Tag Archive for: 20 Years ago Today



The Gospel of St. John ends with the words, And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.” (21:25)

I have always assumed that this was hyperbole, an exaggerated statement not meant to be taken literally. After all, the Gospel narrative accounts for three years of Jesus’ life, from baptism to resurrection. And technically, St. John’s account can be spread over a single year. Even if there was an event or miracle recorded every minute of his wake life, the recording process would not be prohibited by the amount of space on the planet.

St. John writes these words after his account of the Resurrection and during the time that the Christian community was organizing, and the Church was placing roots as it expanded. After the Resurrection of Christ, the message was spreading like wildfire, as more and more people were experiencing a new mindset, where death was no longer to be feared and God’s love was readily available to all.

Over the last several weeks (since Easter), I have presented the work of the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center from 2003 on. The series, called “It was 20 years ago today,” chronicled miracles and events that took place from a small church which was built on a faith in the power of resurrection over crucifixion, light over darkness, love over hatred. As I wrote the last entry, I realized there was so much more that I could have recorded, so much more that should be shared, so much more, that perhaps there might not be enough space or time to write it down. No, these words are not hyperbole, rather they reflect a genuine understanding of the impact the Christian message has had on the lives of people. One person who moves from hurt to healing, is multiplied by the number of people he or she affects in and with his or her life.

Now, in the case of Christ, the Son of God, manifesting the Divine Spirit in our world, can we possibly even fathom the effect the Incarnation had on the world. The passage we read above is the epilogue to St. John’s Gospel. It is the ending to a Gospel that started off, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”

The Light is all consuming, all revealing, and with the Light, there can be no darkness.

We pray the prayer of St. Nersess Shnorhali from the 21st hour.
O Christ, True Light, make my soul worthy to behold with joy the light of Your glory, in that day when You call me, to rest in the hope of good things in the mansions of the just until the day of Your glorious coming. Have mercy upon Your Creatures and upon me, a great sinner. 

Cover: Tech festival, Yerevan 2014, Fr. Vazken

Matagh for a Vow

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.

Impossible Forgiveness

It was 20 years ago today: Untold Stories from the Youth Ministry Center

Today’s Episode: Impossible Forgiveness

There would soon be nothing to celebrate on Cinco de Mayo for the Aguirre family. It was in the year 2000 on the 5th of May that a young man named Raul Aguirre died outside his High School. In an effort to break-up a gang-related scuffle, Raul got caught in the mix and a knife meant for another boy, killed him instead. Raul was not a gang member. He was a student, a very decent and hard working students. He was 17 years old.

All this took place directly across the street from the Armenian Church Youth Ministry Center, in Glendale. Rival gangs made themselves known in the neighborhood as well as on the school campuses. Gangs were defined mostly along ethnic lines. And here, the listeners may understand why we refer to this as a place that Armenian organizations had abandoned and forgotten.

Our church and Youth Ministry Center opened in the year 2003 and so, I came to know Raul from the stories I heard about the day that he died. When we arrived on the corner, there were still students who remembered the tragedy with vivid details. However, I have to mention that the full story of Raul I only discovered after meeting his mother, Leticia, a woman who was a living testimony to the power of compassion, love and forgiveness.

On that tragic day Raul was late coming home from school. The phone rang and Leticia first received the news that her son had been hurt in a fight. Only three hours later, Raul died on an operating table.

Mrs. Aguirre recounted, “That moment was the most horrible in my life…. I felt that I would die, but the worst is that I didn’t die…”

During those early days at the Youth Ministry the community was very much talking about this murder. The trial was underway. The minor tensions that existed between the Armenian and Latino communities were even more pronounced by some of the students at the school. The boys who killed Raul were Armenian.

Day after grueling day of testimony Mrs. Aguirre attended the trial of her boy’s killers. And then the unexpected happened. Yes, I’ll admit it, even for me.

“I wanted justice to be done,” said Mrs. Aguirre. “In court I saw the mothers of the gang members kissing crosses and praying to God to forgive their sons and I thought how difficult this must be for God.”

But when Rafael Gevorgyan, one of three gang members being tried, begged for Mrs. Aguirre’s forgiveness on the final day of his trial, she gave it to him.

“I saw a boy, almost a child, in a situation so grave asking for forgiveness,” she said. “I felt huge compassion and huge tenderness.”

Mrs. Aguirre did the impossible. She forgave her son’s killers. She lived Christ’s command, to forgive. She expressed the final definition of love.

I was so moved by this story that I asked Mrs. Aguirre to come and share her story at our church. She accepted the invitation. She walked into an Armenian Church, packed to standing room only, with Armenian mothers, fathers and children. There was so much interest we set up speakers outside to handle the overflow crowd.

