Youth, Clergy Gather in NJ for Third Annual SCOOCH Youth Conference
Paramus, NJ – The Very Reverend Fr. John Khoury, Patriarchal Vicar for the Eastern Diocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the faithful of the Assyrian Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in Paramus, NJ hosted more than 130 youth, more than a dozen clergy, and a number of youth servants this past Saturday, August 16, 2014, at the Third Annual SCOOCH Oriental Orthodox Youth Conference. Rather than a particular spiritual theme, this year’s conference – prepared by the servants of SCOOYA (the Standing Conference’s Oriental Orthodox Youth Association, a pan-jurisdictional body comprised of servants from the official youth organizations of the various sister churches) – was tailored to the specifications of the youth themselves, as outlined on the exit surveys distributed after last year’s conference.
What did the youth want? Many things, but three concerns rose to the top, making appearances – according to the conference organizers – on nearly every list:
1.More Q&A with the Bishops.
2.More fellowship with their peers.
3.Profiles of each of the Sister Churches.
As a note in the “How Can We Make This Conference Better?” section of the exit survey from last year’s conference read:
“The spiritual themes are great, but we can get those at any conference. We want to know more about the sister churches. What makes them the same as us and what makes them different? Every year there are big Orthodox conferences but we leave knowing just as much about each church as we did when we came in”.
Similar sentiments were expressed in different words on a multitude of forms.
As a result, the SCOOYA servants – made up of a core of dedicated youth leaders gleaned from the official youth organizations of the Armenian, Eritrean, Coptic, Malankara-Syriac, Syriac, and Ethiopian Churches – created a series of six presentations, delivered by a clergyman and a youth (or servant) from each community, profiling each church in 15-20 minutes. Each presentation was followed by a selection of live chant from that particular jurisdiction. A seventh presentation on the theme of Oriental Orthodox unity in Faith and action, calling for cooperation in the fields of evangelism and theological education – was delivered by SCOOCH delegate Nicholas Siniari of the Coptic Orthodox Church, tying the others together.
The youth also saw their requests for more fellowship with their peers and more Q&A with the clergy fulfilled with gusto. A highlight of the conference was when His Grace Bishop David was joined by priests and deacons representing each of the Oriental Orthodox Churches for a lively back-and-forth with the youth. His Grace and Their Reverences fielded questions on a variety of topics, such as how language can be an impediment to worship, the role of the Virgin Mary in the life of each church, how to greet the clergy in each jurisdiction, what the youth can do to create more opportunities for fellowship, how to contextualize Orthodoxy in American culture, and whether or not it is appropriate to pray in heterodox (non-Orthodox) churches.
Answering a question on the issue of language, His Grace responded, “Don’t leave your Church. If you know the true Church and the true Faith you will never leave the Church…try to find solutions (to the language issue)…but never leave the Church because this is the Orthodox Church”.
Videos and photos of the conference can be found here on the SCOOCH website and on the official SCOOCH facebook (https://www.facebook.com/officialSCOOCH).
The youth spoke of their experiences at the conference in glowing terms.
“It was nice because we got to see how other cultures celebrate and practice our religion,” said Stephen Mourad, 17, of the Syriac Orthodox Church, “I especially enjoyed the singing of each individual church as well”.
This sentiment was echoed by Farrah Erik, 20, also of the Syriac Church, who said, “It was extremely enlightening informatively; to see all six of our churches give those presentations helped put in perspective our Church in respects to Christianity globally”.
“This Youth Conference is what we needed,” added Andrew Guindi of the Coptic Church, “The priests and bishops know each other. It’s about time that we, the people, the youth, the present and future of the Oriental Orthodox Church get to know each other as brothers and sisters. It’s time for us to share our resources, our love, and partake of the communion we all receive together. This conference is the first step of familiarizing the relationship we already have as sister churches. Sharing the Body and Blood is the actualization of that unity. I met people I consider my brothers and sisters because of our Faith and our God. I can’t wait to see them more often and visit their churches. They are my family and my friends. It’s everything I had hoped for and more. I’ll definitely be going next year”.
“It felt like Thanksgiving in August,” said Thomas Negassi, 22, of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, remarking on the opportunities for real fellowship and the forging of lasting friendships, “You know, a good old-fashioned get together”.
The servants also had their say.
“Conferences like this are wonderful,” opined Nicholas Siniari, “but our unity in Christ and the Orthodox Faith He established has to be something we manifest on a daily basis, not just annually. The longer we live here in the Western countries, the less language and culture will be an impediment to our practical – not just our sacramental – unity. This doesn’t mean we have to lose our ties with our respective cultures, but rather that we have a mission to make the Orthodox Faith incarnate here in North America as one Church. We need to cooperate in establishing Oriental Orthodox seminaries and educational institutions, as well as in the field of mission and evangelism. The Oriental Orthodox Communion is an icon of unity in diversity. Mission isn’t passing on our national cultures, but it’s not embracing heterodox theology put into practice as inappropriate modes of worship either. Think about the powerful witness our diverse communion – united completely in doctrine, dogma, and an authentically Orthodox approach to worship – can be to our increasingly multicultural world”.
“I believe in authentically uniting as Oriental Orthodox Churches,” added Eric Vozzy, of the Department of Christian Education of the Diocese of the Armenian Church in America (Eastern), “So from this particular conference, I am personally motivated to work with SCOOCH to take our unity to a deeper level – beyond learning, and beyond socializing. I’m looking forward to this conference being a springboard for coordinating community building, and community outreach by pooling resources, and sharing our common love for Christ. This conference was just a glimpse of what we can accomplish together as one Oriental Orthodox Church”.
The Fathers and the servants of SCOOCH hope and pray that conferences such as this one will serve as an impetus for the youth to embrace the mandate established by Our Lord Jesus Christ to make disciples of all nations (St. Matthew 28:19), simultaneously embracing and transcending our respective cultures to establish a new Orthodox reality here in North America. A daunting task to be sure, but with God, all things are possible (St. Matthew 19:26).
Participating clergy included: H.G. Bishop David (Coptic), V. Rev. Fr. John Khoury (Syriac), V. Rev. Fr. Eli Shabo (Syriac), V. Rev. Fr. Melake Ganet Tesfa Eyesus (Ethiopian), V. Rev. Fr. Athanasius Farag (Coptic), V. Rev. Fr. Aziz Hadado (Syriac), Rev. Fr. Amde Tsion-Durden (Ethiopian), Rev. Fr. Abo Keshi Iskander (Eritrean), Rev. Fr. Mahitma Selassie (Ethiopian), Rev. Fr. Diran Bohajian (Armenian), Rev. Fr. John Rizkalla (Coptic), Rev. Archdeacon Bede Mariam (Ethiopian), Rev. Dn. Berhane Seyoum (Eritrean), Rev. Dn. Vahe Bagdasarian (Armenian), Rev. Dn. Kinfe Mikael (Ethiopian), Rev. Dn. Shiryl Mathai (Malankara-Syriac), and Rev. Dn. Vivek Alex (Malankara-Syriac).