5 Ways to Make College Students Feel at Home

No matter our cultural or ethnic background, us Orthodox are huge family people. Our communities tend to be tight-knit and full of love. We raise our children up to love and respect everyone…and then we send them off to college to a different tight-knit parish where suddenly the same things that made a parish feel like home–everyone knowing each other, local traditions for certain feast days, certain people being involved in parish ministries–can make that new parish seem like a closed-off clique into which college students are simply unimportant, transient members in whom the parish need not invest much time.

Of course, most parishes don’t intend to come off this way, and we all want our college students to be accepted and cared for wherever they go. Here are five ways you can ensure that your parish is including its college students and creating a home-away-from home for them.

  1. Make sure they have a place at every event. Having an after church luncheon? Reserve a table for your OCFers. Big cultural festival coming up? Make sure they have tickets. If your parish and/or individual parishioners are able, making sure that the local college students are able to be a part of the parish’s activities is a great way to make them feel included. And to be honest, it takes more than just an invitation. Setting aside tickets or a table for them conveys the message that they are valued and wanted at your event as family, especially since many of them may not be able to afford attending otherwise.
  2. Support their participation in OCF programs and events. All year long, there are various OCF programs in which college students can participate, the biggest ones being College Conference and Real Break. In whatever way possible, make an effort as a community to support their participation in these and other OCF events. Whether that means offering travel scholarships or allowing them to fund raise at coffee hour, opening up space at the parish for an event or providing a meal when other chapters come to town for a regional retreat, you can support the good things that our OCF students are planning and participating in with your time, talent, and treasure.

    OCFers from the Lexington to Columbus District gather for a retreat and are fed by Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton, OH

    OCFers from the Lexington to Columbus District gather for a retreat and are fed by Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Dayton, OH

  3. Feed them. This is a college student no-brainer. Anything you can do to get them good food that they didn’t have to pay for or prepare themselves is a huge blessing. There are so many ways you can do this! You could provide monthly care packages of “study snacks” to hand out at their meetings, sponsor a pizza night, or offer them a home-cooked meal (see #4). A big part of family and community is eating, and there’s no surer way to have someone feel cared for when they are away from home than to feed them.
  4. Invite them into your home. I once heard that most international students never see the inside of an American home. By extension, I wonder how often out-of-town students are ever invited into a family home in their college town. It’s a great way to make a young person who is out of their comfort zone feel loved and cared for by receiving them with hospitality into your own home. There are parishes that do monthly dinners with all the college students in a different parishioner’s home each time so that they really get a chance to get to know the people of the parish and feel at home.

    University of Georgia OCF helping out in the kitchen of St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Athens, GA

    University of Georgia OCF helping out in the kitchen of St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Athens, GA

  5. Allow them to be a part of your parish ministries. Whether it’s guest teaching a Sunday School class, coaching a youth basketball team, volunteering in your social outreach, serving in the altar, or singing in the choir make sure that you give college students opportunities to be involved. It’s likely that they were involved as teenagers at their home parishes and may even have some great experience to share with your parish, and they’ll certainly learn a lot about what it means to be a good steward of their gifts if they are mentored by those in your parish who are living lives of service to the Church. While a parish should probably not expect college student to take on any huge time commitments, they can invite these young people to be a part of the bigger picture of the parish.

These few things will not only ensure that college students from out of town feel welcomed during their time as temporary parishioners at your parish, it will continue to instill in them a sense that they are necessary and wanted members of the Body of Christ. It will remind them that they have a calling to love as they have been loved, and what more could we want for our young people than for them to strive to live lives of love?

Doing Pan-Orthodox

Doing Pan-Orthodox

OCFers on Real Break Alaska 2015 hail from across the country

OCFers on Real Break Alaska 2015 hail from across the country

I like to tout to the Orthodox World that OCF is the only fellowship organization (for now) which is an Assembly of Bishops agency. Who cares, you say? Well, we are the only organization (for now) that is charged by all the bishops to bring together all Orthodox Christians from all backgrounds and all jurisdictions and to do it well. This means we’ve been “doing pan-Orthodox” for a while now, and there are a few lessons we have learned that I’d like to share.

