A New Measure of the Church
How the participants of the 13th All-Diaspora Russian Orthodox Youth Conference saw and experienced it.
The ship circled the city of Saint Francisco under the dazzling rays of the setting California Sun and returned to port. That last evening, when the 13th All-Diaspora Russian Orthodox Youth Conference was declared closed, very few of the young people went to sleep early-they had a great deal to discuss. The hundred fifty participants, hailing from Australia, Austria, Argentina, Belarus, Germany, Canada, Macedonia, Russia, the US, Ukraine and Sweden, and the bishops and priests of the Russian Church Abroad and the Russian Orthodox Church of Russia and Ukraine were still under the influence of the impressions of arriving in time for another great event in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia-the 20th anniversary of the glorification of one of the most revered saints of the Russian diaspora, St John of Shanghai and San Francisco. Some knew his life story well, others only came face-to-face with the reverence and love so many have for him after they arrived. St John is the patron saint of the poor and needy. On this anniversary, the topic of the youth forum was well chosen-charitable and social service.
Each of the eight days of the event began early in the morning, ending close to midnight in the hotel rooms, where projects were discussed further, experiences shared and acquaintances made.
The forum included lectures and discussions over the course of the conference the youth also broke up into workshops. Following the slogan of the forum: “In the Footsteps of St John,” the conferees developed social projects which would involve the self-sacrificing efforts of Orthodox youth to help their neighbors by providing various forms of social aid and support. These global projects which can be brought to life in today’s cities, in dioceses and on the parish level, include a social bank of aid for the needy, help to prisoners, schoolchildren, an Orthodox camp, and Orthodox theater and an Orthodox cafe…
“The All-Diaspora Russian Orthodox Youth Conferences, which originated outside the borders of the historic homeland, have a great and glorious history,” said Protopriest Andrei Sommer, who has been organizing these events for many years as the Vice President of the Synodal Youth Department of ROCOR. “This time, the 13th All-Diaspora Russian Orthodox Youth Conference took place for the second time on the Pacific seaboard. The time and location was chosen carefully. Concurrent with the youth forum was a regular session of the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, held at the Cathedral of the Mother of God ‘Joy of All Who Sorrow,’ which was scheduled in turn to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the canonization of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco. He is the heavenly protector of those who work in social service.”
Fr Andrei is a native Californian. He began serving as an altar boy here, during the tenure of the ruling bishop of the Western American Diocese, Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev), and it was here that he began to participate in youth programs.
“The length of the conference was eight days, but planning took two years,” continued Fr Andrei, describing the “kitchen-table” preparatory work. “First and foremost was receiving blessing and finding sponsors to cover expenses, for such a large international event could not be conducted without the cooperation of those who provide real help for the good, God-pleasing work of rearing young people in the Orthodox faith, who are actually helping young people take an active role in today’s world.”
Most of the participants were students with low income. Many traveled far, so sponsors assumed the costs of registering foreign students. As a result, most of the conference members only had to pay for their airfare.
“A lot of work was done in San Francisco jointly with local youth groups, Russians and charitable organizations, including the Congress of Russian Americans, the Russian Center and the local scout troop. Representatives of these organizations together with the Synodal Youth Department developed the programs, which were submitted for the blessing of the Metropolitan and of the Synod of Bishops.
“As far as the optimal form of running a youth conference is concerned, as a whole they were worked out on the 12th All-Diaspora Conference held in Paris-these included lectures by guest hierarchs, theologians, heads of various missionary youth and church groups, and the work was broken down into sections at which the students exchanged experiences and participated in cultural and pilgrim programs.
“All the participants eagerly learned about the organizations which provide social services in the San Francisco area. These include a senior home with a chapel of St John of Kronstadt, where Protopriest Stefan Pavlenko serves, who, along with Protopriest Alexander Krassovsky, actively participated in the conference; the soup kitchen of St Anthony which feeds the poor. After visiting these establishments, the forum members decided in unanimity that the experience of the Church Abroad, as well as other confessions, though born of different circumstances, can be successfully applied in Russia and other countries. The youth also appreciated the presence of VIPs of charity, not only professionals but those for whom social service has become a living necessity.”
