When my friends in our chapter of OCF told me about the Great Lakes retreat, I was initially very hesitant go with fall semester crunch-time descending upon us. In the end, however, I decided to go with them because the retreat was not only the weekend of my name day (the feast of St. Demetrios), but also the weekend of the 40-day memorial of my godfather, named Demetrios, who shares my patron saint. It seemed like a good time to say, “Homework can wait. I need to focus on God right now.” I am so glad I did.
The first evening of the retreat, we had a Paraklesis service at St. George Orthodox Church in Fishers, Indiana, opening our time together in prayer. Then we played icebreaker games before heading over to the house on the parish’s property, which they graciously provided for us to spend the night in. We stayed up late sharing our stories with each other, making up songs together, and confiding in one another about our struggles, questions, and concerns that are currently heavy on our hearts.
The second day, which we mostly spent at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Carmel, Indiana, largely focused on the discussion of our assigned topic, “Thou Art With Me: A Present God in a Broken World.” Mr. Niko Tzetzis gave us a fantastic presentation about Fr. Stephen Freeman’s book, Everywhere Present. In this book, Fr. Freeman explains the “two-story universe” theory. He states that the American culture in the 21stcentury conditions us to operate under the assumption that we live on the “first floor” of the universe, and that God lives on the “second floor” above us. Exiled to this distant second floor, God seems far from us and we rarely interact with Him except to ask Him for things. Our discussion led by Mr. Tzetzis was more impactful than just buying the book and reading it alone (though I highly recommend the book, I’m reading it now!) because we were able to speak to our specific, personal, and unique challenges in finding and acknowledging the constant presence of God. We worked together as individuals and as a group to find ways that we can increase our awareness of the fact that God does live on the “first floor” of the universe with us, and that He is present with us everywhere, always.
Along with the discussion of our topic, we had a service event! We cut up old plastic bags from grocery stores—which we had all saved for this event instead of throwing them away—and learned how to tie them together to make waterproof mats for people experiencing homelessness to sleep on. This event was a wonderful idea because it’s a practice that we can take back to our colleges, parishes, and OCF chapters. It is good for both the people receiving the mats and for the environment by reducing plastic waste!
There are many moments I will never forget, and I could write about this retreat for a very long time, but one moment stands out. On the second day, we put our phones away and had 10 minutes of quiet time in the nave at Holy Trinity. After this quiet time, Mr. Tzetzis gathered us all together and said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard…” My stomach immediately sank. He told us about the senseless violence that had occurred earlier that day at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Immediately, led by the priest at Holy Trinity, we prayed the Trisagion Service together for the victims. Mr. Tzetzis reminded us afterward that when we pray, we are praying simultaneously with the angels, the saints, the departed, and our Lord. They are all present with us everywhere and always in the reality of our one-story universe.
While I originally debated about attending the retreat, I’m overjoyed that I went. The power of the lifelong friendships you form and the spiritual refocusing you experience at OCF events is not to be underestimated. Yes, we have homework, jobs, hobbies, other student organizations, and every other worldly distraction you can think of. Despite these distractions, please always take the opportunity to attend OCF events, including but not limited to your regional and district retreats, College Conference, and Real Break. I promise you, whatever you give to OCF and to the Church, even if it is only your time, attention, and presence, you will receive back multiplied.
My name is Demetra Chiafos. I am currently a third year at The Ohio State University, where I am the secretary of our OCF chapter and am pursuing a dual degree in dance and the Japanese language. Two fun facts about me are that I play the piano and I love writing short stories and novels!
This year, I attended my first OCF retreat at St. Methodios Faith & Heritage Center in New Hampshire. I went along with 25 other college students from the Northeast region of the United States.
The retreat was held on a day that was brisk but not to the point where we were freezing. We lit fires every night, went hiking through the beautiful trails behind the camp, and participated in the intimacy of divine services, including Paraklesis, Vespers, and Liturgy.
The theme of the retreat was “Smell the Flowers: The Easy Path to the Kingdom”, and our service work was the perfectly unplanned task of landscaping; we planted flowers in front of the camp’s main dining hall.
