THE FAITH AND WORKS OF THE ORTHODOX YOUTH GROUP
What is it that makes church life attractive to young people? What causes young men and women to travel all the way to the Convent, rather than spending their day resting after a long working week, or sitting in front of their computers? Why is the Divine Liturgy, theological debates and spending time with the disabled children at the boarding home more important to them than rest and entertainment? To find out what brings young people to church and why they find life in Christ to be their only way of living, we spent one Sunday with members of the Convent's youth association in honour of the holy martyrs Faith, Hope and Love and their mother Sofia.
Coming together in Christ
It is 1.30 on a Sunday afternoon. Young people are gathering in the lobby of the Convent's school "Ykhvis". Some have been been at the Convent since early morning, to attend the Divine Liturgy and take communion. Others come for the reading of the Akathist to the heavenly intercessors of the youth group, the Holy Martyrs Faith, Hope, Love and their mother Sofia. The rest come for the theological discussion. Some come straight to the boarding home for disabled children.
The history of the Convent's youth group has its roots in the Sunday school established at the Convent of Saint Elisabeth in 1998. As the children who attended school grew, the idea came to create an environment to support their continued growth in faith, and the youth group became an extension of the Sunday school. The young people who remained in the group have grown into young adults, but have continued to come to church, and fulfil obediences in boarding homes and hospitals. Some have become monastics at the Convent, and some are serving as priests.
Priest Rodion Alkhovik, spiritual father of the Sunday School: I am a former member of the Convent's youth group, and I value this experience a lot. We are now less numerous than in our first years, and members have also become less active. But we have a strong core of young and responsible adults aged 25 - 30 years. Some have diverted to other parishes and churches, the number of which has been growing at a fast pace. On an average year, we welcome about 30 - 40 newcomers, but not all of them will remain in the group. The group meets every Sunday throughout the year at the Ykhvis school. The meetings include the reading of the Akathist and the Scriptures. This is followed by a theological debate, in which members try to examine the life around them through the lens of the Holy Scriptures.
But the group's activity is not limited to this, but also include charitable work in the community. The church provides a choice, and it is up to the young person to decide which path to take. An active member will not only live a life of sacrifice himself, but will also help others. Everyone is free to choose Noone can be brought to faith against their will.
Helping those in need
That faith without deeds is useless is a lived truth for every active member of the group. For each of them, coming to God has brought the need to show their faith by their deed by helping the needy. The members in the group are involved in helping children with mental disabilities. Young men and women spend time with the children and teens outside, draw, read stories, listen to music and play games.
"The volunteers from the youth group are very welcome here, we always look forward to their visit", says Irina Davidovich, medical nurse at the boarding home for children with disabilities. The children here need love and communication. Not all of them have parents who can visit them, and they receive every visitor as a loving family member. They are very kind-hearted, just like any other child who does not live in an institution.
They spend their whole day in a ward. Together with the young people, we move them from their beds to the wheelchair, take them outside and play in the auditorium. Even children with some of the most severe disabilities will respond to being called by name. They will remember people, names and voices, and discover the world in their own ways. They are kind-hearted, generous and grateful. Some may not be able to talk, but will smile in response. The visits help them become more joyful, lively and inspired, and they always look forward to the next meeting.
The volunteers are doing a great job. We, as health professionals, come here to work, but they spend their personal time on a weekend, and come to help the children without expecting anything in return. I take my hat off to them!
Finding Truth and Companionship at Church
As we could understand from our interviews with the young people, they do not come to church for entertainment or to escape the difficulties of worldly life. Rather, they are motivated by the search for meaning, opposition to the heartlessness, aggression and the consumerist, pleasure-seeking attitudes to human relations. They are also driven by the desire for companionship and their willingness to help people who are the most in need. The active search for truth starts when a young person realises at some stage in their life that sensual pleasures and abundance do not always bring happiness.
The leader's perspectiveThe leader of the Orthodox youth group Sergey Spasov remarks: "Our society is becoming ever more computerised. We are losing our skills of communication. Sometimes, we do not even know how to talk to one another. Being a part of the youth group is highly valuable in this regard: Our work at the residential care facility is the practical cause, and out theological discussions are an attempt to form a community through dialogue.
