Fr. Andreas Garabedian

Chicago and Wisconsin Armenian Communities Are Helping Each Other and Armenia during the Pandemic

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By Harry A. Kezelian III

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CHICAGO/RACINE, Wisc. – “Can I just add one thing before we go?” said Fr. Yeprem Kelegian, retired pastor of St. Mesrob Armenian Church in Racine, Wisconsin, on a diocesan-wide Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA) Zoom conference a few weeks ago. “Armenia is really having a hard time with this crisis. It needs our help.” Der Yeprem has been doggedly repeating the same mantra since the COVID-19 crisis started. Armenia needs our help. His suggestion has been to donate to Ayo – the special-project fundraising arm of the Fund for Armenian Relief. (Visit their website at weareayo.com where a link to donate for the COVID-19 Emergency Fund is the first thing you’ll see.)

Der Yeprem, a beloved figure among many in the Armenian Church’s Eastern Diocese – especially the youth, has been known for his activism for many years. He was, after all a child of the protest and social-change era of the 1960s, and his calm and gentle, yet genial and friendly demeanor has not only brought a whole generation deeper into the spirituality of Armenian Orthodoxy, but spurred many to action in the area of service. The Bible’s Letter of James tells us that true religion is “to care for widows and orphans in their distress,” and no one exemplifies this better than Der Yeprem. Der Hayr would be doing this good work whether there was a crisis or not. But as the COVID-19 crisis has taken on world-changing proportions, he isn’t the only one who has been stepping up and giving back.

Fr. Yeprem Kelegian in Armenia

The states of Wisconsin and Illinois combined are home to some 10,000 Armenians, with 5,000 in the Greater Chicago or “Chicagoland” area of Northern Illinois. Aside from the small enclave in the St. Louis area, most Armenians reside in a 100 mile strip along Lake Michigan, starting from parts of Northwest Indiana and the South Side suburbs of Chicago, throughout Chicagoland’s North Side and up to Waukegan, Illinois, then across the state line to the storied community of Racine, Wisconsin, and ending in the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

There are 11 Armenian houses of worship in this region of the country, some of them quite small and dating back to an era when Armenian immigrants congregated in small communities in the factory towns that dotted the Lake Michigan coast. Even the Chicago parish has the feel of a small tightknit village on holidays rather than a large urban community (the biggest Illinois parishes are actually St. James in Evanston, and All Saints in Glenview, affiliated with the Prelacy). One of the benefits of this state of affairs is that a good deal more people are asked to get involved, since each of these 11 parishes needs to have its priest, deacons, choir, organist, women’s guild, youth groups, and so on. People feel that they owe it to community to step up and help out.

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In addition to the 7 Diocesan churches, 3 Prelacy churches, and one Armenian Protestant church, there is an AGBU Center in Chicago, numerous organizations, and most interestingly, an Honorary Consulate of the Republic of Armenia. The honorary consul is the dedicated Mr. Oscar Tatosian, oriental rug dealer (Oscar Isberian Rugs), philanthropist, and community leader extremely involved in Armenian affairs. He is actively involved in the Eastern Diocese, the Armenian Assembly, and the Fund for Armenian Relief. Mr. Tatosian is one of the precious few rug dealers whose family has been in the business since the 1920s in this country and who continues the tradition of the leadership role that members of that profession have often played in Armenian-American life, especially in the early years. In fact, his company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Appointed to the consulate in 2017, the dynamic Mr. Tatosian has been involved in strengthening the economic ties between the US and Armenia. He has stressed that in the 21st century, the Diaspora’s role needs to shift from “relief” and charity work, to investment and economic ties, helping to create jobs in the homeland. Of course, the worldwide pandemic has shifted everyone’s focus, hopefully temporarily. The consulate had a very special task to perform when the pandemic began – rounding up 13 exchange students from Armenia who were scattered around the United States and making sure they got home. The students were flown from all over the country to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where they were welcomed by Mr. Tatosian and two members of the clergy, Der Andreas of St. Gregory’s in Chicago and Hayr Ghevont of All Saints in Glenview, Illinois. The delegation stayed with the kids until they were put on a plane to Europe, bringing them masks, food, and anything else they needed, according to Mr. Tatosian’s assistant, Ms. Irina Petrosyan, who said “we had to work hard with O’Hare” to make all of this possible.

Armenian exchange students going home in Chicago airport, with Oscar Tatosian, kneeling in suit and mask at right

Ms. Petrosyan, a native of Yerevan, also works as the youth director and church administrator of the Evanston, Illinois parish of the Eastern Diocese, St. James of Nisibis Armenian Church. We spoke with her and with the parish’s devoted pastor, Fr. Hovhan Khoja-Eynatian, to find out how the parish and community was dealing with the pandemic.

