From Compline to fasting practices, to reading group with Dr. Jackson, there is a tangibly different vibe about the Orthodox Christian group compared to the other religious groups on campus.
“We call it the ethos, the sort of character, the atmosphere, the textures of the church,” sophomore Brigid Majmudar said. “It’s very intense.”
Among the multitude of active Catholics and Protestants, the 15 to 20 Orthodox Christians comprise a sparse one percent of Hillsdale’s student body, and possibly, campus’ tightest religious group: the Orthodox Christian Fellowship.
The difficulty of their practices may explain this difference.
“Lent alone is ridiculous,” Majmudar said, describing how the fasting practices of Orthodox Christians amount to being vegan for more than half of the year. “It’s so good and so wholesome, but it’s hard. And when you grow up with all those things that are not only intense and hard, but also so clearly different from anything you see in the West, it means that other Orthodox Christians, especially other young Orthodox Christians, are very familiar to you.”
Majmudar spent a period of her childhood on the island of Cyprus while her father studied at a monastery. Compared to the average Hillsdale student, her background differs significantly. She described being perceived as more normal to members of the OCF because of their shared practice.
“There are very familial vibes in the OCF,” Majmudar said. “It doesn’t mean we have to constantly be around each other all the time, it’s just assumed that you make the same time sacrifices for each other that you do for your family.”
For senior Anastasia Frigerio, the student contact for the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, the familial nature of the group is more than just a vibe.
“I wouldn’t be getting married in May if the Orthodox group didn’t exist, which is just bizarre,” Frigerio said.
She said that there were only four Orthodox Christians in her freshman class, and only one, senior Gregory Farison, who regularly attended church besides herself. The two became friends quickly and are engaged to be married this spring.
“We figure there wasn’t much luck in that; that was probably on purpose,” Frigerio added, laughing.
Frigerio admitted some difficulties to having so few local members, including sharing responsibilities for events such as “OrthoTeas,” a weekly event where the Orthodox Hillsdale students get together to drink tea, eat scones, and chat.
“I guess sometimes I think it would be easier if there were more people to spread out event planning,” Frigerio said, “but at the same time, I know I wouldn’t know any of them as well. And it would be easier to just be friendly acquaintances and not actually spend that much time together.”
Both Majmudar and Frigerio grew up in the Orthodox Church, with fathers who are Orthodox priests. Frigerio’s father is the priest in Albion, at the Holy Ascension Orthodox Church where the Hillsdale students attend, and the first Orthodox church freshman Kirby Thigpen would ever step inside.
Thigpen, who grew up in a Southern Baptist church in North Carolina, first encountered Orthodoxy through an influential high school teacher. Coming to Hillsdale, she said she was intentional about connecting with others on campus, as she began her official conversion process.
“I saw that the OCF was going to be at The Source, and I went intending to meet them and introduce myself. I did, and from there I went to church with them that Sunday, and I’ve gone ever since,” Thigpen said. She will officially join the church the Saturday before Easter.
In addition to weekly teas and carpooling to church, the OCF also hosts a reading group — open to any students interested in studying the primary texts of the Church fathers — lead by the group’s faculty advisor, Professor of English Justin Jackson.
“The OCF Reading Group really is for all students,” Jackson said. “I try to create a safe space of non-proselytizing. I mean, they will learn about Orthodoxy, because sometime I tell the Orthodox students, ‘Alright this is what the church teaches about this,’ but that’s really as far as it goes.”
Each semester, on Fridays at noon in Lane 232, students gather to parse the texts of Athanasius, St. John of Damascus, St. Ephraim of Syria, and more. This semester, the reading group is studying St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “On the Soul and Resurrection.”
The purpose of the group, Jackson emphasised, is to read the text and answer students’ theological questions.
“The thing that students need to understand is that when you read any theological text, you would never see it as just ‘the Orthodox Church’s teaching.’ It’s not intentionally an ecumenical group, it’s really more of an academic thing,” Jackson said.
This was not always the case with the reading group, however. He said initially, the texts were almost entirely secondary sources of Orthodox apologetics.
“When I first got here, it was kind of a traditional OCF group, so Orthodox and inquirers, and they would go through introductory ‘What’s the Orthodox Church’ texts, and I don’t know, they probably got more converts that way,” Jackson said.
Although he stuck to the status quo for the first few years, he found that the Orthodox students were not as engaged. Since most secondary texts present certain ideas as being the beliefs of the Church fathers, Jackson began studying the texts on which those secondary sources are predicated.
“It’s fun to give them the actual primary texts that either affirm or problematize those ideas,” he said.
Jackson added that as a professor, there is freedom in the loose framework of a not-for-credit discussion time.
“I feel a bit freer not to just speak about theology, but what it has to do with one’s soul, in studying these sorts of things, than I do in a class,” he said.
Most religious groups on campus are largely evangelical in their approach. By contrast, the attitude of the OCF seems to be very unconcerned with proselytizing.
Thigpen appreciates the stability of the OCF, and said that she knows the group will always love and accept her.
“Also knowing that what brought us together is something that is will consistently be there for the rest of our lives,” Thigpen said. “It’s something very special.”