"CYMA is the most influential and spiritual journey in the life of our youth in the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church. This journey aims to transform the lives of our youth so that they are connected to the Creator, to their Motherland, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, to their history, culture and traditions. It is with this goal in mind that I have initiated CYMA as then the Primate of the Diocese of Canada. Remember: One journey to the holy land of your ancestral home is worth thousand sermons."
Abp. Hovnan Derderian
Primate of the Western Diocese
On June 29, 2011 young men and women of the Armenian Church began to gather at the Los Angeles International Airport for a memorable trip to their homeland. With the blessing of His Eminence Abp. Hovnan Derderian and under the leadership of Rev. Fr. Avedis Abovian CYMA 2011 began its pilgrimage to Armenia with the Lord's Prayer and with heart felt words from Rev. Fr. Avedis, reminding the participants that the trip to our homeland was unlike other trips and was meant to connect them to the land of our ancestors and bridge the gap between Armenians of the Diaspora and that of the homeland. In every aspect, the program was dedicated in offering an opportunity in which the participants can experience for themselves the lifestyle of the people in Armenia and the challenges that the local people encounter. Further, they would learn about their heritage, and embrace the treasures that their ancestors have passed on for future generations. Fr. Avedis shares the following about CYMA:
"Away from our fatherland, living in societies with varying values; speaking various languages, carrying on our backs the traces of our heritage - caught in the daily trivia of existence - we march toward an unknown future...but nevertheless we live, work, and create. But there is always something that is missing - something important and profound. It forces us to incessantly search in the depth of our souls for clues of the unknown missing element. It comes to a point when the lack of the missing unknown becomes unbearable and impossible. We can't take another step forward in our quest. When our youth living away from the fatherland realize this deprivation in their souls and the need for self-exploration, they tend to reaffirm their identity through spiritual nourishment readily offered to them from their ancestral roots in the fatherland. They, in return, bear the fruits of spiritual nourishment, which in turn becomes the bridge between them, the fatherland and the people. For the last eight years "Christian Youth Mission to Armenia" that operates under the support of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church, provides opportunities for our youth to fulfill such dreams."
CYMA 2011 participants arrived at Zvartnots International Airport on June 30th. The following morning the participants were woken up by their leaders Dn. Matthew Ash and Dn. Mkrtich Ksachikyan and began the day with a visit to Khor Virap. At Khor Virap Deacons Matthew and Mkrtich encouraged the participants to view the pilgrimage as a new beginning; a covenant which would allow the participants to strengthen their relationship with God by being open to experiencing the Christian heritage of their ancestors: their commitment to living and practicing the teachings of Jesus Christ, which were passed down to them through the disciples. Thus, taking some personal time to pray in the same pit that St. Gregory the Illuminator had miraculously lived for thirteen years and after which had played a significant role in spreading Christianity throughout Armenia, CYMA participants were challenged to reflect on their own lives as Christians and to seek the path of discipleship themselves. "May this be a new beginning for us as it was for our nation when St. Gregory was taken out of the pit, and began his mission by healing and preaching," said Dn. Mkrtich.
A Spiritual Pilgrimage
Throughout their stay in Armenia and Artsakh, CYMA participants visited various monasteries, which were at some time important religious and educational centers lead by figures such as Mkhitar Gosh, Hovhannes Sargavak and others. With a visit to Oshakan they came face to face with the burial site of St. Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet and the man who engaged in physical and spiritual struggles in order to complete the alphabet and began the process of translating the Bible into Armenian so that the faithful can hear the Word of God in their own language. During our visit to Artsakh, we were honored to be hosted by the governing body of Kashatagh region. We visited the memorial sight of the fallen heroes of the war between Artsakh and Azerbaijan and heard Mr. Mkhitarian share with us their struggles during and after the war, "When the war began, we did not have all the necessary artillery to go to war and to protect our families, so we fought with what we had: hunting guns, and anything else that we could find. However, we would capture weapons from our opponents and use it against them. It is in this fashion that we won the war and secured the peaceful future of children of our nation." The optimism of these people and the vigor with which they strive to live their lives was humbling and at the same time inspiring.
