From Pt. 1: I worry that, as FOCUS Executive Director Seraphim Danckaert writes, we are not contributing to “the most neglected facet of spiritual life and revitalization” in our ministry and parish life: loving, reverent relationships with people and communities that suffer from social injustice. And as we see our national life become more contemptuous and divided, my worry increases. What are we doing? What am I doing? Who will help the huddled masses on my Facebook feed, the countless statistics about food insecurity and families in shelters numbing and breaking my heart at the same time?
These issues are complex, and my feelings of anger and powerlessness are real. But what’s also real is this: my four-year-old has a Christmas book called “Who Is Coming to Our House.” The story describes the many preparations that the animals undertake to prepare for the holy family’s coming: stacking hay, sweeping floors, and spinning beautiful webs to decorate the cowstall where Mary gives birth. It is a sweet retelling of the Nativity narrative, and it illuminates two important things for us: what we give, no matter how small, is necessary if it’s a help to our neighbor, and in the Christmas season, we are brought to see our Lord as a fragile baby, sleeping in a cowstall, his body the same as our bodies, our vulnerability shared with him.
Christ took on flesh, not out of duty or theological principle, but out of love. St. Athanasius writes that, in Christ’s incarnation, he “did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men.” What is this healing? What do we need Christ to teach us?
The answers to those questions, thankfully, are simple. What is healed is our separation from God and from each other, and what we need Christ to teach us is what he has already spoken: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” It is easy to see “the least of these” as abstractions, or as people suffering from issues that are distant from us. But what Carl’s story shows us is that privilege and status cannot protect us from brokenness. What happened to Carl could happen to you, or to me, for any number of reasons: poverty, anxiety, disability, a bounced check, a sudden illness, a lost job, a dying neighborhood. None of us is immune from suffering, and no single person is too far off to befriend and serve and love. As Carl says, we are all “brothers and sisters.” If we ourselves are so vulnerable, yet so connected, what does it mean for each of us to serve and love?
For me, and hopefully for you, it means giving more to the work of FOCUS North America. My financial gift, though small, can keep Carl serving food to many more people in the coming year. It can help FOCUS Detroit director Eric Shanburn hire plumbers for struggling Detroit families whose pipes have burst and whose paychecks don’t stretch far enough to cover cost. It can help the Renovation Angel project employ more at-risk youth to rehab kitchens; it can provide a Blessing Bag to a homeless neighbor on the street. But most importantly, it can connect me to FOCUS’s ongoing, life-giving work in the lives of men, women, and children whose struggles may be different than mine, but whose hearts are the same to God. If the animals in the stable could prepare a place for Christ, what more should we do when we see him in the faces of those whom FOCUS North America seeks to serve?
In this season of giving, it’s time we change the language. It’s time to see that, rather than donating, we are transforming lives and communities – and God willing, ourselves – through our financial contributions. It’s time to stop scrolling through news segments and start seeing, with clear eyes, the world that Christ came to heal. As you consider what you can give, know that me and my family are giving right alongside you, and that each dollar given is a step towards a transformed life, your own life included.
By Allison Backous Troy
“I try to change the language,” Carl says, his voice deep and direct. “These are our brothers and sisters…our citizens, our community.” At St. Herman House Cleveland, “changing the language” is key to the ongoing transformation that Carl Cook, head chef, sees in both his life and the lives of those who come to St. Herman’s for food, resources, and fellowship. He’s proud of the fact that, since 2012, over 70,000 hot meals have been served annually at St. Herman’s. But Carl also knows that words, like meals, have the power to nourish and restore.
How does Carl know this? And how does his ability to see the human face in a long dinner line speak to you, and me? He’s been in those lines himself. Twelve years sober, Carl has known homelessness, hunger, and addiction. His story of transformation is both honest and surprising, challenging and inspiring. For me, it both opens my eyes and encourages my heart, which is more prone to worry than to hope. And for FOCUS North America, it’s a living icon – in Carl’s story of change and renewal, we not only see a life transfigured, but a whole community transformed.
