WATERTOWN — The unthinkable has happened and the globe has gone into shutdown mode. How do Armenian churches and the members of the clergy handle this situation, especially in April, a month in which the church celebrates its holiest holiday, Easter, and marks the darkest of days, April 24?

Several members of the clergy interviewed were articulate not only about the difficulties and challenges they are facing, but also the hope they can offer using technology and the communion they feel with their members.

Fr. Vasken Kouzouian, the pastor of Holy Trinity Armenian Church in Cambridge, like the other members of the clergy interviewed, stressed that while it is new territory holding virtual services, it is the spirit that counts.

“I am trying to find different ways of reaching out, in meaningful ways, ” Kouzouian said.

He was interviewed on Easter Sunday and noted that just a couple of hours ago, he was conducting a service in church, celebrating the Resurrection, working with his wife, Arpi, who was filming.

Many, Kouzouian said, “are grateful the church is still there for them. This is the reality for this year but we haven’t lost touch with our people.”

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He added, “This is our spiritual journey together.”

Fr. Arakel Aljalian of St. James Armenian Church in Watertown was also struck by the timing. “This was a first for all churches around the world, to not gather together on the holiest of all days. We were able to live stream our Divine Liturgy/Badarak, as we did Holy Week Services. Many told us that seeing our St. James sanctuary and “being” (seeing) in their spiritual home brought many comfort. Of course, our church is built on communion and community, so it is not the same when we are not gathered in person. I know that it is very difficult for parishioners not to be able to attend church and be together. It is also difficult for me as a clergy to be here without my faithful. But, I’ve shared with my parishioners, that it is very powerful for a clergyman to pray to God protect all of his faithful (and all of the world) alone in the church.”

Kouzouian credited his wife, Arpi, the superintendent of the Sunday school, for creating an online curriculum for the young students. “The children were riveted to the screen,” he said.

All the members of the clergy interviewed expressed gratitude that despite the mandated shutdowns, technology is allowing them to communicate with their parishioners.

“It is a way to bring the church to your home. Your living room is now part of our sanctuary,” Kouzouian said.

He added, “Nothing is as special as coming face to face and side by side by side by side” at worship, but he added, “I am delighted that there is another way.”

In fact, he said, the current exploring of online and live-streamed services can help some people even when things go back to normal.

Fr. Arakel Aljalian

“Not everyone can get to church. This has opened the door to future ministry to continue and hold services,” Kouzouian said. “It is the first time we have tried it on this level.”

With current software, he said, the broadcast is instant and the picture is crisp.

St. James is also helping out with technology. “We are utilizing Zoom and live streams to help our youth, students, and parishioners connect with the church and one another. Most of all, we are trying to do all we can with great love. “

Rev. Dr. Avedis Boynerian is the pastor, or Badveli, of the Armenian Memorial Church of Watertown, like the other two members of the clergy, is finding himself in a new kind of situation.

“This was unexpected, so it was an alarming thing that caught everybody by surprise,” he said. “In our church, we feel this is a family. It is not a large church, which helps us over the years to feel that this is our second home.”

Fr. Vart Gyozalyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church at Hye Pointe in Haverhill, echoed the comments of his clergy colleagues.

Gyozalyan said the slow but steady emptying of the church before the official stop of all services made him feel uneasy. “I had very few people in church. The people were stressed and afraid,” he said.

Fr. Vart Gyozalyan

After March 19, all activities went online, Gyozalyan noted, including Bible studies and conference calls, using different platforms such as Instagram and Facebook “to keep our congregation together.”

Gyozalyan, however, unlike the other members of the clergy interviewed, does not live stream services. “I lit a candle on behalf of the congregation and I took a picture,” he said, which was then emailed and posted on Facebook.

“I have mixed emotions,” Gyozalyan said. “I am very sad at not seeing my parishioners, not praying together.”

For millennia, he said, “our people were praying together, even during the Genocide.”

He said he often goes to church. “I see the pews are empty but I felt their spirit,” Gyozalyan said.

Again, Gyozalyan concurred that using technology brings in the parishioners who can connect with him any time. However, he added, Holy Week was especially difficult and lonely, noting that he went into the church every day during that period.

While Gyozalyan himself does not favor live streaming, he said he supports his fellow members of the clergy who reach out that way. Instead, he says he has prerecorded several sermons and posted them on the church’s YouTube page. “I applaud all my brother clergy who are doing it,” he added.

“As pastor, it is my first task to take care of spiritual nourishment,” Boynerian said.

Memorial Church also broadcasts its Sunday services in Armenian and English. Arpi Boynerian, the wife of Rev. Boynerian, helps him with the technical aspects.

“We get very good comments,” Boynerian said, “both within the church and beyond our community.”

Arpi Boynerian is superintendent of the Memorial Church’s Sunday school. She had created a Palm Sunday program for the children, her husband said.

In addition, there are virtual prayer meetings every night from 8 to 8.30 p.m.

