Youth in the Church Abroad is by no means restricted to the descendants of Russian emigres. Protopriest Andrei Sommer, Vice President of the Synodal Youth Department, talks about the influence of Hollywood, cultural traditions and various types of youth associations in America.
-Fr Andrei, is there anything special about working with youth in countries where Orthodox Christians do not represent the majority?
Both in countries where Orthodox Christians comprise the majority and where they are not, the specifics of working with youth are the same. On one hand, one must preserve the purity of teaching the faith, and on the other, you must deal with them with lively interest and in contemporary language. We strive to talk to them in their own language. Of course, we also use the latest technology: computers, the Internet, in order to make them feel at home within the community.
Here in Russia and in America, Orthodox Christians are the “little flock.” I am talking about Orthodox Christians who are churchgoers. There is even an expression for this: “practicing Christians,” that is those who truly live according to the interests of Church, who in Eucharistic unity “await the resurrection of the dead… and everlasting life.”
If we step outside together here in Moscow, and ask people passing by “Do you believe that you will come back to life in a bodily sense?” how many out of ten would reply “yes?” The same applies in America. We live within our community. Abroad, we lead a double life: our children are in school, and adults are at work. Then we all return to our homes, knowing that in spirit we are Orthodox despite that fact that the world around us doesn’t support us.
Of course, a close relationship with and support from one’s parents strengthens faith, but separately, we all become missionaries and witnesses of Christ in an alien world.
Youth ministry abroad is led by the Synodal Youth Department, which organizes programs jointly with groups in Russia. And as is the case in Russia, each diocese abroad has its own youth department, which, in conjunction with the Synodal Youth Department, organizes youth meetings, conferences, workshops, and various programs which unite youth from all over the diaspora.
-How do you work with “ethnic” Americans without Orthodox roots and the descendants of Russian emigres? Is there a difference?
— Yes, of course there is. For ethnic Americans who don’t have Orthodox roots, this is something external, untraditional for them. This is a different culture, this is a culture from across the ocean first of all, then a religion. They become “churchified” step by step, and don’t enter into Eucharistic communion immediately. They have a “catechistic” period, if you will, which they must go through first. They unite and support each other. Many Americans come to Orthodox Christianity having studied other faiths first, making a choice similar to that made by Holy Prince Vladimir.
The descendants of Russian emigres are different. Orthodoxy for them is the faith of their parents, it is in their memory, their nostalgia. They come into Orthodoxy immediately, that is, they immediately commence Eucharistic communion. They may not know the Creed very well yet, but they go to confession and communion, remembering how their mother would take them by the hand and stood at the ambo…
Today, young people from the old emigration came to Russia, along with new emigres and newly-converted Americans. We hope to unite these three different groups of youth. But work with new converts has a sharp difference—we teach them in the English language, but the spirit remains one and the same.
-What is it that you use from contemporary American culture—words or images—do you use in your youth ministry?
If we’re talking about mass culture, then we’re talking about Hollywood. Probably not only American, either. The Hollywood industry sets the fashion for the world view throughout the globe today. And believe it or not, it is not just in the negative sense. Of course, the hysteria over the Twilight saga is bad. This is the gross debasement of young minds, the popularization of vampirism. How am I supposed to look at this? Young Americans live on these movies, but Orthodox kids understand that these movies are harmful.
But Hollywood sometimes surprises Americans by putting out some very positive films. And they can be very popular. There are movies which can be beneficial. When the Passion of the Christ came out, there were lively discussions about the physical sufferings endured by the Savior for our sins. Such movies are positive, but not for everyone, and it doesn’t replace the reading of the New Testament with an experienced spiritual father, because it does not always correspond to Orthodox teaching of the faith.
And what about The Matrix? Why not use this image of a “parallel universe” in missionary work, explaining to kids that the “other world” is not just the “Underworld,” though a “nether world” does exist. But there is another, loftier world, the Kingdom of Heaven. In general, in working with subcultures, we try to use as much youth slang as possible.
-What cultural traditions do you preserve and why? How successful are you at this? The life of contemporary man is starkly different from traditional life.
America has its own traditions and way of life, Russia its own. The same with their cultures. Obviously, we can’t talk about Orthodox culture in America in the same way as we talk about Russian Orthodox culture, because Orthodoxy in the US came from Russia, and naturally brought along some very Russian cultural traits.
And of course, they are very much cherished by us. Obviously, we treasure our cultural traditions, everything that is connected with parish life. On Christmas we have “yolki,” or pageants, and plays. Young people prepare for this, learn Russian literature for their performances. Weddings, of course, are also a special tradition. Young people most often get to know each other in their parishes, and marry each other. Such bonds unite families and strengthen the community. But there are exceptions, and for the sake of economy, with the blessing of the bishop, marriages to non-Orthodox are allowed, but only to those of certain Christian confessions. When young people marry in their parish, everyone takes part in preparing for the wedding. This joyful event unites everyone. The rite of matrimony is preceded immediately by the rite of betrothal, and in most cases the priest meets in advance with the young couple and talks to them about this mystery.
