It was 20 years ago today:
Between the years 2003 and 2016 we ran an experiment in an area of Glendale, California known as “Ground Zero,” a place that Armenian organizations had ignored and forgotten, a place where education, identity and prayer came together. These are the untold stories from the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center.
Today’s Episode: Famine to Feast
World Vision is an organization that I connected with in the late 1990’s. It has a very simple premise of following the Matthew 25 invitation of seeing Jesus in the “least of my brothers and sisters.” It was only natural that we develop a closer bond between this group and our newly formed “In His Shoes” mission.
One of World Vision’s programs, at the time, was called the “30 hour Famine.” It was a planned famine to give young people (read all of us) an understanding of hunger, study the causes and raise much needed funds to feed the hungry of the world. I had two years of experience organizing this famine while at the St. Gregory Church in Pasadena. The formula was simple, each participant had to find sponsors, for instance $1 an hour, who would donate according to the participant’s ability to remain hungry. We organized the event inside the church hall.
An organized famine is foreign territory for an Armenian community, especially for a group of people hurting from displacement from wars and political upheavals. We turned over the collected money to World Vision and they in turn used the money to provide for children and families in some of the most impoverished areas on earth. The first year, we had about 25 kids participate. We had to expel (call their parents) three of them who snuck out at night for a bite to eat. When they returned, it was the smell of heavily onion-seasoned Armenian kebab that betrayed them! 30 hours of fasting is no easy feat, but I was proud that the majority of them kept their side of the bargain, and it was a success. We raised funds, but even more, we raised awareness for hunger and our response to others in the world.
Trauma scars people to various degrees. The Armenian Genocide, in a sense the trauma of traumas, has left a very large scar on the psyche of the entire Armenian nation. There are many wounds that have to be healed, or at the very least, addressed. Armenians have been on the receiving end of tragedy, from Genocide to Soviet occupation, to civil wars and political upheavals in their new adopted lands (Middle East). So, it was understandable when we received complaints about sending the money on those outside our Armenian community. Or maybe I read too much into it and it was simply that the money was going outside of controlled boundaries.
Moving from Pasadena and opening the Youth Ministries Center, we started with a clean slate. We invited kids to participate. We had them collect money. While World Vision provided Bible Study material as activities during the “famine,” I took the liberty of tailoring the lessons to our In His Shoes platform, namely, to connect the dots with the Armenian Genocide and the plight of the Armenian people who were labeled in the post-Genocide period as the “Starving Armenians,” by National Geographic, no less (circa 1935).
We held the first “famine” at the Center with a couple of dozen kids. We camped out in the church – sleeping bags on the floors and pews. A few parents came to help my wife Susan and I with chaperoning the younger ones. The participants ranged in age from 13 to 30. We set a buy-in amount, that is, participants would have to raise a minimum amount. I believe it was $50.
I invited friends of the ministry to come and speak about Christian charity. Among them were my sister Anush Avejic, businessman David Mgrublian and attorney Christopher Armen. In between lectures, we had wellness checks, made sure people were drinking water, and moving with mild exercises. In the evening we watched “Lillies of the Field” with 1963 Oscar winner Sidney Poitier, followed by a discussion on the film as well as an assortment of topics.
Hosanna Aroyan was the student leader. She was a natural organizer and articulated herself well. She reported to me that we had collected almost $10,000 in pledges from the community. We had a couple of anonymous donors who said they would match our funds. With those matching funds we started the 30 Hour Famine with about $30,000 in pledges. I was checking World Vision’s website that weekend and reading about matching funds. That night they posted a 6-to-1 and a 5-to-1 grant.
Sunday morning. We woke the kids up in the church. Sleep didn’t help their hunger and they were tired and exhausted. A few were light-headed. The 30 hours was to finish at 12 noon with the reception of the Holy Communion, the sacred Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We were getting ready to start services when I received an acknowledgment from World Vision, our collected funds had been matched with a few different funds and we got creative by offering the matched fund totals to our anonymous donors. We were at half-a-million dollars! I could not control my emotions and shared the news with Hosanna. We both burst into tears.
I can never forget that day. The church was filled with the parents and the curious. What were we going to announce? To the amazement of the congregation and the participants I announced that our collection exceeded a $500,000!
It was Easter Season, and the sermon just flowed. Here we were, children of the those labeled as “Starving Armenians” now we were feeding the starving of the world! We could not find a more profound expression of resurrection following crucifixion, than what was given to us that morning. We demonstrated Jesus’ challenge, “if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:10)
We continued to hold the “30 hour Famine” annually and it became a standing program of the In His Shoes ministry. It became more popular through the years, and eventually we were given space at Glendale Community College to hold the event and sleepover there. But that first year will always be special. We made a video that was shared with other youth groups at Armenian churches, but unfortunately the idea of a planned famine intruded on the comfort level of too many.
In 2009, while visiting the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin in Armenia with my son Varoujan, we were using backpacks that were given to us by World Vision. Someone spotted the logo on the packs and they pointed us to a seminar that was being held for Sunday School teachers, in a building adjacent to the Cathedral. It was organized by World Vision at the invitation of the Catholicos of All Armenian, His Holiness Karekin II. There they were, World Vision, at the Center of our Armenian Church. We went in and introduced ourselves and couldn’t feel prouder that goodness was spreading.
We continue tomorrow with more untold stories and miracles from 20 years ago today. I invite you to join us. If you missed earlier episodes, you can hear them on your favorite podcatcher or at Epostle.net under the “Armodoxy for Today” tab. Remember to leave a comment and/or write us at email@example.com.
Note: The image which appears on the cover, “Peacock with ‘eh'” was created at the Famine under the direction of Anush Avejic. Years later it was donated to the St. Mark Episcopal Church in Glendale and hangs prominently in their sanctuary to this day.