In Search Of Role Models and Humble Servants

(Photo: Mark Phillips, Sts. Vartanantz Armenian Church, March 31, 2015)

They are in our midst in every community and every day. They may not be visible or even very vocal, certainly not controversial. But they are there, because without them our diaspora could not function. At times they don’t receive the headlines, and most are not the ones receiving high honors from the Great House of Cilicia, Holy Etchmiadzin or the Republic of Armenia. These are the humble, quiet and reserved servants in every generation, in every community who, every day, do whatever it takes to serve.

The key word is “serve” because that is the essence of their motivation.They are in the vestibules of churches every Sunday, including the summer months. They set up tables at fellowships, staff the committees of our cultural events, work tirelessly in the kitchens, bake with love in their hearts so our bazaars can prosper and teach our children about our Lord and our heritage. They are the language instructors and dance teachers. They are our superheroes of service. They may be the acknowledged leaders of our institutions who serve with the unique behavior of always subordinating themselves to the mission and others. The joy in their hearts is to serve our people—without acknowledgment and without compensation. They just want the opportunity to share their talent with others.

I have occasionally had some issues with our values on recognition in the Armenian community. It is not an Armenian issue per se. It is more about human nature, but it does impact us as a community. The concept of recognition is not the issue. It is good and healthy to thank and acknowledge others for their contributions. My concern is that the values that drive most recognition processes have to do with financial contributions and high profile positions (usually associated with authority or position). More specifically, we usually limit our high visibility recognition to that criteria.

Honestly, have you ever seen anyone honored by the Holy Sees with “medals” who have not given a substantial amount of money or served in a very visible capacity? I respect them, and it is appropriate. But what about the “common citizens? The humble workers who are essential to the functioning of our institutions? It is true that many communities honor “parishioners of the year” which do include the less visible. But this is not simply about recognition, but rather values and role models.

Running communities is a complex business. They are impacted by the flaws of the human behavior, and in addition we have the added challenge of sustaining our faith and heritage. Everyone has experienced personally or indirectly the downside of interpersonal conflict in their institutions in the form of power struggles, personality conflicts, and sometimes the misuse of community resources. The root cause is usually associated with our egos or our inability to subordinate it to what’s missing in these institutions. This behavior is counterproductive and a challenge to our stability. But it happens. Our humble servants are the anti-ego. They operate essentially in the absence of self-serving actions. We all know people like this and may silently admire them.

I was fortunate to grow up in a small community where a strong work ethic was established early in our lives. We were always moving tables and chairs to set the one hall we had for various function and activities. From my earliest memory in the Armenian community, my father and mother were my role models. No job was too small. We were taught not to wait to be asked, but to join in. My father would say, “This is your community. If not you, then who.” One day he would be on the altar as deacon and then would be sweeping the floor after an event. My mom would teach Sunday School and then bake in the church kitchen. I learned two things from watching their service: do it because you love God, our heritage and the people—not for recognition. The other was that we all have talents given to us by our Lord, and it is our responsibility in life to share them for our collective betterment. We were the kids whose parents were always late for Cub Scout events or Little League games because they had a “Garmeer Khatch,” church or “Gomideh” meeting. I do remember some anxious moments waiting for their arrival, but as I grew older, I understood why they were late. They were providing us with a valuable gift of humble service as parents. I will be forever grateful. Many of you were also blessed with this experience. These awesome role models are almost embarrassed to be thanked. Of course they appreciate it, but their grace is always our first impression.

there is no greater attribute to admire than humility

They bring peace and joy to communities and should be the role models for our youth and for all of us. But are they? The last few weeks have been devoted to the development and empowerment of the emerging generation. Let’s ask ourselves a question. What values do we wish to instill in our youth? There is a window as they matriculate through the community infrastructure that they are watching, listening and absorbing. It is during this time that our “community values” are formed. When we observe humility, kindness, dedication and commitment, they are watching and listening. Likewise when they see conflict, arguments, departures or absence, they are watching and listening. One of the most difficult issues for the “adult” community to absorb is that our behavior and the environment that we create have a significant impact on our youth. I would say it is equal to the structured education that we provide. If their developmental years are filled with experiences of sacrifice, love and service, there is a reasonable chance this will become part of their portfolio. We are all to some degree a product of the environment. If we choose to ignore the impact of conflict, anger and selfish behavior, then we must also accept that this will be reflected in the future as a community. The outcome may not reveal similar behavior, but an unhealthy interpersonal environment could certainly lead to ambivalence, aloofness and peripheral participation in the future for that generation. Certainly diverse skills and areas of focus can and will inspire future generations, but from a service perspective, there is no greater attribute to admire than humility.

When all is said and done, the role of the current resident generation(s) is to not only operate the infrastructure of the diaspora, but equally it is to inspire those who will follow. In the absence of the latter, the former is for naught. When we examine our responsibility in that context, perhaps we will pay more attention to the environment we build. Perhaps that humble woman or man who we see regularly but may not know their name, is worth the time of a conversation and some listening. Learning to be selfless and humble requires a subordination of our personal needs and agendas to the greater whole.

This is easier said than done. What stands in the way is usually the human ego—our great distraction. Of course, some of these folks simply never developed the ability to run into this wall. For them a gentle, peaceful existence has been their natural state. For others, humility came as a learning process, perhaps from a failure or disappointment that enabled a course correction. Whatever the path taken, these servants are an incredible asset in our communities. Without knowing it, they give us hope when we drift from our desired environment. They are the standard bearers of the core of what is good and honorable about our communities.

I am not advocating that we suddenly begin national recognition programs for reserved, humble and less visible individuals. This is not the way to appreciate them. What I am suggesting is that we guide our youth to learn from their wisdom, to introduce them, to chat with them so as our young people “watch” and “listen,” they will have the opportunity to take advantage of their gift, which is doing something naturally for the love of it. It is the purest form of service. Look in your communities. These wonderful people are everywhere. They are doing the things that may not be headlines or even visible, but are essential. The next time a young person asks about a role model in their community, it might be that teacher, the kitchen baker, the parish council member or a choir voice. Wherever they appear, they offer us the common thread of humility that freshens the air we breathe.

(Photo: St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church, March 30, 2019)
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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