Doing Pan-Orthodox

Doing Pan-Orthodox

I like to tout to the Orthodox World that OCF is the only fellowship organization (for now) which is an Assembly of Bishops agency. Who cares, you say? Well, we are the only organization (for now) that is charged by all the bishops to bring together all Orthodox Christians from all backgrounds and all jurisdictions and to do it well. This means we’ve been “doing pan-Orthodox” for a while now, and there are a few lessons we have learned that I’d like to share.

  1. Make no assumptions. Someone once challenged me to count how many churches in which I’ve actually worshiped in the U.S., and I think the number sits right around 55 parishes from seven different jurisdictions. You might say I’ve been around the block when it comes to Orthodox traditions. What I’ve taken away from all those experiences plus the 10 years I’ve been involved in OCF is that you really can’t assume anything. I’ve met Greeks in OCA parishes, Eritreans in Greek parishes, a ROCOR priest who didn’t know a word of Russian, a Bulgarian priest who grew up Jewish, and converts from every denomination of Christianity as well as Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and paganism. Pan-Orthodoxy is most successful in an atmosphere of openness to any possibility and a willingness not to comment negatively right away on what we find (see #3). This seems like a no-brainer, but I think it needs to be said. Too often Orthodox people are surprised by Orthodoxy’s diversity.
  2. Know the narratives. Everybody–and every jurisdiction, for that matter–has a story. How we got to where we are today is a long and complicated story individually and collectively. I’ve noticed that while the assumptions we often make about each other often don’t hold a lot of weight, people from different backgrounds often do bear a particular narrative of Orthodoxy in America. For example, I was raised in a Greek church where the community was very ethnically diverse so I assumed until I went to college and found out otherwise that all Orthodox people went to Greek Orthodox churches. It was never my intention to marginalize, you know, the rest of Orthodoxy, I just didn’t have any other experience yet. A good pan-Orthodox leader/program/organization is aware of the common narratives that come into play from each jurisdiction. Creating opportunities to uncover, discuss, and break down these narratives in a loving, judgment-free manner is a huge step toward understanding.
  3. Respect not ridicule. Please, please, please–I’ve said it before–stop making fun of each other. Yes, we all have our weaknesses and sore spots as different Orthodox communities, but what heavenly purpose can possibly be brought about by deriding and ridiculing those weaknesses? We can all take a little joke now and again, but the whole “You-know-those-Russians…” and “What-can-you-expect?-They’re-Greek…” thing has got to stop. If you’re doing it, you’re breaking rule #1 and cutting off any opportunity for #2. Just. Stop. Please.
  4. Celebrate culture. It’s such a bummer when people equate pan-Orthodoxy with the suppression of our diverse cultural heritages. The Christian faith is universal:  it’s meant for everyone and every culture. You don’t have to stop being Greek to be Orthodox nor do you have to become Ukrainian to truly understand the message of salvation. How can we practically express this in pan-Orthodox efforts? Eat, drink, dance, sing! Whether its dancing the dabke or learning the Virginia reel, eating borscht or roasting a lamb, singing colind at Christmas-time or decorating pysanka at Pascha, share and experience the beauty of our many cultures! OCF has this one down pretty well. Instead of banning cultural expressions, we offer everyone a chance to celebrate on equal ground: from the Greeks v. Arabs soccer game at College Conference East to the beatbox jam sessions at College Conference West, from Real Break Alaska to Real Break Slovakia on to Guatemala, Constantinople, Romania, and Jerusalem, a foundation of our pan-Orthodox mission is to celebrate whatever is good and lovely in the lives of Orthodox everywhere.
  5. English is key, but not king. Language is a touchy subject for us, but here’s how I’ve seen things played out in OCF. English is, obviously, the language that you can pretty much guarantee that all American college students understand. I mean, I’m not writing this blog in Old Church Slavonic or New Testament Greek. On the other hand, it’s not safe to assume (see #1) that English is the only language in which a young person (or any person) can worship or even that it’s the most comfortable language for that person in church. Our unofficial baseline is that services are held in English for OCF events, but when our students can share their other languages or when we are visiting places where English is not the first language, we are blessed to be able to confirm the universality of our Christian faith through its varied linguistic expressions (see #4).
  6. Learn to sing. Or find someone who can. Right up there with celebrating culture and language–or perhaps more important–is a need for us to understand and celebrate each others’ liturgical expressions. A beautiful Byzantine Paraklesis and a wonderful Russian-style Akathist of Thanksgiving should be something we can all share. Often more than language, people are accustomed to a certain liturgical melody which their heart sings even if their lips do not. Successful pan-Orthodoxy should try to incorporate various melodic traditions whenever possible.
  7. Love one another. It bears repeating St. John’s advice in the context of pan-Orthodox efforts. It’s not an easy task, but it bears the sweetest fruit. When we are open to each other and in each other’s presence, we find that, on some level, we are united. Perhaps it is not the full unity we so desperately need, but our worship is united in spirit and in truth, and we are called to a unity of love. Doing pan-Orthodox right unsettles us from accepting the status quo of jurisdictional division. In all my experiences across those 55 churches and in all the College Conferences, Real Breaks, regional retreats, and OCF chapter meetings I’ve attended and led, one thing has become abundantly apparent to me: once we’ve been together, we don’t want to be apart!
Reflecting on Day of Prayer

