It’s a place we call home, a place where our youth gather every summer, a place where relationships are formed and strengthened, a place that is so difficult to leave, and a place where Christ is truly present. This special place is the Antiochian Village Camp, a family that has influenced our Archdiocese for many years in inexplicable ways. I have been involved with the Village for the past fifteen summers— nine as a camper and CIT, and the past six as a staff member. Every year I fall more in love with the Village, the ministry, and the Orthodox Church.
The influence the Camp has had on our youth is incredible! I have grown up at St. Mary’s Church in Johnstown, a small town in Western Pennsylvania. I have seen the effect the Village has had on our youth in my home parish, our diocese, as well as the youth from around the country.
First of all, our youth are effected by the relationships they form at camp. Most of the children at St. Mary’s in Johnstown have been to camp, and whenever I go home and see them, there is an instant connection between us that was formed at the Village. They regularly talk to their friends from camp and go and visit each other. Just seeing people associated with the Village brings huge smiles to their faces. The Village is a big family spread across the continent of people who have experienced the same place and way of life that is “camp”. No matter where I go, seeing campers, staff and volunteers from the Village renews and strengthens a powerful, already-existing bond between us, because camp gives us the opportunity to form relationships centered on Christ.
Secondly, our youth learn the services of the Orthodox Church at camp. The campers and staff are the choir at the Village. There is nothing more beautiful than 350 children and young adults singing so energetically as they worship together. The Village has taught thousands of young people the music of our services. Even the youngest campers learn the music quickly, and they learn the value of participating in the services. At home, it is the “Villagers” who can instantly sing along with the hymns of the Church. They sing along with “Lord I have Cried” (in all 8 tones!), “More Honorable than the Cherubim”, and “The Cherubic Hymn”. They know “The Angel Cried”, “Bless the Lord”, and even the entire Paraklesis service! But most importantly, they sing with their hearts. It is a humbling experience to worship with 9-year-olds who know the services so well, and who look forward to going to church twice a day because it’s “fun”. Thanks to our camps such as the Antiochian Village, our youth go home and want to go to Vespers, they want to sing along in Church, they want to pray before and after meals and before they go to bed at night. The Village encourages our youth to participate in the services and teaches the importance of prayer.
Further, our youth learn about the Orthodox Faith at camp. They get so many of their questions answered about life and the teachings of the Church. They build relationships with our clergy, have the opportunity to take confession, and receive spiritual guidance and direction. So many of our youth feel lost in the “world”, but like the Prodigal Son, camp shows our youth that the Orthodox Church is the place to return, a place to feel safe, and a place to find God.
I have seen the effect camp has had on my home parish, my home diocese, every parish I visit, and our Archdiocese as a whole. Our youth are thirsty to learn about God, they want to serve Him and worship Him. Camp merely wets their spiritual appetites, a starting block of our youths’ spiritual journeys. It is up to our parishes to continue to offer opportunities for our youth to spiritually grow, such as services besides Sunday Divine Liturgy, retreats, and other events in the Church.
My home parish of St. Mary’s may be small, but it is truly a vibrant community, thanks in large part to the influence of the Antiochian Village. There has been a lot of activity at St. Mary’s recently which has energized our parish family. Earlier this summer, I had the blessing of being ordained a subdeacon by Bishop John while at the Antiochian Village. Several family members and parishioners came to the camp to witness my ordination. It was encouraging to receive so much love and support from our parish family. On August 14th, we hosted Bishops Thomas, John, and Nicholas and all of our seminarians from the House of Studies, for Orthros and Divine Liturgy on the eve of the Dormition, our patron feast. This was the first time we have hosted three bishops at once! The seminarians chanted Orthros and the St. Mary parish choir sang beautifully during Liturgy. We were then treated to a delicious dinner cooked by the St. Mary parishioners, and all the seminarians were given goodie bags with treats from the Johnstown area. It was a very spiritual evening full of love, and it was amazing to see our parishioners feed off the energy of hosting our bishops and seminarians.
I have spent my whole life as a member of St. Mary’s Church in Johnstown, and I have always cherished the love our parish community has shown. We may be a small church, but we are a big family. At my baby shower, Aunt Lottie Bertino (who has been active in our church her entire life) told my mom, “This isn’t your baby…this is our baby.” It brings tears to my eyes thinking about Aunt Lottie’s words 25 years ago, and how they explain perfectly what our parish family is all about. At St. Mary’s we are a family—a living, thriving, Orthodox Christian community of believers who are trying to get to Heaven together. The Antiochian Village Camp has been an immense influence on our parish, infusing life into our youth and energy into our community. I have seen the positive influence the camp has had on our parish in particular, because our parish continues to work with the Village, by continuing to offer our parishioners opportunities to grow spiritually and continue the ministry of the camp. It is a real blessing to be part of both my parish in Johnstown and the Antiochian Village Camp. It is my hope that every parish in our Archdiocese can take advantage of our summer camps in the same way, by allowing ourselves to be effected by our camps, and allowing our youth to spiritually grow! Seeing the relationship between my home parish and the camp, it is clear to me why the Antiochian Village is truly a place we call home!