Fr. Theodore, an African priest, gathered my siblings and me around him to tell us stories about life in his homeland of Uganda. I was only 6 years old, but I remember his visit in our home. Several years later, Mama Stavritsa, a missionary to Kenya, told us about miracles that she had witnessed in her work in Africa, miracles that sounded as if they were coming straight out of the Bible. Every year, various African students who were studying at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology would visit our home and join our family for the holidays. Although I never traveled outside the United States until I was 21 years old, I thank God that my parents brought the world into our home.
Each year, our Annunciation Church would take part in Church World Service’s CROP Hunger Walks. Since my father has been the organizer of this event in, PA for the past 40 years, I began “walking for the hungry” at the age of five. The first year we walked (or in reality, someone carried me) 10 miles. The next year we walked 15 miles. For several years, we actually walked 20 miles during this special Sunday in October. In preparation for this event, we would get sponsors and collect money for the hungry. From a young age I learned about the world around us, and how some people had to walk miles to get food or clean water each day. “We walk, because they walk” was the slogan. I still remember the bowl of mush we ate at the end of that tiring day – a meal so common for a poor villager.
In Church, we celebrated an annual Mission Sunday. We tried to fill our mission boxes during Lent. One year we sent up hundreds of helium balloons with the message, “Go and Make Disciples of All Nations”. We wanted to remind people of our Lord’s Great Commission. That year, someone from 150 miles away had received one of our balloons and contacted our Church to let us know it had traveled so far.
These are only a few memories I have of growing up in a family and in a Church community that promoted the spirit of missions. Is it a coincidence, or a consequence, that years later as a college student, I would go on the first summer Orthodox Mission Team in 1987? Did the seeds of faith and missions planted during my formative years help me hear the calling to follow our Lord to Albania as a long-term Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) missionary? (See Resource 1)
God loves the world over, and longs for all people everywhere to know Him! If we believe this, we know He is calling some to “Go forth” and become His witnesses throughout our global village. Yet, Jesus words seem too true - “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” God calls, but few listen. Maybe one reason why few listen is because they have not been attuned to His voice and will from a young age.
Every serious Christian parent would agree that we need to instill in our children, from an early age, an understanding of and love for God. Through daily family prayers, regular Church participation, frequent Bible stories and a reading time, and by talking about and relating God to our everyday lives, our children will learn about the Lord and come to love Him. Yet are we instilling in our children a similar love for the world around them? Love for God implies loving the “other.” How can we help our children cultivate compassion for all God’s children throughout the world? How can we instill a mission spirit in our family?
Exposure to Christ’s children and servants around the world can be a first step. Have you ever thought of hosting an OCMC missionary in your Church and even in your home? Maybe your children could even begin a correspondence with a “Missionary Kid” before they visit your home. Although our own children grew up in the mission field, their main missionary connection today comes through other missionary children. Correspondence, emails and visits keep their relationship alive with the world around them.
Other exposure can come by inviting an international mission student to your home for the holidays. We have numerous students from different countries studying at our seminaries who have no where to go during Thanksgiving or Christmas break. Invite one to your Church and Sunday School, and have them stay in your home. Their visit may create memories that will stay with your children forever!
What about your Church’s annual Mission Sunday? (If your Church doesn’t celebrate this, maybe your family can spearhead the effort.) In our Church, one way we celebrate Mission Sunday is by having a “Luncheon from Around the World.” We ask our Sunday School students and families to make a meal from different countries of the world. Last year we had food from 14 countries! Each family makes a poster with pictures and facts from the country they represent. Children can have a great time researching about a country, discovering what God is doing in that country, collecting pictures and putting together a beautiful poster, and then tasting foods from around the world.
As our children get older, one of the most special ways to set their hearts on fire is for them to actually participate in a mission project. As a family, begin by doing something locally – serving in a soup kitchen, visiting a nursing home, or collecting clothing for the homeless shelter. A unique event, though, can be preparing for a cross-cultural mission experience. Thousands of Orthodox junior high and high school kids have experienced missions through Project Mexico, the pan-Orthodox organization that builds homes for the poor in Tijuana. (See Resource 2)
Last year, our Sts. Constantine and Helen Church sent three people to Project Mexico. This year, we have 15 parishioners ready to go. And most of those going are families – a father and son, a mother and her two sons, even an entire family of five! What an unforgettable experience for a family to travel to another part of the world and to share God’s love. And Project Mexico can simply be a first step that leads our children to participate in Orthodox Christian Fellowship’s (OCF) Real Break mission trips (visit www.ocf.net for more information) and OCMC’s various mission teams.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to raise our children with a love and an awareness of God and His children around the world. A song I still remember from my childhood years summarizes this spirit: Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world – black and yellow, red and white, they are precious in His sight - Jesus loves the little children of the world. May we consciously instill this love for the world into the hearts of our children.
Fr. Luke and his wife Faith served as OCMC missionaries for more than 10 years in Albania, with three of their four children being raised in the mission field. He is the author/editor of two missionary books, “Lynette’s Hope” and “Missionaries, Monks and Martyrs: Making Disciples of All Nations.” Presently, Fr. Luke pastors Sts. Constantine and Helen Church in Webster, MA and is an Adjunct Instructor at Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.