Imagine this: you walk into a new parish for the first time in college. You’ve been a faithful member of your home parish all your life, and you know it’s important that you make an effort to be at Liturgy. Maybe it’s taken you a few weeks of getting settled in to your new life and figuring out how to get to the church for you to make it, and you’re feeling a little nervous about coming through those doors. But right away when you walk in, you feel a sense of home: the smell of incense, the light of the candles, the icons surrounding you in worship. You find your way into the nave just in time for the beginning of Liturgy (whew!) and open up the Liturgy book you got at camp last summer.
And then it happens.
The first “To Thee, O Lord” has passed and the choir starts singing–but nothing matches the words in your book. In fact, you’re pretty sure they’re singing the WRONG THING! At the Small Entrance, they sing a whole song you’ve never heard before (maybe it’s from the Bible?) in four-part harmony. When the deacon comes out to read the readings, he uses a language which is incomprehensible to you. After the sermon, the choir starts the cherubic hymn and you suddenly feel like you don’t know the words at all, even though you’ve been listening to it your whole life because the melody here is different. Then, when the clergy come out for the Great Entrance, the people are reaching out to touch the vestments of the clergy, and the priest reads a long list of names as he processes. At this point, you’re feeling more than a little confused, but you decide to stick it out. When it’s time for communion, you go up and prayerfully bend your knee and open your mouth, but the priest looks a little baffled and politely asks you to close your lips on the spoon. Feeling embarrassed, you do what he asks and then decide to sneak out before the closing prayers to avoid any more awkwardness at coffee hour.
You leave wondering: “Was that really an Orthodox Liturgy? That wasn’t anything like what I’m used to at home.”
Perhaps the well-travelled reader who has experienced the variety of liturgical expressions that exist in our incredibly diverse Church may laugh a little at this example, but the experience happens perhaps more often than we might think: a young student who has only ever been a member of one Orthodox parish with its own jurisdictional and local traditions finds himself not only confused but scandalized by another parish’s traditions.
As a parish family, we may be so used to our own parish’s way of doing things–from the translation of the Creed we use to who reads the Epistle each week–that we may even forget that our way isn’t the only way things are done. Part of becoming a college-friendly parish is recognizing that not only are we typically strangers to new college students, but that often, our worship is strange as well. Orthodox young people have been told their whole lives that Orthodoxy is the unchanging faith–which, of course, it is–but often no one has bothered to also mention that the unchanging faith has multiple expressions which are blessed and beautiful. It’s also not hard to imagine that in the midst of so many new things, a new college student simply expects that church will be a familiar place with familiar experiences to give them a sense of security and comfort and coming to a parish that feels only half-right to them might be a shock or even turn them off from returning.
What, then, can we do to help new students integrate into our parishes in this regard? Here are a few suggestions:
- Be on the lookout. As with any visitors, new college students will be waiting for you to approach them and welcome them. And though it might seem like September will be the time when you see the most new faces, sometimes it takes a new freshman more than a few weeks to settle into campus life, find the motivation to wake up on Sunday, and get up the courage to go to a parish where they are a stranger. Keep your eyes open constantly for young, new faces.
- Emphasize similarity. Ask students what things were like at their home parish and share things about your parish’s life that will feel familiar to them.
- Refrain from disparaging other traditions. This is a tough one for us all. It can be so tempting in our age of your-opinion-can-and-should-be-voiced-at-any-time (thanks, internet) to point out all the things we know X jurisdiction is doing wrong or how much we dislike Y’s cultural peculiarities. College students are constantly being encouraged to see the world as one community so you can imagine how frustrating it can be for our Orthodox youth to hear their elders mocking each other’s traditions.
- Be prepared to explain and teach. Many of our students are under-catechized when they leave home for college–that’s just a fact. Add to that the variations they encounter when the parish near school isn’t just like the one at home, and you can have some very confused people. Local clergy and OCF lay leaders should prepare themselves to explain the Liturgy to college students and separate out what are the essential elements of the Liturgy and what are the variations in custom.
If you’ve known many involved OCF graduates, you know that once they’ve been embraced by a loving community that shares with them their own traditions with love and respect for other traditions, OCFers tend to fall in love with the diversity of our Church and experience the deeper unity that goes beyond languages and lectionaries and music–the unity that is truly rooted in Christ.
Noah was in the ark for forty days and forty nights. Moses retreated on Mt. Sinai for forty days. Jesus met Symeon in the temple on his 40th day. Jesus fasted after his baptism for forty days. There were forty days between Christ’s resurrection and his ascension into heaven. We fast for forty days to prepare for the two great feasts of the Christian year, Pascha and Nativity. In each Orthodox Christian’s life, we are churched on our 40th day of life and are remembered on our 40th day of death.
It seems that there’s something very special about a period of forty days in the Orthodox tradition. In Scripture, forty signifies a completed time, a long period of time during which something of significance is accomplished. The end of a forty day period signifies the end of one epoch and the dawn of a new. It’s interesting, then, to note that secular research has shown that in the first six weeks of college–in Orthodox-speak that’s the first forty days–most freshman build the habits and peer groups that will stick with them for their entire college careers. In forty days, students decide what groups in which they will participate and with whom they will spend their time–or even if they will stick with college at all. That’s surely an accomplishment of significance.
