This holiday season is a good time to consider how to help low income Armenians in our community.
Back in October, I attended the New York City Armenian Town Hall meeting. At the meeting, the group decided to try and create a list of all the Armenians in New York City and survey them of their needs and opinions. I wondered how they were they going to find all the Armenians not belonging to any organizations or those who don’t use computers or social media. It’s a real challenge trying to connect with all segments of the Armenian community, especially those who are low-income or, worse yet, homeless.
At the end of the meeting, one of the engineers told me he didn’t realize there were homeless Armenians in New York City. Sadly, this does not surprise me. The homeless population in America is often an invisible community. Homeless Armenian-Americans are doubly so, for who thinks of homeless or low-income Armenians in the United States when there are so many impoverished in our homeland with seemingly fewer opportunities? And how can we know how many Armenians in the U.S. are in need when it is so embarrassing for them to ask for help?
In a world where so many have so much, we can and should always think about how to share.
To illustrate my point, I explained about a time I met two homeless Armenian men in Manhattan. Both were reeling from divorces and were very depressed. I contacted local Armenian churches to help them find a place to stay, but I was told they do not provide social services. I asked the churches if they could email their congregation to see if anyone wanted to help, but they wouldn’t even do that. So finally, I called Catholic Relief, which did help these men find shelter.
In a world where so many have so much, we can and should always think about how to share. After the luncheon of the 2015 Armenian Genocide conference at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City, I watched despairingly as workers dumped an entire long table of perfectly good food into big, black garbage bags. The workers told me they were not allowed to take the food home. I was infuriated with the waste. This problem, like homelessness itself, was invisible to the event coordinators, who probably worked hard to plan the conference, but had not considered making arrangements to donate extra food to homeless shelters, or at least, give it to the many participants of the conference who couldn’t afford the $100 luncheon.
I noticed a similar issue at the 1918 Armenian Conference at Columbia University. Again, there was an entire table of leftovers from a $50 luncheon. I asked if there was a sliding scale (variable prices based on income) for low-income seniors and was told no. This time, I took a picture of the wasted food as proof of the problem.
Ironically, both of these conferences were focused on the period of Armenian history when many Armenians were hungry and even starving. Unfortunately, in an expensive city like New York, there are still hungry Armenians. There are also low-income Armenians who cannot afford to go to expensive Armenian concerts, dances, plays, galas, just to name a few. Even $20 to hear choir can be a lot for a struggling mother with a lot of bills to pay. In our community, you’d be surprised at how many low-income families can’t afford $30 tickets for the Armenian Independence Day celebration.
Yes, it can be expensive to put on events, but we have to keep thinking about creating situations in which people don’t have to feel left out based on their economic disposition. Too many churches have dwindling congregations, yet high maintenance costs. We have to find ways to make our cultural events more accessible, because that’s what it’s really about. This community is small, so those who are discouraged by the economic and social barriers leave.
The definition of nurturing is the ability to contribute to the physical, emotional and psychological well-being of yourself and others. How nurturing are Armenian organizations that include only those who are able to pay $125 for an event? What kind of community does that cultivate?
Recently, on a bus ride after an Armenian church gathering, where many were off to an expensive event, I met Hripsime, Varbara and Haik. They were all devout Christians, but none could afford to attend the event. Hripsime in particular was upset. How were she and others like her supposed to feel welcome in a community where so many events are closed to them? How many Armenian churches and organizations create lists of those in need and try to find them sponsors or put them on a list for unused tickets or volunteer systems not based on who-knows-who? How many keep tabs on who is too proud or embarrassed to ask for help and make sure they are included? Are churches doing email blasts to their congregations to ask if anyone knows of jobs and housing or can sponsor someone to an expensive event? If the answer to these questions is no, our community is failing us in a very big way.
How can we create a built-in, scaled price system that acknowledges income disparities so that we can have a community that embraces our diversity—rich or poor, conservative or liberal—while sharing a table and ideas at an event? Is it possible to create a system that acknowledges income disparities so no one has to ask for a reduced price if they need it? In the ten years I have been suggesting this, I have never seen it implemented. If anybody has seen this happen, please let me know.
I was fortunate to be in Artsakh in the nineties before privatization and capitalism. There were no gentrification or high rents, so it was not costly to hold events. Now in the U.S., a profit-driven and advertising culture where many big corporations are making it more difficult for low-income people to survive, we can look at the ways different communities and individuals retain spiritual integrity in spite of the consumerism.
In the African-American community, there is Kwanzaa where people gift handmade presents and share potluck food while observing the principles of Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self- determination), Ujimaa (Collective Work & Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).
Some communities in Japan are creating new forms of currency to replace the yen. Some are abstract, like rabu (love) or dan dans (“thank yous”). Others are less so. In one town, people work for “peanuts,” which are a famous, local product. Like all new ideas, there is trial and error, but already this system has seen signs of improvement. Some elderly women who cleaned up flower beds were paid in the new currency. These efforts bring people together.
At a Tahino gathering I attended, elders were respected and served first, but no one was excluded for financial reasons. They had what they called a needs-matching network, where for instance, a sick elder who needed a massage would exchange the service for language lessons.
There are also those resisting the movement in more satirical ways. Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, for example, is a radical performance community based in New York City, which protests manic holiday over-consumerism. He produced a video “What would Jesus buy?” During the Christmas season, where there are increased suicides and stressed out parents, he asks, “Why does a child need twenty toys?” He has a choir that performs in front of places like Starbucks to draw attention to the displacement of small local businesses, union busting and exploitation of coffee farmers.
What does it say about our community when someone who has devoted their entire life to helping the Armenian Cause without pay cannot afford to attend most of its events? High-priced events without sliding scales alienate those seeking an inclusive and accessible environment; this leads to a diminishing community and encourages assimilation. Perhaps the best way to strengthen our local Armenian community, so that it reaches its fullest potential, is by maintaining what we already have: our indigenous tradition of hospitality.