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?
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!
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.
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!