Every December, hundreds of Orthodox Christian college students flock to one of two simultaneously held regional conferences during the week after the Great Feast of the Nativity. As in past years, the conferences sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Fellowship [OCF] were held at Antiochian Village, Bolivar, PA; and Saint Iakovos Retreat Center, Kansasville, WI, December 27 – 30, 2019.
The conference programs combined worship, fellowship, and discussions and presentations on how to become witnesses to Christ on campus and in the secular world. The Orthodox Church in America, funded in part by the Stewards provided scholarships to ten students from the Orthodox Church in America who otherwise would not have been able to participate.
This year Archpriest Sergius Halvorsen, Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program; Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary [SVOTS] was the key note speaker at the Midwest Conference. Fr. Sergius offers this reflection on his experience of this year’s conference.
On Friday, December 27, as I stood in front of more than ninety college students at the OCF College Conference Midwest at the St. Iakovos Retreat Center in Kansasville WI, and as I began the first of three keynote addresses that I would deliver over the weekend, I couldn’t help but think of the OCF college conference that I attended thirty years ago that changed my life forever. I was baptized and chrismated in the Orthodox Church during my college years, and from the very beginning, I thought that maybe I had a vocation to serve the Church. I once asked a senior priest about possibly going to seminary. His first question was, “Do you have a college degree?” I told him that I was close to finishing my BA. “What is your major?” he asked. “Biology,” I said. Then he harrumphed and said, “Well…that doesn’t have much to do with theology does it?” That was the end of the discussion, and almost the end of my vocation. A few months later I was at a summer OCF college conference at the Antiochian Village, and Fr. Thomas Hopko was the keynote speaker. Of course I knew who Fr. Tom was…in those days it seemed like everyone did! We listened to his lectures on tape and read his books and knew that he was Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Over the course of the retreat, I waited for a moment when he wasn’t surrounded by too many people, and with all the courage I could muster, I introduced myself and asked about going to seminary. He cheerfully asked me about where I was from, where I was going to college, and then he asked me the question that I was dreading, “What is your major?” I sheepishly responded, “biology,” fearing another bad response. Fr. Tom thought for a moment, and then he said, “Biology, that is wonderful! You know, St. Isaac the Syrian said that the Christian must love God, love neighbor, and love all of creation…including the lizards. And for someone who lived in the desert, that’s really saying something!”
I shared this story with the students at the OCF conference and told them that no matter what you are studying in college, God is calling you to serve, to follow His commandments, and to build up the Body of Christ. The theme of the retreat was from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, “The Light Shines in the Darkness” and over a remarkable three days of prayer, reflection, and fellowship, we all had an opportunity to allow the light of Christ to burn more brightly in our hearts. The retreat was entirely planned and run by college students, and I’m deeply grateful to all of them for the amazing work they did. The retreat also included a dynamic group of speakers including Fr. Panagiotis Boznos, Steven Christoforou, Paul Karos and Katrina Bitar. The diversity of the speakers gave the college students a concrete image of how Christian discipleship and vocation takes innumerable forms: lay and clergy; male and female; young and old; God calls every one of us to radiate the light of Christ in the darkness.
Coming away from the OCF College Conference Midwest reminded me of just how important it is to nurture and support our college students through the work of OCF. Thinking back on my own life, I was reminded of just how crucial on OCF experience can be to a young person discerning a vocation to serve Christ and His Holy Church. But my three days at the conference also reminded how remarkably life-giving it is for older people, like myself, to serve young people. In helping to kindle and nurture the fire of Christian faith in others, our own Orthodox Christian faith is renewed and strengthened. Glory to Jesus Christ!