Untold stories from the Youth Ministries Center
Today’s episode: Matagh
Armenians have a custom, which is blessed by the Church, of making vows which are paid for by sacrifice to the needy. It is called “Matagh” (Մատաղ). The idea is simple enough, you make a vow to feed the needy for a goodness that has been granted to you. Good health, prosperity, children’s achievements, are some of the reasons, and sharing the goodness with those who suffer is a way of expressing gratitude. The Church blesses this gesture with a prayer over the offering. We believe, God’s blessings shower on those who give. (Acts 20:35)
In the early days of the Youth Ministry Center we met a young man named Haig. He was a Clark-Kent type, in that during the day his work demanded a suit and tie, and in the evenings he’d don is “working clothes” to do some super work: feeding the needy and providing for the homeless. His presence at the Youth Ministry was the perfect fit, especially since we had just started the In His Shoes mission which emphasized our resurrection as a people and the Christian mandate to celebrate by helping others. Imagine that, the once-starving Armenians were now feeding others.
The game plan was this: We’d boil 20 gallons of water. Mr. Mehrabian had furnished us with an industrial kitchen, making tasks like this easy enough. The water would go into large thermoses and into the back of a car. We’d pile into two or three SUV’s or vans, along with boxes of soup-in-a-cup, spoons, and some staple food. We’d head out to downtown Los Angeles’ “Skid Row” where we’d park on a corner and distribute a hot meal, of soup and more. Sometimes we’d take clothes and shoes, from collections we’d organize at the center. We’d make a few stops in downtown, and people would come to the vans.
The contact with the homeless was often strangely festive. There would be casual chatter about life and always ended with a lot of gratitude. We were like a small brigade – we’d arrive to a corner, jump out of the cars and do our work. Everyone had a job: drivers, secure the area, open the soups, pour the water, offer food and bottled water, show clothes and shoes. We’d drive away always with the joy of helping, but with a deep sadness that it was only a temporary fix and we’d be back next week.
Finding volunteers for this homeless run was always easy. Tell them you’d want them to serve on a committee for an upcoming event, you’d get blank stares, ask them to go on a “skid-row run” and we sometimes had to turn away volunteers. We’d start and end each run with a prayer, asking God for strength as we went to meet our brothers and sisters on the street.
One night a man came up to our soup-distribution graciously declined the soup. Instead, he asked two of our volunteers, Anush and Suzie, for a sandwich and “maybe salad.” They explained that the night’s offering was soup and a snack, and even offered to provide the dry soup, ready for a meal tomorrow. Once again, he politely refused the soup saying he didn’t want to take it away from someone who might be hungry.
The kindness we witnessed on the street was exemplary, it’s the kind you point out to your children. “Please,” “Thank you,” “God bless,” were the words we heard, even when we didn’t have what they requested, in this case, a sandwich.
We continued with our distribution, when suddenly a car stopped by our van. “Do you guys need some more food to give away?” yelled out a voice. “We were at Starbucks at closing time and they were giving away their unsold daily food, we figured there’d be people who could use these.” Anush and Suzie responded in unison, “Sure, what do you have?”
“Sandwiches and salads.”
Suzie accepted the goods and Anush found the man in the crowd. When we came over and we presented him with his requested meal, his reaction was not one of surprise. He was grateful. He took the sandwich and salad, and right there, dropped to his knees on the sidewalk, raised the food to the heavens and gave thanks.
Another time a man asked for a size 8.5 shoe. We tried to find a fit, but a size 9 was the best we could do. He tried it and it wasn’t a good fit so he thanked us and went his way. At the next stop we found a person who could use the size 9 pair. He tried them on. They were perfect. In trade, he took off his shoes and donated them to us saying someone else could use them. The shoes he gave us were a size 8.5. We found the first man on the street, brought him the shoes, they were a perfect fit.
Stories like this motivated us and pointed to something greater at play during these distributions. The streets of Los Angeles have since gotten scarier and a few years back the police advised us to stop the distribution. We now distribute at a local shelter, and do so in the name of the Armenian people as a form of matagh.
Join me tomorrow as we explore more stories of faith and community building from our time at the Youth Ministries Center.