Drawing a great deal of interest were the mains speakers: His Grace Bishop Panteleimon of Orekhovo-Zuevsk of the Synodal Department of Charity and Social Service of the Moscow Patriarchate, Archimandrite Irinei (Steenberg), director of one of the oldest Orthodox educational establishments, SS Cyril and Methodius High School; Alena Plavsic, Development Manager of the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and Niko Petrogiorgio, Coordinator of the renowned organization FOCUS-the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve North America.
Fortunately, the speakers avoided any rigid official tone, welcoming discussion with the listeners. The most “mobile” of the speakers who engaged many of the conferees was Rostislav Ordovsky-Tanaevsky Blanco, a board member of the FfA and a successful businessman, owner of the company Rostik Group, who flew to San Francisco from Moscow for only 24 hours.
He was born in Venezuela to a Russian-Spanish family, speaking fluent Russian and three other languages, and later created a network of restaurants in Russia. He traveled this continent in order to share his vision and his experience in creating new businesses and charities, pointing out how to start a project, how to treat failure, and how to start over.
Rostislav Vadimovich’s business talents are united within this man with gratitude and a discerning eye, able to see who is in real need of help, and the means to provide it. It would be hard to find a project operated by the Synodal Youth Department to which Rostislav Vadimovich has not contributed.
“I am very grateful for what I got from the Church Abroad, beginning with my childhood in Venezuela and my teenage years,” said Rostislav Vadimovich. “I often saw how the Russian colony would pool their pennies and build churches or homes for the aging [most of the churches of ROCOR were built by the parishioners with their own hands, including the church in Venezuela, built in the early 1950’s]. I saw how Russians who had to start life anew in a new land recreated the Russian spirit abroad, how during years of hunger they would exhibit a true Christian attitude towards the older generation.
“I was 17 when I participated in the 2 nd All-Diaspora Russian Orthodox Youth Conference in Montreal. I remember how I was elected to the presidium… Today, my visit to San Francisco is a sort of ‘repayment’ to the Church that raised me.”
For many years, Rostislav Vadimovich has provided specific aid, mostly for projects supporting youth and children-the reinvigorated St George’s Pathfinders (ORUR), Sunday school, conferences and other youth events, because he is confident that investment in the rearing of young people in the spirit of Orthodoxy will doubtless bring benefit.
Sergei Chapnin, Editor-in-Chief of the Zhurnal Moskovskoj Patriarchii [Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate] and Tserkovnyj vestnik [Church Herald] agrees with the businessman and benefactor: “Youth ministry is one of the most complicated areas of church activity. On one hand, young people have their interests, their idiosyncrasies, and on the other hand, treating them as a separate group within the Church is problematic, because this is a unified community, and stressing their youth does not always lead to positive results. What this conference produced is a very good example of how priests who organize such events minister to this complex group of believers-not by age, but by various types of mentalities, for the participants, though Russian, live in different countries, on different continents and under various circumstances.”
“Three aspects of the conference dovetailed well: lectures, workshops and field trips relating to the history of Russia, the history of the Church and divine services. In this way the event was well-rounded. Unfortunately, I cannot remember similar examples in Russia… Doubtless, every participant saw something new at the conference, but on the whole, this is one of the best examples of the kind of youth ministry I’d like to see more of.”
Still, as Fr Andrei noted, the conference showed that many priests are in need of more guidance and knowledge in youth ministry. The previous conference attracted priests from Russia, Ukraine, the US and Canada, and they were all able to learn from one another.
