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

Gifts of Transformation (Pt. 2)

From Pt. 1: I worry that, as FOCUS Executive Director Seraphim Danckaert writes, we are not contributing to “the most neglected facet of spiritual life and revitalization” in our ministry and parish life: loving, reverent relationships with people and communities that suffer from social injustice. And as we see our national life become more contemptuous and divided, my worry increases. What are we doing? What am I doing? Who will help the huddled masses on my Facebook feed, the countless statistics about food insecurity and families in shelters numbing and breaking my heart at the same time?

These issues are complex, and my feelings of anger and powerlessness are real. But what’s also real is this: my four-year-old has a Christmas book called “Who Is Coming to Our House.” The story describes the many preparations that the animals undertake to prepare for the holy family’s coming: stacking hay, sweeping floors, and spinning beautiful webs to decorate the cowstall where Mary gives birth. It is a sweet retelling of the Nativity narrative, and it illuminates two important things for us: what we give, no matter how small, is necessary if it’s a help to our neighbor, and in the Christmas season, we are brought to see our Lord as a fragile baby, sleeping in a cowstall, his body the same as our bodies, our vulnerability shared with him.

Christ took on flesh, not out of duty or theological principle, but out of love. St. Athanasius writes that, in Christ’s incarnation, he “did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men.” What is this healing? What do we need Christ to teach us?

The answers to those questions, thankfully, are simple. What is healed is our separation from God and from each other, and what we need Christ to teach us is what he has already spoken: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” It is easy to see “the least of these” as abstractions, or as people suffering from issues that are distant from us. But what Carl’s story shows us is that privilege and status cannot protect us from brokenness. What happened to Carl could happen to you, or to me, for any number of reasons: poverty, anxiety, disability, a bounced check, a sudden illness, a lost job, a dying neighborhood. None of us is immune from suffering, and no single person is too far off to befriend and serve and love. As Carl says, we are all “brothers and sisters.” If we ourselves are so vulnerable, yet so connected, what does it mean for each of us to serve and love?

For me, and hopefully for you, it means giving more to the work of FOCUS North America. My financial gift, though small, can keep Carl serving food to many more people in the coming year. It can help FOCUS Detroit director Eric Shanburn hire plumbers for struggling Detroit families whose pipes have burst and whose paychecks don’t stretch far enough to cover cost. It can help the Renovation Angel project employ more at-risk youth to rehab kitchens; it can provide a Blessing Bag to a homeless neighbor on the street. But most importantly, it can connect me to FOCUS’s ongoing, life-giving work in the lives of men, women, and children whose struggles may be different than mine, but whose hearts are the same to God. If the animals in the stable could prepare a place for Christ, what more should we do when we see him in the faces of those whom FOCUS North America seeks to serve?

In this season of giving, it’s time we change the language. It’s time to see that, rather than donating, we are transforming lives and communities – and God willing, ourselves – through our financial contributions. It’s time to stop scrolling through news segments and start seeing, with clear eyes, the world that Christ came to heal. As you consider what you can give, know that me and my family are giving right alongside you, and that each dollar given is a step towards a transformed life, your own life included.

By Allison Backous Troy

Gifts of Transformation (Pt. 1)

“I try to change the language,” Carl says, his voice deep and direct. “These are our brothers and sisters…our citizens, our community.” At St. Herman House Cleveland, “changing the language” is key to the ongoing transformation that Carl Cook, head chef, sees in both his life and the lives of those who come to St. Herman’s for food, resources, and fellowship. He’s proud of the fact that, since 2012, over 70,000 hot meals have been served annually at St. Herman’s. But Carl also knows that words, like meals, have the power to nourish and restore.

How does Carl know this? And how does his ability to see the human face in a long dinner line speak to you, and me? He’s been in those lines himself. Twelve years sober, Carl has known homelessness, hunger, and addiction. His story of transformation is both honest and surprising, challenging and inspiring. For me, it both opens my eyes and encourages my heart, which is more prone to worry than to hope. And for FOCUS North America, it’s a living icon – in Carl’s story of change and renewal, we not only see a life transfigured, but a whole community transformed.

