by Alexa Janda, St George Orthodox Church in Houston, TX
My decision to serve with the OCF Real Break mission trip to Constantinople was one of the best decisions of my life. Initially, my spring break plan was to spend a week in Alaska with my parents. However, my plan changed last Christmas break when I found out my two good friends Mary Catherine Huneycutt and Mary Dahdouh were going on the OCF trip. I shared the Real Break information with my parents who instantly recognized what an amazing opportunity this trip would be for me. I registered for OCF Real Break not realizing that this mission trip would be a life changing experience.
This OCF Real Break trip to Constantinople is unlike any other Real Break trip as Constantinople is a city steeped in Orthodox history. Tragically, Christ’s beautiful and significant faith is being rooted out from Turkey. Today, about 1% of the population maintains to be Orthodox. Our trip had three primary objectives: to serve the Church of Constantinople, to experience Constantinople’s extensive Orthodox history, and to meet His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
The first objective of this and every OCF Real Break mission trip is service in the form of manual labor. However, unlike the other mission trips, we did not work to clean and refresh an orphanage, monastery, or church. Instead, as requested by the Patriarch, our 22-member team spent our time restoring an unkempt and vandalized Orthodox cemetery. To me, this seemed a little odd at first. Why weren’t we disposing ourselves to the living rather than to the dead? I quickly began to realize the importance or the assignment, or rather, I thought I did. I figured that by restoring the graves, we offer respect, remembrance, and reverence to those brothers and sisters who have gone before us (and who have limited or no family left in Turkey to keep their graves). Our efforts would also encourage hopefulness that one day Christianity will be restored in Turkey. Although these reasons are true, I didn’t realize what the greatest benefit would be until we actually began working. Each passing day would give me more of an understanding into the Patriarch’s unusual request.
One of the students in our group eloquently addressed our mission when she wrote on paper what each of us wrote on our heart:
“The work is humbling because we’re not here to receive praise or rewards. We are here to care for the bodies of our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep and to commemorate them as they await the Resurrection. Graves are physical, tangible reminders to the living that life is fleeting and one day we will all rest in the ground. As Orthodox Christians, we also value human bodies as icons of Christ, sanctified by the very act of the Incarnation, and strive to care for them even after the soul has departed. Caring for the dead concretely demonstrates our theology and eschatology to the rest of the world and is the least we can do for the small Orthodox presence in Constantinople. Finally, our work is an excellent analogy to preparation for Lent. Just as we are using rakes, rags, and shovels to uncover these broken stones in order to piece together the graves, our Lenten journey is also a tool designed to help us uncover our broken hearts in order to piece ourselves back together by the grace of God. This is a never-ending journey of physical and spiritual restoration which will not cease until we, too, are laid in the ground awaiting the Resurrection.” - Alison Sailer Bennett (OCF Real Break participant)
As our focus changed from worker to tourist, we visited the Church of the Panagia (Mother of God) Vlacherna, the Chora museum, the Orthodox seminary on Halki Island (which has been closed by the government for over 40 years), the Church of St Mary of the Spring, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, and both the Spice and Grand Bazaars. Each and every one of these sites was so very different and so very captivating. Each spoke to us of its history. But as you can imagine, of particularly great import was our visit to the Hagia Sophia. The architecture of this once active Orthodox Church turned mosque turned museum was amazingly exquisite. Most of the gorgeous mosaics were, and still are, covered in plaster. Unfortunately, the overall condition of the Church is both disheartening and politically eye opening.
I must confess that the absolute pinnacle of the entire trip for me was our audience with His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar, the headquarters of the Patriarchate. Knowing that I was blessed to stand beside His All-Holiness, a truly God-fearing, humble and influential man, still blows my mind. The fact that he made the time to meet with us and thank US for giving our vacation time to help him minister to his flock is beyond words. He told us that we are a witness to the remaining Christians in Turkey that they are not alone. That Orthodoxy IS alive. The Patriarch instructed us to be the “leaven to the bread” of our world, to rise above the earth’s sinful nature. My initial nervousness calmed into a feeling of welcome and love as this amazing man spoke. His All-Holiness is a true inspiration.
This trip offered so many wonders packed into a mere five days. The work, the friendship, the spirituality, and yes, many, many laughs combined to make this trip one of, if not the highlight of my life. We laughed as our bus driver spoke Turkish to the church grounds keeper who would translate Turkish to Arabic for someone to translate Arabic to Greek and then to someone who would bring the comment home to our English. (We did wonder just how closely what we heard in English matched the original Turkish.) We prayed daily. We worked ‘til we ached. We marveled at how a group of 22 strangers from all over the United States could bond so closely to each other in such a short period of time. We cried at the restored cemetery when we prayed the Trisagion before our final exit for we knew that our group had become a family and our prayers were sincerely offered for our beloved brothers and sisters resting here until the Resurrection. But mostly, we thank those Orthodox who have gone before us and those courageous ones currently struggling for preserving our Faith in a non-Christian land.
In the end, I learned that it was not I who had served those who lay at rest, but they who had served me. Without uttering a word, they gave me new insight into our Faith. They helped me understand as a young adult what I had been taught as a child. Now, I grasp that their lives and those of all Orthodox live on in the Faith. I am beginning to “get” the Divine Liturgy. My ears are open and I hear the Liturgy as I’ve never heard it before. No longer are the Litanies just tedious words followed by a “Lord Have Mercy.” These short and fervent prayers are meaningful, necessary and timeless. Through death, I have discovered life, my life in Christ and His Holy Orthodox Church.
So did I serve on OCF Real Break? No, not at all. I was blessed by it.
Alexa Janda is a sophomore college student at the University of Texas-Austin currently studying Nutrition. She has been a life-long member of St. George Orthodox Church in Houston, TX.