Today I sang in the choir of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Ijevan for the last time as I’m leaving soon to return home from my time here in Peace Corps. Mary, the priest’s wife and our lead soprano, had washed our shiny blue robes and we have new head scarves made of white Armenian lace. I’m proud to have been with the choir long enough for clean and new accessories.
I very clearly remember how afraid I was to ask to join the choir almost a year ago — a well educated, traveled, 66-year-old woman who’d come eight time zones to live and work for two years in another culture, and I was shaky and nervous about being received well by the priest. Today I had to say goodbye to our priest, Father Simonyan, and to Bishop Bagrat Galstanyan, both of whom I’ve come to love as much as the wonderful ladies of the choir.
This church became my family at a time when my own shrinking family is far dispersed geographically. My sister and niece live in New Jersey, my son in San Francisco, my ex-husband and best-friend-forever in New York, and my brother who passed on last year has gone to join my parents wherever they are. I live alone in Ijevan, only now with the company of three other Peace Corps volunteers. Before their arrival and after my last sitemate left, I lived as the only foreigner in Ijevan for months. That’s when I discovered my church family. My ability to sing ancient Armenian has improved only slightly, but it was within this family that I experienced great harmony.
Having been a minister’s daughter, I know well how the ecclesiastical pageantry operates. I’ve been behind the scenes and this Apostolic setting is little different but for the sweet incense that clouds the air and the fanfare of red and gold curtains opening and closing before the altar, signifying centuries-old rituals of verse and chanting. As a choir member, I became reacquainted with the small moments of communication, laughter and intimate understanding that’s shared among the participants — little things that no one in the congregation perceives or observes: the missed song cues, the awkward trip over a too-long robe, the singed velvet drape from a too-close candle flame quickly removed, the persistent fly on the organist’s nose. The nods, smiles and suppressed giggles offer a wonderfully close feeling that draws you into the arms of the blessed spirits — for in that I do believe, even if I choose to honor bible stories as only legends of a stirring history of longing, journeying and faith in powers higher than ours.
The church family is extensive, just as are all large Armenian families where no one leaves unless necessary and all have bonds made through birth, ceremony or the respectful obligations of treasured friendships. This Sunday I was touched by the new appearance of the priest’s daughter in the choir, a young girl singing next to her soprano mother who each service offers a solo in a voice worthy of any august venue. Her daughter will one day take her place, I imagine. And her brother this Sunday wore the robe designating him as a future church deacon or, perhaps, priest, following the path of his father.
Scanning the congregation I saw the familiar faces of youths who volunteer at the organization in which I’ve been working, the faces of shopkeepers I regularly visit, the old woman from whom I buy embroidery thread, the grandmothers of my neighborhood. Two of the young deacons are brothers, one newly married with a lovely wife soon to give birth. They are all somehow related through family or shared interest or need. I have felt more a part of this community than anywhere I’ve lived in the U.S. since my childhood.
Then again, my integration into this community has been intentional. I’m a foreigner whose job it is to become not just a resident but someone who brings something of value to the people of the town: some skills for the youth, some professional help for the human service workers, some nuance of what it’s like to be an American, an inkling of how it is to be a strong and independent woman who lives alone, ideas for growth and progress, words of hope for a still beleaguered country and assurance that they have the power within themselves to create change. Priest Simonyan once told me that my coming into their church brought a blessing from God. His thought was generous and I certainly thanked him. But if I brought any degree of grace to their lives and work, the message was only to support their faith in what they can do as a community to bring more blessings on themselves. And in return I gained faith in what a small group of loving people can do to reverse years of despair and find hope. I’d lost that faith. And it found me. Through them.
Komitas Vardapet: Patarag, Armenian Divine Liturgy
The Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Apostolic Church