Of course, preparations for Great Lent, Cheesefare Week, we have all of this in the authentic Russian traditions. We have cultural events with traditional cuisine, blini and music. That provides another opportunity to gather young people at the parish.
Everyone understands that these celebration precede the somber period of Great Lent.
-You said that you feel that it is important to acquaint American youth will various aspects of both church and lay life in Russia, to try to reveal to them the fullness of life in our country. Why is this important?
Let me begin by saying that we are not only working with Americans. The most important thing is to show our youth abroad the holy things of Russia, to bring them into contact with the spirit of the Russian podvig, true Russian churchliness. Our youth partook of the Holy Gifts during Divine Liturgy, everyone venerated the relics. We also visited Holy Trinity/St Sergius Lavra.
It is very important to give our youth the chance to acquaint themselves with the holy sites of Russia in person. All these years we lived with memories of them, from afar. Now each of the kids has the opportunity to visit them in person, see them with his own eyes and venerate the holy things.
Of course, the spiritual life is invisible. This is existence on another level. The Kingdom of Heaven “abides in us.” But for a person, who is a spiritual-physical creature, this external, palpable manifestation of spiritual and cultural development is very important. This is why hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year travel to the Holy Land, to Mt Sinai, to Mt Athos. This is why we are here today. As far as daily life in Russia is concerned, and the discovery of the fullness of life here by the young people, it is also important for a general cultural understanding, though first of all, for many of them this is their first visit to their historic homeland. And in order to understand why this is important, one must leave Russia for, say, thirty years, and then return with your children for a few days…
-What youth groups in Russia do you have ties to? What experiences can you share with our Synodal Youth Department, and what can you learn from them in return?
We work with organizations which operate with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church. These include the Synodal Youth Department under Bishop Ignaty, the Youth Commission of the Moscow Diocesan Council, St Tikhon Orthodox Humanitarian University, and the Orthodox student forum “Faith and Deeds.”
We do have a great deal of experience working with youth. There is a lot to share.
We are rapidly developing the area of working with troubled youth. First we approach them, then they come to us. We try to open new programs for them, because traditional approaches do not always work. For instance, we organize pilgrimages which include entertainment, time for young people to socialize and time for prayer and relaxation.
Especially important is work and ministry with young people who emigrated from Russia in the last ten years. They might be baptized, but not churchgoers. Today’s emigre youth quickly assimilates and loses its faith and self-identity. This is a very important matter for Russia. Children who attend Sunday schools, then lose themselves in society must be returned to the bosom of the Church.
We have similar problems, and it is important to work together. You do the same work here that we do there, and we know what needs to be done. As far as which approach to use, that is the subject of discussion and exchange. Beginning in 2007, since the signing of the Act of Canonical Communion, ROCOR’s Synodal Youth Department has organized trips to Russia for one hundred youth. These include pilgrimages, cultural events, academic and even working sessions, like the youth camp in Solovki organized by St Tikhon University. It is important to offer a variety of programs to the kids.
-There is an enormous problem with alienation and individualism. How do you overcome it. Or is it all not that bad?
God created us as individuals, according to His image and likeness. Our individualism and our personality are from God. As for alienation, yes, in America, there is a lack of a spirit of the collective like there is in Russia, nothing is very direct. But for our Orthodox communities that is an advantage. They do not grow very quickly, but those who come into these parishes stay loyal to them. We do not have a mass mentality, there is an individualistic approach to everything, certainly. There is no alienation even within individual parishes. On one hand, every person answers for himself, but when everyone supports each other, the faith is bolstered.
-What in your opinion is the key to effectiveness for these youth conferences? Why is this form of work so effective?
I can’t say that I am an expert in youth conferences, though I participated in them myself. I must say that their effectiveness is being overshadowed by the Internet. Over my 17 years of pastoral service, I have had the opportunity to take part in organizing various youth events. The most effective seem to be the workshops, when the priest explains the rites and rituals, for instance, matrimony or the proskomedia.
But the direct methods of mass communication during the conferences provide a great opportunity to create, develop and carry out events. When young people from the whole world come together, they often present, discuss and enact great new ideas. This allows us to develop a youth church movement. But this is most effective when the youth themselves, with the guidance of the Church, initiate these projects.
-Are you happy with the results of these events? Do you feel that this is your calling?
To assume the pastoral service with sensing a call is simply a sin. Of course, I work with youth because that is where my heart lies. That is the essence of my missionary service within the Church. I thank God and my hierarchy that I have this opportunity and I do everything I can to bring forth fruit. As far as satisfaction is concerned, a Christian on earth should never feel that. I haven’t yet accomplished everything I wish to.
Interviewed by Oleg Baidaliuk