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St. Louis Teen Celebrates Birthday with the Homeless

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DSC_0019-2Maria Leon and her family are regular volunteers at the FOCUS Gateway City weekly meals. As active participants with the working poor and homeless in the area the center serves, Leon wasn’t surprised when her father turned their conversation about her fifteenth birthday to the less fortunate.

 “My Dad and I were talking about my birthday coming up and I remember him saying, ‘I wonder when was the last birthday party they attended?’” Leon said. “It really got me thinking.”

Leon decided to have her fifteenth birthday party at the Sunday night FOCUS Gateway Center meal.

“I wanted to have cake and ice cream, a real party,” Leon said. “I was hoping that celebrating my birthday with them would remind them of happy memories the might have from their childhood.”

DSC_0003Leon didn’t just offer to bring cake and ice cream to the meal, she decided she would invite all her friends to celebrate with her and to serve those in need as well. And instead of bringing presents for Leon, presents were offered by Leon and her friends and family to the guests attending the weekly meal.

“We knew there was a need for men’s items so we brought men’s gloves, hats, scarves, shoes and sweatpants,” Leon said. “I felt really good about celebrating my birthday at the center. Seeing the smiles and how happy people were was great. Some even cried because they were so thankful.”

Eric Shanburn, FOCUS Gateway City Director, said the guests were so blessed by the night. “One of the guests said, ‘We should be giving her gifts but instead she gave us gifts,’” Shanburn said. “It was a great night. The guests embraced it, wore party hats and we all sang ‘Happy Birthday.’”

And Leon’s friends were touched by the night as well. “A few of my friends that came to the party said they want to come back and help us serve a meal again some time.”

DSC_0017What about her sixteenth birthday? Leon said maybe celebrating with those less fortunate will become a trend for her.

 

Focus on Re-Engaging Fathers

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Congratulations to Rodney Knott, an Orthodox Christian working with FOCUS North America, who has developed a successful life-recovery curriculum to re-engage fathers and their children. ReEngage, a ministry partner of FOCUS North America, has as its goal to connect men with their families and to help them gain the skills needed to truly "be a man."

Knott's Man Class offers instruction and mentoring in the areas of self-control, personal responsibility, perseverance, social responsibility, education, financial responsibility, workforce development and self-discipline.

Thanks to your support FOCUS North America not only provided a grant to help develop the curriculum but is working with Knott towards implementing his successful education program in its FOCUS centers nationwide.

Click here to read more about ReEngage, the Man Class and Knott's work. And follow this link to read a recent article about how the Man Class is affecting not only young men, but veterans.

   

Your Tax Refund Could Benefit Your Neediest Neighbors

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Many people look forward to the extra money coming to them this time of year in the form of their tax refunds. Why not consider donating 10% of your tax refund to your neediest neighbors!

With the average tax refund totaling around $3000, you could give $300 to provide:

  • FOOD for a hungry family living in a hotel;
  • OCCUPATION training for a young man trying to get his life in order and take care of his family;
  • CLOTHING for a homeless man who has no money to buy a warm coat;
  • UNDERSTANDING in the form of social services for individuals working hard to find a job, parent their children, overcome addictions and find purpose in the midst of poverty;
  • SHELTER for those who find themselves sleeping on the streets or living in unsafe and broken down homes.

Donating 10% of your tax refund, or even more, could literally save someone's life! Just think, you have been living without this money all year. Pay it forward this year and help someone in need!

Click here to make a difference in the lives of some of your neediest neighbors!

Thank you for your kindness and generosity for those in need here in North America. 

For those we serve,

Fr. Justin

   

Oklahoma City Pan Orthodox Gathering Puts Focus on Unity

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Oklahoma City's strong clergy friendships are giving way to action as well as open dialogue. Here is a post by Fr. Mark Wallace to the Antiochian Archdiocesan website as well as his personal blog site. Read about the good work being done by the faithful of Oklahoma City and how they are working across jurisdictional lines to accomplish more for the sake of Christ.

 

With all eyes and hearts focused on Jesus Christ, a pan-Orthodox gathering of clergy and their parish councils came together for a common meal in Oklahoma City, OK.  With this being the third annual gathering on February 13, 2011, a solid tradition is being established for Orthodox unity in central Oklahoma.

