Theme: Experiences of Campus Ministry
by Dr. Demetra Perlegas
by Deacon Alexander Cadman
by Michael Andrzejewski
by Protodeacon Michael Sochka
More information on our authors and contributors can be found here.
Theme: Experiences of Campus Ministry
by Dr. Demetra Perlegas
by Deacon Alexander Cadman
by Michael Andrzejewski
by Protodeacon Michael Sochka
More information on our authors and contributors can be found here.
by Dr. Demetra Perlegas
My first days of graduate school at the University of Virginia included a visit to the activities fair in the Amphitheater. After some wandering amidst the crowd on this hot and humid late summer day, I encountered a table with an icon of the Theotokos, and was elated to see Orthodoxy’s presence on a modern-day, secular college campus. Sitting there at the Orthodox Christian Fellowship table was a charming and sincere undergraduate named Scott. He warmly welcomed me to my new University community and to the OCF. I would never have imagined that my new friend, the token Roman Catholic student who loved the OCF, would engage in a battle with leukemia five years later. Scott Matthew reposed in the Lord at the age of 23 as a victorious and courageous Orthodox Christian—with the Jesus prayer on his lips during his final hours. From that time, I have learned that every person who enters my life is truly placed there by God. My friendships in Christ that began in the OCF still continue to strengthen my Faith to this day.
I spent several years in a PhD program at UVA. During that long and arduous academic experience, I never thought I would see the light of graduation at the end of the tunnel. Looking back on that journey, it was absolutely vital for me to participate in the worship, educational, and social activities of the OCF and to regularly engage in the sacramental life of the Church. These consistent activities helped to deepen my friendships, cultivate my prayer life, and most importantly to preserve my Faith. As a group, the OCF endured many times of suffering together, such as deaths of friends and family members, the fatal shootings at our neighboring Virginia Tech, disappointments in relationships, and other daily challenges faced in university life. These difficult times eventually blossomed into blessings. From my experience in campus ministry I learned that living the true Christian life toward salvation happens only through relationships.
Christ gave us two essential commandments: “…thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength…and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.” (from the Gospel of Saint Mark 12:30-31) Through actively participating in the sacramental life of the Church, we enter into a relationship with God in tangible ways—we speak to Him through prayer, we make room for him in our hearts through fasting and confession, we serve Him by giving alms to those in physical and spiritual need, and we literally bring Him into our lives by receiving His precious Body and Blood. If we simply make the choice to enter into a relationship with Him in these ways, the grace of the Holy Spirit then helps us to truly love God with our entire being.
The concept of making a “choice” particularly resonates with college students because this is the time when they have the opportunity to make their own life decisions. To love Christ is to bring Him into your daily life. The way by which this happens is not by a superficial fulfillment of Church obligations, but through a continual labor of love. Christ says to us in the Gospel of Saint John 14:15, “If ye love Me, keep My commandments.” Following Christ’s commandments is an act of love for Him. At Scott Matthew’s funeral, this Gospel verse was read from Saint John 5:25, “…the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heeded it shall live.” This gives us great hope in the Resurrection, which is directly connected to living a life in Christ—if one heeds His voice by doing His commandments out of love, then that one will not die, but live eternally with Christ. Scott Matthew listened to the word of God and enacted it in his daily life out of love for Him. On that day, he did not die, but we trust that he passed on into the next life to peacefully expect the Resurrection of the dead and the life to come.
Christ also encourages us to love others. This implies the development of relationships. Because relationships require love, a decision to love a person must occur, not motivated by sentimental feelings on their own. These two commandments to love God and man are not mutually exclusive, but they are strongly intertwined with one another. When Christ speaks of love, He refers to “αγάπη” (agape), which means sacrificial love. It is the love that Christ the Bridegroom has voluntarily shown for His bride, humanity, by His labors of suffering, death, and rising from the dead. He loves us unconditionally, and so we are to strive to love Him and our neighbors in the same sacrificial way. Achieving perfect agape may not be humanly possible, but we can start by choosing to just DO it. The rest will come from God’s grace. Real examples of labors of love are found in the lives of the Saints. They purified themselves from sins, and we are able to do the same, through regular participation in Holy Confession and Holy Communion. They constantly glorified God by their lives, loved their neighbors and enemies by praying for them, giving them alms, and even laying down their lives for them and for God. Their labors of love helped them achieve their perfection in Christ. Although we may not be called to the types of martyrdom of the Saints, we are still presented with opportunities to die to ourselves, and to be transformed for our salvation by loving sacrificially within relationships.