Reflecting on Day of Prayer

Day of Prayer LogoA blessed Lent to all!

For those of who don’t know, my name is Thano Prokos. I’m the current Great Lakes Student Leader on the OCF Student Leadership Board, and I had privilege along with the awesome Nicholas Wacks to be one of your Day of Prayer coordinators this year.

In the spirit of Great Lent, I’m going to have to ask you all to forgive my cheesiness when I say that Day of Prayer has held a special place in my heart since my first year in OCF. Before I ever participated in College Conference, Real Break, or Serve for St. Patrick Day, I participated in Day of Prayer with the rest of my OCF chapter. The first time where I was ever part of something along with the greater OCF body was when I stood in front of a MacBook camera in St. George Church in Chicago reading the Compline service with my chapter and whoever was watching online.

So, when I was told that I would share the responsibility of coordinating Day of Prayer, I definitely felt eager because of how familiar I was with the program. However, I challenged myself to really think about what Day of Prayer meant to me, and why it’s an essential staple on our OCF calendar. Sure, it’s a great way to expose your campus to Orthodoxy, and it’s a wonderful way to start Lent off on the right foot, but what more can we get from Day of Prayer?

Consider for a minute our OCF theme this year:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!

If you asked me what the best thing about Orthodoxy is, I would argue that it’s the fact that the Orthodox Church truly is one whole church. Let’s get a little cosmic for a moment; through our traditions and our communion with each other, our church transcends both time and space to exist as one body existing in tandem with our Lord.

Think about it…

We regularly hold a service originating from the early first millennium. At least once a week we receive communion, partaking in the body of our one Savior. We revere saints: role models of all different walks of life whom we believe to be influentially and metaphysically present in our services. Much of our theology revolves around the belief that we engage in the same worship as the Orthodox in our neighboring churches, our cathedrals, our mission parishes, churches abroad, our Orthodox ancestors, and the Orthodox of the future. If we don’t believe in a finite Christ, then neither should we believe that His bride is finite. Our faith is a celebration of that infinite one-ness: all Orthodox everywhere at all times are united.

This image is from the Wikimedia Commons

This image is from the Wikimedia Commons

Alright, so now that we’re no longer smoking the incense, lets get back to something a bit more concrete, shall we?

Day of Prayer is very much a microcosm of that convoluted mess I described two paragraphs ago. If you participated, you offered pretty much the same service as everyone else who participated. You read the same list of names and prayed for the same people that every other participant read, and when your hour was up another chapter did the same thing that you did. It’s best not to think of Day of Prayer as 24 separate services, but instead one service offered by our whole OCF body.

