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Testimony of Three Young Adults in Mission to Armenia

Angela Johnson

Answered Prayers

by Angela Johnson (Virginia)

I lay in bed one night listening to a puppy crying in a nearby dump. Surely the entire neighborhood was perturbed by this creature's continuous howls. My heart went out to him; I said a prayer for God to satisfy his hunger and loneliness.

This was my second week in Armenia. I loved the country because so many people had welcomed us in the spirit of love. By "us" I mean we three Global Justice Volunteers who spent summer of 2000 in the former Soviet Socialist Republic. To say that we were eager young students would be an understatement. We could not wait to experience Armenia and learn what "justice" really means in our world.

The history of Communism was no secret once we arrived. Monuments still stood tall giving tribute to valiant communists during prosperous times. Armenians talk fondly of their long-time ally and drive cars built in the U.S.S.R. Even the borders are protected by Russian soldiers to assist Armenia's small army.

Ten years ago, Communism fell and Armenia became its own republic. I only had to spend one day here to see the detrimental effects of the collapse. Construction of buildings, homes, and monuments are incomplete and an ugly reminder of "no jobs" and "no money". The equipment has not been moved in a decade for one of several reasons: no material, no employer, no money to pay the workers. Armenians experienced freedom for the first time but struggle to build their own markets.

No jobs and no money are the reasons that the puppy starves and cries for attention in the dumpster. Seeing so many homeless animals was a new experience for me. It is not that the Armenians do not care about animals, but that their families' needs are a greater priority. There is extreme difficulty in buying food and clothing; providing medical services; and educating children. People are reduced to selling household belongings to purchase bread.

I began to wonder what role God plays in all of this.

My prayer for the puppy to have peace was very sincere but did not seem to be working. Armenians certainly believe in God. They see themselves as a blessed nation that God loves. I wondered how they could have such faith after all they have suffered. Twelve years ago, a devastating earthquake killed thousands. Two years later, the government fell, factories closed, and people became desperate to make ends meet. Immediately following the collapse of Communism, Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war for five years before calling a cease-fire.

During active war time Armenians had only one hour of electricity a day. Women struggled to cook, clean, and heat water during that precious hour while men, young and old, were taken to fight in the war. Those men who were able to escape military service fled to Moscow or other countries to find work. Not only did I see the crippling physical effects of war, I saw the open wounds in families.

So where was God?

I looked for answers to Armenia's history and present situation by visiting churches. Although Armenia is only the size of Maryland, they boast over 3600 churches, many of which were built over a millennium ago. The structures are magnificent.

When possible, I questioned the history of particular churches and listened as natives passed along the oral tradition of their people. I was captured by the tales of invading enemies, earthquakes that destroyed ruthlessly, and loyal faith in Christianity despite persecution. But my host mother had a different story to tell: "Armenia was without God for 70 years," she revealed. I did not understand how that was possible since Christianity was such a part of Armenian identity. She explained that Christians who went to church during the Communist years lost their jobs and they and their families were ostracized. Freedom of religion was born again in 1990.

Armenians have suffered tremendously during the transition to Democracy, but still display deep appreciation for their newfound freedom. I listened to their complaints and joys about past and present situations. Many shared how 10 years ago they would have been unable to express their opinions without risking their lives. I praise God that I have always had the freedom of speech!

The puppy was definitely taking advantage of freedom of speech. After an hour of hearing his loud whines, I felt certain that someone would soon respond . For who could sleep through the noise? I wondered. Who would help this poor puppy?

Who is helping the Armenian people? How are their needs being met? Poverty abounds. I worked in a summer camp where 97% of the children come from institutions. I embraced and cried for them because they did not have mothers and fathers to tuck them safely into bed at night. Perhaps they had one, maybe even two parents, but parents who could not afford to take care of their own children and were thus forced to place them in orphanages.

United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) - Armenia has taught me the meaning of "justice" by exemplifying ways we can achieve it. By assisting Armenia through the transition to Democracy and implementing programs of sustainable development, UMCOR-Armenia is securing hope and futures for families and the people.

I spent several weeks learning about UMCOR's programs and witnessing their success firsthand. Through the Noah's Ark program, children are learning agricultural skills and are responsible for a greenhouse, rabbits, and chickens. Groups of women are obtaining loans to get businesses started and/or keep them going through the AREGAK micro-credit program. Community health centers are being supplied with medicines for people who could not otherwise afford them; doctors, nurses, and volunteers are being trained about health issues. These are just a few examples of God working through UMCOR to answer our prayers for Armenia.

