A Conversation About Connect Orthodoxy

A Conversation About Connect Orthodoxy

Part 6 in an occasional series about Keeping our Young People in the Church.

As many of you know, I’ve been on a mission to tell the stories of young people who are thriving in the Orthodox Christian faith.  These stories are simple, like the college student who is setting her alarm to make it to church on time.  And, they are complicated, like the young man who has committed to a monastery at the age of 22.  I’m discovering that while some Orthodox youth are serving and ministering in their respective parishes others are making significant sacrifices just to get to Liturgy on a Sunday.  All have stories that inspire me as a parent of teens and young people.

Today, I’m going to tell the story of a young woman, Rebecca Showalter, who is one of the creative brains behind a new movement called Connect Orthodoxy.  The minute I heard about Connect Orthodoxy and the conference they were organizing, I knew I had to learn more.

Rebecca, a nurse practitioner at Gwinnet Medical Center, usually works the night shift, so I was lucky to snag a daytime meeting with her. We’ve known Rebecca and her family for years down at St. John the Wonderworker in Atlanta. Rebecca is a natural born leader and I’ve seen her in action on a few other projects.  On this steamy, late June morning, as we were just sitting down to a cup of Starbucks brew, I noticed she was drinking from a straw.

“What is that about?” I asked her.  “Isn’t it crazy hot to drink coffee that way?”

“Well, I’m trying to keep these teeth white.  So the straw sends the joe right past the teeth,” she confided with the most charming smile.  I guess, as a nurse she knows too much about these things.  My teeth are well on their way to yellow so I continued consuming in the usual fashion.

After we caught up for a few minutes, she shared that sometime in late 2015, some friends of hers, Alex Atalis and John Tilacos were talking one afternoon about church life when these comments came up:  “We need something for young and emerging adults in Orthodoxy.  There’s a real split between our church and personal lives.  Church and life just aren’t meshed.”  Not long after, Rebecca entered the conversation and all agreed that something needed to be done.

Eventually, after more conversations, the three came to a consensus that for young people, like themselves, to stay with the faith, they needed a way to connect with other Orthodox young people, people in their same life situations and with similar struggles. That consensus became the vision for a weekend gathering.   

As she was describing this to me, Rebecca said this:  “It’s a vertical thing, connecting with God through the church; and it’s a horizontal thing connecting with God through each other.”

This earnest and beautiful Vision grew into the Connect Conference. The initial conference in October of 2017 was an outstanding success, with 130 participants from a dozen or so states!  The target audience:  Orthodox 20 – 30 somethings.  The goal:  To deepen the faith through fellowship, worship and learning.

 

“How did you pull this off?” I asked. “The Vision?”

“God!” Rebecca said right away, shaking her head in amazement.  “We weren’t very organized at first.  We started meeting in Metropolitan Alexios’s conference room. Then, father Paul Lundberg stepped in and gave us some priestly support and we started gaining momentum. It took awhile.”

“We were a risky venture for any financial supporters to sign on, and we had to pay for this endeavor somehow!  There was the hotel space and deposit, the tech needed to run the speakers,” she continued. Then, a major breakthrough occurred when the organizers got the attention of Tim Tassopoulos, CFO of Chick-Fil-A.  “Before that, we were really struggling,” she added.

As it worked out, the group managed their own fundraising efforts to accomplish the financial needs of the conference, including hotel deposits, speakers, technology, etc with Tim Tassopoulos serving as business adviser.

The first Connect Conference was a huge success with two fantastic keynote speakers and multiple breakout speakers.  So that you can see just how impressive this collaborative effort, to the glory of God, I’m including this list from Rebecca:

The two keynote speakers were Tim Tassopoulos CFO of Chick-fi-a and member of Greek Orthodox Cathedral who gave a speech titled: “Linked In or Left Out? Staying Truly Connected in a Networked World.”  and  Bishop Gregory of the Carpatho- Russian church. Metropolitian Alexios was also there to give the opening remarks and blessing.
Critical to the conference were the multiple “small group” sessions where we brought in speakers to do shorter 1 hour lectures on various topics with time for Q&A and group discussion. Here were the lectures
  • Dr. Despina Prassas – “How God Pursues Us Every Day”

  • Fr. Anthony Salzman – “Being an Icon of Christ: An Incarnational Understanding of Faith”

  • Fr. Barnabas Powell – “Being Orthodox on Purpose: Exercising Your Faith Daily.”