She stood up and spoke and told her story. Her words came out of her mouth in Spanish. A translator echoed the words in Armenian. The translator was unnecessary that evening. Everyone understood. Mrs. Aguirre was speaking the universal language, God’s language of love. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Forgiveness is supernatural. Forgiveness is going beyond the expected and therefore the result is spectacular. Mrs. Aguirre’s actions were supernatural, that is, they rose above the expected argument of hatred and they acknowledged the power of love.

We witnessed many miracles while on that corner, and perhaps this was the greatest. Armenian ears heard a story spoken in Spanish and understood in Love. This day we learned that humans have the capacity to forgive and in so doing they reflect the Divine.

Join me tomorrow as we continue with the untold stories from the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center, from 20 years ago today.

Leticia Aguirre’s speech

Translated from Spanish to English

Hello everyone,

My name is Leticia Aguirre.  My husband and I came to Glendale from Guadalajara, Mexico many years ago searching for a better life.  My husband and I had three daughters and one son, Raul.

Raul was a very youthful, kind, well in mind and body, full of ideas and dreams to live.  He had a month left before graduating high school and worked part-time at Taco bell.  His wish was to join the Marines and study planes, which he liked very much.

May 5th of 2000 was an ordinary day.  My children had gone to school.  Around 4pm, as I was preparing dinner, I became worried that Raul hadn’t come home yet.  Since he started work at 5pm, he would usually come home, change, eat, then go to work.  Suddenly, then phone rang.  It was a call from [Raul’s] school, notifying me that Raul was hurt in a fight outside of the school.  I was horrified and even thought that this was a mistake, that it wasn’t Raul.  I had never before received any complaints from school about Raul getting into trouble.  On the contrary, he was a very quiet boy, even a bit timid.

We rushed to the hospital, not thinking that the situation could be so grave.  Upon arrival, the doctor told us that Raul had been seriously injured.  He had been stabbed twice in the back and twice in the heart.  The doctor said that they were operating, but there was little hope.  Three hours later, he died.

Seeing my son dead so abruptly was the most horrible thing that had happened to me in my entire life.  It’s a pain so difficult to describe.  I felt like I had died, but the worst part was that I hadn’t died.  I had to live what was to come by the minute.

Later on, I found out what had happened.  Raul was waiting for the Beeline in front of school when Jimmy, a boy from a Hispanic gang, came to leave school.  Jimmy was with his friends when a car full of youth from an Armenian gang drove by.  They exchanged gang signs and suddenly, the kids from the car got out to fight Jimmy and the Hispanic gang members.  When he saw Jimmy in trouble, Raul tried to help and saved his life, but they killed Raul. 

This changed many of our lives.  I no longer feel complete, like a part of me died with Raul.  My daughters and husband have also suffered.  My youngest daughter who was then 8 years old has spend 3 years in psychiatric therapy, taking anti-depressants.  She was emotionally unstable and diagnosed with fibromyalgia when she had deep depression and had pain throughout her body.  My husband was a diabetic and his health worsened.  My other daughter, who was 12 years old then, does not ever want to talk about what happened.  Our lives changed forever.

Raul left us, but still lives in our hearts and in our memories.  I still have all of his clothes hanging in the closet and folded in the drawers, as if he were still here.  I have his shoes and his homework – they’re the only things I have from him and I will keep them forever.  A child is never forgotten.

Gang violence is a terrible thing and not only do the families of the victims suffer, but also the families of the aggressors.

But from the very first minute of this, I felt God’s presence around me, giving me the strength to survive through something so terrible.  Only He gave me the courage and hope for continuing to live.

I know that God is loving, merciful and forgives us all, but I did not know how I could have forgiven the boys that had killed my son.  I was present at every day of the trial of the boys – I wanted justice to be served.  In court, I saw the mother of one of the boys kissing a cross and praying to God for the boys.  I thought about how difficult this situation was for God – with whom would He be with?  With the mothers who were asking for compassion for their sons?  Or with me who was asking for justice for my son?

Now I understand that He was with them and with me.

When the day came for Jimmy – the Hispanic gang member – to testify, it was sad.  He has been involved in gangs since he was 12 years old, committing all sorts of crimes.  His life seemed so sad and empty.  But he felt an even greater [pain – dolor] and guilt for what had happened to Raul – after all, he was the one who started the problem and even ran off when Raul got involved in the fight to help him.  He told me that since the incident, he had left the gang and was trying to be a good person.  He was too ashamed to look me in the eyes and looked down instead.  After his testimony, I went to the hallway to find him and speak to him.  He asked me for forgiveness, crying, and said that he would have preferred to have been the one who was killed and not Raul, who was such a good person.  He said that he could no longer stand such guilt and I forgave him from my heart.  I gave him a hug and told him that the only thing he could do was to keep trying to be a good person, so that Raul’s death won’t have been in vain.  If Raul gave his life for Jimmy, he should leave behind the gangs and all the bad that they do.

