Armenian Evangelical Union of North America Yesterday and Today: History at a Glance
Compiled, translated and summarized by Rev. Hendrik Shanazarian*
We just celebrated the Thanksgiving Holiday here in the United States. This was a great opportunity to remember God’s blessings and faithfulness, especially in 2021, a special year for Armenian Evangelicals. We owe thanks to God for His providence and guidance over the years. The year 2021 coincides with the 175th Anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Church, and the 50th Anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America. This is a great occasion to study our history, to recognize the highs and the lows, the successes and the failures; a time to refocus our eyes on our Lord and rely on His wisdom and strength and follow His lead, and to be renewed in our faith and revitalized in our mission of Preaching His Gospel and serving Him, our community and our neighbors, glorifying His name in whatever we do and speak.
In this article, I will focus on the formation of the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America and its current structure. For recent articles on the history and ministry of the Armenian Evangelical Church, I refer readers to the AEUNA Fall 2021 FORUM, and the 2021 AMAA News issue featuring the 175th Anniversary.
Armenian Evangelical churches have been present in the U.S. since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Due to the sociopolitical situation of the Ottoman Empire and in search of freedom, higher education and a better life, many Armenians, including Armenian Evangelicals, moved to the U.S. Despite the challenges of a new culture, new language and sometimes even discrimination, they came together, formed communities, and worshiped together to strengthen each other’s faith and support each other. They were able not only to survive but to thrive and benefit the larger community as well. It is important to recognize the spiritual and financial support provided by local non-Armenian churches and denominations in the early stages of the organization of our worshiping communities and the building of our worship places.
In the beginning, the majority of Armenians who arrived in the U.S. settled in the New England area. The first Armenian Evangelical Church established in the U.S. was Armenian Church of the Martyrs, Worcester, MA, which began in 1881. The congregation started coming together to worship at the home of Hovhannes Yazijian. When the number grew due to the arrival of new immigrants, the Church formally organized as a church body and the local American church, the Mission Chapel, kindly opened its doors to this faith community for their worship services. In the late 1890s, the leadership started thinking about erecting their own sanctuary. Their plan was realized at the end of 1901, and the first service in this building was held on Sunday, December 1 of that year. The pastor of the Church at this time was Rev. Khachadoor Benneyan. Almost all the other Armenian Evangelical churches established in the U.S. during this period had a similar experience. More immigrants came from the Middle East and formed small worshiping communities. As new communities were formed, ministers from the Middle East would arrive as well and were trusted with the leadership and ministry of the church.
As the number of churches along the Eastern shore of the U.S. grew, they felt the need to come together and support each other’s ministers and be strengthened by each other. As a result, in 1901, the Armenian Evangelical Union of Eastern States was formed to include all the Armenian Evangelical churches east of the Mississippi River.
One of the great accomplishments of the Armenian Evangelical Union of the Eastern States was the formation of the AMAA on June 7, 1918, at the Armenian Church of the Martyrs in Worcester, MA. Millions of Armenians lost their lives, and hundreds of thousands were uprooted from their homes during the Armenian Genocide, and the formation of the AMAA was a timely and crucial response to the immediate needs of our people, both spiritual and physical. The stated purpose of the AMAA was “to spiritually strengthen Armenian Evangelical churches and to rebuild those that had been destroyed.” (Salibian p. 21).
The Founding of the AMAA was a crucial step in establishing and nurturing the growth of Armenian Evangelical churches around the world. The AMAA provided the Armenian Evangelical community with a sense of leadership while navigating the challenges of a very tumultuous time. The Association served as somewhat of liaison for Armenians trying to come to America. Its leaders provided spiritual, physical, emotional and financial support to those in need. (Salibian, p. 21).
Today, 103 years after its establishment, the AMAA has become a leading mission and humanitarian organization in the Armenian world. There is no place in the world with an Armenian community where the AMAA has been absent, and the members of the community have not been touched by its ministries and services. We thank God for blessing and growing this organization and for making it a blessing to many around the world.
In the early 1960s, an Armenian Evangelical Church was established in Toronto, Canada, and then in Montreal. When the churches in Canada joined the Union of Eastern States its name was changed to the Armenian Evangelical Union of Eastern States and Canada.