St. Elijah (Antiochian), St. George (Greek) St. Mary’s (Ukrainian) and Holy Ascension (Antiochian) all had a chance to share what the Lord is doing in their midst.  Mr. and Mrs. Kory Warr were our hosts and The Very Rev. Constantine Nasr was our emcee.  Father Jeremy Davis, of St. Elijah, shared about a successful seminar that will be implemented annually at St. Elijah called, “Sex as God Intends.”  That is a two-day seminar for middle-school and high-school students with presentations made by the clergy, medical personnel and laity. By sharing this, it helped to spark the interest in duplicating that ministry for the other Orthodox congregations.  Fr. Jeremy also gave a good report about the Mother’s Day Out pre-school program at St. Elijah’s, which is in its third year.  “It is amazing,” he said, “how the children are showing their ability to learn about God, the Saints, and to sing some simple songs of worship.”  Fr. John Tsaras, and the people of St. George, had just completed their responsibility for hosting about 1,000 participants from 14 states in their annual GOYO basketball tournament.  Fr. Justin McFeeters was able to share the joy of how the people of Holy Ascension are excited to bring new people to the Lord.  Their big news, since our last time of fellowship, is the opening of their new temple of worship last fall.  Fr. Raphael Moore said that even with the difficulties of an aging congregation in a rural setting, St. Mary’s is able to have a positive movement towards growth.  Craig Abraham, represented the newly elected Chairman of the IOCC, Mickey Homsey, (St. Elijah-OKC) who was out of town and reported that the IOCC will have a fund-raising banquet in Oklahoma City on May 2, 2011.  Unfortunately, Fr. Antony Nelson of St. Benedict’s (ROCOR) could not be with us for the event.

Following these local reports, all sixty-five of the participants then heard two very powerful exhortations to continue “being” the Church by remembering Jesus’ words, “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40)  Kory Warr, Chairman of the Board of the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry, shared a very stirring example of how the Orthodox Prison Ministry has affected the lives of family members of the incarcerated.  Indeed, the problem of crime is an overwhelming one, but if we focus on changing one life at a time, there will continue to be “a ripple effect” of our investment into the lives of those afflicted by crime.  Kory enlightened all to the fact that “prison ministry” is not necessarily done in the prisons.  There are many opportunities for the Church to assist the family members of those in (and out of) prison by teaching them practical life skills, as well as incorporating them into the worship life of the Church.

Highlighting the time of fellowship between the parish council members and clergy was the presentation on the pan-Orthodox ministry of FOCUS North America.  FOCUS is the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve. This ministry was birthed in January 2009, so conveying the knowledge of who they are and what they do was the primary purpose of their presence.  Mr. Charles Ajalat, Chairman of the Board for FOCUS, and the Rev. Fr. Justin Mathews, Executive Director of FOCUS, both spoke with great conviction as they shared the vision of this ministry to the poor.  Orthodox believers in several cities across the United States have already caught this vision of what can be done by working together.  With the help of FOCUS North America, they are establishing their own locally-funded FOCUS centers to channel the resources of the Orthodox Church into existing ministries and to help create new ones.

FOCUS has begun to cast this vision of ministering to “the least of these, my brethren” by engaging youth through weekend events that are called "Y.E.S." or Youth Equipped to Serve. In fact, a local teen, Brianna Harroz, who participated in the YES event in Kansas City, came to this meeting specifically to tell how her life was transformed by her involvement. Erin Learned, Youth Director at St. Elijah's, announced that YES will be doing a weekend here in Oklahoma City, April 8-10.

Fr. Justin Mathews reminded us all, from St. John Chrysostom, that “the rich exist for the sake of the poor, and the poor exist for the salvation of the rich.”  Mr. Charles Ajalat reminded us that as Christ left the glories of heaven to come and restore us to Himself, we are to leave the glories of the Divine Liturgy each Sunday to go into the world and be as Christ to the poor, the hungry, the sick and those in prison.

When Orthodox parish councils AND their clergy start getting together on a regular basis, things WILL happen.

 

 

   

FOCUS partner, St. Brigid Fellowship engaging "neighbors on the streets"

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by Jill Wallerstedt

The morning begins as most do: friends coming for breakfast. A table spread with toast, peanut butter, jelly, butter, honey, bagels, cereal and milk makes you want to fill your belly, then have a cup of coffee or tea and chat about what’s going on around our small town.

