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Interview with Joel Schaefer

Ginny Nieuwsma of interviews Joel Schaefer, winner of the 2009 Oratorical Festival

Click here to read or listen to Mr. Schaefer's winning oratory.

1. Tell us about yourself! Where you live, school, hobbies, future plans/dreams, family.

Well, for the past 19 years, I've lived with my wonderful parents, Subdeacon Barnabas and Barbara Schaefer as the oldest of their six children. We were brought into the Orthodox Church at St. Athanasius in Santa Barbara, California on Great and Holy Saturday, 1999 – seven of us (as my youngest brother Gregory didn’t arrive until 2005). Previously we’d been very active in a Protestant church, and we attended the Orthodox Church for three years before my parents finally converted. Later, my family moved up to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho in 2001, where we live in a log home next to beautiful Lake Coeur d’ Alene and are members of St. John the Baptist in Post Falls, Idaho.

Remarkably, my parents have managed to homeschool me from kindergarten through high school. The last two years of high school, I was enrolled in online courses through Biola University's Torrey Academy, which was an amazing experience for both my younger sister Jordan and me. Being immersed in Inkling authors like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Tolkien and others, followed by studying our founding fathers and the philosophers who influenced them, really built upon the strong academic groundwork laid by my parents in my earlier education.

While in high school, I was blessed that Idaho law allows homeschoolers to tryout for their local high schools teams. Having played soccer since I was five, I continued on in high school, playing all four years for Lake City. At 6’4”, you’ve got to know I love basketball too, and was fortunate to play my last year of high school too. Honestly, I love all sports, both team and individual. Living in the beautiful Northwest, I am able to snowboard all winter, then bike and run the rest of the year, if I’m not off backpacking. I also play the guitar and piano – I love music!

Moving onto college, my goal was to continue as a life-long learner, while hopefully not ending up saddled with a ton of debt in student loans. To this end, instead of enrolling in college right out of high school, I have instead used my time to work while studying and taking CLEP (College Level Examination Program) tests. (These are similar to AP tests, allowing me to test out of courses where I already know the material, while simultaneously earning college credits.) Essentially, I'm hoping to test out of most of the GE classes, hopefully allowing me to enter college in the fall of 2010 with two years worth of credits.

Beyond saving me lots of money, earning credits by examination has also allowed me time to work full time, saving for college, while also getting valuable "real life" experience in the work place. This next year, I have been offered the incredible opportunity to intern with Fr. Michael Nassar and Project Mexico down at St. Innocent's Orphanage in Mexico. By God’s grace, I'll be spending nine months down there, from September to May. I cannot express how excited I am about this amazing opportunity to work with the orphans and stretch myself in this cross-cultural setting.

Lord willing, I will then enter college in the fall of 2010. Although I’ve had the desire to eventually become a priest, I want to learn a marketable skill with my undergraduate degree, knowing that many priests have to earn money outside their parish when they’re starting out or when serving a mission parish. Therefore, I’ve decided to work towards a B.S. in Nursing, with a possible minor in Spanish (after my year down in Mexico), then go on to seminary, with the goal of one day entering the holy priesthood, Lord willing.

2. Tell us a little about your parish and how you are involved there, and what it means to you.

St. John’s had been such a tremendous blessing to me, in countless ways. Since my family was brought into the Church, I've always loved serving in the altar. A couple years after we came to St. John’s (when I was thirteen), the parish’s Subdeacon moved, and I was put in charge of the servers. This semi-terrifying experience ended up being a tremendous gift to me. Instead of being told what to do, where to go, and when, I had to be there early, know the services, and know exactly what the servers needed to do. As I learned the services in this capacity, I grew to love them. Serving some early mornings with only Fr. Gregory Horton and Rdr. Matthew Gallatin, deeply impacted me.

Ever since becoming Orthodox, I had been in Sunday school. However this last year, I had the awesome opportunity to help teach one of the younger classes. I cannot express what joy this brought to me seeing the excitement on my students’ faces, as we went through Bible stories and parts of the liturgy. They were truly an inspiration to me. I am so thankful to those who have taken the time to teach me over the years. One highlight during high school was meeting weekly with Rdr. Matthew Gallatin, who took time out of his busy teaching schedule to dialogue with our parish’s teens about scripture, our Faith and living in our modern world.

As our SOYO president, I had the honor of becoming a member of our parish council, which certainly has opened my eyes to the inner workings of running a parish. Our parish has always encouraged the involvement of our teens, as well as encouraging our education in the Faith. Our founding priest, Fr. Gregory Horton (who has now gone on to plant a second mission further North), really encouraged our parish youth to participate in Bible Bowl, and subsequently I have been on winning Bible Bowl teams in '03, '05, '07, and again this year in 2009. This has allowed me the eye-opening opportunity to attend numerous Parish Life Conferences as well as three National Conventions in Detroit, Montreal and Palm Desert.

