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!