Armenian Identity at Center of ACYOA Leadership Conference
ACYOA members attending a leadership conference at the Diocesan Center in New York last weekend learned that good leadership is grounded in a strong sense of identity.
The conference, held from October 8-10, brought together 53 young people representing 24 parishes to discuss Armenian identity in 21st-century America. They heard from exemplary leaders in the Eastern Diocese, and brainstormed ways young Armenians could take up leadership roles in the Armenian community.
The event followed on the success of a similar gathering held in March to encourage and guide young members of the Armenian Church in assuming more responsibilities in their parishes, and at a Diocesan level. Both conferences were planned by the ACYOA Central Council, with support from Diocesan clergy and leaders.
Themed "Leading with Faith," this month's seminar focused on exploring how the Christian faith is at the core of the Armenian identity, and how that faith has inspired generations of leaders to build up the Armenian nation.
Participants discussed the connection between faith and identity, as articulated by St. Vartan and his followers in the 5th-century Battle of Avarayr, and considered how the legacy of the Vartanantz saints is relevant to their generation.
"It was due to the Holy Translators that the ‘Church of Armenia' first became the ‘Armenian Church.' And by the time of St. Vartan, a generation later, all the elements of the Armenian identity were finally in place-and rooted so deeply that it was no longer possible to imagine a separation of the word ‘Christian' from the word ‘Armenian': the latter signified the former, and in fact had no meaning apart from it," said Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern).
"When the Persian king declared that Armenians would have to renounce Christ, or face death and domination, our ancestors drew the line," Archbishop Barsamian went on. Quoting from Yeghishe's history of the Vartanantz War, he reminded the ACYOA members of St. Vartan and his companions' fervent response to the Persians: "From this faith nothing can shake us! Not men or angels. Not fire or water. Not the sword-not even torture."
These "words are inscribed in the Armenian soul, expressing the very essence of the Armenian identity," the Primate said. "Vartan and his soldiers fought a war to prove that they meant what they had said. Armenian knights, priests, and common people united in battle to defend their homeland and their freedom."
Turning to Armenians in America, Archbishop Barsamian spoke about the first waves of immigrants, who established the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America and, later, erected St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in the heart of Manhattan.
"Today, the Armenian identity is in your hands," he told the young people. "How will you express it in your daily life? How will you honor it and advance it through your deeds?"
Strands of Identity
To begin answering these questions, participants engaged in activities to help them identify the strands that make up their identity. They also heard from seasoned leaders about their experiences as Armenians in the United States.
During a panel discussion on Saturday, the Rev. Fr. VaskenKouzouian, attorney AntranigGaribian, financial specialist Suzanne Akian, and communications expert ArdaHaratunian shared professional advice, encouraging young people to become more involved in the church and other community organizations. They spoke about ways their Armenian identity had enriched their lives.
An interactive presentation on leadership by the consulting firm Gap International stressed the importance of setting goals, taking a firm stand, and listening to one's constituents. Later, the Rev. Fr. YepremKelegian asked the ACYOA members to consider how they might "take a stand" to continue expanding both their organization and the larger sense of community within the church.
The Rev. Fr. MardirosChevian, dean of St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral, spoke of the strong foundation established by previous generations of Armenian-Americans, and called on young people to appreciate and safeguard what has been passed on to them.
"This conference, this gathering of the youth of the Armenian Church, was already envisioned 50 years ago by those who built this cathedral," he said. "They built this house of worship knowing you would come."
A tour of the Diocesan Center helped acquaint young people with the work of the Eastern Diocese. Participants also had a chance to talk about the parish projects they've been carrying out since the last conference in March. Highlights include visiting the elderly, hosting family dinners, and conducting a phone-a-thon to encourage increased participation in church services among the ACYOA.
"It's inspiring to see the determination and enthusiasm here," said ACYOA Central Council member AraJanigian. "This group can take the ACYOA to the next level."
On Sunday, during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, young people assisted Archbishop Barsamian on the altar and sang in the choir. In his sermon, the Primate again stressed the role of the Holy Translators, of Sts. Vartananatz, and of other great Armenian figures in shaping and preserving the Armenian identity.
At an afternoon luncheon with Marta Batmasian, Fund for Armenian Relief Board member, and philanthropist AsoTavitian, attendees learned how they might become involved in development efforts in Armenia. Both speakers have shown a tremendous level of commitment to Armenia and bolstering other Armenian causes.
Ms. Batmasian, a native of Istanbul, warned of the danger of losing one's sense of self, and urged young people to embrace their Armenian heritage. After a successful career in insurance, real estate, and academia, Ms. Batmasian and her husband are leading figures in South Florida's philanthropy and in the Fund for Armenian Relief.
Mr. Tavitian spoke about a program he supports to train young public servants from Armenia at Tufts University's Fletcher School. He is also the co-founder of Syncsort, a technology company, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other high-profile organizations.
Reflecting on his own professional journey, he emphasized the importance of "finding something you love and building on that," and said that "being successful means you grab opportunities as life presents them."
From Planning to Action
At the closing session, conference participants had the opportunity to apply the leadership tools they had been discussing all weekend to formulate an action plan for a joint ACYOA-FAR project.
In small groups, ACYOA members discussed steps they would need to take at the parish level to collect art supplies and other items for the Fund for Armenian Relief's Children's Center in Yerevan. The goal is to collect the materials between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and to ship them to Armenia in January, as part of the ACYOA Holiday Outreach initiative.
The project is one phase of a three-pronged plan to build a partnership with FAR-an idea that was first adopted at the ACYOA's Annual Assembly last spring. Other proposals include building a digital platform for the Children's Center and launching a summer internship program for ACYOA members at FAR's office in Yerevan.
A committee has been named to oversee these goals. Committee member Katrina Shakarian outlined the digital platform, which would develop a website and blog for the Children's Center to forge a relationship between ACYOA members and young people in Armenia.
ACYOA members said reaching out to children in need would provide them with a sense of fulfillment, help them to better understand the challenges facing their homeland, and inspire continued engagement with humanitarian efforts in Armenia.
"Being given the chance to make an action plan for FAR-and knowing that the Diocese is supporting us with this project-is very reassuring," said Mitchell Mouradjian of Holy Resurrection Church, of New Britain, Conn.
Diocesan Council chair Oscar Tatosian, who helped plan the conference, said it was encouraging to see young people from across the Eastern Diocese dedicating their time and energy to attend the three-day event. He also noted that the planning committee-headed by Archbishop Barsamian and comprised of Diocesan leaders, clergy, staff, and the ACYOA Central Council-is committed to supporting the young people of the Diocese.
"I think this was an excellent use of Diocesan resources," he said, "and the Eastern Diocese is committed to offering more programs to build and support young parish leaders. Our goal is to have future leaders who are very well prepared to take responsibility for church life, who have a strong sense of identity, and who feel a spirit of unity among themselves."
ACYOA members left the conference reenergized.
"This is one of the most successful conferences I've been to," said Nathaniel Kadamian, of St. Mesrob Church in Racine, Wis. "I think it's great that we come together, make connections, and brainstorm ways we can be more involved."