We are part of St. Brigid Fellowship, an outreach to the homeless here in Isla Vista, California. To be homeless is to be nameless, avoided, shunned, blamed, hungry and exposed to the elements. Each morning that St. Brigid’s opens its door, every visitor is known by name, has a place to belong, and finds friends, acceptance, food, clothing and help getting out of any situations they wish to leave.

Isla Vista is a densely-packed, square-mile beach-side community which abuts the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB). It is home to students from UCSB and Santa Barbara City College, who make up 85 percent of the population, as well as homeowners, low-income workers, and homeless (many of whom prefer the term “unhoused” because the earth is our home.”)

Neighboring Santa Barbara deserves its reputation as a beautiful haven for the wealthy, lying between scenic foothills and the Pacific Ocean, and blessed with nearly year-round sunshine. For the not-so-wealthy, the limited housing and high cost of living make it difficult to make ends meet. Isla Vista and Goleta offer lower cost housing, but even so, a one bedroom apartment in Isla Vista rents for $1,100 a month. Students who rent on the nicest, beach-side streets pay $850 each for the privilege of sharing a bedroom with an ocean view.

Many of the unhoused come to Isla Vista because it is a small community and easy to navigate. The parks are their hang-outs. It’s illegal to sleep in the parks or in vehicles anywhere in Isla Vista at night, so a lot of sleeping happens during the day. Those with income are eligible for low-cost housing, but the waiting time is two to five years once you apply. The existing shelters are almost always full. There are no social services available here: the nearest ones are six miles away and the rest are in downtown Santa Barbara, twelve miles away. To survive, those without income or government benefits get money for food and alcohol by panhandling (or “spanging spare changing) or collecting cans and bottles to recycle for money.

St. Athanasius Antiochian Orthodox Church is near the heart of Isla Vista on a parcel of land surrounded by these parks. Our parish has been here since the early 1970s, long before we became Orthodox converts in 1987. We had a monthly food distribution for the poor for many years and have served Christmas breakfast for many years since.

In 1999 a group of Protestant volunteers asked if they could use our church kitchen to serve a weekly meal to the homeless on Thursday nights. They brought pre-cooked meals to our stove-less kitchen, set tables up outside, held a Bible study and then served dinner. I remember looking at the meeting on the patio, and thinking how nice it would be if they came into Vespers with us.

When this group could no longer provide meals, Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges, our assistant pastor, took over. He moved the meal night to Monday and served one-pot soups and stews he cooked at home and hamburgers he grilled on the church barbecue. Attendance grew, perhaps because the only overtly religious elements to the dinners were the prayer beforehand and the cook’s clerical collar.

Fr. Jon got to know our neighbors on the streets,” as he calls them, and earned their trust. He heard their stories, made friends, helped where he could. They started to drop by his office on the church property during the week, and eventually, his other church work suffered. At the time, I was looking for a new job, and I was blessed to be offered a full-time job by the church in 2005: half-time raising money for our church school, St. John of Damascus Academy, and half-time working as assistant to Fr. Jon in his various duties.

Within a few months we realized that our work on the streets needed its own office. We rented space in the next-door medical clinic with a room for my office, a sitting area and supply closets, and a meeting room where mental health workers, job counselors and other providers could meet with us and our “clients.”

We opened the doors three mornings a week for drop-ins. Fr. Jon-Stephen named the ministry after St. Brigid, the Irish saint who was a compatriot of St. Patrick’s and who is commemorated both east and west. The scroll on her icon reads: “To care for the poor; To lighten everyone’s burden; To comfort the suffering.” This became our motto. The church agreed to a modest budget for our ministry.

Fr. Jon continued to see our neighbors in his office, but he was able to refer the simpler, day-to-day needs to me. The work started slowly. I handed out hygiene supplies, sleeping bags, coats, bus tokens, rain gear, and socks, which were purchased by the church or donated. We offered the use of our telephone for calls and messages, and our address for applying for benefits and receiving mail. We served coffee. I met people and established friendships. I learned street names (Pirate, Wolf, Leprechaun, Veg-man) and their real names. I learned how to respond to angry outbursts as well as abject misery. I laughed and cried with people. I heard what it was like to be on the streets: stories of how others treated them, looked at them, how inequitable the system was. I became used to missing teeth, dirty hands, unkempt hair. The requests were so direct: It was freezing last night. Do you have anything warm to wear?” “I need a tarp to put over my sleeping bag when it rains.” “How do I get on food stamps?” “Do you have clean socks?”