St. James Armenian Church, Evanston, Illinois

Though unlike some other churches, Der Hovhan is not livestreaming Badarak on Sunday morning, due to the desire not to have too many people in the sanctuary, he is offering other services. He has a Saturday night and Wednesday night service that people can tune into and he also livestreams Sunday’s Morning Service (Zhamerkoutiun) at 9 a.m. He then leads a prayer service which he has prepared for congregants to participate in at home. The service has been emailed to parishioners and is also on the church’s mobile app (yes, they have their own mobile app). The service is about 20 minutes and begins with a prayer led by Der Hayr, after which he plays background melodies on the organ while parishioners continue doing the readings and songs from their homes. Fr. Hovhan is assisted by his son Alexander as deacon and wife Yeretzgin Narine as choir singer.

Der Hayr’s utmost concern is for the safety of his flock and he wants to make sure no one goes out of their house. He also doesn’t want anyone else to be in the church at this time other than his wife and child assisting with the service, and since this makes livestreaming difficult, he has chosen not to livestream, especially considering that there are many parishes around the country livestreaming and worshippers have an abundance of choices.

Fr. Hovhan has also been making phone calls and during times when parishioners strongly want to be able to see him, he has met them in a public park, making sure to practice social distancing and staying at least 6 feet away. Fr. Hovhan informs us that several people came to meet him in the park for confession, especially around Easter. He also tells us that families have been reaching out to help one another. One of the first calls he received was from a single mother who called and offered help, and has been cooking and distributing meals. The parish has been contacting all elderly parishioners who live alone, and providing food to whomever asks for it.

Meanwhile, Ms. Petrosyan, in her capacity as youth director, has been working with Evanston’s ACYOA Junior Chapter (the 13-18 age group). The chapter has been meeting online for discussions as a youth group, and even begun to read short stories by Armenian authors and discussing them. Dr. Artin Goncu of the University of Chicago, an educator and psychologist who specializes in youth and infants, joined one of the online discussions last week to talk with the group about what youth are going through during the pandemic. But the youth aren’t just keeping in touch with each other – they are reaching out and under the guidance of Ms. Petrosyan and Fr. Hovhan, they are making phone calls to elderly parishioners, just so they have someone to talk with. Ms. Petrosyan calls and talks to them as well, and she also keeps in contact with the parents so that they know who their kids are talking to on the phone. Ms. Petrosyan has also been continuing to print out the church bulletin and mailing it to elderly members who don’t use email or social media.

Just an hour north in Wisconsin, the tight knit Armenian community of Racine is also dealing with the virus. Like Der Hovhan, Fr. Avedis Kalayjian of St. Mesrob Armenian Church (affiliated with the Eastern Diocese) is not livestreaming the Badarak, though he is continuing to celebrate the liturgy on behalf of his congregants. However, Der Avedis has been doing zoom conferences with his parish three times a week. He does a session on Sunday afternoon discussing the Divine Liturgy, a Bible study on Wednesdays, and prayer time on Fridays. The parish’s flagship event, their summer Armenian Fest, has been postponed until the fall, conditions permitting. Local food banks are hard up, and since some of the parishes that normally provide labor are not able to do so, St. Mesrob’s has been stepping up to help out the broader Racine community. Der Avedis has made all parishioners aware that they have a team of volunteers ready to meet their needs in regards to shopping and other assistance. Der Avedis tells us that everyone seems to be respecting the lockdown, and that while community members were displaying a lot of anxiety at first, frustration has now begun to set in.

Fr. Avedis Kalayjian, Racine, WI

Fr. Tavit Boyajian of Sts. Joachim and Anne in Palos Heights, Illinois, pastors a small parish that serves the south side suburbs of Chicago as well as some parishioners from Indiana. Like the others, he has not been livestreaming the Badarak, though two or three are coming together on Sundays to celebrate the liturgy. Instead he has been giving messages and homilies by video and producing videos for kids.

Fr. Tavit Boyajian and his wife Tirouhe

His plan as the weeks go on is to do more children’s videos and teach them some Christian songs. This has been a longtime passion project for Der Hayr, who feels that simple songs explaining the teachings of Christianity, performed in English, are an important educational tool that we as Armenians in America are in need of in order to teach the faith to the next generation. He has written several of these songs himself and is working on a book of songs with Ms. Elise Antreassian of the Eastern Diocese staff.

Der Tavit, who has always been focused on the well-being of our children, feels concerned about the fact that diocesan camps, Hye Camp and St. Vartan Camp, have to be cancelled. Most children from the Midwest attend Hye Camp, and so Der Tavit is hopeful that some of its programming will be offered in an online format.

