Sophomore Michael Maragos leans back in his seat inside the University Center at the University of Miami.
“When I tell friends I’m a Greek Orthodox Christian, usually the first response they can think of is, ‘Oh, you pray to Zeus, right?’” he said laughing. “That’s absolutely not the case.”
Maragos is a Greek-American born and was raised in the suburbs of Chicago. He is also an Orthodox Christian.
In a country dominated by Protestantism and Catholicism, the Orthodox branch of Christianity often gets overlooked. Its existence remains unknown to many Americans and to many students at UM.
“That is almost an understatement,” Maragos said.
Having no student organization on campus added to the problem.
In spring 2009 students formed the Orthodox Christian Fellowship to serve the needs of the Orthodox Christians at the university. The new religious organization hopes to create a presence for the faith on campus.
The initiative for an Orthodox student organization began with senior Mina Ekladios, a Coptic Orthodox, which is an Egyptian denomination.
Ekladios, who is the president of OCF, admitted that his original idea was to start a Coptic Christian club. Realizing the low number of Coptic students, his efforts gave way to organizing a “pan-Orthodox” student group.
Finding Orthodox Christian students did not come easily.
Ekladios visited churches in the area. He spoke to local priests, asking if any UM students were part of their congregation. This approach to recruitment was met with little success.
Then Ekladios and others established the club hoping the Orthodox students would come searching for them. Today Antiochion, Greek, Ukrainian and Coptic Orthodox Christians are among its members.
Diversity is intrinsic in the Orthodox Christian Fellowship. The organization brings students from different sects or denominations together them under the same umbrella.
“What divides them is largely culture, and that becomes less important throughout the generations in America,” said Father Frank Corbishley, the head of the Chaplain’s Association. The Chaplain’s Association is the umbrella group for all religious organizations on campus.
The Office of Planning and Institutional Research at UM indicated the number of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim students on campus in their annual report. Protestants and Catholics dominate, making up three-quarters of the student body as of fall 2008.
Yet, there is no way of telling the number of Orthodox Christian students through the survey. They fall under the category of ‘other.’ OCF currently has about 30 members.
The organization plans to hold regular bible study sessions and participate in community service projects.
Ekladios says they will also create a carpool system to get students to church.
“It’s kind of hard to get yourself [there at] 9:30 in the morning on a Sunday in a suit to these churches without spending $20 on a cab,” said Maragos, who does not own a car.
Less than three miles away from campus, Father Peter Shportun serves as the priest at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Coral Gables.
“When I was a student it wasn’t easy,” he said, referring to his college days as an Orthodox Christian student. He is happy to see an OCF established at UM.
“[The organization] helps the kids remember that God is still there. The church is still there,” he said. “We get so wrapped up in our college life, and the church is still a part of it. The church can be there for them.”
Sophomore Kristen Khoury attends Father Peter’s Sunday morning service at the cathedral. She serves as treasurer of OCF and is Palestinian by heritage.
Inside the cathedral, paintings of biblical figures cover the wall and dome above. Incense burns as the priest and chanters recite the liturgy. They switch in and out of Arabic and English. Khoury kneels down, clasps her hands and bows her head in a silent prayer.
“Our families might have emigrated from Jerusalem, Greece, Syria; all those areas to come to the U.S.,” she said later. “It’s important to keep that faith they originally started out with… It’s important to keep it alive.”