Archpriest Ilya Limberger is a cleric of the St. Nicholas Church (ROCOR) in Stuttgart, Germany and a highly active member of the Synodal Youth Committee. A father of five, he is constantly looking for ways to connect with young people and bring them closer to Church. In the past several years, together with the Fund for Assistance, Fr. Ilya has initiated several highly successful youth projects in the German Diocese. In the following interview, Fr. Ilya talks about the joys and challenges of working with youth, some unique projects and his plans for the future.
Father Ilya, we hear the phrase “youth work” often but, as with many things that appear simple at first, we fail to reflect more deeply on it. What does this phrase mean for you? What does the work itself involve?
In the 6th chapter of his epistle to the Romans, the Holy Apostle Paul says, “Ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life,” describing simultaneously in both this and the following chapter the path that will provide that fruit and lead to the longed-for goal. In order to answer your question, first we must examine what our goal is and what fruit we hope to obtain.
The goal toward which we strive in our work with youth consists of helping children and young people fortify their faith in Christ, find their place in God’s Church, and serve Christ in that place. The fruit we are trying to grow is the young men and women themselves, who have loved Christ and the Church and desire through their talents to collaborate with us in the work of strengthening the Church.
As for the path that encompasses “this work itself,” it is diverse. It involves multifarious undertakings both “for” youth and “by” youth; among them: classes on the Law of God, youth camps, pilgrimage trips and various travels, holidays, thematic meetings with members of the older generation, creative exchanges with Russia – the list goes on. With many of these functions, the youth takes responsibility on themselves as organizers, program directors, and managers. I hope that this imparts on them the joy of creating something, and the satisfaction of significant work done in the service of others.
Let’s do some rapid-fire questions. What in your work has proven to be:
- the most complicated?
The most complicated aspect is the constant need to acquire funding for running these projects. Doing something without money is hard, but getting the money is even harder.
- the most important?
For me, the most important aspect is God’s blessing for our undertaking and its correction of our infirmities. Without that – you’ll get nothing done!
- the most unexpected and joyous?
The most unexpected thing for me recently was the whole group of 15-16 year old adolescents ready to take on responsibility for younger children, for running the functions, for their results, and who truly undertake them. I specifically have in mind the troop leaders in camps, but also others, young children, ready to take on responsibility for this work and complete it.
Tell us about some of the most vibrant and interesting projects of late.
First I would like to say that, in addition to me, our Berlin priest, Fr. Andre Sikojev, has been assigned to work with diocesan youth, and due to his multitudinous travels to Russia and his participation in various programs geared toward youth work, he is one of the essential authors of the Guideline for All-Diasporan Youth Work accepted by the ROCOR Synod. It is specifically on the basis of the strategies and tactics of this program that our projects in Germany listed below are developing.
I would like to note four such projects that are of a deep interest to me personally, and whose thematic work has reached far beyond the scope of the events themselves.
The first are the All-German youth pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which took place in 2009 and 2010. These pilgrimages moved me to a much deeper study of Holy Scriptures and Biblical history than I had undertaken prior. I tried to unite within our trips elements of classical pilgrimages, with visits to the holy sites, and a deeper study of the history, archaeology, and text of the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments. I hope to develop this idea further with the help of my Israeli friends, who do this work professionally and on location. I hope to include a Biblio-Archaeological seminar in Jerusalem on our next trip in the fall of 2011.
Second are the All-German youth processions dedicated to the end of the Second World War, which take place on May 9th and go from Munich to Dachau, the former location of the famous concentration camp, among whose prisoners were St. Nikolai of Serbia and the Serbian Patriarch Gabriel. It was to St. Nikolai that we dedicated these Processions, and we want them to be accompanied by readings from St. Nikolai’s writings, designed to acquaint the children with the works of one of the most wondrous and prolific spiritual writers of the 20th century.
The third project I would like to mention is the family meetings. The problems and challenges facing the modern church family are multifaceted and complex. When one talks and works with children and youth, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that one must work with the child’s whole family. It is specifically toward the “churching” and development of Christian intercourse amongst the families of neighboring parishes that we have geared our family meetings, dedicating each, as a rule, to one topic or another; for instance, fatherhood, motherhood, and the like.
Last are the feast days of Love and the Family on the feast day of the Holy Prince Peter and Princess Febronia. The feast this year was memorable in that we organized theatrical presentations of excerpts from Solomon’s Song of Songs. I hope that this wondrous book will be with us for some time to come.
Of course, there are many more projects, including, for instance, summer and winter camps for children and youth; the so-called “city camps” in Berlin, which are held during every vacation; hikes, pilgrimages, and much more. Recently, I have personally found a huge source of support in the Youth Council of our church, comprised of 10 young people aged 15-25, who carry out the planning and preparation and run the majority of the functions we’ve discussed. It is young people like these who have gone from being the “goals” of youth work to being its “resources.” In addition, there is a national-level Youth Council, comprised of parish representatives, whose gatherings are themselves often facilitated by our youth events.
On the website of St. Nicholas Church, of which you are the rector, one can find very interesting and vivid accounts, both about the processions (of which you spoke) and about the most recent major trip to the Holy Land. Often included in these accounts one finds gratitude expressed to your sponsors. In light of the recent economic downturn, one wonders: who in these difficult times helps in deed, and not just in word?
For more than two and a half years, we have been helped by the Fund for Assistance to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The whole above list of projects and more were supported by the Fund. Overall, over the course of 2008-2010, the Fund has supported our projects to the tune of almost 25,000 Euros, which comprises approximately 45% of the money spent on these projects. This is an enormous, critical help, without which it would be impossible to realize our ideas, or at most it would be possible to carry them out only on a much smaller scale. It seems to me, based on evaluations given by the children, that these functions have made an unforgettable impression on their souls. From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank our sponsors, those people who find a way to donate to our Church’s work with youth.
What form does your collaboration with the Fund take? Do you send a proposal with an idea for one or another of your projects? Do your proposals compete with others, or are they immediately adopted?
Our collaboration is a simple one. A proposal outlining the project goal is submitted; it also includes the project’s expected accomplishments and an approximate total cost. We also indicate the support we are seeking, with the understanding that the remainder will be funded by project participants. A line-item expense budget is included; upon completion of the project, a matching budget of actual expenses is submitted. All of this is very simple, and fits the needs of an overloaded priest well. I hope that this will remain so in the future, not devolving into a complicated accounting mess, as so often happens to other funds.
If it’s no secret, what projects would you like to see realized in the near future?
All of the projects I listed are long-term. God willing, they will be held again every year. In 2011, we hope to hold a procession May 9th again, a youth pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the fall, camps, holidays, etc.
Will you turn to the Fund for help?
Fr. Ilya, you have been doing this active work with children for several years now. Could you tell us from your personal experience: where should those who wish to organize similar youth councils in their own parishes begin?
Well, it’s very simple. You have to gather 5-6 active youths, take a few days and spend some time with them in an outdoor setting, and start by planning one or two parish functions that they find interesting. The work will begin to develop its own dynamic, and eventually everything will take off on its own.
All too often our youth is criticized in mass media; perhaps you could find some kind words in their defense?
I think that criticizing anyone is an empty pursuit. Doing is worthier. I see enough young people around me who are able and willing to apply their talents and generally the warmth of their souls to this public work. If only we had sufficient smarts to find assignments for everyone willing...