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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford and Janice Okoomian delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, April 17, 2011

A Meditation on the Armenian Genocide

Lined up in the sky, the cranes
come and go in rows; where shall I
look for a homeland in the spring?
Which heartache shall I weep and mourn?

Oh, cranes, do you have any news
from my home, from my sisters?
Do you have a greeting for my pilgrim heart
from our sublime native highlands?

One day I left on a journey, too,
passing mountains, valley and sea,
arriving in this foreign land
with a heart full of hope.

But this ache for a homeland
throttled all my dreams and hopes.
Oh cranes, my heart is in despair,
these eyes never dried.

Oh cranes, you are going far,
wherever it is spring, there you are.
Dear cranes, where shall I go?
My wounds unhealed, my sorrow so deep.

— By Shushanik Kurghanian, Armenian poet and human rights advocate. Trans. Shushan Avagyan


Last year the day after April 24th, I sat in a pew here in the meeting house and listened to the prayer, in which James mentioned the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey. I am the granddaughter of survivors as well as victims of that Genocide, and that event is woven deeply into my cultural and spiritual memory. But at that moment in my pew, I was surprised to feel a sense of isolation. I am one of a handful of Armenians who are part of this congregation, and while I expect many of our members are acquainted with the basic historical facts of the Armenian Genocide, the trauma it inflicted on the Armenians, and the pain engendered by the ongoing denial by Turkey of the historical record, I still felt profoundly alone, sitting in my pew, hearing a public acknowledgement of that part of my cultural history.

For any people who suffer it, Genocide is a spiritual cataclysm of the greatest magnitude. How does one come to terms with the terrible reality that one people could attempt to annihilate another people? Like the Armenians, the First Nations peoples of the Americas, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans and other victims of Genocide have all had to confront this reality. And it is a terrible burden –especially, perhaps, for someone like myself: raised as a Unitarian, not believing in a God of retribution or in a Hell for miscreants and sinners. It’s comfortable to take the position that most evildoing on an individual basis can be explained (I don’t mean justified, but rather, comprehended) as the result of psychopathologies of the evildoer, even traumas inflicted upon him or her earlier in life. But that doesn’t go very far to explain the premeditated destruction of an entire people.

It would seem sensible for me to seek solace amongst other Armenians on April 24th, and indeed the local Armenian churches offer commemorative services, which I could attend. But I am deeply uncomfortable with the theology of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and when I sit in the pews in those churches, I experience an equally profound sense of isolation because of its unrepentant patriarchy and its ultra-conservative belief system. Armenians understand the Genocide very well, but they interpret it in a way that is fundamentally unsatisfying to me. Victims of the Genocide are described as “martyrs” in religious language, and the teleological endpoint of those commemorative services is always commitment to a Christian God and Jesus who are decidedly patriarchal and theologically rigid, in my view. Women’s voices are never ever heard in Armenian religious ritual, except in the choir.

So, shifting for myself as best as I can, I usually call my parents on the phone, or a few close friends, on April 24th as a quiet ritual of acknowledgment. But I would like to be able to feel that I, my history, and my spiritual crisis can be fully present and recognized among a community of Unitarian Universalists, with whom I share my deepest spiritual feelings. So, I come here seeking an answer to the problem of evil – a Unitarian answer that is fully cognizant of what it means to live with the knowledge that unspeakable acts were committed against members of one’s cultural community, indeed against members of one’s own family. And I come here seeking to be known and to be visible. Visibility is a special problem for Armenians because Turkey and its friends have persuaded many well-intentioned Americans that the Armenian Genocide never happened at all. It would be intolerable for me to be in spiritual community with people who denied the reality of what happened to my people.

In the face of undeniable evil, and human longing, and hope for something better, our reflection today is about that ultimate question of identity. Who am I? Who are we? For me, hearing Janice’s words I feel so much sadness, for her, for the Armenian people, and truthfully for the Turkish people, who even in their official denial are caught up in the cycles of hurt and longing. Indeed, in that sense, for all of us. Listening to Janice’s witnessing, my heart raced in a hundred directions before settling on two burning issues her words pointed to that affect all of us, I think, in this Meeting House. Memory and place sit near the center of our human hearts. Each so important, each, it seems, critical for us to engage if wish to live full lives, and be of some use within those lives.

When Janice and I spoke about this sermon she said the problem is how to feel visible and at home in a world where others do not bear witness, where too many of us choose not to open our eyes and hearts. But, of course, we must. For the sake of the world and for our own souls we must be present to the joy, and to the sorrow. This is, I believe, the fundamental call of any authentic spirituality: presence, not turning away, and through that to discovery the way of intimacy.

