Our AMAA Centennial / Armenia Homeland Tour
By Elise Kalfayan
In this Centennial year, the AMAA offered a two-week Armenia tour for its members. I and 35 others signed up, and our tour joined in the AMAA Centennial celebrations during the final week, September 23-30.
Armenia’s history, the AMAA’s legacy, and ongoing mission needs were all apparent to us as we experienced the tour and the celebrations.
Tsitsernakaberd, Our First Official Stop
The first day, Thursday, September 20, we walked solemnly to the Armenian Genocide Memorial at Tsitsernakaberd and laid flowers around the Eternal Flame. The group gathered and Martin Eskijian prayed in English, then we all recited the Hayr Mer. We visited the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute next to the memorial, then several of us walked to see the statue of “Mother Arising from the Ashes” which is a full-size copy of a statue at the Ararat-Eskijian Museum (Los Angeles, CA) commissioned and installed by the Luther Eskijian and Stephen Nazarian families.
A Special Holiday Spent at Avedisian School
We visited the Khoran and Shooshanig Avedisian School on September 21, Armenian Independence Day, and missed seeing the students as it was a holiday. Economics teacher Knarik Vardanyan showed us her video, taken the day before, of the students’ assembly marking the event with singing, recitations, and red, orange and blue balloons.
A large wall plaque honoring the school’s benefactors and sponsors was at the entrance. Three of them were on our tour: Anahid Terjimanian, and Martin & Effie Eskijian.
Principal Melanya Geghamyan welcomed our group for a tour of the school’s new, LEED-certified facilities; she led half our group and Vardanyan led the other half.
The school was built to exacting design and sustainability standards under the direction of architect Ron Altoon. Monitored energy use, solar panels, green roofs, and other touches are some of the design features. Shown the high-tech screen visible in the entry hall, we learned that the school gets 30% of its energy from the solar panels. In a common hallway, we saw large posters featuring prominent Armenian Evangelical leaders, historical sites, and publications and a large AMAA Centennial banner. One room was filled with chess boards, others with state-of-the art computers, chemistry equipment, and art projects. The bright library had floor to ceiling windows looking out to the athletic field and solar panels.
Students pay no tuition at this private, AMAA-owned and operated school for grades K-12. School slots are in high demand, and are only offered to local neighborhood residents. The neediest students are admitted first. The school gives priority to orphans, children with working parents, and refugees. More than ten percent of the current attendees are Syrian-Armenian refugees. Most students go on to local universities, many to AUA.
The AMAA provides operations funding for the school each year, and last year sponsors provided $30,000 for additional programs. Additional funds are always needed for extracurricular and after school programs!
AMAA Board member Ken Kevorkian, who was on our tour, was so pleased to return to the site he visited with AMAA leaders in 2011 when they decided to buy the land. Just three years later, in 2014, the buildings opened and a short time after that the high school was opened, extending the education to 12th grade.
This was one of the most beautiful and welcoming schools I have ever seen anywhere. How heart-warming to know that local children growing up in very difficult circumstances can attend this free, private institution, built with love by benefactors and the AMAA.
Sevanavank and our grateful fellowship
“God has blessed us by allowing us to come here together. We can carry back news of God’s work here, and what the AMAA is doing. Let’s give thanks each time we get together!” So said tour member Marlen Kumjian, of Immanuel Armenian Congregational Church (Downey, CA) as we gathered for lunch after visiting Sevanavank. Our meal was served in a covered patio overlooking Lake Sevan. We had spent the morning hiking up the 200 steps to visit Sevavank and take in its beautiful view, then traveling on to Dilijan to Goshavank.
She said a prayer of thanks, and we remembered it as brief rains during our bus rides cleared the sky for our two walks in and around the beautiful monasteries. During the rest of the trip we continued giving thanks for the good work AMAA has done and is doing.
Morning Worship, Evening Concert
The first Sunday of our tour, September 23, we attended church in Yerevan. The Armenian Evangelical Church of Armenia and Artsakh had organized this special worship service to commemorate the AMAA’s Centennial. Rev. Hovhannes Hovsepyan offered a prayer of thanks to God for the work of the AMAA in Armenia and with Rev. Mgrdich Melkonian presented a gift to the organization: a beautiful large wooden khatchkar.
Rev. Melkonian spoke of mission and worship in his sermon that followed. Drawing on Matthew 5:13-16, he emphasized that where there is no worship, mission is needed, and when all are worshipping the mission is accomplished. “Jesus Christ brings light into our lives, and true worship with it. We are called to take that worship to where it does not exist.”
We returned to the church that evening for the first official Centennial event, a concert. We and other guests were impressed by the performers’ love for the homeland and for the AMAA expressed in recitations (in Armenian and English) as well as the musical numbers.
