Compassion in Action

By Deacon Michael Schlaack

He looked much younger than his true age would suggest.  Unlike the rest of the clients at the local warming center in downtown Flint, Michigan, “Craig” was clean in appearance and sober.  He was one of about two dozen people, many of them drug and alcohol addicts, all of them homeless, who huddled in the center on this cold, gray February afternoon.  Many clients were dozing on a padded bench or murmuring quietly amongst themselves. The security guard at the desk reminded us that this is not one of the best neighborhoods in town.  Flint, like many large, once prosperous cities across the mid-west, has been suffering economically.

“I’ll be 65 years old next month” Craig proudly announced.  “Can you believe it?  I look better than most of these kids sitting around this place.”  The truth is, he was right. “I don’t belong here,” he sighed, thoughtfully.  “I know I don’t belong here.”

This wasn’t our Compassion in Action (CiA) ministry team’s first visit to the warming center. The purpose of our CiA team is to provide a “compassionate presence” to those who may not have someone to listen to them.  The souls at the warming center certainly fit that description.

How Our Compassion in Action Ministry
Got Started

The seed was planted for our compassion presence ministry back in August of 2013. Two members of my parish and I attended the OCA Parish Ministries Conference in Arlington, Virginia.  We came to the conference looking for ideas to expand our ministry outreach into our surrounding communities. 

Our parish, St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church, is a small OCA parish of about thirty families located in Fenton, Michigan, south of Flint.  We are a “commuter” parish: many of our members drive up to an hour each way to come to church.  With a dispersed group like ours, we needed a ministry that did not require the participants to drive all the way to Fenton to participate in activities.  It also needed to be the type of ministry that could fit into everyone’s busy personal schedules and family commitments.  I was looking for a ministry that was unique and could meet a need in our local area that was unaddressed by ministries of other churches and outside social service agencies.  “Compassion in Action: Parish Ministry Training” (CiA) appeared to be a perfect fit for our parish. 

At the conference, I had the privilege of meeting Arlene Kallaur and Nancy VanDyken, who filled me in on the objectives of CiA.  I was especially intrigued by the concept of a ministry that did not ask for parishioners’ money, donated goods or physical labor, but their time and attention given to a hurting person.  We knew of many opportunities to provide food, clothing and financial support for people in need, but there were few, if any, that focused entirely on the person.

It was obvious that this sort of ministry would require deliberate planning and training on the part of the parish, so I took the names and information home with me to discuss the opportunity with our priest, Fr. Paul Jannakos.  His support, as well as the support from the parish council, would be critical for the successful launch of CiA at St. Mary Magdalene.

Before “selling” the CiA ministry to our parish, I had to wrap my mind around the concept and figure out how we could apply the principles of compassionate presence for our particular situation.  As indicated earlier, we are a commuter parish so our implementation would need to accommodate the participants’ schedules.  Also, due to the unique nature of the ministry, it would be critical to have training to learn skills as well as set standards and expectations.  I did not want this to be a “one and done” situation, where the ministry could not be sustained by the parish.

After discussing the overall CiA objectives with Fr. Paul, I took the proposal for the new ministry to the Parish Council and received their support.  My next steps were to get the word out to the parish to introduce the new ministry and set a date for a meeting with people who expressed interest.  I was told by Arlene and Nancy that training would be available to our parish as a part of CiA development.  I wanted anyone who was interested to understand that they would be expected to participate in the local training.

I was pleased with the initial reaction at the organizational meeting.  Ten people attended and two others who couldn’t attend expressed interest.  We discussed the objectives and methods of the ministry and I emphasized the need for training.  This was a sticking point for some potential members: they felt that they already knew how to talk to people, so why did they need to be trained?  Fr. Paul and I had decided that training of each volunteer, as the Compassion in Action ministry development package required, would have to be an integral part of participating in our CiA ministry.  This requirement caused a few people to reconsider. 

Another requirement we decided upon locally was that each parishioner who volunteered would serve at a facility located near their home or place of work.  While we planned to do group ministry work, too, we felt it was vital for each person to find a place where they could use their CiA skills and serve on a regular basis.  This meant each volunteer would need to take the initiative to find a local hospital, nursing home, hospice or other facility where they could perform their compassionate presence (CiA) work.  This requirement is not a part of the CiA ministry structure provided by the OCA; it is the application and “working out” of that structure in our particular parish’s life.

Training

Training Day - Lay volunteers with (l to r) Dn. Michael, Fr. Paul Jannakos and Chap. Fr. Timothy Yates.

Training Day - Lay volunteers with (l to r) Dn. Michael, Fr. Paul Jannakos and Chap. Fr. Timothy Yates.

With our resolve and planning in place, I contacted Nancy VanDyken, our OCA mentor, to arrange for training at our church.  As part of the Compassion in Action development structure, the OCA’s Department of Christian Service and Humanitarian Aid, in partnership with the Office of Institutional Chaplaincies, provides a trainer and makes arrangements.  Fr. Timothy Yates came to Fenton to present the training on July 11, 2015.  Five people eagerly attended the 4-hour training course.  The information provided was instrumental in helping us learn the unique skill of compassionate listening – something most of us don’t do very well.  We learned the importance of silence when working with people who are going through a personal crisis; people need an attentive ear to hear their problems, not advice or judgement.  It requires a focused, concerted effort, one that can only be successfully developed through training and experience.  We discovered quickly that there was more to being a compassionate listener than just owning a pair of ears.

To ensure our ongoing training and skills improvement after this training session, Fr. Timothy introduced several tools and how to use them.  These tools help us improve our skills and understanding in our ministry visits with people, and are also used in our volunteers’ ongoing mutual support and encouragement.

The result of using these tools has proven crucially beneficial for our volunteers personally and has improved how we minister.  With these tools, our volunteers have become more comfortable and more confident in their role in the compassionate presence ministry.

