When I arrived home from College Conference East, I felt, as Bishop Gregory put it to us in one of his sermons, “on fire for Orthodoxy.” I came home excited about the Orthodox Church, and I kept thinking about different ways that I could share my experiences with others. While I don’t think that there’s anything wrong about this, it was not until much later that I realized that I have another much more challenging task ahead of me: changing myself.
Over the past month, I have come to realize the impact that College Conference has had on my life, and I believe that it will continue to make a difference in my life over the coming months. However, I don’t think that this experience will change me unless I keep my heart open. In the month since College Conference, I have noticed several things that I’ve realized I need to change, and I am going to share eight of them here. I hope that this might benefit others in some way.
Appreciate my Orthodox community more At College Conference, I was touched by the way my peers treated each other with love and respect. Even though this was my first year in attendance, I felt very welcomed by those I met and immediately felt like I was among friends. And for those with whom I was travelling from my hometown, I was reminded how blessed I am to live in a city in which there is such a strong bond between the Orthodox youth.
Be honest on social media Steven Christoforou, one of the workshop leaders, gave an presentation called “Media Martyrs” in which he highlighted a great problem that faces 21st-century youth: the separation between a person’s true character and their online presentation of themselves, which he refers to as “the analog and the digital selves.” He suggested that social media can create conflict between the analog and the digital selves, or even that the digital self can overtake and destroy the analog self. This really struck me as I wondered how I “brand” myself online.
Stop “brushing off” questions about my faith The speakers at College Conference reminded me that these moments are gifts.
Actively participate in the church services Something about seeing 325 other youth lift up their voices during the liturgy, singing in the choir at Vespers, and chanting hymns in the chapel until a ridiculous hour in the morning made me appreciate the beauty of our Orthodox hymns and services more. Already since returning home, I find my mind wandering less often during the Divine Liturgy, and church hymns have been playing on my phone on repeat.
Students chanting during Liturgy
Work on my Greek dance and dabke skills I don’t even want to talk about this.
Remind myself that it is okay not to have all the answers I don’t think I’ll ever forget venerating the weeping icon at College Conference for the rest of my life. I can be a perfectionist at times, and I really think that I need “all the answers.” However, this experience taught me that, because we don’t have all the answers and cannot explain this miracle, we believe in the existence of God.
Read up on my Orthodox faith Probably the greatest disappointment about College Conference for me (other than the fact that it went by so quickly) was that it made me realize how much I just do not know about Orthodoxy. Now I definitely want to begin reading books about the faith or listen to podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio.
Appreciate the beauty of our saints The speakers at College Conference had a continuous hold on my attention, but for some reason, whenever they would share stories about our saints of the Orthodox Church I was in awe. I remember in one of the workshops, the speaker, Fr. Timothy Hojnicki, said something like, “The saints are like the sun and moon. Like the moon reflects the light of the sun, the saints reflect the light of Christ.” I kept thinking about this throughout the Conference as we heard the stories of Saints Maximos the Confessor, Raphael of Brooklyn, and so many more, and came to realize how blessed we are as Orthodox to have these saints as role models and intercessors.
Supplication to St. Raphael of Brooklyn
When I heard Bishop Gregory first speak about “being on fire for Orthodoxy,” I believe I had the wrong images in mind. I think what College Conference was trying to teach us all along was that “being on fire for Orthodoxy” is not always running through the streets with blazing torches. Sometimes, it’s trudging through the forest with a humble flame.
Anastasia Lysack is a second-year Music major at the University of Ottawa. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, learning how to say the Our Father in different languages, and finishing all her sentences with the word “eh.” She attends Christ the Saviour Church in Ottawa, Canada, where she teaches Sunday School and sings in the choir.
Secondhand faith doesn’t get you anywhere. –Fr. Apostolos Hill, College Conference West 2015
If there was one thing Fr. Apostolos drove home in his keynote addresses at this year’s College Conference West, it was that to witness to Christ, we have to have experienced His presence through the Holy Spirit in our own lives. We can’t merely be witnesses to something we’ve heard about but, like Thomas, must see for ourselves and believe of our own accord. There are no substitutes for knowing Christ ourselves. We will remain mute or, worse, be false witnesses without first encountering the Word to Whom we witness.
CCWest15 participants with the beloved Abbot Tryphon
But this is what amazes me and inspires me about College Conference West every year. While yes, the students come to learn more about the Orthodox Church, to visit the monastery, and to make new friends while reconnecting with old friends, it seems to me the real reason young people come to College Conference West is to meet Christ. In spite of the challenges the world presents–the denunciations of Christ, the pressure to conform, the temptations of the flesh–every year, a beautiful group of young men and women leave behind this empty and dissatisfying existence to encounter firsthand the One Who Is, the one who is Life Himself.