Carl’s journey to being St. Herman’s head chef starts in a surprising place – a middle class town, his father a politician and his mother a loving, doting presence. What plagued him was not a lack of privilege, but a learning disability. Carl was diagnosed with dyslexia at an early age, and its presence in his life brought him serious challenges and shame. His family “hired the best tutors…(and) my parents made sure I had the best education and the best tools,” but his confidence and sense of self took a very direct hit. The stress of his learning disability led him to secretly try a sip of alcohol at a family party, and by the age of twelve, he was sneaking alcohol into thermoses on camping trips; after culinary school, heroin and cocaine entered his life. He comments on how his journey into addiction came from a deeply personal, spiritual need. “Your only sickness,” he says, “is secrets. I hid it from my parents, I did different things my parents wanted me to do to make them happy. I kept (my addictions) secret from my parents for many, many years”

By 2005, Carl’s addictions were secrets no longer. After time in prison and alienation from his family, Carl found himself in an alley, drunk on wine, hoping that the police didn’t see him sneaking alcohol. He felt “comfortable, too comfortable” with his addictions and his isolation. And suddenly, he says “God just sent this clarity. My whole body froze. I could hear my (dead) father just talking to me…I had to make a very profound decision.”

That decision was sobriety. Ten months later, Carl was sober and working for a nonprofit’s hunger program, and in 2013, he took over as head chef for St. Herman’s Cleveland. His experiences on the street shaped his vision towards understanding homeless people as persons, not just statistics or passing faces.

“It starts with the name “the homeless,” he continues. “When we take away the word “homelessness” and look at a person, we may be open to see an individual. It starts with me and my team to look past homelessness and more at the individual and open the door to relationship.”

That word relationship is what strikes me as I look at myself and the work of FOCUS. I consider myself to be an educated advocate for the poor, the homeless, and the socially disenfranchised in America. I share impassioned posts on Facebook, I support FOCUS North America, and as part of a future clergy family, I wonder about the ways Orthodox Christians understand systemic poverty. I worry that, as FOCUS Executive Director Seraphim Danckaert writes, we are not contributing to “the most neglected facet of spiritual life and revitalization” in our ministry and parish life: loving, reverent relationships with people and communities that suffer from social injustice. And as we see our national life become more contemptuous and divided, my worry increases. What are we doing? What am I doing? Who will help the huddled masses on my Facebook feed, the countless statistics about food insecurity and families in shelters numbing and breaking my heart at the same time?

To be continued.

By Allison Backous Troy

Meet the New Executive Director

In June of 2017, FOCUS North America welcomed Seraphim Danckaert as our new Executive Director. Danckaert graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2007. Since then, he has held a series of roles in fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit leadership at three different organizations: Orthodox Christian Network, Princeton Theological Seminary, and St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Anne Danckaert, have five children and live in Detroit, Michigan.

Danckaert’s background in nonprofit leadership as well as his involvement in the Orthodox Church led to his desire to serve with FOCUS. Read on to hear more about his vision for FOCUS’ future.

Welcome to FOCUS, Seraphim! Thanks so much for sitting down with me today. Tell me how your first few weeks have been here at FOCUS.

It’s been an amazing experience to get to know the staff, the volunteers, the donors, and the clergy all over the country who are so dedicated to our mission. We have an incredible network of people in the FOCUS family. I’ve been spending most of my time traveling, introducing myself, and getting to know them and hear their stories. It’s been a real inspiration.

My favorite story right now is from when I visited the Orange County Summer Feeding program. It was a Tuesday, and the kids lined up to receive their lunches. Theo Morse, who’s running the program there this summer, was talking to some of the kids. He said, “Guys, in a couple days, on Thursday, we’re going to do something special. You remember how last week on Thursday we all made nachos together? Well, this week we’re going to make pizzas.” Their eyes got really wide, and one of the kids standing in the front thought for a second and said, “Is tomorrow Thursday?”

It’s a shock to a lot of people to discover that there are hungry kids who probably live only a few miles from their house. The reality is that wherever you are in the United States, there’s a kid just like that little boy in Orange County who doesn’t have enough to eat.

Why did you want to work for FOCUS? What in particular excites you about joining FOCUS supporters in the work that they already do?

For me, it really boils down to faithfulness, if I had to put it in one word. Jesus calls those of us who wish to follow Him to serve the poor. I really believe that if we look to the witness of Scripture and the early Church in particular, the message we see is really clear. When we as members of the Body of Christ do not prioritize our call to care for those in need, then we falter. We falter spiritually as individuals, we falter as families, and I think we especially falter as the Church. So if we wish to serve God, and if we wish to see His Church flourish here in America, we simply have to dedicate more energy, more time, more focus, and more financial commitment to helping the homeless, the poor, and those who are less advantaged in our communities.