“People come in and say how they have spent their night,” Boynerian added.

Reaching Out to Parishioners

Aljalian said that he is trying to make sure that he reaches members of the parish who need him. “We do keep reminding our parishioners that our church is more than the sanctuary or building, and that love carries us during these times. We do our best, and keep reminding parishioners, to focus on hope and not on fear. While it was difficult to celebrate Easter in this current environment, it was also very powerful and perfectly timed that the hope and rebirth and victory of Easter comes right at this time, as a reminder to all,” Aljalian said.

Fr. Avedis Boynerian

Boynerian concurred. The church wants to be there for parishioners, he said. Therefore, he and the deacons have divided up the list of members so that everyone, members receive phone calls.

For many of the members of the clergy, praying is the way they replenish themselves, so that they in turn can help their parishioners.

Still, they are only human and the current situation is weighing them down, too.

Kouzouian said that he is distraught that several members of the church are in the hospital with COVID-19 and one has already passed away. It causes him “heartache” that he cannot be with them at their time of need. But, he added, “They know Der Hayr is praying for them.”

One case that really got to him was the passing of Gerald Boghosian of Lexington, who was Kouzouian’s Godfather at his ordination.

Aljalian concurred. “It is difficult. Everything we know has been upended. In addition to spending days calling parishioners, there have been funerals and news of ill parishioners and community members. With parish life, baptisms, and weddings on hold, a great deal of focus has been on these sadder aspects of ministry.

“The hardest part is being limited in ministering to and caring for my parishioners. I cannot comfort parishioners, be close to them, hug them, and spend time in their homes or at the hospital with them.  I do my best to show love, but this saddens me and is a challenge and one that I feel personally and deeply.  I focus, as I tell my parishioners, on the hope that God provides. Holy Week was especially well timed this year -we see Christ suffer and die, but know that He will be victorious and defeat suffering and death. He gives me the strength,” Aljalian concluded.

Gyozalyan said that for him the situation is very emotional. “I have felt great love and see how much they are missing each other.”

Helping Those in Need

Kouzouian said that he and volunteers help deliver food to parishioners and their family members who are unable to leave their homes “so that they don’t go out.”

The church is funding the service. In fact, he recalled that he was picking up an order from Eastern Lamejun in Belmont, and when he told the proprietor that the food was to be delivered to a shut-in, the store refused to charge him.

Those interested in making donations to Holy Trinity for continuing the food donation program, can make out a check to and send it to Holy Trinity Armenian Church, 145 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA 02138; memo: Needy care packages.

Those interested in receiving the service can call the church office at (617) 354-0632 and leave a message.

Kouzouian said that the church has served people connected with Holy Trinity but that if someone calls them in need, they will help.

The program, Kouzouian said, has been “received very well. People have been very touched. I believe they are uplifted. I talk to them for a couple of minutes. It is the least we can do. We have to take care of each other.”

Fr. Aljalian said that St. James is also involved with helping its members, as well as reaching out to non-Armenian organizations. “We reach out to parishioners to see what they need. We have a number of parishioners who have volunteered to help with individual needs of fellow parishioners and are also reaching out to one another. We as a church are doing what we can for local organizations and hospitals, police and fire departments, etc., whether its parishioners making masks, our parish donating its supply of gloves, distributing choreg and food, and the like.”

Aljalian said that “Our family and other volunteers have been helping by dropping groceries off, taking food from local restaurants and dropping it off to parishioners, picking up prescriptions, going to the post office for them, and the like.”

Similar activities are going on at the Memorial Church. “Young couples have offered to help with buying groceries for older parishioners,” Boynerian said. The parishioner receiving the food pays for it, he noted.

It’s not only access to the outside world for some; Aljalian said that some parishioners are facing more difficult times. “Parishioners we have spoken with that have lost their jobs have shared that they are hopeful they will get their jobs back, are taking advantage of state and federal programs and so far have shared they are doing ok. I have made them promise to let me know if things change for them. It is a difficult time for all,” Aljalian said.

St. James is not fundraising yet. “We do not have a fund for parishioners at this time, but will explore that if and when the time comes.  It is a challenging dynamic because even families with jobs, and even churches, are experiencing great financial challenges at this time.  The biggest challenge is we need to know who needs help, and sometimes people are hesitant to ask for it, for many understandable reasons. We will continue to be guided by our central mission: to love and care for one another.”

Like the other churches, members of Hye Pointe are taking care of each other. “In the past we have had an outreach program for families in the area,” Gyozalyan said.

Now, with COVID-19, even more are helping. Gyozalyan said that after discussing the matter with the church council, he sent out an email asking for volunteers to help people in need who have health issues and cannot go out in public now. “I asked for volunteers who are comfortable doing grocery and pharmacy runs,” he said. “Two hours later, there were 10 volunteers.”

In addition, he said he and the council have created a group to make follow-up calls to families who have health concerns to check up on them.