Take the opportunity if you are in college or graduate school to cultivate your personal relationship with Christ by encountering Him in the sacramental life of the Church and in campus ministry efforts. Even if you are beyond your university days, strive to deepen your personal relationships and be willing to stand by your friends, family, and future spouse during times of both joy and suffering, and be confident that these labors of love and God’s grace will lead us all on the path of salvation.
By Deacon Alexander Cadman,
When I returned to my alma mater three-and-a-half years ago to help guide the very campus ministry that led me from agnosticism to Christ and into Orthodox Church, I presumed I had it made. Having been a part and product of the established and well-known Orthodox Christian Fellowship at the Pennsylvania State University, served in the leadership of other successful groups here prior to that, and studied postmodernism and the Millennial generation while researching my thesis at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I was sure nothing would stand in my way. Yet my first semester as chaplain didn’t quite go as well as I planned and we didn’t experience the growth we had expected. What went wrong?
It is not as if we weren’t doing all the “right things”. Our group was very active: we held weekly Bible studies on campus, made daily trips together to the dining hall and the eateries downtown, brought in the “big name” speakers, and attended every college conference and retreat within a day’s drive of us. And we had technology on our side—or so we thought. We used Facebook, web sites, and text messaging to tell the world how much we were learning and how much fun we were having. Even though we were getting the word out about everything OCF was doing, Penn State students were deciding almost unanimously not to join us.
To be clear: the activities listed above are essential to a vibrant college fellowship. Indeed, if we forego regular meetings, socials, and the occasional trip, searching undergraduates and graduates—whether they be “cradle” Orthodox or inquiring newcomers—will simply look elsewhere. Knowing this, we fervently kept our legacy programs and events running—even increasing them when attendance began to plateau—burning out our leadership team in the process. Something was missing and we weren’t sure what… Then, it hit us.
We have all heard the saying, “do one thing and do it better than everyone else,” but that’s typically easier said than done: A campus minister or student leader will undoubtedly spend a fair amount of time preparing for the weekly study (as one should), and yet there will always be some people who inevitably decide they can find the same or better information online. There will always be another student organization—especially on America’s pluralistic campuses—with more resources, members, or staff vying for every freshman. And no matter what the group plans to do, it will probably never be considered the most educational or “fun” thing to do on campus, especially when the evil one has convinced so many of our young adults they need to fill the void in their lives with the trappings of alcohol, drugs, and sex. With all of our attempts to outdo ourselves and the various things competing for everyone’s attention, we were losing sight of the one quality that makes all of our campus ministry efforts unique. What we and only we can offer is Truth Himself, Jesus Christ, continually and completely experienced through the mysteries of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. On the campus, young adults are constantly exposed to watered-down religion and confronted with moral relativism and atheism. Of those who have entered the doors of a church, most have done so without the intention or ability to fully worship God. Many crave the opposite.
Before the next semester began, our executive committee met and began to remove all the obstacles to church attendance we had unintentionally built up. We realized we were doing way too much, actually hindering existing and potential members from being the Body of Christ. Finally appreciating the demands of student schedules, we created a calendar and crafted communication that stressed first the importance of parish participation. Weekly meetings and monthly student dinner and socials continued, to be sure, but we drastically freed up our agenda to send a clear message that an encounter with Christ through the Church’s sacraments was paramount. We also resolved to do away with any undue expectation or pressure on our part that everyone had to attend every event.
The turnaround we witnessed was dramatic. Students felt freer to be who God called them to be. Not only did attendance at Vespers and Liturgy go up, so did the number of people joining in on other parish functions. And while we have always had the unwavering support and dedication of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in State College, parishioners of all ages began to notice the increased involvement from the University community. In turn, when members of our chapter held special appeals for mission trips and charity fundraisers, our parish family faithfully responded and gave over and above the generous amount already allotted in the parish budget for campus ministry. Building up the Church beyond our parish by investing in the spiritual lives of our next generation became not just Holy Trinity’s mission statement; it became its collective calling.
We cannot expect our campus ministry efforts to grow if they exist solely to keep its members busy and self-centered, as opposed to focusing on those who aren’t yet part of the group. Moreover chapters simply cannot function properly if they take on characteristics of “parachurch” organizations; acting as if the church doesn’t matter, like many of our counterparts in heterodox traditions. A college experience meant to prepare young adults for what their futures have to offer cannot be complete without the spiritual formation that can only come through life in Christ in His Church. Through the Church’s sacraments, all of college life can be sanctified and one can become a full member of the saving and healing community of Christ. May our Lord bless all of His congregations to truly become “home away from homes” where students’ vocations can be discovered, explored, and fostered.
