Our Institutions Cannot Stand Alone, Part II: Closing the Gap

Stepan Piligian writes, “Open the doors, and let the fresh air of new thinking replenish our institutions.” (Photo: St. Karapet Church, Noravank, Wikimedia Commons, Rostom)

The President of Armenia recently commented in an interview about the need for all of us to never stop learning. So true. Most learning is dependent on our ability to listen. The well is deep with what we can learn from each other. The President of Armenia recently commented in an interview about the need for all of us to never stop learning. So true. Most learning is dependent on our ability to listen. My grandfather used to say, “There is a reason why God gave us twice as many ears as mouths.”

This past weekend, we all celebrated Father’s Day. My preference for this day is simple. I want to be with my family and go to the annual church picnic at St. Gregory’s in Indian Orchard—the community where I was born and raised. Although I have been a Bostonian for many years, this is where my roots are. This is home. This year our family once again enjoyed the spirit of this small Armenian community with a heart of gold.

The opportunity for improving community and institutional participation is always on my mind. It transcends all aspects of our diaspora life from individual identity to institutional sustainability to the homeland. It is in the small and medium-sized communities where the struggle for continuance is very visible. It is also where I always learn something new about this challenge we face as a greater community. It is in the small communities where local economics may limit an influx of new families; this is where shades of ambivalence or absence can be devastating. Smaller communities are isolated from some of the cultural resources and replenishment of larger communities such as Boston or New York metro. Of course, this does not exempt the latter from the challenge, but it takes on a different dimension. Yet despite the struggles in these small, venerable communities, overall you will find positive attitudes, warmth and energy.

During the Sunday afternoon picnic, I spoke with several people on this subject which invariably surfaces. When something good begins to struggle, we always ask ourselves…why? Why are our Sunday Schools weaker? Why is church attendance down? Why are our youth not joining institutions as much as their parents? The tragedy and the dilemma is that longtime dedicated individuals experience this decline and feel powerless to reverse it. This is where leadership is needed to restore hope.

I would like to share two conversations I had, what I learned and how it offers me hope. While enjoying my kebab dinner, I sat next to an elderly man I have known all my life. He is one of the finest people I have known—dedicated, kind and creative. He looked at me and said, “Look at all the people here today. Lots of young faces who are local. If they came more often, just imagine how much better things would be.” He was not complaining. His tone was more focused on an opportunity. We instantly engaged in a short discussion on why. Why will we see them socializing at a picnic or bazaar, but not participating in community institutions or moving from the periphery?

Of course all the standard challenges are there: secular society, intermarriage and time allocation. But there are also successes from the same generational pool. We concluded that there remains some thread of identity. They came for a reason. Perhaps the food, but probably more. We have all met people who were raised in the community, where the seeds of their heritage were planted. Sometimes they blossom. Sometimes they go dormant only to awaken with some connection later in life. As a community, we can never give up on our wandering flock. We must be willing to provide the stimulus through innovative programs and relationships that will re-awaken what is sleeping.

I say relationships because many of our institutions satisfy a social need. “I have my friends at church.” “I love working with my colleagues at the ABGU.” “The Knights of Vartan offers me an opportunity to work on important projects with like-minded people.” “AIWA has helped me grow as an Armenian woman.” All of these are typical comments on the benefits of participation. It goes beyond the mission of the organization. Small communities are heavily relationship-dependent because they don’t typically have access to the larger infrastructure. They have learned to make due with less. I walked away from that conversation having learned something about the dynamics of participation and new ideas on making connections.

each of us needs to internalize that we can make a difference.

Later in the afternoon, I wandered over to the grilling area, which is usually a good source of conversation. I talked with a gentleman from the Hartford community who has family locally. I have known him to be a serious Armenian American who is deeply concerned about many of the community dynamics I have addressed in this column. The Greater Hartford community is comprised of three Apostolic churches: two in New Britain (one Prelacy and one Diocese) and a Diocesan church in Hartford. All three are on the small to medium size. He was sharing his concern about the lack of cultural activity in the area. Apparently, the general community has conducted surveys asking community members for feedback on their needs and their views on how to increase the vibrancy of the church life.

There was consensus that cultural programming was needed and wanted, but lacking. The primary constraint is that no single parish has the resources to bring in this type of activity to the general Hartford area. Recently they formed a committee from all three communities to address these needs. They are hoping to bring a dance or vocal group to the area for a community performance. Here is an example of a new form of community participation: the “unified” efforts to bring our common culture to the community and foster much-needed relationships. As time has healed the wounds of our division, many communities are rebuilding those fractured relationships through joint ventures. Motivated by an ability to do more when we work as one, this opens up an entire new domain of greater community participation—one that many have a long held passion for. Since disunity is one of the “turn off” factors, especially in the emerging generation, they may inspire others to become more active in our institutions. I applaud the efforts of those in the Hartford-New Britain communities for their courage and commitment to creating a better environment.

What I have learned and what continues to be re-enforced on a daily basis is that participation is a value best instilled by parents through role modeling. But I have also learned that it is never too late for those connections to happen. As children, we learn from our parents. As adults, we develop skills and interests that can serve as a connection to community. These skills are gifts granted from God. Sharing them is natural expectation. It is also clear that our people are resilient and creative in sustaining our sense of community. Reaching out to those who may have drifted or who are searching is a key element of creating a stronger environment. It is all about making connections. Aligning the skills and interests of individuals with the needs of our community is the definition of institutional sustainability.

So what can we do to improve the results? First and foremost, each of us needs to internalize that we can make a difference. Whether you are a leader in your community, one of many volunteers contributing your piece to the puzzle or someone currently on the sidelines looking in, your actions (or inaction) will have an adjacent impact.

Last week I mentioned that only about 46 percent of respondents to the Diaspora Survey were “often” volunteers in institutions of the community, while another 27 percent responded “sometimes.” At the same time, 68 percent of the east coast respondents identify as “Armenian” or “Armenian American.” The other options subordinate the Armenian identity. What this says is that although less than half are active in the community, nearly seven out of ten identify as Armenians. That gap is the opportunity. It illustrates that individually most Armenians identify with their heritage, but many do not apply that identity in the community structure. The reasons for this are not surprising but are important. Whether it is lack of time (which is another way to say it is less important) or the picture they see is not attractive, breaking through those barriers is the key to increasing the 46 percent.

This is difficult but critical work. It requires all of us to look into the mirror and ask ourselves to define our commitment to the identity we claim. It also requires our leaders and decision makers to be willing to adapt and institute change where appropriate to alter the paradigm. Give those on the periphery a different picture. Surveys are useless unless we do something with the data. Major institutions should be digesting the content and instituting programs to address the opportunity. Another survey in three to five years would be helpful, but if we move forward, it will be visibly evident in the short term. Open the doors, and let the fresh air of new thinking replenish our institutions.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

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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1 Comment

  1. Healed the wounds of the community, why is there still a division in the Armenian church?
    As my old grandmother would say The Armenians are not a unified people.

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