Entries with tag ocf .

How Service Changes Lives

Over the last few months, I’ve been busy organizing a group of sixteen young adults to take a service trip to Project Mexico. We recently got back, and since then I’ve been reflecting on the importance of service - both international and domestic - and how it has changed my life. For me, this trip was one of reunion and fulfillment, and served as an expression of gratitude for what God has done in my life over the last decade.


Eleven years ago, I went on an alternative spring break (Real Break) trip through Orthodox Christian Fellowship. I was a freshman and excited for my first service trip - working on a home in Tijuana, Mexico through Project Mexico and Saint Innocent Orphanage. I couldn’t have predicted how much that trip would change me. In Mexico, I witnessed poverty like I hadn’t seen before: homes the size of my neighbor’s shed, a community outhouse, children playing frisbee over downed power lines, poor infrastructure, etc.


Maybe this was my Damascus moment - like Saint Paul whom God had to strike blind before he changed the direction of his life.


Service - and Project Mexico more specifically - became the catalyst of change in both my professional and spiritual life. I switched my major from Chemistry to International Affairs and Spanish. I served with AmeriCorps VISTA for a year in Philadelphia and then went to seminary. Going on a week-long international service trip to Mexico propelled me in the direction of domestic service and ultimately full-time ministry in the Orthodox Church.


But what is it about service that is so life changing? Why is service so important for Orthodox Christians?


1. It fosters relationships


It isn’t enough for me to know about someone, I need to actually take the action of getting to know him. Before I took my first trip to Mexico, poverty was a concept and impoverished people were not much more than a category. Afterwards, I had names and faces, relationships instead of ideas. I knew the relative poverty of my own family, but I knew little of the poverty of others.


Last month, our group of young adults went to Mexico as a collection of friends and strangers. We came back a united group, as people who had served together, prayed together and who had a common experience as a community. What I’ve found is that when two or more people serve someone together, they grow close to one another, too. A similar thing happens as friends or spouses develop their relationship with God; they wind up closer as a result.


Service is so transformative to individuals because they break out of their isolation and become members of a community. We experience a moment of connection - to God and neighbor - that gives life to all of our relationships. Service changes our lives because it opens our hearts and helps give us a new perspective on our lives.


2. It’s a reflection of the Liturgy


The focal point and climax of the Liturgy is the Eucharist. All of our prayer and worship, our offering of ourselves and one another, our listening to the Scripture readings and homily, lead up to this moment when God offers back to us our gift to Him (bread and wine) as His Body and Blood. And as a corporate work as a community, the Liturgy is an act of service to God. Eucharist is our thanksgiving, our action of gratitude for the work and presence of Christ in our lives.


But when we leave the Liturgy, how much does our week resemble this action of gratitude? Do we commit ourselves and others to God during the week? Service to our neighbor is an important way of giving thanks to God as we help bear one another’s burdens. As the Liturgy helps to cultivate within us the realization that God is the source of our lives - and not our own labor or our success - service reminds us to be grateful instead of selfish.


There’s a certain mystery that happens when we give to others in the name of Christ. He gives to us His Body and His Blood and is never depleted. And when we give to others in service to them, we leave with hearts brimming over. We walk away with more than we gave.




The Orthodox Church sets up service as a vital part of our spiritual lives. Almsgiving and service to those in need are built in as part of our fasting periods and are highlighted in the lives of great saints such as Saint Basil the Great and Saint John Chrysostom. Service cultivates relationships both with God and our neighbor, and it is an act of gratitude for what God has already done for us.


How has service changed your life? How can you reach out to serve your local community?


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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: Sam Williams - Project Mexico 2017 Virginia team


Preparing Our Youth for College Life


“Six or seven out of ten young people will leave the church in college and never return.”


This quote, or others like it, has been used by anxious youth workers and campus ministers for at least the past decade. For parents who want their kids to stay connected to the Church, this sounds terrifying, and it is. But there is a caveat.


In a 2011 report, the Barna Group--who conducted the original research to which people are usually referring--clarified a few things. Perhaps most surprisingly was this observation:


College experiences are generally not the main reason young people disengage from church life or lose their faith.


David Kinnaman, the director of research for the Barna study, says that it is not the experiences of anti-Christian academic courses, Saturday night parties, or even the casual hook-up culture alone that draw students away from the Church. Rather, the bigger issue is their lack of preparedness to face such obstacles and turn to Christ and His Church when college life gets difficult.


