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Awestruck. Speechless. Amazed. Life-changing. These are just a few adjectives used to describe the four day Orthodox Christian Fellowship College Conference held at the Antiochian Village in Bolivar, PA. I was honored to be able to attend this function along with 9 other college students from our Diocese. Two students from my own college, Penn State University, were also there. At this Conference, there were approximately 300 Orthodox college students all present for one reason and one reason only: to unite and become friends and family sharing the strong common bond of our one true faith. At Camp Nazareth, a game that is played often is called the “High and Low Game.” In this game we share our high of the day and our low of the day. That is what I am going to do here, explain my highs and lows of the first College Conference I ever attended.
The theme of this College Conference was “Behold now, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity?” Psalm 132:1. Bishop Gregory, who was the keynote speaker for the Conference explained this verse to us quite well. He said no matter what your major is, what school you go to, what your hobbies are, or what background you come from, all of us are Orthodox. However, that does not mean we should all have the same major, go to the same school, all love the same hobbies, and all practice the same traditions; all the things unique to us make us who we are. At this College Conference there were students of all different backgrounds including, Greek, Arabic, Carpatho-Rusyn, Ukrainian, Lebanese, Russian, and many others. The theme of the weekend helped us understand better that we are all Orthodox Christians and encouraged us to unite in that Faith while still embracing our unique traditions and cultures. This was one of my highs of the Conference: learning about all these different backgrounds, some that I did not know before, and about their different customs. This was important to me personally because I am very proud of my Carpatho-Rusyn background and our own unique customs.
Another high of the conference was the daily church services that were all chanted in Byzantine Chant. When we started Vespers on the first night, I was surprised by it. I had never experienced an Antiochian service before. The Antiochian Orthodox students sang with all their heart both in their own language and in English, as we sing our Plain Chant. By the end of the Conference, I had learned some of their chant and was singing along with them. It was truly beautiful to be exposed to other ways of chanting in the Church. During some of the services, our Diocesan students sang Prostopenje in both English and Slavonic. As one of our Diocesan students I was proud to sing our hymns in our own unique chant, as we celebrated together in our one Orthodox Faith. Some of the other college students even knew our chant which surprised me! It was amazing to hear everyone singing along with us which made the services themselves a high of the weekend.
On Monday night, there was a banquet followed by dancing with a DJ. During the dancing section, there were some modern songs, but what made me so proud and happy to be there was that there was ethnic dancing. There was Greek dancing and Arabic dancing. I learned all of them and was right in the circle stomping my feet and embracing a culture not my own. The other college students taught me to “twist the light bulb” and “smash the tomatoes” to help me remember their dances. There were at least 150 students sweating because of dancing so hard. At that point, I was ready to put on the Rusyn music and start a Hopak and the Troika. These students were so proud of their culture. I try my best to embrace my own Rusyn heritage and to make others feel the same way I do. And yet, we are all Orthodox Christians. We need to be proud of our Faith and proud of our unique backgrounds, while at the same time uniting in our Faith, and celebrating that unity. This high of my weekend was something that I will never forget.
My last and probably most significant high of the Conference was the arrival of the Weeping Icons of the Theotokos on Monday. My dad, Fr. Mark Leasure, brought the icons and spoke to all 300 college students and explained to us the history of the icons. When he took the icons out of their cases, the myrrh poured out like rain. It was pouring everywhere from the icons. I see the icons quite often but honestly I have never seen the icons like that before. Every single college student was filled with the presence of the Mother of God and just cried. We did not know what else to do. There were miracles happening right in front of our eyes at this Conference. It really touched me that my father was with me there and was able to share this miracle with all of us students. The icons are a tangible way to increase and deepen our faith, and that is what we need at this time in our lives. That Monday night, we held an All-night Vigil at the chapel with the icons present. Singing hymns in all our different chants and languages until 6 o'clock in the morning, and yet being united in our one Orthodox Faith as we sang to our Most Holy Mother, this was truly amazing and eye – opening. It was a powerful experience.
My only “low” of the whole Conference was that I wish more of our Diocesan college students were there. I had an amazing experience catching up and reuniting with those that did attend, but I know that there are a lot more of us out there. Our Diocesan college students need to be present at these events to celebrate and unite with other Orthodox Christians in our Faith. We need to see the diversity of ethnic backgrounds, celebrate them, including our own, and learn more about uniting in our one Orthodox Faith. Overall, the College Conference was an amazing experience. I learned so much from all the workshop sessions and different speakers. I strongly encourage all our college students to make an effort to attend next year. I am planning on attending, and look forward to hearing your high and low of OCF’s College Conference.