What comes to mind when you hear the word Alaska? If your answer is “cold, cold, snow… or cold,” then we’re on the same page. BUT, hear me out! When I first heard about OCF Real Break, I was extremely excited to participate in one of the trips. When I found out the one offered during my spring break was in Alaska, I was a little confused. Who lives in Alaska?! I wasn’t sure what exactly we’d be doing, and if it was even a good idea to go.
After some encouragement from my friend Alexandra (who also came on the trip!), we were signed up, paid in full, and trying to decide which of our Texas appropriate jackets would keep us warm enough in what is otherwise known as “the Arctic circle.”
From the second we touched down in Anchorage, it was go, go go! I had the opportunity to meet and spend the week with Father John, who was absolutely wonderful. Our small group quickly bonded over mini-hikes, nature visits, pizza, and the few clean-up projects we participated in.
Photo Credit: Victor Lutes
The thing that stood out most to me during this service trip was one particular event we were able to help with. Our group had the opportunity to cook and serve dinner at a local children’s house – where kids were able to come after school for a hot meal and some good old-fashioned bonding time (yes, we played Go Fish, and yes, I lost). I wasn’t sure what to expect at first; the kids were loud and didn’t seem to be interested in talking to us. When we finally sat down and pried our way into their conversations, I was surprised to realize: these kids were AMAZING!
Most of them had just started high school, but a few were about to graduate and already had plans for college. I remember talking to one teen whose dream it was to play college football for a big school. Another just aced his math test. A bubbly middle school girl beat us in every card game we played. Yet another offered to help clean up.
These kids had goals, aspirations, and talents, just like everyone else. I was so happy I could help give them a hot dinner and good conversation, and I am blessed to have known such talented kids with such potential. Our afternoon at that house was what I would call life-changing. Nothing crazy or dramatic happened, but the short few hours we got to spend with those kids was eye opening, and I keep them in my prayers each and every day.
Our afternoon at that house was what I would call life-changing.
I encourage everyone to take your spring break and participate in an OCF Real Break trip. Whether you go somewhere familiar (like Ohio), or somewhere you would have never thought of before (like Romania), GO! You will meet friends that last a lifetime, you will see things that will change you, and you will come home with a renewed interest in your faith. Going to Alaska through Real Break was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I hope you do the same!
Ana-Maria Frampton is a junior at the University of Texas at Dallas studying Global Business and Marketing. She’s the OCF North Texas District leader, and part of the South Region. She LOVES traveling and has a long bucket list of places she wants to see before she finishes college.
At this point, it’s been two weeks since we came back from Jerusalem, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Everyone asks me what we saw and where we went. This is hard to answer, it’s a little like saying you went to Disney; while Disney is one place, it also has an incredible amount of rides and attractions, and each person has his favorites. Like Disney, Jerusalem is special because each person is seeking a different adventure, a different sight to behold. We saw awe-inspiring things–Jacob’s Well where the Lord met St. Photini, St. Peter’s house, the Sea of Galilee, St. Savas’s monastery, and even celebrated the Liturgy at the Tomb of Christ–but it was the people that we met that changed my life. They provided context.
Overlooking Jerusalem from Gethsemane. The domes of the Russian monastery of St. Mary Magdalene is seen in the bottom-right corner.
How to Pilgrim
When I went, I only knew a few things about the Holy Land, mostly that it was originally Canaanite, populated by the Israelites, the Lord lived there, the Jews were expelled, the state of Israel was founded in the 1960s, and that areas of the region are now divided between Palestinians and Israelis. When asked about my expectations for visiting the Holy Land, I responded that I was excited to visit the Holy Sepulchre and the Jordan. What those places really entailed was beyond me; I was just excited to go.
But when I got there, I realized that I didn’t really know what was going on. I mean, I knew the biblical stories, but it was a little hard to figure out what was going on. It’s a little like when you visit your friend’s parish, and it’s definitely the same liturgy, but it’s also clearly not yours. They might do the entrances a little differently, sing “Lord have mercy” in a different tone, or maybe they just venerate their icons differently. You definitely know how to cross yourself and how to say the creed, but you’re a little disoriented.