You can see this in the way the student leaders plan and lead the conference and attend with love and care to the needs of each participant–they are seeking Christ who washes the feet of His disciples.
You can see it in the way students eagerly line up for confession and counsel–they are seeking Christ the Healer of our infirmities.
You can see it in the way they pour out their souls in song in the Nativity Hymn at every meal, the Akathist Glory to God for All Things, and Paraklesis–they are seeking Christ who alone is worthy of our praise.
CCWest15 Paraklesis Service in the new chapel at St. Nicholas Ranch
You can see it in the way they get to know each other, building friendships upon a common foundation, the Church–they are seeking Christ who calls us into His fellowship.
You can see it as they listen attentively to the speakers and ask brilliant questions–they are seeking Christ who is the Wisdom of God.
You can see it as they spontaneously decide to hold a service of forgiveness amongst the whole conference–they are seeking Christ who forgives us all our iniquities.
And most of all, you can see it in the way they strive to love one another even as we reveal our brokenness to one another–they are seeking Christ who is found in our neighbor, the wounded Samaritan.
And they may not know it, but as they seek to encounter Christ in all these beautiful ways, they witness to Him as well. The striving achieves the goal. I thank God every year, and this year perhaps more than others, that I am blessed to be a part of College Conference West. The witness to Christ’s love borne by the students there deeply inspires and humbles me, and for that, I proclaim,
Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life…Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age. -Akathist “Glory to God for All Things”
Okay, so if you didn’t come to College Conference East, that’s really a shame. There were daily services with full choirs and beautiful chanting—all the way into the night. There were scheduled icebreakers with both your region and random groups where you could meet new friends, and free periods, where you could greet old ones. There was the lively steadfastness of Fr. Tim Hojnicki as he taught us the best answers to common questions about the faith; the carefully considered and fluidly presented recommendations of Steven Christoforou (the Be the Bee guy!) in regards to being Orthodox on and through social media; and there was the solemn sincerity and almost-accidental wit of Sister Vassa, the keynote speaker, as she meekly gave us great insight on what it means to be a martyr, and other various speakers.
I could probably spend the rest of this space talking about everything that went down at College Conference East—the big, life-changing ‘Aha!’ moments of divine inspiration, and the little, fleeting moments of friendship or joy that you couldn’t forget if you tried. I could write and write and write about all the things that happened at College Conference—instead, I want to write about the things that didn’t.
I want to write about the things that didn’t happen at College Conference, because the words ‘safe space’ get thrown around the college environment a lot, and that can get tricky. A safe space is often a place wherein you can be honest without embarrassment, and that’s pretty cool, because it can be really tough to be Christian—especially, I would guess, Orthodox Christian—in college. Sometimes, it’s dragging your butt to an unfamiliar parish that’s forty minutes away when you didn’t do evening prayers last night cause you knocked out at 3 AM; sometimes, it’s the one person in your hall/floor/house/dorm that looks you straight in the eye and says, “So you think all gay people are evil.”
A safe place is also a place wherein an opinion is protected—often an opinion that is new, unusual, and championed by a minority. This is where safe spaces get tricky. You and I both know that being a Christian isn’t exactly all the rage in college. Sometimes, safe spaces can become a megaphone for things with which the Church fundamentally disagrees. Sometimes, safe spaces become an opportunity for those who, having felt oppressed and discriminated against and silenced, would like to lash out.
The first thing we should do, I think, is probably have mercy and forgive and love those people, because that sounds like, super Orthodox-y, so I’m just gonna roll with it. The second thing we should do, though, is recognize that a ‘safe space’ isn’t always a ‘safe space’ for everyone. We Orthodox aren’t hip and happening—we’ve been around a long time, and we haven’t changed too much. That’s not to say we can’t be hip and happening: if we were to demonstrate, wholly, the love and forgiveness and mercy and compassion that we’re taught to live through Christ, then I think Orthodoxy would fly off the charts.
That’s why I want to talk about what wasn’t at College Conference East. When you sat down for a meal, the two gentlemen sitting at the table next to you weren’t discussing their weekend’s ‘ravages and spoils’—words I just heard, as I type this in the dining hall. When you crossed yourself and took a second to thank God before your meal, the young lady sitting across from you didn’t scoff—an encounter I had two days ago at dinner. At College Conference East, when you did evening prayers, it wasn’t to the sound of your next-door neighbor and his girlfriend…recreating, it was to the sound of ten, twenty, thirty voices chanting in the chapel for hours—literally, hours—on end.
