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.