In this series, “My OCF Story,” alumni share their experiences from their time in OCF and its impact on their transition and life in the post-grad real world.
Hello OCF community! My name is Vanessa Constantinidis and I am a former OCF Student Leadership Board member. I received both my undergraduate degree, in English & Italian, and my graduate degree, in Writing Studies, from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. I currently work as the Associate Director of Admissions at Hellenic College Holy Cross School of Theology in Brookline, MA.
Perhaps my most memorable OCF experience was Real Break. My Real Break trip was not only a remarkable memory from OCF, but in life in general! In March 2014, I embarked on my Real Break journey to Romania where I had the opportunity to form relationships with other Real Break students, as well as, orphans, disabled children, elderly, and abused mothers of the Pro-Vita community. I recognized that this trip would impact me, however, I did not realize how my life would forever be changed due to the experiences I was given and the people I had the opportunity to meet.
Throughout our time with the Pro-Vita community, our group grew very close to one of the mothers. She had told us that she had not received communion in years because she was very scared of going to confession. The next day, after many of the Real Break students partook in the sacrament of confession—I saw her walk up to do the same. She later told us that we gave her the strength to go to confession and receive communion, and it was such a remarkable moment that I’ll never forget.
There are two places in the world where I’ve seen my Orthodox faith come to life in the purest form: my metropolis summer camp and in a remote little town in Romania called Valea Screzii. What do they have in common? In both environments, life is simple and Christ is in the center. Valea Screzii is a little piece of Heaven on Earth and all the love and faith in the community can truly move mountains.
I knew participating in OCF would enhance my spiritual life in college and give me the opportunity to connect with other Orthodox Christians—but I didn’t expect it to have as much of an impact as it has on my post-grad life. My involvement in Real Break and the Student Leadership Board, in particular, opened my eyes, not only to the spiritual and social benefits of OCF—but also the professional gains.
Fundraising for my Real Break trip just seemed like a means to an end at the time, but it equipped me with invaluable skills for my career in the non-profit world and in graduate school. Raising funds for my trip involved many speaking engagements, writing personalized letters to communities and donors, and building long-lasting relationships with people who believed in the mission of what I was doing. These skills allowed me to excel in grant writing courses in graduate school, and continue to assist within my role in admissions where I am regularly public speaking and building relationships with students. Additionally, serving as a member of the Student Leadership Board instilled team-building and leadership skills in me, and showed me that a group of young college students can come together and change the world.
It’s so important to join OCF in college because you never know where it may lead you! It’s crazy looking back at my first OCF meeting, where I joined simply because I wanted to have in-depth conversations with other Orthodox Christian students. Jumping forward to now—where my involvement with OCF has led me to working for the Church. I know that wherever my career leads me, I will always have OCF to thank for showing me how to live a balanced life with Christ in the center.
Get involved with OCF in any way you can and whatever way you feel comfortable (I would obviously suggest a Real Break trip or applying to be on the SLB). OCF has the power to shape your spiritual, personal, and professional growth—if you let it. Also, never stop praying.
Vanessa Constantinidis, a Philadelphia native, holds an undergraduate degree in English and Italian and a graduate degree in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. After several years of working in international education, and in admissions for her alma mater—her love for counseling students and her Greek Orthodox faith led her to Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, MA, where she currently serves as the Associate Director of Admissions. When she has free time, she loves reading, writing, exploring different cities in the U.S., or planning her next international trip.
The most valuable thing Romania gave me is the recognition of the importance of family. I embarked on this journey feeling pity for the orphans, anxious that the language barrier and privilege differences would be far too great to allow us to successfully work and communicate with the residents of the orphanage. I have never been so proven wrong. Upon our arrival, children were begging us to follow them to their homes, play with them, share their chocolates, sleep in their rooms. Our hosts fed us as soon as we arrived, the children and adults lined the one street of the village, peering through fences and out of windows to observe us – not as strangers, but as new members of the orphanage; new members of the family. By the end of the week it was so hard to bear the thought of leaving our new family, we woke at 5 AM to sit on the icy swing set and see our new brothers and sisters off to school; we waved goodbye to pieces of heart, rather than broken pieces of society–as people often consider orphans to be.
Nicole Farha not only spent her spring break in Romania, but also her 21st birthday – I would say what a martyr, but she definitely had more people celebrating her at Pro Vita than I did on my 21st. The orphans baked cakes, made cards and sang songs to celebrate their new sister, Nico.
I look forward to returning to the Pro Vita orphanage, and encourage anyone who has not been on a Real Break trip to sign up for this one! You will not only embrace humanity and Orthodoxy in a way that you’ve never before experienced, but also realize that warm showers, food other than fresh-baked bread and stews, and internet connection are mere luxuries in the grand scheme of things. They are completely unnecessary when you are surrounded by 150 of the brightest, most pure hearts. (Honestly, “Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me” takes on a whole new meaning).
If you love meeting a good, quirky, joke-box of a character, you have to go on this trip. From Pro Vita’s legendary Shakira constantly calling after you “Americaaaaaa, do your hips lie?” to the hoards of school children begging to play chase on the hillside after school, the laughs and jokes are absolutely endless. You’ll go to bed each night so thankful and exhausted–not from physical labor or mental stress, but rather from feeling so much love in your heart, laughing excessively with the orphans, and eating exorbitant amounts of carbs. From the endless amounts of children calling your name in the streets, to the voices of angels singing “O Pure Virgin” in Romanian just after you sing it in English, to the nightly reflections with your group and the final trip into Bucharest with royal treatment at the Patriarchate on the final day of the trip…this is the break from reality that you need. And lastly, you will make friends in your Real Break group that are truly a continuous blessing – no matter where you are in your life, Real Break gives you 10-15 instant friends who are always thinking of you and never fail to be there when you need a hand. I encourage everyone to participate in Real Break, it is truly a magical opportunity.