Volunteering to learn and make a difference
The experience of the participants was also enhanced through the internship program that was offered three days a week in centers that were of interest to them. Some of the participants got to meet and spend time with youth that were from socially at-risk families in centers such as Zangakatun and Ghoghanj. They worked on different projects in these centers, which allowed them to share their skills and expertise. In return, the participants in these centers received invaluable gifts. "The Kids Who Touched Our Hearts and Changed Our Lives," is the title of Jacqueline Boyadzhyan's photo album, in which she and Lilit Khachikian are seen in photos with the children of Zangakatun. Lilit shares these thoughts about her experience,
"I will never forget one of the children who I was blessed to meet, little Gayane. She was smart, sweet, artistic and caring. She would surprise me with her beautiful drawings and knowledge of proper Armenian language at a young age. The last day was bittersweet for all of us. Words of gratitude are not enough to thank the children of Zangakatun for what they gave me; the ability to love, care, and hope again. Overall, I am glad that I had a chance to work at Zangakatun. It was an experience that I would want to do again, but next time for a longer period of time. With God's blessings I am hoping that it will happen and I will be able to go and give them my very best."
Others did their internship at St. Nersess the Great Hospital, where they were able to observe surgeries and get an overall knowledge of the way hospitals operate in Armenia. We were also thankful to have an intern at the Ministry of Diaspora, which hosted CYMA participants for an afternoon, where they met Minister Hranush Hakobyan and had the opportunity to learn about the programs of the ministry concerning relations of Armenia and Diaspora. Furthermore, CYMA sponsored various projects in different regions of Armenia.
Service Project in Berd
Two of these projects took place in the City of Berd. One consisted in remodeling a youth center that was allocated for the youth of the church and the other was renovating the Mayrivank Monastery, which is commonly known in the region as St. Sarkis Church. The day after their arrival to Berd, the participants, joined by the youth of Berd, the priest of the community, Fr. Aram Mirzoyan, Fr. Avedis and Deacon's Matthew and Mkrtich arrived to the work sight and began to work tirelessly, by cutting the grass and the branches of a tree that was growing into the wall of the church. All the branches and the grass were then loaded in a trailer. The sight had to be cleaned so that the following day the tractor could come and level the soil, which was higher than the entrance of the church. Thus, whenever there were heavy rains, all the mud from the rain would collect inside the church. On the second day, the tractor began excavating the earth and the participants helped by removing rocks. The excitement increased, when one of the participants found a carved stone. To everyone's surprise the stone was a small piece from a khachkar (Cross stone,), which was then fully unearthed from the dirt. In fact, more than one khachakar's were uncovered from the soil, which according to an expert who came and examined them, date back to the 13th century. He also said that the khachakr's could have been buried under the earth for over three hundred years. This was truly an amazing and a rewarding experience for the participants and for the local community. After witnessing the opening celebrations of Mayrivank, Deacon Matthew wrote in his blog,
"What is important to remember is that CYMA's mission was not simply to restore the courtyard of an old chapel. It was to restore a holy place to such a state that it can be used by the faithful that live in that community.
Decades of strong Soviet influence in the region had taken its toll on the faith of the people. By 1940 all church structures in Berd and the surrounding area had either been destroyed or abandoned for the earth to reclaim. For almost 70 years the town of Berd did not have a priest to serve the people. The clergy were banned from having any presence in the life of the community.
Mayrivank is in fact the only standing spiritual structure within the town limits of Berd.
Restoring its courtyard, and subsequently finding its hidden treasures, effectively restored the monastery and the Church to its rightful place in the consciousness of the community.
