Who am I? Who is God? Who is my Neighbor? These three questions frame the theological exploration of vocation that takes place at the CrossRoad Summer Institute—a 10-day academic summer program for Orthodox Christian juniors and seniors in high school.
At CrossRoad, we explore the question of “who is my neighbor” and our Christian call to “love thy neighbor” through both rich theological education and the physical experience of walking the streets to encounter the “least of their brethren” (Matt 25). With St. John Chrysostom’s words, “if you can’t find Christ in the beggar you won’t be able to find him in the chalice” ringing in their ears, our students venture into the streets of Cambridge and Chicago in groups of three, accompanied by a staff member, to share in a conversation, and perhaps a meal, with someone experiencing homelessness.
The primary goals of this activity are to foster an attitude of openness to seeing Christ in the neighbor we often overlook and to challenge young people’s assumptions and stigmas about those on the margins. We remind students that people want to be treated like people rather than objects to be helped or fixed. We encourage them to view service as a way of being in the world that expresses an openness to our neighbor, rather than just a project, charity case, or set of hours to put on a resume.
We consider this activity as a “Liturgy after the Liturgy”—an extension of our liturgical life to embody the Gospel message of love for the least of our brethren.Our program is not designed nor equipped to address both the systemic issues surrounding homelessness or even the basic needs of the homeless in the way of many nonprofits and ministries. Rather, we ask 90 young people every summer to consider what it means to treat all human beings, regardless of their race, sex, socioeconomic status, age, housing status, etc., with the love, compassion, and dignity Christ teaches us they deserve. We invite these teenagers to consider what it would look like to live a life of service, in any profession they choose, with a posture of love.
While this is a lofty goal, CrossRoad is not alone in considering how Orthodox Christian ministries can and should be responding to those without housing stability who are often dehumanized. This past September, I learned of several organizations working day and night to serve this particular population at a gathering organized by the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
On Thursday, September 12, twenty representatives of Orthodox ministries in the U.S. met to discuss the crisis of homelessness and how, as a Church, we can come to a common understanding and approach to address it. Participating organizations included Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry, Project Mexico/St. Innocent Orphanage, Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society, Philoxenia, Inc., FOCUS North America, Martha and Mary Maternity House, CrossRoad Summer Institute, Neighborhood Resilience Project, Saint Basil Academy, and Philoxenia House.
Each organization was asked to consider the following questions in preparation for the event:
- How does your organization minister to people who are experiencing, have experienced, or are vulnerable to homelessness?
- What is your vision, through the lens of your work, in serving those who are experiencing homelessness?
- As an Orthodox ministry in the U.S., how do you understand homelessness?
- How does your understanding of homelessness shape your ministry?
These individual reflections sparked an energetic and dynamic conversation that led us to the conclusion, homelessness is too much of a crisis in this country to let jurisdictional divide affect our work. While each organization tackles the issue from varying angles, the group came to a multi-faceted consensus on an Orthodox approach to homelessness for which a draft of a formal statement of understanding was made. This statement declared:
“As Orthodox Christians, we are called upon to serve our fellow human beings in a relational way that recognizes each individual’s humanity, value and dignity. Our theology as Orthodox Christians informs us to be the Church. Our identity inspires us to shine Christ’s love in our service to others through Christ-centered empowerment, illuminated by the relational nature of the Eucharist. In recognizing that we are broken and spiritually homeless in need of Christ, we also understand that beyond a physical shelter, each person requires to be served as a whole human being in need of a home; spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally with dignity and respect.”
With this common understanding articulated, we were then given the task of consolidating our ideas into a series of requests for consideration from the Assembly of Canonical Bishops to which they agreed to the following at their meeting on September 18, 2019:
- The Executive Committee has sanctioned the creation of a working group for an Orthodox Volunteer Corps.
- The Executive Committee has tabled the dedication of one Sunday a year to homelessness. They will re-visit the request at the next full Assembly of Bishops meeting.
- The Executive meeting has asked that the network compiles a directory of Orthodox ministries working in every jurisdiction and area of the United States.
With the blessing of the Assembly of Bishops, this group of ministries will continue to meet once a month via video conference to “enhance Pan-Orthodox humanitarian collaboration on the crisis of homelessness. Any Orthodox Christian organization who is interested in this initiative are encouraged to contact email@example.com.”
In my work with CrossRoaders, I often hear them lament that they do not see the Orthodox Church responding to the varying humanitarian issues facing our world today. Their home parish may host a food drive around Thanksgiving or collect gifts for those in need at Christmas but the majority of these young people’s exposure to social outreach happens outside of the Church.
For many years, I too had that same frustration. However, after two days with some of the most hardworking and dedicated Orthodox Christians I have ever met, I am convinced our Church has the potential to become a community deeply committed to providing healing to the sufferings of those in extreme need. This type of social outreach is in our theological DNA as Orthodox Christians and witnessed through the lives of our Saints like St. Maria of Paris and St. Basil of Caesarea.
What would it look like if every Orthodox parish explored and responded to the needs of their local community, connected with neighboring nonprofits, or even started their own soup kitchen? What if parish leadership supported and energized young people to be agents of change by coordinating a project on a humanitarian crisis they are concerned about? What if instead of shutting ourselves off from the world and focusing on our own needs, we pushed ourselves to bring the healing presence of Christ to anyone in need by looking them in the eye, smiling, or shaking their hand; small act to restore their dignity.
Our CrossRoaders are ready and willing for this kind of outreach and the Orthodox organizations I met a few weeks ago are already doing the hard work to live out this mission to serve our neighbor. I believe that if our whole Church, all our parishes, caught the energy and vision of these young people and the Archdiocesan gathering we would see profound and transformative love for neighbor emerge from the Orthodox community.
Should you know an Orthodox Christian high school junior or senior who might be a good fit for the CrossRoad Summer Institute or you’d like to learn more about the program please visit our website for more information and the application: crossroadinstitute.org. Applications for the program are due February 1, 2020.
For more information on the event and a full press release please visit the following sites:
Kyra Limberakis, M.T.S. is the Director of the CrossRoad Summer Institute at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.