So what are we as the Church doing to make sure those first forty days of college are holy epochs and not times of confusion, exclusion, loneliness, or regrettable decisions? Obviously, preparing our students to be successful in college doesn’t start when we drop them off on campus for the first time. It takes years of hard work and education to prepare them academically to be successful, and the same goes for preparing them socially and spiritually to handle the pressures and demands of college life. This is the work of families, parish communities, youth programs, and camps–together, we help raise strong, faithful, and grounded young people who are ready to stand on their own on campus. However, there is something we must be doing when they set foot on campus:
We have to show up.
Our Church community must be present as students go through the crucial social transition that occurs in the first few weeks of college. We can’t expect that they will always find us or will automatically feel at home in our parish just because the sign says “Orthodox” on the front. It is our responsibility to make a personal connection with each Orthodox student as they go off to college so that in their forty day period of transition, they know that the doors of the Church are open to them always like the arms of the Theotokos warmly welcoming, embracing, and loving them, giving them space to find their own way while always bearing witness to the truth of Christ and the fruits which His commandments bear. And if we aren’t there to share our message of love and faith, we should be aware that some else will be there with their own message–good or bad.
Again this year, we at OCF have again launched our First Forty Days Initiative. We want to make sure that we do everything we can to help new freshman find a home in OCF and the local parish as soon as they get to campus by forging personal relationships between new students and local clergy, lay people, and other Orthodox students. From now until July 15th, we will be asking for the names and contact information of every Orthodox high school graduate from every background so that we can ensure that their local OCF chapter and spiritual advisor are able and prepared to reach out to them when they arrive on campus.
Let us join together as a Church and in true Orthodox fashion make the first forty days of college a time of spiritual preparation and growth for our college students.
To read more about the First Forty Days Initiative or submit student contact information, visit our website at ocf.net/firstfortydays.
Waving to the Harvard and MIT students as they boarded the bus bringing them back to their dorms, I felt an incredible sense of joy and contentment. I had just spent the evening with a dynamic group of Orthodox college students. As Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Fellowship, what better way to welcome students to their ‘home away from home’ than to have them over for a home-cooked meal. MIT and Harvard’s OCF were the first to take me up on this invitation. So, on Thursday night, eight students not only shared a meal with my family, they touched our hearts.
Every year moms, dads, grandparents, and parishioners open their homes to college students. Thank you. You are truly ministering to our students at a time when they need us the most. My hope is this quick reflection will get others to do so as well. October is a perfect time, just as our young students are fighting homesickness, colds, and the stress of their academic load.
- College students appreciate a home cooked meal.
Let’s be honest: food matters to Orthodox Christian College students. They come from homes where meals are celebrated and joyful. So, it only takes about a month of cafeteria food for the longing for food, made with love, to hit hard. Here is where we have a huge opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to our young scholars. Make your standard dish and grateful students will nominate you for America’s Top Chef. Believe me, nothing is more gratifying than eight college students taking seconds and thirds of your chicken Parmesan.
- What defines our college students? Orthodoxy!
I live in a college town, so every day I see students working very hard to define themselves. Student proudly fashion unique majors, body art, and provocative playlists to stand out. While my guests had no visible tattoos, what makes these students stand out is their commitment to an Ancient Faith that no one on campus is familiar with. They are the ones noted for their kindness, reliability, and fortitude. They are the designated drivers for weekend parties, the ones that check in on a friend in the hospital and the ones who break up the fight. They are known as campus leaders. These Orthodox students stand out for something that is internal but resonates in their joyful and Orthodox-based interaction with the world, all of which is centered on their deep belief in the mystery of Christ.
- Our belief in Christ trumps our differences.
What happens when you have Greek, Antiochian, Russian, Bulgarian, Syriac, and Coptic students around a table? You are treated to a seminar on the history of the early Church from different perspectives. And you see how our cultural differences pale in comparison to our love of Christ. These young people have formed a bond and will be life-long friends. But what happens when they return to parish life as adults and don’t find the vibrant unity experienced in OCF? This is a hot topic of discussion with today’s college students.
- College is Orthodox boot camp: the survival of the fittest.
College is like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Those who make it develop a strong stroke; they can tell their peers what it means to be Orthodox. If our young people who don’t know much about what Orthodoxy stands for and don’t go looking for answers, they will not be connected to the Church when they graduate. The young people I had dinner with know their Faith, they can talk about it and defend it. They have accomplished this without assistance other than themselves. Those who survive this transition have assimilated their Faith in new and profound ways.
Thanksgiving Holiday is a long time from now, so if you have a local OCF chapter
close by, be in touch with their President and invite the chapter over for dinner. Tell them you have a home cooked meal waiting for them, and enjoy an evening with our new and future Orthodox leaders. You will be glad you did. You get as much from it as they do!