A Conversation About Connect Orthodoxy

Part 6 in an occasional series about Keeping our Young People in the Church.

As many of you know, I’ve been on a mission to tell the stories of young people who are thriving in the Orthodox Christian faith.  These stories are simple, like the college student who is setting her alarm to make it to church on time.  And, they are complicated, like the young man who has committed to a monastery at the age of 22.  I’m discovering that while some Orthodox youth are serving and ministering in their respective parishes others are making significant sacrifices just to get to Liturgy on a Sunday.  All have stories that inspire me as a parent of teens and young people.

Today, I’m going to tell the story of a young woman, Rebecca Showalter, who is one of the creative brains behind a new movement called Connect Orthodoxy.  The minute I heard about Connect Orthodoxy and the conference they were organizing, I knew I had to learn more.

Rebecca, a nurse practitioner at Gwinnet Medical Center, usually works the night shift, so I was lucky to snag a daytime meeting with her. We’ve known Rebecca and her family for years down at St. John the Wonderworker in Atlanta. Rebecca is a natural born leader and I’ve seen her in action on a few other projects.  On this steamy, late June morning, as we were just sitting down to a cup of Starbucks brew, I noticed she was drinking from a straw.

“What is that about?” I asked her.  “Isn’t it crazy hot to drink coffee that way?”

“Well, I’m trying to keep these teeth white.  So the straw sends the joe right past the teeth,” she confided with the most charming smile.  I guess, as a nurse she knows too much about these things.  My teeth are well on their way to yellow so I continued consuming in the usual fashion.

After we caught up for a few minutes, she shared that sometime in late 2015, some friends, Alex Atalis and John Tilacos were talking one afternoon about church life when these comments came up:  “We need something for young and emerging adults in Orthodoxy.  There’s a real split between our church and personal lives.  Church and life just aren’t meshed.”

Not long after, Rebecca entered the conversation and all agreed that something needed to be done.  ”John and Alex wanted to find a place where people who were fired up about our faith could have deep conversations about the church,” she added.

Eventually, after more conversations, the three came to a consensus that for young people, like themselves, they needed a way to connect with other Orthodox young people, people in their same life situations and with similar struggles. That consensus became the vision for a weekend gathering.   

As she was describing this to me, Rebecca said this:  “It’s a vertical thing, connecting with God through the church; and it’s a horizontal thing connecting with God through each other.”

This earnest and beautiful Vision grew into the Connect Conference. The initial conference in October of 2017 was an outstanding success, with 130 participants from a dozen or so states!  The target audience:  Orthodox 20 – 30 somethings.  The goal:  To deepen the faith through fellowship, worship and learning.

 

“How did you pull this off?” I asked. “The Vision?”

“God!” Rebecca said right away, shaking her head in amazement.

“We weren’t very organized at first.  We started meeting in Metropolitan Alexios’s conference room. Then, father Paul Lundberg stepped in and gave us some priestly support and we started gaining momentum. It took awhile.”

Under the mentorship of Fr. Paul, a group of Orthodox youth from various jurisdictions came together to plan and organize the Connect Orthodox vision, including Michael Uhr, Elisha and Andrew Roden, Stephen Brenan, Alexandra Green, Callie Corley, Marie Linebaugh and Nick Grivas.  Rebecca summed it up this way: “All of us were united by this desire to ministry for young adults which encouraged us to make Christ a part of our every day lives.”

Rebecca continued, “As the movement progressed, it became clear that we were a risky venture for any financial supporters to sign on, and we still had to pay for this endeavor somehow.  There was the hotel space and deposit, the tech needed to run the speakers.”

Then, a major breakthrough occurred when the organizers got the attention of Tim Tassopoulos, President and COO of Chick-Fil-A, who attends Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Marietta. “Before that, we were really struggling,” she added.

As it worked out, the group was able to manage their own fundraising efforts to accomplish the financial needs of the conference, including hotel deposits, speakers, technology, etc with Tim Tassopoulos serving as business adviser.

The first Connect Conference was a huge success with two fantastic keynote speakers and multiple breakout speakers.  So that you can see just how impressive this collaborative effort, to the glory of God, I’m including this list from Rebecca:

The two keynote speakers were Tim Tassopoulos CFO of Chick-fi-a and member of Greek Orthodox Cathedral who gave a speech titled: “Linked In or Left Out? Staying Truly Connected in a Networked World.”  and  Bishop Gregory of the Carpatho- Russian church. Metropolitian Alexios was also there to give the opening remarks and blessing.
Critical to the conference were the multiple “small group” sessions where we brought in speakers to do shorter 1 hour lectures on various topics with time for Q&A and group discussion. Here were the lectures
  • Dr. Despina Prassas – “How God Pursues Us Every Day”

  • Fr. Anthony Salzman – “Being an Icon of Christ: An Incarnational Understanding of Faith”

  • Fr. Barnabas Powell – “Being Orthodox on Purpose: Exercising Your Faith Daily.”

