In this interview series, we’re talking to alumni of the CrossRoad Summer Institute, our sister program, to discover more about the realities of Orthodox young adulthood in the 21st century. Today we’re talking to Nick Mitrakos, who attended CrossRoad in 2005. 

What was it like to grow up in the Church and then go off to college, where faith is suddenly something you have to make your own?
I always felt something of a connection to the Church, and when I was choosing a college, I tried to find one with an Orthodox church nearby, but that wasn’t always easy.

It was difficult, because you’re in college, and you want to go out and party, you want to have fun, you want to get the college experience. It was truly a challenge to find time for going to church, just because of the strain on my time of my classwork and friends. And when you’re at church in a college town, it’s not like your home parish. You feel a little bit distant, because you’re not around the people you’re familiar with. It can be a little intimidating at first. But I guess that’s a recommendation after going through it: to make as many friends as you can within that particular parish and try to align yourself with how you were before you went off to college.

Do you have a parish that you call home right now?
I’m working on it. There is a Western-Rite Orthodox church not far from my apartment, and the services can be a little bit different from what I’m used to in Eastern Orthodox churches. The hymns have the same words, but a different tune. They were singing “Christos Anesti,” and I was getting ready to sing along and said, “Hold on, this is not the way I’m used to. What’s going on here?” It was definitely an eye-opening experience, because I was only really exposed to the Eastern Orthodox church, and I didn’t really know that the Western Rite existed. 

How did you first find out about this parish?
Actually, it was just a simple Google search. I searched for “Orthodox Churches” in [my town], and this church came up. The week after I was moved in, I showed up on Sunday morning. It was interesting – I walked in, and everyone was like, “Are you Orthodox? ARE you Orthodox?” And I said, “Yes, yes. Born and raised.” After the initial awkwardness was over, it was all very receptive, very welcoming.

What do you wish the Orthodox Church did for young adults?
It would be more of an expansion on a current program: Orthodoxy on Tap, which allows people to loosen up and have conversations with priests, bishops, or whomever can come out and speak. It’s informal, but informative. I kind of wish that had been around when I was right around 21 years old, because what 21-year-old doesn’t want to go out and have a beer?

The next thing I think would be good would be Orthodox outings, to have a group of Orthodox friends and go out to dinner every so often, creating fellowship.

Are there many young adults at your current parish?
There are some. It’s primarily budding families. It might even be, with the exception of myself and one or two others, completely converts. They had more of a choice than being born into it. It’s kind of refreshing to see that, having grown up in the faith myself.

I’m not complaining; I enjoy being Orthodox, and it is something that I have grown to embrace even more after the CrossRoad program. Before, my attitude was something like, “Hey, I’m an Orthodox Christian, and I don’t know much about it.” CrossRoad really opened my eyes to what we are, and the intricacies of Orthodoxy.

There was one thing in particular that stuck with me [from CrossRoad]: defending our faith. I enjoyed the mock arguments between CrossRoaders. It was good, because we’re going to encounter that in our everyday lives. You don’t know who you’re going to become friends with, and if or when the topic of religion comes up, it’s good to know how to defend your faith but not bash others.

Have you found yourself using those skills in your life after college? 
Actually, just recently! This girl that I’ve been speaking with recently had told me that she grew up going to a Catholic school and her opinion of that, which unfortunately was not all that positive. She was giving her views on Christianity as a whole, and I said, “Well, you know, I am a Christian.” She asked me why.

I said I was born into it and educated in it, and after looking into (but not seriously considering) what other faiths practice, what [Orthodoxy] means to me. I explained my perspective and my belief system and she explained what she believed. It was actually very eye-opening, because we really don’t know what somebody else believes in until that topic comes up. Generally whenever the topic does arise, it’s handled quite poorly, and everybody gets defensive and arguments break out.

Along those lines, what do you think is the biggest challenge facing our generation, and how can we make that an opportunity?
I think the biggest challenge that the younger generation faces is too much connectivity—with the Internet, with TV, with Facebook and Twitter. Everything is coming at you at once, and it’s a constant bombardment. It’s difficult to focus on any one particular thing because we have become accustomed to that constant barrage of information coming at us. But I think that a larger social media presence for the Orthodox Church would actually benefit the youth, because that’s the way they’re used to getting their information.

If you could go back in time and say something to freshly minted college graduate Nick about how to take hold of your faith, what would you say?
First things first: know what you believe and why. Know who you are, and expand on that. If you feel that you do good whenever you do some charity work, or something along those lines, go out and find an organization that allows you to do that.

If I were to go back and talk to myself, I would say go out and try to establish yourself in an area that has an Orthodox presence, because once you’re out in the world, it really has a tendency to pull you away from the Church. Everything is thrown at us from sex to drugs to going out and drinking all night with your friends, and it’s very present. I would say find an area where there’s a church that is close by. It’s not something that should be a chore. There’s always something you can look forward to when you go to church.