BELMONT, Mass.—The late summer sun was beaming down on Belmont’s faithful this week for Rally Sunday at First Armenian Church—the oldest Armenian evangelical church in Massachusetts.
Standing at the pulpit before a few dozen parishioners dotting a sea of empty pews, Reverend Dikran Youmshakian offered his third Rally Sunday sermon at First Armenian Church. His motivational message to his Christian audience underscored the importance of making God a priority in every area of their life. “Can we make a commitment to come to church every Sunday and come to Christ everyday?” he challenged.
“We had a good group today. This was an important one,” said longtime member Ron Sahatjian in a brief exchange with Rev. Youmshakian during coffee hour and fellowship inside Nahigian Hall. “We gotta bring people back. We lost them all.”
Formed in 1891 by a group of Armenian immigrants in Boston, First Armenian Church has witnessed many changes over the years. It was 63 years ago this week that First Armenian Church opened its doors to parishioners at its current Belmont location on Concord Avenue. “The church has been there for over 100 years,” said Sahatjian, a 50-year member, “It’s going to be there for another 100 years.”
In addition to reversing an evident decline in church attendance following the COVID-19 pandemic, First Armenian Church is also confronting another challenge amid an emerging crisis of pastoral shortages in the Armenian evangelical community. According to the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America (AEUNA), there are currently four pastoral openings in churches on the east coast and very few promising signs of interest from Armenian youth to pursue a life of service in the ministry. The AEUNA, which trains and financially supports young seminarians, says the pipeline of rising ministers is not what it used to be. “Unfortunately for the last two or three years, we have not been able to bring in more younger blood,” said AEUNA moderator Rev. Hendrik Shanazarian, pointing to the tendency of young Armenians choosing more lucrative career options over a life of service. He is in agreement with Rev. Youmshakian, who also believes that it’s the responsibility of the evangelical church community and its families to do more outreach and discover young and ardent followers of Christ early on.
Moreover, the AEUNA says it is difficult to convince new pastors to serve in the eastern region specifically. According to Rev. Shanazarian, there are some west coast churches that have a seemingly superfluous number of pastors serving in the same church. Unlike the Armenian Apostolic Church, the structure of the AEUNA does not grant itself the authority to assign pastors to fill vacancies. Rev. Shanazarian says it is the decision of an individual pastor to serve in a specific parish or not. “We always encourage that your first call is to serve,” explained Rev. Shanzarian of the AEUNA’s mentorship process. “That should be your priority when you choose this path.”
The Belmont church, for its part, has been operating without a full-time senior minister for nearly three years; visiting pastor Rev. Youmshakian has been filling the void since August 2019. “People are always concerned that if a church does not have a minister, that church might disappear,” said Rev. Youmshakian in a recent interview with the Weekly from his home in New Jersey. “We have to remember that the head of the church is Christ. Even if there is no full-time minister, Christ is present, and He is present with people who are devoted to the church.”
Rev. Youmshakian experienced a difficult childhood in Beirut during the height of the Lebanese Civil War. His father died when he was just a little boy. He lovingly remembers his mother taking him and his siblings to three Sunday schools. “The seeds were planted early,” says Youmshakian. A trained mathematician, Youmshakian spent eight years teaching at evangelical schools in Beirut until he and his young family moved to the US in 1984. “We did not have a penny in our pocket. We came carrying one bag of clothing and one bag of powdered milk for our newborn,” recalled Rev. Youmshakian. “We relied on God.”
Grateful for God’s divine providence, Youmshakian felt compelled to live the rest of his life in service to others and his community. He started a 26-year working relationship with the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA) with no intention of ever joining the ministry. But during this time, he visited dozens of evangelical churches in the US and delivered sermons. “I started preaching even before I went to seminary,” said Rev. Youmshakian, who would eventually graduate with a master’s degree in theology from the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in 2005. “I always say now that whatever we plan, at the end, it is God’s plan that works. I thank God every minute for giving me the privilege to become a minister,” he said.
‘The limit does not exist’ when it comes to Rev. Youmshakian’s willingness to serve others. In 2015, he co-founded a non-profit organization called Armenian Village Aid, which has been managing a newly refurbished and successful kindergarten in the village of Vahagni in the province of Lori.
Then, following the departure of Pastor Joseph Garabedian, Rev. Youmshakian was approached by Mr. Sahatjian with an invitation to lead worship services at First Armenian Church. Since then, no matter the weather, Rev. Youmshakian—sometimes with his wife Sossi in the passenger seat— has been journeying by car more than 200 miles from their home in New Jersey to the town of Belmont every weekend for Sunday worship. He spends the weekend at the parsonage next door to the church.
“We love him. He’s brought life to the church,” said Sahatjian.
During the pandemic, First Armenian Church, like many others, turned to technology to expand its spiritually nourishing ministry. The church started experimenting with Facebook Live broadcasts that soon generated hundreds of viewers from around the world every week.
Clearly, the absence of a full-time minister, while disconcerting, has not deterred the work nor deflated the spirits of longtime members committed to propelling their faith-based ministries. In fact, they’ve only grown more resilient. “We have gone through periods in our church without a minister, so we’ve learned to get through those tough spots,” said Talin Getzoyan Barsoumian. “As a congregational church, everybody feels like they have a role, and everybody knows that to be a part of the church community, you’re supposed to be a part of the body of Christ,” she continued. Barsoumian grew up in First Armenian Church’s Sunday School program. She was confirmed in the church in her junior year of high school and also served as its youth director. Now a mom of three boys (who were delighted to return to Sunday School this week), Barsoumian has helped lead and organize several well-attended and popular programs in the church including The Gathering, a monthly contemporary worship service that has taken on a “life of its own” in Sahatjian’s words. Last month, dozens of children were equipped with the ‘armor of God’ as they participated in Vacation Bible School, a week-long children’s ministry that raised almost $1,000 for baby Garen Yepremian and his family in Providence, RI. Barsoumian is also part of the Monday night Women’s Bible Study led by Nancy Tutunjian Berger. These hybrid sessions, which garner 50 to 60 attendees, offer in-depth explorations of Scripture and challenge members to develop more personal relationships with the Lord. “We have to continue to adapt to the things that are going on around us,” concluded Barsoumian in her hopeful remarks about the church’s willingness to innovate in its mission to provide encouragement and support for its community during these challenging times.
“We’ve made it work,” said Sahatjian, who is continuing an active search for a permanent figure to fill the pulpit. “First Armenian Church is my extended family. I’m there for them, and they’re there for me.”
Helping take care of this family for the time being is Rev. Youmshakian, whose final comments to the Weekly can inspire everyone to lead a life of service. “God created us to show his love, and he created us to share that love with others. Otherwise, whatever you have, whatever you achieve, you will never be satisfied. It’s not wealth. It’s not fame. It’s not your profession. It’s not your education. It is your humble service. People might not see it, but God will see it and will reward us accordingly.”
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