I saw how his face and heart felt so relieved, as if a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders.  He was very grateful and happy for my forgiveness.

I kept attending the trial of the Armenian boys, day after day, waiting for justice and still not understanding how God forgives us all, even the boys who killed my son.

When the day came to read the verdict, one of the boys, Rafael, who had struck my son with a crowbar, asked me for forgiveness.  He told me that there was not a day that passed when he didn’t feel repentance for his involvement with what happened to Raul.  He said that he knew it would be almost impossible for me to forgive him, but even if it were in 20 years or more, he hoped that one day I would forgive him.

At that moment, I felt something so hard to describe.  I saw a boy, practically a child, in a situation so terrible, asking for my forgiveness.  I felt great compassion and I forgave him with all my heart.  I tried to give him a hug, but the judge would not allow it.

Then I understood God and how easy it was to forgive when you feel compassion, when you open your heart.  God knew that I understood Him.

I know that Raul is happy to know that I have peace in my heart and that he is with God. 

Since that day, Rafael writes great letters to me from prison where he tells me that my forgiveness gives him the strength to endure life in prison.  He tells me that he is trying his best to be a good person.  He graduated from high school in prison and that when he gets out, the first thing he plans to do is to visit Raul’s grave to tell him how sorry he is.  I write back to him and try to tell him things that will help him move forward, that God always with him and that he is always in my prayers.

Time has passed and good things and sad things have happened.

Jimmy, the Hispanic boy, died a year ago; he was killed by the police.  Apparently he couldn’t leave behind his bad habits.  It was very hard for me and brought back all the pain that I felt when I lost Raul, my son.  I felt that my son had died in vain, trying to help Jimmy, who couldn’t attain a life that was good and complete.  But what I do thank God for is that He gave Jimmy and I the opportunity to open our hearts, for him to ask for my forgiveness and tell me how guilty he felt and for me to have forgiven him and to have felt the tranquility that I needed to feel.  I think that if I had a different attitude and not listened to him, I would not have a clear conscious, to know that he would have died feeling so terrible.

Rafael, the Armenian boy, in one of his letters, told me that his appeal could cost him more years in prison.  He tells me that if I am capable of forgiving him, after all the pain that he has caused me, then he also could be strong to get through his own pain and situation.  He says that if he doesn’t get his appeal, for me not to worry because he is already grateful for the forgiveness that I have him for his error and this is a much bigger and real appeal compared to his situation. 

These days, Rafael is happy to know that his sentence will be reduced by a few years and I am very happy for him.  

Rejected Scholarships

It was 20 years ago today: Untold Stories from the Youth Ministry Center

Today’s Episode: Rejected Scholarships

The after-school mentoring program was offered to students from the Glendale cluster of schools across the street from the Youth Ministry Center.

At the time I was serving as the chaplain for the Armenian Students at USC and I made a quick connection between the two groups. Student from USC would volunteer once or twice a week as a mentor at the Center. They would help with homework, but more importantly they would mentor their younger “brothers” and “sisters” in the paths of higher education.

Our mentoring program had established a name in Glendale. It was a model program.

One day, the principal from Glendale High School called me. Glendale High was Hoover High’s cross town rival, but the call had nothing to do with rivalry nor with Hoover High. The principal confessed that she was confounded by a string of events that just didn’t add up.

At Glendale High, she had several students of Armenian backgrounds, who were high-achievers and had scored very high in college board and SAT tests, granting them admission and scholarships into some of the most prestigious universities in the nation.

That didn’t sound like a problem to me. The unexpected is what followed. She continued, several of these students had rejected admission, scholarships, even full-rides to the best-of-the-best universities in the U.S.  I had a hard time understanding this, until she listed the universities, they were all out of the area – Stanford, Harvard, Colombia, Berkeley. They had not rejected admissions to either of the two main local universities – USC or UCLA. I didn’t need to do any detective work, the principal explained that the parents of these bright students were the ones blocking the paths to higher education. They didn’t want their children to leave home, and so they bribed them with high-end cars. The formula was: reject the university, here’s a Mercedes and go to Glendale Community College.

As someone who had to take out loans and pay for university education, I just could not even imagine how someone could turn away a full-ride to these universities. I mean, what’s the process of rejection? How do you throw away that letter of acceptance? Do you answer back, sorry, I decided I’m going to GCC?