The premise of the retreat was based off of a story from the book Wounded by Love, written by St. Porphyrios of Mount Athos. Briefly, St. Porphyrios was visiting the island of Patmos at the cave where St. John received the Revelation. He was overcome with grace and happiness from the Holy Spirit and wanted to escape in solitude to fully enjoy it, yet he couldn’t because of the amount of tourists surrounding him.
St. Porphyrios stepped away from the cave, in hopes to come back at a later time and experience the Holy Spirit once more. After returning to the cave, St. Porphyrios’ prayer felt dry and empty, and he did not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. After stepping outside of the cave of Revelation, he decided to stop and smell the flowers.
He was overcome with awe and understanding when he contemplated the beauty and miracle of creation, which he experienced when he decided to take a moment to observe the flowers. St. Porphyrios came to an understanding at that time that God does not work on our time – He works in His time.
Initially, I was nervous to go on the OCF retreat, as I am currently a catechumen for the Orthodox Church and always felt as though I knew less than those around me – those already established in their faith and knowledge of the Church. To my surprise, there were other catechumens and many other converts.
The first night those who were raised within the Orthodox Church, those who have converted to the Orthodox Church, and those going through catechumenate stayed up until hours of the morning talking about our individual journeys in Orthodoxy.
This was the first time since deciding to be a part of the Church that I was surrounded by peers who were as passionate, enthusiastic, and so inspirational with their faith in Orthodoxy as I was. Conversations of faith were like wildfire that just kept burning. In the beginning, I thought to myself, “How could I be involved in these conversations of faith when there is SO much I still don’t know?”
I was comforted by the story of St. Porphyrios. Before coming a saint, before becoming a shepherd of God, he had a second-grade education. One thing I learned on this retreat is that it’s okay to not know everything and, in a sense, we will never know everything. We are all on a continuous journey, and we all have much to learn.
This post was written by Samantha Fricke, a student at the University of Binghamton. She is a senior studying psychology.
Why I Applied: OCF isn’t just another school organization. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it a thousand times over. The opportunities provided by OCF are ones that teach, guide, encourage, and engage in ways I have never experienced in any other organization. There are things you learn in OCF that can be integrated into every aspect of your life. Having been challenged through so many different aspects of my faith alongside some of the best friends became one of the many reasons I applied to be on the SLB. I applied because I knew this would be one of the greatest decisions I would ever make (this has been proven true). In applying, I would be given one of the greatest opportunities in helping create events specifically catered to my OCF region. I knew OCF would always hold such a special place in my heart and now that I’ve had the blessing of serving on the SLB it’s more than integrated into everything I will ever do. To serve on this board has been one of my favorite adventures.
Favorite Moment: SLI, getting to help with College Conference, meeting new people at every event I’ve attended, and ultimately, gaining one of my best friends off of the SLB + so many more.
Biggest Takeaway: God’s love, grace, and kindness that radiates through the amazing people OCF has brought me whom I’ll be carrying with me through life.
Why Apply? Why not apply?
Anna Sobchak, Real Break Student Leader
Why I Applied: I really wanted to experience more of OCF at the national level because my favorite parts of OCF had been their national programs, most notably Real Break, as my current role may imply. Plus, as a senior I felt like it was my time to give back to this organization.
Favorite Moment: My favorite part of the SLB has definitely been SLI (the Summer Leadership Institute). It’s rare that you find a group of strangers from all over the continent that you instantly click with, and yet within mere days, I was absolutely in love.
Biggest Takeaway: My biggest takeaway…serving on the SLB has added depth to my faith. I joined the SLB because I felt like it was time for me to give back to the organization that had given so much to me already, but being a part of this ministry has taught me to be more intentional about my faith, to refocus and prioritize my life, and to appreciate just how rewarding serving in this ministry is.
Why Apply? Apply to the SLB because its just simply awesome.
Markayla Stroubakis, Southwest Student Leader
Why’d I Applied: I initially applied with some prodding and encouragement from the RSL before me. I figured it would be a cool opportunity, and just went for it, and here I am 3 years later!
