The VIII Annual Saint Herman’s West Youth Conference was held at Saint George Russian Orthodox Church in West Jordan, UT, near Salt Lake City, from December 22 to 26, 2014. Around 25 participants of the Western American Diocese gathered from California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington along with many clergy under the direction of the Youth Department Chairman of the Western American Diocese Archpriest Boris Henderson.
Saint George Russian Orthodox Church was a wonderful venue for the youth conference for a number of reasons. The parish is located inland from the west coast, and affords amazing desert and mountain views. Saint George’s Church is a brand new building, which was recently consecrated in May of 2014, along with a new hall and grounds. The parish is very active, friendly and, like everywhere else where the Saint Herman’s West Youth Conference is held, the parishioners’ desire to serve the conference was abundantly obvious.
There were some standard elements to the youth conference like Divine Services, lectures, workshops, round-table discussions and outings. Unique to this conference were features such as new activities and a new guest speaker for the youth (Priest Philip Halliwell).
The theme of the conference was “A Spiritual Tool Box for the 21st Century,” with the goal of offering young Orthodox Christians practical spiritual advice and means not just for coping with life in a society often at odds with our Orthodox Faith, but to make spiritual gains in what can often be seen as adversity.
Father Philip Halliwell of Christ the Savior Church (OCA) in San Francisco, CA, started off the conference with a talk on the importance of friendship for any Orthodox Christian. He stated that the spiritual life is founded upon four pillars: 1) the Divine Liturgy, 2) a personal prayer life, 3) meditation on the Holy Scriptures and very importantly 4) friendship. Orthodox friendships are of the deepest kind, based on a common love of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes, we meet people with whom we share many common interests and backgrounds but in the most unlikely circumstances, where we would expect immediate bonding and a lasting connection. Yet, things just don’t “click,” because the most important feature to the friendship is missing, namely, the common reference point, Christ. Father Philip warned against friendships that start off well, but sometimes can become unhealthy and even harmful for the soul. In this case, one must find the courage to break the relationship for the sake of the salvation of one’s soul. A friendship in Christ is truly a gift and almost a necessity. However, to have a friend means to be a friend. We should strive to be to others the ideal friend we would like to have for ourselves in our own lives. Also, we should not be afraid to reach out to others, to take a risk at a friendship. Often, we recoil from relationships out of fear or difficulties because when reaching out to others we are concerned that we might encounter disappointment and misunderstanding. Yet, at the same time, if we never plant the seeds of friendship in others, we may miss out on a great happiness that God wants to send to us.
Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) and Archpriest Paul Volmensky also gave talks during the other days of the conference. Their themes were common, addressing some of the fears young people face today related to the economy, education, ecology, society, relationships, etc. Through faith and grace, there are means for overcoming any potential or anticipated trials. The Saints of the Orthodox Church offer concrete examples of how to participate in a Life in the Holy Spirit through a resolve to be faithful to the Commandments of Christ. They also show how the Holy Gospels and Tradition of the Church help us feel the presence of God and participate concretely in the Life of Christ, which leads to a truly happy and fulfilled daily existence despite the tribulations encountered in this world.
Reports were also given during the conference demonstrating the fruit of past work with the youth, expressing goals from the youth department in Russia and making future plans in our own diocese. Archpriest James Baglien debriefed the group on last summer’s youth project at his church. In a slide show, he gave a visual presentation of this successful inaugural event. Youth from all over the diocese came to Saint Martin the Merciful Church in Corvallis, OR, and paved with bricks the entire courtyard around the church and in front of the newly constructed parish hall. Christina Henderson, a youth participant, gave a presentation on a huge youth conference held in Russia in the fall of 2014. Goals were set at the time to encourage youth to work with their peers to strengthen the latters’ faith and expand the life of the Church. 2015 summer activities were discussed by Fathers David Moser and Paul Volmensky, which include gold panning in Idaho and the Cossack camp on the Russian River in California.
The number of youth who participated in this year’s conference was less by half compared to all the previous years. It was noticed, however, that this lesser number created a more intimate atmosphere in which everyone actually had many opportunities to get closely acquainted with the rest. The “ice-breakers” on the first day as well as cooperation during the workshops and the outings helped create important bonds.
The “off-campus” activities this year were special. The youth received lessons and a demonstration in the sport of curling at the Olympic Stadium in Salt Lake City. Afterwards, everyone was divided into six groups and played two games with two rounds each lasting most of an afternoon. The sport requires coordination, teamwork and the dexterity to successfully “slide” the curling stones across a field of ice into the target area. Surprisingly, this demands focus and stamina not immediately recognized without hands-on experience.
Two trips were taken out into nature. One time, the youth traveled up close to peaks at the 9,000 ft. level where they were able to romp in over 3 feet of snow and breathe fresh mountain air. On another day, the youth walked along the Jordan River where a wet snow, as it came down, caked up on eyebrows and in every crevice of clothing.
Under the direction of the clergy all of the youth participated in the workshops dedicated to church hymnography, psalmelody and alcolyte service. Later everyone put their learning into practice during the Divine Services performed in memory of Saint Herman of Alaska at both the All-night Vigil on December 24 and the Divine Liturgy on December 25.
A guest clergyman from Siberia, Deacon Andrei Polkovoy, participated in the Divine Services as well. He currently is assigned to Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Novosibirsk. Father Andrei has a naturally volumenous voice and without any effort he resoundingly filled the Saint George's newly consecrated church with the petitions of the Divine Services. Later at the festal meal, he sang Russian folk songs along with Father Boris and Christina Henderson, the former's daugther. This was a truly happy moment for all. For more information about Deacon Andrei read here (in Russian).
Many thanks to Father Boris Henderson and our youth department’s financial sponsors; to our hosts at Saint George Russian Orthodox Church in West Jordan, UT, Priest Michael van Opstall and his parishioners; to the priests who participated in the conference; to the wonderful youth who came to the conference and the parents who sent them.
All the labors in organizing and conducting these kinds of events are well worth it when one overhears an enthusiastic comment from a young person, who upon noting how difficult it is for Orthodox youth to connect with peers in high school since values vary, became overjoyed and encouraged about his faith through finding common ground and friendships that can last a lifetime among the many young people at this conference.