My whole outlook about the world's problems and what we need to do to solve them has changed. Parents learn to teach their children and help them become independent. As Christians, we need to reach out to suffering brothers and sisters and help them become self-sustaining. This is our call: "to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God." (Micah 6:8).

I really cared about that puppy even though I had not seen it. I also believed that God would answer my prayer for the puppy to have peace. What took me a while to realize that night was that God had answered my prayer. I was the answer for the puppy.

Aaron Buttery

A Place in The Sun

by Aaron Buttery (Colorado)

After spending a month in Armenia working with UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) I had opportunity to witness the work of AREGAK. The name means "sun" in Armenia and it is a program which provides a light for its members through a unique approach to micro-credit loans.

At the lowest level of the organization is a group of five women who form a team to apply for a loan. AREGAK runs an informational meeting and then four group meetings to educate the women on the program and on their requirements. The loans are business loans, and although a few are to start new businesses, most are applied to improve existing businesses. The first loan can be as large at $300, and three members of the group may receive this loan. No collateral is needed and the women pay a small amount of interest. If a group member is unable to repay her loan, her partners must take responsibility. One women is chosen to pay their bills each month and to represent the group at village council AREGAK meetings. At these meetings, members make suggestions on how to improve the process.

On June 9th, I was able to attend a regional center opening in Goiris Sunik Marz. AREGAK opens a regional center after 1000 loans have been repaid. There was a grand party, music, and food was brought in from each village. Speeches were given by the women and local mayors, and there was dancing and celebration. The women are extremely proud of their accomplishments and motivated for the future of their businesses and how they will help rebuild Armenia.

I learned of a special success story of a mother, father, grandmother, three daughters and one son who have a thriving bakery and food business. The mother belonged to one AREGAK group, where she received a loan of $300; the eldest daughter belonged to a second group, also receiving $300. (Family members are not permitted to belong to the same group in order to reduce corruption and to increase rates of repayment by limiting risk to the family.) This family was in the process of renovating a building to be their store; harvesting tomatoes from their small greenhouse; experimenting with bell peppers in the second greenhouse; buying more flour and upgrading their bakery equipment. The income that the family receives goes to support education of their children. The two eldest daughters have completed the university; the youngest is currently at a technological institution; and the son is in school looking forward to attending the university.

This incredible family now has a way to support itself, and then give back to the community through high quality goods, educated and experienced children, and business leadership. They are proud of their accomplishments, but also hospitable and humble; they fed me and asked if I could stay with them. I would have, but needed to travel on where I would learn of more projects and success stories undergirded by UMCOR which help to bring an increased sense of hope throughout the land.

Federico Leao

Fede's Journal

by Federico Leao (Uruguay)

Tuesday, May 23, 2000

God's Way

So we finally make it to Armenia and our first day is almost over...I still don't have a clear picture of what Armenia is like; of course this is my first day here, but I've already seen differences between this country and Uruguay. I guess the airport was the first "shock": it is filled with a military atmosphere that made me really uncomfortable--uniformed men with not-so-welcoming expressions gave me a sense of insecurity--which is kind of funny, because the army exists to protect the people...

Language here is a big issue for us; we heard it the first time today while walking downtown from UMCOR's office. I wonder if I'll ever learn how to speak it and if by the end of our experience here we'll be able to understand some words...Aaron [a fellow VIM] said that he's really overwhelmed by the language barrier. I guess he feels impotent not being able to communicate with Armenians. I tried to give him some confidence telling him God will help us build bridges with the people in other ways. We prayed together and asked Him for strength and patience.

The best thing that God gave us today is the comfort we needed: FRISBEEEEE!!! Aaron and I were playing Frisbee when two kids passed by; we invited them to play we us. They had never seen one and were very excited to play with us, "the foreigners." After half an hour the street was crowded with children that were playing with us! I was so happy because we sort of overcame the barrier of language for a while and were able to interact with these kids. I thank God so much for this because I know this was His answer to our prayers...Oh, yes, something else struck me today, and that is that Armenians are far from being good drivers! It is very dangerous out there and there is little regard for pedestrians. When UMCOR gave us our "Security in Armenia" sheets, they indicated, "Pedestrians have almost no rights." I never thought they were being serious about this...Well, they are quite right! This also teaches me that I shouldn't expect things to be the way they are back home, and that my way is not the only way, but just the way I know things...

