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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.