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Lessons Learned from a Service Retreat

Here in Virginia, we recently completed a Service Retreat through our Young Adults ministry. We partnered with the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church to assist with the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Matthew. Our group of 20 young adults prayed together, ate together, and served together from October 27-29 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

 

Over the course of the weekend, we were able to reflect on our service and the impact it was having both on our community and on ourselves. Here are three things we learned that apply not only to our local community but to the Orthodox Church at large.

 

1. We thirst to serve

 

Orthodox Christians have a thirst to serve others. You don’t even have to go far to see this. Go to a church luncheon, a Greek wedding, an Arab engagement party, or a parishioner’s home, and you’ll see what I mean. We’re a community that loves to give to others and to see them leave our presence fuller than when they came to us. This desire to give and to serve is a reflection of our relationship with Christ.

 

Our young adults in Virginia saw that service is a fruit of the liturgy after our trip to Project Mexico and since then many in our community felt the need to reach out nearer to home. As Orthodox Christians, we have been given this beautiful community of believers, knit together as the Body of Christ, that we call the Orthodox Church. It’s such a blessing in our lives, but we might take it for granted since it’s so much a part of our personal identities. We are filled more than we know, but what are we doing with this extra love and joy that we receive from the Risen Christ every Liturgy?

 

We leave the Liturgy filled, but we then have a thirst to share and serve others. We worship a God who entered into our human experience, who thirsted and hungered, who died and rose from the dead. Christ tells us that He thirsts and hungers along with those in need, and that we serve Christ Himself when we serve others (Matthew 25:31-46). So it seems only natural that we would have a thirst to serve others the more we attend the Divine Liturgy; it is there that we meet Christ, there that we have communion with Him in the Eucharist, and are sent out into the world to do His work.

 

Even after our service retreat, we all wanted to do more. We wanted to go back to the homes we helped in and to finish the jobs we couldn’t do in a day. We wanted to know that the families we met were doing better, to somehow keep in touch. This is the fruit of human connection and of service. And the more we give, the more we realize there are so many still in need.

 

2. We are all surrounded by people in need

 

By the time Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Virginia Beach, it wasn’t even a hurricane anymore. Most of Virginia Beach residents just had puddles and fallen leaves to worry about. But neighborhoods all over the city that had never experienced flooding before were affected;  whole neighborhoods submerged, cars and homes filled with feet of water. Sometimes random homes within a neighborhood were flooded while the rest were fine. At the end of the storm, 2200 homes were damaged, with 1500 of those experiencing flooding.

 

It’s easy to look at one’s own lot and assume others must be fine, too.

 

A year after Hurricane Matthew, there are still homes without floors, with flood damage, and their residents have no support system to help them recover. After our team worked during the day on the five homes that were assigned to us, we had a campfire to discuss our thoughts and reflections on the day. Most of us were from the area and were shocked not only that there was so much damage (that we never saw ourselves!) but also that the damage still had yet to be fixed a year later. We were shocked that these people - our neighbors - lacked the familiar support they needed to get out of their situation.

 

This Sunday’s Gospel passage (the Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus) reminds us that we are all surrounded by people in need. In it we see the convicting story of a man who lived his whole life ignoring the needs of Lazarus who lived just outside of his gate. [Watch this week’s Live the Word to reflect more on this Gospel passage.] This service trip opened our eyes to finally see the faces of those outside of our gates, the Lazarus that Christ calls us to serve.  

 

Many of our neighbors, and even our own family members, are struggling with things we know nothing about. We can all more actively be a compassionate presence in our homes, our places of work, and in the many interactions we have each day. How can we give from what we have - a listening ear, a helpful hand, an arm of support - to help with the struggles of our neighbor?

 

3. It’s both and; not either or

 

When many Orthodox Christians hear about missions, they either think of international missions by various Protestant groups (or through the Orthodox Church with OCMC) or of charities that serve people locally. The temptation is to think of missions as either we support one or the other. But the Lord reminds us that we are called not to serve only here or there, but “in Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In other words, God is calling us to serve in our local community, in other parts of this country, and internationally.

 

The ministry of the Church isn’t restricted to the work of bishops, priests, and deacons; the ministry of Christ is shared by all of us who serve in youth groups, young adult groups, women’s societies, and men’s organizations. We can give back by helping to fund those going on short term mission trips, by praying for our missionaries, and by supporting the great work of charities like IOCC.

 

Each of us can pray for guidance, that God will direct our attention to where we can most be of service. Maybe God is calling you to serve in your parish, but maybe He’s also calling you to the Seminary. You might help at the local soup kitchen, but God might also be calling you to long-term missions. Each one of us has a unique and ongoing call from Christ to live out our unique Christian vocation. How is Christ calling you to serve both in your local community and even to the ends of the earth?

 

The morning of our day of service, the Gospel reading was about Mary and Martha. It was as if the Lord were reminding us of our need to balance our inner Mary and Martha rather than reject one in favor of the other.

 

*****

 

Our Orthodox community really desires to give back to the local communities we are a part of. All of our communities are surrounded by people in need, even in areas you might not expect. The Orthodox Church doesn’t see service as either local or international; we are called to serve everywhere there is need. Not everyone is called to be a priest, a nun, or a missionary. But all of us are called by Christ to serve those around us.

 

What can you do to serve your local community? How can you assist with international charities or missions? Who in your community could use your help?

 

 

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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos & Sam Williams

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