Time for Faith

While they turn to God for their vocations, the members of the clergy interviewed admitted that they turn to God also to sustain their own faiths and replenish their souls.

“I dig into my faith even more,” Kouzouian said. “I can’t imagine going through what we are going through without faith. It would be complete despair without faith. It gets us through the tough days.”

In fact, for many who were interviewed, the symbolism of Easter was relevant.

“My Lord walks with me,” Kouzouian said, after smashing out of the tomb.

He also said he does get calls from parishioners who are having a hard time, seeking a certain Bible passage or soothing words.

“I’ve been living on the phone the past three or four weeks,” Kouzouian said. One caller is at the Armenian Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica Plain. “He doesn’t see any way of this. He is reaching out to me to lift him up,” Kouzouian said. “It is very challenging when you are alone.”

“I have the luxury of going to church. I spend some private time in prayer and that lifts me up. The crucified Christ gives me strength,” Kouzouian said.

To renew himself and replenish his faith, Gyozalyan said he relies on “scripture reading and disconnecting with my wife and kids. We go hiking and walking, doing outside stuff and projects around the house.”

He and his wife, Lusine, have two children ages 9 and 7.

He also said that he regularly communicates with his fellow clergy members to give and receive feedback in this strangest of times.

Kouzouian said that reaching out to parishioners is rewarding to him. “Every time I leave uplifted. I receive more than I have ever given,” he said.

For Aljalian, “The main way is to reach out to them.  We are blessed with a large St. James parish family, and I have spent my days calling parishioners, sometimes dozens a day. I am doing my best to reach out to as many people personally as I can. Parishioners need, especially now, to connect, to talk, to share their feelings, and to know they are loved. The world around us may be changing, but our love for our parishioners, and God’s love for us, never does. That hope and reassurance is important.”

His father, Rev. Mampre Kouzouian, winters in Florida and had been caught there after the shelter in place order. He has just returned to Massachusetts and is in the two-week self-isolation period.

He gave credit to his family, saying “my wife and daughter are an extension of my life, my ministry.” He praised his wife for “inspiring me all the time,” adding that his daughter is facing “the challenges of not being in school.”

“The church, from one end of the country to the other, from Armenia to everywhere, is reaching out. You’re not alone,” he said, praising the live feeds from Echmiadzin.

Added Aljalian, “Our motto in our home for our family is: “one day at a time”.  It is challenging and overwhelming when we look to the future or too far down the road. But, one day at a time, things are easier. I remind people to go to God – with Him all things are possible. We read in the Gospel of Matthew to “not worry about tomorrow.”  As I said in my Easter sermon, this is a time for us to love one another, to help one another, to appreciate one another, and to pray for one another. If we can help others, we should, in any way we can. No act is too small.”

No parishioner of Armenian Memorial has passed away from the virus yet, though a couple of parishioners are in the Armenian Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and have been affected by COVID-19. One woman, Boynerian said, has just turned 100. “She had the virus and recovered,” he noted with delight. “The other one is 80 and just got it,” he added.

Personal time spent in prayer is vital for Boynerian. “I have my routine, with a time of devotion, which is nourishing my spirit.”

“My main concern is the spiritual life of our people,” Boynerian said.

On Easter, Boynerian said, people signed up on Zoom for a fellowship coffee meeting after the second service. “This was the first time we met face to face. People were missing each other not seeing the others over four or five weeks,” he said. “It is very important that people know that we are all in this together. The church is for everybody. We need to rely on God and each other.”

In a new approach, on Easter eve, Gyozalyan said he offered blessings to parishioners who drove by the church. “I prayed for each for 30 seconds,” he said. There were more than 100 cars.

And Boynerian said he believes that the church is resilient. “Our church in the past has surprised us so much. It is early and I don’t know how long it will take, but it is challenging.”

Boynerian also expressed gratitude that technology was enabling closer contact with parishioners. “Thanks to technology, we have different means of reaching people,” he said.

The April commemorations are weighing heavily on Boynerian.

“April 24 is around the corner and we as a people need to commemorate it. We are going through the general experience” out of which the Armenians came thought and survived, and that “should make us hopeful that this too shall pass.”

Boynerian said that he is trying to stay as positive as he can. “We as Armenians will get through this ordeal.”

It is not just the spiritual end that Boynerian deals with. His son, Antranig, is a third-year nursing student and works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. As a parent, of course, he worries. “He takes all the precautionary measures,” he said. We pray to God to protect him.”

His younger son, Arek, 19, is still in Tucson, Ariz., where he is studying finance. He will return to Massachusetts in May.

His wife, who is a technician at an optometry practice, has been temporarily laid off.

One member of the church has succumbed to COVID-19.

While no end is in sight yet, Gyozalyan offered some words of hope: “I see strong people. Nothing can stop these people. I have seen that whatever happens, we have strong people in our community and Massachusetts.”

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