Thank you Lord for this experience
and for challenging us to overcome
language and culture barriers to
share your love with Armenians
and be one in your love...Amen

Friday, May 26, 2000

Opening of Minds and Hearts

We spent six hours learning about UMCOR- Armenia. Whoa! It was really interesting and impressive because I had no idea that the United Methodist Church would have such a well-structured and organized NGO. Judy Wollen, Program Officer, explained all of UMCOR's programs in the region and I was really impressed that they are doing such a great job here and have been effective in helping to benefit many Armenians.

One thing that especially got my attention as Judy shared was how eventually UMCOR will leave Armenia. This was when I got the point: UMCOR is doing justice here in developing sustainable programs which will eventually allow Armenians to help themselves....Unlike some other agencies, UMCOR is fighting the root causes of injustices here in Armenia; they are not simply giving food, clothing and medicine to people. Instead, they give loans to women to start businesses and help support their families; and they give animals so that families can earn a living and keep their children at home instead of sending them to orphanages. I can't wait to start working with UMCOR and see these concepts in action. I am really starting to understand the difference between charity and justice...

Thank you God for this day, for
opening my eyes to this new way of
responding to your call to mission
justice. I ask you for an open heart
and mind to learn about these
ministries devoted to relieve your
children's cries...Amen

Saturday, May 27, 2000

Each One Teach One

A neighbor of our host saw us at the History Museum and wanted to invite us for dinner so that she could practice her English. Judy continues to ask us if we are experiencing some kind of culture shock but we are not. Perhaps it is because Armenians are such nice people and have opened their homes to us from the very beginning.

So we go to the neighbor's house and she introduces us to her non- English-speaking family. I really appreciate the fact that they were all trying hard to communicate with us, saying from time to time words in English: "bread," "sister," etc... We had a terrific time because Armenians are just amazing people--honest friends and very patient with us who have not even basic knowledge of their language and culture...

Sunday, May 28, 2000

Respecting the Culture of Others

We visited Echmiadzin, the holy center of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a few kilometers from Yerevan. This cathedral was built in the year 303 B.C., after St. Gregory the Illuminator converted Armenians into Christianity in 301 B.C.. ...There is something about Armenian faith that is really troubling me because the Armenian Church is different from what I've experienced in Uruguay; and I have to be careful not judge wrongly as if my faith and values are right and theirs are wrong...

Anyway, animal sacrifice is still a frequent practice within Armenians. When someone who has been ill recovers, his or her relatives take a chicken or a sheep to the priest for him to sacrifice it (I guess is it like us with our offerings at church.) They then cut the animal in seven pieces to distribute to seven poor families. People also pay priests to pray for them; I can't help associating this with the indulgences sold in the Middle Ages, even though this might be the priest's only income.

Inside the churches there is usually little light; you can see people praying and lighting candles so there is often lots of smoke. Armenians light candles while they pray because the smoke represents their prayers going up to Heaven...We also have seen superstitious practices in some way comparable to the ones back home: they tie pieces of cloths on trees for every dream they have; outside church you can see plants, bushes, and trees covered with handkerchiefs.

God is really challenging me here; because I am trying not to find Armenians spiritually ritualistic and superficial even though they appear that way to me. I guess if we could talk with them and exchange experiences and points of view, I might see that there is more behind these ancient practices. Perhaps there is a hidden meaning in their worship and with God's help I will see this before I go back home...

Dear God Almighty, I thank you for diversity.
Give me the confidence and knowledge
to approach this culture with respect and love...
I ask you to forgive me for my prejudices
and may you show me the way to understand
and be tolerant during this GJV experience.
In Christ's name. Amen

Tuesday, May 30, 2000

UMCOR at Work

Today was our first monitor trip with UMCOR. We began with observation of the Primary Health Care Department. We visited a health clinic and learned about distribution of medicine, community health care workers, and the Revolving Drug Fund. At Shirak Marz we saw a demonstration class for breast examinations with a group of women in a small town where UMCOR staff started a Revolving Drug Fund. The Department of State (DOS) rebuilds old clinics and UMCOR contributes furniture and provides medicines. People of the village are asked to pay 400 drams per month (US $0.88) to receive medicines. The money collected is used to restock the clinic with medicines.

