The fourth annual student forum “Faith and Deeds,” is being held with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, starting on May 22, 2010, at Moscow’s Kremlin in Izmailovo Complex. The event was organized by the Diocesan Council of Moscow and the Department of Family and Youth Policies of the city of Moscow. His Grace Bishop Ignaty (Punin), President of the Youth Commission, said: “We have gathered at this forum to share our thoughts, impressions, to show our abilities, to declare, as Apostle Paul wrote, that faith without deeds is dead. Russia is called holy not by its number of churches and monasteries, but from the inner spiritual quality which was laid down many centuries ago on the shores of the Dniepr River by Prince Vladimir. It is important to unite around the faith of our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers and recreated that Holy Rus… Together we are a force, a great force.”
From Formal Balls to Karate
There were a great many questions submitted for discussion at the forum. Some topics of conversation were concrete and practical, such as the organization of youth work on the parish level, how to gather a team to work at institutions of higher learning, how to create and preserve a family, how to bring into being missionary and social projects. Other topics were more philosophical and theological: could one become an apostle in the 21st century, what it means to be a patriot, how to study and come to love the Orthodox divine services.
A third theme occupied a special place, being introduced to this forum for the first time ever. The delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which includes young people from the Eastern American, Western American and German Dioceses, discussed this question: Is it easy to be Orthodox in the West? In the section “The Word of God in the World of Silence,” hearing-impaired Orthodox youth gathered from all over Russia, studying the problem of mission work among the deaf and hearing-impaired.
The participants of the forum showed forms of youth ministry work which at first may seem unusual, such as a performance by a puppet theater named “Mission” and an Orthodox poetry club, a song titled “Here is My Hand,” sung by the author, presented by the Missionary Education Center of the Czech Prince St Vyacheslav. The puppet theater performs not only for children, but in hospitals and prisons, on the streets and public squares, wherever a curtain can be hung and an audience found. The puppeteers quickly hung a curtain and transformed the cozy hall named “Tea and Crumpets” at the Kremlin in Izmailovo Complex into a puppet theater.
In the section devoted to practical matters of the Orthodox youth movement, a question was bluntly put: What is this movement today, a social gathering or a real effort? The debate was fervent, representatives of various Orthodox organizations spoke about their work and shared their innermost thoughts.
“Many active kids have gathered here to present interesting projects; one must only take these plans and make them real—in our country, a rich Orthodox Christian future is guaranteed,” commented a section leader, Priest Pavel Ostrovsky. “As far as these being ‘social gatherings,’ one mustn’t forget that this is reality, and that for a majority of these kids, it is no trivial matter: they come to know each other in these Orthodox circles, they explain various questions to each other, they create Orthodox families… Well, if a person has the gift for active work, then in our country, thank God, we have the opportunity to bring it to fruition.”
Confirming this was a young programmer, Artyom Mikhmel’, member of the “Kolokol” Unified Orthodox Youth group of the city of Zelenograd, organized around the Church of St Nicholas of Myra ten years ago (headed by Deacon Mikhail Ilyin).
This group includes schoolchildren, high-school students and parishioners of the churches of Zelenograd. They have resurrected many traditions in that city connected to Orthodox holidays, helping organize church life, creating a video collection on Orthodox Zelenograd, collecting funds for building a new church, including benefit fairs, all of the products being handmade by them. The Kolokol group cares for children in the local orphanage (they even organized a soccer team which plays in Moscow’s Kubok Dimitriya Donskogo Tournament) and the younger group of Kriukovo Children’s Home. Every summer, the young people of Zelenograd head out on foot to visit the holy sites of Sergiev Posad, Zvenigorod, the outskirts of Volokolamsk and Istra. They also founded the Family Club: over the course of Kolokol’s existence, 11 married couples found each other, among whom are some with multiple children.
“Today, a number of monasteries and churches in Russia have active youth organizations, and their number is growing,” said Artyom. “There are large organizations which gather kids from different parishes; their work is multi-faceted and structured. And there are parish organizations which unite parish youth of only one church, and their structure mirrors that of the parish itself. Both forms have their own experiences and traditions, and it is very useful for them to share them with each other.”