3. How did you hear about the oratorical contest and when did you start working on your speech? How did you prepare?

Due to my Bible Bowl experience, I have seen the Oratorical competition at the Parish Life level as well as Nationals a number of times, including seeing a few teens from my home parish compete over the years. I actually competed in Oratorical once before, in 2007 and was humbled to be the Judges’ Choice in the West that year too. Then last year my sister Jordan felt very strongly about the theme and she presented an oration and was also blessed to be chosen the winner in the West. We’ve both had some other speech experience, through 4-H, as well as competing together in dramatic performance in Nat’l History Day. (My parents believe public speaking is a basic skill everyone needs to have, almost like reading or writing. Even though we were homeschooled, my parents sought out opportunities for us to speak in front of groups, whether presenting poems, songs, speeches, etc. so we would become comfortable doing so.)

For me, I really feel the topic or theme must resonate within you. The topic in 2007 was church unity; I was able to share about a trip I took to Asia Minor and an life-changing experience I had walking into an ancient cave church in Cappadocia covered with icons and how I was radically impacted by the continuity of the Church across time and nations. This year, I was similarly impacted by the need for us to put our Faith into action. To begin my research, I started by studying scripture which initially came to my mind upon hearing the topic, including the parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew 25. From there, I found other scripture and then looked to the Fathers to see what they had to say on this topic. In addition, our family was simultaneously studying some 20th century saints who had “counted it all joy” to serve Christ by serving the “least of these” around them – like Fr. Dimitri Klepinin and Mother Maria Skobtsova who died after assisting Jews in France during WWII and Fr. Arseny. My brother Isaac, who also competed in Oratorical this year, ended up focusing on Fr. Dimitri and Mother Maria, while I referenced Fr. Arseny in mine.

My limited experience has taught me that the key to an excellent delivery is giving your speech numerous times. I am blessed to have parents who made me repeatedly present my oration at home. Although this is very helpful, having new audiences is great too. To this end, I was blessed that my parish priest, Fr. Basil Caldaroni, asked me to present it after Liturgy one Sunday. The first level of competition was at the Parish Life Conference, which for our Diocese was held in Santa Clara, California over Memorial Day Weekend, where I competed against a group of outstanding speakers, including my younger brother Isaac, whose excellent speech I mentioned before. After the PLC, I continued to try and give my speech often, in preparation for Nationals. Fr. Michael Nassar had me present it one evening down in Mexico during an Orthodox Basic Training (OBT) week at the end of June, which was an awesome opportunity to speak to a large group. Each time you present a speech, I think you gain confidence and poise, which definitely helped me as I competed against six truly gifted orators from each diocese at the National level. As Metropolitan PHILIP said, “They were ALL amazing sermons! [They] are ALL winners!” Indeed, there were seven winning speeches that day. As I sat waiting next to the other six contestants, I knew it really could have been anyone of us who won. I am extremely humbled that I was the judges’ choice.

4. What did you learn in this process, about yourself, your faith?

Truly, this entire journey has been a very humbling experience. As a youth presenting my thoughts on this year's theme, I recognized this was an awesome opportunity AND responsibility. Certainly given the topic, I’d better be living out the challenges I present in my oration, or I am nothing but a hypocrite. This caused me to look at my life – was I taken advantage of ALL the opportunities the Lord was bringing for me to serve the least of these around me? It really hit me when Metropolitan PHILIP asked me to speak at the Closing Banquet at the National Convention. As I walked to the podium, I was a bit overwhelmed. Here I was, a simple young man from North Idaho, presenting to an audience of 500+, each one much more qualified to be addressing the theme. Once again humbled, I remembered Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Song of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." I realized that I could not take credit for whatever I had written; indeed more than half of my speech was quotes from St. John Chrysostom and Holy Scripture. I had simply compiled stories from the gospels, as well as from the lives of the saints and the words of the Fathers, pulling them together into a ten minute blip. My prayer was that they wouldn’t hear me, as I had nothing to say, but hear the words of Christ who lives in me.

5. Do you plan on doing any public speaking in the future?

Well, Lord willing, if I’m able to attend seminary and potentially enter the priesthood, I will definitely be speaking in front of groups again. Despite my public speaking background, it is a scary thought to contemplate presenting homilies myself one day. The priesthood is certainly an awesome responsibility. However, if it I don't go into the priesthood, I've also thought about getting a degree in Law and potentially going into politics. In that case, I would also be put in front of a microphone often. I just pray that any speaking I may do in the future, wherever the Lord leads, that it is always to Christ's honor and glory.