We never intended to meet every need, especially those that were addressed by other organizations in Santa Barbara. We installed a rack with brochures about local services. From the start we were blessed to have the presence of Jennifer Ferraez, a parishioner who is also a Santa Barbara County Mental Health Outreach Worker for the Homeless. She arranged weekly visits to St. Brigid as part of her outreach, and taught me about the resources available in our community. She also provided the mental health assessments, referrals and counseling so many of our people needed. She is my sounding board and an ever-ready source of information.

As my unhoused friends started to trust me, they confided more. In this sometimes painful, personal exchange I heard about failed marriages, abusive childhoods, deep sorrows. I often felt overwhelmed. Prayer became a constant ally. I met people who were alcoholic or drug dependent, had mental illness, chronic medical conditions and some with all three. I had my first face-to-face conversation with someone who was psychotic (he confided he was a superhero and offered to teach me to fly.) Most wanted housing, some lived in vehicles, others were happy on the streets if they could keep warm and fed.

I learned to make referrals for food stamps and general relief, how to help someone apply for SSI. Sometimes I couldn’t help in any other way but to listen, and mostly this was the most important. A public health nurse visited once a week, and the clinic downstairs began to see homeless people without charge.

About a year into the work, we had to move while the clinic remodeled. Since the move was to be temporary, we rented a portable construction office for $125 a month, a large trailer that occupied four spaces in our parking lot. I hung yellow lace curtains in the windows, which were quite silly really. St. Brigid’s new home quickly became known as “the dumpster with curtains.”

In the narrow trailer I had two storage cabinets in the back, my desk, filing cabinet and computer in the middle, and a table in front across from the door for a coffee pot and a computer that people could use. We stored sleeping bags and blankets under a slanted, built-in drafting-table, and put the phone and reference books on top of it. Actually, this is all that’s needed to start an outreach ministry – an open door, some basic supplies, an open heart.

Jennifer continued to come in once a week and to the Monday night dinners to help and teach. Fr. Jon-Stephen’s office was still next door on the church property and he came by daily. People began to drop by in greater numbers, not just to get something they needed but to hang out and talk. A sense of community emerged.

Somewhere along the line I developed my two rules: the first is that St. Brigid’s is a place of peace, a refuge from the streets, and that shouting, swearing and anger belonged elsewhere. (Some of the men who came in were so sensitive that if someone outside even used a loud voice in happy conversation, they would become upset and unable to talk.) The second rule was not to take coffee from the coffee pot before it finished brewing. I also inconspicuously monitored conversations and re-directed any that were inappropriate or disruptive.

We started serving peanut butter and jelly and bread with the coffee; then we got a toaster. The food table was outside the trailer. When it was cold we all wore coats. We jury-rigged a tarp outside that we could sit under when it rained, but we still got wet. One particularly rainy, blustery day, a friend got a large tarp out of her van and we all worked together to hang it around the church’s Sunday awning. I learned how to make ties from pieces of torn t-shirt. It worked fairly well as the only rain shelter in the area that day. We used the trailer for two years, then found out that the medical clinic was sold and we could not return to our office there.

We recently moved into a larger trailer on the church property and now have the luxury of two rooms: one for an office, and the other for our food table, supplies, computers, chairs and beginning library. When it’s sunny we use the deck outside and when it rains, we will even have a roof. What a concept!

We’re now open five days a week for breakfast. With a grant we received we are hiring a 15-hour-a-week helper, Nikki Coalson, a young woman in our church. This means I can work with people in crisis while she makes sure everything runs smoothly. We are applying for other grants to expand our services.

I wish I had time to tell you the stories. Each person has his/her own, and together we have made new ones. Our team all part time in the work has made referrals for alcohol/drug detox, found people housing, gotten them benefits, seen them succeed, seen them relapse and start drinking again, shared joys, arranged reunions with family, had friends die.