During the six-day stay in the city of Berd, six participants also spent two days in the village of Chinari, where CYMA is sponsoring the remodeling of the house of an impoverished family. While in Chinari, the participants got to know the family closely and learned about their everyday difficulties. They learned how Alvina, the child of the family was born to a widowed mother whose husband had been shot and killed by an Azeri sniper. Loosing her husband made life more difficult for the young mother who had to move-in with her parents since she could not afford to raise Alvina by her self. Sadly, life is not easy for anyone who lives in Chinari, which is a village near the Azerbaijani border where the brave villagers do their everyday chores, knowing that any moment an Azerbaijani soldier can shoot at them with a sniper. Thus, the participants left from Chinari with mixed feelings: they were happy to meet the family, help them remodel the house, yet at the same time, they were saddened by the living conditions of the villagers. Participant Jacqueline Tufenkchyan shares the following thoughts,
"I thought to myself how unfair it was for the people that had to live there. They risk everyday all in the name of protecting OUR land. What they do is my definition of heroism. Staying overnight within a kilometer of an Azeri sniper, I'm certain; you too, would definitely look at your life from a different scope. Every second I was in Chinari I felt fortunate, humbled, thankful, uncomfortable, prayerful... it was a very spiritual encounter with my motherland; I am beyond thankful."
Perhaps, a similar statement can be made for the majority of the population in the region of Shamshadin. Life is not easy for the people, given the conditions that they live in. However, to everyone's surprise, the people of Berd lived with passion and with a smile on their face and where content with what they had. Here is what CYMA participant Serop Jaklian writes about his experience:
"For the duration of our stay in the village, we lived a relatively uncomfortable life: no showers, toilets, washing machines or running water. At first, it was tough. But after acclimating, you realize that these people live this life everyday and probably will for the rest of their lives. They're still smiling, laughing, loving. Why shouldn't I be able to? It was humbling yet eye-opening. At one point, I overheard somebody say something that most of us were probably thinking, "How can you live like this?"
It made me think. What is living? Is it being able to wake up in the morning to your iPhone alarm, taking a long hot shower, driving your BMW 5-series to Starbucks and bitterly drinking your frappucino because they forgot the extra shot? Or is it just waking up in the first place? Living. Isn't it 'to be' instead of 'not to be'?
Sometimes I think that we all forget to live, to be. We are so fortunate to be here on this earth; but life can, and does, distract us. I would look at these villagers and see the genuine smiles on their faces when they saw each other. That's all they had, each other. We were meant to live in the presence of our loved ones because that is all we truly emotionally need, nothing else."
The one-month pilgrimage of CYMA 2011 to Armenia came to an end on July 29th. When we departed from Berd it was already evident that the participants had bonded with the residents, and they left with tears in their eyes. Leaving Armenia and flying back to the U.S. was as difficult, as we wished farewell to family and friends. We are sure that the trip was unforgettable and hope that the bond of our participants with their homeland and its people will continue to grow and be strengthened. We hope that you too will choose "to be," instead of "not to be." We hope that you will take advantage of the talents gifted to you by God and use them to make a difference not only in your life, but in the life of others as well.
We are especially thankful that such an initiative was taken by the participants of the "Survivors Walk," who walked in the desert for 15 miles to raise enough funds for "CYMA service project" by reliving the experience of their ancestors who forcefully marched in the deserts in 1915. Dear "Survivors" we want to express our gratitude to you and want you to know that you made a difference not only in your life by walking under the scorching heat of the sun, but that you made a difference in Berd and in Chinari by raising all the funds for the three projects. Thus, you opened the door for your friends on the CYMA trip to make a difference themselves. It is gratifying to see this impact in the life of CYMA participant Alex Sarkisian:
"After we had returned home to America, I could tell instantly that a gap I had before I left had been filled, and it wasn't due to the history and beauty we witnessed in Yerevan and other parts of Armenia. It was because the village and the host family. The care they provided, how selfless they were and their true kindness showed me that this is what it means to be Armenian. Give to others even when you don't have much to give away, care for everyone as if they were part of your family, and always keep hope, because a brighter day is on the way. This reflection is a personal promise, as everyone who reads this is a witness, I will return to Berd one day and do whatever I can to help the village and the wonderful, gracious people of Berd.
God bless the participants of the "Survivors Walk," God bless the participants of CYMA, and God bless our homeland, Armenia.