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: Jesus Blankets
The Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church is truly a holistic experience engaging all of your senses. The melodies of the hymns captivate the ear (when sung properly). The vestments and shiny brass dance before the eyes. The olfactory senses are alerted with the frankincense. Greeting one another with the “Holy Kiss” calls our touch and feel into play. And of course, the culmination of the Liturgy comes with tasting the Holy and Precious Body and Blood of our Savior. Five of the carnal senses are at play every Sunday in our churches, and many other senses that we feel but shy away from defining. They are all real in the church, though they may not be seen, like the stars that are all around us during bright sunlight.
When we first built our altar area at the Youth Ministry Center we used a very heavy fabric for the curtain. It was a red velvety material with golden colored ropes and brocades. For our little church on the corner it was truly a majestic accent to the otherwise humble offerings around us in the church. It was also fairly difficult to open and close since it resided on a circular metal rod that had to be supported with extra garters because of the weight of the massive curtain. The deacons often pulled and pulled, sometimes in an awkward display of physical energy in front of the congregation. After a couple of years and a few hundred jerks and tugs at the garment, the curtain was showing wear and tear.
One of the members of the church donated new fabric for a lightweight curtain to be sewn. It arrived shortly after the order was place. We decorated the expanse of the curtain with beautiful cross brocades. Most importantly, now the curtain could easily be opened and shut with minimal effort.
While everyone was excited with the new arrival to our church, I had to figure out what to do with the old curtain. I knew old vestments had to be burnt and I figured the same was true of this huge curtain. Through the years, the curtain had absorbed the incense, smoke and prayers of thousands of faithful people whose cares and difficulties were expressed in prayer before this holy altar. The curtain was sacred and could not be put out for curbside pickup. I contemplated a huge bonfire in front of the church, inviting the neighborhood and community for a sacred burning, but the hassle of getting permits from the City of Glendale, which was already annoyed by our presence there, made it easy to opt out of that choice.
That week, during our homeless feed, we were going through the streets of LA’s “skid row” when it hit me! The curtain could be divided into several blankets for our homeless brothers and sisters! And a project was born!
Several women from the Ministry brought over their sewing machines, others brought sewing shears, irons and manual labor. The church was converted into a sewing factor. I swear that there was music playing in the church that day, but I know it was a happy hum of the ladies doing what they knew was right.
They sewed and manufactured 50 blankets from fabric that smelled like incense and the housed the hopes, dreams, prayers and answers of the thousands. These Armenian gifts of hope were cleaned, wrapped and delivered to the residents of the street, with a small note of explanation and a prayer by St. Nersess Shnorhali. It came with the compliments of one group of people who were once homeless, to another group, that they might find hope for a better future.
On our weekly trips through skid row I would keep my eyes open to see if I would spot someone wearing or wrapped up in a piece of curtain or donning it like a cape. I thought what a beautiful expression of Jesus’ command to clothe the naked, to have a person walking the streets with an Armenian curtain, now turned blanket.
I never saw pieces of the curtain again, a tragic reminder as to how large the homeless population is in the City of Angels. That winter, I was sure that there were at least 50 people snug in a sacred blanket unlike any other. From an apostolic era church, the love of Christ was shared on the streets. It was one small miracle that came from the Armenian Church Youth Ministry Center.
Join me tomorrow as we continue with more stories of faith and miracles that were, 20 years ago today.