Favorite Moment: In all 3 years I’ve had lots of favorite moments. But one of them has to be a rather humbling one. I planned a retreat and somehow on the day of, nobody showed up except me and the priest. I was pretty upset at first, and wanted to cancel it when I got the last text from a registrant saying they couldn’t come. But the priest told me we had to have the retreat, so when people asked, we could tell them how great it was. It was such a wonderful afternoon exploring my faith practically one-on-one with a priest. I learned so much about myself that day and it truly reinforced to me to always trust in God’s plan.
Biggest Takeaway: My biggest takeaway from OCF has been that this program truly changes you. Before I joined OCF, I was good about going to church and chanting and it was really nice. But that was it, just nice. Joining OCF has changed my attitude from feeling obliged to going to church to actually wanting to go to church. I read Orthodox books because I want to. I participate in and lead retreats and discussions not because I feel like I know the most about the Faith or the Church Fathers’ sayings, but because I want to learn from others and be that person who brings everyone together.
Why Apply: READ ABOVE ANSWER! Let yourself be open to having these experiences. If you’re on the fence, apply anyway because you truly will not know the difference that OCF will have on your life until you’re thrown into this position. You don’t have to be champion of Bible Bowl or chanter extraordinaire. Just be you. You’ll come out of this with a heightened sense of yourself as a college student, yourself as a leader, and yourself as an Orthodox Christian.
Quinn Marquardt, Mountain Student Leader
Why I Applied: I wanted to grow my region, grow my own chapter, and be able to make a difference on the lives of others.
Favorite Memory: I would say my favorite moment would just be SLI. Meeting the 17-18 board and opening it up to everyone was amazing. I met so many new people and made new lifelong friends.
Biggest Takeaway: I think my biggest takeaway would be that everyone is different. When I first joined the board, I was so shy and didn’t know what I would be doing. After being on the board, I have learned that everyone is different and when you reach out to someone, that can make all the difference.
Why Apply: Being on the board has changed my life for the better. I have made so many new friends, met new people, been able to get chapters up and running, and have had so many amazing experiences. If you apply, I know all of these will happen to you and hopefully even more. The SLB is such a wonderful thing and I know from experience, it will have a large impact on your life.
Spyridoula Fotinis, Public Relations Student Leader
Why I Applied: I re-applied because I just love the ministry of OCF so much and could not imagine transferring to a new school without a strong presence of OCF and the support of my fellow SLBers and well as all wonderful OCF peeps around North America.
Favorite Moment: Photo ops at SLI – We are totally weird and it’s great. Weird Orthodox SLBers.
Biggest Takeaway: Christ is Everything, and we need a strong community of peers to remind us of this and help us in our ministry to Christ in OCF and just in general, being strengthened by the wonderful people I serve with in all moments of life. They’re always only a phone call away.
Why Apply? There’s never a better time to serve Christ and His Church and your peers across North American than RIGHT NOW!! This present moment is incredibly important! It will be such a blessing in everything you do, and it’s always awesome how each new person brings so much to OCF. Just apply and trust in God! It’s gonna be great 🙂
Anastasia Lysack, Podcast Student Leader
Why I Applied: I applied because I wanted to serve the people who served me. I would not be the person I am today without my experiences in OCF, and I felt it was time to give back. Also, I had been involved with OCF for a while and loved the leadership position I already had in my chapter, so I felt that joining the SLB was the next logical step in my OCF involvement.
Favorite Moment: It’s so hard to pick one! That being said, one moment that is really sticking out to me as I write this happened last summer at the Summer Leadership Institute. The SLB had just spent an amazing two days getting to know one another and preparing for the upcoming school year, and now it was time for the other SLI participants to join us for the next several days. As many smiling faces trickled into the St. Iakovos Retreat Center, I was so impressed, not only by how joy-filled this group was, but how incomplete SLI was with only the Student Leadership Board present. Each member of OCF that I meet, whether they’re in a leadership position or not, inspires me in so many ways. It was then that I suddenly remembered that this was the reason I decided to apply for the SLB in the first place, and it helped me to see the rest of the Summer Leadership Institute in a different light than I did when I arrived there.
