As a senior graduating in less than a month, my levels of nostalgia have been at an all- time high. Anything from a roommate movie night to starting the last season of The Office (I’ve been working at it for almost a year) will spark some mad feels. But what finally put me over the edge and brought on the waterworks was the final conference call of the 2016 OCF Student Leadership Board. As the outgoing chairman relayed his reflection of our fruitful year together, and the incoming chairwoman expressed both excitement and nervousness at the year to come, and Christina, our chapter relations manager, topped it off with a summary of the incredible things we’ve accomplished this past year, I was struck with the realization that when I look back on my senior year of college, it will be dominated by the memory of OCF – what we have accomplished as a board, everything our region has progressed towards, and the way in which my faith grew more than I had realized. So here is my little reflection on OCF as we get ready to pass on the torch.
To my region: I was blessed enough to be preceded as south regional leader by someone I know, admire, and love very much, so from the start it was a smooth transition and exciting position to fill. What I did not anticipate was the love, pride, and perspective I got out of this experience. The elation and pure joy that was relayed from my district leaders when a meticulously planned and advertised event resulted in 3 or 5 attendees was truly not of this world. Only someone so filled with the love of Christ would be that overjoyed at the gathering of Orthodox Christian college students and the fellowship it had to offer – whether that involved 2 or 20 people.
For when 2 or 3 are gather in my name, there I am with them. Matthew 18:20
This position has equipped me with everything I need to graduate and venture into the
real world. There were so many struggles and frustrations that came with this position (answer your emails people!!), but in retrospect, every single one ended up being its own little blessing (funny how that happens). Whether that was discouragement at low turnout numbers or lack of commitment, it’s crazy how looking back, I barely remember those moments. Instead what stands out is my excitement at SLI for the upcoming year. And the awkward yet warm interactions with district leaders you finally meet in person after months of texts, phone calls, and video chatting. Or a south regional retreat at which I was constantly overwhelmed by the subtle love and faith I was surrounded by. I am in a few leadership organizations at school and I can say without a doubt that this position has better prepared me than all of those.
Which leads me to the next thing: a tribute to OCF for the ways it has helped me grow in my faith. Shameless plug: read the blog. Listen to the podcasts. Go to the events. On an
informative level, I think I’ve learned more about my faith and Orthodoxy this year than ever before. Anytime I had questions or was going through a spiritual struggle, I knew without a doubt that there would be some OCF resource to help me through it. For maybe the second time in my college career, I actually accepted and welcomed a debate when I had someone come up to me to ask me about my faith and if I had been saved, because I knew that I had enough knowledge to back myself up, but mostly the spiritual steadfastness to defend my faith. I graduate in less than a month and with that comes a lot of emotion. Nostalgia, excitement, nausea. But I haven’t yet been worried. If anything, I’ve gotten worried over the fact that I am not worried. We are always told not worry (Matthew 6:25-34) but of course that’s so much easier said than done. But the fact that I have been able to put my complete trust in God on my plans after graduation is a tribute to the impact on the strength of my faith OCF has given me. This has been done time and time again through the talks, discussions, event, and people. Definitely the people.
All the people. But then. Really specific people.
So. Last but not least. A tribute to the 2015-2016 SLB (I’m listening to the Narnia soundtrack as I type this so it’s making this sound super majestic). I knew from the beginning of SLI – where my first impression of most of you was how ravenously hunger you were and WE NEED FOOD NOW – y’all were grand human beings that I would have a lot to learn from. Everyone’s enthusiasm and faith was contagious from the beginning. A majority of you I only met in person once or twice, but I am confident I could pick up the phone right now at 12:43 AM and call any of you, and you would welcome me with open arms.
You all don’t realize how much I admire you; y’all are the people I will constantly be creeping on Facebook, and y’all are the people I will always look towards as an example of how to be a loving image of Christ. Thank you for the late night talks at SLI, College Conference, and otherwise. Thank you for empathizing with my SLB and life frustrations. Thank you for ignoring my attempted jokes on GroupMe. Thank you for the theological and spiritual insight you always have to offer over whatever subject any of us bring up. Thank you for avoiding getting charged by three moose with me. Thank you for the hilarious snapchats. Thank you for saying, “you’re in my prayers,” because that, more than anything, would give me a sense of peace through whatever was going on at the time. Thank you so so much for taking this spiritual journey with me. It’s odd, because some of those thank you’s were with certain people in mind (the moose one definitely), most were to everyone, despite the fact that some of you I barely have been able to talk to throughout the year. That’s the beauty of Orthodoxy and our faith isn’t it? It’s so easy to develop such a deep bond through this beautiful and everlasting belief that we share, and from then on, all things are possible. How else could a Student Leadership Board of this magnitude and distance work so cohesively?