Tracing a separate history, just a few years after the establishment of the first Armenian Evangelical Church in the East, small groups of Armenians moved to central California and got involved in farming and trading their products. A small fellowship was formed that was welcomed and supported by one group of local Christians, after being rejected by another Christian community because of cultural difference. As a result, the first Armenian Evangelical Church was established in Fresno in 1897. This was the beginning of what is now the First Armenian Presbyterian Church of Fresno. The second Armenian Evangelical Church in Fresno, Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church, was established in 1901. These churches joined and formed a Union in 1908 called the Armenian Congregational Union of California which for the purpose of inclusivity was later renamed Armenian Evangelical Union of California.
The Merger and Formation of AEUNA
The massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I caused survivors to seek refuge as immigrants, with many coming to the U.S. As a result, new Armenian Evangelical churches were established both in the Eastern States and in California. Both the Unions of North America welcomed these new churches and became more organized.
For about sixty years, the two Unions existed as separate entities, but gradually they felt the need for closer cooperation. In the early 1960s, as travel became easier, the leadership in both Unions started attending each other’s conventions. They got to know each other and see new opportunities. The challenges each Union was facing caused them to think, discuss and evaluate possibilities of a merger. A joint meeting of several Armenian Evangelical Unions (France, Near East and the two from the U.S.) in Paris in 1965 encouraged the two U.S. Unions to take practical steps toward the merger. Both Unions studied the possibility separately. Committees were formed, and in 1967 representatives of both Unions were asked to study the documents and proposals that were prepared for this purpose and to report to their respective bodies. Over the next few years, a constitution was drafted and discussed year after year in both Unions and their member churches which was finally voted on by member churches.
In his book, As I see it, explaining the process of the merger of the two U.S. Unions, Rev. Dr. V. Tootikian writes:
The pastors and representatives of 22 member churches of the two Unions signed the merger agreement (four churches were absent and signed the agreement after the convention). During the convention, the moderators of the two Unions lit a unity candle as is typically done during a wedding service.
The AEUNA Today
During the last four decades, with the inflow of many Armenian immigrants from Armenia, Iran, and the Middle East to the U.S., many new churches were established along the West Coast, especially in the Los Angeles area. Some of these churches joined the AEUNA during the last 15 years, increasing the number of Union churches in the U.S. and Canada to 30. During the last decade, there were discussions about welcoming the three Armenian Evangelical Churches of South America as members of the AEUNA. This was voted on and approved in 2018 during the AEUNA Biennial convention in Burbank, CA, and brought the number of AEUNA churches to 33, out of which 15 are located in California (12 in Los Angeles area, two in Fresno, one in San Francisco) and one in Utah. There are 10 churches Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Illinois, and four churches in Canada. The South American churches are located in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. For the complete and detailed list of the AEUNA churches please visit https://www.aeuna.org/churches-1.
The highest decision-making body of the AEUNA is the General Assembly that convenes every two years to worship and learn together, hear reports, discuss important issues and make decisions, and elect the Union’s Board of Directors and the Minister to the Union to do the work of the AEUNA and implement the decisions of the General Assembly. The Board of Directors consists of 16 elected members that meet twice a year together with representatives of affiliated and recognized organizations. The recognized organizations that work closely with AEUNA are the Armenian Evangelical Schools of California (AESC), Armenian Evangelical World Council (AEWC), the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), Armenian Missionary Association of Canada (AMAC), the Armenian Theological Student’s Aid (ATSA), and the Philibosian Foundation (PF).
The mission and leadership of the AEUNA is summarized in the following two short paragraphs in the brochure that was recently prepared on the occasion of the 175th Anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Church:
AEUNA’s mission is to unite, equip, and support the AEUNA churches and community by supporting lay leaders, helping churches serve their congregations, equipping pastors, and training the next generation of ministry and lay leaders.
The Minister to the Union provides leadership and guidance to the pastors, churches, and ministries of the AEUNA as a full-time ministry leader. The volunteer/elected AEUNA Board of Directors is comprised of women and men, pastors and lay leaders, representing all regions in which AEUNA has churches and ministries.
There are six standing committees of the Board and one member of the Board chairs each one of these committees. The following is a list of these committees and their responsibilities:
Armenian Christian Heritage – Creates educational (and scholarly) materials and programs for all ages.
Evangelism – Church planting, events, and programs that evangelize the Word.
Ministry – Guides seminarians, approves scholarships, and approves ordination of the ministerial candidates.
Publication – Produces the AEUNA Journal FORUM and other publicity materials.
