Monday, November 23, 2015

Reflections on a trip to Armenia October 2015: people, faith and landscapes

Driving in a tour van over potholed roads amidst grand landscapes of undulating volcanic plains, roadside chapels and a myriad of crosses wave hello.  And surrounded by the population of the world’s oldest Christian nation, filled with stories of oppression, loss, survival, deep faith and a penchant for extravagant welcoming and gift-giving to visitors…you would expect there to be a Holy mountain…and there is…on the horizon in almost every corner of the land, stands Mt. Ararat. 

And the people, who call themselves the Hay, and their country Hayastan…talk about Noah’s Ark and his descendants settling in the region, as if it was yesterday.  The only thing that comes close to overshadowing the power of the mountain, is the memory of the Armenian Genocide, enacted by the Turkish government between 1897 and 1922.  With the death of over 1.5 million Armenians and the theft and destruction of thousands of churches, monasteries, homes and villages…the Armenian people who survived in what is just a small semblance of the land they once populated, hold onto their mountain, their story and their faith.  It defines them.  It enables them to move forward, it gives them strength of character and all of it lets visitors know that they are somewhere special when they are surrounded by such people.

Visiting 1500 year old monasteries and hearing Old Armenian liturgy chanted and sung among their walls, it all reverberated in our minds as we tried to breathe in the country in just 9 days.  And if the people of Armenia, their faith, and the landscapes that they live among weren’t enough, then there is the Jinishian Memorial Foundation.  The worldwide Christian organization that organized our trip with the help of the World Mission Initiative out of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and they helped to raise our awareness of the Armenian people’s story and their Genocide.


 On a daily basis, their outreach work gives the Armenian people safety, hope and work not only in Armenia and the Middle East but even in America.  From civic dialogue projects at universities to debate clubs at middle schools, farming cooperatives that began with donated seed money and now build their own kindergartens, to organic fertilizer initiatives and local pottery businesses, from hospitality and electrician training centers to housing projects…the Jinishian Memorial Foundation (, works from the ground up to give the people hope, encouragement and a sense of purpose in places around the world where the economy struggles and people strive to make a better life for themselves.  And we were honored to be shown bits and pieces of all of these endeavors. 


But if the touring, worshiping and the education weren’t enough, the people of Jinishian and other Armenians that we met, invited us into their offices and their homes, they told us their stories and introduced us to their families, they fed us a multitude of new and interesting foods and they gave us gifts to take home back to America...we prayed with them and for them...and they prayed for us! 

Armenia is a country with a people amidst majestic landscapes that tell a story of thousands of years of trial and tribulation, success and honor, faith and love.  Surviving Persian, Islamic, Turkish and Soviet empires…the people seem eternally resolved to be their own their own country...with their own language. 
They’re remembrance flower, the forget-me-not, calls the world to recognize the tragedy that was the Genocide, the motto that goes along with it, “remember and demand”, calls Armenians themselves to never forget where they have come from, what they have survived, and invigorates them to share their story with the whole world, including a small group of 8 people from Pennsylvania, New York and Colorado. 

And whether toasting their families, or us, at a table filled with way to much delicious food, or driving our group hours away from the capital of Yerevan to share the story of a thousand year old church, their national pride was infectious.  I wish I had words to say a bigger thank you, a smile that could extend across oceans or a way to share my new fond love for a people, a faith and landscapes that took my breath away and stirred my heart. 


 Perhaps, my small memento here gives some semblance of the beauty of all that we saw and heard and experienced.  Perhaps, it helps to remind us that the church and it's people in Christ, are spread out all over the earth...and that the Holy Spirit continues to bring us together in new and creative ways.  And maybe, you also will feel drawn to experience it all yourself one day, in Armenia.  All I can say is, Go…and let the people, their faith and the landscapes draw you into their embrace.