Very Rev. Aren Jebejian with a "Seerov Jash" delivery

By Harry A. Kezelian III

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

DETROIT — The Metro Detroit Armenian community, like the rest of the world, has been dealing with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic for the past month and a half. With a community of some 40,000 Armenians amongst a population of around 4 million inhabitants, Michigan, and in particular the Detroit area, has been hit hard by the pandemic. There have been 37,203 confirmed cases of Covid-19 throughout the state as of Saturday, May 25, and the state and its governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has been making it into the national news.

Fortunately, the Armenian community of Metro Detroit, by taking stringent measures early on, has remained mostly safe from the virus, and few cases or deaths have been reported.

One of the most vulnerable populations in terms of the current pandemic has been the elderly and particularly the residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers. The Manoogian Manor, also known as the Michigan Home for the Armenian Aged, is home to 70 residents, Armenian and non-Armenian, at their center in the Detroit suburb of Livonia. Christine Derdarian, Esq., executive director of the Manor, said she was “very much aware that our residents would be at elevated risk…and we were determined from the onset to do everything in our power to protect residents and staff.”

The Manor had one resident who contracted the virus 6 weeks ago, but there has not been another case. Aggressive protocols have been instituted for staff and residents, which have succeeded.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Manoogian Manor has been the beneficiary of generous outreach from the families of residents, the City of Livonia, and the Detroit Armenian community at large, in particular St. John Armenian Church of Greater Detroit located in Southfield. Computer tablets have been purchased and FaceTime meetings set up to keep residents in contact with their families. Many visitors have come and set up chairs outside the windows of their loved ones in order to speak to them. Members of the Manoogian Manor Board, as well as the mayor of Livonia have offered personal protection equipment (PPE) for staff. Several family members of residents have also contributed funds to help honor the staff. The Very Rev. Aren Jebejian, pastor of St. John, as well as assistant pastor Rev. Armash Bagdasarian, have been checking in periodically, and the latter has been visiting the building, where he circles the perimeter from the outside, offering prayers to the residents who attend from their windows.

Derdarian attributed the success and safety of the Manor to the speed with which they responded to the outbreak; lockdown was instituted even before it was demanded by the governor, and the most stringent protocols were adopted, going above and beyond the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control. Derdarian praised the staff as “remarkable, dedicated, and courageous.”

The second residence for older members of the Armenian community in Michigan is the St. Sarkis Towers, an independent living apartment building for seniors, located on the grounds of St. Sarkis Armenian Church in Dearborn. There have been a couple of cases of the virus in the Towers, but things are generally fine, said Rev. Hrant Kevorkian of St. Sarkis Church.

“We hired a professional cleaning company to sanitize the hallways, and the church provides for their needs to help them stay in.” He added, “we are thankful to St. John’s” that they are providing two days of food per week for residents of the Towers. The Armenian Relief Society also provides one day of food, and St. Sarkis Church itself provides another day of food.

Closed Schools

Like all schools during the crisis, the AGBU Alex and Marie Manoogian School in Southfield, has also been impacted. The school is the only K-12 Armenian day school in the US outside of California.

The Principal of the Lower School, Sonia Kalfayan, shared that, naturally, the school has been forced to adopt Distance Learning. A “Continuity of Learning” plan was established and Google Classroom is being utilized. Lesson plans are emailed to families and students. There is a Zoom schedule for the entire school, including preschool. Teachers are also setting up tutorial sessions for kids that need extra help.

Things are going well,. Kalfayan said, though the transition was difficult at first, as this was a new platform for everyone. All parents have been reached by phone, and they have been appreciative of the school’s efforts. Jebejian has reached out to the school with St. John’s “Sirov Jash” program, and the school is helping anyone that they know who needs help, especially first responder families. This is a big concern as there are a number of parents from the school who are in the medical field, doctors, nurses, or otherwise, and are acting as first responders. The school is doing what it can to show appreciation for what the first responders are doing for the broader community and society.

Popular local caterer of Armenian cuisine, Gary Reizian, proprietor of Uptown Catering in Keego Harbor, has even sent baskets of food items on behalf of the AGBU Manoogian School to these first responder families. Most importantly, while the state of Michigan had until April 26 to restart public school programs, the AGBU Manoogian School (which is operated as a public charter school under Michigan law), restarted their Distance Learning two weeks early, and so in this case as well, the Armenian community’s response to coronavirus has been to take action early and decisively.

Houses of Worship

The Metro Detroit area is home to four Armenian houses of worship: St. John Armenian Church (Diocesan); St. Sarkis Armenian Church (Prelacy); the Armenian Congregational Church of Greater Detroit; and St. Vartan Armenian Catholic Church, all of which are currently streaming their Sunday morning and other services online, as well as participating in community outreach.

Thanks to the unified front displayed by both Echmiadzin and Antelias, all Armenian Apostolic Churches have been on lockdown, parishioners forbidden from gathering, and badarak offered by a priest with a few deacons and singers. Holy Communion is only being consumed by the celebrant priest. St. John’s and St. Sarkis are no exceptions to this.

An outreach program was implemented immediately at St. John’s, with the centerpiece being the “Sirov Jash” program. The food is prepared in the St. John’s industrial kitchen by catering director Paul Yousoufian and an assistant. The meals are then delivered to the doorsteps of the recipients without any physical contact between the recipient and the person making the delivery. There is also the option for someone to come to the church and pick up a meal for an elderly relative or friend. Youth Coordinator Lisa Mardigian, who is a full time employee of the church, has stepped up to the role of running the Sirov Jash program along with the two members of the clergy. Half a dozen volunteers have joined them as delivery people.