I see FOCUS’ mission, the work that it does, being at the very core of the Gospel and the core of our identity as Orthodox Christians. FOCUS in particular is unique among human services charities because of its Orthodox character. There are a lot of great charities that provide food, or clothes, or housing, or jobs, or medical care to those who are in poverty in the United States. But FOCUS does those things in partnership with local Orthodox churches and volunteers. We work in partnership very intentionally so that the people we serve don’t just receive meals, but connect face-to-face with volunteers –  Orthodox people of all ages who feel called to serve.

That’s really where transformation happens. That’s what excited me about FOCUS, because I think that doing service with that model is a far more faithful way to serve someone in need. It’s far better for them; it recognizes their inherent dignity as a human person created in God’s image. And quite importantly for the Orthodox Church here in this country, it’s probably one of the most neglected facets of spiritual life and revitalization. If we’re not faithful to God’s very clear direction to make some kind of preferential option for the poor, then we’re simply not going to flourish.

Building on that, which seems to be the core and the mission of FOCUS, what do you as the Executive Director put forth as your vision for FOCUS moving forward?

I want to see FOCUS be a catalyst and a partner working alongside Orthodox churches all over the country to serve the poor in ways that respond to local needs.

There are a few aspects to that vision. One is that we’re looking to strengthen and multiply the efforts that already exist for philanthropic outreach within the Church. We believe that working together across Orthodox jurisdictions and in a more intentional way can have a greater impact. And then the second part of our vision is serving the poor in response to local needs. We don’t want to be another charity that’s doing the same thing, serving the same people with the same programs. When we come into a new area, we look first to the Orthodox community. What are they doing, and in what ways can partnership make their philanthropic work even more effective? Secondly, where is there a gap in the broader community’s efforts? Where is there a need in the local community that no other nonprofit is sufficiently addressing?

As FOCUS develops that mission, how can FOCUS supporters get involved and participate in their local communities?

If you happen to live in one of the cities where we have a very established Center – Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Minneapolis – then go visit and get involved as a volunteer if you haven’t already. If you happen to be in one of the four locations where we have smaller programs that are poised for expansion, that’s also a great opportunity. Those places are Columbus; St. Louis; Beaver Falls, PA; and Orange County, CA. We have four very established ministries with a variety of really amazing programs and substantial volunteer opportunities as well as four more junior centers, you could say, where there’s a lot of potential for the future. God-willing, they will become significant ministries in the next year or two.

If you live elsewhere, get in touch with us about hosting a service event in your city or your parish. We have a variety of programs that might be able to come to your town. We do have operations in multiple cities where we don’t have centers, so it’s possible that we could do something with you wherever you are.

Do you have any final thoughts for FOCUS supporters?

We are stronger together. We can do more together, and we can witness to the vitality and faithfulness of the Orthodox Church with far greater clarity if we work together. I think that’s important, because there are many churches and philanthropic organizations within the Orthodox community that are already doing great things. But I think we can do so much more and be such a greater witness if we find ways to build deeper partnerships.

By Addie Pazzynski, Communications Assistant

More than Meals: Summer Feeding 2017

Beck and Keaton, two high school students from Columbus, Ohio, had no idea how their lives would transform when they signed up to volunteer with FOCUS North America’s Summer Feeding Program. The two suburban teens first volunteered to serve meals to underprivileged kids about halfway through the program’s run last summer, and they quickly became regulars at the site. They even brought their lacrosse team to serve and play with the children who attended. Nathan Smith, the Site Supervisor of Columbus Summer Feeding, described these young men as “magnetic” forces that made Summer Feeding an exciting experience for volunteers and children alike.

Beck and Keaton’s passion for the children at Summer Feeding propelled them to get their lacrosse coach involved in fundraising for a Summer Feeding family. The team raised thousands of dollars to provide a family of nine with a Christmas tree, gifts, and winter clothing. The young men’s mothers were so inspired by their sons that they fundraised money to pay the rent for another Summer Feeding family.

As I sat down to talk with Nathan Smith from Columbus, I realized that Beck and Keaton’s story is a window into a larger picture of what Summer Feeding means. But before he got to that, Nathan reminded me about why Summer Feeding exists in the first place.