Youth work on the parish level, as was discussed at one section, can sometimes take surprising forms. Natalia Danilova, for instance, discussed her work in leading a studio of historical and contemporary ballroom dancing called “Dance of Spring,” which operates at the Annunciation Church in Moscow at Petrovsky Park (Rector, Protopriest Dimitry Smirnov). Her story was met with a great deal of excitement. Indeed, how remarkable it is in our day to find oneself at a formal ball, gliding across a parquet floor, dancing a polonaise or spinning around in a waltz among young women in ball gowns and gallant gentlemen! For meetings of Orthodox Christians can also take place in such romantic settings, too. “Our formal balls are like small festivals; a willing, open-hearted atmosphere, the chance to meet, to show off ones talents,” said Natalia. “We also arrange concerts given by Orthodox youth, we visit veterans, orphanages…”
The work of the youth group Army of Great Martyr George at Moscow’s church dedicated to that saint in Koptevo works in a different direction. (Its leader is Warden VV Kulikov, and its spiritual father is the parish Rector, Protopriest Sergei Dikiy.) There are four main areas: tourism (almost all the members of the “Army” are members of the Brotherhood of Orthodox Pathfinders, a group that organizes and operates summer camps, hikes and surveying trips); sports (including individual combat, self-defense for women, karate, military hand combat); a military-patriotic movement under the direction of retired military officers for children aged 10-18, and a lifeguard program, ecologists and firemen. Its youth discuss all these matters at chat sessions with tea and refreshments.
Which is Older: Our Churches, or America?
The section in which the ROCOR delegation participated, headed by the Deputy Chairman of the Synodal Youth Department, Protopriest Andrei Sommer, deserves special attention.
The visitors were all interested in what is going on among the youth in Russia, while the Russian contingent was interested in how their counterparts abroad preserve the Orthodox faith, Russian culture and language. For as Fr Andrei noted, in this era of boisterous expansion of mass communication and information technology, it is especially important to preserve one’s Orthodox traditions and hand them down to succeeding generations.
“We strive for everyone to have a church life from early childhood, to have a role to play,” he said. “Of course, we don’t have the same opportunities as in Russia, where there are many churches, where all kinds of religious literature is published, where conditions are fertile for bringing children into the church. So we come to you to gain nourishment from the Orthodox spirit, and when we go home, we take with us a bit of Holy Russia. Unfortunately, for a series of reasons we could not bring everyone who wanted to come, for our young people wish so much to come to Russia at least once—we even got requests from faraway Australia! This is because we carefully preserve our Orthodox roots, and not only descendents of Russians are attracted to ROCOR but native Americans, to which one of our participants bears witness today: Kate Straut.”
“My father,” said Kate, “converted to Orthodoxy from Methodism, and then became a priest in ROCOR. He began to serve in a small church, where my sister and I were the only ones singing on the kliros, so that at first he would have to emerge from the altar pretty often to tell us what to sing. The church building of Holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth Parish, where we meet, we had to purchase all together. One inspiring event for our community, and in fact for local Americans, was the arrival of the Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God. This actually happened twice, the latest time in December 2009.
“But among our parishioners, there is no one my age. This is a big problem for me. You can imagine how much happiness filled my soul when I first went to an Orthodox youth camp. There I made many Orthodox friends I still keep in touch with. Having Orthodox youth camps in the US not only helps us keep in contact, but it is a form of missionary work. I remember once how a young man came with his girlfriend, who doubted that she should convert to Orthodoxy. After a few weeks in camp, after socializing with Orthodox Christians her age, after conversations with priest, she made the final decision and was baptized.
“Another form of socializing is a literary club we have, in which we discuss—in various languages: English, Serbian, Russian—the works of great Russian writers. There has already been an instance of one person who became Orthodox after participating.
“Here in Russia I was surprised to see churches even older than the United States of America! Thank you for this living contact with the history of Holy Russia!”
Twenty-two-year-old Andrei Muraviev, a member of the ROCOR delegation (from Washington Township, NJ; he recently received his diploma in shipbuilding engineering) answered the main question of whether it is easy to be Orthodox in the West. After a brief moment of thought, he responded in good Russian “Both yes and no. On one hand, no one forbids you from being Orthodox, but on the other hand, we are in a foreign culture, we sense a great deal of pressure from American culture, and it is not at all easy to preserve one’s Orthodoxy under such conditions. For us young people who grew up in America and other countries of the West, having friends who share the same faith, the same cultural and historical roots, is very important. Of course, we have good friends among Americans, too, with whom we study and work, but those dearest to our hearts are Russians.
“Our parishes are our second families. We go to neighboring churches for their feast days, our young people are very active in church life: they serve in the altar, sing on the kliros, participate in Orthodox youth conferences, travel on pilgrimages together.
“Many parishes organize ‘Russian schools,’ where children study from an early age until age 18. We study Orthodox teachings, Church and Russian history, church an folk singing. When I studied in just such a school, I often complained that after the difficult weekday school we had to get up early on Saturday, griping that we couldn’t catch up on our sleep, but later I came to understand the invaluable importance these schools have for our becoming a part of the Church, and for preserving our Russian culture.”