An Inter-Parish Youth Program
By Xenia Sheen
In the spring of 1994, my son Rowan was invited to a triple birthday party at the home of some Orthodox friends, the Gores in Connecticut. It was a mini-reunion for some New England Youth Rallies. When I went to pick him up, Bee Gore suggested that we host a youth event at our church in Claremont, New Hampshire. Rowan said “It won’t work; the kids in our parish don’t go to a rally and aren’t interested in retreats.” Though our parish used to hold a summer family camp, and we have numerous family events; picnics, impromptu skating or swimming parties, work Saturdays and house blessings, there had not been a youth group that could offer any real social alternative to the school peer cultures. Nor did there seem to be an impetus in this direction, or, Rowan felt, the requisite skills or experience that make a church youth event the inspiring experience of fellowship and sharing in Christ that it ought to be.
But we thought it should be tried, and Father Andrew Tregubov, our priest, agreed. In July of that year Holy Resurrection Church held its first inter-parish youth gathering at the summer cottage of one of our parishioners. (We have chosen not to call our gatherings “retreats,” as we have wanted not to emphasize the idea of secluding oneself from the world but rather of gatheringand being gatheredto strengthen ourselves and one another in order to go back into the world renewed in faith.) We asked Mike Anderson (OCA Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries) to lead the first gathering because the kids trusted him to do it right, and we invited Rowan’s Youth Rally friends from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey to help fertilize our parish soil with some of the Youth Rally spirit and zeal for deep talk about God and Life. It was attended by fifteen young people (ages thirteen and up) and was a great success.
In October we did it again, this time at our St. Xenia Retreat House in Vermont, and again Mike came to help us. Seventeen teenagers attended, and we packed them into our little retreat house (with gas lights, no electricity, and no plumbing) like sardines. Throughout that year we held gatherings every couple of months, taking over the leadership ourselves (both youth and adults).
Over time, we worked out a basic formula:
Friday Evening: We gathered at Church for dinner and discussion, led by Fr. Andrew. Came home to the Retreat House (nearly an hour away) for snacks, hanging out, prayer and (usually rather late) bed.
Saturday: Got up early for prayer, breakfast and more discussion. We usually followed up on the ideas Father had presented the night before, through both large and small group discussions. This was a good time for the young people themselves to give brief talks they’d prepared.
We then had lunch, played awhile, then had more discussion or a hike, swim or sledding.
In the evening we went back to church for Vespers, dinner and more discussion with Father Andrew; came home for snack, evening prayers, and, around midnight, bedtime.
Sunday: We went to church, followed by lunch, some free time, and a wrap-up discussion.
Topics for the gatherings have included “Martyrdom,” “Our Legacy” (on the gift of our tradition), “Living in the World,” “Great Lent,” “Feasting,” and “Paganism.” Usually we would decide at one gathering what the topic would be for the next one, and various people would offer to prepare something for it.
Week Of Service
Our year was crowned by a nine-day Week of Service in July 1995, attended by about twelve young people who tirelessly gave themselves to a variety of service projects all over northern New England. They cleared away briars and landscaped the retreat house (with flowers and shrubs donated by local nurseries), planting a bed of Impatiens in the shape of an Orthodox cross. They cleaned a shelter for the homeless; cleared brush at Holy Resurrection Church in Berlin (spending the night with Father Sergius in the rectory); reclaimed an old apple orchard planted by Robert Frost at the Frost Place in Franconia; planned and led an overnight retreat for a dozen nine-to-ten-year-olds; and climaxed their labors by responding the last evening to the need of a family (now catechumens in our parish) who had been given twelve hours to move. They helped pack and move the family until two o’clock in the morning!
The projects for the week of service were chosen mainly because they were there to do and came to us through members or friends of the parish. We tried to focus on one work project each day, varying the kinds of work as much as possible, and including one fun activity each day (swimming, hiking, a cookout at Echo Lake and fireworks viewed from the top of Bald Mountain in the Franconia Notch). We also got in some discussion about service, obedience to a task, and a wide range of other subjects as they came up. We spent quite a bit of time on the road in a borrowed minivan and a small RV, sang a lot, and kept up a daily prayer cycle.
