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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.