  • Fr. Nicholas and Dr. Roxanne Louh – “Healthy Relationships”

  • Dcn. Gabe Aldrige – “Living Our Faith in a Digital World”

  • Cameron Lawrence – “The Discipline of Presence” (On Cultivating appreciation of beauty in order draw closer to Christ )

Saturday evening, the excitement continued with a social event out at The Battery.  Then, on Sunday, they celebrated Liturgy together at the hotel and a few people continued to hang around and visit during the afternoon.

Even now, the alumni group from this first conference continues to meet monthly and they encourage any interested folks to join along.

“What are your plans for the future?” I asked, a few drops of sweat coming down my brow as I finished my Starbucks Venti Emperor’s Clouds and Mist Green Tea.

“Well, we have the second Connect Conference just around the corner, October 5 – 7.  This year, we have Father Stephen Freeman and Father David Rucker as our guest speakers, and we are arranging more each week.  Maybe down the road, we’ll branch out into other cities and time zones,” she said with confidence.

I believe it will happen.  It’s all quite amazing what this young woman has accomplished and how many young Orthodox believers this group is positively impacting with this endeavor.  These organizers are serving right in the midst of busy lives, new careers, schooling and early adulthood.  God is good and He makes stuff happen!!

If you are reading this, spread the word about the upcoming Connect Conference.  Or, support a young person in your parish by financing their registration fee!  Don’t wait too late as Rebecca says they are capping the enrollment at around 150!  For more information, see the links below:

+ Facebook: Facebook.com/ConnectOrthodoxy
+ Instagram: @connectorthdoxy
+ Website: Connectorthodoxy.org **

 

 

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It’s Camp Week

It’s Camp Week

July 1 – It’s camp week!

These are beautiful words to a parent’s ear!  Camp week!  It’s here.  That week when the kids pack up their clothes, boots, sleeping bags, towels, and pillows and go have fun while mom and dad get a little time alone and some peace and quiet.

This is the second year my boys are headed off to Camp St. Thekla, an Orthodox Christian summer camp operated by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Diocese of Miami and the Southeast.  Last year, all we heard for two weeks after camp was how much fun they had, how great their friends were and how they couldn’t wait to do it again.  So, here we go.

Getting ready for camp can be a bit tedious.  There’s the suit cases to pack and only the coolest of t-shirts can go on the trip.   There’s a costume to bring for Decades Night.  There’s mom double checking to make sure deodorant was included.  There’s pillows.  Gabe brought his shredded pillow again which is also shedding stuffing everywhere.  We put a second pillow case on that one.  That was Saturday night.

 

Father Jacob blessing

Then, of course, there’s Sunday church and the Blessing for the campers!  St. Timothy’s in Toccoa, GA  had 5 going to CST this year.  Father Jacob douses them thoroughly with holy water after he says the prayers.

Then, there’s the road trip up there.  Everyone in the truck, yakking about camp games and counselors and Fr. Alexander.  It’s a lively conversation all the way up the twisty, curvy roads to Cleveland, SC.  Alas, we pull into the retreat center.  This is the time when mom gets a little anxious.

“What’s that Cascades thing you were talking about?” I ask.

“Oh, it’s where they let us jump off a waterfall into a pool of water, about a 50 foot drop,” says my quit witted teen.  “You won’t have to worry about Gabe.  You have to be 13 to go.”

“That makes me feel so much better,” I gasp. “Only one of you has to die.”

“Don’t freak, mom!  It’s not 50 feet and there’s a life guard,” he says with a grin.  “We’ll be fine.”

Father Alex at the check-in

So, yes, I do get a tad worrisome, but most of that eases as I meet the counselors and see Father Alexander again, the very capable coordinator of this ministry.   Then, I hear screams!  Those screams come from about five different kids running up to Hunter hugging, high fiving and beaming that he’s finally arrived.  He scurries away with them into the sunset, backpack over shoulder, not remembering to look back and say good bye.

