Remembering Fr. Dajad, Our Pastor

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By Michael Zeytoonian

Like thousands of others here in Massachusetts, around the country and the world, my life pauses this week to remember and honor the memory of Fr. Dajad Davidian, the pastor of my youth and longtime friend and mentor, who passed away on July 14. If we are fortunate enough, sometimes our lives cross paths with someone extraordinary, who by being the person he or she is, helps shape the kind of person we become, helps crystalize the “why” we do what we do in our lives and in our careers and the way we do it. I would not have become the kind of lawyer and conflict resolution advocate I am today if not for the influence of my pastor during my teen, college years and adult life.  While there were countless memories of how profoundly he influenced me – along with thousands of others he touched — a few are shared here. I’m certain that no matter what we chose to do with our lives, in some way, Der Dajad contributed to the way we do it, transforming it to higher and deeper level of serving others.

Fr. Dajad was my priest in Watertown, at St. James Armenian Church at a critical time in my life, from age 15 through graduate school. In my adulthood, he was my friend, counselor and mentor. After he “retired” in 1999, after 30 years as pastor at St. James, he served people’s needs by going to Armenia every year for months at a time, leading youth groups, counseling young people, leading Bible study and prayer groups in Armenia, and just doing what he did best — being there, in the moment, for people — up until the last week of his life. I am proud and feel blessed to be able to call him “my pastor.”

When people think about what goes into the training of a lawyer and a mediator — or for that matter any profession — the contribution of one’s pastor is probably not on the list of ingredients. There’s college, law school, training and direction from veteran lawyers, reading laws and court decisions and continuing legal education, all shaping the legal mind. But that technical training has little to do with the soul of the lawyer, the care, attention, compassion and service that a lawyer — or any service providing profession — gives to our clients and those we touch. That is where a pastor like Fr. Dajad comes in and fills a huge void. What he gave us, you can’t get from any law books or law school training.

Fr. Dajad, born in Worcester (1934) was one of the first American-born priests to serve in the Armenian Church. Among his gifts were the ability to relate to everyone, from the smallest child to those in their last years, and everyone in between. He was a rare man who could balance being a brilliant mind — well-read and conversant on any subject — with being able to humbly sit down with any person or group, just be there as one of us, and also counsel us when we sought out his good counsel. Most clergy, parishioners and people that knew him agreed that Fr. Dajad was the gold standard for what a pastor in an ethnic, traditional Christian Church in America should be. In 50 years, I have not heard a better preacher in the entire Orthodox Church, and I have not seen a better pastor in my lifetime.

One great quality he modeled for us was always being centered and grounded, totally comfortable with who he was, never needing to put on any airs about who he wasn’t, and able to relate to and respect all types of people. To his last days, he lived life on his own terms, always serving others. Those of us that were lucky enough to pick this quality up from him know its value in any chosen profession — for me as a mediator or lawyer. He was someone who was perfectly at ease being one of the guys hanging out talking about the Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots, what the editorial page writers and columnists had to say in the morning’s Boston Globe, quoting a high-level economist or theologian, and offering his opinion that Congressman Barney Frank was right about some political issue. The beauty of this was that he could do it in the same conversation, shifting gears seamlessly, and keep everyone engaged! Who does that?

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Picture this scene: I can easily imagine my pastor causally sitting down at a coffee house, pub or a picnic table, joining an ongoing conversation with (then House Speaker) Tip O’Neill, (columnist) Mike Barnacle, (psychologist) Amos Tversky, (songwriters) Dave Matthews and Alanis Morissette, (writers) Bill Reilly and William Saroyan and (sportswriters) Frank Deford and Karen Guregian, along with a couple of guys that happen to be sitting at the bar, and a homeless panhandler, all at the same time! The human glue and junction of the group would have been Fr. Dajad, who could easily connect with each of them. A conversation for the ages!

My pastor was a man who could listen with empathy, give you his support, guidance and love, and also subtly challenge your thinking, get you to improve yourself and move you out of your comfort zone — especially when it came to the important issues of our lives. During Lent each year, he would gather the teenagers in the church chancel one evening a week — and none of us wanted to miss any of these sessions — sit on the floor and have “Lenten Dialogues” in which we discussed all kinds of life issues, and in which he offered us teachings from Scripture that were right on point, insights from a variety of other sources and challenged us to do better and drill deeper (before drilling deeper was a concept). If you mentioned a story that moved you from Profiles in Courage about Sen. Edmund G, Ross, he would nudge you up a notch and suggest that you read The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington.

If you commented on something you related to in his Sunday sermon, he would connect it to Scripture (or sports) and throw in something he recently read by theologian Paul Tillich, always showing why those were relevant to our lives. He could easily connect the dots from the simple yet profound teachings of Jesus to St. Augustine to a writing of an obscure Armenian Church father to “why is all that important to 17 year old me today, here?” Then, he would segue that to a political article he read that week in The Wall Street Journal or The New Republic magazine, and as we are walking out of church after the dialogue, without missing a beat, suggest some basketball advice to me: “You know, you should have driven to the hoop more and taken less jump shots in the past weekend’s church league basketball game. You know your driving inside is a stronger skill than your streaky outside shooting,” (He was right about that, too.)

My pastor didn’t just meet people or know who they were; he listened to us deeply and got to know our lives well. He listened to what you were saying but also heard what you weren’t saying. He gave every person, no matter what one’s station in life, the same level of attention and care. Because he knew us all well and loved us all fully, he could give us a true friend’s comfort as well as a wise man’s advice. It was tough advice to hear sometimes, but we always knew that as much as it came from his vibrant mind and life experience and was worth thinking about and applying, it also came from a place of love, always from his heart. Applying it to my profession, his was the model for how to actively listen to a client, or parties in mediation.

His teachings, advice on life, modeling a life of serving others and his just being there for people were as much a factor for me to go to Boston College (in part because a priest that reminded me of him — Fr. Robert Drinan, dean of the law school and later a Congressman at the time — was there), to write, starting with the church youth group’s Golden Cross monthly magazine, to later go to seminary and serve the community, later in life to pursue being a lawyer (at the age of 33), and then think about how to better serve others as a lawyer (at the age of 55). The thousands of people he touched, the families we raised, the friendships we engaged in fully, the involvements in our respective faith communities, and the professions through which we have worked to serve others have all benefited from a once in a lifetime gift and blessing: The presence in our lives of this one man, our pastor and friend, Fr. Dajad — back then, now and always.

(Michael Zeytoonian is an attorney in Wellesley, Mass.)

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