This one is for the humble servants

The fall has returned to our locales, and with that comes the beginning of the “active” seasons of our communities. Most of our functional activity occurs during the September to June window following what we consider the academic year for schools. Church attendance increases after sparse summer crowds. Language and religious instruction schools are open, and a calendar full of cultural and fundraising events commence. With this annual recurring tradition, we also witness a critical part of our communal culture that is quite often taken for granted but is as vital as the air we breathe. They are visible and exist in every aspect of community life. They are the not-so-secret ingredient that makes the machine function. Often they provide the ideas and execute the plans that enable the diaspora to not only survive but thrive. Who are these humble servants who serve our Armenian life in the diaspora? Some remain nameless, and most would never seek any form of recognition. Their reward is not with titles or awards but with the satisfaction of serving and hoping to make a difference. When tragedy strikes people on this earth, it is the humble servants of this world that restore confidence in humanity. Why do doctors and nurses volunteer to serve in dangerous areas of  the world? Why do others work for modest wages when they have the skills and ability to acquire substantial wealth? In our own Armenian experience, we have seen thousands of individuals who devote countless hours at great personal sacrifice to further the mission of Armenia and the diaspora. We marvel at their commitment knowing the implications of their absence. They instill these values in others to ensure continuity. Their presence is essential.

In each of our communities, we have crossed paths with those who work tirelessly with low visibility to ensure our infrastructure functions. I grew up in the small Armenian community of Indian Orchard. Our life centered around the church and affiliated organizations that nurtured our faith and heritage. The original church structure was physically built in 1934 by the men and women of the community who were survivors of the Genocide. This scenario was repeated in virtually every town where Armenians gathered. After the church division in 1933, St. Gregory was one of the “unaffiliated” parishes that survived with a sense of community that provided the first generation born in America with a social, athletic and educational structure. A topic that should be written about and taught to succeeding generations is that of the Armenian priests who traveled from community to community from 1933 to 1956 until the Prelacy was formulated. They were a great example of selfless devotion and humility. The names Simoniantz and Papazian were a few of those to whom we owe so much and set the model of parish priests in America. When I was a young boy, we did not have a full-time resident priest. Our “visiting” priest was a man named Der Khatchadour Guiragossian. He traveled from New York every two weeks (and sometimes every week) to visit the sick, baptize the children and officiate weddings and funerals. He also taught Armenian school on Saturdays. He was patient with our group of American-born kids who were novices to our beautiful written and spoken language. We were mesmerized by his beautiful Armenian handwriting. We all wanted to do our best to please this man who represented our ancient culture to us. On Sundays, many of us served on the altar under his direction. His chanting voice had a magnetic quality. I remember gazing at him during the service with admiration. When he chanted, “Arek. Gerek….,” I felt the presence of God. To this day, I vividly recall his celebration of the Badarak. He was humble and kind to us. We didn’t fear him as a priest as many experienced elsewhere. He was our priest, our teacher, our “grandfather.” Der Khatchadour was the benchmark for us on how an Armenian priest can inspire young people. As the years went on, we learned more about how he would leave his family to travel to Indian Orchard to minister to the community. To this day, I privately refer to my recollections of him as an example of someone who gave of himself for others. The sacrifices of people like him allowed communities to grow and granted us the childhood we were fortunate to experience. We felt it was unique and special for us, but were mindful that this story was repeated in countless other communities.

Kitchen volunteers preparing the kufta for Sts. Vartanantz Church in Providence’s Armenian Fest