Haghpat and Sanahin Monasteries – a 100-mile, 4-hour drive
Most of Monday, September 24 was spent traveling by bus to and from two monasteries in the far north of Armenia, in a setting similar to the Swiss Alps. The ancient Haghpat and Sanahin (even older!) monasteries are remote, at high elevations accessible only by a long series of hairpin turns. They would be overrun tourist destinations if they were easier to get to! During the drive, our tour guide described the regions we were passing through and their histories. The map we had showing AMAA missions and projects in the far north as well as throughout Armenia was becoming more impressive as we experienced road trips in its countryside, valleys, and mountains.
Etchmiadzin, Sardarabad, and “The Angel of Salvation”
We were immersed in the centuries-long saga of Armenian spiritual and national survival on Tuesday, September 25, visiting Etchmiadzin, Saradarabad, and in the evening attending production of the play “The Angel of Salvation.”
On the way to Etchmiadzin, our guide gave us some background, telling us it was the first large Christian cathedral and the model for the entire region as well as Europe as ancient churches were built. She also told us of the 1918 Catholicos’s refusal to retreat as Turkish forces were advancing to crush Armenia – he said that he would fight to defend the church himself, and ordered church bells to be rung for six days to call all Armenians to battle.
On the way to St. Gayane Cathedral, tour member Anahid Terjimanian told us the history made famous by Armenian author Raffi of two lovers buried on opposite sides of the church.
The Ethnographic Museum, which won a top Soviet-era architecture award, and the Saradarabad monument with its bell tower and winged lions, were our next stop. In the museum’s main hall, we heard about Armenian soldiers, priests, civilians, and children whose heroic actions preserved Armenia as a nation.
It was a day to remember heroes. In 1916, Rev. Hovhannes Eskijian died while running an operation that saved many Armenian children and leaders being moved by the Turks through Aleppo to the Syrian desert. His efforts were documented in the book, At the Crossroads of Der Zor, and passed down by his surviving wife and son Luther. Playwright / Director Nune Abrahamyan transformed this history into “The Angel of Salvation.”
We joined a full house to see the moving play, and stayed along with the entire audience for a series of heartfelt speeches afterward. Many of us stayed out late, continuing to dwell on what Rev. Eskijian and other heroes of faith and of the nation went through.
Illumination, Artistic Heritage, and Armenian Evangelicals’ Art
Many tour members went to see Khor Virap and Noravank monasteries on Wednesday, September 26. Mary Demirjian (First Armenian Church,Belmont, MA) recalled history lessons from her school days in Aleppo of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s establishment of Christianity in Armenia. The group went on to Noravank, which contains splendid 14th century Armenian Christian decorative art.
In Yerevan that afternoon, other tour members and AMAA supporters were on hand for the elegant opening of a contemporary art exhibit featuring works of Armenian Evangelical artists.
Erebouni’s Ancient Past, the Shogh Center’s Bright Present
On Thursday, September 27, our tour took us to the Erebouni Museum and Archeological Preserve. On the exterior was the emblem celebrating Yerevan’s 2800th year. Inside was an impressive and still growing collection of artifacts from the area, expertly described by a museum guide. In the center of a simulated ancient courtyard was a large stone engraved with ancient cuneiform, with one side etched over much later in time as a khatchkar! We stayed to listen to a quartet sing for us, and hiked up to the Erebouni Fortress ruins that have a panoramic view of the city.
Later in the day, a small group of us visited the Shogh Day Center in Yerevan, the first such program the AMAA established and the model for several others AMAA has in Armenia, including the new one in Gyumri. Located in a dense, lower-income section of Yerevan and surrounded by unattractive apartment complexes, the older building has been thoroughly brightened up and has a welcoming atmosphere. AMAA Armenia Director Harout Nercessian told us that the municipality gave it to the AMAA for use as a day care facility.
He introduced Center Director Naira Keropyan, who told us the program operates for grades 1-8 but even high school students continue to attend and some former students are now volunteers. Children here are from disadvantaged backgrounds, often with both parents working long hours, sometimes from abusive situations. The police refer difficult cases to this center because of its commitment and its individual attention to each child and their family. Professional social workers design projects and activities to help children learn and to provide an oasis of peace and love that fosters motivation. This successful program is the model for five other Shogh Day Centers that AMAA is running in Armenia and Artsakh, including the new one in Gyumri.
AMAA child sponsorships support these children, although actual costs are well above the set contributions. Harout Nercessian told us there is a long waiting list, and the program currently serves 76 children while it was designed for just 60.
