IOCC Executive Director Gives Commencement Address at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary

Khristos Voskrese! Christ is Risen! Xristos Anesti!

Your Beatitude Metropolitan HERMAN, (Your Beatitude Metropolitan THEODOSIOUS, Your Graces), Reverend Clergy, distinguished faculty and trustees, friends, family, and honored graduates of St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

Life in Africa is never dull. Just when you think you have done it all, the sun rises and another day begins, with new challenges and new adventures. Let me tell you about Saturday, April 1, 1989.

I had moved to Kenya at the beginning of the year as a volunteer construction manager under what was then the Greek Orthodox Mission Center and was responsible to Archbishop ANASTASIOS. My partner, Father Athanasios Karanja and I had been in western Kenya working on our projects for three solid weeks. It was time to go back to Nairobi for a few days of rest, mail, and additional money for the construction projects.
We decided to leave early in the morning – just in case – because, on the way out to the projects, the routine six hour drive had turned into 26 hours, with us sleeping in the truck after we lost our lights.

The night before we left, the truck would not start. We push started it. The next morning, we had the same problem. At the petrol station, they told us, "Hakuna Matata - Don't worry. It will charge as you drive."

Two hours into the journey, we started losing electric power. Then we had a blowout and had to change the tire with the engine running. The next major town was still an hour away. When we finally made it to Nakuru, we bought a battery and a tire. With new life, we set out for our next stop: Father Athanasios' shamba (farm) in the Rift Valley. Turning off the main roads and fighting the dirt road for the next hour, we finally reached his shamba. I dropped him off and departed for my final two and one half hours to Nairobi.

Not many vehicles make it to this particular area, so when a man asked for a lift, it was not a surprise. But his cargo was! His wife was pregnant and threatening to miscarry. She had to get to a hospital back in Nakuru. I was going the other way. If I took her, it meant at least three hours more on top of what I had left. That meant driving at night, which is quite an experience in Kenya.

We agreed that they would come along in my direction and get out wherever they saw fit. Once we picked up the wife, I had second thoughts. She looked close to death. Back on the road, another man waved me down. His daughter was burned by lamp oil and he wanted to come along. They all got in. (By the way, communication took place with my very limited Swahili vocabulary.)

Big decision time! The fork in the road was just ahead. I pulled up and stopped. Right? or Left? Right would lead me home and to safety in my room at the seminary. Left would take me back to Nakuru and who knows what else.

I thought.
I prayed.
I turned left.

Sure enough, halfway to Nakuru, the rains came. Mud was flying everywhere. The truck was sliding all over the road. It seemed like an eternity before my wet cargo safely reached the hospital. Once they were gone, I turned again for Nairobi.

After another hour of rain, the sky opened up. Driving at the top of the mountain, I could see all the different colors down in the Rift Valley: the blue skies, tan-colored grass with dark brown and green spots of trees, and a distant pink glow from Lake Nakuru and the thousands of pelicans that lived there. Darkness was all behind me.

I was so excited. I felt so much power inside. I could feel the hand of God pushing my old truck along the way. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks. This was why I had come to Africa. But the day was growing short.

Not much later, I was surrounded by a magnificent Kenyan sunset; but after the beautiful sunset came darkness. I turned on the lights, and once again they barely worked. I was so close, and yet so far. I inched my way into the city in almost complete darkness.

In order to choose what path we take in life, we must faithfully study and open our eyes and minds to new ideas and concepts. We must learn from those around us and from those who came before us. How many are the times that I thanked God for inspiring me to turn left with my passengers in that old truck.

Standing before you in the John G. Rangos Building, I see His Beatitude Metropolitan HERMAN, Dean Erickson, trustees and faculty of St. Vladimir’s, board members of IOCC, my family, and you, the dedicated graduates of 2005.

Standing before you, I think of Your Beatitude Metropolitan THEODOSIOUS, Father Alexander Schmemann, Father John Meyendorff, Father Thomas Hopko, and His Holiness Patriarch Abune PAULOS of Ethiopia, who graduated from St. Vladimir’s in 1962.