Biggest Takeaway: It’s true that OCF needs students to help run its regional retreats, Real Break, College Conference, public relations, podcast, blog, and social media accounts (this isn’t even everything the SLB does!), but I don’t think I realized when I first sent out my application how much I needed the SLB. College is a time when we are encouraged to focus on our personal goals, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it is all too easy to put your own needs before anything else (and yes, you can be doing this while still going to church on a weekly basis and never missing an OCF meeting). Being on the SLB taught me that, if I can take several hours out of my already busy week to serve the Church during college, then I honestly have no excuse not to dedicate that same amount of time to the Church once I’ve graduated. After all, the ultimate goal of OCF isn’t to create students that are really great OCF students — it is to encourage students in their walk with God and their service to the Church. While it’s completely true that there are many ways to serve the Church (different people are called on different paths — and that’s perfectly okay), I would encourage you to get in contact with an SLB member if you’re interested in applying. We would be more than happy to answer your questions.
Why Apply? Make new friends! Gain experiences that your college isn’t going to give you! Take advantage of this unique opportunity to serve the Church!
Fevronia Koufogazos, Southeast Student Leader
Why I applied: I saw the impact that the SLB had on OCF when I went to my first regional retreat and that was definitely something I wanted to be a part of. As much as I loved being just a member of OCF, I knew there was so much more that I could do to contribute to helping other college students grow in their faith.
Favorite moment: Reading Ben’s notes after each conference call (yes? no? maybe?). SLI for sure. Spending a week at the St. Iakovos Retreat Center with an awesome bunch of people was the best way to end summer break.
Biggest takeaway: I’ve always wanted to serve our faith and our Church in some way and being a part of the SLB has definitely allowed me to accomplish that. This experience will prepare me for after college graduation when I want to continue my involvement in church ministries.
Why apply: Be a part of something bigger than yourself!! It is our job as Orthodox Christians to bring others closer to Christ, and being on the SLB is a perfect way to do that. Also, automatically having a group of 18 friends is pretty cool too.
Mark Saber, Media Student Leader
Why I Applied: Shoutout to Christina Andresen and Kathrine Sackllah for encouraging me to apply. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had friends who were on the leadership board, and it seemed fun.
Favorite Moment: My favorite moments were definitely all of leadership training and college conference — since I got to meet some of the coolest people EVER.
Biggest Takeaway: My biggest takeaway from the SLB has been the friendships I’ve formed with people I’ve met through OCF.
Why Apply? Ya got nothing to lose my friend. If you like meeting awesome people, being in charge of stuff, and going to OCF events, then go! Apply like the wind! Still undecided? Please refer to this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXsQAXx_ao0
David Munkres, Northwest Student Leader
Why I Applied: I wanted to be able to provide the students of the Northwest Region with a space to grow in Christ! OCF has made me own my Orthodox Faith and has been one of the biggest blessings God has bestowed on me. I wanted to share that joy with others!
Favorite Moment: My favorite moment of my two years on the OCF board was attending College Conference (West and Midwest). I had a great time at both conferences meeting people from all over the nation!
Biggest Takeaway: I came away from the SLB is friends from all over the nation who I call brothers and sisters! The people really made the experience!
Why Apply? Apply because you want to have the experience of your life through OCF! OCF will give you what you put into it. Give it your all and OCF will change your life!
Do you ever have one of those days in which you have so much work to do that you simply sit down and do nothing? Like, because you’re so overwhelmed, instead of chipping away at the work, you just deny that all of it exists?
Welcome to college.
In the worst solution ever contrived by young men and women–and that’s really saying something–we remove the burden of work from shoulders by denying its immediacy. We delay it, pretending as if we have all the time of the world. We crash, watch Netflix, eat a cookie (okay, several cookies), and feel better.
I think we can do the same things with our spiritual life–with our life in general, really.
And it’s understandable, easier to understand I think–because the time period is longer. The comeuppance of our spiritual life comes when we die, and when we arrive at the final judgment. Remembering the stakes of that eventual judgment is what gives us perspective on our daily lives; understanding that what we do today affects where we end up for eternity.
Isn’t that terrifying? Like, isn’t that draw-droppingly scary? I enter shutdown mode when I just have a lot of papers and assignments to do; when faced with the Final Judgment there’s no wonder, I think, that I want to curl up in a little ball and hide in the comfort of willing ignorance.
