God Gives The Increase

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.  -1Corinthians 3:6-9 

On a YES trip last weekend, our first task on a Saturday morning was to do work on a local urban farm – weeding, beautifying, and cleaning in preparation for a community event later in the day. We were divided into groups. Some of us were working patches of earth, pulling weeds and turning the soil in preparation for seed. Others were in the flower garden, cutting dead marigold blooms and sprinkling the seeds back at the base of each plant.

We worked for two hours before having to leave and move on to our next portion of the day. As we reflected on our service, we realized that we were leaving and would never see the “reward” of our actions.

Sometimes we expect instant gratification without even realizing it. So much of what goes on around us day to day reinforces the idea of instant, visible, and measurable rewards.

Because we have learned to expect instant gratification, it can be a challenge to invest our time, emotions, and efforts into something and feel like there is no difference or change. We have to recognize that any impact we make doesn’t come from us, but from God. There is always going to be a result, even if we can’t observe or participate in each step it took to get there.

Childhood Poverty: how can we take the next step?

This summer, FOCUS partnered with communities across the country who committed themselves to understanding local needs and taking action to make a difference!

There are around 15 million children in the United States who live below the federal poverty threshold (21%).

“Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet. Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty” (NCCP).

Take a look at our social media and you’ll see we have been sharing updates from our summer projects: back to school backpacks and summer feeding. Both projects set out to mobilize communities to serve children living in poverty by sharing resources and basic needs like food, books, pens, pencils, and other items that may be out of reach in times of financial struggle for many parents, families, or even teachers.

We are so thankful that our work motivates people to get involved in their local communities! Whether you participated this summer through prayer, volunteering, or donating, we hope you consider ways you can continue serving vulnerable children in your area.

We are so thankful that our work motivates people to get involved in their local communities! Whether you participated this summer through prayer, volunteering, or donating, we hope you consider ways you can continue serving vulnerable children in your area.

Take some time to learn about childhood poverty, and how it affects your community! This interactive mapfrom Kids Count is a great resource to explore local data. Do your research. Go out and observe what needs exist, and what resources are already offered in your community. Often these two steps will lead you towards a way to get involved, whether that means volunteering as a tutor at a local school, organizing a food drive at church, or inspiration for a totally new project!

Another great resource is The National Center for Children in Povertywho publishes facts every year about childhood poverty. To close out this post, here are some facts you may not have known:

Children are more likely to be poor than adults.The percentage of low-income children under age 18 years surpasses the percentage of low-income adults. In addition, children are more than twice as likely as adults 65 years and older to be poor

Parents of poor children work hard.Many low-income and poor children have parents who work full time. About half (53.5 percent) of low-income children and 32 percent of poor children live with at least one parent employed full time, year round.

Poor children are less likely to have a stable place to call home.Research suggests that stable housing is important for healthy child development. However, children living in low-income families are 50 percent more likely as other children to have moved in the past year and nearly three times as likely to live in families that rent, rather than own, a home.

Poor children go without insurance, or depend on public programs for health care.Public insurance programs cover 40 percent of all children, an increase since 2010 (Figure 15). They reach many more economically disadvantaged children than do private plans, covering 73 percent of low-income children and 84 percent of poor children.

Only half of low-income children are receiving nutrition assistance.Among low-income children, almost half (49 percent) receive SNAP benefits. This percent has remained relatively unchanged since 2010, after peaking in 2012 at 51 percent.

 

 

Stereotypes vs. Compassionate Thinking

Last week at the OCA All American Council, about 50 teens from all over the country had a chance to visit FOCUS Gateway City in St. Louis. After an introduction from Fr. Patrick, director of FOCUS Gateway City, groups formed and rotated between accomplishing needed work at the Center’s pantry and community garden, and participating in a reflection about serving in the Orthodox context with Youth Equipped to Serve (YES).

During YES Trips, there is always an effort to spend the entire first evening in preparation – going through different orientation discussions and activities that help set the tone for the entire weekend.

At the All American Council, we didn’t have the teens for a whole weekend. Instead we shared only two hours together. However, in those two hours we were able to discuss what we mean when we say “On earth as it is in Heaven.” We unpacked perceptions and stereotypes we may have when confronted with issues of poverty, homelessness, and suffering. And we left with hope and faith that we can stretch ourselves to serve the true image of Christ in each other, instead of serving a false image of ourselves.

What are stereotypes?

A stereotype is an over-generalized belief about a particular category of people.

Imagine the image of a homeless man sleeping on a park bench – you’re passing by on your way to work. What are some thoughts and feelings that come to mind when you walk by?

“Automatic negative stereotypes and biases that pop unbidden and unannounced into our heads are often triggered by super-simple things like the color of another person’s skin, the clothes they wear, or their style of communication.”

Let’s say when you see the homeless man sleeping on the bench, you think to yourself that he should get up and do something productive with his day instead of being lazy – then maybe he wouldn’t have to sleep outside. His life could be better if he stopped being lazy worked harder. This is a common stereotype many people have when thinking about the issue of homelessness.

