Debra Hile, an Orthodox convert and a member of the Protection of the Holy Mother of God Orthodox Church in Falls Church, Virginia, is always willing to meet a need at church. When I am in the Washington, DC, area, I often visit Debra’s church, and I have seen her sweeping the floor and cleaning the icons before joining the other chanters for Wednesday night Vespers. She also teaches a Sunday school class and is active in various women’s groups.
Recently Debra saw a need beyond her local church; she volunteered for an Orthodox Christian Mission Center Team. And when the OCMC assigned her to a Team going to Romania, she noted, “In many ways that seems so appropriate now that I am in a church under the Romanian Episcopate!”
It was not the first time Debra had participated in overseas missionary endeavors. “When I was an Episcopalian I used to go on mission trips,” she said, “but this was my first trip since becoming Orthodox. I waited two years to at least begin to understand and live Orthodoxy before going.”
And her understanding of her Orthodox faith grew deeper during the mission trip—an unexpected blessing. “I learned so much about what it means to be Orthodox by being present in a country where it is such a part of life,” she said. “It was a great joy to be in a country that is about 85 percent Orthodox. Being relatively new to Orthodoxy, I was able to learn much about the roots and depth of the Orthodox faith.
“Romania is full of churches, monasteries, and wayside shrines, as well as people who live a pious life. Even though the communist years in Romania shut down most churches and monasteries and limited faith to the older generation, the priests we met with said most Romanians do attend Liturgy on Sunday. And it is clear that some of the younger generation are finding their way to faith and seeking to find its fullness and life.”
In Romania, Debra and the other four members of the OCMC Team worked with the younger generation. They assisted at two youth camps, one for older teenagers and one for nine- to thirteen-year-olds. The team worked with a Romanian university student group called (in English) the Association of Orthodox Christian Students in Romania (ASCOR). Debra holds wonderful memories of her time spent with the campers, the ASCOR students, the priests, and her fellow OCMC team members. She formed ties that will last a lifetime.
She recalled, “Both camps started the day with morning prayer and held Vespers before supper. What delight to hear each of the campers taking turns participating in the readings and praying to God! The morning was taken up with talks by the Romanian priests and discussion groups. Our OCMC team members gave short talks on the North American saints. The remainder of the day was spent in sports and workshops such as making icons from prints, learning the knots to make crosses and prayer bracelets, and group games. In the evening gathering I experienced both the Romanians’ love of music and the beauty of their voices. We sang in English and Romanian and included songs about God, the Theotokos, the beauty of the ocean, and a Romanian Robin Hood.
“I loved the people—both the campers and the ASCOR volunteers. All the ASCOR students were overflowing with a love rooted in their faith, and they drew everybody else into that. We had a couple of blind campers at the first camp, and watching the ASCOR folks surround them with love, making sure they were included in everything, and then seeing the campers do likewise, was amazing. From my years of experience as a teacher and camp counselor, at the Romanian camps I would often notice a camper who needed a little comfort and direction. All I had to do was point it out to one of the ASCOR volunteers and they were by that person—talking, listening (I couldn’t do that in Romanian), and caring.”
Several of the campers stand out in Debra’s memory. For example, “Antonio, a dark, curly-haired camper, did not speak much English but he was a delight. He always had a big smile and welcome, and was quick to help at meals or getting ready for services of singing. He also was a fantastic soccer player. Father Oviduu [the Romanian priest at the first camp] also was a highlight of the camp. When he worshiped, he worshiped with all his heart, and you couldn’t help joining in. He taught us a beautiful song to the Theotokos in Romanian, singing with great love. He equally played with all his heart.”
Another delight to Debra was to worship in the beautiful Romanian monasteries and churches—and not just the large churches. “Some of the tiny, very old churches with their more primitive icons were wrapped in a depth of prayer and piety that you could feel as you walked in,” she observed.
“The churches had icons painted all over the walls and ceilings and were holy spaces of great joy. In the villages, piety was seen in the many pilgrims walking to monasteries carrying offerings of flowers from their gardens. What a joy to see several monasteries with many young monastics! The monasteries have been built on grounds where communities destroyed by the communists once stood, thus carrying on the history of the faith.”
She added, “The depth of piety of the ASCOR group we were working with was amazing. Many of them spend several hours at church almost every day of the week, and keep up a full academic load. The ASCOR priest in Cluj, Father Cyprian, provides weekly Unction, Vespers, and Liturgy, with extra services for feast days. He also teaches classes several days a week and asks most to come to confession on a weekly basis. The students are managing this and their heavy academic loads, and they are true examples of the faith.
“While we were told the church wouldn’t be full because it was summer holiday time, each service we attended there was full of young people. The depth of spirituality, the beauty of the surroundings in icon-filled churches, and the gentleness and purity of the chanting enfolded me in such a way that my lack of understanding the language made no difference as I participated in the sacraments of Communion and Unction at several different churches and monasteries.”
Debra asks Handmaiden readers, “Please pray that folks there remain faithful and aren’t drawn away by secularism and Western life.”
Debra and the other team members began their mission adventure at the OCMC office in St. Augustine, Florida. She said it was a joy to meet the staff and learn from them. “They are doing great work to support the sharing of the Gospel throughout the world. The Teams staff was a lot of fun—and really knew their stuff as they prepared us for the trip.”
The OCMC staff members are always looking for dedicated people willing to become a short-term mission Team Member or even a long-term Missionary. Debra urged, “Please consider joining a team and seeing God act both in your life and in the country you visit.”
She added, “To go on a trip, you fill out an application and get your priest to fill out a referral form and submit them to OCMC. The OCMC team is great at answering questions at any point in the process, and they are easy to reach by phone or email. They send you a packet on how to raise support. I was truly blessed in that my parish held a luncheon on my behalf and raised funds that were matched by our Ladies Guild. Many of the parishioners also gave me money or sent money to the OCMC for my trip.”
Article by Fran Presley
This article originally appeared in the “Women Making a Difference” Section of the Handmaiden, Vol 13. No. 1.