A unique approach to the unity of the Church: sharing
The Armenian community in North America has been hampered by unnecessary and tragic division since 1933. During the first 23 years after the schism, many parishes were organized under the Diocese of America (later Western and Canadian dioceses were trained). The rest of the churches remained “unaffiliated” until 1956, when they asked the Great House of Cilicia to be affiliated and what became known as the Prelature was formed. In the years that followed, a prelature of the West and of Canada was also formed. We should not be judging our ancestors in these difficult times. The events were tragic and created a rare dichotomy where conflict and growth were managed simultaneously. It was during these periods of faithfulness in the 1950s and 1960s that North American communities experienced a significant expansion of infrastructure with many churches and centers. Both “sides” were filled with devoted Armenian Christians. We should remember that. Reunification was hotly debated in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in the eastern regions, but fell victim to special interests. My own take on the shameful division of our church has not changed for decades. I find it embarrassing and contrary to our claims of Christian values. How can we claim to adhere to our Lord’s teachings but cannot find the will to overcome obstacles to unity?
As we wait (endlessly) for our leaders to do their job and bring us together, a new dynamic has emerged. In the 1980s I remember one of the debates going on was whether to instantly unify and then meet the challenges or have a period of “cooperation” to come to terms with and establish a certain level of confidence. Regardless of the failures of this effort, the values of “cooperation” took root. In almost all of the communities in the Eastern region, the local engagement activity has been successful. It started many years ago with participation in joint activities such as genocide commemorations or catastrophic events such as relief efforts for the 1988 earthquake. It continued with other times such as the 1700th anniversary of Armenia’s accession to Christianity (2001) or the centenary of the genocide (2015). Usually our Catholicoi would sanction cooperation and then return to “business as usual” without ever capitalizing on goodwill to end this tragic state. Despite the lack of a sustainable approach, many of our local leaders facilitated the thaw by building relationships. When you build walls, like we did, relationships and trust take a back seat. We have all witnessed a time when local priests established close relationships and many lay people formed friendships. This has created an environment where supporting each other is a more natural state.
A new dynamic has slowly emerged in our community. Rather than worrying only about the corporate structure to which they are affiliated (diocese or prelature) or their own local parish, we experience a bond with the whole community. It is quite common to hear individuals talking about the larger community (ie Boston, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, etc.) and not just their parish. This is fueled by really broad community activity, but also by the relationships of trust that have formed as a result of the last decades of investment. Our emerging generation has taken a step ahead as they grow older in the years of decision making. Most are ambivalent about the division and have expressed their Armenian and Christian identity ignoring traditional boundaries. It is quite common in large communities to see young people in both AYF and ACYOA or to find diverse backgrounds among UGAB YP participants. Their social needs and limited commitment to their parents’ infrastructure have in fact opened many new doors.
Recently, I noticed the first examples of another cooperative state, one that includes resource sharing. Many of our parishes, diocese or prelature, are experiencing declining functions. Whether it manifests in church attendance, membership, youth programs, or financial matters, struggle is the new reality. The work to reverse this trend is complex and the subject of much activity and dialogue. What I find inspiring is that some have found a way to “pool resources” to meet the needs of the community. There is a diocesan parish in Trumbull headed by a priest whom I respect deeply. He is the benchmark, in my opinion, in finding ways for people to identify with the Armenian Church. A middle-aged man has emerged in recent years with remarkable devotion in this parish. He serves at the altar of our Lord and is also a diocesan delegate. While serving on the Holy Ascension, he also frequently visited Prelacy Church in New Britain to attend the altar. When I see this type of selfless devotion to serving our church, I am convinced that it will influence others. This admirable dedication should not be underestimated. We are conditioned to be faithful to a parish. Historically, in addition to the tensions, there has also been competition between parishes. What a wonderful example of truly honoring “the church.”
The northern Connecticut region is going through an interesting transformation. There are three apostolic churches within half an hour. We have a diocesan parish in Hartford, a diocesan parish in New Britain and a prelature parish in New Britain. Each parish has recently been endowed with a new priest. St. George in Hartford is run by Der Voski, a man I have met and I am so impressed with his interest in Christian love. You may have read an incident that occurred in late spring when a Bible was found burnt on the steps of his ward. Der Voski publicly offered help and support to the individual in an act of love and forgiveness. The Holy Resurrection is led by the new Der Haroutiun who has been the subject of a previous column and part of our new generation of US-born priests. Der Garabed of St. Stephen’s possesses the peaceful nature of a man of God and embraces his new calling to serve the Lord and our church. What is particularly exciting is the relationship the three have formed and their approach to their respective ministries. They approach their roles as a collective responsibility to meet the needs of the Armenians of northern Connecticut, and there is a lot of work to be done for everyone. This has established a very natural level of cooperation that will benefit the faithful. In fact, they have sponsored several joint religious observations and have many more ideas. These people are my heroes because in addition to honoring their parishes, they have understood that by cooperating and not competing, they will all have a greater impact on the mission of our church in this region. It is a situation that deserves to be observed and supported. I think we could see some particular results in the years to come. This can help allay concerns in small communities.
This mentality, based on Armenian Christian love, can help strengthen our church as our leaders avoid the problem of administrative unification. As the impact of secularism and assimilation takes its toll on our church, the infrastructure of priests, deacons, choir members and teachers is strained. Many churches face a “catch-22” attempt to recruit new members and maintain an effective education system to provide these new members. How can each parish maintain a comprehensive and effective infrastructure of teachers and programs to meet the needs of their congregants? We are beginning to see the emergence of local retreats, educational programs, and religious observances that are jointly sponsored and led by local leaders. This not only increases the effectiveness of their ministry, but gives people hope and generates additional ideas.
My maternal grandfather was a founding member of St. Stephen’s Parish in New Britain in the late 1920s. It was one of the most controversial parish issues in 1933, as his ownership was settled by the courts. Soon after, Holy Resurrection Parish was established from those who were not affiliated with St. Stephan’s after the division. The original sanctuary parish was originally only one block from St. Stephen’s on Tremont St. I remember my mother telling us that many relatives had gone to Holy Resurrection, but the he environment was such during my youth that our paths did not cross. . There was no animosity. How could there be with my generation? We just never met. So sad. Last summer, I visited Holy Resurrection Parish with the honor of being the godfather of Der Haroutiun. It was there that I met not only a few of my cousins who are my mother’s generational peers, but many of their extended family members who are active in the ward. God has a plan for all of us. Today, these parishes which have lived through difficult years are at the forefront of a new reflection. Bishop Daniel believes a resurgence will occur. I do it too. These leaders have a vision.
It is not a new thought. It is simply applying love and devotion to our faith directly to the task at hand. Others call it “speaking of the word”. Putting aside our egos and past problems is a hallmark of Christianity. Fortunately, the division has not changed the united theology of our church. Something interesting is happening in Connecticut and elsewhere. I hope that all the communities consider their work not in the myopic vision of their parish, but rather as a collective partner with other parishes of this locality. It is a practical necessity and an important part of our faith. If we truly approach our work through the lens of the larger community we serve, we may well discover solutions to problems that once seemed chronic and now have a newly discovered light.