Yolka! A Christmas Tradition

24 Dec

photo 5Many members of Holy Ghost parish are of Rus’ ethnic background, and they bring to our parish community Rusyn (Russian, Slavic, Ukrainian) customs and traditions that accompany church feast days. One of these—and one that can be the most fun to attend—is “Yolka,” or the Christmas play that typically falls near the feast of St. Nicholas.

“Yolka” means “fir tree,” and although a decorative tree generally adorns thephoto 1 stage area for the event, the play itself may consist of any combination of spiritual songs and carols, dramatized Biblical scenes, theatrical presentations, and poetry recitations appropriate to the season. As a longtime pastor, I have been involved in dozens of “Yolka,” and each year I witness the struggle (and sometimes angst!) that church school teachers and their students experience as they try to bring fresh ideas to the event.

photo 3That’s why I want to especially congratulate our church school teachers, Debbie Rappaport and Carol Kaputa, with their assistants, Melanie and Larissa Rappaport, and all the students who performed “Yolka” this year at Holy Ghost Church. Their pure joy in song and recitation made it a pure joy for us to watch. (And, thanks to Patrick Quill for taking the photos and sharing the video.)

Click here to re-live the fun of “Yolka”!

32 Teens Said “YES”!

16 Dec
Youth with YES!

Youth with YES!

With boundless enthusiasm and energy, high school and college students spread good will and cheer in the greater Bridgeport, CT area the weekend of December 13–16, 2013, as they participated in the YES Program of FOCUS North America (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve). During that weekend, 32 young Orthodox Christians gave up their smart phones for fellowship with each other, and exchanged social networking for social action—with unbridled joy.

YES (Youth Equipped to Serve), based in Pittsburgh, PA, provides opportunities for junior high, high school, and college students to engage in social action. The program is also designed to raise self-awareness through simulated and real encounters that create a deliberate tension between egoism and sacrifice, promoting conscious reflection about what it means to see the image of Christ in each person and to do God’s work. (View a video from the YES website.)

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Katrina Bitar (center), director of YES, at Holy Ghost Church, Bridgeport, CT, with (from left) Peter Hristov, parish president; and YES leaders Michael Mayer from Orange County, CA, Jordan Kurzum from Pittsburgh, PA, Theo Smith from Boston, MA, Dylan Fahoome from Detroit, MI, Nicole Maalouf from Boston, MA, and leader not pictured Danielle Batarseh from Little Falls, NJ, and Archpriest Steven Belonick, pastor.

During their weekend in Bridgeport, YES participants took a non-conventional prayer tour of the city, and then on Saturday, quickly shifted their plans from visiting a local homeless shelter (which closed due to a New England snowstorm) to passing out small treats and holiday greetings to shoppers at the local mall.  They also surprised shoppers by paying for their coffee or lunch!

“It was actually more uncomfortable sharing kindness with the middle class and rich than with the poor!” acknowledged one participant. “Our efforts toward the poor this weekend were never rejected, but oftentimes people who were better off economically mistrusted or even snubbed us—and this was a valuable exercise in ministry, because we experienced, in a small way, the societal rejection that Jesus must have often felt.”

“The fruit of engaging our groups in service to their community is that they begin to know as friends, the people that they once perceived to be strangers,” said Katrina Bitar, director of the YES Program, and one of the supervisors accompanying the group to Bridgeport. “Students that experience a YES trip often become aware of who the Lord has created them to be—a valuable part of His workmanship—as they enter into a life of selfless love.”

The YES group was hosted by our parish, but housed at St. George Orthodox Church, Trumbull, where Archpriest Dennis Rhodes is rector. The parishes are in the New England Diocese and Albanian Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), respectively. The group sang vespers at St. George Church on Saturday, and participated in Divine Liturgy at Holy Ghost Church on Sunday—as well as giving an impromptu and inspired sacred music concert in the church coffee hour!

View a video (taken by LoveAnn  Curran) of YES participants singing a hymn of praise to the VIrgin Mary:

Any time Orthodox teens can come together to pray with each other, support each other in their faith, create friendships, and reach out to those in need, it is a very good thing. We were blessed to host the YES Program over the weekend and we look for another opportunity to invite them back. They made a lasting impression on our parish members.

Listen to YES  participants sing “Silent Night.”

Thanksgiving and Giving Thanks

10 Dec

photo 2Every November folks across the U.S. preoccupy themselves with planning the Thanksgiving holiday: who to invite, where to gather, and how to cook the turkey. This wonderful annual celebration brings us together not only to enjoy family, friends, and food but also to give thanks to God for the abundance in our lives.

