On Saturday, October 21, college students of the NYC Area gathered for YES NYC’s College day. The day turned one participant’s perspective on its head.
As 16 of us arrived at the parish of St. Mary Magdalen in The Upper West Side, we quickly became a little community, only growing stronger during the twenty-minute walk to our service site. From what was then our college-specific community would soon transition into something, I at least, could have never imagined. The growth of our experiences gradually expanded from the community that we thought we knew, into one intertwined in service for and with those among us.
Upon reaching Harlem’s Emmaus House, their sole volunteer for that day unassumingly received us. There, she provided us with the opportunity to package food for those who would later come seeking it.
YES does an incredible job debunking common perceptions of helping versus serving. Riddling out that distinction brings about many difficult challenges. Walking into a quieter Emmaus House with no one “needy” in sight was discouraging. After all, I signed up for this in hopes of growing in a deeper understanding of service, with a sprinkle of enlightenment from the “other” before me. And that makes for a great reflection, right?
What I failed to realize, however, is that service knows no limits. My preconceived notions painted a false hierarchy–I was the helper, seeking to serve others in need–and as such, a surprise would come from someone I least expected. And there lies the problem: the fact that I first held of view of someone other than myself as “least.”
The true manifestation of service around us emulated from this volunteer’s language of love. She did not reserve it for any specific type of person. While not directly encountering those we assume live in need, we instead heard her incredible journey in Christ; which in turn, proved to meet a need of our own. Those of us who later voiced reflection were extremely struck by her humble presence and steadfast trust in Him. We found her to be of service to us more than anything we could offer her in return.
Therefore, she prompted our new reality of an encompassing community, as the later half of our day took to Marcus Garvey Park. We met various locals, most of whom welcomed us into the neighborhood and shared bits of their lives with us. Fulfilling what we had encountered during our time at the Emmaus House, we were blessed with the opportunity to live out what we had learned–to meet people for who they were and where they happened to be in life.
Come debriefing, one participant shared a quote (as paraphrased), “wherever you find yourself in life, is exactly where God wants you to be in that moment”; and boy did this make for the day’s message. Following a reading of Matthew 25:31-46, an unprecedented silence that truly captured what words cannot came across our group. It felt like the perfect note to end on. Just as Christ speaks of hunger, food and clothing, so too does he raise the necessity of a stranger being invited in.
Thank you to everyone at FOCUS North America for organizing Yes College Days, and everything Christ illumines through their service. Glory to God for all things!
It’s really, really tough to be a college student in a time of crisis.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently–how could you not? In the football-related work that I do, I interact with a really large network of people around the country–which is awesome, but also quite eye-opening. As such, I worked directly with a few people who had to evacuate and experienced flooding during Hurricane Irma; because it’s football work, I was exposed a ton to Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt’s national campaign to raise money for Houston following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey; a lot of media folks live in California, where fires have been burning homes and polluting the air; and that doesn’t even touch those in Puerto Rico, many of whom are currently without clean water.
Things are not good on the natural disaster front.
As a college student, this can be incredibly frustrating. Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to have the funds with which you can make a monetary impact on these events as each arrives–if so, count your blessings. I would venture to say that many of us aren’t there.
The question becomes, of course, what can we do? I don’t have a comprehensive list, nor am I well-versed in all of the various opportunities/outlets that exist (please comment below and on social media with cool stuff you do), but I can tell you about what I think and what I’ve done.
I think it’s very easy to forget that our greatest agency, whether we can give $1 or $1,000, isn’t in the money we give, but rather our prayers. And we really have to be careful of muddling that priority list: reducing prayer to “well, at least I’m doing this” or “well, I can’t really give that much, so I’ll pray instead.” Because donations are more publicly visible, more empirically tangible, they feel more impactful.
When you give money online to relief funds, bright little graphics pop up, and you’re thanked by the program and so on. Why? To make you feel that initial jolt, that rush of altruism. When you pray for the suffering, when you pray for the first responders, when you pray for the safety of the world, you’re usually rewarded by the same stillness and silence of the room in which you are. Little emoji prayer hands don’t start popping up, as if you’re gaining experience points in some video game.
The hope is, of course, that your prayer is so fervent and heartfelt that you might truly experience, viscerally, that interaction you just had with God’s grace and mercy. The reality–at least for me–is that I’m not nearly a good enough supplicant to regularly have that experience. And, as such, it is easy to feel effete and irresponsible–like we are not doing enough. But there is nothing we can do–mankind, in all of our combined efforts–that holds a candle to what the Lord can do, through his long-suffering and compassion. It is important to remember this.
via Wikimedia Commons
It is also important, however, to do what we can in the world with our resources. Remember the tale of the man on the roof in the flood who denied the boat and the helicopter and the rescuers, because he was so faithful God would save him. When he died and saw God, he asked why God had not rewarded his faith: God said that He had…with a boat and a helicopter and rescuers.
