Calling All Baby Boomer Armenians and Their Kids…

Where did they go?

“Baby boomer” friends of Stepan Piligian at AYF Olympics, 2012. (Photo provided by author)

Like many Armenians in the “baby boomer” generation, I grew up as part of a tight-knit ethnic community.  We were for the most part American-born, with grandparents who had survived the genocide, and parents who were role models of family and community life. And for thousands of my peers across America, we lived a dual life.

During the week, we enjoyed our “American lives,” in our schools and neighborhoods. But as Friday night approached, we would prepare to transition into our “Armenian lives,” comprising of family, church and youth organizations. Looking back, it was a fascinating experience. We had two completely different sets of friends. It afforded us many options.

When our “American life” became boring or stressful, we had an outlet in the Armenian community. This world made us feel special and seemed to guide us through the transitions and challenges of youth. At the center of this evolution was the church. Of course, we all had those non-Armenian friends that we’d bring to the occasional church or social event; those who were courageous enough to enter our mysterious world, but in general, Monday mornings at school, we faced questioning from our non-Armenian friends, about why we disappeared on weekends? After all, they weren’t spending time with Irish or German friends. Little did they know how strong was the calling of our faith and heritage.

Our Sundays were family time. Our generation was fortunate to have grandparents who were the genocide survivors. We admired them for their strength, humility and warmth. And we loved to be with the “older generation.”

During the summers, we went to Armenian camps where we developed friendships with other kids from all over the country. We discovered there were hundreds who felt the same way. I remember the first time I brought Easter eggs and choregs to school for lunch and discovered that not everyone cracked eggs at Easter. The feeling of pride and joy that my Armenian heritage and faith gave me as a young person never faded. These were special friends from church, and the memories are timeless. We were proud Americans—the children of men who had fought in World War II for the United States—but we cherished the gift of having an Armenian identity.

Fast forward a few decades later. As we know, time waits for no one. We all eventually grew up. Many went to college and were “away” for several years. The close friendships remained, while others drifted away from our youthful encounters,  as one would expect. Many of us moved to different communities and started our own families with spouses and children. But we never forgot the special experiences of our parish communities in America…Racine, Detroit, New York, Worcester, Chicago or Whitinsville.

Or did we? Where did those of my youth and their children go?

my point is, what happened to the hundreds if not thousands of American-born Armenian baby boomers who were raised, educated and socially connected to the church? Where did they go?

On any given weekend, many of these formally vibrant parishes are a shadow of their former selves, any which way you choose to look at it. Sunday schools that were once loaded with youngsters, are today sparsely attended. Church membership is down, and attendance of the services is a fraction of what it once was. Alongside all of this, financial stressors are taking their toll.

There are, of course, some exceptions. Certain parishes have retained the recipe for success. But my point is, what happened to the hundreds if not thousands of American-born Armenian baby boomers who were raised, educated and socially connected to the church? Where did they go? A major demographic disappears from the church and we just move on?

The Armenian community in America has experienced various waves of immigration in the last 70 years: the “displaced persons” in post World War II; the immigration of Egyptian Armenians to North America in the late 50s and early 60s; the major exodus from the Middle East in the 70s and 80s; and the recent influx of Armenians from Armenia and Azerbaijan. Many of our brethren left their lands of origin to escape instability and/or to build a better economic life. I thank God for these people, as they are now the backbone of many communities. Their energy, passion and commitment grace our communities across this country. Today, our churches are populated by first generation American-born (today’s elders) and the aforementioned former immigrant population and their generational descendants.

But what happened to my peers, the American-born Armenians of my youth? Those I went to church with, camp and youth groups? Did they simply drift away after marriage and if so, why? Did they fail to maintain that all-important “emotional connection”? If so, why? Did the diversity of our diaspora (a convenient term, but a bit reductive, as it actually contains many subcultures) overwhelm the fragile psyche of those born here, who may have lacked the language skills and married non-Armenians?

These are tough and complex questions. Still, it is nothing less than a failure of imagination on the part of our church and communities, who have simply and silently accepted this demographic void.