Another striking effect of Thanksgiving Day is its ability to inspire us to give to those less fortunate, to those in need. Many communities and churches around the country sponsor special free turkey-and-all-the-fixin’s dinners for the homeless, or give away baskets of traditional holiday foods to poor families.

photo 4This generous spirit just seems to pour from us Americans, when we contemplate our relative wealth to the rest of the global population. In fact, I just read an article stating that the United States has reclaimed its place as the world’s most generous nation, according to the World Giving Index 2013, an annual global survey conducted by the Charities Aid Foundation. Based on 2012 Gallup survey data from 135 countries, the index looked at three measures of giving—the percentage of people who gave money, volunteered their time, and/or helped a stranger in need in a typical month—and found that the U.S. topped the list. How blessed we are to live in this land, where kindness and caring are part of our way of life!

We are doubly blessed at Holy Ghost Church, it seems to me. First, we have an ongoing photo 3monthly food ministry to the homeless crowd that gathers every Sunday on John Street. Second, we also have our “Myrrhbearing Women” who steadfastly remember the members of our own parish who are no longer able to attend church services because of age, illness, or disabilities. It gave me great joy to see them prepare special baskets during the Thanksgiving Holiday season, and distribute them with the help of some “Myrrhbearing Men” in our parish!

Thanks to all of you who continue to support these two ministries with your cash donations. Thanks for being part of making us “the world’s most generous nation” and a truly giving parish.

Pastor’s Corner October 2013

31 Oct

IMG_1551Our parish is enjoying the afterglow of hosting the New England Diocesan Assembly for two days, October 25th–26th, on our church campus. Fellow Orthodox Christians representing parishes from Vermont to Connecticut gathered for their annual meeting. They enjoyed worship culminating in the reception of Holy Communion together,  and warm fellowship encouraged by the incredible “comfort food” at meals prepared by our parish cooks.IMG_1594

We all were overjoyed to greet our fathers in Christ, His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of our Orthodox Church in America, and His Eminence Archbishop Nikon, bishop of Boston, New England, and the Albanian Archdiocese.

IMG_1859We also all were excited to re-charge our missionary spirit listening to a presentation by visiting priest Fr. John Parker III, chair of the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Evangelization and evangelist extraordinaire (While on a quick walking tour of the neighborhood, and en Español, he invited the clerk at our local bakery Pan de Cielo and a passerby named Pedro to Sunday service. Click to listen to his presentation: Bringing People to Faith).

It was great to host such a successful assembly but it was even greater to prepare for the assembly. As a pastor, I observed how much our preparation for and execution of this huge event helped us grow as a parish. Let me count the ways.

One: we built up our organizational skills. Everyone learned how important it was toIMG_1644 stick to the master plan and to follow the lead by our incredible Co-chairs Darlene and Debbie—all of which made the event run smoothly.

Two: we learned to depend on each other. Deep cleaning our parish hall required an assembly line; we dusted, swept, sponged, polished, and dried that room top to bottom until it gleamed. Some of us worked low to the ground, and some of us worked high up on ladders, but in cleaning that immense space, we realized we needed everyone, at every level.

IMG_1517Three: we learned that we collectively possess a great deal of talent. This assembly required executive assistants to plot a day-by-day and hour-by-hour plan on  Xcel sheets; techies to install wi-fi and manage sound equipment; a designer-printer to make name tags for each delegate and signage for the parking lot and church building;  an extraordinary kitchen crew to whip up everything IMG_1606from mushroom soup to gourmet mac-n-cheese to gluten-free muffins; a photographer to archive the event; seasoned altar servers for worship IMG_1537services; a translator to render from Russian to English the 1935 minutes of the first assembly of Orthodox clergy of New England, which then graced our historic display; singers who added their voices to the Diocesan Choir; greeters with ever-ready smiles and warm handshakes; and able bodies to break down and set up tables and chairs, 2 or 3 times!

Four: we learned that we collectively have a great deal of potential.  Our visitors continually expressed wonder at our  spacious church, hall, and property, and historical items, such as our six Russian bells and icons donated by Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra (Romanov), as well as our warm hospitality. Their remarks caused me to reflect on all we possess in material and spiritual assets, and all we can accomplish when we use them.IMG_1669

So…well done, good and faithful parishioners. You made me proud as a pastor, but even more, you made me remember the worth of good and honest work, especially when we work together, as Psalm 128 says: “You will enjoy the fruit of your labor. How joyful and prosperous you will be!” (v. 2).

Listen to Fr. John Parker’s special presentation on how to evangelize your neighborhood…and the world:  Bringing People to Faith

Photos on this page by Richard Kendall; view a full gallery of Rich’s photos here

View more photos of the Assembly by John Barone on the website of the Diocese of  New England, here

Pastor’s Corner September 2013

10 Sep

Happy New Year!

You’re probably wondering why I’m greeting you with an expression usually reserved for midnight on January 1st.photo 2

I’m doing so because the Church’s New Year, the “ecclesiastical New Year,” begins on September 1st.  Why? A few reasons.