The Monday night dinners have continued, drawing more people, some who never come in the mornings. Members of our church and the community help cook and serve, including doctors, nurses and politicians. There is now a group of UCSB pre-med students who have started a group called “Street Health Outreach”. They also cook a Saturday morning breakfast once a month and do street rounds the other Saturdays.

St. Brigid Fellowship has become a community, and a unifying force in Isla Vista. Fr. Jon-Stephen works the big picture” to make connections with other agencies and publicize our work as well as continuing his personal relationships here. Fr. Jon carries a badge as Chaplain to the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department and several other agencies. On him, the badge is a bridge. He also has an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT-B) certification. All of us work together to solve homelessness one person at a time. We’re part of Santa Barbara County’s Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.

As for philosophy, we use an “incarnational model,” meeting people on the streets as Jesus did, addressing immediate needs and starting relationships that can lead out of homelessness. This is not a one-way ministry, us to them. All of us, both housed and unhoused, work together to solve problems.

When things are tough, we look at others as Mother Teresa did, as Christ in his distressing disguise, and do all with love. As St. John Kronstadt reminds us: “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

This work is a blessing. My faith has grown, as has my prayer life.

If you or your parish is considering starting an outreach ministry, just know that it can be done simply. The most important part is taking the time to listen and talk. Your ministry can be handing out socks or sack lunches in the park, or feeding people once a week, or giving gift certificates to fast food or grocery stores. Whatever it is, take the time to talk. Introduce yourself and ask their name. You would be surprised how meaningful just exchanging names is to a person who is used to being snubbed and ignored. Don’t think you have to address all of the problems you will encounter – just do your part and listen to the Lord who will walk along side you and give you guidance, joy and peace.

Feel free to contact me, Fr. Jon-Stephen Hedges, and Jennifer Ferraez at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or (805) 968-8028.

And Click here to hear how FOCUS North America and the good work of its partner ministry, St. Brigid Fellowship are working to make a difference in the lives of our most needy neighbors!

 

   

Polamalus put 'FOCUS' on outreach to needy

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By Deana Carpenter For The Almanac 

A crowd of more than 400 people packed the community center at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church Jan. 25 to raise funds for FOCUS, which stands for the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve.

The evening titled "Restore Living Icons" featured dinner, live and silent auctions and keynote speaker, Theodora Polamalu, wife of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.

FOCUS, which also stands for food, occupation, clothing, understanding and shelter, provides outreach to those in need.

The main focus for the event was to raise funds to open a FOCUS center in the Pittsburgh area, which could be open by as early as this summer. The organization is looking to possibly open the first FOCUS Pittsburgh center in the Hill District.

"We work to serve the poor," said Thea Martin, president of the Ladies Philoptochos society at Holy Cross, which organized the event. She added that the Jan. 25 dinner was the first-ever FOCUS Pittsburgh event.

"By serving the needy, we are humbled and truly blessed," Polamalu said in her speech, adding that a FOCUS center locally could alleviate the suffering of many.

In addition to Polamalu's speech, the evening featured speeches by Father Justin Mathews, executive director of FOCUS North America, Paul Abernathy, director of FOCUS Pittsburgh and Charles Ajalat, founder of FOCUS.

Attendees also had the chance to bid on several silent auction items, including jewelry and Steelers items.

Eight people won a live auction and the chance to sit at a table with Troy and Theodora Polamalu and have dessert at the end of the evening, which raised more than $11,000 for FOCUS. A signed Polamalu jersey fetched $5,200 and two tickets to the Steelers home opener next season, which were donated by the Polamalus, went for $1,200. 


 

   

Blogging Mom supports efforts of FOCUS North America

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We often talk of our allies on this narrow road of faith--they aren't just social workers, clergy members, activists, or committee chairs. Most often they come in the form of hard working people trying love our Lord and be faithful to Him in their duties as Moms, Dads, co-workers, teachers, assistants, electricians, sisters, brothers, grandmas, grandpas, as everyday "ordinary" folks.

We know though that there is nothing "ordinary" about living the Christian life. In fact, it is so out of the ordinary to love those who hate you, to serve the poor, to give all you have for the sake of another.

