You Simply Can’t See the Whole Picture From One Side

We are all a product of our environment. That applies to things we admire and things we…well… need to improve on. When I see my granddaughter as she takes on what the world offers, I am reminded how influential her loved ones are on who she becomes. Of course, there are character traits that we lovingly attribute to her “genes,” but her values and experiences are greatly influenced by her family. This is a very serious responsibility. Children don’t know hatred or prejudice. These are learned behaviors that they acquire along the journey called “growing up.”

In our Armenian world, we have an equally awesome responsibility in giving our children the gifts of faith and heritage. In one sense, this task is no different than that of hundreds of previous generations. All have been faced with the force of adversity. In past generations, they were faced with forced assimilation, extinction or death at the hands of invading armies who would deny Armenians their faith or their very identity. Yet these parents and grandparents endured and found ways to survive and most importantly instill that knowledge in the next generation. Today we are challenged by more intangible forces such as secular societies, materialism and general ambivalence, which present very different risks but a common challenge. My point is, passing on an identity is a learned behavior and a choice.

…passing on an identity is a learned behavior and a choice.

There are times when the circumstances of the “environment” may be beyond our control. This may yield results that are less than ideal, but the future always affords us an opportunity for corrections. As was discussed last week, our diaspora in America was born whole in a “natural state.” This does not suggest a lack of diversity, but rather a sense of oneness as a community. For the arriving immigrant generation after the genocide and their American-born children, they were confronted with a very challenging but healthy environment to transfer their faith and culture into their new home. The family unit was the foundation of this generational transition. Many of our communities were established on this foundation.

In the 1930s, a schism created some fabricated but solid walls that led to segregation, labeling and bias. Many of us were born into this reality. We had no choice. Even our parents and grandparents, as loving and caring as they are, were unable to prevent their offspring’s exposure to these inequalities. True, many remained independent of this tragedy, but with the general environment in fragments, it was nearly impossible to avoid. We had to wait for time to heal and a new generation to have renewed interests and pray for the return of our natural state.

St. Stephen’s teacher Ardemis Megerdichian and her fourth grade class tour St. James Armenian Church with Rev. Fr. Arakel Aljalian (Photo: St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School, November 2018)

Several years ago, I learned that we do have a choice in controlling the environment we live in. When our children were young, we moved to the eastern part of Massachusetts. After teaching Sunday school for many years, I wanted to continue to serve high school students in that capacity in the new Prelacy parish we were now attending. I knew there was a Diocesan church about four miles away, and I wanted very much to visit and bring the students together. Since I was unfamiliar with the community, I asked someone in my new parish for a contact. I learned that no one knew individuals in any position of that church. I was told, “Well, they won’t let you go there anyway.” That was all the motivation I needed. I went to their local bazaar a few weeks later and met my counterpart. We arranged for a visit. Soon a group of about 30 went to the diocesan parish, attended classes together and received Holy Communion as one group. This led to gatherings held three to four times per year between the Armenian parishes in the area. Many children met each other whose paths would not have crossed. I asked myself, “Are we doing the best for our children, or do we simply not want to make waves?”

A few years later, our church went through some lean years during the transition of a new priest, and I thought of how much it always annoyed me growing up that I was “prevented” from meeting half of my peers. That’s when my wife and I made a major decision to attend a Diocesan church so that our children could be involved in an Armenian Christian youth group. Socially, for me and my wife, it was traumatic. We didn’t know anyone except for a few Prelacy folks I knew growing up. At 50 years old, I was in a new environment. But for our kids, it was great, and thankfully they are living in a time where the walls of segregation are crumbling. They know kids from the whole community. Conversely, for us, it was challenging to figure out exactly what we were looking for.

After decades, I finally had sustained access to the “natural state.” Our relationships with our Prelacy brethren continued; by attending Diocesan activities, I gained new friends and working knowledge. It has given us, as a family, a much broader perspective of the Armenian American Diaspora. I feel so much better prepared to participate, mentor and contribute because there truly are no “sides”—only the whole. We participate in organizations that only 30 to 40 years was unthinkable due to the community alignment. Many thankfully have had similar experiences. I thank God for guiding us in this direction.

Today, we have a unique opportunity to mentor and nurture our children as Armenians. The healing is not complete here in America (as evidenced by two dioceses), but it has reached a critical mass that we once again are functioning reasonably as a whole unit. Collaborative ventures are considered appropriate, not exceptions. Beyond the organizational collaboration, real progress has been made. This is a wonderful environment to claim as ours. It is open, refreshing and sustainable. But it still may not be enough. We can set the table, but only you can decide to sit and partake.

We can set the table, but only you can decide to sit and partake.

It only requires one major move on your part—commitment. It still goes back to the environment you choose for your families. If you want your children to have the Armenian Christian faith in their lives, then you must bring them to church. Simple. Repetitive activity does wonderful things for small children. Let them hear the music. Let them fuss in church. Let them breathe in the love of God at a young age. If you choose not to, then you live with the results. That choice still remains ours, despite the progress in the infrastructure of our communities. An interesting observation that many have discovered is that our language, our culture, our history, our faith will sell themselves if we just take the time to make it part of our lives. That’s our job. No excuses. We also have a bonus today that we didn’t have a generation ago—a relatively new and prominent member of our “environment”—the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh. There are virtually endless opportunities for children that many are taking advantage of, and we must pave the way for more.

There is no doubt that the intra-community dynamics have improved here in the American Diaspora. We must be especially sensitive when our activities venture into the general public or civic domains. Today, we are blessed to have two effective advocacy lobbying groups in our midst—the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA). The former began in 1972 with the refreshing thought of a non-partisan advocacy group for Armenian rights. It was quite a revolutionary idea in the early 70s. The Assembly has endured and conducted effective work in Washington and elsewhere on Armenian issues, and more recently lobbying for US government support for Artsakh and the RoA. The ANCA is an activist grassroots group that addresses many important issues that align Armenia, Artsakh and the United States. Although their approaches may vary, there is common ground between the two groups. It is critical that they are never viewed as competing for the influence of the Armenian American community or the government. Their collaborative and cooperative efforts have increased, but there are times when more public linkage would be beneficial. Supporters of both groups are activist minded Armenian Americans who want to see Armenian rights defended and a closer relationship between Armenia, Artsakh and the United States. There is plenty of room for two groups in that massive mission. Why shouldn’t ANCA supporters also support the Assembly and the reverse? The ANCA has grown beyond its original core ARF supporters. It is truly a grassroots advocacy group. Likewise, the Assembly has developed an effective process for its mission. Together, they form an admirable improvement in influence and impact. Join both and help placing a stronger emphasis on the mission and not just the vehicles.

This new era we are experiencing does not eliminate the need for legacy organizations in our community. It simply reconfirms the focus on the mission and our focus on delivering results. With our emerging generation, they are less likely to join a group because they were “born” into particular segmentation. This is a healthy adjustment for the diaspora as the organizations that prosper will be the ones that grasp the needs of the present and the future, which we should not assume is a continuation of the past. When it comes to Armenia and our own future, the American Diaspora can no longer afford to sub-optimize its effectiveness with legacy limitations. When assessing our own participation, it’s time for all of us to look at the whole.

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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