Summer months are particularly difficult for impoverished families whose children qualify for free or reduced meals through federal programs. Since children are not in school to receive free, nutritionally balanced meals, their families must provide for them out of their own pockets. As a result, these families have to make difficult choices between feeding their children and paying their bills.

“Unfortunately, in poverty culture, nutrition isn’t a priority that’s in the hierarchy of needs,” Nathan said in our interview. “If you’re struggling to pay rent and keep the lights on, whether or not your child gets the correct proportion of fresh produce a day goes on the backburner.”

Not only do children struggle to get nutritious meals that fuel their brains in the summer, but they also suffer from other hunger-related challenges. While in elementary school, hungry children are likely to repeat grade levels and fall behind in language and motor skills development. In a larger sense, they have lasting social and behavioral problems that put them at a disadvantage throughout their lives.

13 million children suffer from hunger in the United States. FOCUS North America developed the Summer Feeding Program to meet the needs of these hungry children and to create meaningful service opportunities for Orthodox volunteers in localized areas.

As Beck and Keaton’s story shows, Summer Feeding serves another large-scale purpose: to grow volunteers. Nathan remarked that when it comes to volunteer work, teens and young people often play small roles in projects operated by adults. What made Summer Feeding worthwhile for Beck and Keaton is that they were able to be key players in the simple but critical tasks of day-to-day operations. “This was something they could do,” Nathan said. “This was something that allowed them to be the motor for what’s going on.”

Besides becoming indispensable servants at Summer Feeding Columbus, Beck and Keaton’s love for service grew past what they or their families had imagined for them. The young men’s new interests include mission trips and local fundraising events for FOCUS. Their story reflects what Nathan calls the “untapped Christian goodwill” of Christians who do not know how or are afraid to get involved with serving the impoverished in their communities. Summer Feeding is the perfect entry point for working with FOCUS ministries since it is a simple way that volunteers can experience the power of building relationships through service.

The greater Christian message of Summer Feeding, according to Nathan, is the opportunity to connect with others on a very human level. Christians who volunteer at Summer Feeding commit to more than feeding hungry children. They commit to sharing the transforming love of Christ through building meaningful relationships. Serving meals is just the beginning.

Nathan believes that in order to fully meet people where they are and love as Christ does, volunteers should put their hands to work alongside their wallets. “Christian nonprofit work should be asking me to open your heart to another person, not just with a checkbook, but in an ability to serve another human person.” When volunteers and children come together at Summer Feeding to create community with one another, they participate in the work of Christ, in whose eyes there is no distinction between rich and poor. This kind of love is what brings people from all walks of life closer to one another and closer to God.

This summer, FOCUS North America invites you to participate in the life-changing work that Summer Feeding is doing in our three target areas: Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Orange County. We have already served over 700 meals in just a few weeks. In each of these areas, we still need volunteers to give their time, energy, and love to serve hungry children and to show them that they are important in God’s eyes. For more information about how to get involved, visit our website to help us feed hungry kids.

By Addie Pazzynski, National Programs Intern

Press Release: FOCUS North America Announces New Executive Director

Carnegie, PA (June 23, 2017) — FOCUS North America announced today that its Board of Directors has appointed Seraphim Danckaert the organization’s next Executive Director. Danckaert, who previously served as Director of Mission Advancement at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, will succeed Nicholas Chakos, who resigned to pursue other opportunities.

“We want to thank Nick for his service over the last five years. During his tenure, FOCUS has grown significantly to become a high impact and highly regarded Orthodox Christian charity,” Dr. Eric Paljug, Chair of the Board, said. “Today, we are thrilled to welcome Seraphim as the new Executive Director and look forward to his leadership as the organization continues to grow.”

Danckaert, a graduate of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, has held leadership roles at Princeton Theological Seminary, Orthodox Christian Network, and St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

“I am grateful to the board for the opportunity to lead this exceptional organization, which is not only transforming the lives of people in poverty across the country, but also transforming the hearts of the thousands of volunteers who participate in our service-oriented programs,” Danckaert said. “I look forward to working with the talented staff and getting to know the entire FOCUS network of donors, volunteers, and partners.”

FOCUS North America helps working-poor families and the homeless move from dependency to lives of self-sufficiency. As the only Orthodox Christian organization to hold the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance National Charity Seal, FOCUS works collaboratively with communities, parishes, and partners nationwide. In 2017, FOCUS will feed over 300,000 people; offer job training, employment, educational support, and housing to over 1,000 families; and keep thousands of children from going hungry. 