That's why I appreciate so much the kind words and thoughts of people like Sylvia Leontaritis. Click here to see her mention of FOCUS North America on her popular blog, Adventures of an Orthodox Mom.

Thank you all for your prayers and support!

For those we serve,

Fr. Justin+

   

A FOCUS on service: Orthodox churches expand to Hill District to help the poor

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The Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve sees Pittsburgh mission as 'centerpiece' of national effort
Sunday, January 30, 2011
By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Orthodox of Pittsburgh are famous for mouth-watering food festivals that support their churches. But in April they will open a center in the Hill District to give food and other assistance to the poor, regardless of their faith.

It will be the seventh center for FOCUS North America, the first nationwide pan-ethnic effort by Orthodox Christians to provide social services in America. Because of the concentration of Orthodox in the Tri-State area, FOCUS founder and board chairman Charles Ajalat expects it to become a "centerpiece" for the 2-year-old organization. "We have 130 priests and six bishops within a two-hour radius," he said Tuesday at a fundraising dinner that drew 400 people to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon. Few regions can say the same.

FOCUS stands for Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve. Its website is www.focusna.org.

Elsewhere, FOCUS has developed niche ministries. In Orange County, Calif., where it couldn't afford to buy or rent in the sky-high real estate market, a FOCUS truck brings food to motels where many evicted families live. Last month in St. Louis, FOCUS helped 45 women with crisis pregnancies fill out online job applications and trained them in basic skills such as job interviewing and budgeting. "We don't want to duplicate unnecessarily what any other association, ministry or social service is doing here," said the Rev. Justin Mathews, a Serbian Orthodox priest from Kansas City, Mo., and executive director of FOCUS.

While its range of mission is being developed, Pittsburgh FOCUS will have an outreach to low-income and homeless military veterans. It has hired an Iraq War veteran as the center director. Struggling vets are a special concern of the FOCUS's most prominent supporter, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He surprised organizers by attending the dinner amid Super Bowl preparations. His wife, Theodora, was a founding national board member of FOCUS. Its capital campaign was Tackle Poverty with the Polamalus.

"I grew up very poor," Mr. Polamalu said in an interview. Before he moved to live with his aunt and uncle at age 9, he was often on the streets of Santa Ana, Calif., while his mother worked."I was hanging out with homeless people, even stealing food from picnic tables and giving it to homeless people. Even, at times, stealing for myself to eat," he said. His closest friends have always been those who have known poverty, he said. Mrs. Polamalu spoke at the dinner on seeing the image of God in the poor."We are all images of the very God we serve," she said. "It is the imperative of this organization to restore the dignity that belongs to each man as bestowed by God." She spoke of people who lost everything in the recession and of veterans who returned from war "to homelessness and despair.""You might ask, 'Where is God in their lives?' The better question is 'Where is God in our lives?' " she said, urging listeners to respond in the name of Jesus.

Tuesday's dinner raised $62,000 toward a $150,000 launch budget for the Hill District center.

Eight people bid a total of nearly $12,000 to eat dessert at a table with the Polamalus. An autographed Polamalu jersey brought in $5,200 and a pair of the Polamalus' prime seats at Heinz Field yielded $1,200.


Ann Rodgers can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 412-263-1416.
First published on January 30, 2011 at 12:00 am
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11030/1121413-53.stm#ixzz1CkLxYaNj
   

Polamalu family supports the new Pittsburgh center of FOCUS

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

On Sunday, Troy Polamalu will be playing in one of the most-watched sporting events in the world, and his wife, Theodora, will be among those watching in Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. But last Tuesday, they were just two young parents at a church dinner, trying to juggle their kids.

As Mrs. Polamalu prepared to speak at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon, 4-month-old Ephraim fussed in her arms. ("He really needs to eat," her mother reminded her.) Meanwhile, her husband the Steelers safety had given up trying to intercept speedy Paisios, 2, and passed those duties to his father-in-law.

The entire Polamalu family was on hand to support the new Pittsburgh center of FOCUS (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve). Mrs. Polamalu, a founding board member of FOCUS North America, said the center that is to open in the Hill District in April will provide food, shelter, job training and other services to the needy, regardless of their religion.

"This center will fill so many needs of people in this city," she said.