Finding Places to Perform
Compassion in Action

After the training, the volunteers all went out to find a place to perform CiA work within their local communities.  This proved to be more challenging than originally expected.  Most of us thought that local hospitals, nursing homes and hospices would welcome volunteers who were willing to spend time with residents and patients in their facilities. We soon learned, though, that getting into the facilities often presented some challenges. Here are some of the requirements we encountered:

  1. Institutional specific training:  Nearly all the residential care facilities and hospitals require some level of training or orientation before being permitted to minister in the facility.  Since some of our participants had full time work or family commitments, extensive training requirements proved to be a hindrance at some potential ministry locations.

  2. Background checks:  All hospitals and residential care facilities required a state criminal background check.  Some also required finger printing at a local police department.  Many facilities covered the cost of the background check and finger printing, but some did not.

  3. Work scheduling: One local hospital required a minimum number of hours per month from their volunteers as well as strict scheduling.  This type of location was unsuitable for volunteers who do not have a lot of flexibility in their schedules.

  4. Special certifications: In some situations, the institution or facility required the volunteer to complete specific certification requirements in areas such as first aid, CPR, abuse counseling, etc.

  5. Team Member Safety: Safety of the ministry team members must always be a primary consideration.  If the ministry location is in a “bad part of town,” it is important to ensure that the team members do not go alone and consider pairing up with another volunteer.  It is also important to ensure they are not at an unsecured facility.  The local warming centers and soup kitchens where we have served have security guards visibly present at all times. Safety also extends to not meeting alone with an individual. 

  6. Follow the rules of the facility: The facility’s rules need to be learned and followed.  The best way to ensure that your team is invited back is to know and follow the rules.

While most of these requirements were not overly onerous, they did add some additional considerations for volunteers.  It is important to understand ahead of time the institution’s requirements before committing to serve at a certain place.

Clergy Support

As we moved from the “forming “to the “norming” stage of our ministry, two things became obvious.  First, clergy support was needed to help guide the group and to provide legitimacy to the ministry, especially when seeking entry into some facilities.  Having a priest or a deacon make the initial contact with some facilities provided the institution’s management a greater level of confidence that the ministry will have oversight.
  
However, it was also important to us to have the ministry lay led.  Rather than the priest giving directions, organizing meetings and scheduling ministry visits, we felt that the lay faithful need to be involved and take ownership of the CiA ministry.  This did not mean that the clergy were completely hands off, but rather that the entire parish had some ownership with the success of the ministry.

Love in Action

Below are reflections of some of the encounters our CiA team volunteers have had with people whom they serve.  It is easy to see how a “compassionate presence” can have a positive effect on both the minister and the ministered.

T.O.: “I have been visiting P for a few months now.  P had a stroke several years ago.  She is able to speak but most times does not.  There is always a sweet smile at the beginning of the visit and sometimes some words.  She and I have made a connection over the joy of being a parent and grandparent.  In the time I spend with her, the world falls away or a least is reduced to her small room, filled with family pictures and small tokens of love.  I have learned to sit in the silence with P when there are no words.  I have found that the silence is not so much silence as a quiet place to think about God’s love for all of us.  I pray for peace for P and in that prayer, find peace for myself.  I look forward to these visits where the daily worries and cares fall away and where I am refreshed as I feel God’s love for P, for myself and for us all.”

H.D.: “After one traumatic event upon another began taking a toll on a CiA care recipient, her world became a sad and gloomy place. It was difficult for her to find even the smallest sparkle of light.  Then one day, after visiting with some time for listening/healing and prayer, the recipient expressed her desire to change her surroundings.  I believe both the recipient and I experienced joy when she was able to put aside some of the grief in her life and come out and “smell the roses” again. She has slowly incorporated being outdoors again, interacting with others, and bringing God back into her life.” 

M.S.: “Since I have had frequent conversations in the past with my neighbor, “R”, there was no surprise that she stopped and talked.  I was a bit surprised that she shared with me the situation with her husband and the difficulty she’s been having with his sister.  R seemed genuinely appreciative that I took the time to let her voice her problems.  I was (with great difficulty!) able to refrain from giving advice or some words of false comfort.  Her parting remarks seemed to indicate that she appreciated someone asking about her and her husband and actually taking the time to listen to her problems.  When she left, she seemed much happier and jogged the rest of the way around the corner with her dog.  I had never seen her do that before.”

The Future of CiA in Our Parish

As St. Mary Magdalene moves into its third year of Compassion in Action, we find ourselves at another crossroad.  As with all parish ministries, we are now at the point that we must consider “refreshing” our focus and methods.  We had a change of lay leadership and are now actively looking for a new leader who will take the reins and lead the ministry into the future.  We had an internal training session in July, 2017 to provide training for new and existing members, as well as for others outside of our parish.  This experience helped to hone our teaching skills and materials for future trainings.

We always have opportunities to share the love of Christ simply through our willingness to “be there” when someone needs a non-judgmental ear to listen.  Sometimes the greatest thing we can give someone is not a sandwich or a bowl of soup, or money, but just our undivided time.  Like the homeless man in the warming center, many “Craigs” live near us and need to tell their story.  The one thing they have in common is the need for someone to see them as God’s image bearers and acknowledge their humanity; not to try to fix or judge them, but to provide a Christ-like presence in a life so often devoid of love.  Providing that Christ-like presence has been the objective of the St. Mary Magdalene’s CiA ministry.  With CiA we have been able to reach out to those who need someone to be present in their time of loneliness and need, all the while changing our own personal perspectives on those people, God’s people, who are often forgotten in our communities.

“Deacon Mike” Schlaack is a 2010 graduate of the St. Stephen’s Orthodox Theology certificate program and was ordained to the Holy Deaconate June of 2011.  He is currently attached to St. Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church (OCA), in Fenton, MI, where he has been a member since converting to Orthodoxy in 2006.  Deacon Mike has been married to his lovely wife, Susan, for over 37 years and they have three adult children.  When not serving God’s people at his home parish, he is an Information Technology department supervisor working for a major southeast Michigan energy provider.  He holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in computer management, and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Systematic Theology.  In his “spare time,” Deacon Mike enjoys woodworking, motorcycling, fly fishing and most other outdoor activities.