Furthermore, these were not isolated incidents. It was as if the parents had organized a resistance movement based on their fears.

The principal was just as confounded as me and asked for help. I turned this over to the mentors, to the USC ASA student. The principal organized a parent-info evening and my ASA came out en force. It was an evening of open and candid conversation. The students presented strong arguments, accented with presentations about the importance of higher education. They fielded questions and gave persuasive answers. We left Glendale High School that night with a sense of accomplishment. They listened and heard not from me, but from those who had walked down this path.

We are currently in Eastertide, a few weeks after Easter and before Ascension Day. In the period following the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to several people and crowds for 40 days, after which he ascended to heaven (Acts 1). Most of the evangelism in the first century was by Jesus’ followers, and certainly it follows, that most of the Christian Church for the last 2000 years has been evangelized by Jesus followers. Every day and period have their unique challenges based on the circumstances. That night at Glendale High School we learned a lot about the community. The parents were recent immigrants who had struggled to bring their children to this country to enjoy the freedom they had only heard of. Now they understood there was more to America than the dream. Whereas in the traditional Armenian family children stayed and lived at home until they were of age to start their own families, the American reality gave chances for the children to pursue their dreams on a different time-table.  For the first time in the family’s long history, children were academically smarter than their parents and if that reality was not presented diplomatically, it could blow up in unexpected ways. Also, the material glitter of America had lured to many into believing that the material wealth was an end in itself. Finally, for me, as the head of this mentoring project, it was important to allow the students to talk. In this case there was more power in the advice when it came from peers, rather than me.

The Youth Ministry was an experiment. This was uncharted territory. In many ways, so is the Christian Church, so is life. Each day and each time have their own circumstances demanding us to act and address them accordingly. Sermons, messages and direction must take into account the times and the conditions under which the message is given. It’s the call to relevance.

Join me tomorrow as we continue with stories from the Youth Ministries Center from 20 years ago today.

Jesus Blankets

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.

Suspended Angel

It was 20 years ago: Untold stories from the Youth Ministry Center
Today’s Inspiration: Suspended Angel
Barouyr* was a troubled kid. He was a 10th grader at Hoover High School when I met him outside the Youth Ministry Center. It was during the day, and he was pacing the sidewalk outside our church. He had been suspended from school. The school would dispense punishment according to the misbehavior of a student in a manner that escaped by understanding. Minor offenses led to detention – an after-school time spent in a supervised room with others. Enough detentions led to suspension – a period of time-off from the school. Finally, too many suspensions led to expulsion from the school.
There was Barouyr outside the church, looking around as if lost, but once you spoke with him you realized he was very aware of his surroundings. I greeted him and found a very respectful young man. We talked and he gave me excuses for being suspended, blaming teachers and administrators and their degree of “incompetence.” He was a young “tough guy.” He was from the streets and let me know he wasn’t afraid of anyone, but God.
At the time, I could not understand how suspending a student from classes could possibly be helpful for the child. Of course, it was easy to understand how it benefitted the teaching staff maintain a calm atmosphere in the classroom. At some point the discipline problem becomes overwhelming and there aren’t enough staff members to handle all the trouble-giving youth.
We went into the church. We talked. He opened up. His father was an alcoholic who abused his mother. They lived in a two-bedroom apartment. He and his older sister shared a room. He told me he didn’t want to be in school, but that rejection was merely a cover up, the tough-guy persona coming through. He was a bright guy who knew he wanted more.
The Soviet Union had disassembled a little over 10 years before we opened. The atheistic state had been prevalent for over seven decades. Domestic violence and alcoholism often accompanied one another as a result of life in the Soviet Union.
Barouyr became one of the regulars at the Youth Ministry. He grew up under the shadow of the church. On Sunday’s he served at the holy altar and during the week he was a regular fixture. I can’t tell you what it was that tied him there, suffice it to say he was one of the miracles of the ministry. In turn he inspired others to come to the church. Barouyr was no angel to the school authorities, but for the kids he turned-onto the church and this unique ministry, they could not have wished for a more caring guide from heaven. He retained his tough-guy exterior. He continued to get in trouble, but he was loved by everyone at the Center.
He ended up graduating and went to on to become a teacher himself. He still keeps in touch.
As a result of Barouyr, we found a new place within the community. The Center was seen as place that could pick up the pieces that were floating around. We put in a formal request with the school administrators to count us as an alternative to detention. We quickly became a go-to-point for students after school. The three schools across the way, Keppel Elementary, Toll Middle and Hoover High, ended their classes around 3PM and they walked over. Parents understood this to be a safe zone, where their children could “hang” until pick-up time. It was important for me that there was an understanding by everyone who came through its doors that the building was a Church.
I did not understand how suspending this student from classes could possibly help him. Now I understand that had he not been suspended our paths may not have crossed, or if they did, we may not have had the introduction we did. Like so many things that happened at the Youth Ministry Center, they just did. They weren’t planned. This was new and charted territory for the Armenian Church and we were following the flow, trusting the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That trust, from the Church, was perhaps the biggest miracle.
Tomorrow we continue 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 feedback@epostle.net.

