Our Institutions Cannot Stand Alone

Standing against all odds…The Church of the Redeemer in Ani (Photo: Flickr/Christian Koehn)

Community—“a group of people sharing a common place, interests or goals” as defined through a Google search. Before the Genocide, the Armenian nation consisted primarily of an indigenous people living on their historical lands. One of the outcomes of the Genocide was the creation of the diaspora. Prior to 1915, the number of Armenians living outside of the homeland was relatively small, and many of those considered their situation to be temporary.

My paternal grandfather came to this country in 1913 as an unmarried 18 year old to earn money for his family and return to his native Sepastia. The evil intentions of the Young Turks changed his reality. He did return but as a volunteer in the Armenian Legion. When the final betrayal happened in 1920 in Cilicia, he returned to America, married with a child on the way and became a member of the diaspora.

By 1923, the Armenian nation consisted of those who remained in the homeland under Soviet control and survivors of the genocide rebuilding their lives around the world, including the United States. They built Armenian communities. We called them places like Watertown, Lowell, Indian Orchard, Granite City, Detroit or the lower east side of Manhattan. In some cases, the living density of the neighborhoods was such that they were literally neighborhoods. As time went on, they continued as communities , usually centered around the church, to meet the communal needs of a people living this dual life—loyal citizens of where their feet resided, but also servicing the faith and heritage that lived in their hearts.

These communities thrived and sustained on a single premise—commitment. Today we tend to think that everything revolves around wealth and education. Well there was a time when in the absence of both, commitment was the key ingredient. Much of our community infrastructure here in the United States was built during the time of the Great Depression (no money) and during the post-war period of the 50s (busy raising families). Yet look at what we have inherited in terms of physical facilities, churches, schools, cultural and educational organizations, media organizations and much more.

Like many of you, I grew up in a modest but comfortable loving family. Our parents were always at church for “meetings.” We were the kids whose parents were late to Little League games or Cub Scouts Programs because they had a parish council or “Garmeer Khatch” meeting. Many of our parents and grandparents gave us an AP course on what it meant to be dedicated, committed, selfless and service-focused. This is the fuel that makes our community engine roar.

For generations, the Armenian community has relied on this lesson to be taught to the emerging generation—to establish and build the value of giving of your time, talent and treasure. For most of us it was not a distinct discussion, but rather the joy of watching them as role models. My father was a deacon of the church. He was a kind and talented man, but he had a simple rule for me and my sisters: whatever you do Saturday night, be in the car at 9:30 am for church. Simple and to the point. Years later, I love him more for giving us this gift. He taught us by example. For years, I watched my parents come home late from a dance or a night out, and yet they took their respective places on the altar and inside Sunday School classrooms the following morning.

Everyone has their own stories. Each one is very important because it had an impact on you. It’s a very simple recipe. Teach your children. When you choose not to, the impact on the sustainable community can be substantial. I compare it to the environment. If we do something that could negatively impact the environment, it may not be visible for decades, but it will affect the future. Missing opportunities to inspire our children relative to their faith and heritage will limit our success. When we stay away from church or don’t get our kids involved in ACYOA or AYF, the connection becomes more remote. There simply is no substitute for participation.

There simply is no substitute for participation.

Indeed, the US diaspora has built an impressive infrastructure, and in the last 30 years has multiplexed with its commitment to Armenia and Artsakh. But what about the human fuel required to make this engine function? The vast majority of this identity-preserving machine relies on volunteers for its success. Yes, that would be you. Granted, the community has priests, executive directors, administrative functions and other “paid” positions, but these individuals frequently are so off the charts with their dedication that they operate like volunteers. We are now experiencing the fourth adult generation in the post-genocide diaspora in the United States. The community appears strong and vibrant, but a closer look reveals some areas that require serious attention.

Most research shows that the diluting impact of ethnic assimilation in the western diaspora is visible during second adult generation born in the diaspora. This is consistent with our experience if you consider the drop off in active commitment participation (an earlier column “Calling all Baby Boomers” was devoted to this reality). From a chronological standpoint, that decline should have been publicly evident in the late 70s or early 80s when this generation began its adult tenure. So what happened to avoid this dilemma? Simply stated, it is called IMMIGRATION. Just as immigration has refreshed and added needed value to America for generations, it has replenished the need for resources and vibrancy of the Armenian communities we cherish.

In the 50s and early 60s, a significant influx of our brethren came here from Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations experiencing nationalistic turmoil. In the late 60s and 70s into the early 80s, there was a large migration of Armenians from pre and post war Lebanon and Syria. The late 70s began with Iranian Armenians leaving a changing environment. And finally the 90s and 2000s have brought us our compatriots from Azerbaijan and Armenia. These people have added incredible value to our communities, religious, educationally and culturally. Although their personal stories are challenging at best and horrific at worst, one has to wonder where we would be without this unpredictable phenomenon?

If this trend in the second adult generation continues, then where would the next replenishment come from? The Middle East? Unlikely given the depletion of many communities. Armenia? Let’s hope not, given our vision of the future. Western Europe? Probably not. The quick answer is that we have probably already experienced the majority of immigration in the last 60 years. It seems likely that this is an indigenous ballgame here on out.

