A letter from Gary Payton in the United States (regional liaison for Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia and Poland)
June 1, 2011
Dear Friends in Christ,
Read more about Gary’s visit to Armenia
The pinks of a gentle, cold dawn tinted the snowy slopes of Mount Ararat. Across the just-waking city of Yerevan, the majesty of this biblical mountain grew ever larger as morning sun glinted off the sides of the 16,854-foot peak. And, in the Book it is written, “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat” (Genesis 8:4).
Armenia: a land-locked nation of 3 million in the southern Caucasus, a former republic of the Soviet Union and the first nation to adopt Christianity in the year 301.
Armenians: an ancient people who over the millennia have survived the onslaughts of invasion, conquest, natural disasters and genocide at the hands of an imperial power.
Just weeks ago I returned from my first visit, a visit designed as an introduction to the many programs of the PC(USA)’s Jinishian Memorial Foundation (JMF) and an opportunity to meet leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church and the Armenian Evangelical Church. It was an extraordinarily energizing visit.
Guided by Eliza Minasyan, Armen Hakobyan and other experts from the JMF staff, we visited churches, clinics, universities, high schools, cultural centers and farm cooperatives. The orientation highlighted the breadth of the economic, social and spiritual assistance offered by JMF to tens of thousands of Armenians in need and to more than 160 grassroots NGOs through partnership and collaboration.
The Foundation is part of the larger Jinishian Memorial Program established in 1966 by the bequest of Armenian American businessman Vartan Jinishian in memory of his parents. For decades the program has provided basic services and direct relief to poor Armenians living in the diaspora in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and South America. And with the breakup of the Soviet Union, now in Armenia itself.
Last summer I was asked by leaders in Presbyterian World Mission if I would expand my responsibilities to yet another piece of the former Soviet Union. Building on the excellent record of JMF, might there be ways for the PC(USA) to deepen the church-to-church relationships with the Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical confessions in Armenia?
With JMF staff, Doug Welch and Amgad Beblawi of Presbyterian World Mission and I listened to the needs and heard the history of these Christian traditions. Bishop Hovakim Manukyan, Father Barouyr Avetisyan and Dr. Karen Nazaryan described the current challenges and the hopes of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The bishop is leading the effort in his 1,700-year-old church to address contemporary social needs through a new Social Doctrine. Sister Arousiag Sajonian of the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception shared the extraordinary Catholic commitment to “the least of these” though the orphanage, senior center and vocational school in the earthquake-ravaged city of Gyumri. The Rev. Dr. Rene Leonian of the Armenian Evangelical Church traced the history of the Protestant presence in Armenia and detailed its role in the country today.
So now is a time of discernment. How will the Lord lead us to “come alongside” these Armenian churches still renewing themselves from decades of oppression during communist rule? How will Armenian Americans, particularly in the PC(USA), inform this process? Might there be an Armenian invited as an International Peacemaker to describe Christian peace efforts regarding the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the breakaway Republic of Nagorno Karabakh? What from the significant trove of social witness policy developed by our General Assembly might be shared to address similar issues in Armenia? This “getting to know each better” process is in its early stages and will continue prayerfully in the months and years ahead.
As I reflect upon this trip, I am reminded of the call to all Presbyterians by our 206th General Assembly in 1994 “to share with other Christians in witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the newly independent states that used to make up the Soviet Union.” Beyond the extensive engagement of JMF, might there be ways with church partners in Armenia to establish twinning congregations, work in summer camps, conduct travel study seminars and enhance relief and development work?
As this discernment continues, I invite your thoughts. Would you or Armenian Americans in your congregation share your ideas with me? Please write me. Thank you.
I have served as a mission co-worker for 12 years, and I never cease to be amazed at the multitude of ways and places the Lord has called us to do “mission in partnership.” Led by the Holy Spirit, may we find new ways to move forward together with brothers and sisters in the Republic of Armenia.
Yours in Christ,
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 203