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:
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: