Write about your experience at College Conference,” I was told. Naturally, I want to share everything about the experience. Although, every time I sit at my desk to write about my experiences, I have no idea where to start or how to start. I suppose I’ll start with the fact that I ended up at College Conference as a representative for Camp Nazareth, as well as to film His Grace, Bishop Gregory giving his keynote addresses to the attendees. This opportunity was a blessing in disguise for me.
The past five months previous to the conference had been very difficult for me. Without going into much detail, I must say that I had been “broken” in many ways and I needed to be helped and healed. I can honestly say through OCF’s College Conference our Lord helped and healed me in ways I think only he can.
Before I was asked to work at and attend the Conference, I had no plans to go there. Don’t get me wrong; I wanted to attend the Conference because I had always heard so much about it, but I had the attitude of “maybe next year.” Apparently, next year was not part of Gods plan for me, because just a few days before the Conference I received a call asking me to film His Grace Bishop Gregory give the keynote addresses. Naturally I was excited to be given such a great opportunity to see my Bishop and to film. Another task I was assigned to do was to setup and operate a table for Camp Nazareth at what was called the Orthodox Opportunity Fair. To say the least, both the filming and the Opportunity Fair were very successful. Our Camp Nazareth table at the Fair was very well attended by the Orthodox college students and was filled with many items that made more than 20 of those students to sign up to receive a call about working at the Camp this summer. The experiences of filming and representing the Camp and Diocese, for me at least, were a privilege. Doing these things took my mind off of the things that were still troubling me, and as great a blessing as that was, nothing compares to what else happened at the Conference.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “When you sing, you pray twice.” I have always believed this to be true. I love to sing. I sing in church, I sing in my car, I sing to embarrass friends in public, I sing on stage. I love to sing! College Conference was full of singing, especially at night. At College Conference, lots of time was spent praying as a group. Whether Divine Liturgy, Vespers, Compline or Matins, church was part of life at College Conference. But the singing went far beyond the end of the services. Students would gather in the chapel at night and sing hymns of all kinds until morning. Greek, Russian, Carpatho-Russian, Antiochian... hymns of all kinds were sung. As one group would sing, everyone else would listen and pray. The latest I stayed up was about 4:30 in the morning. I only went to sleep because I knew I had a long day approaching. This all-night singing simply illustrates how Orthodox Christian college students can be around other Orthodox Christian college students. At college, students still deal with things such as social status, popularity, acceptance and peer pressure. At school, students walk into the classroom and can find themselves being told to doubt or question everything. Students hear and see scandalizing things daily. At school, students are being bombarded with secular ideas of what it means to be a person; what it means to love, what it means to accept, what morality means... secular ideas and definitions that our Faith does not teach. If there’s one thing I loved about College Conference, it is this: I had to worry about nothing; all I had to do was focus on Christ. Focus on Christ, and He would take care of the rest.
This, for me, was power of College Conference. This is the importance of College Conference. It offers Orthodox college students from all over North America the opportunity to unite and live together as Orthodox Christians. There was no need to explain why we cross ourselves. There was no need to explain why we venerate icons. There was no need to hide any aspect of our Faith, because at College Conference every one of us were trying to live our Orthodox Faith together. That is for me the real blessing of OCF’s College Conference.
I have three personal highlights of our four days together. The first highlight was the late night singing with all of my Diocesan friends. We sang everything from The Beatles, to Christmas music, to Liturgical music. It was awesome! Another highlight for me was the talent show. Having a background in musical theatre performance, I love to be on stage. While the talent show was going on, I kept thinking of something I could do that would be a good fit for College Conference. At first I thought I’d do a comedy routine. Then I made the mistake of thinking out loud. One of my friends heard me say (jokingly, of course), “I should sing the song ‘A Whole New World’ with Mike Kowal.” The idea was a hit with my friends... and before I knew it, Mike Kowal was calling me up onto the stage, and we sang the song completely unrehearsed. To say the least, our performance was a huge success and many people have uploaded the hysterical performance onto facebook and youtube. But even these memories do not come close to my most memorable moment at College Conference.
My most memorable and powerful moment of College Conference came on Monday. Father Mark Leasure brought the Myrrh-Streaming icons of the Mother of God to the Conference. His Grace Bishop Gregory, out of love and kindness, asked Father Mark do this for the benefit of everyone who attended the Conference. I’ll never forget being able to smell the Myrrh even before I entered the Chapel. Immediately I felt something change in my heart. Part of me wanted to fall down and sob. Part of me wanted to sing and shout, thanking God for His mercy and kindness. Part of me wanted to be still. So much was going on inside me that I had no choice but to appreciate the moment of joy. There were only a handful of students from our Diocese in the chapel when Father Mark first brought in the icons. After saying our hellos, we all sang “Bohorodice Divo.” It was beautiful.
We then went over to the church where Father Mark showed everyone the Icons, talked about their “story”, anointed every student, and where Vespers was served. Hearing the accounts of the many miracles was a blessing. These accounts are a reality of the existence and love of God. Could I, a sinner be in the presence of such holiness? Could I too be healed? There is no point in trying to explain what happened to my heart and soul in the church, because words will never suffice. All I can say is that I am thankful to my Lord, Jesus Christ and to the Mother of God for helping and healing me in the ways I needed.
Before I close, I wanted to share a very intimate experience I had on the last day of the Conference. It was Tuesday morning, and I was in the Chapel praying. After about 30 minutes, two other college students walked in. They went up to the icon screen and both started weeping. They began to sing, and one of the students noticed the Myrrh-Streaming icons laying on the Altar Table. They were in amazement and simply stood there gazing at the icons. I watched as they gazed at the icons. Another fifteen or twenty minutes went by, and Father Mark walked in to get the icons. He went into the Altar, and without a single word being said, he took the one of the icons out of it’s case, turned around and lifted the icon out through the Royal Doors. These two students, with tears in their eyes, gazed at the myrrh-covered icon. In those brief moments, the College Conference became very personal. Father Mark then whispered to them, “hold out your hands.” The two held out their hands, and the myrrh dripped right off of the icon and into their hands. They were overwhelmed, and so was I. Never will I forget that moment in the chapel; a quiet, emotional and powerful experience. Receiving a tangible part of heaven through the Royal Doors, was something incredible to witness. I am truly thankful for the blessing of College Conference and everything it had to offer. For me, it came at a time I needed it. I believe our Lord knew this, and gave me the help and healing only He could.