As part of a joint HIV/AIDS awareness campaign with IOCC, His Holiness Abune PAULOS best describes the first of the four elements we need in our hearts as we choose the direction of our lives: LOVE. In the words of Patriarch PAULOS:

We must love God. Loving God is more than just saying we love God. It is loving all human beings that God loves. He loves all human beings without discrimination and that is why we came into this world. Loving people is loving God. Respecting and serving people is loving God.

Last month, I went to Ethiopia. It took such a long time to get there, and then we got into jeeps and started driving on cement roads that turn to stone … that turn to dirt … that even turn into a dried up river bed. We spent an amazing day visiting 800-year-old churches that had been carved out of the rocks, and agriculture projects sponsored by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Just when we were feeling that we couldn’t stand the bumping and grinding on the road another minute, we entered a village and heard faint voices in the distance. We looked up and saw swarms of children grinning from ear to ear – clapping their hands – singing songs for our arrival. We felt their excitement as the children swarmed to greet us … to shake our hands … to touch the hair on our arms … to run off and tell their friends they had met a foreigner.

At one site, while talking to some of these little kids in English and using the few Amharic words that I know, I suddenly realized how poor these people are. You’ve seen their faces again and again on the nightly news: little kids with runny noses, barefoot and dusty, flies perched on their ears, arms and bare chests, as though glued there; and yet, their faces shone with smiles so bright.

I thought about the amazing experiences we just had, and I remember thinking to myself:

Who am I to think that I am can come in here and help these people – these children?
For what do they need me?
What can I do to make them any happier than they are?
Are our lives really better than theirs?

Then I saw where they live and learned how far they have to walk to school.
I saw the food they eat and their dirty water supply.
I saw the piles of dried manure stored for heating and cooking fuel.
I saw their fathers and brothers pulling the plow with the oxen.

The next day, I met a grandmother who is taking care of her four HIV-orphaned grandchildren alone with small assistance from the Church and IOCC. And what did she do? Did she ask for more assistance? (Pause) No. She thanked us for what we do and boasted how proud she is of her grandson who is doing so well in school.

I realized at that moment that, no matter what I have done in IOCC over the past 12 years, which I thought was a lot, that I have only just started my journey. As I strive to be a faithful Christian and member of society, I must continue to do good works.

Our challenge before God – yours and mine – is to continue to fight against hunger and despair, racism and inequality.

When I think of my experiences in underdeveloped countries, I am reminded of the book, I AM THIRD, that my father gave me when I was a child. The autobiography of Gale Sayers, a professional football player for the Chicago Bears, is an inspiring story of how he recovered from a near career-ending knee injury to become one of the best running backs in history. Simply put, Mr. Sayers lived his life by the motto: The Lord is first; friends are second; and I am third!

Therefore, I propose that the second element we need in life is HUMILITY and a recognition that others come first.

Loving people is loving God! Growing up, my parents allowed me to make decisions on my own, guided me during the process, and supported me no matter what. Again and again, I had to choose Right – or Left.

I went to work for IOCC in 1993 to respond to the war in Bosnia. Selfishly, I was excited about moving overseas, living on the edge, and working for people through the Orthodox Church. It was not long after arriving in Belgrade that I knew I had actually found my life’s calling. However, for my family and friends, watching the news was painful and often frightening, as they never really knew where I was and if I was safe.

There were many times when I was afraid as well. I can remember more than one occasion when I was so afraid that I felt paralyzed. I would be sitting in the car or 18-wheeler at checkpoints surrounded by soldiers, with bombs and gunfire exploding in the background; or crossing front lines in a jeep, eating the dust of UN protective forces armored personnel carriers, thinking to myself: What am I doing here? I should be home with my family. I would be so scared that everything around me seemed to move in slow motion, and I thought my heart would surely burst from my chest.

