Written in memory of my mother, Elaine Atalis
Nearly three years ago when I met with Fr. Paul Lundberg and a small group of young adults to form the Connect Conference, I thought I had a grasp on the mission of the conference and the impact it would have on my life. Little did I know how much this conference would test my faith and reignite my love for the Orthodox Church.
I was determined to help launch Connect because my parents were highly involved in a Greek Orthodox young adult ministry called Young Adult League (YAL) in the 1980s. The church was the center of my parents’ childhood. My dad grew up in Wichita Falls, TX, where their small church not only served as a place of worship but also social gatherings for the Greek immigrant community. My mom was the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest in Lansing, MI, so she attended most church services and events, and even invited the whole congregation to her wedding. The annual Archdiocesan YAL conference was a place for people like my parents to explore and grow together in their Orthodox faith, as well as discuss and define the future of the Greek Orthodox Church for young adults everywhere. Participants formed lifelong friendships, some resulting in marriage and others becoming “koumbara” – the Greek term for someone who shares in a sacrament with you, like serving as godparents at a baptism. I grew up attending family-friend functions where many of the adults participated in YAL, so they would often reminisce on the good ol’ days. I was looking forward to my turn attending YAL conferences when I was in my 20s.
When Fr. Paul approached me to help organize a young adult conference I had in my mind “YAL Movement 2.0” and figured it would be a smooth transition because of the past enthusiasm and support. I quickly learned planning an inaugural conference was much harder than I expected. It took the steering committee a while to find a unified vision and structure for the conference. At the meetings, I looked around me and saw young adults weren’t just joining us from the Greek Orthodox church – but also Antiochian and OCA parishes. I grew to love having conversations with Orthodox young adults from all walks of life who appreciated the cultural significances of Orthodoxy, but ultimately focused on our unified doctrine and faith in Christ. There was also the growing success of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship college ministry, supported by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. The culture of young adult ministry from the 1980s to 2010s was becoming more diversified, but the mission of helping one another move forward in our walk toward theosis remained the same. I was excited to help launch the Connect movement.
However, the conference planning experience did test my patience and faith. The time and commitment involved in starting a new organization made people hesitant to help with their busy schedules. With the decision to open the ministry to all Orthodox jurisdictions, we needed to figure out the best way to finance the conference. As we worked to organize the inaugural event, I felt an intense pressure and responsibility to our young adults, and my faith began to falter. We faced roadblock after roadblock, and I questioned if our dream would become reality.
I finally felt hope when John (a fellow Connect committee member) and I booked a venue for the first conference in early February 2017. This conference was GOING to happen! I called my dad to tell him the news and thought he would share my enthusiasm. But something wasn’t quite right.
The following day, he revealed that my mom was in the ICU. She had been battling ovarian cancer for six years, but this blindsided me because she had been doing well on her medications. It turns out the cancer had spread to her intestines and was causing serious digestive problems; in those cases, the prognoses are not good. That was the start of back-and-forth trips to Dallas (where my parents live) as my mom went in and out of the hospital. Every time I left Dallas I had to make my goodbye count, because I didn’t know how much time she had left. Throughout that period, I was also struggling with progressing in my PhD program – I felt as if I hit rock bottom and knew I needed to confront my mental health. I desperately wanted to control my life and wasn’t entrusting it to Christ or putting Him first. Even worse, I was doubting Christ and the Church all together – I feared for my mom as she faced her own mortality head on.
A month before Connect Conference 2017, my mom decided to go into hospice care. I left Atlanta with all intentions of staying in Dallas as long as I could to help her and my family. In reality, I knew this likely meant missing the conference I’d spent the last two years bringing to life.
I had to let go of control.
I asked my fellow committee members to cover my position, which was hard for me to do. Because of my mental and spiritual state, I figured maybe it was best for me to miss the conference. I didn’t have the energy. A couple weeks before the event, Fr. Barnabas Powell invited me to promote Connect on his Ancient Faith Radio (AFR) podcast, Faith Encouraged Live. My mom and dad turned on AFR in the other room and proudly listened to me nervously talking on the radio to Fr. Barnabas. When I got off the phone, I saw my mom beaming - she was so happy to hear about our young adult movement and insisted I attend the conference. I told her I was worried something would happen to her while I was gone, but she wanted me to be brave and trust she’d be there when I returned.
After being hands-off the planning process for a month, I attended the Connect Conference unsure what to expect. The steering committee (with some new faces) gave me big hugs, handed over an awesome swag bag, and directed me to the ballroom filled with people from all over the country. The conference had sold out! In that moment, my faith got a much-needed boost. I met with Connect keynote speakers and workshop leaders who expressed their enthusiasm for being a part of the conference. Another boost. I talked to conference attendees who shared my passion for helping the Church and continually learning and growing in our faith. Another boost.
After meeting new friends and learning of more ways to “Find Christ in My Everyday Life,” I left Atlanta with a newfound love for my Orthodox faith and community. Mom was waiting for me when I arrived in Dallas, excited to hear all about my experience. I will always remember sitting by her side with my dad and sharing everything I learned at the conference. For example, I was going to start reading a chapter of Proverbs for each day of the month as Tim Tassopoulos had advised. Dr. Roxanne and Fr. Nick Louh taught us how to “fight nicely” and “love offensively” to help sustain Christ-centered relationships. Through his poetry, Cameron Lawrence taught us that God is “present in the absence, His energy is in the stillness, His connection is in the silence.” Dr. Despina Prassas taught us St. Maximos’ theories on love and said if we detach from ourselves and earthly things, then we allow ourselves to love God. Fr. Barnabas energetically shared how Orthodox Christians always should ask WHY we believe and do certain things in the Church, so we can live intentionally and explain our faith to younger generations. It was the most engaging conversation about Orthodoxy I’d ever had with my parents.
A week later, my mom fell asleep in the Lord. The support my family received from friends and relatives, including many in the Orthodox community, was indescribable. Several of my mom and dad’s YAL friends called to express their sympathies, and new and old friends from Connect reached out to me. It showed me how vital it is to build healthy relationships with faithful friends who will pray for you in times of need. My godfather shared a story about my mom that will stay with me forever. He met her at a YAL conference in Seattle; they had just taken a boat tour of the city and started to have a conversation about their spiritual journeys. My mom told him since she had grown up in the Orthodox Church as a priest’s daughter, she was determined to discover Orthodoxy on her own path. I cried, because that was a sentiment I always shared and one of the reasons I longed for a ministry like Connect.
I am confident my mom’s spirit is with me as I help build the Connect Conference ministry with fellow Orthodox young adults. I will never forget how the conference not only enriched, but also renewed my faith in Christ during the most difficult time in my life.
“Walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” – Col. 1:10
-Alexandra Atalis, Speaker Chair