Writing this has been so frustrating because there are no words to describe this experience and this love. It is an agape love – sacrificial and unconditional. It is such a divine gift. I just take comfort in the fact that if you have involved yourself with OCF this past year, you may know what I am trying to convey. So glory to God.
To the next board: good luck and God bless. You have some big shoes to fill.
Hibbah Kaileh is graduating from the University of North Texas with her BA in International Studies. She currently serves as the South Regional Student Leader on the 2015-2016 Student Leadership Board.
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.
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.
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.
Our two College Conference Student Leaders, Anna Valiant for CC East and Nora Haddad for CC West, reflect on past years and share their expectations and excitement for this year.
For students who’ve never been, what is College Conference? What can be expected?
Anna: College Conference is an event that happens every year over Christmas break for young adults between the ages of 18-25. Every year, students from all different jurisdictions, come together to celebrate their love for the faith and aid each other to grow on their spiritual journeys. You can expect a lot of hugs, love, and warmth from everyone!
Nora: Various aspects include prayer in the mornings and evenings, incredibly hilarious and fun social events, loving fellowship with other Orthodox Christian college students, a keynote speaker who covers the theme of the given year, and different workshop speakers who address various sub-topics under the main theme. People can undoubtedly expect to witness the presence of the Holy Spirit and to be welcomed with love, as well as to be uplifted in all different manners, to be enlightened tremendously in a short amount of time, and to make friends/build on already existing relationships in a way that may have been unexpected!
Q: Our theme for this year is Modern Martyrs: Witnesses to the Word. What does the theme mean to you? Why is it important?
Nora: The theme is what I am most looking forward to this year. This means the world, quite literally, to me, because as is said by (I believe) St. John Chrysostom, “One soul is worth more than the entire world.” This theme was, no doubt, inspired and decided by the Grace of the Holy Spirit because it could not be more accurate and applicable to us as Orthodox Christians in college for what is happening today in a societal and global level. In Syria and other parts of the world, people are being slaughtered for their faith, and multitudes each day are gaining their crowns of martyrdom; whereas here, in America, we become martyrs in the sense that we must face and deny secular social pressures, temptation from all angles, maintaining pureness of heart amidst evil from social media and other forms of communication – all of which is worsening day by day now, it seems. This topic will give us further tools in order to protect ourselves and fight against the traps of the demons that cause us to become martyrs every day.
College Conference West student with Abbot Tryphon
Q: Why would you encourage students to attend?
Anna: A college lifestyle usually revolves around burying our heads in our work, drinking copious amounts of coffee, and constantly being on the run. College Conference is a chance for students to take a break from their hectic schedules and learn about the faith. A chance for students to grow in their faith and return or start to improve their praying habits. A chance to learn from other Orthodox students who are struggling with similar obstacles. College Conference gives us a chance to re-center our lives on Christ and meet other students who want to help us succeed!
College Conference East students enjoying the banquet
Q: What have been some of your favorite memories from College Conference?
Anna: Every year, my favorite part is the late night chanting in the SS. Peter and Paul Chapel. Each night, students come together and join each other in prayer and song. There is something about it that I truly can’t explain. My first College Conference, I stayed in the chapel the final night until 3am listening and signing along with the hymns I knew. Name another time that you can find a large group of college students gathered together singing and praying to God. You can’t! Come to College Conference and experience my favorite memory for yourself!
Nora: At CC last year, the girls and guys split up and did their own “group chats.” Us girls as an entire group talked, opened up to one another, expressed and loved each other fully, and it was an uplifting, amazing, and life-changing experience. However, the general stereotype for women versus men is that women speak more. Right? Wrong. The most heart-warming thing was that, not only did us ladies finish our talk before the men BUT their talk went on for over an hour longer. This bond is so powerful that “man chat” has continued on into even today – these guys are still amazingly frequently in contact. The most unforgettable memory for me at College Conference 2014, we concluded the last evening with a talent show. When the dance off started to seem to die down, one boy began playing an Arabic beat, so another girl and I started dancing to the Arabic music. Then, more people started coming up and we started a dabke (Arabic line dance). Subsequently, most everyone was up in spontaneous dancing together – the joy was unfathomable! Greeks, Indians, all of the Middle East, Caucasians, Russians, Romanians, Latin Americans, Egyptians…. no differences between any of us existed. We were and are one Orthodoxy, one mankind. Words could not describe this moment, and it is an evening that I will never, ever forget.