“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit… By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.” (John 15: 5-8)
Today, the Lord’s words were manifested as His branches bore much fruit.
It is easy to get lost and discouraged in this world. We are living through unprecedented times. The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought added stress to already fragile lives. People for the first time are experiencing isolation due to the lockdown. They are lonely, scared, and crave the human touch. Political upheaval, civil unrest, and unemployment only add to the burden people bare.
However, no matter how dark are the clouds that roll in, there is always light above them. While we cannot fix all the world’s woes, cannot stop wars, douse the flames of hatred, quiet the spiritual storm that overtakes the nation… we can bring peace, solace, and comfort to those within our reach. If we all made an effort, the Vine would be heavy laden with fruit, which would nourish the world.
Leading by example, was His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA. Traveling through the Midwest as he made his way back to New Jersey having celebrated the Nativity of Christ with the Chicago Deanery, His Eminence made a quick detour to visit the Southfield parish of The Protection of the Mother-of-God (Pokrova). While there he filled backpacks with the most basic of necessities, which most take for granted. Aided by the Seminarians of the Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary - Subdeacon Yaroslav Bilohan, Subdeacon Pavlo Vysotskyi, Reader Andrii Vatrich, Mykola Stefanyk, Andriy Akulenko, Bohdan Motychak, Matvii Blyzniuk and Elizabeth Symonenko, Archbishop Daniel carefully packed each bag with the items. Socks to keep the cold feet of the homeless warm, caps to keep their heads safe from the cold, gloves and handwarmers, chapstick, hand sanitizers, protein bars, chocolate bars, cups of cereal, Kleenex, sanitary wipes, and flashlights to keep them safe in the darkness of inner Detroit.
Loading up the Seminary Van, the group headed south towards Detroit, stopping at various locations where the homeless tend to gather. Sadly, those in need can usually be found haunting the cavernous expanses beneath tall concrete bridges, the pylons offering them a windbreak and a place to pitch their tents, erect makeshift shelters, and gather with others in the same situation for safety.
Spotting a lone figure huddle against the cold, Archbishop Daniel stopped the van beneath one such bridge, jumped out of the van, and assisted by the seminarians, grabbed the colorful sacks of kindness, and began to pass them out to the men who were congregating there. The disheveled figures, like specters began to emerge from the shadows, drawn to the light that emanated from the kind gesture. Someone actually cared enough to gift them care packages. These seeming specters, where not ghosts, but were humans, each with their own history, and story of woe that brought them to this cold, dark place.
Disregarding their less than stellar appearance, His Eminence handed out the packages to everyone, pausing to share a kind word of encouragement with each. Some of the men immediately opened the packages and began to rummage through them. One man spied the flashlight, looked up with tears in his eyes and stated, “My prayers have been answered. I have been waiting for months for someone to give me a flashlight.” We cannot imagine the horrors of walking the dangerous, cold streets at night, the streetlights being blown out, in complete darkness, not knowing if danger lurks around the next corner.
As the cold wind blew, Archbishop Daniel spotted a slight movement inside one of the tents. Walking up to it, he tapped on the entrance flap and called out to the occupant. Receiving no reply, he nonetheless, lovingly placed one of the care packages just outside the tent for the person inside to find when they emerged.
The final recipient was a woman names Kristin. She asked for a second parcel for her husband, Charlie, who was looking for charitable donations at the other corner. This woman who was in her thirties, but, looked like she was in her fifties, glorified God for the small kindness shown to her. She explained that both she and her husband had lost their jobs during the pandemic, and without an income they now lost their home and found themselves on the street. Then she gently patted her belly, and said she wished for a better world before her child was born. Kristin’s child is due to be born in early June.
With final furtive glances in farewell, and promising to pray for them, Archbishop Daniel and the seminarians returned to the van, and slowly drove away. While they had helped a few people, it was less than even a drop in the bucket of need. There is such desperation in the world, so many people suffering.
Everyone in the van remained silent, contemplating what they had seen, and reassessing what is truly necessary in this world. Those people existed, but, were they living? They recalled the words of Christ, as He said that “the poor you will always have with you.” (Matthew 26:11) Why is that? Why must there always be poor people?
Breaking the silence in the van, His Eminence explained that in the parable of the Rich Man and the Beggar, Christ explained how the poor man, Lazarus, lay at the gate of the rich man. The wealthy man passed by the beggar daily, and simply ignored his pleas. When both died, the rich man saw Lazarus resting on Abraham’s loin, while he suffered in the incessant heat. This story only confirms that while the rich man did not actually do harm to the beggar, he also did no good to him. Therefore, the poor are an opportunity for those with means to work out their own salvation.
“Whoever is kind to the poor, lends to the Lord…” (Proverbs 19:17)
It is our Christian duty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. Archbishop Daniel did not miss the teaching opportunity, and instructed the young seminarians, to always keep this in mind. Christ came to serve others, and therefore as His followers, how can we do anything less?
We must keep our eyes open and search out the opportunities to do good in this world. If everyone took care of the people within a mile radius from them, then everyone would feel loved and more secure, and everyone would feel the embrace of Christ through the acts of kindness of His followers.
Therefore, fearlessly go out into the darkness, and be the beacon of light to all those around you. By alleviating humanities physical needs, you will fulfill their spiritual needs as well, and guide them towards salvation.
Photos by Subdeacon Yaroslav Bilohan and Elizabeth Symonenko
Text by Elizabeth Symonenko