  • Fr. Nicholas and Dr. Roxanne Louh – “Healthy Relationships”

  • Dcn. Gabe Aldrige – “Living Our Faith in a Digital World”

  • Cameron Lawrence – “The Discipline of Presence” (On Cultivating appreciation of beauty in order draw closer to Christ )

Saturday evening, the excitement continued with a social event out at The Battery.  Then, on Sunday, they celebrated Liturgy together at the hotel and a few people continued to hang around and visit during the afternoon.

Even now, the alumni group from this first conference continues to meet monthly and they encourage any interested folks to join along.

“What are your plans for the future?” I asked, a few drops of sweat coming down my brow as I finished my Starbucks Venti Emperor’s Clouds and Mist Green Tea.

“Well, we have the second Connect Conference just around the corner, October 5 – 7.  This year, we have Father Stephen Freeman and Father David Rucker as our guest speakers, and we are arranging more each week.  Maybe down the road, we’ll branch out into other cities and time zones,” she said with confidence.

I believe it will happen.  It’s all quite amazing what this young woman has accomplished and how many young Orthodox believers this group is positively impacting with this endeavor.  These organizers are serving right in the midst of busy lives, new careers, schooling and early adulthood.  The energy is high for Connect Con # 2 as more and more people discover the opportunity.  God is good and He makes stuff happen!!

If you are reading this, spread the word about the upcoming Connect Conference.  Or, support a young person in your parish by financing their registration fee!  Don’t wait too late as Rebecca says they are capping the enrollment at around 150!  For more information, see the links below:

+ Facebook: Facebook.com/ConnectOrthodoxy
+ Instagram: @connectorthdoxy
+ Website: Connectorthodoxy.org **

 

 

It’s Camp Week

July 1 – It’s camp week!

These are beautiful words to a parent’s ear!  Camp week!  It’s here.  That week when the kids pack up their clothes, boots, sleeping bags, towels, and pillows and go have fun while mom and dad get a little time alone and some peace and quiet.

This is the second year my boys are headed off to Camp St. Thekla, an Orthodox Christian summer camp operated by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Diocese of Miami and the Southeast.  Last year, all we heard for two weeks after camp was how much fun they had, how great their friends were and how they couldn’t wait to do it again.  So, here we go.

Getting ready for camp can be a bit tedious.  There’s the suit cases to pack and only the coolest of t-shirts can go on the trip.   There’s a costume to bring for Decades Night.  There’s mom double checking to make sure deodorant was included.  There’s pillows.  Gabe brought his shredded pillow again which is also shedding stuffing everywhere.  We put a second pillow case on that one.  That was Saturday night.

 

Father Jacob blessing

Then, of course, there’s Sunday church and the Blessing for the campers!  St. Timothy’s in Toccoa, GA  had 5 going to CST this year.  Father Jacob douses them thoroughly with holy water after he says the prayers.

Then, there’s the road trip up there.  Everyone in the truck, yakking about camp games and counselors and Fr. Alexander.  It’s a lively conversation all the way up the twisty, curvy roads to Cleveland, SC.  Alas, we pull into the retreat center.  This is the time when mom gets a little anxious.

“What’s that Cascades thing you were talking about?” I ask.

“Oh, it’s where they let us jump off a waterfall into a pool of water, about a 50 foot drop,” says my quit witted teen.  “You won’t have to worry about Gabe.  You have to be 13 to go.”

“That makes me feel so much better,” I gasp. “Only one of you has to die.”

“Don’t freak, mom!  It’s not 50 feet and there’s a life guard,” he says with a grin.  “We’ll be fine.”

Father Alex at the check-in

So, yes, I do get a tad worrisome, but most of that eases as I meet the counselors and see Father Alexander again, the very capable coordinator of this ministry.   Then, I hear screams!  Those screams come from about five different kids running up to Hunter hugging, high fiving and beaming that he’s finally arrived.  He scurries away with them into the sunset, backpack over shoulder, not remembering to look back and say good bye.

It’s all good.

At check in, a friend and mother of six says, “We’re going to Asheville so we can sleep.”

“Good idea,” I agree, thinking about our own quiet week ahead.  It will be nice to sleep and think and breathe!  On the way back to the truck, I catch a glimpse of my youngest; he’s crowded around a busy game of poll ball completely unaware that he has a mamma nearby.

It’s all good.

Moments later, I nudge up into the driver’s seat, husband beside me, unable to help my big smile.  He’s smiling too as we head off together into the sunset.

Foreground: 2 a prominent or important position.

The Foreground is a blog series providing a glimpse into what one family is attempting to make prominent:  a life in the church.  We are a family of seven with some in the nest and some out.  We have kids in college, in high school and in middle school.  One of us is a sub deacon and one of us runs the parish book store.  Orthodox for 14 years, one of us attends a Greek church and the rest attend our local OCA parishes. What’s in our foreground?   Come join us this week and find out.

Go to http://www.familylifeministry.atlanta.goarch.org/ to see this blog and other great family oriented content.