OYO LA 2004
Orthodox Youth Outreach (OYO)
Orthodox Youth Sharing the Love of Christ
Fr. Kevin Scherer
Ten years ago, when I was received into the Church, I became aware of the remarkable efforts of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC). I was thrilled to hear that the heart of the Orthodox Church was still beating strong with apostolic zeal. I was saddened, however, to discover that the Mission Center was only supporting a dozen or so long-term missionaries.
I had come from a Christian tradition where it was not atypical for a local parish to spend as much as 25-33% of their annual budget on local and foreign missions. I can remember from my earliest days in Sunday School, learning about and meeting missionaries. By the time I reached college, a perspective about the world and the Christian life had already been formed within me. I knew that it wasn't abnormal for someone to become a missionary and raise his or her family in a foreign land for the sake of the Gospel and the salvation of others. I never realized that this kind of formation was happening in my life - it was something I "caught" as much as I learned.
Today, I'm convinced that most people don't wake up and decide that they are going to be missionaries - quit their job, sell their house, and pack up the family for foreign soil. If the Church believes that Christ's commission should be taken seriously, then we must be proactive about the formation that it requires. The fact is that when most young people in our Church reach college age and are making decisions about their future, the mission field is not even on their radar screen. It's no wonder that the Mission Center does not have a larger pool from which to draw!
Don't misunderstand me, I don't believe that God has called each of us to this holy vocation, but I do believe that He has called each of us to support it! If we want to continue this apostolic activity of bringing the light and love of Christ to every nation, then we must start young - as young as possible!
Orthodox Youth Outreach (OYO) was designed to be a resource to the Church in fulfilling the Great Commission of Christ "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations..." (Matthew 28:19). The driving philosophy behind OYO is simple: train Orthodox young people that it is the normal action of every Christian to share the love of Christ with every people group, especially the poor and needy. Our desire is to train up an army of servants for Christ who have only one vision: to empty themselves on behalf of the other.
Based on these convictions, OYO has developed a strategy for this kind of formation; we call it E4: Expose, Engage, Equip, and Entrust. This four-tiered, service learning approach, combined with a modified orientation and debriefing component have become the foundation for the kind of short-term service projects we schedule.
On the weekend of January 2-4, 2004, OYO got to "test drive" this kind of service learning approach, on 28 teenagers and young adults from three different states and eight different parishes in Los Angeles in the first-ever OYO regional event. It began with an afternoon of orientation. The students spent a session discussing the realities and reasons behind urban poverty, while the sponsors were trained in OYO’s orientation and debriefing philosophy. The remainder of the afternoon was spent together orienting around the specific experiences and ministries that the group would be encountering during the weekend. Before we packed up the vans and headed for our ministry headquarters in the heart of South Central, Los Angeles, we gathered together in the Cathedral chapel to pray for God’s mercy and blessing on our endeavor.
Our headquarters for the weekend was an older apartment building, now owned by a private parachurch ministry, The Center for Student Missions (CSM), our host for the weekend. The rooms were modest to say the least. Each studio was furnished with an assortment of twin mattresses (not near enough to accommodate our numbers) and one small bathroom. The heat was purposely kept at a low temperature. The result was a very cramped, two-night, real-life encounter with what many urban poor live with day-in and day-out.
The weekend included many activities and experiences which provided our group with a substantial education and exposure to the city’s homeless culture. On the first evening the group traveled together in different vans throughout the city on a Prayer Tour. Four or five times, we pulled over the vans (in well-lit and safe areas) to dialogue and pray over the political and spiritual realities of the homeless culture.
One of these stops was in a deserted parking lot outside of City Hall, where our hosts asked all of us to lie down on the asphalt and reflect on the hundreds of homeless who would be sleeping on that cold, black mattress. For most of us, the chill of that parking lot never left our bones that evening. Consider what one 14 year old girl wrote: "Lying down in the parking lot during the Prayer Tour still stands out in my mind. It really made me think about what homeless people go through every day; and it was shameful to know that I have never really paid attention to their needs."