Mary Catherine Huneycutt is a recent graduate of the University of Houston – with degrees in Literature and Arabic. She currently lives in Beirut, Lebanon and is planning to attend law school in 2017. Hobbies include dancing at 90s night, cafe hopping (think bar hopping, but for introverts) and traveling.
How can music improve our worship?
One of the most wonderful movies about Orthodox prayer is The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, a documentary made by Fr. John McGuckin and Dr. Norris J. Chumley. It depicts the journey of two men who, following an ancient example of a monk, go from the Egyptian desert and Mount Sinai, to Greece, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia in search of people who still practice this prayer. They look for people who pray the Jesus prayer and struggle to converse inwardly with God. In each case the people following this mystical tradition seek solitude and are later found in the wilderness – the wilderness of desert, the watery wilderness, the wilderness of the woods and the wilderness of the frosty lands. The beautiful thing is the Jesus Prayer shapes their mystical dialogue and bears the signs of the wilderness where it occurs.
The reason I think this movie is relevant when talking about music and worship is that it offers a good analogy for the great variety of music that may be encountered in Orthodox worship–Arabic, Greek, Romanian, Georgian, Russian chant, etc. The chanting tradition in divine worship is shaped by its geographical context just as much as the musical context where it occurs–just like the Jesus Prayer. The desert, the waters, the woods, and the frost put a charming seal on chanting. What sounds good to the Greek ear will sound exotic to the Russian as will the Arabic Byzantine Chant to the Romanian, for example. What binds all these traditions together is the unity of faith, the shared dogmas, history and belief in the Savior Jesus Christ.
These various chanting traditions originated in synagogal singing and developed simultaneously in connection with different centers like Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc. When “imitating” the mother church became too difficult new chanting styles emerged most of the time taking the shape of the local musical traditions.
Fr. Teodor leads the children of St. Herman’s Orthodox School in chanting at a hierarchical liturgy at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Allston, MA
Romanian chant is a good example in this regard. Historically close to the Byzantine Empire and having great relationship with Constantinople, the Romanian chant followed the tradition of Byzantium and even after it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks took pride in continuing its legacy. Well known church choirs in Romania still try to emulate it to this day. In the western part of the country however, in the territory that was under the Austro-Hungarian occupation, the Orthodox Church suffered acerbic persecution, and the people were cut off from their brothers in the principalities of Moldova and Walachia who continued to worship using Byzantine chant. In order to preserve their ancient faith and traditions the Romanians living in Transylvania used the local musical tradition in divine worship, resembling more and more folk music rather than Byzantine chanting.
The significance of music in worship is immense. St. Basil the Great considers music to be a vehicle of dogma, comparing it to the honey used by physicians to sweeten medicine that otherwise would be hard to swallow. Music draws people together in worship and can channel different feelings and emotions delivering them prayerfully to Christ. It can also help you retain your spiritual identity as we saw it helped the Transylvanians.
Worship is the highest destination that music, as a vehicle, can reach. Silence and stillness are the opportunity to rejoice in God’s response. If a monk can silently pray in a cave on mount Sinai, you can loudly worship with psalms in a city church. This dialogue with God is vital, and it is just as important that we don’t allow our prayer ropes to stay idle in the urban “wilderness” as it is for Russian monk to work on his salvation while living on permafrost.
Fr. Teodor Anastasoaie teaches at St. Herman of Alaska Christian School in Allston, MA serves at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church which is part of the Bulgarian Diocese of USA, Canada and Australia and is passionate about Byzantine chant. He leads the Byzantine choir of the parish and is convinced that the best way to learn Byzantine chant is through increased participation in Church services.
Students think back on their Real Break trips from last spring.
Real Break Alaska 2015
“Through this mission, God revealed to me Orthodox Christians pursuing the Truth in every aspect of life. It filled me with joy to be shown that at every corner of the United States, despite Orthodoxy being an overwhelming minority, God is worshiped in humble obedience to the Apostolic Tradition handed down by the Fathers of the Church.”
–Oliver Filutowski, Alaska
“God works in ways we may not always understand, but He gives us the strength to carry on and make life meaningful through fellowship, faith, friends, and family; I consider my Real Break group to fall under each of those categories.”
–Alexandra Mamangakis, Alaska
“I often think about the beautiful, humble people I met there when I feel alone and discouraged. Their smiles and hugs still warm my soul.”
-Elizabeth Clark, Romania
“We all thought we were going on a trip to give our help to these children, but we were all wrong. They did not really need any help from us. They gave us all so much more than we could’ve given to them. The light of the Holy Spirit radiated from the hearts of these children and poured onto us. Real Break is an experience for which I am eternally grateful.”
–Michaela Connally, Romania
Real Break Guatemala 2015
“Sometimes as an Orthodox young person, I wonder how it is possible to fulfill Jesus’ command to serve others and “love our neighbors as ourselves”. Whether we know it or not, as college students, we are already equipped with the things necessary to allow us to do this: time, energy, enthusiasm, and support of the members of our parishes.”
-Julia Goussetis, Guatemala
“Some of my favorite moments were spent as we explored the City and visited two beautiful Orthodox Churches. I grew so much in my Faith that week through the amazing people I met, which I will always be grateful for.”
–Maria Phyrillas, New Orleans
“Even though there is still such destruction from the hurricane, everyone there radiated such joy and warmth about life. I learned so much about myself and the importance of giving back to people who need it most.”
-Anna Valliant, New Orleans
Real Break New Orleans 2015
REGISTER for Real Break today!