It’s all good.

At check in, a friend and mother of six says, “We’re going to Asheville so we can sleep.”

“Good idea,” I agree, thinking about our own quiet week ahead.  It will be nice to sleep and think and breathe!  On the way back to the truck, I catch a glimpse of my youngest; he’s crowded around a busy game of poll ball completely unaware that he has a mamma nearby.

It’s all good.

Moments later, I nudge up into the driver’s seat, husband beside me, unable to help my big smile.  He’s smiling too as we head off together into the sunset.

Foreground: 2 a prominent or important position.

The Foreground is a blog series providing a glimpse into what one family is attempting to make prominent:  a life in the church.  We are a family of seven with some in the nest and some out.  We have kids in college, in high school and in middle school.  One of us is a sub deacon and one of us runs the parish book store.  Orthodox for 14 years, one of us attends a Greek church and the rest attend our local OCA parishes. What’s in our foreground?   Come join us this week and find out.

Go to http://www.familylifeministry.atlanta.goarch.org/ to see this blog and other great family oriented content.

 

Skimming the Sunset

Skimming the Sunset

 

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The sunset ceremony begins.

There’s magic in these hours, just before the sun dips away into the sea.

The horizon arrays herself in, violet, periwinkle, coral, cerulean.  She’s blushing as her beauty draws forth all those who’ve come to witness this late-day spectacle.

Lovers come to bask. Shorebirds spread wide their wings in that last blast of drying light.  Boys emerge from their condo-caves to skim the flat edges of the sea on fiberglass boards.  Sons with dads.  Its all so dazzling, those last minutes.

With the sunset comes a freedom:  no need for skin protection, as the earth-warming orb is too low.  No need for a hat.  Just sparse clothing and a waxed board will do.

As our brightest star dips closer to dusk, these skim boarders do their thing. They watch for that immaculate wave. Its a wave that lays out on the beach and provides a thin coating of water on the shore.  Once the water lays out gentle and long and thin, that is when its time to move.  Brother urges brother, dad urges son:  “Go!”

The short-lived sunset skimming begins.  Just a few precious moments before the light fades.  Balancing, landing, projecting, riding.  These shoreline acrobats provide silhouettes for the twilight seekers and it is a thing of beauty.

How many waves can a skimmer catch before its too late?  Many and few depending upon a boy’s balance.  The whole foot must plant correctly.  The wave must ebb and flow as anticipated.  The successful crash must result in a proper roll-out, so as not to abrasion the skin.  Just as the sun is continuing to fade on the horizon, so the flat sheet of water is always diminishing on the sandy shoreline.  Too little water and the skimmer goes down, and flesh meets with sand, shells and rock.  Too little light and the skimmer can’t see the wave.

So, it goes as the ceremony ends and the light closes out with the day’s activities.

Lord willing, there’s a lifetime of skimming to be done in as many sunsets as can be utilized for the purpose.

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A Visit to Tarpon Springs

A Visit to Tarpon Springs

June 3 – Tarpon Springs

When we are out of town and have a bit of time, we like to visit other Orthodox churches. We enjoy that experience of celebrating the Liturgy a little differently and with different people.  Over the years we’ve been to many Orthodox churches in the areas we’ve visited.  In Pinellas County Florida, where my husband’s family has a home, we usually visit St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church.  But, this time we decided to travel up to Tarpon Springs and visit St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.  St. Nicholas is central to a thriving Greek community originating  from Greek sponge divers who settled here around 1900. Today, there are four + generations of Greek families that live and work at the eateries, sponge docks, and shops in this bustling central Florida town.

Now, saying that you are going to visit a church 45 minutes away while on holiday and actually doing it are two different things!   In vacation mode now, I was dreaming of a stiff caffeinated beverage at 7:45 am when my husband said, “We’ll be taking the Eucharist up there.”

Regrettably, I walked over and unplugged the full, steaming pot of coffee my mother-in-love had just brewed.