For Priest Vyacheslav Davidenko of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Toronto, Canada, this All-Diaspora Conference was his first: “I came to learn, to meet interesting people and to pray before the relics of St John. It was very good to see young people from various countries. For our diocese, it will be difficult to bring to life the projects developed at this forum-for now. Our challenge now is to start a youth club at the diocesan center, and gather young people in each of our cities. At our Holy Trinity Cathedral, we gather young people together every Thursday, we serve a moleben, read excerpts from Abba Dorotheus and have discussions. Unfortunately, not all the people who’d like to are able to attend: they are still in school, others have jobs. But our young people demonstrate an interest in Church, in spending time with one another, so our main goal today is to bring young people to live the life of the Church.”
Nadezhda Zemskova of Saratov, Russia, author and director of Batyushka-online [“father online”] came to Orthodoxy herself thanks to a question from a priest. Nadezhda is attending her first All-Diaspora conference and thinks the forum is one of the best events she has ever attended: “I was stunned by the number of participants, organizations, accommodations-everything was top-class. But the most important thing is the content of the conference: we had great priests and bishops around all the time who would talk to us and offer advice. Every participant or group of participants from various dioceses, different countries offered their own invaluable experience. Actually, the project Batyushka-online originated thanks to my participation in such events. I got to know many interesting priests and young Orthodox Christians-brilliant, contemporary. Usually when you use the word “Orthodox,” many think that Orthodox youth are morose, lackluster losers. Here we see successful young kids with a broad horizons, with well-grounded spiritual lives, full lives. There is a lot to learn from them. I hope another project stems from this conference, too.”
Without a doubt, for the conference itself is a magnificent platform for sounding out real needs and to try to find realistic solutions. During the workshops, the participants discussed problems they often see which should be addressed in Russia and abroad. Finalized project plans will be posted on the internet and each diocese and parish can employ them.
Bishop Panteleimon, discussing the finished plans made by the conference members, noted that he was encouraged by the desire of the young people not to limit their activities to their own communities but to help those who live around Orthodox churches, and not only to preserve their own faith, but to bring it to others. “We must take the initiative, not be ashamed of our faith and cherish it only at home, but to live by it and draw others to it,” said Vladyka, as he reminded the young people that acts of mercy and social service must be joined to spiritual growth.
The main conclusion reached by the conference members was the need to unite youth as the most mobile and creative segment of the Body of Christ, and to focus on charity and mercy. “ Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” said Apostle James. His words are pertinent today.
Not insignificant was the fact that during the forum, young people were able to participate in other events which ran concurrently. The 20 th anniversary of the canonization of St John was being celebrated by the Church Abroad in San Francisco. The youth also attended the nomination and consecration of Bishop Nicholas of Manhattan, who has been the caretaker of the Miracle-working Kursk-Root Icon of the Mother of God "of the Sign" for several years. All of the divine services , incidentally , were conducted under the aegis of this great icon of the Russian diaspora.
“During the conference, we witnessed an important moment that helps illustrate a new measure of the Church,” said Sergei Chapnin. “In Russia we couldn’t even imagine such a situation as we saw in San Francisco, when the young people and bishops lived side by side, sat at the same table drinking coffee or eating non-dairy oatmeal [the event was held during the fast of SS Peter and Paul]. And this wasn’t contrived, it was absolutely natural. Within the divine service, each person has his own role, but outside of church, everyone was together: bishops talked to laypersons, priests and their flock. It seems to me that this was a very important experience, because we see the hierarchical Church often, but the Church as a community with free association proved to be peaceful, unforced, and we don’t see this every day. What these young people are witnessing is how natural this all is, there is no stress, no games being played, nothing artificial-and this is very important.”
One hundred fifty people from 11 nations, 25 dioceses and 5 Orthodox jurisdictions participated in the youth forum hosted by the Russian Church Abroad: ROCOR, the Russian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church in America and the Greek Archdiocese of the USA. This illustrates another important point: more than 90 years after the establishment of the Russian Church Abroad, she did not merge with other jurisdictions, and her voice is still heard. She continues to play a real unifying role among Russian Orthodox jurisdictions outside of the borders of their historic Homeland, continuing to tie together the young generations around the Holy Church of Christ.