Meet Your Fellow Deacon: Phil Smith

by Allison Groot, CDM Administrative Assistant

It’s eight o’clock on a Friday morning. Phil Smith puts on his lab coat and begins his day at work. A full-time senior scientist for a national veterinary laboratory, his “nine-to-five” is no walk in the park. Nonetheless, when his work at the office is done, he heads over to his local Home Depot, where he also works as a part-time appliance salesman. Then, when his shift ends at 10:30 that night, instead of going home to his family like usual, he sets off towards Barre, VT, hoping to get a few hours of driving in before he pulls over to get some rest. Phil is on his way to the Presbytery of New York and New England’s Deacons’ Conference, which starts at 8:45 the next morning.

What’s more amazing than this remarkable (but true) account is Phil’s dedication to the office and work of the diaconate at his local church, each week. On top of working two jobs, caring for his family, and participating in regular church events, Phil says fitting in his service as a deacon is “just ordinary life.” He continues, “My family has a lot going on, but many of the deacons I serve with also have busy schedules. We just have to fit the important things in; that is the commitment we’ve made.” 

Clearly, diaconal work is very important to Phil and the three other deacons with whom he serves at Second Parish OPC, Scarborough, ME. It’s important enough to often make plans to fit in a diaconal visit on the way home from work or make a spur-of-the-moment trip to help a church member. In fact, Phil says that having the opportunity to be a point of contact for people in need and “jumping in to help when there is a need” is one of the aspects that drew him to be a deacon.

But for Phil, mercy ministry isn’t merely impromptu service. When asked what diaconal service means to him, he said, “Diaconal service is intentional service; it’s an opportunity to get to know God’s people…God has given me gifts that I can help others with, and one of the ways I can help people is through the ministry of his church—whether that is financial, stacking wood for someone, helping someone get to and from church, or coordinating funds [to be sent] overseas.” Phil also spoke about the importance of communicating the purpose of our service to those we interact with: “[The gospel] has to be communicated on a consistent basis.” This sums up the motivation that lies behind diaconal work for Phil.

Though he admits there are many ways in which his calling to serve is unique to that of a deacon, Phil believes service to the church is really a calling for every church member, including his own family. “The kids learn to serve with me,” he says. As for his wife, he says her gift is “letting me be available…when I need to get to church early for a meeting, she is willing to get all the kids ready, which allows me to serve in that manner. It wouldn’t be possible for me to do those things if she wasn’t so willing and flexible.”

While he teaches his children the meaning of serving God by serving the church, Phil also acknowledges that he is still learning and growing as a deacon. In fact, some of what he is learning comes from what he’s doing in the workplace. “In science, much of the work revolves around researching and meeting the requirements of products that our clients need and that will sell on the market.” 

But what do those skills have to do with being a deacon? He goes on, “It’s interesting that some of this applies to how I approach people [diaconally]. I’m learning to ask, ‘What is the need?’ It’s probably not just this one thing they tell us up front, like paying a bill. The need is usually significantly deeper. And it’s important to think about what the deeper need is, what would best meet the need, and how I can find out what is truly at the heart of the situation to really help in the most effective manner.”

Phil has found what many deacons may find to be true. To minister to the physical and spiritual needs of individuals, one has to get past an analytical, task-oriented mindset. He says, “I’ve learned and I’m still learning that our work [as deacons] comes down to patience. I just want to fix the situation. But that doesn’t work with people. I must remember that each person is coming from a set of life experiences that I don’t often know about, and I don’t always need to know, but I do need to be patient and loving enough to help them in areas [where] they might not even know they can ask for help.”

Though Phil’s busyness is characteristic of his work life, he hopes to remember, as a minister of mercy, to slow down and listen for others’ sake and for the sake of reflecting the care and compassion of Christ.

To the Least of These: Showing Love for Ukrainian Orphan Refugees

by Trish Duggan, CDM Communications Coordinator

Greg and Bonnie Harrison live in Romania. They are not Romanian by birth, nor have they lived there long. The Harrisons are longtime members of Second Parish OPC in Portland, Maine. Greg is a deacon, a builder by trade—and both Greg and Bonnie were considered some of the most sought-after wedding photographers in Maine. The two met at a dance hall and married in 1993. 

Almost a decade ago, just as Russia began its 2014 invasion, the Lord led the Harrisons to adopt four children from an orphanage in the city of Kiliya, in southwestern Ukraine.

After arriving back at their home in Maine, the Harrisons learned of the difficult circumstances for the remaining Ukrainian orphans. Greg and Bonnie longed to be able to rescue all of them but knew they could not adopt every one. This led them to investigate the possibility of moving to Ukraine, where they might be able to carry out some sort of ministry to these orphans.

With the help and support of their pastor and members of Second Parish OPC, as well as several other churches and individuals in New England and beyond, they established a non-profit called “Hearts of Hope”. In 2018, they moved back to Ukraine and purchased and renovated a home in Kiliya.

On February 24, 2022, an active war broke out again in Ukraine. The family fled Ukraine, seeking refuge near Brasov, Romania, where the MTW team who had been serving in Odessa, Ukraine, had also relocated. Bonnie and Greg value the local church, especially one that is reformed, and sought to establish themselves in Romania where they would be near a reformed local church. 

In God’s providence and timing, they stumbled upon the Kiliya orphans—who were now also refugees—just two hours from where they lived in Romania, in Valenii de Munte. This allowed the Harrison family to take up their ministry once again to these children, to visit them a few days a week, and to take several at a time out on excursions. 

