they’re singing the WRONG THING! At the Small Entrance, they sing a whole song you’ve never heard before (maybe it’s from the Bible?) in four-part harmony. When the deacon comes out to read the readings, he uses a language which is incomprehensible to you. After the sermon, the choir starts the cherubic hymn and you suddenly feel like you don’t know the words at all, even though you’ve been listening to it your whole life because the melody here is different. Then, when the clergy come out for the Great Entrance, the people are reaching out to touch the vestments of the clergy, and the priest reads a long list of names as he processes. At this point, you’re feeling more than a little confused, but you decide to stick it out. When it’s time for communion, you go up and prayerfully bend your knee and open your mouth, but the priest looks a little baffled and politely asks you to close your lips on the spoon. Feeling embarrassed, you do what he asks and then decide to sneak out before the closing prayers to avoid any more awkwardness at coffee hour.
You leave wondering: “Was that really an Orthodox Liturgy? That wasn’t anything like what I’m used to at home.”
Perhaps the well-travelled reader who has experienced the variety of liturgical expressions that exist in our incredibly diverse Church may laugh a little at this example, but the experience happens perhaps more often than we might think: a young student who has only ever been a member of one Orthodox parish with its own jurisdictional and local traditions finds himself not only confused but scandalized by another parish’s traditions.
As a parish family, we may be so used to our own parish’s way of doing things–from the translation of the Creed we use to who reads the Epistle each week–that we may even forget that our way isn’t the only way things are done. Part of becoming a college-friendly parish is recognizing that not only are we typically strangers to new college students, but that often, our worship is strange as well. Orthodox young people have been told their whole lives that Orthodoxy is the unchanging faith–which, of course, it is–but often no one has bothered to also mention that the unchanging faith has multiple expressions which are blessed and beautiful. It’s also not hard to imagine that in the midst of so many new things, a new college student simply expects that church will be a familiar place with familiar experiences to give them a sense of security and comfort and coming to a parish that feels only half-right to them might be a shock or even turn them off from returning.
What, then, can we do to help new students integrate into our parishes in this regard? Here are a few suggestions:
- Be on the lookout. As with any visitors, new college students will be waiting for you to approach them and welcome them. And though it might seem like September will be the time when you see the most new faces, sometimes it takes a new freshman more than a few weeks to settle into campus life, find the motivation to wake up on Sunday, and get up the courage to go to a parish where they are a stranger. Keep your eyes open constantly for young, new faces.
- Emphasize similarity. Ask students what things were like at their home parish and share things about your parish’s life that will feel familiar to them.
- Refrain from disparaging other traditions. This is a tough one for us all. It can be so tempting in our age of your-opinion-can-and-should-be-voiced-at-any-time (thanks, internet) to point out all the things we know X jurisdiction is doing wrong or how much we dislike Y’s cultural peculiarities. College students are constantly being encouraged to see the world as one community so you can imagine how frustrating it can be for our Orthodox youth to hear their elders mocking each other’s traditions.
- Be prepared to explain and teach. Many of our students are under-catechized when they leave home for college–that’s just a fact. Add to that the variations they encounter when the parish near school isn’t just like the one at home, and you can have some very confused people. Local clergy and OCF lay leaders should prepare themselves to explain the Liturgy to college students and separate out what are the essential elements of the Liturgy and what are the variations in custom.
If you’ve known many involved OCF graduates, you know that once they’ve been embraced by a loving community that shares with them their own traditions with love and respect for other traditions, OCFers tend to fall in love with the diversity of our Church and experience the deeper unity that goes beyond languages and lectionaries and music–the unity that is truly rooted in Christ.
Noah was in the ark for forty days and forty nights. Moses retreated on Mt. Sinai for forty days. Jesus met Symeon in the temple on his 40th day. Jesus fasted after his baptism for forty days. There were forty days between Christ’s resurrection and his ascension into heaven. We fast for forty days to prepare for the two great feasts of the Christian year, Pascha and Nativity. In each Orthodox Christian’s life, we are churched on our 40th day of life and are remembered on our 40th day of death.
It seems that there’s something very special about a period of forty days in the Orthodox tradition. In Scripture, forty signifies a completed time, a long period of time during which something of significance is accomplished. The end of a forty day period signifies the end of one epoch and the dawn of a new. It’s interesting, then, to note that secular research has shown that in the first six weeks of college–in Orthodox-speak that’s the first forty days–most freshman build the habits and peer groups that will stick with them for their entire college careers. In forty days, students decide what groups in which they will participate and with whom they will spend their time–or even if they will stick with college at all. That’s surely an accomplishment of significance.
