Strangers from distant lands, friends of old, you have been summoned to answer to the threat of Mordor. Middle-Earth stands on the brink of destruction. None can escape it. You will unite or you will fall.
The chairman of the OCF Student Advisory Board began our first meeting with those words… or something like that. The year was 2011. I was a junior at WVU studying electrical engineering. During the College Conference of 2010, a bug was placed in my ear to apply to the Student Advisory Board (SAB) as the Regional Representative of the Mid-Atlantic Region. The bug succeeded in making me think it was my idea, and so I applied and was offered the position.
Obviously, I saw the opportunity to add another impressive line to my resume, but beyond that (and also more importantly), I was blessed to meet and work with other young leaders in the OCF community. My job was fairly simple. There existed a database with all the known OCF chapters in North America. This list includes student leaders, clerical and layperson advisers contact information. ‘Twas a truly legendary list. It was up to me to keep all the information for the Mid-Atlantic Region up-to-date throughout the year and to spend time organizing regional retreats in between the bigger College Conferences.
Now, excuse me while I reflect on what you, the reader, are probably thinking. “That sounds like a lot of work for a student to undertake while trying to be a boss electrical engineer, whilst simultaneously channeling the spirits of Michael Faraday, Nikola Tesla, and Emperor Palpatine, all of which had an affinity for the manipulation of electrons. Oh, and also playing the violin” Yes, I’m sure you were thinking all of that. But here’s the thing, it might sound crazy, but it was a great break from the purely technical aspect of my engineering degree. Also, working on the SAB offered me a chance to visit places I had never been before. I traveled to Denver, Boston, and Baltimore, all for the first time on official OCF business. Official!
And, I got to work with the other members of the board. Imagine a group of young, passionate Orthodox college students who love people and serving others. Now, take that group and diversify it over jurisdiction, ethnicity, and gender and there’s a beautiful SAB. I know a few of the current SLB members personally (they changed the name from SAB to SLB. Long story.), and I can say that the gang is still the cream of the crop. In addition to friends, I gained valuable organizational, leadership, delegation, coloring, and karate skills. Because that’s what the ladies want. Skills.
Here I am, five years later…I lost my train of thought because I realized it’s been five years. I originally typed three years ago and had to walk away from typing this for a week, because I was in shock. Anyway, shock is over. Five years later, I’m working as an engineer for a great company, I’ve got some of the spunkiest roommates, and my friends are finer than all the treasures under the mountain in Erebor. I thank God for all that He has blessed me with, and especially my days as an ‘OCFer’.
Basil Dixon is a freelance writer for the OCF from Huntington, WV, currently residing in Pittsburgh’s own Little Italy, Bloomfield. After graduating from West Virginia University in 2013 with a bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering, he began his career working for Rolls-Royce where he consults electrical utilities regarding the various aspects of maintaining nuclear power plants. Basil’s other interests include post-liturgical Sunday brunch, singing in the two choirs at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, all the stereotypical nerd movies and books (especially Star Wars), and plotting the domination of Western Pennsylvania with his truly exceptional friends and allies.
Despite my upbringing as an Orthodox Christian, I lost touch with my faith around the time I went to high school. I still considered myself Orthodox and I was definitely proud of my heritage and the traditions of my family, but I didn’t feel a need to engage with Christ in any way, and I certainly didn’t feel a need to go to church. By the time I entered college, I was absolutely checked out, and I had no intention of changing.
My mind changed completely when I started at Fordham University. Until that point in my life, I had never really been able to focus on what I wanted to do, but I had suddenly found myself in a whirlwind of interesting classes, clubs, and various activities that were about nothing but personal growth. It was so odd to me, having come from an environment where my academic success was valued and fostered above everything else.
It was when I took a theology class and we learned about a variety of other religions that I realized how little I knew about my own and how upset that made me. How was I supposed to grow as a person in all of the ways that Fordham allowed to me grow, if I did not have a grasp on the basic facets of my being?
Maria at a Fordham OCF Vigil
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I joined Fordham’s chapter, but I know that it was at a good friend’s insistence that I joined him at a meeting one day. At first, I definitely felt uncomfortable, but the older members of the club were nurturing and constantly made sure to reach out. Eventually, I began to look forward to going to meetings, where I don’t think many people knew that I was learning everything for the first time. By sophomore year, I was hooked, and by junior year, I was on the executive board.
My fellow OCF members taught me how to pray, how to volunteer my time, how to be compassionate and kindhearted and faithful, and they helped me experience Christ’s presence. They pushed me to go to summer camp, paraklesis and compline services, and Sunday liturgies. For one of the first times in my life, attending services didn’t feel forced because I actually wanted to worship God. I got to make my own decisions, and it made me want to choose wisely. For me, it was revolutionary.
It was my experience at Orthodox Christian Fellowship, and specifically OCF at Fordham, that drew me back to my faith. In a predominantly Catholic school, I wanted to learn more about Orthodoxy so that I could join conversations, so that I could serve the church in a way that I saw my Catholic friends doing. Somewhere along the way, I picked up Orthodox friends who wanted to grow and learn with me. They wanted to go to church, they wanted to talk about God, they wanted to pray together. The most important thing about my OCF experience was the renewal of my relationship with God, which continues to grow today.
