Building Homes in New Orleans
The formation of a seminarian happens both inside and outside the classroom. Over the course of the 2013-2014 winter break, three St. Vladimir's seminarians participated in the first-ever International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) Seminary Action Team. Together with junior seminarian Sara Staff and middler Tor Vegard Svane, I traveled to New Orleans to join nine other seminarians from five Orthodox theological schools to work as part of an IOCC home-build team, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity. The leader of our group, IOCC's Country Representative for the United States Dan Christopulos, was joined by his co-leader The Very Rev. Paul Wesche, rector of St. Herman's Orthodox Church (Orthodox Church in America) and president of the Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association.
Thanks to the generosity of many donors, IOCC was able to offer this great opportunity to seminarians for the minimal cost of $150, which included our flight plus our room and board. In the last few years the organization has provided hands-on opportunities for ministry within the United States, allowing students, professionals, and retirees to work together to help out their most vulnerable neighbors. Subsequent to two major hurricanes, Katrina in 2005 and Ike in 2008, IOCC has mobilized teams of volunteers to help build homes for those displaced by these tragic disasters through their long-term partnership with Habitat for Humanity.
Our team flew to New Orleans on the early evening after the Feast of Theophany on January 6, and stayed through Sunday afternoon, January 12. After an orientation on Tuesday morning we split into small teams working in different sections of two houses, sheetrocking ceilings and walls for eight hours each day. Most of us had very little experience in construction, and we made our fair share of mistakes measuring walls incorrectly or putting a few screws in the wrong places. However, the Habitat supervisors patiently guided and taught us what we needed to know; they modeled for us an example of forbearance with our inexperience and care for us personally. We will remember their example when we are called upon to show the same spirit in our future ministry with people we will serve in the Church.
After finishing a full day of physical labor, we were allowed time for reflection and prayers in the evenings. In our open discussions on the team, we learned more about the work of IOCC, and how we might further the cause of Christian charity once we leave St. Vladimir's. We also made time to drive around those neighborhoods of New Orleans that were most devastated by the hurricanes. In the Lower Ninth Ward, many of the lots are still empty, and only a few bricks on the ground indicate where houses once stood, while a number of houses are still severally damaged.
One of the most rewarding aspects of our trip was the inter-seminary fellowship. There are very few events which bring seminarians from different schools and different jurisdictions together. Seminarian Sara Staff commented afterwords that "The IOCC home-build mission trip was especially meaningful in that we worked toward a common goal alongside fellow seminarians from across the United States...gaining a new perspective on missions in general. It was very challenging to be reminded that Christ's love is made manifest through His people ministering to the poor. I hope to cultivate and share all that I have learned!"
Added Seminarian Tor Svane, "As a seminarian we learn many things in the classroom, but there is less time to put into practice the love of Christ in a practical manner such as this. Working in New Orleans together in a physical and down-to-earth context brought us together in a way that academic work couldn't have done. Friendships were made and strengthened through our shared labor and our common goal, and I thank God for this opportunity."