“’The problem arises from the inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group.’ Kinnaman pointed to research findings showing that ‘only a small minority of young Christians has been taught to think about matters of faith, calling, and culture. Fewer than one out of five have any idea how the Bible ought to inform their scholastic and professional interests. And most lack adult mentors or meaningful friendships with older Christians who can guide them through the inevitable questions that arise during the course of their studies. In other words, the university setting does not usually cause the disconnect; it exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples [emphasis added].’’


The Barna Group further points out that many young people feel “emotionally disconnected from church before their 16th birthday.” This changes the conversation about preparing our young people for college entirely. Instead of putting our primary emphasis on teaching high schoolers how to stay out of trouble or how to intellectually assent to a set of Orthodox tenets, our emphasis has to be on forming whole persons who have internalized God’s love and His commandments and who know where to turn when they face the world’s challenges.


So here’s our challenge to parents, youth workers, catechetical school teachers, and parish priests:


Before you send your kids off to college and to OCF, give them a lifetime of love, knowledge, and faith. What you do in the parish and the home the first eighteen years of their lives will impact their college careers far more than anything campus ministry can provide them in four short years. Specifically, here are three things they need to face the challenges of college life:

They need to know they are loved.

This may sound obvious, but one of the points the Barna research brings to light is the need for faithful, unwavering Christian mentors and peers for our youth. Our kids need to know that our love--and by extension, the Church’s love--for them is unconditional. They need to know this through our actions and not only our words.


Children should know that their parents, grandparents, godparents, teachers, priests--the whole Church community--cares for them and can be relied upon in good times and in bad. This means giving them space for mistakes, showing them the path of repentance, and offering them true forgiveness when they fall. More than perfect children, we should pray for and raise repentant children who know not only God’s expectations for life but His mercy and love.


More specifically, our children should have connections with individuals in the parish wrought in this kind of love. Long before the Barna group pointed out that young Christians need people of strong faith to be their mentors, the Church offered each and every Christian this very relationship in their godparents. And even if godparents don’t live nearby, our youth should have opportunities to spend time with adults of all ages to witness their faith in action and be loved unconditionally outside of the home.

They need to know how to think and do for themselves.

Starting in middle school, the goal of our catechetical programs must be to teach our children how to ask and answer the right questions. In their school classrooms, they are being taught to think critically, analyze, research, and draw conclusions on their own on all sorts of topics, but too often, we aren’t doing the same in Sunday School and GOYA.


This means we need to create a space to hear their questions, their doubts, and their personal opinions even if they are not fully in line with the Church’s teaching. While remaining unwavering in our own devotion to the teachings of Christ in His Church, we need to be prepared to let our young people disagree with us, challenge us, and come to terms with the Church’s teaching in their own way. We do not need to be afraid of doubt. Doubt is a catalyst for deeper faith when we view it as a calling to know Christ more intimately rather than as a challenge to an ethical or institutional expectation.


We want our kids to ask the tough questions (and find the answers to them) in the context of our unconditional love with peers and mentors that pray for them and desire that they come to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That way, they are prepared to face the challenges and questions which they will inevitably face on campus when the context is less than supportive and the questions are not posed to sharpen their faith but to tear it down.

They need to know Christ.

As Kinnaman points out, the real problem with our young people is not that college life turned them from faith to unbelief, but that their faith was weak when they arrived on campus. Like the seed that falls on stony ground and is easily uprooted in the parable of the sower, the faith of too many of our young people is not deeply rooted in their hearts.


It is our responsibility as parents and teachers to make sure that our kids don’t just know about Jesus, as if He were a character in a novel or a subject to be studied in a textbook, but know Him personally in prayer and worship. Bring them to liturgy. Say morning and evening prayers as a family. Pray at the table. Read Scripture. Introduce your children to the saints who love Christ with all their being. Turn to God in prayer in times of distress and in times of thanksgiving. When they are raised in an environment where Christ is always at the center, our children will come to know Him and rely upon Him truly, and they will not be swayed by the world when its temptations combat them.


Our children will face all sorts of challenges--both expected and unexpected--when they leave our homes and go out on their own. It’s inevitable. But these challenges need not be feared. If our children are raised with love and forgiveness, given the chance to ask tough questions, and have met Christ themselves, the trials of college will be the fire in which their faith becomes purified like gold in a furnace rather than the place where it is burned up like chaff.