So what are we as the Church doing to make sure those first forty days of college are holy epochs and not times of confusion, exclusion, loneliness, or regrettable decisions? Obviously, preparing our students to be successful in college doesn’t start when we drop them off on campus for the first time. It takes years of hard work and education to prepare them academically to be successful, and the same goes for preparing them socially and spiritually to handle the pressures and demands of college life. This is the work of families, parish communities, youth programs, and camps–together, we help raise strong, faithful, and grounded young people who are ready to stand on their own on campus. However, there is something we must be doing when they set foot on campus:
We have to show up.
Our Church community must be present as students go through the crucial social transition that occurs in the first few weeks of college. We can’t expect that they will always find us or will automatically feel at home in our parish just because the sign says “Orthodox” on the front. It is our responsibility to make a personal connection with each Orthodox student as they go off to college so that in their forty day period of transition, they know that the doors of the Church are open to them always like the arms of the Theotokos warmly welcoming, embracing, and loving them, giving them space to find their own way while always bearing witness to the truth of Christ and the fruits which His commandments bear. And if we aren’t there to share our message of love and faith, we should be aware that some else will be there with their own message–good or bad.
Again this year, we at OCF have again launched our First Forty Days Initiative. We want to make sure that we do everything we can to help new freshman find a home in OCF and the local parish as soon as they get to campus by forging personal relationships between new students and local clergy, lay people, and other Orthodox students. From now until July 15th, we will be asking for the names and contact information of every Orthodox high school graduate from every background so that we can ensure that their local OCF chapter and spiritual advisor are able and prepared to reach out to them when they arrive on campus.
Let us join together as a Church and in true Orthodox fashion make the first forty days of college a time of spiritual preparation and growth for our college students.
To read more about the First Forty Days Initiative or submit student contact information, visit our website at ocf.net/firstfortydays.
Waving to the Harvard and MIT students as they boarded the bus bringing them back to their dorms, I felt an incredible sense of joy and contentment. I had just spent the evening with a dynamic group of Orthodox college students. As Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship, what better way to welcome students to their ‘home away from home’ than to have them over for a home-cooked meal. MIT and Harvard’s OCF were the first to take me up on this invitation. So, on Thursday night, eight students not only shared a meal with my family, they touched our hearts.
Every year moms, dads, grandparents, and parishioners open their homes to college students. Thank you. You are truly ministering to our students at a time when they need us the most. My hope is this quick reflection will get others to do so as well. October is a perfect time, just as our young students are fighting homesickness, colds, and the stress of their academic load.
- College students appreciate a home cooked meal.
Let’s be honest: food matters to Orthodox Christian College students. They come from homes where meals are celebrated and joyful. So, it only takes about a month of cafeteria food for the longing for food, made with love, to hit hard. Here is where we have a huge opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to our young scholars. Make your standard dish and grateful students will nominate you for America’s Top Chef. Believe me, nothing is more gratifying than eight college students taking seconds and thirds of your chicken Parmesan.
- What defines our college students? Orthodoxy!
I live in a college town, so every day I see students working very hard to define themselves. Student proudly fashion unique majors, body art, and provocative playlists to stand out. While my guests had no visible tattoos, what makes these students stand out is their commitment to an Ancient Faith that no one on campus is familiar with. They are the ones noted for their kindness, reliability, and fortitude. They are the designated drivers for weekend parties, the ones that check in on a friend in the hospital and the ones who break up the fight. They are known as campus leaders. These Orthodox students stand out for something that is internal but resonates in their joyful and Orthodox-based interaction with the world, all of which is centered on their deep belief in the mystery of Christ.
- Our belief in Christ trumps our differences.
What happens when you have Greek, Antiochian, Russian, Bulgarian, Syriac, and Coptic students around a table? You are treated to a seminar on the history of the early Church from different perspectives. And you see how our cultural differences pale in comparison to our love of Christ. These young people have formed a bond and will be life-long friends. But what happens when they return to parish life as adults and don’t find the vibrant unity experienced in OCF? This is a hot topic of discussion with today’s college students.
- College is Orthodox boot camp: the survival of the fittest.
College is like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Those who make it develop a strong stroke; they can tell their peers what it means to be Orthodox. If our young people who don’t know much about what Orthodoxy stands for and don’t go looking for answers, they will not be connected to the Church when they graduate. The young people I had dinner with know their Faith, they can talk about it and defend it. They have accomplished this without assistance other than themselves. Those who survive this transition have assimilated their Faith in new and profound ways.
Thanksgiving Holiday is a long time from now, so if you have a local OCF chapter
close by, be in touch with their President and invite the chapter over for dinner. Tell them you have a home cooked meal waiting for them, and enjoy an evening with our new and future Orthodox leaders. You will be glad you did. You get as much from it as they do!