Carl’s journey to being St. Herman’s head chef starts in a surprising place – a middle class town, his father a politician and his mother a loving, doting presence. What plagued him was not a lack of privilege, but a learning disability. Carl was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age, and its presence in his life brought him serious challenges and shame. His family “hired the best tutors…(and) my parents made sure I had the best education and the best tools,” but his confidence and sense of self took a very direct hit. The stress of his learning disability led him to secretly try a sip of alcohol at a family party, and by the age of twelve, he was sneaking alcohol into thermoses on camping trips; after culinary school, heroin and cocaine entered his life. He comments on how his journey into addiction came from a deeply personal, spiritual need. “Your only sickness,” he says, “is secrets. I hid it from my parents, I did different things my parents wanted me to do to make them happy. I kept (my addictions) secret from my parents for many, many years”
By 2005, Carl’s addictions were secrets no longer. After time in prison and alienation from his family, Carl found himself in an alley, drunk on wine, hoping that the police didn’t see him sneaking alcohol. He felt “comfortable, too comfortable” with his addictions and his isolation. And suddenly, he says “God just sent this clarity. My whole body froze. I could hear my (dead) father just talking to me…I had to make a very profound decision.”
That decision was sobriety. Ten months later, Carl was sober and working for a nonprofit’s hunger program, and in 2013, he took over as head chef for St. Herman’s Cleveland. His experiences on the street shaped his vision towards understanding homeless people as persons, not just statistics or passing faces.
“It starts with the name “the homeless,” he continues. “When we take away the word “homelessness” and look at a person, we may be open to see an individual. It starts with me and my team to look past homelessness and more at the individual and open the door to relationship.”
That word relationship is what strikes me as I look at myself and the work of FOCUS. I consider myself to be an educated advocate for the poor, the homeless, and the socially disenfranchised in America. I share impassioned posts on Facebook, I support FOCUS North America, and as part of a future clergy family, I wonder about the ways Orthodox Christians understand systemic poverty. I worry that, as FOCUS Executive Director Seraphim Danckaert writes, we are not contributing to “the most neglected facet of spiritual life and revitalization” in our ministry and parish life: loving, reverent relationships with people and communities that suffer from social injustice. And as we see our national life become more contemptuous and divided, my worry increases. What are we doing? What am I doing? Who will help the huddled masses on my Facebook feed, the countless statistics about food insecurity and families in shelters numbing and breaking my heart at the same time?
To be continued.
By Allison Backous Troy
“The volunteers are in the final stages of training to be a part of FOCUS Pittsburgh’s new trauma response teams, which will, starting on Thanksgiving Day, respond to homicides in Allegheny County and provide immediate, on-site psychological and mental health care to residents and others affected by the violence.”
“The sessions highlighted some of the challenges families face within contemporary culture. FOCUS North America led a hands-on poverty simulation that helped participants imagine what a life of poverty might resemble and how love should be the response to those who live in such conditions.”
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In June of 2017, FOCUS North America welcomed Seraphim Danckaert as our new Executive Director. Danckaert graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2007. Since then, he has held a series of roles in fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit leadership at three different organizations: Orthodox Christian Network, Princeton Theological Seminary, and St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Anne Danckaert, have five children and live in Detroit, Michigan.
Danckaert’s background in nonprofit leadership as well as his involvement in the Orthodox Church led to his desire to serve with FOCUS. Read on to hear more about his vision for FOCUS’ future.
Welcome to FOCUS, Seraphim! Thanks so much for sitting down with me today. Tell me how your first few weeks have been here at FOCUS.
It’s been an amazing experience to get to know the staff, the volunteers, the donors, and the clergy all over the country who are so dedicated to our mission. We have an incredible network of people in the FOCUS family. I’ve been spending most of my time traveling, introducing myself, and getting to know them and hear their stories. It’s been a real inspiration.
My favorite story right now is from when I visited the Orange County Summer Feeding program. It was a Tuesday, and the kids lined up to receive their lunches. Theo Morse, who’s running the program there this summer, was talking to some of the kids. He said, “Guys, in a couple days, on Thursday, we’re going to do something special. You remember how last week on Thursday we all made nachos together? Well, this week we’re going to make pizzas.” Their eyes got really wide, and one of the kids standing in the front thought for a second and said, “Is tomorrow Thursday?”
It’s a shock to a lot of people to discover that there are hungry kids who probably live only a few miles from their house. The reality is that wherever you are in the United States, there’s a kid just like that little boy in Orange County who doesn’t have enough to eat.
Why did you want to work for FOCUS? What in particular excites you about joining FOCUS supporters in the work that they already do?
For me, it really boils down to faithfulness, if I had to put it in one word. Jesus calls those of us who wish to follow Him to serve the poor. I really believe that if we look to the witness of Scripture and the early Church in particular, the message we see is really clear. When we as members of the Body of Christ do not prioritize our call to care for those in need, then we falter. We falter spiritually as individuals, we falter as families, and I think we especially falter as the Church. So if we wish to serve God, and if we wish to see His Church flourish here in America, we simply have to dedicate more energy, more time, more focus, and more financial commitment to helping the homeless, the poor, and those who are less advantaged in our communities.