Where is your Jerusalem?

By Dr. John G. Demakis

“A five minute drive and I was at the shelter and saw firsthand what our county was doing to help the homeless.  But what made a bigger impression on me was that I saw a list of Catholic and Protestant Churches that would go there regularly to serve food and help in any way.  There was even one synagogue on the list and a Mosque!  No Orthodox church however had ever gone there.”

I have been a member of the board of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center(OCMC) for many years.  In 2005, my parish of St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church in Falls Church, Virginia, established a Mission Committee; its goals were to:

  1. Sponsor missionary zeal in our community
  2. Support the OCMC and our missionaries around the world
  3. Support members of our parish who wished to go on missions- long term and short term.
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Our parish also set up a line item in our parish annual budget for missions.  It wasn’t very large but it was very helpful.  Very quickly we started inviting long term missionaries to our parish to make presentations.  We would often have them give the sermon on Sunday and then pass a tray to collect money for the mission.  Sometimes, we would sponsor an evening with the missionary and invite the parish to come and hear what they are doing.  Again, we would collect money for their mission.

We sent several of our parishioners on short term OCMC teams (3-4 weeks) to Alaska, Kenya, Tanzania, Albania, Brazil, and Romania.  In each case, we helped the individual raise the needed funds.  We even sent one long term missionary to the Philippines and Hong Kong. 
We participate in the OCMC SAMP program- Support a Mission Priest.  Our community supports one priest and individuals in our parish support others. At any one time we will have 10-20 AGAPE canisters out in local businesses.  The money collected from these canisters funds medicines and staff at Orthodox hospitals and clinics worldwide.

An Important Question

Then one year, we invited Fr. Luke Veronis to give a Lenten Retreat at our parish on a Saturday during Great Lent.  Fr. Veronis had been a long term missionary in Kenya and in Albania.  His father, Fr. Alexander Veronis was the first chairman of the OCMC.  Fr. Luke told us he was going to make three separate presentations: international, national and local missions. 

His first presentation was international missions, and he discussed the wonderful work the OCMC was doing in sending missionaries to far away sites like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Albania, Romania, etc.  His next presentation was on national missions.

His last presentation of the day was local missions.  He started out by reading the last words of Jesus before he ascended into Heaven:  Acts 1:8: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria and to the end of the earth”.  He then turned to me and asked “John, where is your Jerusalem?”  Fr. Luke caught me by surprise.  I really did not know what he was after.  He asked me again.  “John, where is your Jerusalem?”  I still did not get it.  Finally, he asked me, “John, in what city is your church located?”  I knew that answer, “Falls Church, Virginia.”  “That is your Jerusalem” he said.  “OK now, where is your Judea”.  Now I got it!  “Virginia”, I said.  “Right!”  Thank heavens he didn’t ask me where is my Samaria. 

Fr. Luke went on to explain that we too often think of missions as something foreign and exotic- travels to Africa, Asia, etc.  Mission work, as Christ made clear, begins in your own town and your own state.  Fr. Luke went on to describe how we can witness in our own town and state.  Find out where there is great need and be there.  This led to a very productive discussion and opened our hearts and our eyes.

Searching Out Local Needs

After the retreat, I decided to find out if there were homeless shelters near our church.  I was told by longtime members of our church that there were not homeless shelters in our Fairfax County- which was at the time the wealthiest county in America.  So I googled it and found ten homeless shelters in Fairfax County, one about one mile from St. Katherine.  No one in our parish knew about the shelter. 

A five minute drive and I was at the shelter and saw firsthand what our county was doing to help the homeless.  But what made a bigger impression on me was that I saw a list of Catholic and Protestant Churches that would go there regularly to serve food and help in any way.  There was even one synagogue on the list and a Mosque!  No Orthodox church however had ever gone there. 

After a brief discussion, it was agreed that St. Katherine would be coming once a month to serve dinner.  We now go twice a month and serve food to the homeless.  We were told they were in desperate need of clothing for the homeless.  We now collect clothes and toiletries all year long and by rotation, a different family takes the clothes to the shelter every week. 

During the winter months when the shelter does not have enough room for everyone who would like to stay, they give the homeless a hot meal and have to send them out to community shelters which can only offer them a bed for the night.  But for those, they are given a Hygiene and Survival Kit that includes a woolen cap, socks, gloves, hand warmers, tooth paste and brush, shaving cream and razor and shampoo.  Our St. Katherine parish has agreed to fund these kits.  All our church organizations donate one or more of the items, and our Sunday School Children put the kits together after our Christmas Pageant.  This year we delivered over three hundred kits.

Joined by Other Orthodox Churches in the Greater DC Area

Soon an amazing development occurred.  As we began local outreach, other Orthodox churches in the greater DC area soon asked if they could join our mission committee.  Our committee now consists of three OCA churches, two Antiochian churches and one other Greek Orthodox Church.  We decided to rename our committee the DC Metropolitan Orthodox Mission and Outreach Committee.

Monumental Missions Walk fund-raising event in Washington, DC.

We continue to do local outreach.  We have sent two teams to Habitat for Humanity building programs.  We have worked with FOCUS North America to distribute shoes to homeless children in the DC metropolitan area. We have sponsored several Red Cross Blood Drives.  
Even as our local outreach has broadened and developed, we have also expanded our overseas missions.  We have sent a long term missionary to Tanzania.  One of our parishioners just returned from a short term team to Kenya. We have helped sponsor an Antiochian Orthodox college student for a short term team to Alaska.

What we have also witnessed is that several other Orthodox parishes that have joined our group are now doing their own local outreach and going to their local homeless shelters, to their hospices, etc.

We thank the Lord that we have found our Jerusalem.  Where is your Jerusalem??