A key feature of FOCUS programs is volunteer engagement. Hands-on service programs unite the giver with the underserved, thereby transforming all of our lives and breaking the cycle of poverty. While many FOCUS volunteers are Eastern Orthodox Christians, FOCUS provides services without discrimination of any kind, and there is no faith commitment required either to volunteer or to receive assistance.

An Orthodox House of Rejuvenation

“I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction, And He

answered me.”
—Jonah 2:2

“There simply aren’t enough places for sober living in our community,” said Nathan Smith, the co-founder and director of FOCUS Columbus’ Jonah House. Columbus, Ohio is an epicenter of heroin abuse and addiction in the Midwest. This heroin epidemic has become increasingly visible as community after community has seen sharp increases in deaths caused by this dangerous drug.

Many people are battling every day to free themselves from their addictions, which result in situations such as homelessness, poor health, and financial instability. Nathan recognized that Columbus has one of the best shelter systems in the country. However, shelters can be horrible places for anyone recovering from addiction. FOCUS Columbus’ Jonah House will fill the gap that currently exists in the homeless service system for addicts.

Opportunity Meets Desire

The Jonah House, which is slated to open in the fall of 2017, will provide a critical transitional step for former heroin addicts to move from dependency to self-sufficiency. The house will be a safe, caring living space and will also arrange meaningful, daily work for residents. In-house professional partners will help residents with their mental and physical health, and provide guidance for everyday tasks.

Nicholas Chakos, Executive Director of FOCUS North America said, “The Jonah House will be bringing a credible solution to a dire need in Columbus. While FOCUS provides infrastructure and organization to centers around the country, the local folks in Columbus have done all of the groundwork and are stepping up to meaningfully impact their community.”

The goal is for Jonah House residents to be able to focus entirely on themselves and their recovery for six months or a year.  “There will be professional, volunteer, and spiritual help,” said Peter Gardikes, who is a Jonah House ministry team member and Parish Council Member at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Columbus. “Ultimately, we’d like to see people who have gone through Jonah House mentor those who come after them. We’re creating a community of people supporting one another.” Jonah House is successfully leveraging churches in central Ohio to create a network of support and opportunity to those who successfully complete the transition once leaving the Jonah House.

Jonah as a metaphor and method

In the Old Testament story, Jonah experiences incredible turbulence on a boat as he attempts to flee God’s command. Jonah’s knows it is his fault that the other passengers are in danger– and he also knows that a change has to take place. Jonah admits to those onboard that he has disobeyed God. Like Jonah, those who are addicted unintentionally cause pain to those they love. Similarly, these individuals must come to realize this, and take steps to come back into unity with those around them.

After being cast into the sea, Jonah enters into the belly of the whale. In our case, this time is likened to a period of rehabilitation. When an addict is taken away from his or her storm and entered into a period of distance from the cause of pain, they prevent themselves from causing damage to themselves and others. Just as Jonah emerged to deliver a saving message to the people of Nineveh, when the addict emerges, they are resurrected with the desire to contribute to a community and purpose greater than themselves. The parallels are unmistakable.

Just as Jonah’s three days in the belly of the sea monster transformed the way Jonah functioned as a messenger of God, FOCUS Columbus’s Jonah House will become a vehicle through which recovered addicts in the Columbus community discover their importance as individuals— and their ability transform others around them.

Please say a prayer for the Jonah House. If you wish to learn more and support the sustainability of this ministry, please contact FOCUS North America.

The Liturgy After the Liturgy

By: Kamal Hourani

For Orthodox Christians, the Divine Liturgy is the center of our life in Christ. We must be convinced that there is no greater beauty, no greater joy, no greater privilege than to enter God’s house, sing His praises, listen to His words, and to be united to Him in the very Body and Blood of His Christ. There is no higher state for man than to sit at the table with the Lord and to simply be with Him, in Him, and have Him in us.

The sublimity of the Liturgy, however, does not mean that there is no other place on earth worth spending time. As Saint Maria Skobtsova writes, “Christ, in ascending to heaven, did not take the Church with Him…Christ left the Church in the world. It was left as a small bit of leavening.”