*Fictitious name to keep him anonymous.

20 years ago: In His Shoes Formation

It was 20 years ago today: Untold stories of the Youth Ministries Center

Today’s Episode: In His Shoes

Thankfully April 24 only comes around once a year. It’s a super-charged day of Armenianness. It is the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide which began with a round-up of intellectuals and leaders of the community on April 24, 1915. It was the beginning of a systematic program of annihilation of the Armenian population living in the Ottoman Empire. By the time it was over, 1.5 million Armenians were murdered – men, women, and children – and about the same number were exiled from their historic homeland creating the Diaspora, with Armenians in all corners of the world and in every country.

The Genocide is a very personal story with me because all four of my grandparents were Genocide survivors. All four of my wife’s grandparents were Genocide survivors. We grew up with the stories of atrocities that were so horrendous that they often told with silence and tears.

As far as I can remember, on every April 24 we would attend a commemoration activity of the Armenian Martyrs. In 1965, on the 50th anniversary of the Genocide, a small group of men got together with the vision of creating a monument to honor the Martyrs. My father was one of those men. As a little boy I remember him going to meetings, the events, fundraisers, and finally the opening of the monument, the first one on public property in Montebello, California. It was a small but meaningful way in which we honored the memory of those who perished. A few years ago they placed a plaque on the monument with the name of the committee members. Seeing my father’s name there swelled pride in me, and reminded me of commemorations from years past and what they have deteriorated to today.

Fifty, Sixty, Seventy, and even eighty years after the Genocide we would have survivors at these events who would share their eye-witness account of the mayhem their experienced in their homes, during the most tender years of their lives. Today, these events are filled with a demand for justice (from Turkey) and rhetoric that often is forgotten on April 25. I’ve always maintained that the easiest day to be Armenian is April 24, and the hardest day is April 25 and the 364 that follow.

At the Youth Ministry Center, kids were coming in because of the sign out front. They knew it was a place where both their Armenian ethnic identity and their Christian faith would be nurtured and grow. I wanted the reality of the Easter experience – Christ has risen – to resonate in their experience as Armenians whose ancestors, now three or four generations ago, had experienced Genocide.

We organized an overnight retreat in Santa Clarita, California. I asked my friends Linda Maxwell and Jose Quintanar to help me facilitate the discussions. As always, they lovingly obliged.

This group of 20 young people, ages 14-18, contemplated the meaning of being the grandchildren (the term was use generically to denote either great or great-great grandchild) of Genocide survivors in the middle of America today with all the amenities and comforts they enjoy.

There was really only one choice at the time if you didn’t want to stay home on April 24, you would attend a march, usually kicked off with a group of clergy reciting a prayer, then they’d pass out banners and posters “demanding” justice for crimes committed against your ancestors and you’d march through the streets of Hollywood to the Turkish Embassy. Once, there, you’d participate in a rally with loud speeches demanding justice from the Turks. No one was sure if the there was anyone listening or if anyone was even in the Embassy building. On top of it all, the math didn’t figure either. The number of Armenians in the entire world was less than the number of people on Los Angeles freeways on any given day of the week. In other words, we lacked critical mass.

The students of the Youth Ministry deliberated and discussed. They prayed and discussed some more. At the end a reading from Scripture opened their minds and their path. From Matthew 25, Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. When you did it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”

They came up with a very simple and clear definition of Armenian-Christian identity for children of the new millennium: To be an Armenian means you learn and grow from your history, and feel the pain of others who suffer the same fate. Remembering the past makes sense in defining your present. And so, this small group of young Armenian-Americans, distanced from the Genocide by almost a century, came up with a simple formula: Walk in the shoes of others. Because we have suffered, we have an obligation to help others who suffer. Our Christian imperative to love and help others is accented by our Armenian history.

And so the In His Shoes mission was born of the Youth Ministries Center. Through the years, they have organized rallies for justice in Darfur, collected funds – $500,000+ to aid the hungry in Africa, delivered a forgiveness conference in greater Los Angeles, and met with Gov. Schwarzenegger and were part of an effort that divested California and the UC Regents from the Sudan to the tune of $6Billion, just to name the larger products.