Our first full day began with an exercise called, “The Breakfast Search,” where in small groups of four we were to seek out and ask a homeless person to breakfast. Each group was given a small map of the area with clearly defined boundaries and just enough money for breakfast, which was $3 per meal. The results were powerful. That morning was life changing for most of us and will remain forever etched in our hearts and minds.
One 18-year-old student found himself on the other end of giving when the homeless person he took out to breakfast offered to share his food. He wrote, "The homeless were selfless despite their position." Another student was convicted when the homeless person they asked to breakfast was the first to suggest that they should pray before eating.
Later that day, the entire group was split into two and headed in different directions to serve lunch to hundreds of Skid Row homeless. For one teenage girl it was an empowering experience that proved to her that one person could make a difference. She wrote: 'When I talked with a man who was a crack addict, he told me about his life and why he was working in the soup kitchen. I asked him lots of questions about the way he pictured life and I told him what I thought about drugs. He looked at me and said, 'You know what, maybe you're right.' He listened to me!" Many of the students learned that day that homelessness wasn't a synonym for laziness, but a complex problem filled with issues like addiction, disability, mental illness, generational poverty, and dysfunctional family systems. We served real people and came face-to-face with their real needs.
At the end of that day, we had a long and powerful debrief followed by an inspiring presentation from an OCMC representative, Jordan Henderson, the Assistant Teams Director and Medical Coordinator. Jordan's day-to-day responsibilities revolve around coordinating Mission Teams and he educated us about the role of the Mission Center and the OCMC Missionaries. He offered his own first-hand experience from the field and shared with the students how they could get involved in foreign missions. For some of the students, this was the first time they had ever been challenged to consider a full-time vocation in missions. One of the students wrote: "l really have looked at this option differentIy. I always thought that [others were] doing that, so it [didn't] have to concern me. Wrong. I couldn't believe the statistics. I want to be involved with spreading the love of Christianity."
On the last morning, before Divine Liturgy, we fed homeless people with orange juice and pastries in an inner-city park known for its gang and drug activity. Many had slept there during the cold night before with only a blanket. Seeing this helped us understand what real need looks like, especially since we so very often confuse wants and needs.
Our weekend came to an appropriate end with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, where we witnessed the Great Blessing of the Water. It was a powerful reminder that all of God's creation, knowingly or unknowingly, waits in eager anticipation to be redeemed and restored. Everyday each of us comes face-to-face with the image of God in the other and our vocation is to discover Him in each person and in each situation.
At the end of the weekend all of us were very tired, but filled with vivid and precious memories of real people and real ministry. These kinds of experiences are filling, even life-giving. They give one a sense of hope that humanity can be transformed by small acts of kindness.
If it's important, I really do believe that our students made a difference in the lives of many people that weekend, but I also know that those same people had an amazing ministry in our lives as well. That's the mystery of serving and of loving - the more that you empty yourself, the more God fills in return. My greatest joy that weekend was watching God's Spirit move in the lives of these students. Real transformation was evident in each of their faces - their attention, sobriety, eagerness, compassion, hard work, and tears. I told them at the beginning of our weekend that I expected that God would reveal to their hearts some of the things that break His, and I truly believe that this is exactly what happened.
A survey designed to measure change affected by their service project experience was given to the students at the beginning and conclusion of our weekend together. The results revealed that this experience affected their desire to practice the disciplines of fasting and confession more seriously, to pray more regularly and to volunteer their time and talents to their local parish. The most radical differences were seen in their attitudes toward part and full-time mission work. Every participant noted an interest in serving on other short-term service projects, while several indicated a serious vocational interest.
As I stated earlier in this article, the purpose of OYO is to raise up a generation of Orthodox Christians who are globally minded and whose hearts are broken for the things that break God's heart. I believe we've made a good start. If you have a desire to shape the lives of young people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we would love to include you in our next short-term service project. We always need team leaders, adult sponsors, and benefactors. Very soon we hope to be running these kinds of service projects in each region across the United States and Canada. The cities we are considering for the future are: San Francisco, Nashville, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia, D.C., and Toronto. If you have a specific interest in ministering within one of these cities, please do not hesitate to contact me. I look forward to serving with you, your teenager or one of the students from your parish very soon!
For more information about OYO check out http://www.orthodoxyouthoutreach.net