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Where is your Jerusalem? Are you or your parish engaged in any outreach programs to the community there?  Any ideas for developing others?
  2. Where is your Judea?  Dr. Demakis’ article demonstrates the greater effectiveness that can be achieved when people or parishes work together.  Is that a possibility in the greater area where you live? Dr. Demakis suggests working together to support Orthodox agencies such as International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) and/or the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve - North America (FOCUS NA).
  3. Where is your Samaria?  Is it some nearby area or group of people in need of help that you do not feel comfortable approaching?  What are the reasons?  Might they be overcome?
  4. And to the Ends of the Earth.  In what ways can you work with Orthodox agencies such as IOCC and OCMC to promote worldwide missions and outreach?
Dr. John Demakis is a retired cardiologist and a member of the St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church of Falls Church, Virginia.  He chairs the DC Metropolitan Orthodox Mission and Outreach Committee.  He is also the chairman of the Health Care Committee for the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) and is a founding member of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion (OCAMPR).  John is married to his wife Katherine for 48 years and they have three children and six grandchildren.

The In-reach/Outreach Committee at Holy Cross Orthodox Church, Medford, NJ

By Diana Pasca

“But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion.” Luke 10:33

Most of us are overwhelmed by the busyness of our lives and the incessant demands on our attention - so overwhelmed that we often miss the little signs of God’s presence and activity around us. In contrast, Jesus took time to notice His surroundings, and He often saw and then pointed out great spiritual truths in the common, everyday experiences of life. I think He gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan because it captures the lesson of faithful living.  Compassion does not begin and end with feelings. As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, feeling for another should lead to action. Taking care of another’s needs begins with identifying the needs.

Our small parish developed an In-reach/Outreach Committee over 12 years ago to examine the needs and respond in consistent and organized ways whenever possible, both to our own community and as well as to the greater community. Throughout the year we sponsor activities aimed at educating parishioners about resources in the community, building relationships and giving purpose to our coming together.  Presently, our Committee consists of nine members, including our priest, Fr. John Shimchick.

  • Some of our monthly In-reachareas include: visiting the elderly and homebound, preparing meals for those who are sick, in need, or grieving the loss of a loved one, engaging in phone calls that gives us a glimpse into the lives of faithful parishioners, escorting people to appointments.  We have also enlisted the choir to seasonally visit and sing for the homebound and those in nursing homes/assisted living facilities. They sing generally at Christmas, and again in late winter/ early Spring.
  • We welcome visitors and new members and inform them of parish activities and organizations. We have enlisted our enthusiastic children through church school to make cards, bake, and create other items for our homebound parishioners.
  • Our Community Luncheon project is now in its’ 21st year. Each month, volunteers prepare a meal for our homebound folks, and for a community soup kitchen which provides food for 100 people each week. The soup kitchen is a collaborative effort of several local churches in our area. Over the years, teens have been enlisted to work in this project, building long lasting relationships with adult members in a different capacity, and receive community service hours for high school.
  • Twice each year, our college students are sent homemade cookies to help with their studies, and so they know we remember them.
  • Each winter and just before Great Lent, we offer the parish our “Healthy Options” Program during coffee hour. We begin with Fr. Thomas Hopko’s “55 Maxims for Christian Living,” and bring in speakers, often our own members; Doctors, Attorneys, Physical Therapists, and Social Workers who address a variety of topics: Exercise and Nutrition, Eye Care, Advanced Directives, Estate Planning and Putting Your House in Order, Aging with Dignity, Wellness Strategies, Stress Relief etc., and how it all works with our faith.
  • Our Covered Dish Supper and Family Fun Night highlights our good cooks, followed by games of all kinds for adults and children.
  • Some of our Outreach activities include: Assisting the Interfaith Hospitality Network for one week, at least 3 times each year. IHN coordinates housing for homeless families in our area, and works with host Christian churches to provide the space, meals, and fellowship with the families. As we do not have the space to provide sleeping areas for families, we help another church, in our case a Lutheran church.  They have room to accommodate up to three families at a time. When they are hosting families, we provide the meals and fellowship for that week.  Our teens also enjoy participating. This is truly appreciated by the host church and the struggling families we meet. It also increases our capacity to witness our faith.
  • As a service to the community, we sponsor a Blood Drive with the American Red Cross twice each year. People wishing to donate visit our church website to make appointments for the drive, and it’s another opportunity for local people to learn about our presence in the local community.
  • At Thanksgiving, we collect food items for the Emergency Services Food Pantry, and 65 Christmas Stockings stuffed with hats, gloves and a variety of hygiene items for the Teens at Covenant House in Camden, NJ. Covenant House which provides counseling, housing, and support to troubled teens, is the recipient of our choir fundraising event each year. Our Choir partners with a local high school choir for an evening of music and fellowship. An informative speaker from Covenant House, sometimes a recipient of their services, tells his/her story, and we take a collection with the proceeds going to Covenant House.
  • For many years we have adopted a Seminary family for whom we pray and provide Christmas presents, always wholeheartedly received.
  • In-reach/Outreach has occasionally offered a Spaghetti Dinner or a Heart Healthy Dinner.  A recent such dinner offered a choice of broiled salmon, grilled chicken and a vegetarian selection.  At the dinner we also had a presentation by one of our parishioners, a cardiologist, who spoke on heart health.  We invited the Medford community, and engaged in a little fundraising for our church, a project usually left to other areas of the parish.
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All parishioners are always welcome to join us as we endeavor to see the needs, take action, giving comfort and hope to the needy, and in doing so, serve the Lord.

Diana Pasca is an active member of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Medford, NJ and a member of the OCA’s Dept of Christian Service and Humanitarian Aid. She is a Program Supervisor in Behavioral Healthcare of Catholic Charities for over 37 years.

Parish to Parish: Mission and Ministry in the Diocese of the South

By Father William Mills

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When we think of mission and ministry, we often think of traveling to Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, or some far flung foreign country.  The Church needs international missions, even the Apostle Paul cared for the new Christian communities in far away Rome, but he also cared for the Christian communities in Jerusalem which was much closer for him.  For us today things are not much different.  There is plenty of ministry and missionary work right here in the Diocese of the South.