I see FOCUS’ mission, the work that it does, being at the very core of the Gospel and the core of our identity as Orthodox Christians. FOCUS in particular is unique among human services charities because of its Orthodox character. There are a lot of great charities that provide food, or clothes, or housing, or jobs, or medical care to those who are in poverty in the United States. But FOCUS does those things in partnership with local Orthodox churches and volunteers. We work in partnership very intentionally so that the people we serve don’t just receive meals, but connect face-to-face with volunteers – Orthodox people of all ages who feel called to serve.
That’s really where transformation happens. That’s what excited me about FOCUS, because I think that doing service with that model is a far more faithful way to serve someone in need. It’s far better for them; it recognizes their inherent dignity as a human person created in God’s image. And quite importantly for the Orthodox Church here in this country, it’s probably one of the most neglected facets of spiritual life and revitalization. If we’re not faithful to God’s very clear direction to make some kind of preferential option for the poor, then we’re simply not going to flourish.
Building on that, which seems to be the core and the mission of FOCUS, what do you as the Executive Director put forth as your vision for FOCUS moving forward?
I want to see FOCUS be a catalyst and a partner working alongside Orthodox churches all over the country to serve the poor in ways that respond to local needs.
There are a few aspects to that vision. One is that we’re looking to strengthen and multiply the efforts that already exist for philanthropic outreach within the Church. We believe that working together across Orthodox jurisdictions and in a more intentional way can have a greater impact. And then the second part of our vision is serving the poor in response to local needs. We don’t want to be another charity that’s doing the same thing, serving the same people with the same programs. When we come into a new area, we look first to the Orthodox community. What are they doing, and in what ways can partnership make their philanthropic work even more effective? Secondly, where is there a gap in the broader community’s efforts? Where is there a need in the local community that no other nonprofit is sufficiently addressing?
As FOCUS develops that mission, how can FOCUS supporters get involved and participate in their local communities?
If you happen to live in one of the cities where we have a very established Center – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Minneapolis – then go visit and get involved as a volunteer if you haven’t already. If you happen to be in one of the four locations where we have smaller programs that are poised for expansion, that’s also a great opportunity. Those places are Columbus; St. Louis; Beaver Falls, PA; and Orange County, CA. We have four very established ministries with a variety of really amazing programs and substantial volunteer opportunities as well as four more junior centers, you could say, where there’s a lot of potential for the future. God-willing, they will become significant ministries in the next year or two.
If you live elsewhere, get in touch with us about hosting a service event in your city or your parish. We have a variety of programs that might be able to come to your town. We do have operations in multiple cities where we don’t have centers, so it’s possible that we could do something with you wherever you are.
Do you have any final thoughts for FOCUS supporters?
We are stronger together. We can do more together, and we can witness to the vitality and faithfulness of the Orthodox Church with far greater clarity if we work together. I think that’s important, because there are many churches and philanthropic organizations within the Orthodox community that are already doing great things. But I think we can do so much more and be such a greater witness if we find ways to build deeper partnerships.
By Addie Pazzynski, Communications Assistant
Beck and Keaton, two high school students from Columbus, Ohio, had no idea how their lives would transform when they signed up to volunteer with FOCUS North America’s Summer Feeding Program. The two suburban teens first volunteered to serve meals to underprivileged kids about halfway through the program’s run last summer, and they quickly became regulars at the site. They even brought their lacrosse team to serve and play with the children who attended. Nathan Smith, the Site Supervisor of Columbus Summer Feeding, described these young men as “magnetic” forces that made Summer Feeding an exciting experience for volunteers and children alike.
Beck and Keaton’s passion for the children at Summer Feeding propelled them to get their lacrosse coach involved in fundraising for a Summer Feeding family. The team raised thousands of dollars to provide a family of nine with a Christmas tree, gifts, and winter clothing. The young men’s mothers were so inspired by their sons that they fundraised money to pay the rent for another Summer Feeding family.
As I sat down to talk with Nathan Smith from Columbus, I realized that Beck and Keaton’s story is a window into a larger picture of what Summer Feeding means. But before he got to that, Nathan reminded me about why Summer Feeding exists in the first place.
Summer months are particularly difficult for impoverished families whose children qualify for free or reduced meals through federal programs. Since children are not in school to receive free, nutritionally balanced meals, their families must provide for them out of their own pockets. As a result, these families have to make difficult choices between feeding their children and paying their bills.
“Unfortunately, in poverty culture, nutrition isn’t a priority that’s in the hierarchy of needs,” Nathan said in our interview. “If you’re struggling to pay rent and keep the lights on, whether or not your child gets the correct proportion of fresh produce a day goes on the backburner.”
