I couldn’t be more blessed with my parish here in Chicago.
There are tons of Orthodox churches all across the city. I know that different students from different OCFs way across the city go to different churches, but I’ve been fortunate enough to find the one in which I feel both comfortable and pushed to be better; welcomed, and supported.
Parish life can be something over which we gloss in OCF. Many of our pillars–fellowship, education, service–replicate exactly those that are utilized by the many healthy parishes across the nation. OCF organizes service trips; so do many churches. OCF organizes Scripture study and book readings; so do many churches.
Now, OCF serves these similar functions as the parish for a distinct reason: As a college student, it can be quite tricky to become engaged in these aspects of parish life. Church youth groups are often geared toward younger students, and rightfully so: once those youth leave for college, they can no longer be members of the group.
Meanwhile, the adults of the parish–even those on the younger side–have likely been members of the parish for a few years. Their concerns are perhaps starting a family, settling in to their profession, creating a state of permanence that a nomadic college student simply cannot. They’re at a different stage in their life.
And accordingly, OCF creates a community of the like-minded, similar-staged college students, that we may be buttressed by these pillars of education and fellowship and service in the Church.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bill Colclough.
That being said, we must recognize a crucial point: Both college life, and by extension, OCF life are not meant to replicate the aforementioned permanence of a fledgling adult who has landed in a home, has a home parish, and has some real consistency to their lives. College and OCF life are, by their nature, transient.
We forget this because we spend years–long, hard, awful years–in high school being told that the end is college; that we must appropriately cite our sources, because we will have to do that in college; that we must do extracurricular activities, because colleges will like that. Our paradigm for decision-making and effort is solely based on college as an end goal. But it is not an end. It is a means to an end.
The end of all things is Christ. The end of all things is the second coming and eternal salvation in the Kingdom of Heaven. As Orthodox Christians, standing in the face of this truth, everything we do must be geared toward arriving at this end as prepared and humble servants; as guests wearing the wedding garments; as virgins with oil in our lamps.
As such, my encouragement to you today is to examine: what are your ends? Do you do what you do to get good grades? To get a good job? To make money? To have a family? To live a happy life? Perhaps, even, do you do what you do because it feels good in the moment? I cannot tell you how you should divide your efforts on a daily basis, but I do know that the Lord said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” If there’s something in your life that isn’t leading you to the kingdom, you have to sit and think about that.
It is in this mindset and in this spirit that I return to my original point: I am so blessed with the parish that I have. It is youthful, thriving, and joyous. If I wanted to show anyone what Orthodoxy looks like–not in a monastery on a hill or a village in the home country–but in the center of a city in America, I would take them here.
But I don’t participate in that parish nearly as much as I should. Don’t get me wrong: I go to church every week that I’m in Chicago. (Okay, I was really sick like two weeks ago, but you get the point.) But my involvement with OCF–good, valuable, important to me–fools me into believing that I needn’t involve myself with my parish.
However, I know that, as the future rolls ever toward me, parish involvement is on my horizon. I know that, to make it to the kingdom, I need a home parish. I need that stability, that consistent involvement, those people who know me well through my faith. I know that my opportunities to serve, to learn, and to commune will no longer come from OCF in the nearing future. And I have to start preparing for that.
My prayer is that the Lord helps me do this. It is difficult, to pull oneself far back, to such a wide-reaching perspective–but, it allows the self to make more level-headed, forward-thinking decisions. It is only by looking at the long-term can we gain the insight needed to change the short-term.
A question we’ve received from students is, how do we get more involved in the community as an OCF? I’m not sure if this is referring to the Orthodox community, the campus community, or the general community so I’m going to answer all three.
The Orthodox Community
Integrating yourself and your OCF into your local Orthodox community is crucial. They can provide you with resources and networking opportunities, as well as be a support system for you and your chapter.
Go to church. Seriously, that’s the best way to get to know the other Orthodox people near you. People in the parish will recognize your face and start getting to know you. Stick around for coffee hour afterward, and say hi to someone new.
Actively engage in your church. Sing in the choir, chant, read the Epistle, pass the tray, teach church school, serve in the altar, or host coffee hour. Communal prayer and worship is huge in the Orthodox world, so join in!
Find an Orthodox charity. See if there’s a REAL weekend going on nearby, or something with FOCUS or IOCC. It’s a ready made way to meet the local ‘Dox. If not, see if there’s something your chapter can do remotely, like making hygiene kits to send to disaster areas.
The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.
One of the most daunting factors of going away to college is leaving home. It’s hard trading in your warm, cozy bed and Mom’s cooking for a hard, small dorm bed and lukewarm bowl of Easy Mac for dinner every night. Even harder is leaving behind the comforting arms of your family. I think every college student, young and old, near or far, gets homesick at some point.
Growing up in a parish where my dad was the priest, my church was a place where I felt very much at home. I had my little old lady buddies, taught church school, and sang in the choir, plus the extra perks that come with the title PK. Starting school and having to go to a new church was very different for me, and I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive. I worried about attending a church where not only the priest, but everyone, was a stranger to me. My biggest concern was attending a church and experiencing something contrary to what I was used to.