By Michael Andrzejewski
College is an important time of transition in the life of any young person. It is a time when one first begins to enjoy some form of independence and must identify his or her values and choose how one should uphold them. It is a critical period of decision-making in life and if one chooses to not make the church part of their life at that point, it will only become more and more difficult to do so. This is one reason why campus ministry is so important, helping our young adults make that choice.
I know for myself personally, and for many others, it did indeed become the time in my life when I decided to be a practicing Orthodox Christian. I had grown up attending Liturgy every Sunday, but I found that I knew very little about my faith and what made it different than the other denominations of Christianity. This humbling realization occurred after my first few meetings of the Orthodox group on my campus. I had been initially hesitant in participating in this group because I, like most college students, am weary of dogmatic positions and seemingly hypocritical and judgmental pronouncements. It turned out to be very much the opposite. There were discussions on complex parts of Orthodox theology, references to historical events within the church, and quotations from church fathers I had never heard. I found this all to be very intellectually stimulating as well as spiritually edifying, as I began to understand my faith and its fullness. Without campus ministry I would never have ignited the passion for my faith that I now possess
I was blessed enough to have a stable chapter of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at my school (University of Connecticut), but unfortunately there are many schools that do not have one. Ours followed the simple of premise of meeting at a local coffee shop with the chapter paying for the coffee. We were also joined by one or two of the local priests and even occasionally our local bishop. Their presence meant a great deal to me since it showed that they cared about building a relationship with us as students, even in the midst of their own busy lives. They were also able to relate to us without speaking to us as if we were children. The connection to local parishes that flowed from the involvement of local clergy also motivated me because I could see how our group made a difference, whether it was singing in the choir, cleaning, or hosting coffee hour. Parishioners were also interested in hearing about our studies and plans for the future, which showed an active interest in and concern for us as members of their greater family in Christ. The bishop, the priests, the parishes all helped us to feel that we were part of the greater church as a whole and in communion with all other Orthodox Christians everywhere; something we can easily forget as we get caught up in our own routines and the distractions in the bubble of campus life.
The college campus is a perfect environment for ministry, but it is easy to be discouraged with all the behavior that is associated with college culture. Despite the constant presence of these temptations, however, part of the culture of college is also discovery and inquiry. Students are asking the important questions of life and why things happen or what’s really important. I think for me, the best answers were not ones spoken to me, but rather the examples of what I saw. There is something immensely powerful about seeing a group of college students that made the choice to consistently get to Liturgy every Sunday, especially when many of them may came from families where that is not the norm. They made it a priority in their week the plug into the sacramental life of the greater Church. Even at the end of the undergraduate experience it is never too late for college ministry. In fact, I found it most important then as I was attempting to discover my spiritual vocation that God has for me, as well as planning for my professional occupation, and whether or not they could line up with each other.
I am reminded of an experience my senior year of meeting another student at the involvement and activities fair for campus organizations. He happened to be tabling for his organization next to where my fraternity was tabling, and he started talking to me about his interest in Orthodoxy. He had recognized me from our OCF chapter’s poster board and by the Cross I was wearing. It was a memorable experience, someone had actually read our board, and I had an opportunity to share with someone else all the knowledge and experiences that campus ministry had given to me. He was also overjoyed to find a group of people his age who were actually interested in their faith and had a forum to discuss it. He started attending our meetings and ultimately ended up being baptized into the Orthodox faith. Initially, coming from staunch atheism, having an Orthodox group on campus was something he was incredibly grateful for. It provided him with a group of peers who could relate to the same struggles that he was having, an “Orthodox Support Group”. It further provided the group with new questions and topics to discuss as we all remembered our own reasons for embracing faith in a God who loves us and is personally involved in our lives.
Overall, campus ministry is a crucial ministry of the Church because college is more and more a crucial part of life for most people in our culture.
By Protodeacon Michael Sochka
It has been my good fortune to be involved in various aspects of campus ministry. As a student at Yale University (1982-1986) I was one of several undergraduates that re-started the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF). Like so many, Yale’s OCF had its start in the 1960s only to wane in the 1970s. With the encouragement and help of Fr. Michael Westerberg, we worked to get the OCF re-registered as a university organization, planned events on campus, coordinated rides to church on the weekends, and advertised our vesper services and informal meetings held on Thursday evenings in the small chapel at the base of Harkness Bell Tower.