His Grace joins the biology students during “sit with your major” lunch.
Being Orthodox requires some bravery. The theme for College Conference East this year was ‘Modern Martyrs: Witnesses to the Word’. Martyrdom? That took a degree of courage only achieved through a deep-seated love of Christ. We won’t need the courage to die for our Lord (hopefully), but being a witness to the Word in college is, in its own way, a martyrdom—it’s a martyrdom, and we’re gonna need some gumption, a little bit of grit, a merciful, unassuming courage to pull that off. And courage doesn’t last forever, so that’s why we have prayer and fasting and church and OCF and College Conference. To be weak and human before God, and ask Him to help us out, to give us the courage to keep going.
College Conference was my safe space—I was an Orthodox Christian without fear or embarrassment. But now, I’m back in the dining hall, about to head to calculus. I missed prayers this morning, I was late to Liturgy on Sunday, and I’m afraid now. Being an Orthodox Christian is harder here. I’m afraid, but I have what College Conference gave me—notes, recordings, thoughts, prayers, friends. I’m afraid, but I’m also stronger. That’s why you’ll see me at College Conference next year.
Benjamin Solak is a undeclared first-year at the University of Chicago. He’s a fan of football, priests who dish out communion really fast, and brightly-colored pants. He invites you to check out his personal blog on Christian living and personal development at benjaminsolak.wordpress.com
My most joyful moments of College Conference East were spent in the Chapel after Compline. There was a little over a half hour of time following the service where no one would leave. The priest would give the final blessing, but everyone decided to stay and sing a while longer. During that time, there was this incredible tension. We all wanted to go and spend time with our friends, go for a Sheetz run, or grab some much needed sleep, but it suddenly became a struggle to leave Church. For a short period of time, our earthly cares had been silenced. Growing closer to Christ and spending time worshiping Him became more important than anything happening in the outside world. Those were the happiest moments for me. That small segment of the conference when all of us chose to devote our attention to Christ a little longer than was asked of us.
After about a half hour the crowd slowly started to disappear, but it often wasn’t until 4:00 a.m. that the last group left the chapel. Throughout the entire evening, we would take turns singing hymns in the languages of our ethnic backgrounds or would occasionally break out into Christmas carols so everyone could sing along. (I like to think the Christmas carols were our way of bridging the gap between New and Old Calendar.)
At times, the beauty of the sounds in that little Chapel were overwhelming. So much so, that I frequently stopped singing because I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. Admittedly, there were probably a few occasions when we paid more attention to the blend of our harmonies than the words we were saying. However, I think it’s safe to say that the real reason we stayed and kept singing so late into the night was because we recognized the fact that we have a God who is worthy of continual praise.
The theme of this year’s conference focused on becoming witnesses to Christ. How lucky we were to spend four days in an environment that made our task as witnesses so effortless. I wasn’t ready to leave. I didn’t want to give up the life I experienced while I was surrounded by over 300 other Orthodox Christians. I wanted to continue singing hymns and Christmas carols until 4:00 a.m. every night for the rest of my life. It truly felt like a beautiful little taste of paradise.
Late night chanting at College Conference East 2015
Although the ease of Christian living was wonderful while it lasted, the reality is we’ve all returned to places that don’t necessarily make three church services a day a priority. I pray that everyone who attended CCEast this year will remember those awesome moments when they encountered Christ and the Theotokos. We should tell other people with excitement about just how wonderful those four days were. Not to brag or make anyone jealous, but to potentially make someone think, “I want what they have.” Retelling the stories of our days at CCEast is a way we can all be witnesses to Christ in our everyday lives.
Once I’m back at school, I plan to tell my friends all about those treasured moments I experienced after Compline. May God give us all the courage to share those special moments with everyone we encounter. May our strength be renewed each time we remember those spiritually charged days, and may those who hear our accounts be drawn closer to the truth of our Lord and Savior.
Christ is among us!
He is and always shall be!
Irene Grysiak is a junior at Saint Francis University in Loretto, PA. She is in a five year program studying to be a Physician Assistant. She spent the past two summers working as a counselor at Camp Nazareth and loved every moment of watching the campers grow closer to Christ.
When I was asked to write my reflections on College Conference West 2015 and I started to think about it, I suddenly understood that I did not have the words to express my feelings. Well, you could say, that is not a surprise, non-native speakers always have problems with vocabulary. However, the real problem was that I could not find the true words in my mother tongue of Russian.