But, one Sunday morning, full of anticipation, I braved to step foot into my new church. As I inhaled deeply and my lungs filled with the familiar scents of beeswax and incense, I instantly felt at peace. Here I was, living on my own for the first time in a completely foreign place without a single familiar face, trying to figure out this whole college thing: nervous, lonely, and confused. All my anxiety and unease vanished. That unique church smell wrapped itself around me like a security blanket. The priest chanted the prayers I’ve heard my whole life and I timidly joined in with the hymns I knew by heart. In a sea of unfamiliarity, church was the raft I clung to. I started looking forward to my weekends, not for the same reason as my peers, but for that hour and a half I spent on Sunday mornings in church. It was my own personal island, where I could escape from the rest of the world. When I was at church, I felt at home.
Even now, in my second year of school, in which I am much more comfortable, I still look forward to Sunday mornings. Like my family, the church has always been there for me. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by school, clubs, and work, all I want is to go home and get a hug from my mom. But when I go to church, all that stress melts away. Stepping outside the college environment into one that is homey, comforting, and brimming with love is just as good as a hug from Mom. Even during the week, when there’s no actual service to go to, putting in my headphones and listening to the familiar Orthodox hymns while I study (you can find a surprising amount on Spotify), or going to OCF meetings and serving small Compline or Vespers surround by my friends, even just sitting silently in the church, has the same comforting effect.
To go back to what Maya Angelou said, there is a longing for home in everyone. Home is where nothing can hurt us, where we are loved. There’s a special feeling you get at home that can’t be replicated. The church gives us the same unconditional love and acceptance that we so crave when away from home. Whether we are lonely, drowning in schoolwork, or feeling a little lost, the Church is always there to hear our prayers and welcome us home.
About the Author
This is a guest post from Emma Solak. Emma is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh studying nonfiction writing. She’s originally from Stroudsburge, PA where her dad is the priest tat the OCA church, Holy Trinity.
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.
When I was an OCFer at Texas A&M University, my friends and I all attended a local mission parish, and I mean, this was a small parish—small as in we met in the back room of the priest’s house and a typical Sunday liturgy consisted of less than 15 people, most of whom were college students. In a parish that small, everyone lives by an unspoken rule: everyone does everything.
When you only have 30 hands to bake prosphora, host coffee hour, keep the church clean, organize Bible studies, serve the surrounding community, sing in the choir, teach the children, support the parish financially, and welcome newcomers, no one has the opportunity to only come to liturgy, have a cup of coffee, and go home. It’s just not possible. If we didn’t all pitch in, things just didn’t happen. All 30 hands (and the hearts that led them) had to be willing to take on a little bit of the ministry God had set upon our tiny mission parish. No one could “opt out”—no one could come only to be fed without also feeding their brothers and sisters in some small way.
I know the parish in your area is likely not a mission parish, but I think the principle should be still the everyone does everything. Or maybe we should say: together, we do everything. If each of us commits our hearts and hands to the ministry of a parish, God will gather together all of our little efforts, bless them, and multiply them just as he does with the bread and wine that become His Body and Blood in every liturgy.
Our OCF chapter used to clean and decorate the church for Pascha.
You might be thinking, “I get what you’re saying, but the parish I attend with my OCF when I’m at school is not my ‘home parish’—it’s not the place where I grew up, where everybody knows me, and where I feel comfortable to do these sorts of things. And besides, what could I possibly offer a parish as a college student?” Well, to you I say, it’s great that you have a parish at home that you love dearly and feel at ease attending; this is a blessing the Lord has given you for many years. And now, I believe, He has given you a new challenge, a new blessing (though it may seem hidden at first). It’s the blessing of discomfort.
That’s right, you heard me. Discomfort. Remember Abraham? God called Him out of his home, away from the comfort of everything familiar in order to sanctify him and bless him. Abraham couldn’t see the blessings right away and even doubted that they might come at all, but when he put his trust in God, and allowed himself to serve God in his discomfort, God made him the father of us all! You, too, are being called into discomfort to serve the Lord in a foreign place and trust that blessings will flow from your faithfulness to God’s plan.
What you can offer a parish as a college student?
Start by offering prayer, and Christ will show you the way.
Be bold! Many parishes have well-established ways of doing things, but that doesn’t mean new ideas shouldn’t be brought forward. I love when Paul tells a young Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (I Tm 4:12). You are called to be an example to those around you, even those who are older—this means living out the commandments in real ways every day and serving your parish with joy and love.
Be creative and be persistent! You know your talents. If you’re good with computers, offer to help with the parish website. If you’re good with kids, host a mother’s day out event. If you’re a good cook, start a community meal for the parish or for the poor in the area.
There are a million and one things that every parish could be doing to better live out the call to love God with all our hearts, souls, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves. But, like my little mission parish, if we don’t all pitch in, things just don’t happen. Finally, never discredit even the smallest offering. Maybe you can’t offer tons of hours to any one project right now, but you can put in a little when the tray is passed or chat with an older parishioner who comes to church alone on Sundays. Every little bit counts and is seen by God. As long as your offering comes from the heart, that is enough. The goal is to express our love for God through our actions, not to overwork ourselves or build up some kind of resume of church activities.
All this is just to say, go do something! No, really. Call your parish priest and ask him how you can get involved. Gather up your OCF chapter and do something together—you’ll have more hands to serve if you serve together. Make some commitment—great or small—to give back to the parish that has been caring for you while you are at school. Go to church not only to be fed, but to feed your brothers and sisters, as well.
What is one thing you could do for your parish community to get more involved?