That’s kind of how it was for me. We would walk along the street, and were suddenly in a holy place. I’d cross myself, venerate the site, and kind of just look at it for a few minutes. When we went to the Holy Sepulchre, it was pretty impressive, because I knew I was supposed to be impressed. I mean, few things are more foundational and important than where Christ died and then rose. We went into the first chamber, venerated the stone which the angel rolled away, and then four college students crammed into the Tomb itself. Then, we slowly backed out of the Tomb, and moved on to other sites.
It wasn’t until we went back to the Holy Sepulchre, two nights later, to celebrate the Vigil that I got it. When we walked in, the stone which the angel rolled away was now an altar table, and the place where the Lord lay was the table of proskomide. It wasn’t just that the Lord sanctified this place, but we were now sanctifying it. There was a participation in these holy places. We offered up the gifts, and He gave them back to us. Just as Pascha is sometimes too sublime for words, holiness transformed the place.
Divine liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre
Meeting the Saints
In the Coptic Church, on Pascha before the Resurrection Reenactment, we sing a hymn called “Kata Ni Khoros,” and it begins with, “What is this I hear? It is a harmonious symphony, coming to my ear.”
I once heard someone say that “A saint is someone who keeps trying.” It’s a comforting thought, and a powerful reminder that the saints are just like us (James 5:17). And yet, I also met saints, who were not just like me.
We met people who, like St. Paul, knowingly walk into danger, for the sake of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:22-29). We met all sorts of saints–priests, monks, nuns, a principal, and even just gatekeepers. Every single one of them was impacted in some way by the holiness of the places surrounding them. Where the Lord met St. Photini, there was a man who told me the things I did; at Bethany, I met a woman who was filled with the Lord’s activity; at the Russian monastery of St. Mary Magdalene, I met a woman who left all to follow Him; and at the Monastery where the Lord fasted and prayed, I met a man who spent his life in unceasing prayer for the world. They greeted us with smiles, told us of the miracles surrounding their environment, and grace just flowed from them.
What surprised me most though, was the diversity of people that we met. The priests, monks, nuns, a principal, and gatekeepers weren’t competing with each other to be the holiest in the Holy Land. They were simply themselves. One monk we met built an entire church and wrote all the icons, and another nun just prayed in her monastery. One nun went on field trips with her students and taught at her orphanage, and one priest just stayed at Bethlehem, in order to anoint pilgrims and hand out icon cards. Instead of clashing, each person did their own job, with humility. They were a harmonious symphony, who offered their service to God, who then gave me the blessings of their labor.
A nun praying at St. Alexander Nevsky in Jerusalem
The trip was surreal. I saw amazing sites and met incredible people, including the other students and trip leaders who accompanied me. As a brief aside, there is an amazing depth to those surrounding us, and one benefit of the trip was how humbling it was.
We adjusted to the time difference very quickly, and we liked to joke that we were so exhausted that any time difference was just negligible. Nevertheless, halfway through the trip, we all realized that the trip would end. This was the scariest moment of the trip. Once we arrived back in the states, we would no longer be in the process of being a pilgrim. And that’s exactly what happened. When we got home, immediately people began asking me what I saw, what I learned, and where I went. And I could see that my answers weren’t always sufficient. St. Paul tells St. Timothy that now that he is a bishop, to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). I’m not a bishop, but now I have to put into words what I saw. It is now time to begin processing this life-changing exercise.
At first, I was a little scared. Would church still feel powerful? What would it be like without having caves or holy sites or the bodies of incorrupt monastics everywhere I go? But then I got my answer pretty quickly. When we returned, I visited my friend’s home parish before we returned to Pitt. I have celebrated the liturgy at the Holy Sepulchre, seen the light atop Mt. Tabor, been immersed in the Jordan River, and drank from spring where the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Theotokos the incarnation of the Savior of all creation. And yet, when I went to Holy Trinity in Stroudsburg, I stepped into a river of fire and was lifted up to the heavens. It was one of the most sublime liturgies I have ever attended. The people there, none of whom had ever been to the Holy Land, beheld the Lord with their own eyes upon the altar table, and reverently bent to meet Him who lifts us all up.