We Christians long for the age to come, when there will be no sickness, sorrow, or sighing. Our hearts ache to be with Christ. Sometimes we are so fed up with the suffering and horrors of this world and we wonder why Christ would ascend and leave us here in the first place. Saint Maria’s writing suggests one answer. We need a shift in perspective, not location.  We cannot yet ascend to be in Christ’s Kingdom because His plan is to use us to bring His Kingdom down into the earth. He works with us to transfigure this world as a baker transforms a heap of flour with a little yeast. There is no need to wait for the end of this age. The end of the age is now, when we work with God to overcome the world’s fallenness.

If we are going to truly be part of this Church, part of the leaven of the earth, we need to know how to express God’s Kingdom on earth. Christ gives us the necessary instructions, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:3). Saint Maria compares this beatitude to the monastic vow of non-possession. Just as a monk must renounce all earthly possessions, every Christian must sell away the barriers we put up to cut ourselves off from God and the pride we cling to in order to avoid serving others. Saint Maria compares these to dirty rags that we must sell away in favor of the incorruptible richness of the “laying down of our soul for our friends.”

In the Divine Liturgy, in return for our offering bread and wine, Christ gives His very self to us in the Eucharist. This mutual relationship of eucharistic offering becomes the icon for all of our relationships in this world. As Christ gave his life for us on the Cross, so we must give our lives for the sake of our neighbors. Just as Christ overlooks all of our imperfections, so also must we overlook the shortcomings of our neighbors and serve them all the more. This work of serving others is the only way that the work of the Divine Liturgy becomes complete.

Each of us are constantly given opportunities to serve others. In our interactions with our families, coworkers, and friends we can choose to be servants. We are also called to go out and actively serve the poor. While this sometimes takes a little more initiative, the spiritual benefits are unending. By giving our time, talent, and treasure to ministries like FOCUS North America, we are not only having important community with the poor, but also training ourselves to be ready to serve whenever the Lord sends an opportunity our way.

In this fallen world, we are hungry, thirsty, beaten, and stripped naked by tragedy and suffering. Ultimately, only Christ can satisfy the needs of the world and overcome our poverty with His riches. But it is through human beings, even us, that Chris is manifest. In our own life of love, we offer our neighbors Christ himself, who heals the wounds of this world.

Christian charity, though FOCUS and other ministries alike, must not only address the physical needs of the poor but also the internal poverty that comes from separation from God. When we hand a man a piece of bread, we also hope that he will be nourished by our love for him. When we give clothing to the naked, we hope that they will be wrapped in dignity as well. This art of loving the world takes a lifetime to master, but we must begin each day with a new resolve to build on this universal Christian ministry of service. Approaching the chalice on Sunday cannot be a mundane chore that we check off each week. It has to be the fountainhead of the torrent of our love for the world. We must translate the liturgy in our parish churches into the liturgy after the liturgy that takes place in the entirety of God’s creation.

Kamal Hourani is a student at Hellenic College in Brookline, MA. He is a graduate of FOCUS North America’s YES (Youth Equipped to Serve) Program and has also become a leader in that program. To learn about how YES is shaping the leaders of our church visit www.focusnorthamerica.org/yes.

A Day in the Life: Sunday Nights at FOCUS Minnesota

From FOCUS Minnesota

If you made it to this page, you likely are already familiar with FOCUS–that is, you know generally about the mission and work of the organization (if this isn’t the case, feel free to check out our “About” page for some basic information). However, without spending a lot of time at FOCUS Center, it can be hard to have a clear picture of our work and the ethos that undergirds it. This blog series, “A Day in the Life,” is meant to give you a window into the “What’s” and “Why’s” of FOCUS. 

Picture

When I think of describing  Sunday Night Dinners at FOCUS, the word, “mercy,” is the first that comes to my mind.

Mercy is of course, at the core of FOCUS’ mission, but I think it characterizes our weekly community meal in a special sort of way. There is no registration process for Sunday Dinners. There is no upper limit on how many members of your family you can bring, or how often per month you can come. You don’t have to bring an I.D. or proof of address. Anyone can show up for a hot meal and a warm space, no questions asked.

Lord have mercy. 

Friday, 11:30 AM
The logistics of Sunday Dinners really start today. I stop in at the Center, touch base with Vera, our Director, and check the supply closet to make sure we’re stocked up on paper products and silverware. I also check the calendar to confirm who will be bringing the meal and helping to serve it. We are blessed to have a schedule of regular groups from local parishes, youth sports teams, and other volunteers. This week in particular, a youth group from an Orthodox Parish is scheduled to serve.

