BY DIRAN AVAGYAN
Many years ago, when I was a student at Claremont School of Theology, I started a blog called “Grassroots Theology.” In my blogs, the main precepts were inspired by Christian ethics, pointing to the relationship of simple men and women with God Incarnate in the most grassroots way.
Bringing simple men and women into perspective is the main purpose of Christian ethics. Its praxis is an embracing invitation to the disenfranchised to participate in the life of the church and practice their faith in fullness, without any discriminations. In the Sermon on the Mountain, referring to this category of people, Our Lord says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
Indeed, the Son of God assumed a human nature to save the human race, but above all to liberate the poor, the meek, and the marginalized. By descending from the heavens, and ultimately, surrendering to the cross, Christ came to reaffirm that the wealth, power, and social standing are not the decisive qualities that earn one the title of a Christian. On the contrary, often times the true and virtuous Christians are found amongst humble, ordinary people, who have faith in their hearts. As Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).
Think for a moment! Who were the first founding members of Christ’s church in the first century? They were working class people from humble beginnings. In Armenia, after years of persecutions and martyrdoms, the entire country converted to Christianity, when the privileged royalty humbled itself before God in 301 AD. Then, in 303, King Tiridates III, hand in hand with ordinary people, built and erected the magnificent Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin.
Society has changed a lot since the formation of the early church. Nevertheless, the ordinary people still continue to be in the forefront of the apostolic evangelism and grassroots Christianity.
In 2012, when the restoration of Etchmiadzin Cathedral started, a pan-Armenian fundraising strategy was adopted to allow every person to contribute according to his or her ability. His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate of the Western Diocese, was appointed by the Armenian Pontiff Karekin II to lead the world-wide fundraising campaign. Touring the world from Americas to Australia, from Africa to the Middle East and Europe, from Armenia to Russia, His Eminence broke the Eucharistic bread and shared the holy chalice with ordinary people in various churches, sermonizing on the mystery of Holy Etchmiadzin as the spiritual center of the Armenian people. Lo and behold, the ordinary people heard the message and responded to the call with abundant generosity. Along with major donations, thousands of smaller ones were received as an outpouring of love, dedication, and faithfulness. In my opinion, what we have witnessed was a change of paradigm in the Armenian Church, especially in the diaspora.
At the beginning of 20th century, when Archbishop Karekin Hovsepian embarked on a fundraising campaign for the renovation of the Mother Cathedral, it is said that he was approached by a prominent benefactor and America’s very first billionaire John D. Rockefeller (also called deacon for his piousness), who offered to fund the entire renovation. Declining the generous offer, the Archbishop stated that Etchmiadzin Cathedral was venerated as a historic and sacred place by all Armenians, and therefore, it was the right and obligation of all people to renovate it.
Grassroots participation fosters sense of belonging and ownership. In this context, ownership does not have a “possessive” connotation, but rather implies to sacrificial love, dedication, and caregiving, just as in Christ’s lordship.
Through the restoration of the Mother Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin and the act of grassroots fundraising, one should see a spiritual reawakening and change in the paradigm, praxis, and precepts of how we do Christian ethics.
Etchmiadzin Cathedral, one of the oldest standing Christian shrines in the world listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is the spiritual home for the global Armenian community, and as such, must remain embracing and inclusive.