Let’s examine some of the probable causes. We will discuss possible solutions in future columns. Within these causes, however, we must have answers or perhaps the same will happen with subsequent generations of those who immigrated.

  1. A secular society. The west has experienced a significant transformation of secular behavior that has threatened all churches, to the extent that there is a fear of talking about God in public spaces. We are in a struggle for communal participation.
  2. Lack of inclusion. The problem is not intermarriage, but rather our inability to adjust to reality. The Armenian church can be, but should not be an intimidating environment for a non-Armenian spouse. Many Armenians can relate to non-Armenian Christians on a spiritual level, but their focus on Armenian heritage can be alienating and prevents the formation of deeper connections, which would secure the future of the church. Our outreach must change.
  3. Loss of language skills. This generally occurs in the second and third generations and unfortunately, has created an “inferiority complex” that eventually leads to drifting away from the church. Young people are told to learn Armenian, but find it difficult to practice. The fact that the church is losing people over language communication is a tragic problem. It’s an emotional issue, but the result impacts all of us and should unite us to find solutions.
  4. Failure to reconnect. We are an ethnic church. It should not be hard to recover constituents, yet our outreach programs for those who have drifted are limited. Sometimes, we must find them first and then identify the connection point. It’s difficult work, but this is the challenge in the diaspora.
  5. A spiral of decline. When our parishes are struggling, their infrastructure of programs may be limited and fail to meet the expectations of those who have been away. It’s a unfortunate cycle that must be avoided. This is especially true in our wonderful smaller parishes. Collaborative solutions can optimize results.

This is simply my perspective, and I encourage you to share yours. Dialogue can and must lead to action. Our church cannot continue to suffer such significant attrition and then be “rescued” by an influx of new arrivals. A serious examination is required in a structured manner to understand attrition and provide a closed loop process that takes our learning and institutes solutions.

The good news is we have a very impressive set of “immersion” programs that are inspiring and educating a new generation of young Armenian Christians. Programs like the St. Gregory of Datev Institute and St. Nersess Summer Studies Programs have been educating and empowering deacons, youth ministers, teachers, choir members and other leadership positions that will only strengthen local parishes. This is the human infrastructure that is the foundation.

The other piece of good news is that it is never too late to come back to the church. We do have examples every week of Armenians returning to their church, but the net result is still problematic. I believe that the beauty of the Armenian church and the magnetic qualities of our heritage can attract and retain generations, but only if we are willing to internalize the causes of the exodus. Do we have the will to adjust? Can the “baby boomers” and their children be brought into the sanctuary of our beloved and holy church? Can we prevent further generational attrition? We can and must do better.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Columnist
Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

20 Comments

  1. Like a number of Armenian women, I have found a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church. My church is known throughout Washington DC for our free concerts every Tuesday afternoon and the hot breakfast we serve every Sunday to 200 homeless people.
    I have chosen to worship with an Episcopal community because it is simply too painful to see half of humanity excluded from positions of liturgical leadership. In Armenian churches across the country, young boys are on the altar while women of deep faith cannot serve. I pray for the day when women deacons are accepted as an integral part of Armenian church life, and I can worship joyfully within the tradition I was raised.

    • The Western Prelacy actually allows young girls to serve on the altar, and in fact Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian of the Cilician Catholicosate ordained a young woman in Iran to the diaconate.

    • In my opinion, you are the problem and not the Armenian Church. You are more concerned about equal rights than your Christian beliefs and Armenian background. Your Christianity beliefs should not stop you from going to an Armenian Church or any other Church because you don’t see any females on the Altar. We have more female Choir singers than male singers, maybe men should protest going to Church because there’s no equality. What do you think?

    • Viken, male singers are not in the choir because they choose not to be. Women are not on the alter because they are prohibited. One ordained woman serving on the alter in Iran is not enough. This needs to spread among all Armenian churches.

