[The presentation below was prepared for a recent meeting at the World Vision US headquarters in Seattle, Wa.]
I come from an area of the world that witnessed the birth of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Like in many places in the Unites States, faith is an essential component of the day to day living of our people. That does not mean, however, that the faith of Christians in our region is really mature, nor that it informs every aspect of their life. God, in his grace, is using World Vision at this particular time of history to witness to Christ and the transforming power of His Gospel in the life of individuals and communities. I would like to share with you today some glimpses from what God is doing these days in Armenia.
Armenia is a fascinating place. The view of the majestic Mount Ararat in a clear day is unparalleled. The memory of Noah, whose arc landed on the top of that mountain, is still inspiring the imagination of Armenians. I love Armenia.
Over 17 centuries ago, Armenia was a much larger country than it is today and it was led by a pagan king called Tiridates III. He was so fanatic in his faith, that he threw his best friend into a ditch 20 meters deep, because Gregory, being a Christian, refused to sacrifice to the gods. After about 13 years, Tiridates became gravely ill and, like Nebuchadnezzar in the Old Testament, lived like a beast in the forest. His sister was convinced that only a holy man, Gregory, could save the king. They looked for him in the prison in Khor Virap, close to Mount Ararat and, to their surprise, he was still alive, having survived by the grace of God. Gregory prayed for Tiridates and the king became sane again.
Having witnessed the power of the Gospel, the king believed in Christ and asked to be baptized, giving Gregory, called from that point on ‘the Illuminator of Armenia’, the freedom to preach the Gospel in his kingdom. It is thus that Armenia became the first Christian nation in 301AD.
Dr. Jim Houston (Regents College, Vancouver)
and old Armenian crosses
Tradition says that having received a revelation from God, Gregory built a church not far from Yerevan, the present capital of Armenia, on top of an old pagan temple, and this became the center of his mission. Armenians never knew if this was true, or only a legend, until 1700 years later when, digging to build a more solid foundation for a new altar, they have discovered some large stone slabs. Under them, they have found the remains of the pagan temple upon which Gregory has built the church, as a symbol of the power of the Gospel. Some years ago, I was among the few privileged ones that were allowed to visit that place. I can hardly express the emotion that overwhelmed me when I saw the crosses carved by early Christian believers on the walls of that place where human sacrifices were offered to the gods before the light of the Gospel came to that land.
That does not mean at all that Armenians had an easy life after that. For centuries, they had to fight the Zoroastrians in Iran and even the imperial ambitions of Christian Byzantium, in order to keep their faith and freedom. Then, over one millennium later, they went through the terrible experience of the Turkish genocide in 1915, when about two million Armenians were slaughtered mercilessly, a heinous crime that Turkey refuses to admit even to this day.
In 1921, Armenia became part of the former Soviet Union and this proved to be by far the darkest period in their troubled history. Under Stalin, Christian leaders were sent to the Gulag, churches were demolished or turned into clubs and warehouses, and people were submitted to aggressive atheistic propaganda. As a result, after 70 years of harsh communist dictatorship, the country was left in shambles, hope was lost, and faith became very weak, if not lost all together.
Of the 3 million living today in poor Armenia, many are working abroad, in order to provide for their impoverished families, children are often left in orphanages or with relatives, utterly missing the love of their parents that is essential for normal development. Also, Biblical illiteracy is today the norm in this first Christian nation in the world.
World Vision came to Armenia to help those affected by a terrible earthquake a few years before the fall of communism and is today the most respected international NGO in the country, having large support from the President, the Prime Minister, and the Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Thousands of poor children from this country are taken every summer, with the support of World Vision, to summer camps, were they not only receive good food, that they rarely have at home, and learn many helpful things, but, most supremely, they are taught the elements of the faith in Christ, our Savior, through regular Bible lessons.
One of the most fascinating projects started by World Vision supports the Armenian Church in the adaptation and implementation of an age appropriate Bible curriculum for children that takes students, from age 6 to age 16, four times through the entire Bible. The modern pedagogy used by this program is also challenging the outdated educational methods used in Armenian schools. The program helps children understand the story of salvation and commit personally to a living faith in Christ that is translated in holy living and appropriate involvement in society. Together with the Biblical stories, illustrated often through the lives of saints and Biblical characters, and through games and interaction with peers, this programme, helps cure the chronic Biblical literacy in this country, children also learn about care for creation, child protection, respect for people of other faiths, etc.
Diakonia, the Greek word for service, is the general title given in Orthodox countries to the working out of the social implication of the Gospel. During the 70 years of communist oppression, the Church was not allowed to be involved in society, but was, at best, confined to the walls of the church. It was also not allowed to train its ministers. The Armenian Church has now only 220 priests serving 3 million people. Thus, the Church has lost most of her social abilities, and is too weak and too poor to be able to respond to the legitimate demands of their believers, spiritual and social alike. It is in this area that programs like the Bible catechism described above and For Every Child campaign try to come alongside and support the Church in fulfilling her high calling received from Christ, to be salt and light in the world.
Spurgeon, the great English preacher, was asked once to prepare a sermon in order to defend the Word of God. He responded: ‘I would rather defend a lion. Let the Bible defend itself.’ That is precisely what we see happening through this Biblical catechism in Armenia. As a Protestant, who believes in the power of the Word, I do not know of a more effective means for transforming people and societies.
Armenia is an Oriental Orthodox country. The way Armenians express their faith in Christ may seem strange for people in the West, especially if they are Protestant. As an Evangelical who had the privilege to study Orthodox theology in a doctoral program, in an effort to understand the faith of the majority faith in my own country, Romania, I have to say that my faith has been enriched tremendously through this experience. The sense of mystery, the awe in front of God’s holiness, the profound respect for the Bible (no Orthodox has ever been tempted by the emptiness of liberalism), the historical rootedness and the passion for shaping the life of the nation are only a few of the riches I admire in Orthodoxy. At the same time, we, as Protestants, have a lot to offer to Orthodox believers, as we interact together, following the example of Christ, in caring for the poor and the oppressed.
Our dream and prayer is that through God’s grace and our faithful service Armenia will raise again as a beacon of hope in the much troubled region of Caucasus.
As the ‘hand and the feet of Christ’ in this world, including Armenia, we may say, together with the prophet Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…’ (Isaiah 61:1-3)
This is the highest calling a Christian may ever receive. Yet, we cannot and should not do this alone. That is why we are here to call you to participate with us. As some of you have also done in the past, in bringing hope again, and a smile on the faces of children, to a land that suffered utterly because of communist oppression. We cannot do it without you. And you cannot do it without us. This is the beauty and the miracle of the Christian faith. In the Church, the bride of Christ, there is neither Jew, nor Gentile; neither man nor female; neither Armenian nor American; we are all one, through Christ who gave his life so that others may live.
May the grace of Christ greatly reward your sacrifice of faith, for the glory of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!