We’re about two weeks into Great Lent, and if we reflect on Day of Prayer’s purpose as our OCF kickoff into this season of bright sorrow, then there are many things that we can take away from the rest of our journey. Here are just a couple:

  • Hold on to or get a copy of our Day or Prayer reader service! I’ve already used it a couple times as a reference for group and individual prayer over the past couple of weeks. If you have difficulty finding lists of prayers that you can offer, then try this one out as a reference.
  • Remember that you’re not on your Lenten journey alone. You’re on your way to Pascha along with all Day of Prayer participants and the rest of our Orthodox body. Keep all of us in your prayers, and use the dedication to the faith we exhibited on Day of Prayer as fuel to keep moving forward this Lent.

I really want to thank all those who participated in Day of Prayer and our North American staff for working so hard to give us the resources and organization to make it possible. If you or your fellow students didn’t get a chance to participate in Day of Prayer this year, then I highly encourage you to make sure you sign up next year. Remember, that we’re all one church and one body, and while infinite is a pretty big concept, it’s just not quite as big if you’re not involved!

Enjoy the beginning of Spring, and what I pray to be a fulfilling and fruitful Lenten Season!

About the Author

This is a guest post from Thano Prokos, Great Lakes Regional Student Leader on the 2013-2014 Student Leadership Board. Thano is a junior at DePaul University, majoring in Secondary Education. This is his first year serving OCF on the SLB.

Community: Joined and Knit Together in Love

This last December marks my third year attending College Conference West, and I would have to say it was my best OCF experience yet. As an OCF student leader and co-facilitator of this year’s College Conference West, I was intentionally more active than in previous years, trying to reach out and ensure this year’s attendees felt welcomed, but also observing the general atmosphere of the gathering.

OCF College Conference West 2013

OCF College Conference West 2013

From the first hour, one could feel the joy and excitement of what this conference had in store—meeting new faces, old friends reunited—but perhaps that is to be expected when everyone first gathers into the mess hall for registration. And yet, it seemed that this feeling never faded. You could see it in everyone’s faces on the last day, a radiant joy and love for one another! No, the anticipation that comes with arriving at College Conference did not wither. Rather, it developed into the warmth and fervor of a new-found community. We became brothers and sisters, mentors and confidants, comrades and close friends. We were joined and knit together, belonging to one another.

In the days following the conference I’ve asked myself the question of whether or not the unity cultivated in Orthodox Christian Fellowship’s various ministries is anything special or unique. We certainly don’t have the market cornered on fostering faith-centered community (though in this day and age when our technology and limited social interaction is leading us further into isolation, it certainly is becoming a rarity). Even amongst the various religious and social groups of people still coming together in community, I believe that, yes, there is something special and unique about the unity found in the OCF community.

That uniqueness comes from what we gather around—what defines us when we come together. It is this: that we are a Eucharistic community. We come together and are united in the body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians in admonishment, saying that

“…we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love.” – Ephesians 4:15-16

As Orthodox Christians, we understand that this unification is brought forth by more than just our outward attempt to follow St. Paul’s words, that it is ultimately “joined and knit together” mystically through the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Holy Eucharist itself. This is our unique quality, that we are mystically united to Christ and one another through the Holy Spirit. This is not only our understanding of true Christian community, it is our understanding of salvation itself: to be in total communion with God and one another.

OCF College Conference West 2013

OCF College Conference West 2013

And this is truly what I witnessed at College Conference this year. We really did experience the mystical unity that manifests itself when we gather as the Body of Christ. It was a glorious and uncontainable joy, a taste of His Kingdom that is to come.

In my concluding thoughts, it is my hope that Orthodox Christian Fellowship continues to grow this community everywhere. We have something so precious, so beautiful, and there is a hungry and lonely world out there that is so desperately looking for what we have. We must first make this unity a reality amongst ourselves—and then we must share it with others. I look forward to the day when people come into the Church not because they read history and theology books about Orthodoxy, but because they saw a true community, knit and joined together in love, the Body of Christ.

About The Author

Pat Lynch is the Southwest Regional Student Leader on this year’s Student Advisory Board. He currently resides, works, and attends school in Pasadena, CA.