Sunday, 3:55 PM
I pull up to FOCUS, a few minutes early…and am greeted by a small assembly of people already waiting to be let in: the catering team from the youth group is already here! So are John* and Alex*, our former-clients-turned-volunteers. They used to come every week to eat dinner. Now they come to serve, one acting as an informal DJ by providing ambient music, the other helping wait tables.

Lord have mercy. 

I unlock the door and we all begin to unload and carry in supplies.

4:20 PM
40 minutes until we open for guests and set-up is already in fully swing. FOCUS’ large multipurpose room has been transformed into a dining room, complete with table clothes, plastic ware and condiments at each place, and ambient music in the background.

Coffee is brewing and volunteers are busy in the kitchen, warming tortillas, heating taco meat, chopping tomatoes.

Most of our core group of volunteers also have arrived by now. We have an informal team of three to five who devote their time and energy to FOCUS almost every week. In many ways, they are what makes Sunday Nights run smoothly.

Lord have mercy. 

5:03 PM
We gather in the kitchen as the first guests start to arrive. Vera gives general instructions and assigns people to different tasks in order to make the evening run smoothly. Volunteer adults: prepare plates in the kitchen. Youth volunteers: bring plates to guests and clean and reset places as they empty. One more person is assigned to refill drinks, another two to keep track of the number of people in the dining room and order plates from the kitchen.We then take a minute to pray over the meal and regain our focus for the evening.”…and to the guests we shall receive, O merciful Lord, grant peace, security, and healing and Thy merciful loving kindness as they bear the challenges of this earthly life…”

These words articulate why we are all really here tonight. It’s not about how meany meals we serve. It’s not about who the guests are or hardships they may or may not face. It’s not even just about giving a meaningful volunteer experience to the group who brought the meal. It’s about doing what we can to provide a bit of kindness to those who come to us.

Lord have mercy.

As we break up the prayer circle and take our stations, the dining room starts to fill. Families. Single adults. Children of various ages. Troops of 4 or 5 friends who came together. The dining room starts to hum with activity. As guests are seated, volunteers offer them something to drink before bringing them a plate from the kitchen. No buffet lines here. We want the guests to feel as if they’re in a restaurant. We want their time to be restful.

5:50 PM
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People continue to filter in and the pace of things picks up. As the first round of guests finishes their dinner, we offer them seconds, sometimes thirds. Later on, if we have enough extra food, we will also offer them a to-go box of extra portions. You see, for many of them, this meal is the first (and only) meal that they get all weekend.

Lord have mercy. 

The first round of folks gradually begins to wrap up their meals and take their leave. Some finish quickly without stopping to chat.As their spaces empty, a youth volunteers cleans and resets it for the next guest. Others linger over a second cup of coffee and, when we volunteers get a chance, we make an effort to sit down with them. Sometimes we exchanges names for the first time and make pleasant small talk, but many of the people who linger are regulars and the conversation is spent catching up on life. These are the guests that bring the sense of familiarity associated with community.

That is, after all, what these Sunday dinners are: a little community that has emerged over the last five years over a shared hot meal.

6:45 PM
By now, the evening is wrapping up. The youth are busily breaking down tables and taking out the trash. Most of our guests have left by now–most stopping to say “thank you’s” and “goodnight’s,” others simply shuffling out the door. A few stragglers are still finishing up.

A woman comes through the front door. “Excuse me…is there where the…the free dinner is?”

A volunteer greets her and guides her to one of the remaining tables, where we quickly bring her a plate of hot food. Someone sits down with her as she eats. She’s upset, crying quietly over her food, mumbling to herself. Though she tells us very little about her circumstances, it’s clear she’s struggling. And in this particular space, at this particular time, with so little information, there’s not much we can really do that will offer a permanent “fix” for whatever situation she’s in.

But was can offer a hot meal. We can offer her information about shelters nearby and offer to call them for her. We can offer a new coat out of our clothes closet to replace the one she’s wearing that won’t zip. We can encourage her to come back next week, for the foodshelf on Wednesday, for the clothes distribution on Friday. Most importantly, we can offer a listening ear, some kindness, and a safe space, if only for a little while.

And just maybe, God willing, these little offerings can help blunt the sting of the hardship this woman faces.

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.