Now, if you’re thinking miracles only happen with thunder bolts and lightning, consider how much greater the flash is with this. Consider these are the grand children of a generation that they tried to annihilate, these were people that were not supposed to be here, but they’re here, living, thriving and providing for others. Christ has risen! And so have we!

We continue tomorrow with more untold stories from 20 years ago today, and 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 feedback@epostle.net.

Cover: First logo of In His Shoes, created by Varoujan Movsesian, 2003

20 years ago: Kharizmah!

It was 20 years ago today: Untold stories of the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center

Today’s Episode: Kharizmah!

The 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” popularized the phrase, “If you build it, they will come.” It was a magical film, as the saying might imply. Voices were telling the Kevin Costner character that “If you build it, he will come,” referring to Shoeless Joe Jackson of Chicago Black Sox fame.

The truth is, it takes more than a building, it takes more than a location and more than a personality to bring people together. And then, it takes even more to keep the people there.  That “more” is what we call in the Church, the Power of the Holy Spirit, or what sometimes might be referred to as “charisma” Dr. Dekmejian would call it out with its Greek inflection, “kharizmah” (χάρισμα).

Dr. Deacon Hrair Dekmejian, who was my mentor going into this project and a co-founder of the Youth Ministries, was a professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California. He had studied theology and graduated Columbia University with his Ph.D. He was well versed in the history and development of the Church, and possessed an encyclopedic knowledge about the Armenian Church liturgies. He was recognized for his humility and led the choir accordingly. He’d often spoke about the kharizmah and we probably didn’t understand it well at first but as the years went on it sunk in as we started seeing miracle after miracle unfold. The word itself has a few meanings, including a favor with which one receives without any merit of his own, the gift of divine grace. This would fall into the understanding of agape love often discussed by Christian theologians. But the one definition of kharizmah which Dekemejian pointed to was the graces or gifts denoting extraordinary powers, distinguishing certain Christians and enabling them to serve the church of Christ, the reception of which is due to the power of divine grace operating on their souls by the Holy Spirit.

We realized early on, that if this Youth Ministry Center was to be effective, life-changing, and have an impact on the young people, it wouldn’t be by ordinary or conventional means.

We opened on Palm Sunday, April 13, 2003, to a packed house. We had clergy, dignitaries and locals all assembled with a basic curiosity of what was happening. We were convinced that, if we had a product (think of the Field of Dreams quote), people would support it. Maria Hamparian, a friend and capable organizer came on board to handle donations and ensure that the program would be funded and sustained. She stayed on as the financial officer for all our projects and shared her talents with and at the Center diligently to the end.

That day, I spoke as did Mr. Mehrabian and our then Primate, Archbishop Vatché Hovsepian, of blessed memory. It was a get acquainted moment. People came up to me and shared their concerns for the youth. This was an area that Armenian organizations wrote-off and ignored. In Armenian, there is a phrase we became familiar all too quickly, “Chaylami hokepanutiun” (=Ostrich psychology) – Stick your head in the sand and your problems disappear. Armenian organizations didn’t want to deal with the reality of Armenian gangs, drugs, drug addictions, suicide, domestic and outright violence and the worst problem of all, materialism and the conviction that it was a solution to their problems. Yes, this would require kharismah. We announced that the first Divine Liturgy would be celebrated on that Holy Thursday, four days later. Remembering the monumental work in front of us, I wanted the first Liturgy to correspond with the feast of the Lord’s Last Supper.

Everything was in place for the opening. From the palm crosses to the decorations on the altar, from the curtain to the oil lamp, everything was glistening. It was a very humble offering of everyone who participated. For instance, the pews were well-worn and in need of refinishing. Mr. Mehrabian had them all taken to his Kia dealership, where they were sanded and painted dark brown in their body shop, and returned for the opening. Every part of this building reflected that type of donation which came from the heart.

What was left? The Vemkar. The Divine Liturgy can only be celebrated on a consecrated altar. In the event there isn’t one, a vemkar, a consecrated stone, is placed on the table and the chalice and the Holy Sacrament are consecrated atop it. Throughout history, when Armenians have defended themselves against enemies, they have gone into battle armed with the Body and Blood of Christ. On the battlefields, a vemkar is used. How appropriate, I thought, we were going into battle against some of the nastiest evils of our times – drugs, violence, materialism – and we would begin with a Liturgy celebrated on a vemkar.