Stereotypes begin as thoughts. When thoughts go unchallenged, they become beliefs. Quickly we begin to accept these beliefs as truths. Without even realizing it, false truths about humanity can influence not only our inner thoughts, but also our outward behaviors and actions – how we treat other humans.

By failing to challenge our own stereotypes we can end up living according to our own truths. Living according to our own truths allows barriers to build between ourselves and our neighbors who are also created in the image and likeness of Christ – our only Truth.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” John 14:6

On your way home from work, the same man you saw before is awake and approaches you for some money for the bus. You dismiss his need, thinking to yourself if he wasn’t lazy he could have earned enough for 10 bus rides since the last time you saw him. Plus – you’ve worked hard for your money and sometimes feel financially stressed yourself so why give cash to someone who probably is going to waste or misuse what you share anyways?

All of these thoughts that stem from our stereotypes remove the opportunity we all have to respond to the man as Christ would.

So, what can we do about our stereotypes? It’s all about becoming more conscious about our beliefs and truths. “Consider the possibility that you can have thoughts without believing them.  You can learn, with time, to simply notice negative stereotypes and biases that pop into your head.  And with practice, as you get better at noticing them, they have a smaller and smaller impact on you.”

Imagine the homeless man sleeping on the bench again, and reframe your initial thoughts and stereotypes with compassion.

The man on the bench is sleeping during the day because he works the night shift at a local factory to earn enough money to pay child support for his children while saving for a security deposit for his own apartment.

Would you treat this man differently if this was his story? What if he really was lazy and spending his days sleeping instead of reaching his full potential…does this justify you treating him negatively?

The challenge of compassionate thinking is that no matter the story, or the degree of “truth” behind the stereotype we must challenge ourselves to serve the Icon of Christ that is in everyone. It’s hard work and might not always feel comfortable, but it is necessary work if we want to be a witness to the Kingdom and live “On earth as it is in Heaven.”

 

Announcement: Appointment of FOCUS Center Director

FOCUS West Central PennsylvaniaAnnouncement: Appointment of FOCUS Center Director

July 24, 2018

FOCUS North America is pleased to announce the appointment of Fr. Seraphim Moslener as Director of the FOCUS Center for West Central Pennsylvania (WCPA), effective immediately. Fr Seraphim is the Priest at St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Church and has served the community for many years in various capacities. He previously served in the capacity of Center Director for this area and will resume the role of leading service efforts to those in need, working with local volunteers and organizations and Eastern Orthodox Christian parishes to provide food and care for people in need. Among the programs of service to people in need of assistance are weekend meal packs to students, a monthly meal served to the hungry and a food pantry. Along with Fr. Seraphim, the WCPA FOCUS Center volunteers and the Advisory Board and community members have distinguished themselves by their service to those in need and will continue to seek ways to expand its services.

FOCUS North America is a national movement of Orthodox Christians, united in faith and joined by a desire to provide action-oriented and sustainable solutions to poverty in communities across America. FOCUS has operations and youth volunteer experiences in cities throughout the United States.

For more information about FOCUS WCPA, please visit their website http://www.focuswestcentralpa.org/ and the FOCUS North America website https://focusnorthamerica.org/

FOCUS WCPA Announcement – Center Director Appointed – July 2018

These Saints Show Us How To Serve Those In Need

St. Juliana the Merciful

Lifelong Service

The life of St. Juliana the Merciful shows us how we can serve in every stage of our lives. As a young girl, St. Juliana’s mother and father died, and she lived with her aunt and cousins. St. Juliana used her gift of sewing as a ministry to the poor by secretly crafting beautiful things at night when others thought she was asleep and then using the money she received from selling what she made to buy food and clothing for those in need. She carried this love for the poor into her adulthood, constantly denying herself and serving those around her, finding “the more she helped others, the brighter and more joyful she became, and more everyone loved her.”

 

St. Myron the Wonderworker and Bishop of Crete

Selfless Giving

What would you do if someone came to steal something of yours? Your first instinct may not be to pack an extra bag of goodies for the robber before sending them happily on their way. However, this is just the example and standard St. Myron sets for us! Known for his goodness and willingness to assist everyone who turned to him for help, St. Myron even helped robbers who came to steal grain from his own farm! He gave what he had selflessly, even to robbers who intended to take what they wanted selfishly, and “by his generosity the saint so shamed the thieves, that in future they began to lead honorable lives.”

 

St. John the Merciful Patriarch of Alexandria

Recognizing Christ

St. John the Merciful considered the chief task of his archpastoral service to be charitable. Twice a week he would receive everyone in need at the cathedral. He would serve in many ways, by settling quarrels, helping the wronged, and distributing alms. His example of giving shows us that it is not up to us to decide who to serve and who to turn away – for St. John never refused anyone. Even when a beggar approached to receive charity, only to deceptively change his clothes and come back for more, St. John did not turn him away. The beggar came back a third time and servants began to chase him away but St. John stopped them, and gave the beggar double of what he had received the first two times saying “perhaps he is Christ putting me to the test.”