Being a part of the youth group changed my perspective of the world and brought me to a spiritual life. I can feel God's help in everything I do. Therefore, this is the area where I can grow and in which I need to make an effort. When I come here, I follow my heart's calling, although there are times when I have to force myself to come. In this case, my main incentive is my feeling of responsibility to my peers.
Vladimir Tsyplyatin: I took baptism three years ago. I had a lot of questions to which I could find no answer, like ‘why am I living?’, or ‘what is the meaning of my life?’ At 22, I began to ask these questions to myself very often. When a misfortune happened, and things became very tough, God sent someone along who showed me the Scripture. I was baptised at 25. Some of the old friendships fell apart, as our interests had diverted. But one of my friendships survived - my best friend also took baptism.
I saw a message on the notice board of one of the Convent's churches about the meetings of young Orthodox believers. I came to one of them, and ended up in the youth group. We read and discuss the Scriptures, and thus discover new meanings to our lives, take an outside view of ourselves, and learn to see ourselves for what we are, not for what we appear to be. Little by little, we come to the understanding that Truth can be found in church. Today, I feel a genuine need for prayer, confession and the Communion. I have a desire to live with God.
By the time I came to the boarding home to volunteer, I had not had many encounters with disabled people; I was barely aware of their existence. Through this experience, I learned to value the simple things. Being in good health, having a pair of arms and legs are in fact a Godsent. This can only be realised by meeting other people, who are different...
Svetlana Zhuk: This is my fist time here, and I think I will continue to visit the children at the boarding home. I work at the Ykhvis school as a music teacher, piano player and speech therapist. I used to sing in the hierarchical choir of the Turov Eparchy. My parents are faithful Orthodox believers. My whole life since early childhood has been closely connected with my faith in Jesus, so joining the Orthodox youth group was a natural thing to do. I see my work at the Ykhvis school as nothing less than the Divine Providence.
Anton Spaskov: I have stopped coming to the theological talks, as I have already found the answers to my questions. But I am still coming to help the children every Sunday. Seeing the children's response, and feeling their welcome is very rewarding. While there are many children who cannot speak well enough to say how they are feeling, their smiles, hugs and body language speak volumes. I feel very privileged to be able to help them. Not all of the children will have parents. Some do, but they come to visit them very rarely. I am not trying to be a parent for them, but I do realise that children need love and attention.
Anna Sinkevich: I first came to an Orthodox youth group in Vitebsk. We volunteered at a residential institution, helped the Convent of the Holy Spirit, and went on multiple missionary trips. Christians need to practice their faith in their works. It is also important to be among like-minded people, to do work together. When I came to Minsk, I met a friend from the youth group back in Vitebsk, and he brought me here. I think it was no accident. As our Matushka used to say, "Where else would you go to church, after having spent time at a monastery? The monastery, of course!"
I have been going to Church for over a decade. I came here myself. My grandmother was a believer, my parents are not churchgoing. I have enjoyed volunteering, ever since university. My mother liked welcomed my involvement in a social cause, and liked the idea very much, as that was keeping me busy. But her attitude changed when she learned that I was going to church, and doing obediences at a monastery. Perhaps she would have been less worried if I was going to a regular church, but the idea of me going to a monastery seemed intimidating for her. She was afraid that I would be exploited, that it could break my life. She would make her point quite harshly at times. My father was quire relaxed, and so was my aunt.
Sergey Beresnev: I have been volunteering at the institution for several years. At some stage in my life, I was feeling very said and pessimistic. I went for a confession, and the priest said to me: 'Why don't you try volunteering for the children?' This is how I ended up here. This really changed my life, and each Sunday night I feel very rewarded and full of energy. Being with the children is very refreshing, and makes you forget all your sorrows. The children look forward to your visit, they smile and enjoy your companionship. Being with them is a great joy. I go back to work on Monday well rested.
As I was interviewing members of the Orthodox youth group, I recalled on multiple occasions the famous maxim by Dostoyevsky that beauty will save the world. What he had in mind was not some nice-looking external appearance, but rather inner beauty of a generous, humble and compassionate human being who notices and responds to other people's sorrows. The truth of this observation from the Russian classic came out very vividly throughout the interviews.
Interviewer: Darya Goncharova