It would be at those moments that I would hear my father’s calming voice (after first telling me the sports scores and a joke) quoting Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

It would be at those moments that I would hear His Holiness Patriarch PAVLE of the Serbian Orthodox Church tell me to “follow your heart and God will give you the answer.”

It would be at those moments that I would think of why I was there and what I was supposed to be doing. IOCC is a manifestation of all Orthodox Christians under the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America. I knew I was not alone.

It would be at those moments, when I would be on the verge of tears—if not already crying—and ready to give up, that I would see in my mind’s eye the picture that had appeared on the cover of the March 26, 1965, issue of Life Magazine of His Eminence Archbishop IAKOVOS on the steps of the church in Selma, Alabama, alongside Martin Luther King, as the Reverend Dr. King fought against racism and inequality.

It would be at those times, with all this happening in about three seconds or less, that I would stand up and face my challenge, my big decision, or the occasional gun sticking in my nose, armed with LOVE, HUMILITY and the last two elements: COURAGE and FAITH.

Courage and faith go hand in hand, and armed with them, we must never be afraid to choose the more difficult path. His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP of the Antiochian Archdiocese referred to a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes when reflecting on the life of his colleague Archbishop IAKOVOS, who departed this life just a few short weeks ago.

I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving. To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor. (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

Metropolitan PHILIP and the other hierarchs – and many of his devoted followers – admired Archbishop IAKOVOS most for the times he sailed against the wind. He had the courage and the faith to challenge many issues that no one else dared to take on.

Loving people is loving God. Respecting and serving people is loving God.

In his Paschal message this year, His Beatitude Metropolitan HERMAN stated the following:

Before His Ascension, the risen Lord commanded that the good news of His Resurrection be proclaimed to all nations, to those who continued to sit in darkness, to those who still had no hope. Who among us can doubt that the world in which we live, and the society in which we minister, is in desperate need of that new life which shines forth from the empty tomb of Christ?

Metropolitan HERMAN went on to say that “the dignity Christ affords ‘every man who came into the world’ is found and perfected in ‘the life of the world to come’.”

Our mission is to deal with the here and now. Our supreme challenge, as followers of Christ, is to bring light to those in darkness, and hope to those who have none – and to do it now!

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the number of undernourished people in the world in 2002 was 852 million.

According to the United Nations Development Programme: Human Development Report, the number of people in the developing world who live below the poverty level – those who earn less than $1 per day – was 1.2 billion in 2003.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS):

AIDS deaths in 2004 totaled 3.1 million
People newly infected with the HIV virus in 2004: 4.9 million.
Estimated number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world in 2004: 39.4 million

My dear fellow Christians – it is painfully obvious that we have a lot of work to do. In the words of His Eminence Archbishop DEMETRIOS of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese:

The power of Christ does not allow us to sleep and to lose even a moment. He says that we are going to give account for every moment of our life. We cannot accept any waste of time in any inactivity. We have to be engaged in constant activity.

Your Beatitude, faithful leaders of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, thank you for offering me the opportunity to be here today and to share my thoughts with this distinguished Class of 2005.

Graduates, I commend you for having the love, humility, courage and faith to pursue your education and gather more tools for the challenges that lie ahead. We are all proud of you and look forward to witnessing the fruits of your labor.

As you leave these holy grounds, the time has come for you to embark on your own journey through the rest of your life. It is inevitable that your journey will bring you, at times, to a crossroads, and you will have to make a choice. Which way will you turn? Which path will you take? Will you turn Right? or will you turn Left?

The challenge is yours to put your faith in God and to use the talents and resources He has given you to fight against hunger, despair, racism, and inequality in order to make a difference in people’s lives. Loving people is loving God. The challenge is yours to choose Right – or to choose Left.

The challenge is yours. The choice is yours.

Whatever you decide, we stand by you with love and respect.

Loving people is loving God.



Media contact: Rada K. Tierney, IOCC Media Relations, 443-823-3489, rtierney@iocc.org

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IOCC Executive Director Gives Commencement Address at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

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