I believe it is of significant value to our readers to discuss issues of importance to the Armenian community while offering some practical solutions. We hear the words “role models” and “mentors” quite often in our multigenerational environment in the Armenian Diaspora. Role models are individuals who set an example to be followed by their presence or behavior. They can be active leaders in the community, teachers, priests or other respected individuals. Mentors have many similar attributes but, in my view, take a more proactive role in encouraging and supporting others. It may take on a small group role such as a youth advisor, or quite often it is simply individual counsel. Let’s take a moment to think about our participation in the Armenian community. Regardless of whether you are focused on religious, cultural, educational or political endeavors, chances are you were inspired by someone and probably were the beneficiary of some form of mentoring. Your story is important to share with your children and peers. It just may make a real difference in someone’s life.
I was fortunate to be guided by several caring individuals during my formative years. My parents were, of course, an important resource. They taught me a love of our heritage, of our faith and a work ethic to contribute to community projects. Arthur Giragosian, who was an iconic patriot from Providence, taught me the nuances of public speaking. His advice came mostly in watching him and speaking with him. He was famous for never having notes (I am inspired by the faces in the audience), always looking directly at people in his audiences and urging us to be passionate about what we offer. When I began listening to Arthur, I felt like I was the only one he was speaking to. His energy and choice of words made him very magnetic. I have been a student of public speaking throughout my life, but the support of dear Arthur has always been the difference.
As a young boy, I served, like many, on the altar of our church as a tbir (acolyte). Like most of my seven or eight-year-old peers, I was fearful of making mistakes. Incredibly, my fear disappeared when I was in the presence of our elder priest Der Khatchadour Guiragossian. When I held onto the candle for dear life, his chanting voice was like listening to angels. I was told that the consecrated altar was in the presence of God, and I clearly felt that. We spent a great deal of time with Der Hayr, as he would visit our home. My father was his deacon, and he was our Armenian school teacher. He gave me the gift of a lifelong love of our church. I would look at him and think of Armenia and our church in the homeland, as he was of the transitional generation. He motivated my active imagination to focus on making subtle observations about our church and encouraged me to ask questions. He was kind and patient with someone who was an eager novice.
I was also impacted by my affinity for Armenian history. I was 19 years old, a student in Boston and a member of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). I set out to visit the old Hairenik Building. Anyone remotely aware of the AYF or the Armenian Weekly knew of the iconic address 212 Stuart Street. The Hairenik Building was well past its prime in the 1970s. On my first visit, I was greeted at the front desk by an older gentleman who had known my grandfather (I carry his name). It was a comforting feeling. My anxiety was diminished; I felt I was like Dorothy entering the residence of the Wizard of Oz.
My objective that day was to meet James H. Tashjian, the longtime editor of the Weekly and pillar of the AYF from the early decades. I made my way to his office past several dusty empty offices filled with stacks of books and papers. There was a musty hall no longer in use; that was the location for AYF conventions long before we had the means to rent hotels. The lighting in the room was rather poor, and he was partially hidden behind several stacks of books. I was greeted as though we had been friends for years. In a sense, we had been because the first 10 minutes were all about my father and uncles. I was amazed at the network of names and places he knew. He was a human version of an Armenian Google. Something began that day that changed my life. Jimmy became a personal library for me. He would loan me a book; when I finished, I would return and discuss the contents. I would then be given another. He arranged a series of texts that would give me an in-depth understanding of the 19th and 20th century Armenian history. It was a fascinating experience that captivated my core values. I was on a mission over the next several years to read and learn as much as I could absorb. As my personal finances improved, I began to build my own library which is still growing today. I have used it for my own children and God willing for our grandchildren. After all the volumes and years, I still remember the first book that Jimmy gave me—Armenian Freedom Fighters: The Memoirs of Rouben Der Minasian. The book not only initiated my personal journey but connected me to Hai Tahd.
These men have left this earth, but their impact on me and countless others is ongoing. There is one other lesson that I learned from all of them: the importance of mentoring and supporting succeeding generations. At one point in our lives, we take the gifts from others in order to one day give. What I have learned is that the joy the mentor receives is equal to or greater than what they give. As a lifelong mission, I have considered sharing this knowledge and helping our new generation.
Wisdom that remains static is a tragic waste.
Perhaps you are not sure how to begin mentoring. It is a commitment on all our parts to the present and the future. It allows us to utilize our accumulated experiences and wisdom for the benefit of those who will emerge after us. Wisdom that remains static is a tragic waste. The baby boomers are now grandparents. As Armenian grandparents, we have a special opportunity to inspire, teach and prepare our grandchildren. I use the term opportunity because it only comes to fruition if we choose to internalize that responsibility. As grandparents, you have a unique influence that can guide your extended family. Every grandchild has that special love for their grandparents. It is God’s way of surrounding our children with the best we have to offer in this world. In an earlier column, we mentioned the overload syndrome that our young families face today. They don’t need criticism. They need timely help. Thousands of grandparents are doing this today, and aside from the assistance, it is a bonding agent for our families.
Here are practical examples. When your children can’t take the grandchildren to church, you should take them so it becomes a part of their routine. Ideally, the goal is to see three generations worshiping together, but it’s important at the very least to get those little ones to church. Their identity with God and our Armenian heritage starts at home with the attention from others. A few weeks ago our two-year-old grandson went to church with his sister and parents. We were unable to attend that week. The young boy came into the sanctuary and began yelling, “Papa! Papa!” looking for me. When he got to the pew where we usually sit, he repeated, “Papa! Papa!” My grandson helped me realize on a deeper level the responsibility we have and what a difference we can make. Small experiences can make a big difference.
I would suggest a copy of Matthew Karanian’s The Armenian Highlands on the coffee table of every Armenian home. Parents and grandparents can open the book with their children and grandchildren to review the incredible photographs and read some of the text to them just as we would read other books. Show them at a young age where their family came from, and encourage the use of the Armenian language. Even if they lack fluency, the vocabulary will make them feel special and encourage greater skills in the future. Explain things to them such as icons and pictures in our churches. Fill their curiosity with important knowledge.
With the experience gained from mentoring the youth in our families, many of you can take on community mentoring. It may evolve into a structured program, but most begin as individual efforts. It always starts with encouragement. My love of the church was, in part, influenced by the warm greetings of “abris deghas” after serving on the altar from some of the older members. It made me feel needed. We must take the time to encourage, guide and support young people as they experience our faith and heritage. Many of our youth are filled with curiosity, but they lack access to knowledge. You can provide that to them. It can make a difference. As interests develop in their young adult years, make them feel valued by trusting their participation. Empowering responsibility is an important reflection of trust and support. You could be that person who inspired them to make current and future contributions. This is a method that has served the same objective for generations…to pass the torch. As we enter another week of autumn, please ask yourself this question, “Am I doing enough for our youth just as others did for me?” Somewhere out there is a young person who will be grateful.