In Ukraine, like in many other countries, orphans, especially those with special needs, are by all accounts discarded by society. In fact, some consider them to be the outcasts of the outcasts. Greg and Bonnie have a love for these children and recognize them as God’s image-bearers, in need of love, spiritual and practical guidance, training, and the ability to someday support themselves. 

In August, David Nakhla, administrator for the OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM) had an opportunity to visit and encourage this family in Romania and to see first-hand the impact that their ministry is having on the lives of several orphans from Ukraine with special needs, now suffering as refugees, who live with them. Amazed at the Harrison’s commitment, David said, “The Harrisons are truly huge-hearted people! They realize that this is not a short-term ministry. It’s hard work; it takes years, patience, and endurance.” Jesus perfectly expressed his love for the outcast in Luke 5:12-13, as He touched and healed a leper. In the same manner, the Harrisons are ministering to these children in His name. 

This couple is gifted with “thinking outside the box” and doesn’t allow challenges to deter them. With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, the Harrisons are considering permanently moving their ministry from Ukraine to Romania and creating a place in the beautiful Carpathian Mountains, where they can invite artisans from North America to teach the children sustainable skills and trades. Long-term they hope to encourage other Christian families to consider hosting orphans in their homes, for short periods. Hosting serves to show an example of a stable family and provides hope to orphans, many of whom have never experienced a loving, nurturing home. 

The CDM learned of the Harrisons and their ministry while seeking like-minded ministries in that region of the world who were ministering to refugees from Ukraine.  The CDM’s Refugee Ministry Subcommittee was thankful to learn of the Harrisons and the faithful ministry of mercy they are carrying out to “the least of these”, and, upon examining the various expenditures they have incurred in direct connection to the war in Ukraine and their ministry to Ukrainian refugees, recently approved a considerable disbursement to Hearts of Hope, to reimburse it for the ministry expenditures incurred, by means of the generous gifts of God’s people contributed to the Ukraine Crisis Fund.  

Lord willing, their mission will continue with more opportunities to show the love of Christ by offering a haven for more orphans and will possibly even inspire others to consider similar ministries. 

May all be encouraged by such service and pray that this ministry of the Harrison’s might serve as a glorious example of selfless diaconal care shown to those in need and distress.

Meet Your Fellow Deacon: Shabehram Irani

by Allison Groot, CDM Administrative Assistant

Shabehram “Billy” Irani grew up in a Zoroastrian home. The Zoroastrian religion is fixated on the supposed ongoing battle between good and evil, god and spirits of wickedness. Steeped in beliefs inundated with works-based righteousness, it was not until he was invited to Franklin Square OPC that Billy heard the true gospel of Jesus Christ. 

In 1995 his now-wife, Gaitry, invited Billy to her church, not only introducing him to the OPC but more foundationally to the Christian faith. There, he says, “I was born again.” He writes, “The Lord Jesus, through His word, changed my heart and I was baptized at that Church.” Billy was welcomed by the church and found a home among the believers there. When he and his family moved to Ronkonkoma, NY in 2005, the Irani’s began attending Bohemia OPC in Bohemia, NY. They were welcomed just as they had been in Franklin Square.

Over the years, the church has become family to the Iranis. It didn’t take long for Billy to desire to serve that family. As an accountant and banker, it made sense for him to take up the work of church treasurer. As a man with a servant’s heart, it made sense also for him to take up the work of deacon.

Bohemia OPC is a smaller congregation, comprised of about 30 communicant members. Though small, the congregation has experienced more than their share of trials. In 2020, their Pastor, Meint Ploegman passed away suddenly in a tragic accident. Through this tragedy, the diaconate was blessed with many opportunities to serve the congregation. Yet, this was only the beginning of difficulties for the small church. Soon, Covid would force the church to move services online, and low attendance threatened to close the church completely.

As the leaders of the church, the elder and deacons (along with many others from the church) earnestly prayed for the Lord to provide them with a pastor who would care for the church. In time, the Lord surely provided. Billy writes, “We were all praying every day, and the Lord helped us find a pastor to shepherd our folks in Bohemia.” Rev. Adriano Silva, previously an associate pastor in Orlando, FL, recently transferred his credentials from a sister denomination to the OPC and will be installed as Pastor of Bohemia OPC by the end of July.

The arrival of Rev. Silva has been a much-needed encouragement to the congregation. However, even in the absence of a shepherd, the deacons of Bohemia OPC continued leading their congregation to pursue mercy ministry. Possibly the most significant ministry of this kind is the food pantry which Bohemia OPC has been operating since 2015. Led by their three deacons, the congregation is thankful to be able to serve their surrounding area in this way. Billy and the other two deacons view this as an invaluable ministry in their community, as it is as busy as it has ever been.

Beyond this, it seems that cheerful giving is a usual characteristic of the congregation, as they are quick to contribute to the deacons’ fund each month, which Billy says “goes to various ministries of the denomination and to the needs of our members.” 

Though giving is easy for many, Billy shares that receiving is what many people struggle with, as many deacons can understand. “The biggest challenge is helping our members financially. We know that some need financial help but we don’t want to offend them,” he writes. And yet, the Lord has always blessed his servants in ministering to the needs of his people. The deacons of Bohemia OPC are thankful that the people in their congregation have always graciously accepted assistance when it is offered, and this has proved to strengthen the church as a whole in their care for one another. 

Despite all the trials that they have faced over the past three years, Billy attests that by the grace of God the people of Bohemia OPC have grown even closer. From joining with his fellow members to joyfully serve at the food pantry, to rallying a group to clear out the church’s backyard for an outreach picnic, to relying on his relationships with members to approach them with assistance in their time of need, it is clear to Billy that the Lord has used these strong bonds to help carry out His ministry of mercy.