Who are the poor?

Last Sunday Fr. Barnabas Powell interviewed FOCUS’ Executive Director, Seraphim Danckaert, on his live radio show Faith Encouraged. Their conversation covered the theology of caring for the poor and how it relates to our salvation.

As humans made in the image and likeness of Christ, we are called to serve the poor.

There are many types of poverty. When hear individuals or communities being described as poor – most often we are hearing stories of physical or financial poverty. Providing assistance for those who do not having the necessities to survive is a worthy cause to champion, and central to FOCUS’ mission as an organization. However, there are also other types of poverty less often heard or spoken about; spiritual poverty, emotional poverty, and even psychological poverty.

If we look beyond our stereotypical ideas of who we think of when we hear the word “poor”, we might find opportunities to carry out our calling to serve in more encounters than we might think.

A coworker who sent a rude email could be dealing with a loss in his family and need someone to care.

A neighbor might be worried about how they are going to afford their mortgage payment next month.

A stranger you see sleeping at the park where you walk your dog might be living in their car, working night shifts trying to save up money for a security deposit.

The list could go on and on and on. How do we know who to serve when a case could be made that everyone we encounter could be experiencing poverty? Surely we have all thought before some people might deserve to be served more than others… but this is not the example Christ set for us!!

We must stop basing our service on our own understanding of who and what causes are “worthy” of addressing.  St. John Chrysostom says that need alone is a poor man’s worthiness. It is our job to pray to God to reveal ways for us to serve each other and love as Jesus did each and every day.

The answer to this prayer might not always feel comfortable. Jesus could ask us to hug a stranger on the street who hasn’t showered in 10 days – but who also hasn’t hugged another human in 10 years. He could ask us to roll down our car window next time we see a cardboard sign and share that $5 you were about to spend on something else. He might ask us to talk to someone we don’t know and listen to their story, even if we’d rather be doing something else.

It might not be easy at first, but if we listen and embrace the strength Christ gives us, we can challenge ourselves to set aside our own judgements and assumptions. Once we set our own understanding aside, our hearts are left open to the opportunities Jesus puts in front of us to live each day in service and in veneration of each other.

Eight Dimes: A Reflection on Almsgiving

During Lent, we are encouraged and challenged to struggle through some fundamental, yet difficult aspects of Christian life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

What is almsgiving?

Matushka Constantina Palmer wrote,  “The Greek word eleemosyne means ‘alms, charity, mercy.’ In other words, almsgiving is also the act of being merciful, so something as simple as a kind word, or a word not spoken, can be alms.”

To me, almsgiving is eight dimes.

The faintly traced shadows of eight dimes and a note from a man I’ve never met hang on the wall at the National FOCUS office. These dimes were a donation received years ago from Steve, a former resident of St. Herman’s House – FOCUS Cleveland.

His note reads: “I stay at St. Herman’s many years ago. Praise the Lord.”

I don’t know this man’s story, or what it took for him to make this donation, yet his eight dimes and simple note remind me every day to look for opportunities to give alms, charity, and mercy.

In Luke 21 we read:
He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites.  So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all;  for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God,[a] but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

The Lord teaches us, it is not the amount that is given, but the sacrificial generosity that marks the impact of our almsgiving. I don’t know Steve, who gave those eight dimes, but in his small gift, I know he understands the spirit of almsgiving. Just as he had benefited from his stay at St. Herman’s years before, out of mercy for his fellow man, he felt called to give whatever he was able to benefit another. He didn’t wait until he was a millionaire to make the gift, he gave what he was able and without reservation.

As we enter into Holy Week, we pray for God to reveal in our lives opportunities to give alms. Praise the Lord!

Building Healing Relationships Through Service

Photo credit Matthias Zomer

How does serving heal?

When we strive to truly serve others we are not seeking to fix something that is broken or help someone who is weak. Instead, we are choosing to serve a life that is whole, a life that is made in the image of God, a life that is the living Icon of Christ himself. 

Rachel Naomi Remen in her article, Helping Fixing or Serving?, states that fixing and helping are work of the ego, but serving is work of the soul. Where helping and fixing can leave wounds, serving can heal.

“We serve life not because it is broken, but because it is holy”

When we see our lives and the lives of others as whole, we stop serving with ego and begin to “serve with ourselves, and we draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve; our wounds serve; even our darkness can serve…The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life.”b

Serving heals by recognizing the wholeness and holiness of life.

As we continue our journey of lent, let’s challenge ourselves to surrender to a mindset of serving, that it may bring our communities strength, renewal and healing.

Read the whole article here: Helping, Fixing or Serving?  By: Rachel Naomi Remen