Each generation has been blessed to have humble servants whose only desired reward is to see the joy of others. In a small community, everyone does everything. There is no job too small for each of us. My father taught me that by example. He was the deacon and the board of trustees chairman, but he was also always setting up chairs and tables in the hall. I learned a few important lessons from him at an early age about the dynamics of community life. First, the role of leaders is to engage everyone. Inclusion is about identifying roles. Second, don’t wait to be asked and nothing important happens without hard work. At a young age, I discovered an affinity with cleaning up after events. I could handle that, so I would grab a broom and empty the garbage. When you are 10 years old and you hear a few say “abris deghas,” it motivates you to do more. In our community, you may be the emcee of a program and soon after are cleaning the hall to get ready for the next Sunday. The work ethic was instilled and facilitated a sense of community building. By immersing myself in this through my parents, I discovered the real jewels of our communities. I was told a long time ago by a mentor that when you join a new community and want to experience the “soul,” wander into the kitchen at an event, go out to the grill during a bazaar, meet the clean up crew or the men and women who staff the vestibules of our parishes. Take some time and meet the dedicated teachers and others who volunteer to provide educational programs. You will meet people who contribute simply to experience the joy of community life. Although they are humble and expect nothing except the opportunity to participate, take the time to thank them. The gratitude we offer is not simply for their contributions, but actually more importantly, it’s the values that they establish and maintain through their service: respect, love and commitment. At times, our communities struggle to maintain these principles when egos and power replace love and service, but thanks to the presence of our humble servants, our sense of community remains strong. These members provide the stability and sustainability required in the diaspora.

Michael Guzelian in the kitchen of the St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church hall

When you work in the community, there are two types of exhaustion after an event. One is a feeling where pure joy is subordinated to a sense of obligation. The other is a feeling of physical exhaustion, but overall pleasure with the results and a sense of accomplishment. Our humble servants in each community represent the latter and set a positive tone. When I was a kid, I would visit the church kitchen and watch the survivor generation ladies roll yalanchi, bake choreg and prepare pilaf. They were the “backstage crew.” They had been on their feet for hours, yet had a profound look of happiness on their facesan image I will never forget. We should strive to participate in community life not out of obligation, but for the joy of service. Their humility encourages others to participate because they are focused on the long term and not their own position. We have a diaspora that is largely dependent on volunteerism to run the engine. We have selective paid staff, but the machine doesn’t work unless a wave of volunteers comes forth to serve. There would be no bazaar committees, no schools, no parish councils and altar servers. Secular organizations in communities are no different. They rely on the good faith participation of common members. Our humble servants serve another very important function which is an investment in the future. They are the best example we have of inspirational role models. Each generation of servants has vivid recollections of how they learned to serve or who inspired them. The best of our volunteers know how to encourage others to avoid over-dependence. Too often, we see individuals who serve brilliantly yet hold on too long to ensure a generational transition.

Volunteers during a recent church picnic at Sts. Vartanantz Church in Providence

We must remember that there is a difference between individuals who do not need recognition to serve and appreciating a simple thank you. There is a woman in our parish who serves as the chairperson. She is a true Christian role model with her positive and loving attitude. It is clear that she gains her “reward” from serving the church and others. We should never take people who are true pillars for granted. Take the time to thank them and perhaps, more importantly, to appreciate the incredible impact their behavior has on young people. Our youth are always watching. They see the upside and the downside. This is why it is so important to place a value on our humble servants in the eyes of our youth. Let them know that they are the foundation of every community because they emulate the attainment of the mission and not personal recognition. In an ideal sense, this is what makes communities operate at peak efficiency. Inefficiency is introduced when distractions occur such as egos, power struggles and the inability to resolve conflict. The humble don’t care about titles and power. They care about the institution and the people served by it. As we re-engage in community life, take a moment to understand and recognize those humble servants in your domain. Hold them in high regard. Introduce them to your children, and teach them the value of humble service.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Growing up in the NYC Prelacy community, my cohort fluidly entered the Diocesan facilities without viewing the ‘church division’. I was raised to believe that we belonged to ONE Armenian Apostolic Church – whether they had the tricolor on their altar or not; the exposure served as a ‘teachable moment’’. I am concerned that the word ‘tehm’ for both branches ironically reinforces the need for ‘unity’. Wouldn’t it be better to create bridges than focusing on an issue that I sincerely don’t think is a priority much less a problem at this juncture of our community evolution & sustainability. There is no church division unless we keep bringing it up …

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