From Sunday, July 12 through Saturday, July 18, seven parishioners from the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC made the one and a half hour trip south to Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Columbia, SC.  Our main task was to renovate their parish hall that was once a warehouse for the Swisher Company.  According to Father Thomas Moore, their pastor, “The hall is used all the time.  We have regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and a group of Irish dancers who practice there.  We plan to use the space for our Coffee Fellowship, but it needed a facelift.”  The building got more than a facelift, it got a complete overhaul.

Our Nativity team was assisted by several parishioners from Holy Apostles and we are grateful that we could coordinate and work shoulder-to-shoulder.  Together, the dream became a reality. Each work day began promptly at 6:30 am with a quick cup of coffee and wash up and our work began at 7:00 am.  Since our first order of business was to install duct work for their new HVAC (heating and air conditioning) unit, we had to turn off the air conditioning.  Working in 95 degree plus heat was not easy.  Rob Kapitan, one of our Nativity workers, stated, “It was so hot that I lost 7lbs., a notch off the belt of my pants.”

In addition to the new duct work, our team also installed a drop ceiling, framed in a kitchen area with walls and a doorway, did a lot of rewiring, and put in a long granite countertop, installed two sets of double doors, and a new covered walkway that connected the sanctuary with the hall.  All this was done under the direct supervision of Sam Salloum, a professional contractor and long-time member of Nativity.  The rest of us were of all different career backgrounds and just did as the boss instructed.

How This Ministry Got Started

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The idea for the Construction Ministry was born two years ago when Nativity’s St. Raphael Prayer Group got together and made an intentional decision to take on this type of ministry.

A very generous grant – only for outreach projects – from a Nativity parishioner allowed us to move forward.  The basic concept was to be that our parish would provide labor and all travel costs, while the host parish would provide all the supplies, housing and meals on site. Another condition is that whatever job we undertake has to be completed within six days. We do not want to leave the host parish with a job half done.

Our first trip was to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Kenosha, WI where we designed and built a one hundred foot handicap ramp for the parish. This past summer, our trip to Holy Apostles was so close to Charlotte that our total parish cost was less than two hundred dollars.  Holy Apostles provided our team a place to sleep and plenty of delicious meals.

The Results of Our Work

One could see many visible results from our labors; a nice ceiling, beautiful wooden doors, a new kitchen area and a covered walkway. However, there are many more invisible, yet essential aspects to this type of ministry: the fellowship among our team, the working together with parishioners from Holy Apostles and a couple of men from St. Timothy OCA Mission in Toccoa, GA, just three hours away, and the benefit of knowing that we helped make something that seemed impossible, possible.  Our team is already excited about next summer’s project – to travel to St. Timothy’s Mission that would like a porch type entrance to their church and would also like us to build them a cupola. 

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The other day someone asked me how our parish did all of this work.  After thinking about it for a moment, I said, “Well, it’s actually easy.  We have eight other ministries and this is our ninth.  Ministry gives birth to new ministry.  I have no doubt in my mind that our parish will provide more ministry in the future.  As a priest, I think often of Jesus’ final teaching in Matthew 25, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ This is really the heart of our common Christian calling, always seeking to serve both God and neighbor.”

Father William Mills is the pastor of the Nativity of the Holy Virgin Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC.

Expanding the Mission in the Jersey Shore Area

By Deacon Alexander Smida

For a number of years we have conducted an Adult Study and Discussion Group at Holy Annunciation Orthodox Church in Brick Town, New Jersey. Whether reading the Holy Fathers, liturgical theology, or contemporary Orthodox writers, our discussions have always been open and questions welcomed; our premise is that there is nothing in our Orthodox Faith that is “out of bounds” for any believer to study; indeed, the building-up of the Faith among our membership is our primary goal. Our group now numbers fifteen participants, including four who belong to neighboring ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Churches Outside of Russia) parishes.

At the beginning of the 2015-16 school year we devoted our study to the initiatives defined and prioritized at the 2015 Orthodox Church in America (OCA) All American Council. Having reviewed the documents and the valuable Power Point presentations available through the Council website, our members chose unanimously to engage themselves in the implementation of the initiatives in the local context of the Ocean and Monmouth County area. Having considered the various programs of service of interest to our members, including those of unique need in our greater neighborhood (such as natural disaster preparedness – our area was affected acutely by Hurricane Sandy and is still recovering), it was quickly concluded that there are already volunteer agencies active to “feed the hungry” and “clothe the naked.” For us to use our efforts to duplicate their good work was not a wise expenditure of our limited time and resources.

Opportunities to Assist Were Abundant and Welcomed

The group resolved to research the faith-based and other organizations already experienced in these forms of outreach and to seek those who might best utilize our readiness to help. We were astonished that the opportunities we found were abundant and welcoming of our assistance. Furthermore, through these new friends, other means of outreach appeared and led us in further directions of service.

Our first priority was to build upon the food collection drive for local Food Pantries. One of our members, a leader in the Girl Scouts of the Jersey Shore, invited us to prepare a Thanksgiving basket for distribution by the state-supported Food Pantry in Lakewood, New Jersey. This is an outreach of the Macedonia Baptist Church, which provides a meal six days a week, throughout the year, for those who struggle in the grinding poverty, need, and homelessness that characterize the lives of a very large proportion of the residents of this decaying city. Our group quickly assembled a basket and delivered it to the soup kitchen the day before Thanksgiving.

Concurrently, another of our members, who is employed in the offices of Congregation Beth Torah in Ocean Township, Monmouth County, suggested a way to develop our food collection by utilizing a simple means employed by the Congregation in their own food drives. We adopted the plan of distributing plain brown grocery bags, with a detailed list of needed non-perishable foods stapled on each, to our parishioners as they were dismissed from the Divine Liturgy, on a few Sundays before the Feast of the Nativity. The intention was to simplify the task of contributing by 1) providing a shopping list, and 2) adding a bag for easier shopping and drop off in the vestibule. The results of this first-time initiative were overwhelming: by December 18 we had delivered two pickups and at least four carloads full of food bags to Lakewood.