  2. Funny you should ask. I moved away from the greater Boston Armenian community 30 yrs ago, and only found one Armenian person in my new greater neighborhood; I return to visit the cemeteries, pick up groceries in Watertown. I write & have a blog. I’m planning to also write a little at my blog about family,but just yesterday I had my first ‘Armenian” poem published with photos at https://theliterarylibrarian.com/2019/04/10/hye-holiday-gathering-by-elaine-reardon/

    • Agree with Arjuna. The churches have maintained their conservative beliefs and in doing so have excluded people from joining. People need to feel comfortable to join others without being judged. The sermon and badark could be delivered in a more modern version, ie more relatable to struggles today, performed in english, etc

  3. More attention paid to Diaspora needs than Armenia’s but without leaving Armenia high and dry. We have aided communities all over the world at the expense of our own.

  4. The church is central for the maintenance of the Armenian community. It must be modernized to stay relevant to modern times.

  5. Many of us left the communities of our youth which contained Armenian churches for other areas in the US for school, jobs, marriage, and other reasons, with no Armenian church within commuting distance. Not every community in every state contains an Armenian church you can get to. So we turned to other churches to fill our spiritual needs. Plain and simple. That’s what happened to me thirty years ago. I suspect I’m not the only one.

  6. Why would people leave churches? Let’s see:

    *Large numbers of priests are pedophiles
    *People want to sleep in on Sunday
    *Christianity has a history of racism, sexism, homophobia, and alliance with autocrats

    At this point, I can’t imagine how anyone could want to be a Christian.

    • Worshipping a Jewish man who claimed or supposedly claimed to be god doesn’t make sense whatsoever.

  7. My grandfather was one of the Armenians who escaped the pogroms but I grew up in the Episcopal Church because there was never any Armenian church in any of the many different places where we lived, until we moved to Richmond, Virginia in the 60’s, when I was a teenager. We attended the Armenian church with our Dad a few times, and visited with a few families, which was fun, and one of the few times in my childhood where I felt loved and included by strangers. Then I graduated high school and went off to Europe and never looked back.
    So I have a comment as from an outsider looking in. It seems anachronistic to conduct your services in Armenian when you are living in an English speaking country. Of course your Armenian language services are relevant to the new immigrants who still speak the language but you are losing all the later generations because it’s not their language any more. Language is Central to relevance. You need to conduct services in English.

    • In the Middle East all Badaraks are performed in Armenian and never Arabic. Why should it be different in the USA, when it comes to our Badaraks in Armenian? My three kids have attended Armenian school, despite being born in this country, read, write and speak Armenian fluently, which is relevance to their Armenian heritage. That’s the reason I classify people like you as “bootleg Armenians” or “wanna be Armenians”

      Viken
      An immigrant Armenian who was born in the middle east and considers himself Armenian first.

  8. It upsets me to no end when I read and hear some of these explanations offered in the comment section. If you moved away from a physical Armenian community as a youth and attended the local Odar church, so be it. We have Armenians throughout the fifty United States. I don’t believe we have Armenian churches in all fifty states.

    If you are a female and upset that there are no girls on the altar, you should be equally upset that there is a Ladies Guild or a Men’s Club. Do you think the Armenian women of 1915-1918 who marched from the deserts of Deir ez-Zor, Syria to Marseille, France, gave a rat’s arse about having male altar boys and deacons? I was appalled when I read that comment and I find that type of thinking indefensible.

    Another comment wanted the services to be in English to be more modern. I suspect this person has her/his Iphone in his/her hand 24 hours/day to stay modern on the Kardashians, fashion, rap, tattoos, body piercing, opioids, marijuana, the struggles of today, etc., but can’t figure out how to read the booklet in the pew in front of him/her which explains the Armenian service in English and Armenian.

    Did you ever stop to think that your struggles of today could/might stem from the fact that you have no religious grounding? All the cool people are SPIRITUAL. All the grounded people are RELIGIOUS.

    We have the same service and beautiful hymns of Komitas and Ekmalian that 3-4-5 generations before us listened to. If you want a Rock-A-Billy Armenian Church service, listen to some of the Armenian junk that is posted on You Tube.