To explain the variety of my feelings, I will try to write here everything in order, from the moment when I first time heard about the conference (and even a little bit before it), till the last farewell hugs with my new friends.
The story started in approximately October 2015. I was planning to visit my family in Russia for winter break, but, unfortunately, some problems occurred and I had to spend the whole break in the US. Unfortunately? Just three months later I thanked God for this problem. But let’s not break the order of the story.
In the beginning of December, I heard about the conference for the first time. I thought, “Well, I have nothing to do at this time. Maybe it will be interesting.” This is the way adventures begin. I registered, finished with my classes and started to wait. What did I expect? Kind of a standard conference. Lectures, posters, discussions–sometimes interesting, but mostly not. New friends, well, not close friends–how can you make a real friend during three days (Ha. Ha. Ha.)? Just acquaintances. Those were my expectations. And, as usual, the reality was much more interesting…
We reached St. Nicholas Ranch via carpooling (thanks, Andriana, who organized it, and Marina, who picked up all of us!). It was already quite an unusual start for a conference. Instead of a boring bus or even more boring airplane, we had a four hour ride across the beautiful California mountains with people, who quite soon would become my friends. Real friends.
We came to the Ranch, registered, I took my bags from the trunk and went to the room which was assigned to me. And there, finally, I understood how wrong my expectations were. I needed to change my paradigm.
Everything around me was not like a boring “adult” conference, but a childrens’ camp, where I had not been for ten years ago. Well, great! Let us be children at least for three days. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
Of course, in a good sense. We didn’t become irresponsible as children, but we became ready for friendship, new knowledge and new experience, unlike usual adults. Now let me talk a little about each of these gifts.
Because the event was called a conference, let me start with knowledge. We had four brilliant workshop speakers and one keynote speaker. Father Apostolos Hill, Abbot Tryphon (aka Lord Abbot of Salish Sea), Father Michael Gillis, Mother Melania, and Daniel and Christina Andresen–thank you all! I cannot say that someone was better, it is as if to ask, “What is better? Salt or sugar? Water or fire?” Everyone was an excellent fit for his topic, and all topics were really relevant for our life as Orthodox students. And Abbot Tryphon was not only a workshop speaker, but he also organized the “Salish Brotherhood of St. John the Wonderworker” to help us to be connected by the bounds of friendship. The other name of the Brotherhood is “The Knights of Salish Sea” so I am a knight now. Please call me “Sir Valentin”.
The new members of the Salish Brotherhood of St. John the Wonderworker with Abbot Tryphon
Talking about the friendship at this conference, it is impossible not to mention the second night. I would even call it, “The Second Night.” I think it is the most important night at this conference. The night when people who were nobody to each other become close friends for the rest of their lives. The night when, through the pain and tears, friendship is born. The night when you understand something very important about yourself. I will not tell you what happened during this night so as not to be a spoiler. Just believe me, you will never forget this experience. After this night I really was sure that it was the climax of the conference.
And I made a mistake, the next morning was…here my words are finished. I can just say that it was one of the most beautiful moments in whole my life. So beautiful that sometimes I was close to crying. It was one of those moments, when you feeling the reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world. It is better to see one time than listen to the description one hundred times, as a Russian proverb states.
Alas, the time of the conference was coming to the end. The last evening was like an ultimate gift. The Open Mic Talent Night. “Every neighbor is a friend” and wanted to do his best at the end. People played different instruments, sang songs, and read poems. There were excellent piano players and singers, and there were just beginners, who wanted to give their two mites for their new friends before parting. There was a girl who had played the piano for the first time the night before, and she played “Happy Birthday” for one of the participants (thank you, Mary!). And then we danced, and walked, and gazed at stars, and did not want to part.
The last morning. The day of parting. Final hugs. Everyone feels a little bit lost. We are sitting to the car and driving back to LA. Finally, I am at home, feeling mixture of sadness, joy, and gratitude.
Glory to Thee for the encounters Thou dost arrange for me. Glory to Thee for the unforgettable moments of life. Glory to God for all things.
Valentin Slepukhin was born in Ekaterinburg, Russia, a city in Ural mountains between Europe and Asia. When he was 16 years old, he moved to Moscow for his undergraduate, and then Master studies in Physics. In 2015, he moved to UCLA for a PhD program. He is studying theoretical physics, which is mainly about understanding the basic laws of the universe and applying these laws to predict or explain some observable effects. In his free time, he usually reads books.