The beginning of the liturgy is not “Blessed is the Kingdom,” but is the line that precedes it: “Now it is time for the Lord to act.” As St. Photini says, “[the Messiah] will tell us all things” (John 4:25). In the meantime, I can only speak of what I saw, and be assured that not only is holiness still alive, but that now it is time for the Lord to act.
The monastery of St. George the Hozovite is built into the mountainside. In the center, a monk can be seen traveling from one facility to the monastery.
A junior at the University of Pittsburgh, Daniel is studying psychology, history, religious studies, and Arabic, and serves as the Secretary for the Pitt/CMU OCF chapter. In addition to taking way too many classes, he loves church humor, and has the beautiful talent of being able to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.
Before I begin describing my experience in New Orleans, I would like to express my deep gratitude for what Real Break allows for Orthodox college students. It gives us the opportunity to serve and to witness the lives of those in need, spiritually and or physically. It has been an experience that I have been craving as I have felt that I have not been putting all of my efforts to serve God during my free time. Through prayer and trust, it actually happened. Glory to God for all things!
When we arrived in New Orleans, I knew a few of the members coming (including my UNCC chapter co-president Isabella Calpakis) but was also surprised by the amounts of connections the other members had with me! This includes our trip’s priest and fellow Jersey Shore boy, Father Stephen Vernak. By then, I knew that this was going to be a great week. Our mission to serve with IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities) began quickly through the exposure of the distraught neighborhoods of damaged and demolished properties that align the highway. Hurricane Katrina has still left a mark on the city, which had given us the incentive as to why this trip is more than a vacation. Visiting the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood that experienced the most flooding, felt like a scene from a movie because of the destroyed properties and learning how the government had to step in to discover deaths within each home (marking the numbers on the front doors). Glory to God, not all of the neighborhoods had suffered much, such as the Downtown and thriving French Quarter, but the pain that the citizens had experienced was evidently traumatizing.
Our work as a team was done in the Mandeville suburb across Lake Pontchartrain, the body of water on the New Orleans edge. Before each workday, we began with prayer with Matins service and ended each day with Vespers, unifying our team as one body of Christ. We, with IOCC, worked with Habitat For Humanity to continue construction of two houses for low-income residents. Even though I was skeptical that I would be of any help, we all developed a good system to construct efficiently, encouraging each other along the process. What Habitat For Humanity does for these residents was also amazing to hear. Instead of offering the homes as a handout, they educate residents with classes that range from budgeting to landscaping. I saw this as a Christian virtue, to raise those who are in need by teaching responsibility. Seeing the change from our arrival to the last workday was a beautiful product of our labor through Christ’s love.
What also brought perspectives of the remnants of Katrina to New Orleans were our three visits to the city. The Katrina exhibit at the Presbytere Museum showcased the local stories of trauma and resilience. Another night, we visited St. Basil Antiochian Orthodox Church and heard from Father Paul Nugent as to how the Faith was tested but yet defined the trust and hope for the growing community. Our last visit included visiting Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Here, we listened to parishioner, Maggie Mag, about the history of Orthodoxy in the United States and how the New Orleans parish was the first established church in the lower United States (not including the earlier churches on the West Coast/Alaska). She, along with Father George Wilson, discussed the impact of what Katrina had done to their community, but how the grace of God had brought them back to a beautiful large community.
Hearing the pain and resilience of the citizens, especially the Orthodox residents regarding the Faith during those times, brought me hope for their community. It is incomprehensible for us as humans as to why these events happen, but it is our trust in the Holy Trinity that we all could overcome the battles that we face in this life, in order to reach salvation with Him. Katrina has also affected me after this experience. It has allowed me to serve God by aiding to those who need the work of our hands.
Nicholas (Niko Wilk) is a senior studying Architecture at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. He is the chapter co-president for OCF at the university. He loves exploring cities and regions, as well as singing and keeping active. His goal to study Urban Planning in grad school.