So, what can we do, in the face of our limited resources? The first, easiest answer is to give what we can. Sure, one college student may not offer much–but there’s quite a good deal of us in OCF, you know. Through our community, our efforts are multiplied.
We can also recognize that immediate aid to places in dire need, while primary and necessary and invaluable, isn’t the only aid. On Real Break New Orleans this past March, a few of my fellow students and I toured through the Lower Ninth Ward, beholding destruction you wouldn’t believe happened twelve years ago. OCF offers many activities that are service-based–primarily a giving of time, rather than a giving of money–throughout the year, including YES College Days and Real Break trips.
Finally, I think it’s important to do little things–no matter how small. Not simply for the sake of it–just to say you did–but because, as an Orthodox Christian, giving to those in need should become a fixture of your life. Remember, the values and habits you construct now follow you into adulthood–without a dedication to helping those in need now, you’ll struggle to develop the habit when you have the resources. Using small, convenient outlets like freerice.com or Charity Miles help you have a consistent impact, without putting you in a financial bind.
Welcome to college: with an increase in choice comes an increase in responsibility. One of my favorite Bible quotes comes from Jesus (shocker), when He was hyping the disciples up in the upper room before His Crucifixion–I’ve probably told this to every camper I ever had:
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
– John 13:17
You know things. But that isn’t enough. That just gets you to the battlefield–now, you’ve gotta do stuff, too. It’s time for action.
Well that was fast (pun intended). It’s already the second week in November. That means Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, and of course, that means I saw a commercial with Santa in it this past weekend. Fiat is already preparing for Christmas, it would seem.
But for Orthodox Christians, the preparation for Christmas doesn’t begin until November 15th–the day on which the Advent fast begins, the forty day preparation for the Nativity.
Now, if you’re like me, your first thought is, “No more meat,” and your second thought is, “No more meat,” and your third thought is, “Wow, this gives me an excuse to eat bacon every meal until November 15th.”
But fasting has more meaning than that, has more value than that, and I would argue that in college, that value is augmented. It’s impossible to say that a certain arena of our spiritual lives is more important than another, but my experience of fasting in college life tells me that it’s really unique for us, as students. I’d like to think about why.
Firstly, I dunno about y’all, but I had about zero control over what I ate in high school. Whatever was in the pantry was going to be breakfast and lunch for the school day, and whatever my family cooked for dinner was going to be dinner. When it was a fasting period, my mother and father ensured that the only food purchased/prepared was in accordance with the fast. On the off-chance I was purchasing food (maybe on a Wednesday or a Friday) I occasionally forgot–when I was a little kid I always used to buy chili dogs at Friday Night football games–but I was usually pretty solid.
By Larry Miller via Wikimedia Commons
Most of my fasting was, thereby, the choice of my family. That’s fine and good, that’s the passing on of values and traditions, that’s important. But now, I go to the dining hall every day, and there’s a vegetarian station and a vegan station and salads AND A PERMANENT TACO BAR WHICH IS TOTALLY BONKERS. If I don’t want dining hall food, I often cook for myself, and I’m the guy buying the groceries. If I fast, it’s my choice. I always have an opportunity, I always have the means. Fasting, much more so than before, is a decision that I make, and I own the consequences whether I make it or not.
The question easily follows: why make the choice, then?
There is, of course, an easy answer: because we are told to. Obedience is vital, but it is always good to understand why it is we do what we do–especially because fasting is one of the best ways to begin a discussion with someone else on campus about Orthodoxy. People constantly ask me if I’m a vegan/vegetarian, and it opens the door to introduce them to the faith.
So, why fast? I’m no theologian or seminarian, so I can’t tell you perfectly. That’s a good question for a priest.
I can tell you, however, how fasting impacts me.
It makes me feel better. More like the person I’m supposed to be, the person I wish I could be more consistently. Fasting–a little choice, a simple choice, three times a day–recaptures that feeling you sometimes get after an amazing sermon, after acts of service, after reading a prayer or scripture, after hearing a beautiful hymn. Fasting, in short, brings us closer to God.
People will ask how it does this. Quite simply, by letting go of something earthly, there is more room for the heavenly. By relinquishing a tether to the body, you can acquire a tether to the soul.
All of this being said, I don’t really feel the need to understand how, I just have the experience that it does. I have an opportunity to grow closer to God, and I always try to take those opportunities.
By vxla via flickr
But, in all things, in all arenas of the spiritual life, nothing is a panacea. Nothing is an end-all, be-all. Fasting without prayer and almsgiving, fasting without daily reading and service attendance, will likely falter. Of course, by the same logic, prayer life falters without fasting. The spiritual life is holistic, and fasting is an integral piece in the heavenly pie.
The Advent fast begins on November 15th (with a day off for Thanksgiving, and oh, what a glorious day that is). I encourage you to find the permanent taco bar in your dining hall, make a daily choice, and see what it does for you. I think you’ll like what you find.