Her husband, who corralled both boys long enough for a group photo, said earlier: "For me, [giving] has always either had to do with children or to deal with helping the homeless, because it's something I have dealt with personally."

Homeless veterans are among those the Polamalus are especially eager to serve. FOCUS Pittsburgh's director, Paul Abernathy, is a non-commissioned Army officer and an Iraq War veteran.

The location of the FOCUS Pittsburgh center, the eighth in the country, is not yet set, but Charles Ajalat, founder and chair of FOCUS North America, said he hopes to eventually use the former St. Michael's Orthodox Church in the Hill, the oldest Orthodox church east of the Mississippi (www.focusnorthamerica.org).

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11032/1121991-460.stm#ixzz1CkFGgIkd
   

Troy Polamalu shares counter-culture views on Christmas

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This article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jan. 7, 2011

Christmas arrives today for many Orthodox Christians around the world
Friday, January 07, 2011
TNT-FAM-PHOTO

The most famous Orthodox Christian in Pittsburgh, if not the nation, has a greeting for his fellow believers today:

"Kala Christougena!" said Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. That's Greek for "Merry Christmas!"

Mr. Polamalu and his wife, Theodora, actually celebrated Christmas 13 days ago, but they keep the same Orthodox traditions as those who observe today. Most Orthodox celebrate on Dec. 25, but many Slavic churches tie liturgy to the old Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar. The Greek Orthodox Church and some others have adopted the Gregorian calendar -- except at Easter.

"We all celebrate Easter on the same day," said Mr. Polamalu, 29. Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of the earliest Christian church, which split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054.

He and Theodora converted to Orthodoxy about five years ago. His background was Catholic and Protestant, hers Muslim and Protestant. They were Christians in search of a deeper, more consistent experience of God.

"Orthodoxy is like an abyss of beauty that's just endless," he said. "I have read the Bible many times. But after fasting, and being baptized Orthodox, it's like reading a whole new Bible. You see the depth behind the words so much more clearly."

That fasting is a Christmastime difference between Eastern and Western Christians. While many Americans pile on the food from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Orthodox Christians start fasting Nov. 15 or 28.

"Christmas Lent" or "Winter Lent" lasts 40 days, broken by a feast on Christmas, said the Rev. Stelyios Muksuris, administrative assistant to Metropolitan Maximos of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh and professor of liturgy and theology at Ss. Cyril & Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary. Slavic Orthodox keep a strict fast, abstaining from meat, dairy products, oil and fish for 40 days. Greeks usually permit fish, cheese and oil for the first few weeks, then fast strictly for the last two, he said.

Mr. Polamalu is of Samoan heritage, and belongs to the Greek church, but fasts like a Russian.

His consists of a "fast from dairy, from meat and from oil for 40 days -- as well as from sex," he said. "It's to prepare you for the birth of Christ, of God incarnate."

Fasting doesn't affect his football fitness, he said. "When you fast, you can eat extremely healthy by eating a lot of light food, like fruits and vegetables."

There are other aspects to fasting.

"Maybe not watching as much TV, or not getting caught up in idle talk or different things, in order to keep you spiritually healthy," he said.

The most important Orthodox fast is Great Lent, for 50 days before Easter.

When he has kept longer fasts "I have never felt more spiritually strong," he said. Referring to great theologians of the early church, he said, "The church fathers have said that when you eat gluttonously or you eat a lot of meat, your passions get stronger, so your inclination toward sinning becomes stronger. ... [Fasting] really does soften your passions. It gives you spiritual insight."

In Orthodox theology "passions" are negative impulses -- such as sadness or greed -- that can harm the soul.

He doesn't claim that practicing the faith improves athletics. The player known for crossing himself on the field has seen his faith grow more from his injuries than his interceptions.

"When I got injured, I learned so much from it spiritually, just thanking God for the health that I had when I was healthy," he said.

"People have this idea that the more pious and devout I am, the more successful I am. Which is very dangerous. If you look at faith in that way, you're bound to fail at both -- spiritually and in your career."

As the Polamalus build Christmas traditions for their children, Paisios, 2, and Ephraim, 3 months, "It's become less about Santa Claus and more about the birth of Christ and the celebration of the Virgin birth," he said.

They spent Christmas Eve at an Orthodox monastery. The service lasted several hours, ending at 1 a.m. It was entirely chanted.