Archbishop Vatché obliged us by consecrating a flat marker stone carved with a cross on it. Until the church was consecrated the following year, we celebrated the Holy Badarak atop that vemkar. The stone was consecrated with Holy Miuron, or chrism. It is a holy oil made of the essence of 40 different fragrant flowers and is renewed every seven years by the Catholicos. He blesses it with the Holy relic containing the bone of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s Right hand, with the Holy Gevart, the actual spear that lanced the side of Jesus on the Cross as recorded in the Gospel of John (19:33-34) and added to mix is miuron from the previous batch. In other words, there are molecules in the muiron from the time of the Illuminator and in fact, from the time of Jesus Christ, but that explanation we will save for another time. We now had a vemkar that connected this church on the corner with the history of the Armenian Church and Armenian people.

It all came together nicely, and as one of the earliest miracles of the Ministry we shared the Holy Body and Blood of Christ with the new congregants of this small church on the corner. We lived only with hope that we were arming ourselves with the right weaponry, the love and power of Christ, as we began the Armenian Church Youth Ministry.

We continue tomorrow with more untold stories from 20 years ago today and invite you to join us. If you missed earlier episodes, you may 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 feedback@epostle.net.

20 years ago: Resurrecting Presence

It was 20 Years ago today: The untold story of the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center

Today’s episode: Resurrecting the Presence

The days that followed the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ were days of organization. An event unparalleled in history had taken place and it was necessary to carry on the momentum experienced by the witnesses of that Miracle of miracles. The celebrations we hold today, 2000 years later, minimizes exponentially the magnitude of the actual resurrection event. Bunnies, eggs, Easter bonnets and baskets, are hardly as shocking and awe inspiring as witnessing a person be critically wounded, assaulted, and killed and then finding that person not only alive, but engaging in conversation and in full power, so much so that he is calling the shots for the newly created Church.

In the Gospel we read that Jesus appeared to the Disciples and breathed into them the Holy Spirit giving them authority over sins. (John 20:21-23)

Not only was he alive, but he was organizing and empowering those who witnessed the resurrection. And to those who did not see him, such as the Disciple Thomas, he offered an opportunity to interact. We read in the Gospel of John (20:24-29)

Thomas said, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later, Jesus appeared to the disciples and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus said to him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

And there, Thomas made a complete confession, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

It’s easy to label Thomas as a doubting personality, but in fact, he is like people around us today, and like most people who have come to Christ over the last 2000 years. We all have our doubts. The Resurrection was not an event described by bunny rabbits and colored eggs. This was an earth shaking, history making reality. Humanity would come to split the calendar by this event into BC and AD.

Like Thomas, all people need is a little confirmation of the events. Thomas wanted a tactile feel of the Risen Lord, instead it was his other senses which gave him the bravery to commit “My Lord and my God.” Read the story; Thomas never touches Jesus, he only confesses Jesus as his Lord and God once he has been touched by the presence of the Living Resurrected Lord.

The Armenian Church, as an Apostolic Church, is the Body of Christ. It must reflect the Resurrected Lord in all that it is. In other words the Body of Christ should jar its people to understand that they are in the presence of the Resurrected Lord.

The Youth Ministries’ Center began during the Holy Easter Season. Mr. Mehrabian had given me the keys to the Center at the beginning of Lent. He quickly instructed his team to renovate the church building to bring it up to code and standards of an Armenian Church. Plumbers, electricians and contractors were moving walls, wires and pipes. I was blessed with a team too, they had the tools to transform on the spiritual side. We had 40 days to present the Resurrected Lord on this corner in Glendale.

My family, always part of the ministry equation, went into action, with Susan sewing beautiful banners draping across the newly converted altar area, showing the loaves and fish, and the holy chalice. My youngest, Christaphor, started “sewing” together crosses out of palm branches. My older two, Varoujan and Sevan, had taken up woodwork as a hobby and were only too anxious to create ornamental fans (kushots) out of a wide array of materials.

We tore out the altar area with its adult pool and replaced it with an area where the Liturgy would be celebrated. Mike Geragos, a designer and architect, built an Armenian style altar. Tamar Khatchadourian (nee Papirian), a faithful member of our Bible Study, scoured streets of  downtown looking for items to decorate the church and its altar as closely as we could to an Armenian church. She was quite innovative in her selections, going through Catholic supply stores and mom-and-pop curios shops, finding cloths, candle holders and everything that should belong there. She made it happen.

Day-by-day the old dilapidated building was turning into a church. Very much like Jesus’ body, this building was being resurrected. In the end, we had a church which looked, smelled, sounded and felt like an Armenian Church. The people who came in that week, entered and came in contact with the presence of Christ. No wonder it was special and sacred space. It was from here that the miracles came pouring out.

Join me tomorrow as we continue with the untold stories of the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center which began “20 years ago today.”