Maria and the Y2AM team
Every now and then it hits me that I would never be in the place I am now if it had not been for my experiences with Orthodoxy in college. These experiences influenced everything that I did and everything that I have done since then. When I think about all of the experiences that I never would have had without Orthodoxy, I am filled with gratitude.
My peers at OCF led me to get excited about my relationship with Christ, gave me people with whom to relish in the highs and people whose shoulder to cry on during the lows. I cannot thank OCF and its members enough for changing my life, for allowing me to learn about my faith at my own pace, and for lighting a fire in me that I know will never be extinguished.
Maria Pappas is the Administrative Coordinator for the Department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. She is a recent graduate of Fordham University (Go Rams!), and she is still learning to love New York City even though she has spent her whole life there. She is a parishioner of Holy Cross in Whitestone and loves summer camp and chocolate.
We are often poor salesmen. Language offers us thousands of ways to relate or promote an item with intimate detail, and yet our go-to phrases are “You gotta try this food, it’s amazing!” or “Check out this band, they’re awesome!” Perhaps such clichéd one-word descriptors are convincing enough for our close friends and family, but the words amazing and awesome are vague and subjective at best when coming from strangers. I am reminded of a billboard I see whenever I’m driving through the desert on Interstate 10 towards Phoenix that literally advertises, “REALLY GOOD JERKY, take exit 5.” I think to myself sarcastically, “They ain’t foolin’ around—they even used an adverb!” Effective advertisement moves past the obvious and reveals qualities you can relate to while also putting on display features that peak your interest; I must successfully make my idea become your idea of awesome and amazing.
I’m not exactly trying to advertise here, but I do want to reflect on OCF’s College Conference West, the annual four-day gathering of college students from all across the western half of the North America. As a four-time veteran I can tell you “CC West is awesome! Amazing! So much fun! The best thing ever!” etc., but if you’re reading this blog and have never gone to CC West, you’re probably not entirely convinced and are wondering who is this Pat guy anyway. For all you know, three-hour lectures debating the finer points of 13th century ecclesiological development in the Byzantine Empire might be Pat’s idea of a good time (how did you know!?).
Don’t worry, CC West is not a de facto Ortho-nerd convention where the hyperdox faithful gather. Indeed, all types of college students from various backgrounds with different personalities and different ideas of what’s “fun” and “awesome” come to CC West; yet somehow the overwhelming impression from attendees is one of fulfillment and heartfelt joy. Something deeper happens at CC West, something more than fun or awesome, and that is what I will try to relate, if there are words to describe it.
I think we can all recollect a few very fond memories from our lives. Memories where even the thought of it moves your heart with longing to go back and experience it again. Perhaps a special family reunion with your favorite cousins, this last summer serving as a camp counselor, your first semester in the dorms—anything, really. My guess is that the common link making these experiences such fond memories is not the specifics of what you were doing: it’s who you were with and the time you shared together.
As human beings, communal interaction and relationships are what we desire and find fulfillment in. The activities that we do together merely serve as the vehicle for this communal interaction and relating to one another. That’s not to say that what we do together doesn’t matter; superficial activities like ice-breakers serve the purpose of getting strangers comfortable with each other, while serious heartfelt discussions on important topics have more potency to draw those same people closer together in a meaningful way.
I believe this is where CC West has such an impact on its attendees, myself fully included. It’s more than getting away from the hustle bustle of our overly busy lives. It’s more than staying at a beautiful ranch and monastery for four days. It’s more than learning about our Orthodox faith and working through difficult topics impacting our lives. And yes, it’s more than enjoying the company of fellow college-age students. College Conference West is amazing because it uses all of these elements to bring all sorts of different young men and women into an authentic community with oneness in purpose: glorifying God together, and thus becoming more human together. For some attendees, it’s the workshops or keynote addresses. For others, it’s the free-time in the dining hall or singing the Akathist of Thanksgiving at sunrise. At CC West we eat together, sing together, laugh together, cry together, and worship together. Whatever meaningful activity it is, everyone at CC West feels that they are experiencing communion with each other too deep for words, and that God is within all of it somehow. In the same way that Saint Paul encouraged the Colossians, we are being “knit together in love” at CC West.
My feeble attempt to relate the College Conference West experience does not do it justice. But perhaps that is where I can make the connection; we’ve all had an experience too deep for words. College Conference West is that kind of experience, no matter who you are. So if you’ve been sitting on the fence unsure about the whole thing, be brave and sign up! If you haven’t attended CC West, I encourage you to do so this season. It will be the highlight of your year.
It’s really good. That’s a promise.
Patrick Lynch is an OCF alumnus and former member of the Student Leadership Board. He works as a prototype machinist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Patrick attends Saint Anthony Greek Orthodox Church in Pasadena and is an active member of the Orthodox young adult community in Southern California.
In this series, “My OCF Story,” alumni share their experiences from their time in OCF and its impact on their transition and life in the post-grad real world.