  1. Make no assumptions. Someone once challenged me to count how many churches in which I’ve actually worshiped in the U.S., and I think the number sits right around 55 parishes from seven different jurisdictions. You might say I’ve been around the block when it comes to Orthodox traditions. What I’ve taken away from all those experiences plus the 10 years I’ve been involved in OCF is that you really can’t assume anything. I’ve met Greeks in OCA parishes, Eritreans in Greek parishes, a ROCOR priest who didn’t know a word of Russian, a Bulgarian priest who grew up Jewish, and converts from every denomination of Christianity as well as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and paganism. Pan-Orthodoxy is most successful in an atmosphere of openness to any possibility and a willingness not to comment negatively right away on what we find (see #3). This seems like a no-brainer, but I think it needs to be said. Too often Orthodox people are surprised by Orthodoxy’s diversity.
  2. Know the narratives. Everybody–and every jurisdiction, for that matter–has a story. How we got to where we are today is a long and complicated story individually and collectively. I’ve noticed that while the assumptions we often make about each other often don’t hold a lot of weight, people from different backgrounds often do bear a particular narrative of Orthodoxy in America. For example, I was raised in a Greek church where the community was very ethnically diverse so I assumed until I went to college and found out otherwise that all Orthodox people went to Greek Orthodox churches. It was never my intention to marginalize, you know, the rest of Orthodoxy, I just didn’t have any other experience yet. A good pan-Orthodox leader/program/organization is aware of the common narratives that come into play from each jurisdiction. Creating opportunities to uncover, discuss, and break down these narratives in a loving, judgment-free manner is a huge step toward understanding.
  3. Respect not ridicule. Please, please, please–I’ve said it before–stop making fun of each other. Yes, we all have our weaknesses and sore spots as different Orthodox communities, but what heavenly purpose can possibly be brought about by deriding and ridiculing those weaknesses? We can all take a little joke now and again, but the whole “You-know-those-Russians…” and “What-can-you-expect?-They’re-Greek…” thing has got to stop. If you’re doing it, you’re breaking rule #1 and cutting off any opportunity for #2. Just. Stop. Please.
  4. Celebrate culture. It’s such a bummer when people equate pan-Orthodoxy with the suppression of our diverse cultural heritages. The Christian faith is universal:  it’s meant for everyone and every culture. You don’t have to stop being Greek to be Orthodox nor do you have to become Ukrainian to truly understand the message of salvation. How can we practically express this in pan-Orthodox efforts? Eat, drink, dance, sing! Whether its dancing the dabke or learning the Virginia reel, eating borscht or roasting a lamb, singing colind at Christmas-time or decorating pysanka at Pascha, share and experience the beauty of our many cultures! OCF has this one down pretty well. Instead of banning cultural expressions, we offer everyone a chance to celebrate on equal ground: from the Greeks v. Arabs soccer game at College Conference East to the beatbox jam sessions at College Conference West, from Real Break Alaska to Real Break Slovakia on to Guatemala, Constantinople, Romania, and Jerusalem, a foundation of our pan-Orthodox mission is to celebrate whatever is good and lovely in the lives of Orthodox everywhere.
  5. English is key, but not king. Language is a touchy subject for us, but here’s how I’ve seen things played out in OCF. English is, obviously, the language that you can pretty much guarantee that all American college students understand. I mean, I’m not writing this blog in Old Church Slavonic or New Testament Greek. On the other hand, it’s not safe to assume (see #1) that English is the only language in which a young person (or any person) can worship or even that it’s the most comfortable language for that person in church. Our unofficial baseline is that services are held in English for OCF events, but when our students can share their other languages or when we are visiting places where English is not the first language, we are blessed to be able to confirm the universality of our Christian faith through its varied linguistic expressions (see #4).
  6. Learn to sing. Or find someone who can. Right up there with celebrating culture and language–or perhaps more important–is a need for us to understand and celebrate each others’ liturgical expressions. A beautiful Byzantine Paraklesis and a wonderful Russian-style Akathist of Thanksgiving should be something we can all share. Often more than language, people are accustomed to a certain liturgical melody which their heart sings even if their lips do not. Successful pan-Orthodoxy should try to incorporate various melodic traditions whenever possible.