Sts. Joachim and Anne has been offering a weekly bible study via Zoom, and Der Tavit has been making a lot of phone calls. “Much longer phone calls,” he says, with obvious concern in his voice. Parish council also met via a conference call. In this small, tight-knit community, “we’d never done that before.” Like all the other communities in the region, their flagship event is their annual picnic, and that’s been pushed back as well. But, parishioners have been supporting one another, Der Hayr said.

The ACYOA Seniors belonging to the parish have joined the national “Diving Deep” web conferences and Der Tavit has also joined some of these. He also noted that the Primate, Bishop Daniel Findikyan has been having conference calls with the clergy periodically. Der Tavit reflected that “It’s sad that there’s this disease, but thank God people are being careful, and being loving by wearing masks and reaching out via zoom and social media.” Der Hayr has been calling everyone in the parish, and the church is available to help anyone who needs anything, he says.

As for the future? “People will be a bit apprehensive to gather in groups, so a transition back to a full parish is incremental.” Fr. Tavit, while deeply affected emotionally by what is going on, has been able to see the good that shines through the pain and suffering. In an ACYOA Zoom conference, the subject turned to the masks that many states are requiring people to wear when going into public places. The masks were an unnerving sight to many of the 20-somethings in the discussion group. Der Tavit, who was also on the call, offered his feelings about the subject. “When I see a mask, I see love.”

Finally, we spoke to Fr. Andreas Garabedian, pastor of St. Gregory Armenian Church in Chicago. A young, newly ordained priest who has been a Der Hayr for less than a year, Der Andreas is a native of Vancouver and was educated both at the Jerusalem Convent and at St. Nersess in New York. His dynamic leadership has brought new energy to this small, family-like parish, which is proud to be the only Armenian Church within the city limits of Chicago, and the oldest organized Armenian Orthodox parish in the Midwest.

The church has offered help to parishioners, for example to those who are unable to go shopping. The parish’s resources are limited, but the offer stands – though the pandemic as a whole is going to have a financial impact on the parish, as it loses a source of income from the regular Sunday collection plate. Der Andreas has been calling parishioners individually, and has done visitations in emergency situations, although unfortunately he is unable to visit church members in the hospitals. However, he is prepared and trained to offer chaplaincy services there when called upon. He shared that he had done several visitations one Sunday by driving to peoples’ houses, standing outside and talking to them. Der Andreas has also been doing ecumenical things online; for example, responding to a query from the Roman Catholic Church about the Orthodox Church’s response to COVID-19 in regard to yielding to state and governmental authorities.

However, the youthful Der Andreas’ focus has mostly been on online resources. Badarak is being livestreamed and Der Hayr has recently started an online Bible study on Wednesday evenings. He wants to continue this online resource even after the pandemic is over.

Der Andreas hosted a Facebook Live session answering any questions about the Armenian Orthodox Church and Faith that are posed to him. He says, “We don’t often take advantage….people follow [the online resources] from all over the world…It’s showing the unity of how we are doing the same worship toward the same God regardless of where we are geographically.” “The understanding of a parish church has changed,” added the deeply traditional, yet forward-thinking young clergyman.

Fr. Andreas has parishioners that log onto their computers, and, for example, watch the Badarak livestreamed from St. John’s in Detroit, then watch him celebrate Badarak in Chicago. Armenians are increasingly becoming connected with parishes in other geographic areas. This is nothing new for young people who are no strangers to social media, but in many ways it’s new territory for the church and especially older members. Yet in many cases they are the ones who really need these resources. “There are people who are elderly and can’t drive,” Der Andreas said.

The ACYOA Seniors of St. Gregory have not been quiet either. Many of their members, along with other young people from the Chicago area, have been continuing their popular “Theology on Tap” monthly meetings via Zoom, led by Der Andreas. ACYOA members, twin sisters Cindy (co-chair of the group) and Maria Panthier have also been promoting the efforts of Ayo to raise funds for COVID relief efforts in Armenia, via the group’s Instagram account. Ayo has been reporting positive results from their work being done in Armenia, and the indefagitable “retired” Der Yeprem is continuing to promote the group and to appear on their Instagram Live feed.

Der Andreas brought to our attention a unique service that he had participated in, an online zhamerkoutiun in multiple locations at once, through Zoom conference. Organized by the St. Nersess Alumni Board chairperson Ms. Arpi Nakashian of the Diocese in New York, the Zoom zhamerkoutiun was participated in by alumni of the seminary from all over the United States, showing the integration of the Armenian community across the country in their response to the current situation. Der Andreas thinks that this will continue throughout the time of coronavirus. “Everyone is trying to find an innovative way of doing something.”

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