Our food drives will be held in alternating months throughout the year. In addition to the food items already on the “shopping list” we distribute, we have chosen to add items for which Food Stamps and WIC are not accepted, including all paper products, paper towels, and feminine hygiene products. Since these items are not covered by government assistance programs, there is a hardship that results for families in need.

“Clothing the Naked”

“Clothing the naked” – this initiative proved intimidating at the outset. We were all aware of the collection bins for old clothing, to be found in every shopping center parking lot. But we were also well aware that the majority of clothing deposited in bins does NOT find its way to the needy. It is, rather, collected by recycling companies and shredded into rags, with a tiny allowance donated to community service organizations.

Archpriest Gary Breton and Deacon Alexander Smida

But once again one of our intrepid class members found a means to collect clean, wearable clothing; another member knew a source that could make best use of the garments. One of the members was picking up some dry cleaning at a local establishment. On a whim, she asked the proprietor what he did with clothing that was never picked up by the customers. Apparently his eyes opened wide, and he asked, “Do you have an idea?!” She explained the collection program, after which he excused himself to make a phone call, and then asked her to come back at 6:00 that day to pick up the clothing. It turned out the generous proprietor had called a friend in the business who had a similar backlog, and she went home with her car stuffed with cleaned garments on hangers and covered in plastic. Another member went out visiting dry cleaners and had the same results. Trays of cookies obtained from the Parish Cookie Walk were delivered to the donors as a “thank you.” And the search for more clothing continues.

What to do with two cars full of clothing and more on the way? Again one of our members had a solution. A retired US Army officer who is a member of our group told us of the thrift shop operated at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst by the Navy Relief Organization, dedicated to helping the families of active duty personnel in all service branches. The shop is located at nearby NAS Lakehurst so our retired Army Officer has been delivering clothing as it is collected, helping stretch the service families’ clothing budget. When he asked the manager of the Navy Relief if we had delivered enough, her response was: “You keep bringing the clothes. Don’t worry about the quantity. That is MY problem.”

Afghans crafted by a member of Annunciation Church who reposed last year were recently distributed to a Women’s Shelter in our area. Also planned for this year is the addition of household items, kitchen utensils, and items of furniture to the list of donations we collect for Navy Relief.

Toys for Christmas

The Rabbi at Congregation Beth Torah approached us through our member in the office there with a dilemma and asked for help. Each family in the congregation was asked to contribute a toy for distribution to needy families at Christmas. It was nearly Christmas and everything that could be donated had been distributed. But there still remained a quantity of toys and other organizations couldn’t take any more so close to the holiday. Could we possibly help by taking the toys and seeing they got to children who were in need? Enter the Girl Scouts from Jackson. They had a small list of struggling families they bought gifts for each year, and the toys from the temple were added to the “Secret Santa” distribution. There are some Mexican immigrant families in Lakewood whom the Scouts look after, including families who cannot afford any gifts at all for their children. So, after Nativity Eve services at Annunciation Church, with a car full of toys and real sleigh bells jingling for atmosphere, the troop made their rounds.

The Children of Congregation Beth Torah recently finished a project of making children’s scarves and passed them on to us for distribution. The Girl Scouts will assist us in distributing them to those in need. The relationship between our group’s outreach projects at Annunciation Church and those initiated at Congregation Beth Torah, although still in its formative stage, promises to lead to further cooperation in care for the needy in the Shore Area.

“Car Care Clinic”

A program intended specifically to assist elderly members of the Annunciation Parish with winterizing their cars, which was named “Car Care Clinic,” was devised by a member of the class, assisted by other class members. The Christmas travelling season was then at hand, and he was concerned that tire pressures be correct and fluids topped off before parishioners drove any distance. Parishioners were asked to surrender their car keys on their way to Coffee Hour, the crew went to work, and when the drivers were ready to go home their cars were good to go. For supplies, our member went to his favorite garage to stock up on windshield washer fluid, antifreeze, and other necessities needed. When he attempted to pay for it all, the owner, a friend of his, asked why he wanted so much. When he explained the project, the owner accepted a $5.00 payment and told him to take whatever he needed. And he thanked us for the opportunity to help the Church.

Having learned a great deal in the past couple of months, the class will continue its work of Expanding the Mission. We believe God has given us a great gift in sending us to so many fine and earnest members of our community. And we have been enabled to lay the groundwork for a positive, friendly, and generous impression of what Orthodox Christians are like.

Glory to Jesus Christ!
Glory forever!

[Jacob’s Well, publication of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, Summer 2016, pp 22-23] Reprinted with permission.

Father Deacon Alexander Smida is an alumnus of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary and has been active in Orthodox religious education for over thirty years.  He also lectures on the Orthodox Faith to community groups, and is assigned to Holy Annunciation Church in Brick Town, New Jersey.

Combating the Storm as a Frontline Responder

By Father Thomas Moore

Fr. Thomas Moore ready to assist in the Columbia, SC flood

Fr. Thomas Moore ready to assist in the Columbia, SC flood

It all started innocently enough.  By October 7, 2015, it had been raining steadily for six days in Columbia, SC and I heard on the news the night before that they might have to open the flood gates at Lake Murray which would potentially flood some low lying areas of Columbia along the Saluda River.  When I got up that morning, I thought I’d drive over to some of these areas to see if anyone needed help.  As I left my driveway, I could not make my usual left turn, as a pond dam had been breached and water flowed across the road, blocking my normal exit route.  Somewhat shocked but not particularly alarmed, since earthen pond dams flood occasionally in the south, I turned right.  Suddenly I was confronted with shallow flooded lawns and ditches on each side of the road.  One mile ahead a police car blocked the road.  He was turning all traffic to their homes. I realized I was in the middle of an emergency situation and returned home to put the magnetic IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities) Emergency Relief signs on the doors of my truck and don my IOCC vest and cap. Returning to the police blockade, they instantly passed me through.