According to the recently published Armenian Diaspora Survey pilot program, only 46 percent of the respondents in the Boston area (there were four pilot locations surveyed: Marseilles, Cairo and Pasadena in addition to Boston) volunteered “often” in the community. Another 27 percent responded “sometimes,” while over 25 percent said “rarely” or “never.” This is very telling and generally consistent with our personal, experiential data. I would encourage everyone to read the detailed report to understand the methodology and rich information from this unprecedented review of our community life. The results in this single section (there are others on religion, politics, culture, etc.) give us a glimpse at the problem, or I prefer to say the opportunity. My guess is that if this survey was taken 50 to 60 years ago, the active participation index would have been over 75 percent.

our communities need the human element to function.

The point is that our communities need the human element to function. That recipe has not changed. Is this overstating the intuitively obvious? Perhaps, but consider this a personal appeal. At the end of the day, participation is an individual decision. We can’t hide behind distractions or our interpersonal relationships with other community members. Many traditional organizations are experiencing some difficulties in making the “generational transition.” The church is one institution that stands out, but there are many others.

Some groups are very active in recruitment to increase participation and make the generational bridge. The Armenian Relief Society (ARS) comes to mind as one example. This is a 109 year old group that continues to evolve in service to our people. The AGBU is another example especially with its Young Professional group. Newer options (relatively) such as Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) and Armenian Business Network have emerged to serve the changing needs of our communities. Cultural groups such as Hamazkayin and Tekeyan anchor an important function. NAASR is experiencing a major resurgence in its impact on Armenian studies and the Armenian Museum of America has expanded its work in the community. For those in the northeast, just look at community calendars such as “Menk”—very impressive activity level.

All of this serves two mutually beneficial functions. It gives their Armenian mission life, and it offers YOU a vehicle to manifest your identity. We all need to take a moment to ask ourselves: how do we express our Armenian identity? Is it simply a personal matter that we share at random moments? Or is it a higher calling to contribute to the sustainability of what we have inherited? Some may call it a responsibility. I call it a mutual arrangement. If you give, you will receive much more. The need is there waiting for us.     

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.
Stepan Piligian

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6 Comments

  1. A very good analysis of the status quo and sound suggestions for common sense change. Parents, act as a role model for your children if you want them to carry on with our heritage and save us from cultural extinction.

  2. I share your well written essays with some members of our Armenian community here in San Diego. Keep up the good work. Your thoughts need to be shared.
    By the way, was your grandfather Carnig? If so, he was great friends with my brother. They worked for the AYF together. I am originally from Hartford. Also, were you responsible for instituting the Fairfield County AYF chapter? That would have been at my house. The nickname “hamburger” comes to mind.

  3. Diana… thank you for your kind words. The father I referenced was Carnig. He was a lifelong
    active member of the community. Yes that was me in Fairfield back in the day. If I remember , the Papazian’s
    lived in Norwalk. Ironically , I get to the area often as my sister and her family have lived in Fairfield for
    years and are active in the Trumbull church. Thanks.

  4. May I congratulate Mr. Stepan Piligian and the Weekly for the fine article “Our institutions cannot stand alone?”

    I have been working professionally in the field of comparative diaspora studies for over three decades. If there is one commonality I have found (one with which most
    experts agree), it is that enduring diasporas depend on its members’ commitment to
    institutions – exactly what Mr. Piligian said.

    In no existing diaspora do we see every member exhibiting an equal amount of enduring commitment. But in every case, what it takes for a diaspora to endure and behave in a way that leads to productive change and accommodation to new circumstances is that there is a critical mass of what the Israeli specialist Gabi Sheffer named the “core diaspora.”

    A more expanded and nuanced definition and discussion is possible, and I have elsewhere outlined such, but here what matters is to repeat: diasporic endurance and innovation both depend on the commitment of its core members; these sustain the institutions and practices to which less committed members are drawn, sometimes as lukewarm supporters and at other times as important new “converts” and recruits to the core.

    There really is no good known alternative. I say “good” because there is a bad alternative. Diasporas that are persecuted by the surrounding majority flee, assimilate, or become ever more committed to their collective identity. But presumably none of us wants that path. And except for this circumstance, I end by repeating: there really is no good alternative other than involvement leading to commitment.

    Cordially,

    Khachig Tölölyan
    Professor, College of Letters
    Co-founder and co-editor (1979-2009), Pynchon Notes
    Founder and editor (1991- ), Diaspora: a journal of transnational studies
    Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT 06459
    ktololyan@wesleyan.edu

  5. Khatchig , thank you for your comments. It is heartwarming when experiential opinions and academic research are aligned. Your contributions are highly respected. As a young man, I remember your father and mother as great community role models for their intellect , dedication and talent. I wish you well.

  6. Dear Stepan
    Thanks for your excellent article.
    I agree with all your statements.
    However as times have changed, similarly the Armenian Diaspora has changed specially of its “core” group and its larger community.

    Hence whoever we have in this nucleus of the community should change certain basic activities and events to attract the present youth. If the committee members cannot evolve they will not attract any new memberships.

    Also the church as our traditional base cannot carry on with its age old behaviour and expect the new generation to attend church. I know in most churches there is a marked decline in attendance. As one of our diaspora center of gathering the church could play and should take the lead in keeping the momentum. But krapar and 1-2 hours of church service will not attract any one. This is compounded with the church attendance with each arriving at different times, others chitchat in the church while non of the priests or wardens keep the order.

    As for parental teaching, I agree with you, and each parent should do what they can to give their child Armenian culture, and not worry much whether their child will compete with the locals or not.

    Regards
    Ara

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