    It seems the Armenians in the Diaspora want to preserve our Armenian music and heritage more than those living in Armenia. Those of us in the United States and Canada want to remember Armenia as a pristine place with all the beautiful stone churches. If seems those living in Armenia want everything in Armenia and America and Canada to be Hollywood glitz and glamour and debauchery.

    In 2019, we have many, many, many wealthy Armenians. Many Armenian churches are struggling along on a budget of less than $500,000 per year. Second and third generation Armenians don’t see a problem joining the prestigious country club or socialite club so they can rub elbows with all the BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE, but God forbid if they feel compelled to donate that same $40,000 country club membership fee to the Armenian Church.

    Also, even though we don’t want to admit it, we still have the Tashnag/Ramgavar separation. Each side looks down on the other the same way Americans look down on the American hillbilly and redneck.

    I am speaking in generalizations and I don’t have all the answers, but I do know when I in an Armenian Church service anywhere throughout North America I will know and sings the hymns (in the choir or in the pew) and order of service and smell of the pouvar and incense. To my set of life values, those things are very important.

    If your life values demand that everything is 50 percent female and 50 percent male, then I suggest you visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. and count the number of female names on that wall of over 56,000 Americans killed.

    If your life values demand that everything is 50 percent female and 50 percent male, then I suggest you visit your local city government offices and demand that there is the same number of male and female garbage collectors.

    If your life values demand that everything is 50 percent female and 50 percent male, then I suggest you contact the company which provides your feminine hygiene products and demand that there are the same number of male and female advertising announcers and spokes people.

    We can get as ridiculous as you want to get. Either you have the Armenian soul/spirit or you don’t. Neither I, nor Stepan Piligian, can instill it in you. If you want an excuse NOT to be Armenian, that is your right and choice.

  9. Almost right after I arrived to the U.S. with a transfer note (pokhantsaker) from my A.R.F. Gomideh in Beirut, I presented myself to the Gomideh in NJ where I had commenced my struggle to make headway in the new world. I was by myself. There were two Gomidehs then, an English speaking and an Armenian speaking. But shortly after my joining the ranks, the two gomidehs joined and somehow got along. There were not many in the English speaking gomideh, nor would I see to them in the community at large to the extent I envisioned there would be. I remember asking myself, where are they?
    After 43 years, come July 9, 2019, I think I know the answer. It’s a ONE BIG LANDMASS of country, the U.S is. By necessity it uproots persons in their quest to make living. Surely the causes Stepan lists play a role, but the vastness exacerbates things greatly.
    On a positive note, 21st century is our century. At no time we were as much connected as we are now. Far greater baby boomers will be reading Stepan Piligian’s article now and for a brief moment contemplate of the way it was, than they would have done a mere 15 years ago (Facebook came about in 2004).

  10. The church is corrupt, as is all of Christianity. Sex crimes are covered up. The Armenian Apostolic church was in bed with the former corrupt Armenian government and has thus far suffered no consequences. Not to mention their destruction of ancient Armenian history in the 300’s AD. I would prefer reconstructing Armenia’s original pagan religion to this foreign theology that has done no good for this once mighty empire.

  11. Mr.. Piligian, are you a relative to Onnig Piligian from Beyrouth Lebanon who used to have a laboratory where almost all Armenians go to have their blood test done?

  12. Wow. Have to say I’m not feeling much Christian love here. I responded to a question posed by the author about why there is an exodus of baby-boomers from the church by sharing my experience. I am an active member of an Episcopal church in Washington, DC, one to which I contribute my time and financial support. I have been blessed with many opportunities to share my Armenian heritage there, and feel just as Christian and just as Armenian as all who have commented on this thread. There are Armenian women who now serve as Episcopal priests – they are serving God in a place where they can live out their full vocation but are no less Armenian.

  13. In a Los Angeles suburb, we have a mission parish where the Badarak is delivered in Armenian, the Nicene Creed is often recited in English, the Confessional is in English and Armenian, the sermon is given in Both English and Armenian. The Sunday school is full of young children. Hopefully we will one day see girls and women on the altar.

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