Ms. Keropyan spoke eloquently about the Center’s mission, its professional staff of believers who show God’s love and care to struggling families, and the positive impacts she’s seen. “We use the Christian model of social work. All workers are believers, and we pray to overcome fear. We consider spiritual resources as the most important,” she told us. “We don’t spare any effort, and we allow the families and children to evaluate our work so they can express how they feel. Our greatest encouragement comes from the children.”
We were privileged to be introduced to staff members and students, to see some work up close in an art class, to stand in a small dance studio where classes are led by a war hero, to read messages of hope dictated by the children and pinned to a wall, and to have some dialogue with one of the staff psychologists. As we left the Center, our hearts full, Director Keropyan and the children with her warmly waved goodbye.
Journey to Geghart and Garni, then “A Journey of Faith, Love, and Service”
On Friday, September 28, we drove to a vista of southern valleys, hills with Mt. Ararat barely visible in the background. On the way, our tour guide described the history and importance of the Geghart monastery to the Armenian church and to her personally (she was married there). We continued on to the monastery, where we saw sacred music singers sing prayers in the cave. Then others could hear us as tour member Anahid Terjimanian led us in singing the Hayr Mer.
A fellowship lunch followed in Garni, where tour members shared family histories of suffering and survival. AMAA staff member Magda Poulos had arrived to help with the weekend events, and she joined us for the day. She answered tour members’ questions about AMAA Armenia operations funding, as well as endowment and campaign needs.
We returned in time to prepare for an evening at the beautiful Yerevan Opera Theatre, joining a full house of guests for the AMAA Centennial cultural program.
1500+ Years of the Armenian Alphabet, 100 Years of AMAA
Saturday, September 29, we went on a short excursion to Artashayan where we saw the Armenian Alphabet monument built in 2005, the alphabet’s 1500th anniversary. As usual, our tour guide had interesting history to share, this time on the alphabet’s creation and the split between Eastern and Western letter usage. Next, we saw a similar monument in Oshagan, near the burial shrine of Mesrob Mashtots. School children were mingling with us – they were on a field trip. It was wonderful to see them experiencing their heritage in a welcoming and climbable sculpture park where each letter incorporated historical etchings, and it reminded us of AMAA’s commitment to the children of Armenia.
We headed back to prepare for the Gala Banquet, held at the Marriott in Republic Square, where our tour group was staying.
The last stop on our official tour was to Gyumri, and another bus, plus cars and taxi vans, joined us on the long morning drive from Yerevan. We were so impressed by the large, well-built complex, the welcome we all received from staff and volunteers, the solemn service of dedication, and the fellowship that followed.
Joining the large AMAA delegation and many locals at a restaurant in the main square of Gyumri to celebrate the new center and church, this was the next to last of our group meals. The Gyumri gathering was the most memorable and moving, I concluded, during our sunset drive through the countryside back to Yerevan.
The Fruits of Faith, Love, and Service
In the latter part of its Centennial, the AMAA has built a compassionate presence with evangelistic, humanitarian and mission projects in the homeland of Armenia. We spent a wonderful two weeks together experiencing Armenia and celebrating the AMAA’s Centennial. Our tour included people from the First Armenian Church of Belmont, Armenian Martyrs’ Church of Havertown, United Armenian Congregational Church of Los Angeles, Immanuel Armenian Congregational Church of Downey, and Armenian Cilicia Evangelical Church of Pasadena. We saw so much to be thankful for and to support while we were there.
AMAA Board member Ken Kevorkian had these thoughts: “On our AMAA trip to Armenia, I was overcome by excitement, awe, and emotion. I along with everyone else was so pleased and excited to see the Avedisian School and watch the children in action. I was in awe of the beauty and quality of design and construction of the Gyumri Center and Sanctuary. As we toured the Shogh Center, I had a difficult time keeping my emotions in check. I have gained great respect for the teachers and was overwhelmed by the special needs of the children.”
Don and Diane Uber, of the Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational Church, Havertown, PA, took the tour with us and have contributed to many AMAA efforts over the years. “This was our first trip to Armenia, and it was great to see the many great projects the AMAA has invested in to improve Armenia’s future. They are a wonderful complement to the optimistic feeling in the Armenia air after the recent elections. The trip has encouraged us to continue and perhaps increase our contributions to AMAA efforts.”
Debbie Fermanian, one of several tour members from the large Immanual Armenian Congregational Church contingent, said that they all had a very memorable experience in Armenia.
Armenia at this time is looking to the future with great hope, and the AMAA’s legacy of faith, love, and service has produced excellent fruit that is nourishing the new generation.
For more photos, posts and stories on AMAA’s Centennial Celebrations in Armenia visit our Facebook Page.