If you missed earlier episodes, you can binge listen on your favorite podcatcher or at Epostle.net under the “Armodoxy for Today” tab. Remember to leave a comment and/or write us at feedback@epostle.net.

20 years ago: Tearing Prejudice

It was 20 years ago today: The untold story of the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center.

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 have ignored and forgotten, a place where education, identity and prayer came together.

This is a series about the miracles that we witnessed at this small church on the corner with a worldwide ministry. This is part of the Armodoxy for Today podcast series about the Armenian Church now, patterned after the ancient Apostolic Church, then.

Today’s Episode: Tearing Prejudice

Not everyone was happy that we had established the Armenian Church Youth Ministries on that special corner in Glendale. About a week or two after we had moved in I was visited by a member of the Glendale School Board. He was the only Armenian member at the time and he was the only one who expressed his dissatisfaction with our presence. His demeaner wasn’t stern, as much it was confusing. “You had no business starting this Youth Ministries without asking me!” he ordered. Because he was talking to an Armenian priest he figured I was someone who had no knowledge of the country and its laws. I looked at him with a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding expression and he responded with a sad delusional look. It was obvious the seat on the School Board had gotten to his head and he thought he was the gatekeeper. He left my office that day unhappy. I began my work understanding that the town had an old-boys network and I had crossed one of the lines.

The place where it mattered, though, was the school itself. Mrs. Hasmik Danielian was the principal of Hoover High School. She not only welcomed me but embraced my arrival by extending an invitation to Catalina Island for an overnight retreat for the Senior class. Linda Maxwell and Jose Quintanar from We Care for Youth were running the retreat to deal with prejudices, especially among the school’s minorities: Hispanic, Armenian, Asian and African American.

I was honored to be asked to attend. In a time when the conversation about separation of church and state was reaching its peak, here I was, an Armenian priest, invited to a public school event, where issues of social and ethical concerns were being discussed.

Catalina Island is an hour-and-a-half boat ride from Los Angeles harbor. We got to an area of the island that was secluded and away from the touristic area. Linda and Jose had organized different panels and discussions for the students to express and speak. Danielian, a few other administrators and I went along as a “support crew.” I was intrigued and was content observing and learning.

During that time, tensions ran high inside the high school between the different ethnic groups. Street fights were common after school, and the number of expulsions became evident by the kids hanging out on the street corners during the days.

At the evening activity Linda and Jose did their magic. They handed out large sheets of paper – poster size – and had students write their prejudices. No holds were barred. “Mexicans are lazy,” “Armenians are filthy,” “Asians are high-achievers,” “Black people are not bright.” And so on… some were brutal. All around us, in this large room, the posters hung as a reminder of how hurtful and disgusting prejudice comments could get.

And then the magic happened. One-by-one Linda and Jose went around the room challenging the prejudiced with hard fact. Fact, not from a book, but from the audience itself.

There an Asian student stood up. She was a C-average student and had failed to get into the university she had chosen. High achiever? Not a chance.  An Armenian young man stood up. He was well groomed, even at this outdoor retreat, the antithesis of “dirty and smelly.” A young Mexican girl spoke of her accomplishment academically while maintaining employment for the last three years. Her key to success, she admitted, was hard work. And a black student attested that he had picked up a scholarship in mathematics at UCLA, for his achievements in the physics club at school. One-by-one, the prejudices written on the posters were destroyed and accordingly, the students destroyed the posters. They tore them up!

It was as easy and as simple as communicating, learning, knowing, talking and establishing a dialogue with your neighbor. It may sound like a lot of work, but these are all manifestations of love, which is the starting point.

The trip back to the mainland was quicker – we had dumped our prejudices at the island. Some might have thought that because we were lighter, the trip was faster. I think it was because we wanted this magical weekend to last longer.

Prejudices, whether they are among ethnic groups, students, or even a School Board member looking at a young priest, are built on ignorance. They are overcome by the knowledge which comes from education. It’s the basic education given to us by Jesus when he taught that we all are chosen by God. Each of us, not a special ethnic group or financial status defines us in front of God. As the song says, “Yellow, red, black and white, we are precious in His sight.” You may think it’s a child’s song, but children already know that. It’s the rest of us that need to learn.

After those couple of days, we felt our place on the corner was ordained, sacred, special and unique, because we, the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center was now a part of the education process to promote peace.

Join me tomorrow, as we continue the journey which began 20 years ago today.

If you missed earlier episodes, you can binge listen on your favorite podcatcher or at Epostle.net under the “Armodoxy for Today” tab. Remember to leave a comment and/or write us at feedback@epostle.net.