A few months ago our parish priest, who also happens to be a friend and my next door neighbor, discussed his vision for a weekend youth dance camp with me. I sat there listening politely while the sheer magnitude of such a logistical nightmare danced in my head. Oh ye of little faith! Luckily Father had enough faith in the task at hand for both of us and then some. Within a short time a group of us organized what would turn out to be a memorable and satisfying experience for both kids and parents alike.
Recently while surfing through some of my favorite sites I came across a post in the Ellopos blog. The topic was the role of the state in religious education in Orthodox countries like Greece and Russia. The Orthodox Church has been closely aligned with the State in keeping with the tradition established by the Byzantines. Religious education has historically been a part of the public school curriculum. In some countries like Greece, the bonds between State and Church are starting to unravel to an extent. For example, Greek Orthodox priests are no longer granted access to public schools. Perhaps this is due to the increasing secularization of the State and European societies in general or it is a result of the less homogeneous makeup of European societies which have welcomed immigrants of different religions into countries previously dominated entirely by the Orthodox or Catholic Church. In Russia, the Church has turned over religious education to the public schools. Incorporating religious education into public education has serious drawbacks. By doing so the Church has inadvertently relieved the two main proponents of religious training of their responsibility, the Church itself and the more importantly, the parents. What has evolved, is in fact, no longer religious evangelization of young people, just another school subject taught by teachers who have neither the training nor the motivation to give young people what they so desperately need.
Those of us who are Orthodox and who have been raised in non-Orthodox countries have developed a very different mindset about who is responsible for raising our children within the Church. Although I still believe that children should be allowed to pray and observe religious holidays in school, I certainly prefer that the State not get involved in the religious education of my child. The Orthodox Church in the Diaspora has had to survive without being propped up by the State. The entire Church organization is funded entirely by private monies donated by the body of the Church itself. This is always difficult and problematic as evidenced by the financial problems faced by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in North America. The concept of stewardship is a foreign one for some within the Church, especially recent immigrants who are not used to volunteerism and supporting their parish financially. Despite this the Orthodox Churches have remained viable and have grown. Economics aside the major task ahead for the Church is to prepare those who will inherit it, the youth. In order to accomplish this it takes a partnership of three important levels. Parental, Parish and Diocesan.
Particularly gratifying to me was watching how these three levels came together during the Weekend Dance Camp that took place in our Church. The Metropolis of Boston Office of Youth Ministry provided what we used to call in the military, a mobile training team. It consisted of young college students who have previously served as counselors at the Metropolis Camp in New Hampshire. Many of our kids knew them and were comfortable with these young adults, who by the way, served as excellent role models for the campers ages 9 to 17. I don't care how great you are as a parent, children and adolescents in particular, invariably respond differently to us than they do to those who are closer in age to their own. Youth workers are extremely important to a good youth ministry program, however, they need support from parents. Parents are the critical link in the chain because they are the ones that have to bring kids to church activities and create a faith atmosphere at home. With all of the distractions nowadays it's very easy to pass up activities at Church for sports and all the other worldly intrusions in modern life. It's up to parents to get their children involved in their spiritual home, the Church. Kids are often resistant to new experiences, that's normal. They usually need a nudge. Once they are with others their own age they warm up quickly. In a matter of no time the problem will be getting them to go home.
The participants in our group consisted of of young people from six churches from three different states. They arrived on a Friday evening. The Dance camp started with a "get to know each other" session. It consisted of talking to someone you didn't know and then giving a little presentation including drawing a poster about that person. Everyone broke up into groups and went to work. In no time at all they finished their presentations and the ice had been broken. They were having a good time in the process, oblivious to the fact that most of them were strangers to each other. After supper and a Compline service sung entirely by the assembled campers, lead by their counselors, they broke up into groups and they went to the homes that would be hosting them for the evening. My wife, Anna and I had eight boys in our home. Our biggest challenge was getting them to sleep, because needless to say the excitement level was high and the adrenalin not easily turned off. Fortunately, even the Energizer bunny runs out of steam, eventually.
The next morning we had a great hot breakfast waiting for us which a group of parents had prepared in our communal kitchen (all the meals were paid for and prepared by parents). The children were organized into groups according to dancing ability: beginner, intermediate and advanced. Each group had an instructor who taught the various dance steps and explained the origin of each dance. Greeks have created distinct regional dances, no matter where they lived. The dances ran the gamut from the popular Kalamatiano to Macedonian and Pontian dances. Greek dancing is an excellent way to get people up and moving, especially kids. There is no pressure to pair up and anyone can fake it. The important thing is that kids are spending time with each other, socializing while they learn and above all, it's fun. On Saturday we wrapped up the day by holding a mock trial. A prosecution and defense team were put together and they had to present their cases before a judge. Most kids have seen enough TV programs to understand the basic procedures involved. The defendant in this case was a young lady played by a parent who was accused of all kinds of bad behavior and of being a "bad" Christian. The verdict was handed down by the judge (a counselor) who decided that as Christians it is not our job to judge others. We need to concentrate on correcting our own faults and more importantly developing our Christian faith. After much discussion the kids agreed that professing one's faith is not enough, we must embody the tenets of that faith and live it with conviction in a world that does not value the same things.
Supper was a lenten meal in preparation for communion the next day. After the trial we had a campfire, roasted marshmallows and sat around while the kids sang. The parents made it all seamless for the counselors by taking care of the logistics: transportation, meals, campfire, providing their homes. The day ended again with a Compline service in a darkened Church lit by the flickering light of oil lamps and the candles each child held. Listening to their assembled voices rising up was a moving experience for a parent. On Sunday the kids attended the Divine Liturgy, sang in the choir and served as acolytes. During the coffee hour they put on an exhibition for the all the assembled parents, yiayias and papous, who all clapped like crazy people. After-wards, we all sat down for lunch and then said our goodbyes. Kids of all ages were were tearfully hugging each other and trading phone numbers. Promises were made to get together again for Winter Camp in February. Reflecting on the weekend we all felt like it was a special time. All of us had grown spiritually. The world is taking our children away one piece at time. Isn't time we prepared them to confront that world armed with their Orthodox faith? Isn't it time we prepared them to inherit His Church? May our efforts be blessed.