Spin-Offs From Our “Gatherings”
At our most recent gathering, held in the fall of 1995 and attended by over thirty young people, Father Andrew told the kids that it was important not to think of these experiences as being for ourselves, but rather as opportunities to strengthen ourselves to give to others as God calls us to do. The time had come, he felt, to begin to harvest some of the fruits of our time together and for the young people to take the seeds home and plant them in their own parishes. This has already begun to happen. In December, veteran Holy Resurrection retreatant Clare Gori, with her parents and priest, Father John Dresko, held a wonderful youth gathering in New Britain, Connecticut.
Along the way we also held a retreat for the nine-to-twelve-year-olds on “Forgiveness,” attended by a few children from other parishes. But we have followed up on the great interest of these younger kids less than we should have. This is the group just beginning to be challenged to choose a lifestyle and relationships that may draw them farther and farther from their faith, and it is at this age that it seems most important to show young people that their church is a place where they can grow and flourish and deepen into relationships with their peers in ways that also deepen them in their relationship with God. Thus I feel a special commitment to this group that I hope we will be able to honor. If we wait too long, we will lose some of them. My own son would never have gone to a Youth Rally if he’d had to wait till he was thirteen.
One fruit of our labors has been greater involvement in the church by some of the young people of our own parish and a renewal of the life of our church school. Another has been the great hope for the future of the Church that the young people from other parishes have inspired by their faithful participation in the life of our parish. And I would hope that another fruit will be the carrying of that same hope and awakening to other parishes, as other parishes have brought it to us.
Reasons For The Success Of The Gatherings
If there is a secret to the success of our youth program other than the mysterious blessing of the Holy Spirit, it is first, I think, that it has remained centered in the liturgical life of the church, and second that we have in no way infantilized the youth who come here or treated them as in any way alien to or apart from the life of the Church. We have not constructed “awesome” experiences by contemporary standards, but rather by the timeless standard of the Church or the simple standard of the world as God made itthe Vermont woods or New Hampshire mountains on a moonlit night, a long muddy road in March, or a steep hill covered with slipper snow. We have taken the young people seriously as Orthodox believers, as we have expected them to participate and remain attentive in sometimes very long talks and discussions. The younger ones even surpassed our expectations in their attentiveness. We have assumed that they have come together to know God better and to know and love God in one another, even when, to all appearances, this is not at all why some may have come. While we have always had fun, our time together has focused on understanding and living our faith, and the joy of our gatherings has been the joy of being able to love God and love one anotherfriends and peers, young and oldat one and the same time. The absence of opportunity for this is a great sadness for a young person, even though many do not know this until they experience its presence.
A youth gathering, we have found, does not require adequate space or showers or proximity to the church or elaborate plans or skilled adults or a good church organization. Rather it requires a few loving adults and willing kids, willing to work hard together and bump into each other for a short time in close quarters, and to respect and come to know themselves and one another in Christ.
A Checklist For Holding A Youth Gathering
1. Pray about it. Discuss it with your priest. Ask him to pray about it.
2. Meet with a core group of kids and find out what they want. Pray about it together.
3. Find at least one other adult and a couple of kids who will help in the planning stages. Again, remember the importance of prayer.
4. Decide on a theme, a place or places to meet, eat, sleep, a date, the age group you want to address. (Don’t try to do too big an age spread unless you can run separate groups some of the time; the “peer” experience is too important.)
5. Decide if you want to invite young people from other parishes. (We feel this is a wonderful way to transcend parochialismyour own and others’and to expose young people to the larger life of the Church. The prospect of seeing new faces also makes the gathering a little more appealing, especially for the teen-age group.)
6. Decide how to spread the word. (We’ve built up a small mailing list of “friends” to whom we mail the same flyer with variations each time. We’ve chosen not to advertise, on the principle that a group grows in a more natural and healthy way when friends bring friends and assume a measure of responsibility for them. If you’re starting cold and want to hold an inter-parish gathering, call a neighboring parish or try your diocesan or deanery youth coordinator, or ask Mike Anderson at the OCA Administrative Center in Syosset for ideas.)
7. Plan the activities, centering on what’s happening liturgically, and including at least two or three substantial talk/discussion times along with your work or service project and/or fun activities. Keep it fairly simple.
8. Figure out approximate costs. Find ways to keep the fee low, and be prepared to let some people come for little or no charge. Ask people in your parish for scholarship or food donations. (We often have one dinner at church after Vespers where parishioners bring most of the food.) People are usually very generous about this.