Through Our Diversity, Strength

I think many people are attracted to Orthodoxy because of its outward, monolithic appearance. When you compare it to modern Protestantism, with its kaleidoscope of different denominations and theologies, our Church does indeed look impressively uniform. I can walk into any Orthodox Church and within a minute or two, know what’s going on—regardless of the language. I can rest assured that those I am in communion with share my beliefs about the trinity, Christ, and what He came to do for us. We have a shared history of saints, stories, and customs. Tapping into Orthodoxy is like having an instantaneous social network of strangers that have the same formative experiences of God and religion.

OCF College Conference East 2013

OCF College Conference East 2013

What OCF taught me, however, was the beauty of the diversity of our Church. So often we tell the story of the Orthodox from the point of view of “sameness” (i.e. we all share one belief, one faith, one inherited Tradition), which is certainly true, but there is amazing diversity within our Church that is often overlooked. Local traditions, cultural practices, smaller histories do not get swallowed by a monolithic Church, but find new meaning in the light of Christ.

Coming from the Slavic tradition, OCF showed me the beauty of diverse practices. I had never experienced the moving communal prayer to the Mother of God, called the Paraklesis, before my first college conference. I learned the lives of the martyrs of Byblos and of St. Nektarios of Aegina, unfamiliar to me growing up. Most importantly, I was able to share the incredible stories from my tradition, like the native Alaskan melodies preserved in our Church’s worship in Alaska. One night at a Student Advisory Board meeting, several of us snuck out to St. Raphael of Brooklyn’s grave on the edge of Antiochian Village. We all took turns singing hymns to him in our traditional melodies, and ended by singing “The Angel Cried” together.

Diversity and unity expressed at the same time.

Image from

Image from

St. Raphael is an icon of what OCF is calling us to be. He was born in the Middle East, educated in Greece, served in Russia, and eventually came to America to serve Arabs under the Russian Mission. He was canonized jointly by the Orthodox Church in America and the Patriarchate of Antioch. His life is a testament to both the unity we all share, and the beauty of our diversity. He went where he was needed, never sticking his nose up at the traditions and history of others. He didn’t call someone’s chanting ugly, or make fun of a region’s saints, neither did he make broad generalizations about any of the groups he was called to serve (you know those Arabs, they’re always late, and those Russians, they’re so uptight, etc.). He served the people in front of him with love and an open mind.

May Saint Raphael guide all of us as we work towards unity in our Church in North America, not to make a boring Church of sameness, but that sharing in communion with our God, we can see more clearly the value in each other’s diversity and with one mind confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

On Unity: Living in Spiritual Unity

On Unity: Living in Spiritual Unity

OCF Theme Photo

This year’s OCF theme is Unity, centered around Psalm 132:1 (OSB),

Behold, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity.

This week is part five of a six-part series centered around Orthodox perspectives on unity. The series will consist of reflections from student leaders and College Conference workshop speakers, leading up to College Conference at the end of December.
Teach me thy way, O Lord, that I may walk in thy truth; unite my heart to fear thy name.  Psalm 86:11

We are all on a journey, with gifts bestowed upon us to fulfill His purpose, but we cannot walk the path we are called to without being united with Christ and the Holy Spirit.

To live in unity, as Paul writes about in Ephesians 4, creed must influence conduct. We must admit that to be filled with the fullness of God, we must walk with the Spirit in us. Not only in ourselves, but with one another in love, we are united under God by the cohesiveness of the Spirit. Therefore we are called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3); not to breed infighting, but to walk together as one body in Christ.

Image courtesy of Molly Sabourin on Flickr

Image courtesy of Molly Sabourin on Flickr

The earthly road that we find ourselves on is saturated with choices and quick turns that we cannot navigate without the Lord. I aspire, and believe that we should all aspire, to grow in Christ unceasingly “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13a).

About the Author

This is a guest post from Kiana Murray. Kianna is a freshman at Oregon State University in the Honors College. She is the Northwest Student Leader on the Student Advisory Board.