From Gulu, Uganda to Yonkers, New York: Seminarian Simon Menya's Report

Simon Menya

Greetings in the name of our Lord!

I thank the Almighty Father for the blessing and opportunity for me to attend St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and I thank the entire administration for supporting my education. Over the Christmas holiday, it was my privilege to go home and check in on my siblings, who are my responsibility.

While I was home reconnecting with my family and Orthodox parishes, the priests in Northern Uganda offered their greetings to everyone in the community of St. Vladimir’s. They were glad to have me back to help them, now that I am a seminarian. They appreciated the Seminary for sending along incense from the Holy Land and church calendars, plus the text for St. Basil’s feast day and a few loaves of Artos, a special bread that is blessed on the occasion of certain feast days.

Above all, Metropolitan Bishop Jonah Lwanga sent his greetings and gratitude for the OCA 2016 Desk Calendars and the Annual Reports of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, given to me by SVOTS Chancellor/CEO, the Very Reverend Dr. Chad Hatfield, to share with Uganda’s clergy.

From the time I landed in Uganda on Christmas Eve until I returned to New York on the eve of Blizzard Jonas, my trip was blessed in every way. Before traveling to my home in Gulu, Northern Uganda, I paid a visit to Metropolitan Bishop Jonah Lwanga, greeting him using my newly learnt Greek vocabulary, for which he rejoiced. Then when I reached my home that evening, about 20 children from the neighborhood came around and warmly welcomed me, and our houseful of children all received sweets from America brought with me from Fr. Alexander Rentel!

The following day was Christmas, so I went to pray in the parish of St. Nectarios Orthodox Church, where I took one loaf of Artos, which had been bought by my seminary friend, Dimitrios, so that the faithful in Uganda could taste it for the first time! Everyone in the church said the taste of the bread was “the best of the best.”

I dedicated that week to teaching the choir to sing the liturgical songs with western notation, given to me by St. Vladimir’s chapel choir director, Hierodeacon Herman. With the full text in hand for the Feast of St. Basil the Great, we were able to follow the whole service, and my parish priest Fr. George Lakony was so pleased.  Additionally, I had supplied Rev. Fr. George with the names of all the people I knew from St. Vladimir’s community, and he prayed for each one as he was blessing the Artos on the feast.

Many people from surrounding villages also came to visit me, and they all wanted to hear about the America: What does it look like?  How do the churches worship? Children from the neighborhood continued to come so that I could teach them and draw pictures with them. I thought about what St. George said, that we must “teach them when they are young.”

Currently, the priests in Uganda are struggling with the challenges in extending God’s Word in their parishes. Regrettably, the financial crisis in Greece has caused the Church in Uganda to lose necessary support from the Orthodox Church in that country. Therefore, it was all the more important that I was able to share a lot of knowledge I had acquired in my seminary classes.

I also described for them the hospitality and the love shown to our Ugandan people, within churches on the other side of the world!. For example, Deacon Evan Freeman, lecturer in Liturgical Art at St. Vladimir’s, had sent along with me, the layout of an Orthodox Church's interior, which I was able to share. This reminded the faithful of Uganda that they are loved and appreciated by fellow Orthodox Christians living in America and other Christian parts of the world.

I visited all the surrounding churches during my three-week visit: reading, serving, preaching and teaching in congregations, explaining to them a deeper understanding of church unity, and sharing the love of Christ for all humanity. To my surprise, my speaking had improved due to my time at the Seminary, which confirmed for me the value of my challenging first-semester classes!

For example, in Church History class at the Seminary, I had learned that priests must be active, both to initiate and also to keep alive churches, by correcting the heresies that may exist—exactly as the early church fathers had done. In Spirituality class, I had realized that theology can enable us to examine the thoughts of people in today’s world, and encourage them to share experiences, with the possibility of transferring people’s materially or politically based visions into spiritual understanding. In Liturgical Arts class I had learned that at all times and everywhere, knowledge of correct liturgical practice is a must. In Prison Ministry class, I had learned how ministry is like getting into a boat for an adventure, and that truly there are both beautifully light and also woefully dark sides in humanity. In Old Testament class, I had learned how everything we do is impressed upon our hearts, and that God works differently with each human being, according to His wisdom—there is, moreover a “devouring fire” in God, a purifying, burning love in which the righteous dwell (Is 33: 14, 15; I Jn 4:16). In New Testament class, I had learned a lot from St. Paul’s teaching, especially about how Jesus’ disciples were sent to teach all nations of the world.

Before my return to New York, I again went and received a blessing from my Metropolitan. Then, upon boarding my plane, I was seated next to a four-year-old boy named Charles. He was travelling to the United States for an operation, and was alone except for the care of the plane’s crew. When they told me about him I knew God made me to be Charles's healing presence there and so I said I would take care of him, as I remembered the verse of the Gospel of Mark 12:31: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I looked after him on the flight: feeding him, giving him water to drink, covering him with blanket, and comforting him. It was so good that I happened to speak his dialect—I knew he’d miss that familiar comfort when he cried as I was getting out to change flights in Brussels.

The day I returned to New York, I was welcomed by my first snowfall: Blizzard Jonas!

Thank God for my safe trip! May St. Vladimir’s Seminary continue to be a life-changing place for me, with the help of all the professors, teachers, friends and community members! As it touches my life, it also touches the lives of hundreds a people, thousands of miles away, in my home country.

Love in Christ,

Simon Menya is a first year Master of Divinity student from St. Basil Orthodox Church in Gulu, Northern Uganda. His brothers were killed by the rebel group Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) during Ugandan civil strife; Simon, his older brother, and his elderly parents survived. He is the first person from the nine churches in Northern Uganda to study abroad, which he says is his challenge and opportunity.

Before beginning as a seminarian in August of 2015, Simon served as Headmaster of the Archangel Michael Orthodox Secondary School. Funded by the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) in 2010 for its first three years, the school grew from 105 to 558 students, attracting children from across the country in South Sudan. It is the only Orthodox church school in the northern region of 30 districts. Simon's hope is to do more ecclesiastical work after he completes his studies, and ordination could be in his future "if it is God's will. I hope to restore the lost faith and hopes of the people due to the 24 years of war, and to encourage self supportive life skills in them through our churches," he says.