Gyumri: Memories that heal

Roots of Armodoxy: Memory that heals

This week on the Roots of Armodoxy, we are looking a memories – those that honor, those that help us heal and those that keep us from moving forward. We’re looking at memories from different vantage points we’ve discovered in Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia after Yerevan. This is the second episode of this mini-series of daily messages.

I remember when the earthquake hit Spitak and the surrounding city of Gyumri in 1988. We in the diaspora went into a massive fundraising effort to provide for equipment and supplies to be sent over there. We in California feel the earth rumble as well, especially in Northern California where I had assumed my first pastorate. In fact, when we heard that the Spitak quake was a magnitude 6.8 Ms, we were a bit surprised to learn that 25,000 to 50,000 had perished. We had had quakes exceeding that magnitude without the casualties sustained in Armenia. It was only a few days later, when Soviet Premier Gorbachev visited Gyumri that we learned about the shotty workmanship and the pilfering of construction material that led the destruction. During Soviet times cement brought in a hefty profit on the black market for those who could manage to build buildings with less material.

For months which turned into years, we collected money and goods to send to Armenia. But during that first year, on October 17, 1989 that I had a front row seat to a big one. It was during the World Series – a special series that pitted the two Bay Area teams, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, against one another. The fans were in the stands and the rest were next to a TV or radio to follow the game when our turn came. The ground rumbled, and we found ourselves in the Loma Prieta quake, registering 6.9 Ms. I rushed home to find shelves toppled, glass all over the floors and the entire neighborhood out on the street, not sure when the next tremor would hit. It was a big one, indeed, a freeway collapsed, the Bay bridge came apart and when all was said and done 63 people died.

Two earthquakes, less than a year apart, with relative same intensity. The differences of the loss of life was remarkable and may account for the way the quakes were remembered. Or maybe it’s something more, something to do with the way we handle our memories.

On the first anniversary of the Spitak quake, orders came from the top, the Catholicos of All Armenians, that we would solemnly observe the anniversary with requiem services throughout the world. The day was somber indeed, with reruns of video clips and reprints of articles and photos to forever forge the images in our mind.

On the first anniversary of the Bay Area quake, the atmosphere was completely festive! The community got together to celebrate the life that was spared! There were street parties and festivals proclaiming the win over something so tragic, celebrating their re-birth as a community.

The differences in the commemorations could be described as seeing the glass, half full or half empty? Of course, the number of casualties in Armenia – 50,000 deaths in a country of 3 million means 1.7% of the population was wiped out in this single event. Still, for our discussion, we’re looking at memory, and what that memory does and can do for us.

In the case of Gyumri, the sadness continued for years, in fact, decades later the effects of the earthquake are still felt. The domes that we looked at yesterday are reminders of the quake and they stand so that they are unavoidable, that is, you have to confront and acknowledge the past. In so doing, they give a license for victimization. It opens the doors for confusion. Instead of understanding their predicament logically, people revert to fatalistic answers, such as, “It is God’s will that I suffer.”

One of the groups that is taking a bold stand in Gyumri is FLY = Freedom Loving Youth. Yes, today 35 years after the quake they are relieving the pain and suffering. They are building facilities and housing for people, and even more, providing the necessary resources and psychological assistance to overcome the depression caused by an unresolved trauma from 35 years ago. They are in the process of building a new center where these issues can be resolved in an efficient and equitable manner. We visited the site and met with their workers. In His Shoes is a proud partner of FLY.

What I’m describing here can be seen in as comparison between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In the Old Testament we read stories – memories – that pit people against one another. The concept of God playing favorites with one people over another is pronounced and remembered throughout its pages. Jesus came to end that. His message was to everyone. This last Sunday we celebrated the Transfiguration. The point of Moses and Elijah being there was that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” is how Jesus entered on the scene and the even greater news he had to give was that the Kingdom was accessible by everyone – young and old, regardless of race or nationality. With his proclamation he moved the model away from fatalism, back to self-determination. “To hear the word of God, and do it.” It’s about Faith being action, not a history lesson.

Baptism is the “Born Again” experience in the Armenian Church. It’s a fresh start, where the past is left behind. The “curse” of the memory is dropped. Memory serves to heal. Christianity is about celebrating the today. The past can be honored and revered but is not a place to live. The difference between a happy or festive expression and a sad expression is not merely an optimistic vs. pessimistic view of the world, it is an acknowledgement that God is with you, that the new day brings with it a new life.

We pray from the Book of Hours of the Armenian Church a morning prayer bringing in the new day, “We thank you O Lord our God, who granted us restful sleep in peace. Grant us to pass the remainder of the day in peace. Strengthen and guard us through the days of our lives, so that we live our lives with pure behavior and reach the peaceful haven in eternal life, by the grace and mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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