I find some of our “cultural” norms as an ethnic group fascinating. We are the epitome of unity when conversing with the American public. We lead with our food, our faith and the Genocide. Public events can be held with two leaders (Primate and Prelate….we don’t even have one name) or worse yet, separate events, but no big deal. Projecting a very homogeneous existence is important with good reason. Who wants to share the downside when we exude pride to others?
Our intra-communal experience has been quite different. Although we are excited to meet other Armenians in a completely random environment (who does that?), we quickly will drift into the proverbial question, “What church do you attend?” Of course that is our back door way of determining what “side” you come from. Thankfully, this has diminished as our younger generation cares much less about your worship location. Unfortunately, they also care less about the church in general which is significantly more problematic. But despite the lack of closure in the tragic church division, substantial progress has been made in the diaspora.
Many years ago, there were very few “Dashnaks” in the Knights of Vartan (KoV) or the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). Today, I know several young people who participate in both the ACYOA and AYF—unheard of 30 years ago. Growing up in the AYF, we had the Olympics weekend on Labor Day, and at the same time there was Sports Weekend (it was held over Labor Day weekend in the past). I remember the shock when I learned as a kid that not all Armenians supported the tricolor, celebrated May 28 or were even knew about the First Republic. What we are beginning to understand today in the American diaspora is there is a major difference between artificial barriers and simply having different perspectives. The former is unnatural and erodes the strength of a community. The latter is healthy as we learn that real diversity is an enabler of innovation, creative thinking and prosperity.
what we have in common is much greater than our differences
For example, the church administrative challenge (code for split) is an artificial state and has created many layers of egos that make collaboration and harmony in the community more challenging. We have created subcultures in our own community based on the division and the inability of many to have access to the same institutions. As a young man, I was a great admirer of Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan for his vision and leadership. Yet as a communicant of the Prelacy, I never had the opportunity to meet him until as a college student when our paths crossed on my initiative. It is so sad that many never had the opportunity to meet this great man because of a self-inflicted conflict. There are many active Armenians who grew up in the same city, yet their paths have never crossed. When we started attending a Diocesan parish, I befriended countless individuals who grew up in the church in the same region, yet our journeys never intersected. How many friendships and innovative actions never happened because of these long festering wounds? Thankfully the emergence of a pan-Armenian mentality in our community has advocated that what we have in common is much greater than our differences. I would add that as our interaction has increased, our differences have diminished because much of it was based on a lack of knowledge. We have also learned to respect and tolerate different perspectives as a community.
What were the catalysts that carried us from the divisive and constrained society from the 50s to the 80s to the more engaged and collaborative environment of today? Sometimes it takes external factors to draw the attention away from useless competition and tension. For the Armenian community, the events of 1988 to 1991 were unprecedented. The first was a tragedy of epic proportions—the devastating earthquake in December of 1988. Out of this catastrophe emerged an armada of support from the diaspora to the homeland still under Soviet rule. It came in waves of humanitarian, medical, education and housing activities. Many of the sustainable philanthropic foundations founded in the diaspora were established during this time. Nothing had changed in the diaspora except through this tragedy our differences were now tolerable. There was once again a common purpose. This devastation had taught the diaspora a valuable lesson; before the church division, before organizations, before other artificial barriers, we were one and diverse perspectives should never prevent us from being whole. A few years later, in September 1991, with the homeland still suffering from the impact of the earthquake, both Armenia and Artsakh became independent states. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia joined the newly independent former Soviet states along with the entirety of Eastern Europe. At the same time, through the sacrifice of many, another miracle occurred as historic Artsakh was liberated from Azerbaijani oppression. These two events in 1991 changed the substance of the relationship of the diaspora with Armenia forever. The petty squabbles within the diaspora were ignored or cast aside. A dream had been fulfilled, and there was a new sense of purpose in the diaspora. Millions of dollars and thousands of supporters poured into the homeland like never before. The events of those early days cast a huge mirror on the diaspora and enabled some serious self-reflection.
The events of 1991 were monumental for the diaspora. The independence itself of Armenia was of overwhelming significance, but a new sense of collaboration also emerged in the diaspora. What we have in common (Armenia and Artsakh) became a greater priority than any of our past differences. In fact, I would suggest that re-positioning our “differences” in the context of an independent homeland has enabled us to collaborate in ways unheard of a decade earlier. When I walk into any Armenian church and see the Armenian flag, it warms my heart, not because one view prevailed, but because it is a symbol of our oneness. When Armenia became free, the diaspora started listening to each other more and with a greater measure of RESPECT. Our differences have become subordinated. We have a common foundation that we share, and our diversity now adds to the strength of that base. Who would have thought that Armenians having different views would make us stronger?
The last 20-plus years have been a remarkable period of collaboration. Almost weekly, organizations will join together to sponsor projects in Armenia or activities in the US diaspora. Whereas previously, they may have viewed each other in an aloof sense, they now are willing to share the stage. Our churches work together, while funds for Armenia and Artsakh are collaborative initiatives. Many philanthropic, activist and educational groups such as Children of Armenia Fund, NAASR, KoV, Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA), Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief (SOAR), Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), Armenian Assembly of America and others are supported by a diverse group of Armenians who have found common ground. This does not leave our diaspora conflict or controversy free. Due in large part to human frailty, we are still subject to interpersonal conflicts, corruption and petty bickering. What we have accomplished, however, is that a new value has been placed on pan-Armenian thinking that has lowered the importance of self-interest and elevated commonality. It’s not perfect, but it has improved.
The church is a bit of an anomaly. Although the local atmosphere is much more respectful and cordial with examples of collaborative sacraments offered, it is severely limited by the lack of leadership where the decision authority resides. Unlike the secular institutions which have found a common ground in their support of Armenia and Artsakh, the church is limited in its ability to collaborate due to hierarchical ties to Holy Etchmiadzin or the Great House of Cilicia. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, they still view each other as competitors. If the churches were able to put petty jurisdictional issues and leadership alliances behind them, they would enjoy the same “identity renaissance” that many institutions are experiencing.
NAASR is an excellent example of receiving the benefits of collaboration and pan-Armenian thinking. It has long held a noble mission of advocating for Armenian studies in our community. Despite an incredibly important mission, it was perceived as past its prime, attracting only certain segments of the community and having a questionable future. NAASR has since embarked on an assertive plan to improve its programming, create more diversity in its membership and change its community perception. Today, it is experiencing a major revival through successful generational transition, providing breakthrough contemporary programming and unprecedented collaboration with all aspects of the community. They have become a poster for pan-Armenian thinking. This is a roadmap for success that all of our community can follow. The fear of losing your organizational identity has been replaced with the security of success.
Last week in the Boston area, there was a public panel discussion on the Armenian press. One of the thoughts that emerged were the differences in our papers. It was refreshing to discuss our differences in an atmosphere of respect and a common commitment to advocating for an informed and educated community. A key component of harmony is a common denominator and respect. The first prevents ambivalence while the latter enables us to truly listen to each other. Wonderful things can happen when we commit to listening, respecting, collaborating and finding common ground without fearing that we are losing something. The pan-Armenian spirit creates value not just for Armenia and Artsakh, but also builds a more prepared and effective diaspora. It can transform our differences into better solutions. The type of “unity” we need is not simply ceremonial, but with an atmosphere of sustained collaboration for a brighter future.