The Word interviews Very Rev. Anthony Yazge, new Antiochian Village Camp director
Fr. Anthony, when did you first get involved at the Antiochian Village Camp?
My first Antiochian Village experience was in 1981 when I served as a counselor under Fr. John Namie. This was a marvelous experience, in fact, the best summer of my early life. I forged life-long relationships that summer, relationships that would shape my life and my ministry. Among the counselors and staff that year were Frs. Antony Hughes, Ed Hughes, Anthony Michaels, Michael Shanbour and Khouriyes Annie Hughes, Laila Ellias and Janet Shadid. Together that summer, many of us learned Fr. John Namie’s ideas about how a liturgical life and prayer life could be part of one’s daily life. For me, this opened up a whole new way of coming to know and respond to God. Life with God was not limited to Sunday! The saints become alive when we read their lives and interact with them through the services. My personal prayer life developed and I became comfortable being with God in prayer.
How did this camp experience influence your vision of camp leadership?
Metropolitan PHILIP and Fr. Michael Nasser both speak of Fr. Namie as the spiritual father of the camp. His influence on the camp shaped the Village to be a place of prayer, of awareness of the saints, and of respect of campers and staff for each other. Fr. Michael and other camp directors have maintained and nurtured this vision. Like Frs. John and Michael, I will emphasize the importance of confession. Through this sometimes-neglected sacrament and gift of the Church, young people can develop their relationships with God and other people. This is so important. The parish environment rarely offers the intensity available at camp. Camp can be a life-changing experience because it offers life without the distractions of home. It offers lots of time to reflect on prayer and our relationships. The children learn to really rely on God and each other. They encourage each other and learn from positive examples. God is the leader at the camp. Together we learn to understand His direction. Counselors and staff learn to share God’s love, working in His work. The campers learn this and make this their way, too.
As a session priest, I have been deeply moved when hearing the confessions of the young people. Witnessing burdens evaporate before my eyes has been such a blessing and joy to me. This is something that parish priests sometimes experience in the parish setting, but at the Antiochian Village it is the norm. Perhaps the children teach each other how great it is when they confess and they take courage from each other.
I believe that my first responsibility will be to serve the staff. By serving them, they will be better able to serve the campers. If we can show the staff God’s unconditional love through our working with them, they will model and show this love to the campers. The campers can rest assured that we will pray for them while they are at camp and after they go home. Together we are a community of love, just like their parish communities. Like the parish, the Antiochian Village will be for them another home, a home where they will be safe and always accepted. The Antiochian Village will be a safe haven. The Antiochian Village will be a place where they can be all that God calls them to be. They will find new levels of self-respect and enjoy the love and joy of other Orthodox Christian men and women.
Do you expect an easy transition?
My transition has already begun and has been quite smooth, due primarily to the excellent work of Fr. Michael and his staff. The Antiochian Village is already a place of fasting and prayer. They have a great staff. Marek Simon and Khalil Samara are men of solid character and Christian love. The Village is very different from Fr. John’s early staff, which began with Fr. John as the only full-time staff person and has grown to a team of seminary-educated men who multiply God’s gifts and work. Program development is now a yearround job, developing camping programs that work outside the box, with some programs on the road and year-round programs utilizing the camp space and buildings. We now have programs for Christian education, iconography, chanting, and daily life tools like candle and incense making, and holy bread baking. Camp on the road takes visits to holy and historic sights, as well as extreme camping and hiking experiences. We have a challenge course worth boasting over, which we use to build trust and community. With God’s help, all things are possible. I watched a young lady on the zip line as she overcame her anxiety and triumphed over her fears. The other campers cheered her on and gave her courage. All this could be done because of the relationships that developed on the holy ground of the Village.
I remember that you had something to do with the beginning of Special Olympics. Is this true?
My cousin Ken and I started Special Olympics during our Teen SOYO days. We were looking for ways to reach out past ourselves. Through this program, we watched so many lives change dramatically. This program has grown every year from those early days to now being a premier program. It shows what kind of things can be accomplished by teens. The number of clergy and church leaders who have participated in this program is a testimony to what God can do through these kinds of programs. This ministry, which goes beyond the walls of the Church to the least of our brethren, has proven to me the importance of the Village and the opportunities of this holy mountain. The Special Olympics Camp has become a life-changing experience for hundreds of our teens.
Do you anticipate making any changes at the Village?
Most changes will be minor. Fr. Michael has done a commendable job and offered a holy direction. My leadership style may be a little different, but our goals and vision are the same. This holy mountain belongs to the kingdom of God. Our job is to help those who come here understand how God’s Kingdom is here and now. The liturgy shows this most clearly, but God is present with us in every moment of our lives. I want to see us further expand our year-round programs. I want to bring more programs for altar boys and young people retreats. I want to see these facilities used all the time. Sayidna PHILIP’s vision of this holy mountain is being fulfilled. I told the children at family camp last week that one person can make a difference. One prayer can make a difference. With prayer, we put God’s love into action. It is their honor to work in God’s word.
How is your family responding to the move to Pennsylvania?
We are all looking forward to the move. Camp has always been a big part of our lives, and my children are products of the positive influences of the Village. The idea of being at all the sessions is a dream come true. We are all excited. I am particularly excited for my son Mark, who will now have some of the experiences that Matthew and Alexis have had at camp. My family will be joining me at the Village next summer, after Matthew graduates from high school.
Will you miss parish life?
God blessed us with eighteen years of parish life at St. George in Terre Haute, IN. We have wonderful relationships with so many people. We have been family for a very long time, so leaving is tough. But we will take them with us in our hearts and our prayers, and they will keep us as well. It is helpful to know that we leave the parish in good hands of spiritual leadership in Fr. Stephen. It is also helpful to know how the parish, aware of my life-long relationship with the Village, wishes my family well there. I expect them to visit the Village often, as we have programs and opportunities to share in the future. I’ve challenged them to come often.
You seem to enjoy being a dad and a priest. What does your wife Stefanie think about all this?
I love being a father. Our children are a great joy to Stefanie and me. Watching them grow has been such an exciting thing. Especially fulfilling is how they grow in SOYO and Church school. Stefanie and I are our children’s greatest fans. We also enjoyed nurturing our church community and now look forward to working together at the Village. Stefanie is looking forward to the new challenges and life. At the Village, we will be closer to our families as well. We hope that she will find a job teaching theology at a nearby college. She has much to offer. In our marriage, we have both been able to share in ministry. I like to see myself as the pastor in the family, and Stefanie as the theologian. Stefanie also is a seminary graduate and loves the ministry of the Church. She has certainly enriched my life and my ministry.
The Antiochian Village is a place where my life as a priest can continue to grow and expand. I will have opportunities to share Christ with the group that I feel most drawn to serve. I also believe that the Village has some special things to offer my family and me. I ask for your prayers and the prayers of the readers of The WORD, and for your support and cooperation as we continue together to see God’s plan for our lives and our camp unfold. I look for God to show me how He wants me to journey to Him, and I hope to bring as many with me as I can.
Courtesy of the
November 2006 issue of The Word magazine.