“I didn’t realize ya’ll weren’t having coffee this morning,” she said.

“Well, we can save this for tomorrow and turn it into a big jug of iced Jo, ” I offered, mustering up some energy and a smile.

By the grace of God, we managed to get everyone, even the surly 18 year old, into the car and we were off, husband at the helm.   A fairly quick drive up the retail corridor of US 19 brought us to downtown Tarpon Springs.  Then we turned the corner and there she was, a beautiful, ochre brick building accented with white marble, and a statue of a Theophany diver near the front.  We really didn’t dally outside as it was already 9:05, and like any good Orthodox Christian, we were running a little late!

Inside the small narthex, families were lighting prayer candles and reverencing the icons.  There was a buzz about this area with many parishioners entering to worship.   As we stepped inside the sanctuary, we were in awe at the beauty of the marble, icons, columns, and generally the vast size of the church.  Women were dressed handsomely and men wore jackets. Settling into our pew, we began to hear chanting that was so beautiful and even though I didn’t understand about 65% of it, it resonated peace and strength and Christ.

The readings were said in both Greek and English as was the homily, which encouraged us to become more saint-like through our participation in the fast.

Apart from the Czechoslovakian chandeliers and the Hagia Sophia inspired dome, the one distinctive thing I noticed was the sheer number of worshipers.  We walked into the sanctuary at 9:10 and it was about 1 / 3 full.  By 9:20 it was 1/2 full and by 9:35 it was at capacity.  At 9:50, the aisles were crowded with parishioners standing, leaning on columns, clutching service books or bowed in prayer.  This is a church that is bursting at the seams, its congregants seemingly alive with a fervor for God.

After communion, we witnessed a memorial service and a recognition of recent graduates and then it was off to a much needed coffee hour.  Thankfully, I slipped out to the St. Nicholas bookstore and met Bill, my new bookstore mentor.  He readily shared his wealth of publication and vendor information with this bookstore newbie.  Then, he sent me out the door laden with a box of goodies and pointed me toward the sponge docks and the Greek eateries.

The streets down at the docks are vibrant with people, shops, food, boats for hire, and entertainment.  We chose Dimitri’s Restaurant, right on the water, where we were greeted by a painting depicting that scene which occurs here every Theophany, January 6, also known as the blessing of the waters.  Here, in the springs, the bishop tosses the holy cross into the wintry waters and a swarm of young men dive down to retrieve it.  As tradition has it, the one who surfaces first with the cross in hand, will have a year of blessings.

An afternoon in Tarpon Springs wouldn’t be complete without a quick visit to the shops and a look at the sponges and the boats.  There were a thousand wonderful photographic moments in this town, but a rain storm popped up and sent us running back to the truck.  Still, this was a Sabbath made memorable by the warmth of our Greek brothers and sisters in the faith.  The delicious food was a bonus as was the salt air and that feeling of being in a coastal village somewhere near Cyprus.  I hope we can do it again next year.

Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

 

 

Boyhood

Boyhood

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When you think about it, boyhood is fairly short.  There’s little kid-hood, that time when you are out of diapers and you can feed yourself, but you’re pretty reliant upon your parents.  Then, there’s boyhood, those years when you are mostly independent, but not yet bogged down with academic and social pressures.  It’s a time to create, dream, talk a big game, emulate, and be.  We’ve had three boys accomplish boyhood here.  Now, we are onto the fourth!  This is a powerful, exciting, wonderful time in a kid’s life!  As the observer – mom, I am enjoying all that evolves from these boyhood days.

With this boy, there’s scootering (verb-noun) which involves hours a day grinding a bar and jumping curbs. And, there’s coolness. “Wait Mom!  I have to fix my hair,” is called out each time I try to leave the house. Or, “Where’s my black jeans?” he asks.  “Oh! The same ones you’ve been wearing for 4 straight days?” I retort, knowing he wouldn’t be caught dead in any other pair. So, we wash a lot.

Recently, I was able to spend a day with three boys that are all as I have described above. The day began as an adventure to find an old abandoned warehouse for shredding.  We found the warehouse and an underground pipe… all great photo locations.

