What’s it like to be a young adult in the Orthodox Church? We sat down with Michelle Torski to find out her story, how she connects to the Church, and the reality of young adulthood today. Michelle attended the OVM’s CrossRoad Summer Institute in 2005, subsequently founded the CrossRoad Alumni Board, and currently serves on the Telos Project Advisory Team.
What were your early experiences of the Church?
I was baptized in the Church, and that was kind of “check the box and move on.” We never talked about faith; we never talked about God. I knew I was Orthodox; very specifically, I knew that I was Greek Orthodox, and I don’t think I knew that there was any kind but Greek Orthodoxy. We went to weddings and funerals in churches, but in terms of a personal relationship with Christ, there was nothing. I remember on 9/11 crashing into prayer without really any understanding of what it was.
So what was it that made you feel like faith was something that you wanted to be an important part of your life?
I remember going to the Good Friday services with Yiayia—not understanding what the Crucifixion was, not understanding what the Resurrection was, not understanding what salvation was, but feeling this immense power that I couldn’t explain and craving that experience. I was a high achiever and had done very well in whatever I put my mind to; I did very well academically, getting into this great boarding school and into a great college, but it all felt very empty.
If you don’t have faith, you will always feel like you’re not enough. I see this so much with my Millennial friends who are striving after the things of the world. You will always be a failure by the world’s standards. There will always be someone who’s more successful, more driven, and more accomplished; if you’re measuring yourself up to that, I’m sorry, but you will always fail.
And if you don’t have faith, that is such a heart-breaking, heart-wrenching place to be. We constantly try to fill that void—and I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else—by going out with friends, trying to get more education, trying to push yourself up a notch.
That’s where, especially having relied on myself so much growing up, I realized that I was missing something, and that I needed something that was bigger than myself. I needed something that was constant.
How do you think the Church can give that gift of meaning and purpose to young adults? In a really practical way, what are we missing?
Most young adults are on the move. They go away to college or move to a new city for their jobs. In the process, they lose the feeling of a familial unit in day-to-day life. I believe the Church can provide a new definition of ‘home’ as young people come into adulthood.
Traveling constantly for work, I truly appreciate that regardless of what city I’m in, I can find an Orthodox church and it feels familiar to me. But the problem is—and this is so upsetting—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a church and no one says hi to me. I’m trying this out, I sit there, and no one talks to me? That’s not home!
So the first thing is appreciating the amount of effort that the young adult took to make that choice to come to church. They’ve already made a huge step, and you have to meet them where they are. Introduce me to someone at coffee hour who’s my age; now I have a friend. I made the first step. Help me make the rest of it.
If we start with individual, one-on-one relationships, then we can start incorporating young adults into the rest of the ministry. If someone invites me personally to a potluck instead of sending a generic Facebook message to some group, I feel like they want me there. And those people will be the ones who will say, “Hey, guys, let’s take a hiking trip!” and everyone will go. But if you start with a hiking group, nobody’s going to show up, because nobody knows anyone.
Do you feel that ushering people in has to be peer-to-peer, or is it okay if it comes from someone of a different age group?
I think it should definitely be from all different age groups. I don’t think that any age group should live in isolation. We go from being children, constantly around adults/peers who are older and younger to being in college, where we’re surrounded only by people our age, and that in itself is very difficult. When you’re constantly surrounded by people who have the same insecurities and fears that you do, they amplify. You need people who are older, who can listen to you and say, “Okay, listen, you flunked your math final. It’s going to be okay! I once flunked my math final too! Your life isn’t over!” You need that wisdom of your elders.
I also think it’s incredible when people my age are asked to be on parish councils and to actually be involved in the ministries of the church. You want [those ministries] to be a cross-section and not just to have a young people’s group and an old people’s group. You want the best of all ideas.
What do you think is the biggest challenge or opportunity facing our generation?
I think that, in the United States, we’re going to be the first generation that does not exceed (or even attain) the level of success that our parents have. That’s really redefining the American Dream, especially for those of us who come from immigrant families and have constantly been told that you step on the shoulders of those who have come before you. We most likely won’t achieve the American Dream, and that redefining for our generation is huge.
Again, going back to the definition of success, if you continue to build a life on what your parents did and you don’t get there (and if it’s impossible to get there because of your socioeconomic situation), where does that leave you? How does that play into your definition of self and self-worth?
So when you say “success,” do you mean socioeconomic success or educational attainment?
Both. Some [people my age] will never attain the same level of education as that of their parents, nor the same financial status that they have. Not that that’s a bad thing—it’s just a message we’ve been growing up with that we now have to wrestle with in a post-recession world. Our parents owned a house before they were 28; I’m probably not going to own a house for a long time. I may never own a house.
And many Millennials may not want to have the same job for 35 years. They may not want pensions. We’re probably not going to retire, and we may not even want to. But while we’ve changed the rules of the game, we haven’t really changed the end goal.
And that’s where the Church can play such a valuable role; encouraging us to ask questions like, “Why are we here? What is our purpose as humans?” What is our purpose in serving other people—is it getting a gold watch when you’re sixty-five, or is it something more?
Exactly! We can’t be living toward all these ideals that we likely aren’t going to achieve. We need to break out of the social media culture of presenting our ‘best selves,’ and embrace that fact that Christ accepts and loves us as we are right now. The Church’s role is to help us—in all our insecurities, fears, and mistakes—tangibly feel that as we struggle to navigate the adult world.