When we forget about that ultimate moment–the moment in which our actions are measured against our purpose; what we did against what we were made to do–we are seemingly freed from the responsibility to align with our purpose. We feel, perhaps a little synthetically, the freedom that we didn’t experience when fulfilling our purpose. Without a sense of finiteness, consequence, actions, decisions–these all exist in a vacuum. They do not matter, because we can inevitably rectify them on the ever-arriving tomorrow.
Lent, I think, helps remind us of our temporality. The Lenten process is a big countdown–among other things, of course–to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. By carving out this chunk of the year to remember the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, we’re not only reminded of Christ’s sacrifice and what that means for our salvation, but we also encounter an experience of a man–Jesus Christ–understanding his daily actions, choices, and moments all within the context of his death.
We always talk about Lent as a period of preparation, and a key aspect of that period is that we know when it ends: we have work to do; and we know when the work is due and the period ends. We can shirk it like we might our schoolwork at times, but there is an ultimate end, and that finiteness is what motivates us to be the way that we should, and not crumble to our vices in the moment.
It’s important to experience, every day, our end. To know that we do not have unlimited time and unlimited tries. That’s what instills our life with meaning, drives us beyond temptations. Experiencing temporality can be hard and scary, certainly–but it’s important that we do it, else we eternally attempt to avoid who we were meant to become.
I’m going to boast on someone else’s behalf, for a second.
Last spring, the then-Chairman of the Student Leadership Board, Emma Solak (some relation, maybe), spoke at the Orthodox Youth and Camp Workers Conference. She was brought in to discuss what it meant to “Keep the Faith” in college, and why there was less to fear than we sometimes fool ourselves into believing.
That’s not really the boast part, yet.
Fast-forward to September: A Serbian church in Merrillville, Indiana–St. Sava–was looking to better engage the youth of their parish. The core group, that had helped establish the church and brought it through its growing years, was beginning to pass away or grow too old to continue carrying the torch. In order for St. Sava to remain a healthy, proud parish, the next generation would have to step up into the shoes of the one before it.
In effort to engage their youth, the parish sought speakers for their 103rd anniversary banquet–speakers geared towards addressing the younger members of the church. And, on the magical website called YouTube, they found one: Emma.
I was able to accompany Emma on her trip to Indiana, where we were blessed with the hospitality and passion of the Historical Society and hosts at St. Sava. Driving back to Chicago, two things struck me:
Firstly: youth in the Church is not all doom and gloom. You could see that at St. Sava. Some of the young members of the church received awards for their service to their parish, their dedication in fulfilling their responsibilities. In the massive banquet hall, children ran around at every turn. There were three age levels of Serbian dance, and a choir of adorable little munchkins that sang traditional Serbian songs.
We talk about the difficulties of retaining youth in the church because, frankly, it is important to retain youth in the church, and it can be difficult. That being said, it is important that we enjoy and recognize those youth that still staunchly remain in our parishes across the nation.
Retaining youth isn’t a numbers game, nor is it some sort of forced captivity–keep them in parishes long enough until they grow old enough to know they need the Church. We should spend intentional time appreciating the presence of youth in our church, no matter how small, and seek to understand why they enjoy and thrive in the Church as they do.
Secondly, I was struck by that service that OCF could render: providing a speaker, fresh out of college, to a church seeking such an individual. We talk at lengths regarding the manner by which OCF serves us–what programs OCF offers, how it can help us. We also sometimes consider, “What we can do, through OCF, that serves others.” Real Break, YES College Days, these programs in which we tell OCF we want to give back, and OCF points us at people in need.
But we, as members of the Body of the Church not just OCFers in a program, regardless of age and occupation and schooling level–we have talents to give to the Church. Emma spoke to St. Sava’s church, in part because of her experience with OCF, but not as representative of OCF–she spoke as a young woman who was strong and active in the Church. We can all be that! We all should be that.
The further away OCF floats from that pure idea–forming persons who are strong and active in the Church–the more it becomes just another student organization. It loses its true purpose: equipping us, not for being OCF members, but for being real, live, actual Christians.