0803131605aIn ancient Rome, the New Year was marked by a tax assessment by the Emperor, called an “Indication,” which occurred annually on the first day of September. In nature, the completion of each year takes place at summer’s end, with the harvest and gathering of the crops into storehouses, and we begin sowing of seed in the earth anew for the production of future crops in early fall. The Church also keeps festival on September 1st, beseeching God for fair weather, seasonable rains, and an abundance of the fruits of the earth.

In our parish, we have ended the summer liturgical feasts of Transfiguration and the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, and we have already celebrated the first major liturgical feast of the New Year, the Birth of the Theotokos. We will begin our church school program soon, and our theme this year will be “The Lord’s Parables.” We’re also beginning choir rehearsals, welcoming new members, and learning some new music.  My sermons for the next few weeks will comprise a series that will help us better understand our Sunday service, the Divine Liturgy.

photo 3Additionally, we’ll be involved in two projects totally new to our parish.  In October, we’ll be submitting a grant proposal to The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation that will enable us to assess the condition of our building from top to bottom.  A grant award from The Connecticut Trust for this assessment would then allow us to submit applications for major projects in the future,  perhaps major renovations that will help us better serve the wider community (Think: new industrial kitchen!).  In December, we’re going to welcome YES (Youth Equipped to Serve) to our parish,  a ministry of FOCUS North America that is designed to provide local parishes and youth workers with the resources necessary to involve junior and choirehearsal2013senior high students in local community service and short-term missions projects.

It’s going to be quite a year. We ask God’s guidance during it, and His blessings upon it.

Pastor’s Corner July 2013

21 Jul
Annual Parish Picnic at Holy Ghost Park July 21, 2013

Annual Parish Picnic at Holy Ghost Park July 21, 2013

NOTE: If you want to rent Holy Ghost Park for your picnic, click here.

Today we hosted our Annual Parish Picnic at Holy Ghost Park, 70 Nells Rock Road, Shelton, CT. The church has owned these 26 acres for decades now, and the park has provided the venue not only for our annual picnic, but also for several events hosted by other groups that have opted to rent the park grounds.

We held Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m. in the open air pavilion, enveloped by the beauty of the surrounding woods. Besides us human beings, God’s other creatures observed the celebration: especially en force were the butterflies with their painted wings in vibrant orange, blue, and black tones. Their presence reminded me of transformation, renewal, rebirth—all essential marks of our Christian faith.

0721131520aAfter receiving the Eucharist and concluding the service, we were treated by our parish cooks to some of the best 0721131419ahomemade food in Fairfield County, including a melange of Rus’ and American fare: pierohi and stuffed cabbage, and  liver and onion sandwiches and clam chowder, followed by at least 10 choices for dessert. As people talked and ate, and played cards and ate, and danced to the DJ’s music and ate, I noted how unusual such a gathering is in our day and age. It seems almost no one anymore takes time simply to be with friends and neighbors on a summer afternoon, to get to know something about each other until now unrecognized. (Who would have thought my Macedonian church president Peter Hristov knew the words to the bygone song sung by Doris Day,  “Que Sera, Sera, Whatever Will Be, Will Be”?” Yet, he sang it so heartily as it was played by the visiting DJ!)

Thanks to our parish community for working so hard to provide us with a picnic in an amazing space!

View a gallery of photos of our Annual Parish Picnic 2013!

NOTE: If you want to rent Holy Ghost Park for your picnic, click here.

Pastor’s Corner July 2013

6 Jul

Screen Shot 2013-07-06 at 4.30.46 PM

Download a flier to share: parish picnic 2013-1

July is a month for picnics, and we cordially invite you and your friends and family to our Annual Parish Picnic on Sunday, July 21, 2013, at Holy Ghost Park, 70 Nells Rock Road in Shelton, CT. Divine Liturgy will be served in the pavilion beginning at 10 a.m., and the picnic—with plenty of great food and fellowship—will follow.

Please join us! Part of being a Christian family is meeting together for wonderful conversations and sharing our joy in the Lord Jesus.

In Him, Fr. Steven J. Belonick

Do you want to have your own picnic at Holy Ghost Park?

Holy Ghost Church has a picnic facility, Holy Ghost Park, located  in Shelton, Connecticut.  We have a covered pavilion (85 x 40 ft.) and an enclosed kitchen (40 x 15 ft.) containing stoves, cast iron grills, refrigeration units, freezers, and serving counters.  There are 26 picnic/bench tables and 5 round (4 ft.) tables and 24 matching chairs.  Available are outdoor volleyball, basketball, and horseshoe courts.  We can accommodate all sizes of picnics up to 400 people, with ample parking.

Holy Ghost Park is available for rentals from May through October.  If interested, please call George Kasper at 203.632.5326 for specific information or email him at hgpark@aol.com .

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