May it be so, and may God bless you and your children as they enter college life.


Photo credits:


College: Depositphotos


Love: Depositphotos


Thinking: Depositphotos


Jesus: Depositphotos

Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) is the campus ministry agency of the Assembly of Bishops. To make sure your students are connected to an OCF chapter this fall, visit our website at www.ocf.net/firstfortydays to submit their contact information.


Christina Andresen serves as the Manager of Chapter Relations for OCF. She loves working with students to help them grow in faith as leaders on campus, in the Church, and in the world. She currently lives in Dallas, TX with her OCF sweetheart Daniel (they met on Real Break) and their daughters.


Originally published in The Orthodox Observer, "July/Aug 2016." Reprinted with permission.


Four Things to Stay Connected During the Summer

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the summer. Growing up in rural Virginia, the summer meant spending long days mostly alone. As I went off to college, the summer signaled a disconnection from my friends I had grown to see as family. At the same time, summertime also meant a welcome end to what seemed like a never-ending barrage of papers and assignments. So I welcomed the summer because it meant a chance to finally breathe.

The arrival of summer is also an end to the usual routine of the rest of the year. Sometimes, this might translate to “taking off” from the Liturgy much like we’d take off from our studies. This disconnection from our faith during the summer can set us up for a bad start up when we go back to school. Like with working out (so I hear), we need to stick to practicing our faith for it not to become just a routine, but a productive and life-giving activity.

So how can we stay connected to our faith and to Christ during the summer? Here are four things you might want to consider to bolster your faith today.


1. Include the Church in your future plans

Are you about to head off to college, or are you in high school looking at schools? Then make sure to include the Church in your deliberations. Is there an Orthodox Church nearby? What about Orthodox Christian Fellowship? Do a simple google search, or check out the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops website to find a canonical Orthodox Church in the area.

Have you just graduated college, and you’re either looking for work or preparing for that big move? Then I challenge you to find out what churches are in the area of that new job. Just as you’d check to see if you’re living in a safe area or an area with culture, make sure you’ll have a church to attend.

Whether you’re on the college hunt, or you’re going off to college, or moving to a new job this summer, make the Church a priority in your search. Having a community of faith nearby will ensure that family is never far away.

2. Attend more church services

During the school year, we seem to find all sorts of legitimate excuses for skipping Liturgy. We have to study, we have sports practice, we’re tired from studying all night Saturday...the list goes on and on. But during the summer, we have opportunities to go to services we might not be able to during the school year. For example, when was the last time you went to a weekday service besides Holy Week? Most of our communities have weekday liturgies and vespers services throughout the month. Check your church calendar and try one out.

Another option is to visit a different Orthodox parish in your area. It’s easy to become so parochial-minded, or so focused just on our community, that we forget that the Orthodox world is much bigger than just our local parish. I have benefited a lot from attending Antiochian, Ukrainian, and Russian Orthodox parishes over the years. Each bears their own traditions and ways of doing things, yet all express the same one Orthodox faith.

So attend a weekday liturgy, or visit another community this summer. You won’t regret it!

3. Read an Orthodox book

When we’re in school, we can’t even think of reading for pleasure. A book? What’s that?! All we know are the books we have to read for class. But what happens during the summer? At a certain point, we start to twiddle our thumbs in boredom even if we don’t want to admit it. So why not take up an Orthodox book to fill our time with? Here are three recommendations that I can’t recommend enough: Wounded by Love by Saint Porphyrios, The Way of the Pilgrim translated by Helen Bocovcin, and The Mountain of Silence by Kyriakos C. Markides. Each of these books will bring a depth of understanding to your faith and will leave you thirsting for more.

It goes without saying that we should be reading spiritual texts alongside Scripture, never in the place of it. So pick up that Bible of yours during your quiet time too.