    OCFers at College Conference West offer up the Akathist of Thanksgiving every year

    OCFers at College Conference West offer up the Akathist of Thanksgiving every year

  7. Love one another. It bears repeating St. John’s advice in the context of pan-Orthodox efforts. It’s not an easy task, but it bears the sweetest fruit. When we are open to each other and in each other’s presence, we find that, on some level, we are united. Perhaps it is not the full unity we so desperately need, but our worship is united in spirit and in truth, and we are called to a unity of love. Doing pan-Orthodox right unsettles us from accepting the status quo of jurisdictional division. In all my experiences across those 55 churches and in all the College Conferences, Real Breaks, regional retreats, and OCF chapter meetings I’ve attended and led, one thing has become abundantly apparent to me: once we’ve been together, we don’t want to be apart!
College Student Sunday: What Your Parish Can Do

College Student Sunday: What Your Parish Can Do

I am thankful every time we get a call or an email from a parent, priest, Philoptochos chapter, or parish council asking what they can do to help our young people get connected to an OCF chapter, reach out to their local campus, or assist in the growth of the National, pan-Orthodox ministry of OCF. It reassures me that we as a Church are committed to seeing our students succeed and grow as Orthodox Christians.

Well, everyone, here’s your chance.

Students offer prayers for passersby on campus as part of Day of Light.

Students offer prayers for passersby on campus as part of Day of Light.

College Student Sunday is the day designated by the Assembly of Bishops for every parish to recognize their college students, raise awareness about Orthodox campus ministry, and contribute to Orthodox Christian Fellowship. The date now falls during OCF’s Orthodox Awareness Month. So while our students are loving striving to spread the word about Orthodoxy on their campuses and in their lives, the rest of us have the opportunity to loving spread the word about and support their good work and the ministry of OCF.

So what can your parish do this year to make College Student Sunday a success?

  1. Give a presentation. Invite your local OCF chapter or a student from your parish to give a short testimonial to the impact OCF has had on their lives.
  2. Do something to recognize your college students. Host a lunch, make care packages, or even just mention OCF and Orthodox Awareness Month from the pulpit.
  3. Designate a Parish Liaison. This year, we would like parishes to designate one person–a Sunday School teacher, a secretary, a parish council member, any willing volunteer–to be the OCF parish liaison. Through the Parish Liaison Program, we will be able to keep your community informed about all that we do and collaborate with you on initiatives such as the First Forty Days. If you are interested in learning more, click here.
  4. Make a donation. We ask that you pass a tray on behalf of OCF this year and send your collection to the National Office. You can also direct your parishioners to ocf.net/donate to set up both one-time and recurring donations.
  5. Become a Parish Partner. For those parishes that would like to make the strongest commitment to Orthodox campus ministry and our Church’s young people, we encourage you to become a Parish Partner. In addition to designating a Parish Liaison to keep your community informed and prepared as advocates for Orthodox campus ministry, your parish would make an annual financial commitment to OCF to ensure its continued success and growth for generations of Orthodox college students to come. You can email us at info@ocf.net for more details about Parish Partnerships.

Whatever you do for College Student Sunday this year, we ask that you keep our students–your students–in your prayers as they hold fast to the Tradition of our Orthodox Faith in the face of the many challenges which campus life presents. Your love and support make possible so many beautiful opportunities for these students to encounter Christ and deepen their faith.

A recent testimonial from a student on their OCF experience.

A recent testimonial from a student on their OCF experience.

Click here for College Student Sunday materials!