Another ministry of St. John’s in the time of coronavirus are the “Wellness Calls” being made to the most vulnerable parishioners of the church – people who are shut-ins, have no Internet, and no family that looks in on them. Volunteers coordinated by the church are making telephone calls to this group, which numbers “at least twenty” individuals. Fr. Armash has been keeping in contact with the members of the Women’s Guild.

“This whole pandemic has changed the way we do our ministry here at St. John Armenian Church,” said Jebejian. He has been also been doing some “drive-by prayers,” calling parishioners and checking in on them by driving in front of their house, saying hello and offering a prayer and blessing from his car.

Many church ministries are now being operated by way of Zoom conferences. The “Little Saints” program meets every Saturday morning rather than the previous once a month. The two pastors, and the locally-based Diocesan Youth Director Jennifer Morris have been meeting with about 30 small children 4 and under with their parents. Parish Council, Women’s Guild, and ACYOA Juniors and Seniors, and groups of students away at college have also been meeting on Zoom. ACYOA Day, which occurs on Palm Sunday, was celebrated by a Junior-Senior Zoom meeting where Senior members Celene Philip and Lerna Lacinian described their experiences participating in the ACYOA’s national volunteer Habitat for Humanity trip which took place in Atlanta in February, before Covid-19 became a national concern.

The pastor of St. Sarkis Armenian Church, Rev. Fr. Hrant Kevorkian, also shared his parish’s situation. The church is continuing to offer prayers behind closed doors. All services are livestreamed, and Kevorkian has been offering special services on Monday evening (a prayer service for those infected and those going into work), Wednesday morning, and Friday evening. The Sunday School is offering Bible story time every day at 3 pm, with livestreamed readings for the children by Haigan Tcholakian. An outreach program has been started by volunteers raising funds, helping the elderly by doing deliveries or picking up groceries, and buying essentials for families in need. Bible study and prayer sessions with college students is continuing over Zoom, while all church employees are working from home.

St. John’s Badarak being livestreamed

The recently re-invigorated Armenian Congregational Church of Greater Detroit, led by Pastor Hagop Haroutunian, has benefitted greatly from the fact that a completely new and modern website was built a few months prior.

Director of Youth and Young Adult Outreach, Michael Banerian, said online accessibility of Sunday services, bible studies and prayer groups was already being discussed by the church when the pandemic broke out. Unlike Apostolic services which are livestreamed, the services are pre-recorded for high quality on the audio-visual side, and Banerian, working with the pastor, has been able to add some changes that would have been harder to do in person. More contemporary music and more contemporary approaches to how the sermon is conducted, such as mood music behind the sermons, have been explored.

Banerian feels that this provided an opportunity to explore some changes in the Sunday service that may have met with resistance from older parishioners if they were implemented during normal times, when everyone was at church in person. The church experiences moderate attendance on Sundays normally, and the views they are getting on streaming services show a much higher rate of participation. There is also a larger amount of people in the Bible Study and Prayer Group. Sunday School lessons, run by Leslie Banerian, are also now online with videos and weekly lessons for Elementary and Upper Elementary groups. The Prayer Group in particular has been acting as a “counseling session” for the fact that people are drained by the Covid-19 situation, quarantine, etc. Parishioners, who are shut in, and some of whom have lost their jobs, are starting to appreciate the interpersonal resources of the community more. The young adults Bible Study led by Katherine Banerian has also become more popular and is now meeting once a week rather than every other week.

All the churches have been working together at this time, including the small congregation of St. Vartan Armenian Catholic Church, led by the Very Rev. Andon Atamian. He reports there are no cases in his community. He thanks God and attributes this to the fact that everyone is following the law and remaining home. Badarak is being held on Sunday with one or two people assisting the priest, and is also being livestreamed.

Genocide Commemoration

Detroit’s four Armenian churches have for many years been doing a United Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide on April 24. This year, the commemoration was held at St. John’s and was limited to the clergy and master-singer Deacon Rubik Mailian of St. John’s. The service of intercessory prayers to the sanctified Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide was led with prayers by Kevorkian of St. Sarkis and a homily was offered by guest clergyman, Fr. Imad Al-Banna of the Sts. Peter and Paul Syriac Orthodox Church in Southfield, a sister church in communion with the Armenian Apostolic. Atamian, on doctor’s orders, was unable to attend due to his age. Kevorkian in his prayers asked the martyrs for their intercession with God on our behalf in regard to the current crisis.

Other organizations have been reaching out to those stuck at home. The Tekeyan Cultural Association has reached out with educational resources in connection with April 24, while the Detroit chapter of the AGBU Young Professionals led by Naera Haghnazarian has participated in the AGBU YP worldwide network’s entertaining Zoom conferences, intended to give stressed out young people working from home some respite from their situation. ACYOA members in the area have also participated in the National ACYOA’s diocesan-wide spirituality discussion groups via Zoom, with the encouragement of diocesan youth director Morris.

Although the members of the Detroit Armenian community are at this point exhausted by this ordeal, they continue to remain strong to their values, as individuals, members of their respective churches and organizations, and as a community which has shown time and time again its ability to stick together and help one another as members of the Greater Detroit Armenian family.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: