SVS Church School highlights charity during Nativity season

Developing a church school program for children of seminarians and faculty of St. Vladimir's Seminary (SVS) can be challenging: How do you spark the minds and shape the souls of students who already are immersed in church services, a rhythm of fasts and feasts, and a family life preoccupied with all things religious? To meet the challenge, SVS Church School Coordinator Katrina Bitar, herself a "PK" (priest's kid) and a 2nd-year seminarian in the Master of Arts program at SVS, decided to punctuate the season of Advent with a series of activities centered on charity.

"Kids in clergy families learn a lot about ‘Orthodoxy'-attending services, celebrating feasts, and learning about the lives of saints-but perhaps not enough about ‘Christianity,' that is, how to put their faith into action," notes Ms. Bitar. "So, while the children are being formed, I want to present them with opportunities to see what love really is and what God expects in their lives.

"Fundamentally, I want them to understand what it means to be a Christian: to learn that the "other person" always comes first, and to learn to love equally every human being that comes across one's path," she explained.

Ms. Bitar has had plenty of previous experience in Christian education, having served six years as Youth Director at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Phoenix, AZ, and seven years as Director of the St. Nicholas Camping Program under the auspices of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (AOCANA) in Frazier, CA. In September 2008, she accepted the responsibility of coordinating the church school program at St. Vladimir's, which also incorporates children from families not associated with seminary as faculty or students but who as well attend Three Hierarchs Chapel on campus.

To implement her faith-in-action model Ms. Bitar concentrated on several service projects, two of which came to fruition during the Advent season. First, she worked with fellow teachers 1st-year seminarian John Frazier (M.Div. program) and his wife, Mandy, in arranging a Christmas caroling visit to Sunrise Senior Living facility, an assisted living center just up the road from the seminary. Mrs. Frazier works as an employee in the specialized "memory impaired" floor of Sunrise. On December 14, 2008, residents of Sunrise joined SVS church school students in singing the familiar hymns and songs of the Christmas season, and then constructed delectable gingerbread houses with them.

Second, Ms. Bitar and another fellow teacher, 2nd-year seminarian Ian Jones (M.Th. program), helped pre-teens and teenaged students to explore and report on several well-known service organizations within Orthodox Church worldwide. "I want them to know about types of poverty in the world," said Ms. Bitar, "and the ways in which we could all participate to relieve suffering."

So, just prior to the caroling visit to Sunrise, the older students gave public presentations to the SVS community, informing their audience of the many ways Orthodox Christian organizations participate in charitable service. To prepare for their presentation on Raphael House, a family crisis center in San Francisco, Felix Behr and Skye Andrew Malone even personally interviewed The Right Rev. Benjamin, Bishop of San Francisco and the West (Orthodox Church in America [OCA]) via telephone. Other presenters and reports included: Colin Barberg, the Theophany School; Hanna Barberg, Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC); Elizabeth Bouteneff, Project Mexico & St. Innocent Orphanage; Michael Bouteneff, International Christian Charities (IOCC); Nadia Robichau, Orthodox Youth Outreach (OYO); Stephan Robichau, Hogar Rafael Ayau; and Ayame Whitfield, Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration (OFT).

"Next semester," said Ms. Bitar, "our older group will build on the theme of service, designing actual ways to participate in some of the organizations they have reported upon."

As well as learning to give love, the church school students also got a lesson in receiving love when Ms. Bitar arranged for the annual visit of "St. Nicholas" to the students on Sunday, December 7, 2008. The commemoration of the saintly 4th-century bishop reinforced the theme of Christianity fully lived, since St. Nicholas' charitable acts have made him beloved and remembered by a variety of cultures and religions worldwide.