Since the start of ROYA’s summer camps in 2013, there has been a common thread. Aside from the obvious, our Orthodox faith and Romanian heritage, every new member who came has been amazed to walk away from the experience with a new family. This year was no different for our new members. As a returning member, I am always so pleased to rejoin my brothers and sisters every summer and winter.
You can’t imagine how difficult it is to write this article, summarizing the last 3 weeks cohesively and giving you a fraction of the essence of our trip. Only superlatives come to mind when thinking of this group of young adults and of the experience as a whole. This summer, roughly 20 extraordinary youth from across our Archdiocese gave 2 weeks of their summer, July 5th to 18th, 2015, volunteering in Valea Plopului, Romania. There, Father Nicolae Tanase runs an atypical orphanage, providing a home to over 400 children.
We learned to work together as a team and completed tasks even we didn’t think we were capable of. We aided in the construction of the new trade school Fr. Tanase is building, we worked in the fields flipping and collecting hay, we cleared out and prepared the guest house where A.S.C.O.R. (Asociația Studenților Creștini Ortodocși Români) stayed during our visit, we painted the home of a poor family in need and set up beds for them, we played with the children and connected with the youth we encountered in Valea Plopului. During this work, weenjoyed every minute of our time there and grew to become family.
Was it challenging work? Yes. Were we sore at the end of the day? Probably. Did we accumulate blisters? Oh yeah. But we loved every second of it. The satisfaction that this manual labor brought us, seeing the difference we made day to day, made us excited to see how much further we could get tomorrow.
Aside from the physical changes were our emotional ones. Seeing the conditions in which the poor family, whose house we painted, lived in was painful. Calling it a house is an overstatement; they had nothing but a concrete room and a closet. They had created a shanty outside of the structure, which covered the wall with the only window to the outside. They had no ventilation, no light coming in from outside, no electricity, no running water, no bathroom, etc. We emptied out their abode of everything they owned and repainted it white to try to brighten the interior, which as I said had no light whatsoever. The two young boys of the family helped us paint and were crying of happiness. Father Tanase then brought them bunk beds, which we installed, to help give them more space in the one room they had.
Each of us was uncharacteristically quiet on the way home that day, reflecting on that family’s destitution and day-to-day struggle for survival. I’m sure we were all thinking of the homes that awaited us back in America/Canada and feeling ashamed of the lifestyle we take for granted. I was touched when individuals from our group took the initiative to pool whatever money they had on them and walk to the nearest store to buy the children something to eat; they had overheard that the children had not eaten anything that day and it was already dark out. These acts of Christian kindness defined the group of people I was surrounded by. Alongside these acts were the morning and evening prayers we shared daily, strengthening our faith.
At the end of these two weeks, we said goodbye to Valea Plopului with tears in our eyes. None of us saw this emotional display coming. It’s not uncommon for our members to cry when saying goodbye at the end of summer camp. But this was different. After all, we were not saying goodbye to one another; we were all continuing onward together for the road trip in week 3. We were crying because of how beautiful our two weeks at the orphanage had been, serving others. We were sorry to leave and many of us expressed a desire to stay for another two weeks. But we were also celebrating how wonderful the experience had been and we were the ones who felt grateful to Fr. Tanase for giving us the opportunity to aid his work.
The last week of our mission trip addressed another part of our identity: our Romanian heritage. We spent the last week traveling across the country, learning about the history of our homeland and the beautiful things it has to offer us. We had the privilege of visiting jewels of Orthodoxy such as Putna Monastery, where we fell in love with the peace we found, as well as Voronet, Moldovita, and Sucevita Monasteries, where we admired the painted churches that reminded me of large Easter eggs. We were fortunate to see beautiful landscapes, such as the Transfagarasan, and European cities like Brasov, Cluj, Alba Iulia, and Sibiu.
One of the most interesting places we were able to see was Jilava Prison, near Bucharest. This prison is still in use today but we took the time to visit it for an entirely different reason. We have taken time over the last year at our events to become aware of the impact the communist regime had in recent decades on the Christian faith of Romanians. After revisiting the topic at our winter camp, learning about the saints of prison camps and even singing Christmas carols written by them, we wanted very much to see the places where many of them spent years enduring torture for Christ and reaching salvation. Walking into the cells and down the corridors now left empty, we completed the scenes with our imagination to envision we were there among the thousands of people Ceausescu brought in. We asked ourselves if we would have had the strength to suffer in that measure for our faith. We considered that we were walking on hallowed ground, blessed through the blood of martyrs spilled there, and this touched us profoundly.
The following day, on our last Sunday together, we participated in the Divine Liturgy at St. George Monastery in Tiganesti, Alexandria. After sharing a meal with the local church goers, Abbott Podromus brought us into a small chapel and showed us an icon depicting the saints who gave witness to the true faith, Orthodoxy, during the communist reign. I will never forget it because my first father confessor, Fr. Vasile Vasilache, was in the icon! I was star struck; I feel very privileged to have known him and regret that I was too young at the time to take advantage of my relationship with such a man. It has only been in recent years, after reading his autobiography, that I have realized how blessed I’ve been to know him before he passed away. Furthermore, Fr. Constantin Galeriu was also in the icon- whose two nieces were with us on this trip! It was a very special moment for our group and we can’t thank Abbott Podromus enough for his love and care during our stay and always.
I hope this gives a small glimpse into what we have gained from our three weeks together. I pray that God continues to bless us with such experiences and if it is His will, that we return again, perhaps for a longer visit. I would also like to use this opportunity to thank the other people who gave us so much love, care, and time during our adventures: Archbishop Nicolae, who supported this venture and gave us his blessing. Abbott Melchisedec at Putna Monastery, who spoke with us on multiple occasions despite his busy schedule and retained all our names after our first conversation. Father Ieremia, in whose care we were entrusted while at Putna Monastery. Father was a university professor in San Francisco before returning to Romania to join monastic life. He spoke to us about our relationship with our heavenly mother, the Virgin Mary, and listened to our confessions late into the night. He also took us to the grave of our previous archbishop, His Eminence Victorin. Father Tanase, Presbytera Maria, and Ana Zaharia who cared for our every need during our two week stay and took us in as family. Father Atanasie, who provided guidance in the organization of the trip. Florica Radu, the organizer and my mother, without whom none of this would have been possible.
Last but not least, I cannot close without thanking my ROYA family who made this trip so incredible and who bring tears to my eyes as I write this. It is so rare to find peers in our times that become so much a part of your heart and who can walk with you on the road to Christ; thank you for being so spectacular. As a side note, I would like to add that not all of the registration money was used during the three week trip. Florica Radu approached us to ask what we would like to do with the money. The group voted unanimously to donate the remaining funds, over $4000, to Father Tanase’s work. I implore the faithful of our archdiocese to realize how outstanding our youth is when they are supported and nourished. Please make them a priority in your parishes; they are the present and future of the Orthodox faith.