9. Send out a flyer or announcement 6-8 weeks ahead of time if you can, with a registration deadline a week or so ahead. Don’t worry too much about giving less notice, because it’s not likely that people will decide till the last minute anyway. The only time we’ve gotten advance responses to a flyer was right after the Youth Rally when energy was high and we warned that space was limited. I wish I knew how to solve this problem, because it helps so much to know more than a few days ahead of time if anyone is coming! We’ve nearly always ended up telephoning everyone and even trying to arrange carpools. But don’t despair if you get no response; it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Keep praying.
10. On the subject of carpools. Think about finding volunteers from the parish who will go to pick some people up.
11. Be sure to say on your flyer that participants should bring Bibles, musical instruments (and whatever else will be needed), but not tapes, boom boxes, videos, etc. It’s good to get away from all this for a while.
12. Food. Have two or three kids (perhaps with an adult) plan the food and figure out what to buy and how much, and what it will cost. Keep it simple. Observe the fast days (spaghetti is a good way). Don’t get a lot of junk food. You can ask parishioners to cook casseroles, cookies, etc. Lots of fruit and fruit juice, lemonade or herbal iced tea is good. Too much soda and sugar will craze everybody and keep them up all night, and so will caffinated iced tea, we find. Our experience is that kids are perfectly content to eat sensible, more or less healthy food (even though it can cost a little more), and this is much more in the spirit of a wholesome spiritual retreat.
13. Plan to involve the kids in food preparation, clean-up, etc. as much as possible, though I confess we have often not done this because we didn’t want to spare the time from other activities, and because it was easier to do it ourselves. Still, it is good for the event to be a community effort and not come to be an occasion for the kids to be waited on. In fact, this is one of the attitudes that it seems most important to change.
14. Volunteers. Find half a dozen people who will commit to helpwith shopping, cooking, driving, etc. Young adults are especially wonderful, as they provide role models for the teens. Keep checking to be sure your volunteers are still planning to be there, and have some back-up help lined up, too; we have sometimes found ourselves short-handed because people’s plans have changed at the last minute and they’ve forgotten to tell us.
15. Plan to have some of the teens and/or young adults give talks and lead small group discussions (of five or six). Work with them, or have your priest or a parishioner do so, to get the talks and discussion plans clear. You might consider having teams of an adult and a teen facilitate discussions.
16. A wonderful idea that comes to us from New Britain: Ask members of your parish to pray for the young peopleone prayer partner for eachbefore, during, and after the event. This both involves parishioners in a simple and loving way and assures that each participant is being prayed for.
Issues Yet To Be Addressed
As we think about planning another gathering, we realize we will want to address some issues that have emerged into clarity over the past year and a half:
1. It seems important that we involve the whole parish in the youth gatherings more than has happened so far, and that we find out what needs exist in the parish that have not been met by what we’ve done so far. Probably we will ask Father to convene an adult discussion group on the subject, as well as bringing the matter up in the older church school groups.
2. Father Andrew has stressed that the young people must come to see these gatherings within the Church not so much as entertainment but as opportunities for service, or opportunities for them to learn why Orthodox Christian life only makes sense when the desire to serve governs it and to discover this desire in themselves. I think we will need to reevaluate our gatherings in this light and perhaps refocus them somewhat.
3. Size has become an issue. We stretched our limits at the last gathering (over 30 young people). We don’t want to turn anyone away, but we need to find better ways to manage a large group if this were to happen again. All things considered, it went wonderfully, but it was less intimate and harder to orchestrate, and some kids probably had little or no adult contact. Perhaps simply having more adults and assigning a few retreatants to each adult to be sure some real contact happens would be a way to solve this; or we might have older teens be “buddies” to younger ones.
4. A final yet-to-be-addressed issue is that of sexual behavior. This has actually never arisen at all as an issue until the last large gathering where there was a great influx of new and younger participants. We do not feel that coupling of any demonstrative kind is appropriate in a gathering of this sort, if only because it is so openly exclusive of others and makes them uncomfortable and focuses the people involved on themselves. But we have not yet talked this over either among ourselves or with the young people or made it clear to them why it is inappropriate. It seems important that this be done in a way that is clear, true, respectful, and loving.
As a result of the local efforts described in this article, the New England Diocese, at its 1996 Annual Summer Youth Rally committed itself to holding at least one of these “gatherings” in each deanery annually.
Additionally, at the Holy Resurrection Parish, one Saturday each month has now been designated “Youth Service Saturday.” The young people of the parish, and a number of adults, come out on that Saturday to help those in the parish and others with specific jobs and needs.