Not only do children struggle to get nutritious meals that fuel their brains in the summer, but they also suffer from other hunger-related challenges. While in elementary school, hungry children are likely to repeat grade levels and fall behind in language and motor skills development. In a larger sense, they have lasting social and behavioral problems that put them at a disadvantage throughout their lives.
13 million children suffer from hunger in the United States. FOCUS North America developed the Summer Feeding Program to meet the needs of these hungry children and to create meaningful service opportunities for Orthodox volunteers in localized areas.
As Beck and Keaton’s story shows, Summer Feeding serves another large-scale purpose: to grow volunteers. Nathan remarked that when it comes to volunteer work, teens and young people often play small roles in projects operated by adults. What made Summer Feeding worthwhile for Beck and Keaton is that they were able to be key players in the simple but critical tasks of day-to-day operations. “This was something they could do,” Nathan said. “This was something that allowed them to be the motor for what’s going on.”
Besides becoming indispensable servants at Summer Feeding Columbus, Beck and Keaton’s love for service grew past what they or their families had imagined for them. The young men’s new interests include mission trips and local fundraising events for FOCUS. Their story reflects what Nathan calls the “untapped Christian goodwill” of Christians who do not know how or are afraid to get involved with serving the impoverished in their communities. Summer Feeding is the perfect entry point for working with FOCUS ministries since it is a simple way that volunteers can experience the power of building relationships through service.
The greater Christian message of Summer Feeding, according to Nathan, is the opportunity to connect with others on a very human level. Christians who volunteer at Summer Feeding commit to more than feeding hungry children. They commit to sharing the transforming love of Christ through building meaningful relationships. Serving meals is just the beginning.
Nathan believes that in order to fully meet people where they are and love as Christ does, volunteers should put their hands to work alongside their wallets. “Christian nonprofit work should be asking me to open your heart to another person, not just with a checkbook, but in an ability to serve another human person.” When volunteers and children come together at Summer Feeding to create community with one another, they participate in the work of Christ, in whose eyes there is no distinction between rich and poor. This kind of love is what brings people from all walks of life closer to one another and closer to God.
This summer, FOCUS North America invites you to participate in the life-changing work that Summer Feeding is doing in our three target areas: Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Orange County. We have already served over 1,000 meals in just a few weeks. In each of these areas, we still need volunteers to give their time, energy, and love to serve hungry children and to show them that they are important in God’s eyes. For more information about how to get involved, visit our website and step up to the task today.
By Addie Pazzynski, National Programs Intern
Carnegie, PA (July 23, 2017) — FOCUS North America announced today that its Board of Directors has appointed Seraphim Danckaert the organization’s next Executive Director. Danckaert, who previously served as Director of Mission Advancement at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, will succeed Nicholas Chakos, who resigned to pursue other opportunities.
“We want to thank Nick for his service over the last five years. During his tenure, FOCUS has grown significantly to become a high impact and highly regarded Orthodox Christian charity,” Dr. Eric Paljug, Chair of the Board, said. “Today, we are thrilled to welcome Seraphim as the new Executive Director and look forward to his leadership as the organization continues to grow.”
Danckaert, a graduate of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, has held leadership roles at Princeton Theological Seminary, Orthodox Christian Network, and St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.
“I am grateful to the board for the opportunity to lead this exceptional organization, which is not only transforming the lives of people in poverty across the country, but also transforming the hearts of the thousands of volunteers who participate in our service-oriented programs,” Danckaert said. “I look forward to working with the talented staff and getting to know the entire FOCUS network of donors, volunteers, and partners.”
FOCUS North America helps working-poor families and the homeless move from dependency to lives of self-sufficiency. As the only Orthodox Christian organization to hold the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance National Charity Seal, FOCUS works collaboratively with communities, parishes, and partners nationwide. In 2017, FOCUS will feed over 300,000 people; offer job training, employment, educational support, and housing to over 1,000 families; and keep thousands of children from going hungry.
A key feature of FOCUS programs is volunteer engagement. Hands-on service programs unite the giver with the underserved, thereby transforming all of our lives and breaking the cycle of poverty. While many FOCUS volunteers are Eastern Orthodox Christians, FOCUS provides services without discrimination of any kind, and there is no faith commitment required either to volunteer or to receive assistance.
Nicholas Chakos, Executive Director of FOCUS North America, said, “ The Jonah House will be bringing a credible solution to a dire need in Columbus. While FOCUS provides infrastructure and organization to centers around the country, the folks in Columbus have done all of the groundwork and are stepping up to impact their community meaningfully.”
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