Community participation has always been about needs and identity. In the past, the continuity of the US diaspora has benefited from a simpler life and the magnetism of the Armenian family. The needs of the first few generations were satisfied by a community infrastructure that was focused on satisfying social, educational and religious identity. The needs were a result of the family values that nurtured the ethnic and religious identity of Armenians in this country. Convincing, motivating and inspiring to remain within the community were less of an issue. In today’s world, our reality has changed. Participation is still an individual function of needs and identity, but those needs and identity may not include the Armenian community. The impact of assimilation, secularism and lifestyle has raised the bar for how to keep the flock intact. While our communities offer a sincere, traditional and loving structure through a variety of institutions, we must acknowledge that the “traditional” approach is appealing to fewer individuals. While the astute thinking and enthusiasm of the new generation are inspiring, the numbers are down.
An honest discussion would reveal that participation is lower even as the branches of the tree expand. It is not good enough to simply stay within the walls of our community and “do our best.” This is not meant to insult the hundreds of dedicated individuals that are part of the investment that enables the community to function. The issue is more strategic and brings vision, or lack thereof, into question. With the future of something we all cherish at stake, there should be no fear of being fully transparent. Whenever these topics are discussed, it seems the focus becomes who is responsible for the decline. This only builds walls. Our “communities” are really the aggregation of various institutions and organizations. In an earlier column, I advocated for community participants to think a bit less about the organizations they are affiliated with and more about the community as whole. For example, our leaders should review our offerings from the perspective of those who could potentially be involved. Let’s think about the families who have one parent who is not Armenian, families with single parents or families that are caught in the “overload” cycle. The decision to participate is still based on needs and identity, but if the community is not satisfying their current needs because a connection has not been made, then we will limit ourselves to a fraction of the potential. Some of the dialogue that has been experienced becomes a debate over “tradition” versus “innovation.”
We need to keep in mind that the history of the Armenians has been one of survival by adaptation. Understanding what we need to retain for our identity and what can be altered without impacting the mission is a critical area to explore. I heard an interesting idea relative to the language issue of the Armenian church. Instead of the endless Armenian versus English argument, it was suggested that we offer the badarak in a modern dialect so that the knowledge of our mother tongue will increase. A transliteration of the badarak on mounted flat panels in the sanctuary combined with modern Armenian would offer some interesting options. Perfect? By no means, but we need innovation for an increasingly diverse population. Some churches offer traditional services in one parish and services geared towards the local needs in others. In large communities, this could be done where there are several churches. Even in the smaller communities, there could be alternating weeks to meet needs. The goal should not be to keep the lights on with whoever finds identity with our offerings, but rather to gather the “dispersed” flock under the extended umbrella of an innovative diaspora. There is a major difference in thinking and practice with these alternatives. We should not fear change. We should fear decline.
I would like to review two aspects of our “recovery” potential. Although a revolution of change is necessary to sustain our communities, we must acknowledge that change is very difficult in a tradition-laden experience such as the Armenian Diaspora, and therefore our focus should be on gradual evolution that supports stability. Let’s talk about “intermarriage” in which one of the partnering parents is not of Armenian extraction. The perception is that this represents a reasonable majority of the families in the current and emerging generation. A small percentage of these unions is blessed with the successful integration of the non-Armenian into the greater Armenian family. Sometimes called “ABCs” or Armenians by Choice, these families are the result of the non-Armenian partner finding identity and embracing aspects of the Armenian experience. I would like to comment on the remainder. There are examples of the Armenian spouse participating for the children with either a peripheral involvement of the partner or absence. In many other cases, the lack of identity prevents the family as a whole from participating. We are all too familiar with this picture. Our community, particularly our church, has failed to provide a systemic process for non-Armenian spouses. If all human connection is about identity and needs, then why would we expect any different result? I have witnessed many non-Armenian spouses serving in the church and limited through no fault of their own. Without a structure to furnish them with knowledge on the history and structure of the church, we are ensuring an underutilization and perhaps a longer term identity problem. It wears on you when you are not on an equal footing. There are exceptions, but we should not use a small minority to rationalize our behavior. If we choose to survive, then our outreach programs must include adult education and reduce barriers to identity. Parish councils should devote a small portion of each meeting to provide functional information on our history and structure to all members including those of Armenian extraction where knowledge of our church is challenged. Unless we act, I fear we are positioning the church and our communities to a fraction of today.
Another area of focus should be the impact of societal overload and the resulting inactivity in our communities. In a world filled with too many activities and a scarcity of time, faith and heritage can finish in the second tier. Improvements require a partnership between our institutions and the families. A quality discussion can easily point out that it is in both their interests to work together. Families desire quality and happiness. Institutions, like the church, cannot survive without the participation of the faithful. Both parties need to overcome a reluctance to frankly discuss their needs. It is not an infringement or private matter. It is mutually beneficial. As was discussed earlier, we can no longer simply rely on the availability of programs or connection points. Subscription requires a connection between those offering and those in need. Local church leaders and impacted families must have discreet dialogue or group focus discussions to discuss changes in outreach that can impact the status quo. For example, how do we get more children to participate in Armenian Christian education? This will require compromises with both parties. The institutions must be willing to invest in innovative programs such as online education with animation, and families must be willing to include this on their list of what’s important in their lives. This is tough stuff, but a pot of gold awaits us because the beauty of our faith and heritage can be unlocked for so many more of our dispersed flock.
Our job as a community is to discover and inspire that connection point in each family and each individual. The task has become more challenging with each succeeding generation, but the tools have improved. We have incredible technology, human resources and material capability. We have succeeded in building the physical infrastructure, but our attention must turn to how to connect with our people. Is the goal to maintain participation on traditional terms such as Sunday in-person attendance or is it to bring the Word of God according to the Armenian church to the people? The latter will require new approaches in a world of ambivalence, secularism and families suffering from overload. Without a vision for the future, we are driving beyond the speed limit in fog. That vision starts with a new assumption about our communities and the families they serve. Change is a constant. Those who ignore evolving needs become less relevant. When survivors from villages in Western Armenia came to these shores, they built communities in the US and did their utmost to retain what was important and adapt to a new environment. Compromise is a given. That was decided when our ancestors were forced from their homeland. Adaptation is the enabler of survival. An innovative community focuses on how to integrate the impact of intermarriage by introducing changes that connect with the needs and identity of diasporan families. Engaging in meaningful dialogue that leads to change to help stressed families understand what is truly important is required. Being critical or aloof are extremes from communities that don’t help families. Do we have leaders with this vision? I believe when we view communities as a series of diverse families and individuals—not as a homogenous unit—we will begin to see the root of the challenge and solutions.