There’s nothing like shredding on a bright early spring day, especially at a deserted warehouse with graffiti and weeds and railroad tracks.  An old plywood scrap was found for a ramp and the shredding began.  Graffiti words sprayed on a garage door provided a nice backdrop for a recount of the day’s activities and a moment’s rest.  The tube was a bonus and gave mom a chance to test out the new light sponge lens.  It worked.  These tube photos were taken in pitch black with the only light coming from the sunshine pushing through on either end.

These are lovely times and I’m savoring.  These boys are all growing up and I’m observing and admiring, along for the ride.  It’s really quite a good situation.

 

Cheap Field Trip # 4: The Tugaloo River History Tour

Cheap Field Trip # 4: The Tugaloo River History Tour

For the past ten years, on the last Saturday in May, Kelly  Vickers, a Stephens County historian, has been leading groups on canoes and in kayaks down the Tugaloo River Corridor for fun and learning.  If you haven’t participated in one of these now famous tours, you’ve been missing out.  The Tugaloo Corridor is that stunning stretch of wilderness and river that forms the border between Stephens County, Georgia and Oconee County, South Carolina.  The Corridor, which begins at the base of Yonah Dam, is the historical meeting ground of Cherokee Indians to the north and Creek Indians to the south.  There is a place just below the dam where the river is completely natural: flat, rocky and rapid.  It is just beyond this spot where the tour begins its meanderings and Mr. Vickers begins his oral narrations of the natives, the hunters, the farmers, and the tradesmen who made their mark on these regions many years ago.  He tells secrets about  the ancient geological formations that mark this area as uniquely beautiful.  Best of all, he tells tales about the waters, the bridges, the homes, and the local pioneers that you will never forget.  All of this, for free, while you get a tan and an upper body workout on the Tugaloo River.

Last year, we embarked upon this 5 hour tour on Memorial Saturday.  We had four in our party, but there were 140 river enthusiasts in our midst on 120 vessels.   It took about 30 minutes of gathering equipment and coolers, then brief instructions were given before the launch.  Mr. Vickers, easily identified with flag and pointed hat, led the charge at 8:45 am.

At first the waters moved swiftly and the paddling was easy.  Then, after about a mile in, the river deepened, the currents slowed and the arms came out to work.  It was a glorious day of bright sunshine.  About every mile, Mr. Vickers would paddle to the shore line and give a story.  We heard stories of natives warriors, run-away war-time officers, bridge burnings, Native rock carvings, and more.

We made it to the Prather’s Bridge area around 11 am to cool in the shade.

And the stories continued all the way down to the Long Nose Creek Falls on the South Carolina side.  Long Nose Creek Falls is only accessible by boat and is quite remote and pristine, a must see if you love the wild and scenic offerings of our upstate area.

After leaving the falls, we made our way across the top most portion of Lake Hartwell, where Toccoa Creek  merges with the river and the Tugaloo Mound is  located.  Here we learned about the great native chiefs that led their people in this valley land, the hidden dripping rock and the old Tugaloo Town before pulling our canoes out at a property on the Georgia side.

Thanks to strong sunscreen and lots of water, we made it down the river happy, hydrated and historically enriched.  It was just a great time.  We had two big kids with us, a 20 year old and a 14 year old and they loved it.  The best part, really, is the history.  Kelly Vickers is such a great storyteller.  He is the Registrar at Toccoa Falls College and a board member of the Stephens County Foundation.  He began these trips 11 years ago with a group of college students who were learning history at TFC.  The initial tour was a big hit and, as Mr. Vickers says, “The rest is history.”

If you want to join us in 2018  for this free and wonderful adventure, you are in luck!  The next Tugaloo River History Tour is May 26 and will depart from Walker Creek Boat ramp at 8:30 am.   A shuttle will be provided to transport you back to Walker Creek after the tour.

For more information on the River History Tour, go to the website:  http://www.tugaloocorridor.org/

Hope to see you there.

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Loaves and Backpacks

Loaves and Backpacks

Part 5 in an occasional series about keeping our young people in the church

One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD,  and He will repay him for his good deed.     –Proverbs 19:17

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