Stewardship – Promotes stewardship education, creates fundraising campaigns, and manages funds.
Personnel – The HR of the AEUNA.
Two other committees area:
Youth – Oversees Armenian Evangelical Youth Fellowships.
AEUNA/AMAA Joint Home Missions – Supports churches and church mission programs in the Americas.
Christian education has been an integral part of the Armenian Evangelical ethos from the beginning. As the AEUNA grew, different affiliated organizations and standing committees were formed to participate in the spiritual growth and Christian education of our members. At present, the Armenian Evangelical Youth fellowship (AEYF) of the East and of the West and the Armenian Evangelical Women’s Fellowship (AEWF) of the West and of the East are very active in organizing joint events and retreats for the youth and women of the Union. These events create closer relationships and foster fellowship between our different church members and helps them grow in their faith and spiritual life.
Many Christians testify about the impact Christian camps have had in their personal faith journey. Therefore, camping ministry is an integral part of the ministry of any local church or church family and the AEUNA is not an exception. In 1977, dedicated Armenian Evangelical men and women in California who believed in camping ministry and evangelism among the youth started organizing summer camps for different age groups in rental facilities, which started to be called Camp AREV. “Camp AREV quickly became popular in the Armenian Evangelical community: it offered a natural setting to reach young people with the message of the gospel, and it had a Christian Armenian cultural focus.” In 1992, with the generous donation of Edward J. Manishagian, a camp site was purchased by the AEUNA. Since then, annual summer and winter Camps have been organized at this facility in Frazier Park, CA for different age groups. These camps have had life-changing impacts on many campers. For details on Camp AREV’s history, please visit https://www.camparev.org/history. The Camp is completing a major renovation and expansion phase to make the camp site appropriate for families and different groups at the same time. The first phase of this ambitious project will be completed in the very near future. The camping ministry of the AEUNA on the East coast is called Camp Arevelk. To this day, the organizers are renting different venues for their camping events. We pray that in the near future, we may have our own camp site on the East coast as well.
In the Middle East, there is a school adjacent to almost every church. The vision of having an Armenian Evangelical school in the U.S. was realized by the dedication of a group of visionary and hard-working church members in Southern California, and the generous donation of Elise Merdinian in memory of her sister Charlotte. The School opened its doors in 1982 with 13 students. Over the years and with the support and generous donations of other doners new classrooms were built, and the facility was expanded. Today about 200 students study at C&E Merdinian Armenian Evangelical School. Christian Education and morning chapels are an important part of the School curriculum, and over the years many students have graduated from the School and have become prominent leaders in the community.
The AEUNA has close ties and relationships with the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches and other churches in the community and is an active member of the larger Armenian community wherever it serves and enjoys their respect and trust.
A major challenge that the AEUNA faces today is that churches in some areas are becoming smaller due to migration of the younger generation to other states in search of better job opportunities, and the lack of inflow of newcomers. The other major challenge that we face is the lack of a leadership pipeline and the increasing number of the churches without a permanent pastor. I pray that God may raise a new generation of lay and ordained ministers to serve in our churches and community. This requires a community effort and the participation of pastors, church leaders and families.
Rebuilding our Union
Anniversaries are great occasions for thanksgiving and also great occasions for self-evaluation. To assess the current situation of our Union and find ways to better carry our mission of uniting, equipping, and supporting our churches and community, a task force focused on the Rebuilding Vision of the AEUNA is visiting all the AEUNA church pastors and lay leaders. We pray that as we seek guidance and strength from God, and as we humbly listen to each other to understand and appreciate each other and we refocus on our Lord Jesus Christ and His mission, we may work together to rebuild the AEUNA into a stronger, thriving twenty-first century Armenian Evangelical Church.
- AEUNA Brochure prepared on the occasion of the 175th Anniversary
- Megerditchian, Serop. “Armenian Evangelical Union of North America.” Houshamadian (in Armenian), Armenian Evangelical World council, (2021): 105-117.
- Salibian Kiledjian, Searan. History of the Armenian Evangelical Churches of North and south America, Armenian Christian Heritage Committee (AEUNA), 2018
- Tootikian, Vahan. As I see it, Armenian Heritage Committee (AEUNA), 2008
- Tootikian, Vahan. The Armenian Evangelical Church Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Armenian Heritage Committee (AEUNA), 1996
*Hendrik Shanazarian is the Interim Minister to the AEUNA