4. Travel

During the school year, we can hardly get away for a weekend. But during the summer, we have the chance to travel and to see new things. Once we’re all done with college and we’re working, we’re never going to have the amount of vacation we have during high school or college. So take advantage of it! Set aside some money to visit holy sites in a traditionally Orthodox country like Greece, Romania, or Russia. Or take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

If you can’t manage a trip outside the country, visit the relics of American saints like St. Raphael of Brooklyn who rests at Antiochian Village in Bolivar, PA or St. Alexis Toth whose relics are at St. Tikhon’s in South Canaan, PA. Take a trip to San Francisco to visit the incorrupt relics of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. If you’re in Boston, visit the grave of our beloved Bishop Gerasimos of Abydos on the campus of Hellenic College Holy Cross. Summer is also a great opportunity to spend a few days at an Orthodox monastery for a personal retreat. Just make sure to call ahead of time to make sure they’re available to host you.

Travel, especially international travel, has a way of maturing us, of giving us experiences that give us a new perspective on life. The money we spend on trips like these are an investment not only in our future (it shows potential employers that we’ve seen a thing or two) but is also an investment in our spiritual life.

So travel while you can! Visit holy sites and recharge your spirit with a trip you’ll never forget.


The summer can be a time of boredom and spiritual languishing, or it can be a time of growth and of new experiences. Use this time to plan for where you’ll go to church during whatever stage is next for you. Check out some new services, and pick up a new spiritual book to read. And, if you have the resources, take a trip abroad to experience your faith in a different place.

What are your plans for the summer? What will you do to stay connected to the Church and to Christ today?


Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. 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 and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos


Podcast Monday - OCF Real Break

Check out these awesome podcasts detailing the incredible work happening around the world on Orthodox Christian Fellowship’s Real Break trips!
Real Break offers alternative spring break trips for college students.  They are generally service driven or a pilgrimage to a sacred place. Students from across North America are travelling to places like Guatemala, Constantinople, Alaska, New Orleans, and Romania. This year's Real Break season started last week with trips to Detroit and Honduras.
Part 1 of today’s featured podcast, Real Break: Detroit, explores what the OCF team is doing there.  The OCF blog also sheds some light on what the Real Breakers experienced. Students worked side by side with members of Orthodox Detroit Outreach, which serves the needs of the local community daily. 
Another group of students went to the St. Nektarios Orphanage in Honduras. Listen to the Young Adults explain what they experienced as they interacted with the children and visited hospitals.  
Time and time again, Real Break has been described as life changing.  Students often go expecting to make an impact but in turn are even more powerfully impacted.  
If you’re a college student or know one that might benefit from such a trip, encourage them to participate next year.  It’s time very well spent.
As you listen to these podcasts (and read the blogs), consider:

1. Why does service to others have such a profound impact on the one doing the serving?

2. Are there places or times of the year that may be best for service projects?

3. Do you live in a community that could especially use your services?

4. What special talents do you have that could benefit others?

-Nick Lionas, Young Adult Coordinator

After Graduation

After the Graduation Party

As a little tangent from our Lenten reflections, I'd like to pass along an idea that was shared with me recently (thanks to Kay Nicolakis of Peabody, MA for this one! She posed the question and we thought about it together over coffee).

Over the next month or so, seniors will be graduating from high school. By now, many have already selected their next steps: college, a year off to do community service, training into a trade, the military, or other options. They may already know if they are staying home or moving away. All of these transitions can cause excitement and anxiety. What can they expect there? What will living away from home be like? What will all this independence mean for me?  Also, young people will begin serious reflections on the directions that their lives may take, far more serious than at younger ages. Issues of career and vocation; lifestyles, dating, courtship, and marriage and sex; what is my future place in society? and how can I live out my faith away from home, away from parental influence, and become an "Adult Orthodox Christian"?

Might the Church have something to offer at this moment to share?

Gather up the high school graduates. Meet for three or four times as a group. Equip them for the transition.
Discuss the questions.  Put a few books and resources into their hands - a Bible, an intro to Orthodox Christianity, links to good sources, apps and the like.
Provide the names of local OCFs, local parishes, military chaplains, all with contact information easily obtained online. 
Put this information into the hands of someone on the other side, to the local OCFs and parishes, saying "Jim X will be moving to your area to attend Y College." Please have someone look him up.

Let these young people know that even though they may be away from home, moving into new roles, they are still part of the Church and the Church still cares about them.

Other than a few instances, we are probably talking about no more than half a dozen young people per parish. Shouldn't be too hard or too costly.

Then.... while they are away....  Plan for their return. At Thanksgiving. At Christmas. Most are home, wanting to reconnect with friends. Create an event.   Network these young people into and through the parish for summer jobs and summer internships. 

Don't just send them off, hoping for their continued involvement or return.

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