By Protodeacon Michael Sochka
It has been my good fortune to be involved in various aspects of campus ministry. As a student at Yale University (1982-1986) I was one of several undergraduates that re-started the Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF). Like so many, Yale’s OCF had its start in the 1960s only to wane in the 1970s. With the encouragement and help of Fr. Michael Westerberg, we worked to get the OCF re-registered as a university organization, planned events on campus, coordinated rides to church on the weekends, and advertised our vesper services and informal meetings held on Thursday evenings in the small chapel at the base of Harkness Bell Tower.
Because we did not have Divine Liturgy on campus on a regular basis, our sacramental life became linked with the local parishes. I remember getting a ride to my first Liturgy as a freshman. All the students waited on the corner of York and Elm by the old Yale Co-op. After chit-chatting for a few minutes, our ride showed up. It was a powder puff blue Cadillac driven by Victor Panko. He was one of the most generous people that I’ve ever met and he gave rides to any and every church service. He was also willing to pick up from the airport or the train station and on more than one occasion drove some of the students to go shopping in Stamford, CT. Very soon after arriving at Holy Transfiguration Church (OCA) I remember being greeted by Mary Makiska. She took it upon herself to welcome everyone to church and especially to take an interest in all of the students that showed up. At the coffee hour after Liturgy she would take the students through the line and make sure that they never had to pay. She was truly the “doorkeeper in the house of God” that the Psalms speak of.
Being part of the OCF and establishing a more structured Orthodox presence on campus was great training for the ministry that I now have as an assistant chaplain at Princeton University. Our chaplain and spiritual advisor, Archpriest Daniel Skvir ’66 (one of the co-founders of the OCF at Princeton), frequently points out that the OCF at Princeton is the oldest continuously running OCF in the country. It may not be the first or oldest, but it has been active on campus and (for all but its first two years) has had Liturgy on campus every Sunday of the academic year since 1964. I was ordained on campus at our little chapel in Murray-Dodge Hall and have served as the deacon there for the past fourteen years.
My experience as a student and my vocation as an assistant campus chaplain lead me to be passionate about campus ministry. Campus ministry matters. It matters not only in the life of its members but also in the community at-large. Firstly, we are called to support one another. As the name Alma Mater suggests, life on campus is the continuation the life that students have with their families. As chaplains we hope that our ministry also sustains, nourishes and supports the continuation of the liturgical and spiritual life that students have back in their home parishes.
We are also called to witness to the truth and to have our outward and inward life resonant with the Gospel so that we are “thinking and doing such things as are well pleasing” to God. When so much of society has a message that is antithetical to belief in general and Christianity in particular, campus ministry and the camaraderie that it fosters become a lifeline and tether to the reality of the life preached in the Gospel. We know from the historical study of theology that we cannot be a Christian alone. It seems that this is especially true on a college campus where one’s beliefs are constantly challenged (Not that challenge is a bad thing!). College is a time to own one’s faith and to explore it.
In college I can remember talking late into the night with my Orthodox Christian friends about faith and science, political issues, the understanding of our faith in relation to the philosophy, anthropology, and psychology we were studying. These are big topics that never really have a final answer. I feel like I am still struggling with them and find through the years that students still want to discuss these and a host of other issues. We encourage that kind of discussion in Bible studies, retreats, and talks that we regularly hold on campus. In this regard, campus ministry really is the crossroad between Athens and Jerusalem, the Academy and the Church.
I end this reflection with the petition that we say at every Liturgy at Princeton:”Again we pray for this university, for its faculty, staff, students, benefactors and alumni, that their hearts and minds may be open to the knowledge of Thy Truth. We pray Thee, O Lord, hearken and have mercy.”