I should back up and explain the IOCC connection.  Several years before, a group of members of Holy Apostles parish and I spent a week in New Orleans with an IOCC relief team organized and led by Pascalis Papouras who was in charge of the IOCC US Program at that time.  We slept on the floor of a local church that also provided meals for us.  It was a sobering but exhilarating week of fellowship while rebuilding homes and talking with displaced residents.  Sometime later I was contacted by Dan Christopulos, the current Country Representative of IOCC’s US Program, to see if I would be willing to be an IOCC Frontline Responder for South Carolina.  In the ensuing years I attended several training sessions in Chicago, but honestly I considered the coast as a potential hurricane danger due to past destruction, but never thought that Columbia, over one hundred miles away, would be a site of such a catastrophe.  Thus, I had to take off my curious priest hat, and put on my official Frontliner identification.

Damaging Results of the Storm

IOCC and Operation Blessing in ecumenical long-term disaster recovery

IOCC and Operation Blessing in ecumenical long-term disaster recovery

The problem in Columbia was not just that the Saluda River rose above flood stage and inundated several housing developments along the river, but also a series of pond dams were breached on the east side of town; the Columbia canal downtown was breached and wiped out the drinking water supply for the city; and another large pond west of the city also had burst and flooded all the homes downstream.  It was a perfect storm that left Columbia and surrounding areas cut off from relief, clean water, and other public services.  Within three days the water subsided, leaving many areas of Columbia destroyed.  Residents and volunteers scrambled to clear mud out of homes, trying to save valuables while moving wet furniture out to the curbside. Streets were full of discarded furniture, rotting sheet rock, and people in shock,  while the water continued to wipe out other towns as it moved down to the ocean.

After making contact with Dan Christopulos, he immediately sent an “Alpha Team” of Frontliners: Fr. Angelo Pappas (Myrtle Beach Fire Chaplain), Deacon (now Father) Constantine Shepherd (Winston-Salem retired Police Officer and Police Chaplain), Jacob Lewis Saylor (Charlotte, NC Disaster Preparedness Specialist), and Fr. Vasile Bitere, another Frontliner in Augusta, GA.  We traveled the city, visited shelters, and attended many organizational meetings to see what we could realistically do to help.  Initially it involved Holy Apostles warehousing and distributing clean up buckets and health kits that IOCC shipped to us, while participating in the setup of Multi Agency Resource Centers (MARCs) where several services, including trauma counseling were offered.  Maria Shelley from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia activated their Philoptochos Society (the Greek women’s auxiliary) who began delivering meals to feed the volunteers and coordinated parishioners to form small work teams for muck-out (and later rebuilding) projects.

Within the first few days Dan Christopulos along with Larry Stoner, the Mennonite Disaster Response Coordinator, came to Columbia and participated in many meetings with other organizations, local politicians, police and firemen to make plans for short term response and long term recovery.  Dan and I were interviewed on the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) as we began beating the drum for volunteers to come to Columbia.  As the initial muck-out work, including completely stripping affected homes of furniture and sheetrock due to mold problems, wore on, housing and feeding volunteers began to be a priority.  As God would have it, a ministry of Holy Nativity Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC led by Fr. Bill Mills, had recently renovated the concrete warehouse next to Holy Apostles, intended to be our new community hall.  It was decided by the Parish Council to put in a shower, that IOCC helped pay for, and offer the renovated hall as a potential housing for volunteers.

Continued Long Term Response from Holy Apostles, Other Christian Ministries, and Volunteers of Many Religious Backgrounds and Ages

Orthodox volunteers help in rebuilding

After realizing what a complicated job this would be, I met Timothy Shaeffer at one of the Red Cross meetings.  His fulltime job with Brethren Disaster Ministries is organizing emergency response teams for long term rebuilding after disasters. His organization, along with the disaster arms of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, formed an entity called Disaster Recovery Support Initiative (DRSI) to do long term recovery work, starting in Columbia. We were so grateful for his dedication and expertise that we handed over our hall and parking lot for his use for a year.  We worked closely together to house, feed, and coordinate workers from every imaginable religious background and age, including two teams of Orthodox Christians organized through IOCC as they volunteered to spend a week working with DRSI.  They stayed at our Church, helping befriend and rebuild the homes of the flood survivors.  Holy Apostles Church parking lot slowly took on the ambiance of an RV campground.  Visitors, many of whom had never heard of the Orthodox Church before or thought it was a church for immigrants, were fascinated to visit our services, take tours of the Church, and learn about our beautiful heritage. Many have kept in touch to this day.

A Valuable Spiritual Lesson

Our Church learned a valuable spiritual lesson through this.  Initially some were concerned about how we would afford the electricity for heating and AC, or the costs of feeding such large groups over a year.  We had no idea how to assess this, but plunged ahead because we felt it was the right thing to do.  When all was said and done, and the relief teams moved on in November of 2016, we had made new friends, helped some, spread the Gospel, and somehow surpassed our expected income for 2016 by almost twenty thousand dollars.  The Lord tells us that as you give so shall you receive. We can bear witness to that truth.

Qualifications for Becoming an IOCC Frontliner

The IOCC Frontline is part of the IOCC Emergency Response Network and consists of 100 Orthodox clergy and lay people, spread throughout the ten FEMA regions of the United States. Frontline members typically have a Master of Divinity degree (for clergy) and /or a master’s level education in Counseling, Psychology, or Social Work.  In addition to their formal education, they undergo special training in Critical Incident Stress Management in order to work with people who have undergone trauma associated with natural and man-made disasters.  If you would like to be considered to become an IOCC Frontliner, please contact IOCC US Country Representative Daniel Christopulos at dchristopulos@iocc.org.

If you are interested in learning how to become more active in disaster preparedness, response and recovery in your community, reach out to your local American Red Cross affiliate for training and other opportunities.