UMCOR also trains the clinic staff to keep records of the medicines, and trains some nurses and doctors with special first aid techniques. There are also community health care workers, individuals from the local community who have some first aid knowledge and assist in health matters. UMCOR offers additional training for them too; they then share their knowledge with others, spreading the program beyond the clinics.

A demonstration took place in counting a bottle of pills that was labeled "60"; and that is exactly how many pills we counted. Not a single one was missing! UMCOR monitors the clinics and distribution of medicines to assure that there is proper control. This is just great! Mission work of the United Methodist Church is equipping the Armenian people. In the future UMCOR will leave Armenia but the clinics and distribution of medicines will continue to operate and grow.

Saturday, June 3, 2000

God's Constant Presence

We went hiking today. As we were walking in an isolated area we suddenly came upon a huge cross carved in a rock here in a most unlikely place. As we continued walking we saw several more "hathkas" (the Armenian word for cross) . How the crosses got there and why, nobody knows. It was all a mystery... God's acts are sometimes mysterious to us too. And coming across these crosses made me think of ways in which He works. We always feel his presence in the most unlikely places, in the most mysterious and unexpected situations. Upon a hill there was this ruined monastery and church. The view was incredible: mountains and more mountains, and on the top of this hill was a church with the sky as the only witness of this expression of faith...

Monday, July 11, 2000

Saints in our Midst

...This child, so small and helpless, washed my hands. And to me it was one of the biggest expressions of love I have ever experienced. For his hands were in worse condition: dirty and with lots of cuts and bruises. But he was taking care of me. And there I was, watching his fragile body, not knowing how to thank him for what he was doing for me. This undernourished 11 year old boy taught me so much about what it means to leave behind selfishness and individualism and look at those next to us. This I learned from watching a child wash my hands...

Dear God, thank you so much for
these children from whom I am
receiving so much.
Please show me how to bring
hope to their lives for strength to carry on.
In your Son's name, Amen.

Friday, July 28, 2000

Back in the USA

So we're back in New York after nine weeks. For some reason I feel strange being back. I've been here before, but I'm seeing the world with new eyes so it is different--unfamiliar and in some way scary. I miss listening to Armenian conversation, and saying the few phases I learned. Still, it is good to be back and have chance to evaluate my life and explore a possible career. I can't wait to go back to Armenia because I feel God wants me there and I want to be there. But I'm back here now with a purpose-- which is to "Tell My Story". I am excited and every chance I get, I share my experience; I will once again see Mt. Ararat; eat lavash(a flat bread); and hold an orphan's hand covered with dirt and bruises...

My Story:

Nine weeks away from home in a place where cultural, economic and social patterns are different was a scary thought--not to mention when I was told that place was going to be Armenia. For this also meant exposure to a language I never thought of learning. So this was definitely a challenge for me, but one I was willing to accept. Different values; an unfamiliar language; new flavors and tastes; new friends and families; all these experiences were part of the GJV experience.

In Armenia we learned about UMCOR and its many programs. We worked with children from orphanages and vulnerable families at summer camps. We worked with the Armenia Tree Project at their coppicing site, nurseries, and solar driers; with Mission Armenia visiting the elderly; and with Fidai and their English teachers and so many other efforts where there are needs.

All of these mission experiences gave me opportunity to learn about sustainable development and why the struggle of doing justice is ultimately more valuable than the instant relief of charity response. It was amazing to see concepts in action about which I'd previously heard. I never really grasped the meaning of them until I went to Armenia and saw first hand. It all became so clear to me. This experience has definitely become a "big bang" in my life. I have changed so much in two months. My mind has been exposed to so much knowledge. My eyes have been opened and I see the world with a new perspective. My heart has been opened to approach different expressions of faith under His light. In this two-month journey, I have come to know the needs of the people and developed many relationships...

Once my host grandmother and her cousin invited me to join them in prayer. So there we were: different languages, beliefs and experiences, but we were one in His eyes. The moment was intense for me because God was showing me His creation. Diversity is one of its qualities and I was part of it. At that moment God was telling me "You're my child, and so are these two people praying with you--you three are one in my eternal love"...

See also:
Global Justice Volunteers: Young Adults of the United Methodist Church Learn as They Serve, by Brenda Wilkinson

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