The following was written by request of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship national office, which supports student ministry on university campuses in North America.
Involvement with the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) at the University of Florida led me to service as a long-term Orthodox Christian missionary in Tanzania, East Africa.
In the fall of 2005 I arrived in Gainesville, Florida as a graduate student in Linguistics and was welcomed warmly by fellow Orthodox Christian students. OCF was small at the time, but students were committed to one another and to Christ. Although we had few official functions we gathered frequently for informal prayer, fellowship, and book study. I found myself with a leadership role in these “unofficial” activities, and when our president graduated in 2007 I was asked to take on that post.
Gainesville is just down the road from St Augustine, Florida, where the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) is headquartered. So there was frequent contact between OCMC and OCF. OCMC Executive Director Fr. Martin Ritsi’s kids were fellow Florida Gators, and our chaplain Fr. Ted Pisarchuk served on the OCMC board. So I quite naturally began to hear about possibilities for long-term missionary service.
As president of OCF at the University of Florida, I began to learn about leadership. I was surrounded by prayerful officers who took their role seriously and became great friends. Together with other nearby OCFs we organized a statewide retreat for Orthodox Christian college students and young adults which has since become a yearly event. At UF we continued to pray regularly for our campus and to develop a vision for the future.
We also started to bring in a regular speaker: Fr. David Rucker, who had just accepted a position as Associate Director of OCMC. And we received a new chaplain: Dn. James Nicholas, Assistant Director of OCMC’s Missionary Department. Through Fr. David and Dn. James I learned more about Orthodox Christian missionary work and began seriously considering a vocation as a long-term missionary.
When our parish priest of blessed memory, Fr. Peter Kastaris, became suddenly ill at the beginning of Lent 2008, I was asked to call Fr. David to serve us during the emergency. He accepted this midnight call with grace and love as Fr. Peter suffered and died shortly before Holy Week. In the season leading up to Pascha, I saw Fr. David and the whole Rucker family doing true missionary work in our midst – loving us first, suffering together with us, bearing our burdens, and being available. Only after establishing this relationship of love and trust did Fr. David begin to work positive change and gently correct our errors.
It was thus through relationships with OCMC staff that I made the decision to apply for long-term missionary service, and those relationships were established in OCF. Now I am in Tanzania, and have been asked to assist the Holy Archdioces of Mwanza to develop a ministry for young adults. The positive experiences I had in OCF at UF are a major guidepost in this process. I am very excited by this opportunity to share here in East Africa the great gifts I received as part of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship there in the United States.
It is an extra blessing to have the prayers, encouragement, and even financial partnership of OCFs in Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, California and British Columbia. When I was on the road raising support in the fall of 2009, my favorite moments were on university campuses with young faithful Orthodox Christians. I visited OCFs not because I thought students would give money, but because I simply love being with OCF. Surprisingly, some of my most consistent and generous support has come from people I met during OCF visits.
The most important tradition we established in OCF at UF was prayer. Three times weekly, a few students would gather for short midday prayers in the basement of the union building on campus. There were periods when “Midday Prayer” was the only thing OCF did, and when it might be attended by two people at most. But it was and continues to be the heart of Orthodox Christian spiritual life on the university campus. While other programs, events, etc succeeded or failed to whatever degree, the core of faithful consistent prayer is what sustained us and is what led, I firmly believe, to the tremendous growth OCF at UF experienced in the three years since my service as president. Even here in Tanzania, I know that every time I pause in the day to remember my God I am joined in this prayer by my fellow Orthodox Gators.