Archpriest Thomas Moore has been pastor of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church since 1999.  He is presently Dean of the Carolinas.  Recently he was elected as a member of the Metropolitan Council of the Orthodox Church in America and serves as Chairman of the Ethics Committee. He has also been a member of the OCA Department of Christian Service and Humanitarian Aid for many years.  He and his Matushka Kyra have three children.

Serving the Poor - Orthodox Christians Coming Together as Community in Southwest Detroit

By Janet Damian

“We are working hard at Ss Peter & Paul with a new vision and paradigm of urban ministry for Christians to serve, providing a venue for people who are called to be missionaries in the city through prayer and service.”

“We heard Kathy died,” two of the women whispered at our Sunday lunch.  
“Are you sure?” I asked.  
“Oh yeah, she was found dead outside a drug house.”  
Despite the rumors, no one knew for sure what happened.

The next day, we called the morgue and verified that an unidentified white female was there, found at the location the women mentioned. 

“Is she identified?”
“No,” said the attendant.  
“Can we, from the church, identify her?” 
“Sure, it doesn’t matter who does the identifying,” the man said.  
So we went to the morgue and identified her, notified the family, prayed at the funeral home, and comforted her family.

Doing acts of mercy for the least of our brothers and sisters is the ministry of Ss Peter & Paul Orthodox Cathedral and Orthodox Detroit Outreach.

It Works for Us Because of Synergy

Since 2011, Ss Peter & Paul Orthodox Cathedral (OCA) and Orthodox Detroit Outreach, a 501-3c all volunteer inter-Orthodox organization, committed to “serving Christ through service to the needy in Detroit,” have partnered to develop an amazing synergy.  The key word here is synergy, defined as the cooperation of two or more organizations, or other agents, to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

Neither Ss Peter & Paul Cathedral nor Orthodox Detroit Outreach could have built and sustained a five-and-a-half year history of Orthodox Christian service to the poor on their own.  Orthodox Detroit Outreach’s mission is to provide a venue for Orthodox Christians to serve.  We have been blessed to be able to mobilize the Orthodox faithful, building on a decades-long history of inter-Orthodox cooperation in Detroit.  A small leadership team heads up planning and operations.

Our goal is simply to love God and our neighbor.  We recognize the image of God in every person, and always strive to serve with humility, compassion, patience, and love. We extend the Church beyond the confines of the parish, and bring it to our neighbors in need, coordinating volunteers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and give everything we have for the benefit of those in need.  Our primary activity is a weekly lunch served every Sunday afternoon at the Ss Peter & Paul Community Center.

A Brief History of Orthodox Parishes in Southwest Detroit

Ss Peter & Paul was founded in 1907 in a typical urban immigrant enclave in Detroit.  Most of the Orthodox parishes that were founded during the early part of the 20th century were located in similar neighborhoods throughout the city.  In this corner of Detroit alone, there were six Orthodox churches within walking distance of each other. 

As in most American cities, especially in the rust belt following WWII, urban sprawl and increased prosperity saw the immigrants and their descendants move to the suburbs. Their Orthodox churches followed them.  That is, all but two: Ss Peter & Paul (OCA) is still located in the same spot, and the Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral, founded in 1910 is still located in downtown Detroit.  As Detroit continued to decline in the 50’s to the present, its population went from two million to 600,000, thus devastating the inner-city neighborhoods, and the churches within the city limits as well.

Ss Peter & Paul Church, the Center for Many of Our Activities

Ss Peter & Paul is located in a very diverse and impoverished neighborhood just four miles from downtown, and provides a perfect location to serve “the least of the these,” as drugs, alcoholism, mental illness, prostitution, and crime are prevalent.  The church has a large campus - the church building, a former church school building now housing a Head Start school, and a two-story community center with two banquet rooms and a commercial kitchen.

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At this point, sixteen of the thirty-some Orthodox parishes in the metro Detroit area have been involved in serving a hot lunch and ministering to the neighbors surrounding Ss Peter & Paul.  Zoe for Life has also partnered with us in ministering to five families with fifteen children.  (For an article on the Zoe for Life organization, see Parish Ministry ResourcesFamily Life Section“Zoe for Life” by Kathy Kovalak.)

This amazing cooperative work could not be accomplished without God’s grace — the synergy of God with His people.  All are called to serve with love.  The generosity of parishes and the faithful has been nothing less than miraculous.  Thousands of meals have been served, hundreds of Orthodox faithful volunteers have been engaged, and hundreds of less fortunate men, women, and children have been loved without reservation.

We begin every meal with prayer, and a priest is always present.  Every Sunday Ss Peter & Paul’s parish priest is in attendance and very often, the priest from the host parish will also attend.  All faithful and clergy have been blessed and humbled by this service to our neighbors. We have brought an Orthodox witness to our neighbors, who express endless gratitude for our service.

We believe it is most important to remember, “It’s not about the food, it’s about the people.”  Relationships have been built over the years with our neighbors. We know their names.  We have grown to know and love them.  We have seen babies born and people pass away.  We have visited people in jail, prayed at their funerals, taken them to rehab, and helped and counseled them in a myriad of ways. In other words, we have made friends. “The poor” are no longer “the other.”  We could not have sustained this Christian work without the support of the Bishops, clergy and people within our sister parishes. We are all one in Christ.

Our Future

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Will this activity “revitalize” a declining urban heritage parish that is struggling and below critical mass?  Maybe…  We are “waiting on the Lord” to fashion the parish into a place that is God pleasing.  We are working hard at Ss Peter & Paul with a new vision and paradigm of urban ministry for Christians to serve, providing a venue for people who are called to be missionaries in the city through prayer and service.

Share with our readers about your parish’s outreach activities.
Contact Donna Karabin, Chairman of the OCA Dept. of Christian Service and Humanitarian Aid at: csha@oca.org.

Or Arlene Kallaur, Editor of Parish Ministry Resources at: arlenekallaur@hotmail.com.
Janet Damian is a member of Ss Peter & Paul Cathedral (OCA) in Detroit, serving as choir director and outreach coordinator at the parish and is also a member of the leadership team of Orthodox Detroit Outreach.