My name is Lindsey Maria Birdsall and I am a proud OCF alum. I studied English and Political Theory at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and graduated in 2008. I currently teach music, drama, and literature to grades K through 6 at Park Street School in Boston.
Lindsey (Maria) on Real Break
I was chrismated as an Orthodox Christian in college, largely due to the witness of OCF. We had a very small, yet very close knit, group that sometimes met for morning prayers and dinner after Saturday night Vespers. While the official programming at my college was not extensive, it’s through the friendships that I made in OCF that I came to know about the Orthodox faith. Going on a Real Break trip to Guatemala was also a pivotal moment for me. Before this trip, I questioned whether the Orthodox Church was indeed still living and fulfilling the “great commission,” to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:6-20). After seeing the nuns of the Hogar Rafael Ayau living out their faith, my question was answered. The Orthodox Church is indeed Christ’s living body on earth. Hearing about the nuns’ conversion and all the hardships they have endured with such joy made me eager to receive “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Lindsey (Maria) with her husband and son at Holy Resurrection
After graduation, I leaned on my OCF connections more than ever. Sometimes I jokingly call my first year out of college my “freshman year of life.” I moved from my suburban hometown in Texas to New York City to teach at a high school in the South Bronx, and I had a lot to learn. It was tempting to get swept away in the stress of all these changes, but my friends from OCF were a grounding influence on me. That first year, while traveling to meet up with some OCF friends in Boston, I met my husband. With a few more visits I slowly became a part of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Boston, a parish that is now like an extended family to me. Since then, I have moved to Boston, gotten married, had our first child, and taught at a couple of excellent Christian schools.
I am truly grateful to God for all the blessings that OCF has brought to my life. Whether it was having company at church services and deep discussions over meals in the cafe, traveling to College Conferences, serving on the Student Advisory Board, participating in the national Day of Prayer, and traveling on two Real Break trips to Guatemala and Greece, the experiences all truly changed my life. In OCF, I was so inspired to see the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church on local, national, and global levels. In Guatemala, I saw that work of the Holy Spirit was greater than I could fathom, and yet from my OCF chapter, I learned that it was also as simple as befriending my neighbor in the dorm. OCF has given me peace, perspective, and some friendships that have now lasted for a decade.
In this series, “My OCF Story,” alumni share their experiences from their time in OCF and its impact on their transition and life in the post-grad real world.
Fr. Alexandros, Presbytera Stephanie, and their two sons, Niko and Chris
I graduated from Gordon College in 2008 with a degree in English and Secondary Education and I taught high school for a short time before attending Holy Cross Seminary for one year. I met my husband at an OCF retreat at Penn state in 2007, we were married in 2010, and we welcomed our first son in 2011. After getting married, I went back to work to help put my husband through seminary and was there until my husband graduated and was placed at a parish in Bethlehem, PA. Our second son was born about 6 months after we were placed and I am now a stay-at-home mom with my two sons, ages 4 1/2 and 1 1/2. In my spare time (which isn’t much), I help run our Moms & Tots group at church, I’m involved in the PTO at my son’s school (which is also our parish’s school), and I tutor to keep my foot in the door with education. My dream is to work at or help start an Orthodox School someday.
My most remarkable memory of OCF was at my first College Conference. I knew only two of the 200 or so students who were attending so I was a little nervous. But as I stood in church alongside all of these other college students, as I sat in discussion groups and listened to them asking questions, and as I got to know so many of them and their stories, I felt so encouraged in my faith. Up to that point I had a handful of Orthodox friends at church, some from camp, a few from my college, but it was hard not to feel a little alone in my faith. But being surrounded by so many other Orthodox young adults who were also striving to live a moral and faithful life in the midst of all of the temptations of college life, I felt an overwhelming sense of support and community. Those OCF friendships that I began forming that week carried me through the rest of my college experience.
Presbytera Stephanie on Real Break El Salvador
That leads me to how OCF has influenced my life. I was blessed to have a wonderful OCF at my college where we did daily morning prayers, weekly meetings, and frequent dinners and get togethers. I attended four College Conferences, served on the Student Advisory Board [now the SLB], and did Real Break El Salvador. And by my senior year of college, I was also traveling every other weekend or so to attend other colleges’ OCF retreats all over the northeast and sometimes beyond. The relationships that I built from all of these OCF events and programs are the people that I have relied on over the past almost 10 years. They are the ones who encouraged me in my faith, who helped me through difficult situations at work, and who stood up with me at my wedding–not to mention that I met the man I married at one of these OCF retreats 🙂 And it is because of all this that I also encouraged my sister and sisters-in-law to get involved in OCF and now, as a presbytera, the local college students at our parish. OCF played such a crucial role in strengthening me in my faith during the challenging college years and in fortifying me to go out into a world that does nothing but attack and challenge everything that we believe. And in a world where everything is focused on making money, getting ahead, and earning degrees, awards and recognition, OCF helped shift my focus and reminded me that my vocation should be centered on who I am (an Orthodox Christian), not what I am. For all of the retreats, programs, but most importantly the people OCF brought into my life, I am forever grateful.