"Orthodox chanting is non-emotional, it's very monotone," said Mr. Polamalu, who also calls it "the most beautiful thing."

"It's the perfect environment for prayer," he said. "Chanting in Greek ... is like a beautiful opera, but way better. You have candles, not [electric] lights. It's dark. You have the women sitting on the left and the men sitting on the right. Everything is to keep your mind focused on God. ... To me the most beautiful thing anyone on earth can experience, other than maybe marriage and child-bearing, would be the Orthodox Liturgy."

Before he became Orthodox, he said, songs in church sometimes moved him to tears. He now distrusts those passing feelings.

"I'd start crying and feel 'This is awesome.' If I'd had a Red Bull, I'd feel it even more. If I'd had breakfast, I'd feel good. If I didn't have breakfast, I didn't feel anything, I was grumpy," he said.

"It was a very superficial experience. I was thinking, 'God, why did I not feel you today?' because I wasn't feeling the music today. Orthodoxy is very sensitive to that, to take the emotion out of it, to really go after the heart."

The difference between the heart and emotion, he said, is like the difference between the deep love he has for his wife and their daily ups and downs.

"I could say, emotionally, I'm mad and sad with my wife. But that has nothing to do with how much I love my wife within my heart," he said.

"Before we were Orthodox we were able to separate our spiritual lives and our daily lives. Now that we're Orthodox, because of the prayer life that is required ... and the fasting, it consumes your life. It's the number one thing in your life."

Join the Polamalus in their support for those in need! Click here to learn how you can sponsor the January 25th dinner and conversation with Theodora Polamalu!

   

The Food Column: The Polamalus focus on good cause

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

polamalufamily_160Theodora Polamalu will make a rare public appearance at a Jan. 25 dinner to raise funds for an Orthodox Christian charity.

A silent auction that night also will feature items signed by her Steeler husband, Troy, including adult and children's jerseys, a throwback jersey and a hat.

The Polamalus, Orthodox Christians themselves, want to bring a branch of FOCUS North America, the primary Orthodox outreach organization, to Pittsburgh. The dinner will help to finance the Pittsburgh center's planned opening on Orthodox Easter, April 24, 2011.

Thea Martin, president of the Ladies Philoptochos Society of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon, notes that the Pittsburgh center is in the process of securing a building. The center will focus on serving the working poor and will begin by feeding the hungry. As the center grows, it may move into other avenues of outreach, such as shelter or medical care, Mrs. Martin said.

Mrs. Martin hadn't heard of FOCUS until she attended a church convention in Atlanta. She stopped by to visit the FOCUS booth, discovered that Mrs. Polamalu is on the national FOCUS board, and began hatching a plan to ask Mrs. Polamalu to speak to her 150-member women's group.

What resulted was an event much larger than a speech for 150.

The Jan. 25 dinner at Holy Cross will include silent auction items from hotels, restaurants and other businesses in addition to the Polamalu memorabilia. The Greek dinner, at $50 per person, will include appetizers (feta, olives, hummus and pita), Kotopeta Avgholemono (chicken rolls), rice pilaf, green beans almondine and dessert (baklava and galatobouriko, a Greek custard in phyllo).

Mrs. Polamalu will speak on "Restoring Living Icons," or reaching out to serve other people just as Orthodox Christians might reach out to the saints depicted in their icons.

"FOCUS is a ministry that Troy and I are excited to be involved with since its mission to serve the poor is one that resonates deep within our philanthropy," Mrs. Polamalu said in a statement. "We chose to get involved with the ministry because as Orthodox Christians we are called to exemplify the commandments of Christ to care for our fellow man in need."

FOCUS, which started just last year, has seven other centers scattered across the country in cities such as Minneapolis, Orlando and San Diego. The name stands alternately for "Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve" or for "Food, Occupation, Clothing, Understanding and Shelter." The organization is Pan-Orthodox, meaning it is a cooperative effort of all Orthodox sects: Greek, Russian, Syrian and so on.

For the Jan. 25 dinner, RSVP by Jan. 10 to Vasso Paliouras at 412-563-3577 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

For more information on FOCUS North America and to order tickets online, visit focusna.org (scroll down the home page to see information on the Pittsburgh-Polamalu event).

   

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