Because we did not have Divine Liturgy on campus on a regular basis, our sacramental life became linked with the local parishes. I remember getting a ride to my first Liturgy as a freshman. All the students waited on the corner of York and Elm by the old Yale Co-op. After chit-chatting for a few minutes, our ride showed up. It was a powder puff blue Cadillac driven by Victor Panko. He was one of the most generous people that I’ve ever met and he gave rides to any and every church service. He was also willing to pick up from the airport or the train station and on more than one occasion drove some of the students to go shopping in Stamford, CT. Very soon after arriving at Holy Transfiguration Church (OCA) I remember being greeted by Mary Makiska. She took it upon herself to welcome everyone to church and especially to take an interest in all of the students that showed up. At the coffee hour after Liturgy she would take the students through the line and make sure that they never had to pay. She was truly the “doorkeeper in the house of God” that the Psalms speak of.
Being part of the OCF and establishing a more structured Orthodox presence on campus was great training for the ministry that I now have as an assistant chaplain at Princeton University. Our chaplain and spiritual advisor, Archpriest Daniel Skvir ’66 (one of the co-founders of the OCF at Princeton), frequently points out that the OCF at Princeton is the oldest continuously running OCF in the country. It may not be the first or oldest, but it has been active on campus and (for all but its first two years) has had Liturgy on campus every Sunday of the academic year since 1964. I was ordained on campus at our little chapel in Murray-Dodge Hall and have served as the deacon there for the past fourteen years.
My experience as a student and my vocation as an assistant campus chaplain lead me to be passionate about campus ministry. Campus ministry matters. It matters not only in the life of its members but also in the community at-large. Firstly, we are called to support one another. As the name Alma Mater suggests, life on campus is the continuation the life that students have with their families. As chaplains we hope that our ministry also sustains, nourishes and supports the continuation of the liturgical and spiritual life that students have back in their home parishes.
We are also called to witness to the truth and to have our outward and inward life resonant with the Gospel so that we are “thinking and doing such things as are well pleasing” to God. When so much of society has a message that is antithetical to belief in general and Christianity in particular, campus ministry and the camaraderie that it fosters become a lifeline and tether to the reality of the life preached in the Gospel. We know from the historical study of theology that we cannot be a Christian alone. It seems that this is especially true on a college campus where one’s beliefs are constantly challenged (Not that challenge is a bad thing!). College is a time to own one’s faith and to explore it.
In college I can remember talking late into the night with my Orthodox Christian friends about faith and science, political issues, the understanding of our faith in relation to the philosophy, anthropology, and psychology we were studying. These are big topics that never really have a final answer. I feel like I am still struggling with them and find through the years that students still want to discuss these and a host of other issues. We encourage that kind of discussion in Bible studies, retreats, and talks that we regularly hold on campus. In this regard, campus ministry really is the crossroad between Athens and Jerusalem, the Academy and the Church.
I end this reflection with the petition that we say at every Liturgy at Princeton:”Again we pray for this university, for its faculty, staff, students, benefactors and alumni, that their hearts and minds may be open to the knowledge of Thy Truth. We pray Thee, O Lord, hearken and have mercy.”
Demetra Perlegas received a PhD in Physiology from UVA and works in Charlottesville, Virginia, teaching college anatomy/physiology and working for a start-up company. She is the youth coordinator at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, a mentor to the current students of the UVA OCF and authors a blog entitled The Quiet Revolution .
Rev. Deacon Alexander Cadman is a 1999 graduate of Penn State University and a 2004 graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Upon graduating from St. Vladimir’s, he moved to Chicago to establish a campus preaching ministry under the auspicies of the late Archbishop JOB and was ordained by His Eminence to the diaconate a year later. In February 2008, he became the Chaplain of the Penn State Orthodox Christian Fellowship and serves as the Director of Ministries for HolyTrinity Orthodox Church in State College, PA, where he lives with his wife, Jennifer, and three children.
Michael Andrzejewski grew up in Somers, Connecticut. His home parish is All Saints Orthodox Church in Hartford, CT. He is a 2011 graduate from the University of Connecticut, receiving a BA in History. His is the immediate past president of the OCF chapter there and also served on the National OCF’s Student Advisory Board. He loves dinosaurs.
Since 1997 Protodeacon Michael Sochka has served as the assistant chaplain for the Orthodox Christian Fellowship at Princeton University. Fr. Michael grew up on Long Island where his father, the late Archpriest John, was rector of St. Andrew’s Church in Dix Hills. He attended Yale University and graduated in 1986 with a B.A. in Religious Studies. He met and married his wife, Leslie Beres, while working and studying at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. The couple lives in Morrisville, Pennsylvania with their daughter Elizabeth. Protodeacon Michael also works for IBM as an information developer.