I know how fragile we are. My people are the Irish. While my direct ancestors came here at the turn of the last century most of my people came to this nation fifty years earlier, fleeing the great hunger. We came to a country that was reluctant to accept us. And in the mad rush forward many of us intentionally forgot where it was we came from. Or, perhaps worse, turned it into some maudlin trope for tin-pan alley. Green beer once a year is a sorry remembrance of a lost nation. Memory is so fragile, and yet so important. Memory is a great part of what gives us our humanity. Without memory there is no authentic presence. To relinquish it, or to have it stolen is an act of violence against what we are. We must remember. This call is central to what Janice and I want to share today.

Which raises the other issue for us to struggle with, and it is deeply connected to memory. That is place. What is home? Where is home? Do you come from the rocky soil of New England? Perhaps the plains of the Midwest? Or, like me, that far country of high mountains, rugged coasts and moderate climate? For each of us, no matter how far away our lives may take us these places have a permanent part in your hearts, and of who we are.

And, we also have that ancestral homeland. Germany? England? China? Japan? But what if our ancestors were kidnapped? There are those in this Meeting House who know that bitter question. Where in Africa? Where? Or, what if you know, but if you go to that place and there are only a few stones piled upon each other for you to touch and to recall how your people were shaped, and lived? What if that homeland is now a place where the songs of your ancestors are no longer sung? I think of the native peoples of this continent. And, this is the great mystery of it all: at some point we’re all connected, deeply, truly, and I realize how we are all bound up in these acts of memory and loss, of place loved and taken. So the harm done one, is harm done to all.

These are pressing issues for us if we wish to understand ourselves, and to understand our world. This is what Janice and I hope you’ll hold in your heart and consider. If we hope to act with grace in this world we need to remember, and we need a place to put our feet.

So, where is the place I may put my feet? Part of me would like to go to Armenia, to see what it’s like to experience the soil, the rocks, the rivers of my ancestral homeland. Recently, a 7000-year old pair of leather shoes was excavated from a cave in Armenia. I’m speaking now of the current-day nation-state, the Republic of Armenia. This is Caucasian Armenia, the eastern end of the ancient homeland. I could go there, see what it’s like to be in a world in which street signs, currency, the price of pomegranates are all written in Armenian. Perhaps I could even go and try on those seven-thousand-year-old shoes, to feel what it’s like to stand in that place.

But that place is not really my place. My family all came from Western Armenia – the Anatolian plateau, and as far west as Constantinople. In 1915, Caucasian Armenia was part of the Russian Empire, so the Genocide didn’t happen there. I want to go to the village of Hussenig, in the province of Kharpert; to Sepastia; to Gesarya; to Constantinople. These are the places my family came from, although none of them still bears those names. But part of me holds back. What stops me from going is fear.

Genocide scholars say that the last phase of a genocide is denial that it took place. For ninety-five years, the government of Turkey has maintained that no genocide of Armenians happened. Many say that not that many Armenians were killed, that they died fighting in World War I. Some even say that the genocide was the other way around – that Armenians killed more Turks than vice versa. These claims are overwhelmingly contradicted by the evidence in the historical record, but they continue to be made. I met a Turkish shop owner in Rockport Mass some years ago. “Why do Armenians continue to harp on the past?” she said. “It was so long ago, why can’t they just get over it?” But how do you just get over a human violation of this scale when the descendants of those who perpetrated it deny that it happened? You can’t forgive someone who wronged you unless they first admit that they wronged you.

A dear friend of mine is about to embark on her first trip to Istanbul. She has family there, who will welcome her with open arms. But they have submerged their Armenian identity. They’ve adopted a Turkish name and assimilated into Turkish culture, as all of the survivors of the genocide had to do if they remained in Turkey. My friend shares my visceral fears about traveling to our homeland. It’s still not safe to speak Armenian in the streets of Istanbul. It’s still not safe to travel with an Armenian surname into the interior of Turkey, unless you go with a tour group. A number of courageous Turkish people who have publicly acknowledged the Armenian Genocide have been imprisoned, murdered, or forced to flee the country.

It’s a common experience for immigrants to discover, when they go back to their homeland, that they can never go back, that they have been irrevocably changed by the experience of living in another country. For me, the problem is different. I’m not afraid to stand on Armenian soil and discover that I’m more American than Armenian. That’s not it. What I’m afraid of, most deeply afraid of, is that if I go there I wont exist at all. I’m afraid that I will be overcome with rage at what was done and at the ongoing denial. I don’t fear for my physical safety, but for the loss of my soul.

I am going to try to accompany my friend on her pilgrimage in my imagination. She’s going to look for signs of both of our families in Istanbul. My great-great-great Uncle was the archbishop of Constantinople, and belonged to the family that were the architects to the sultan of Turkey. There is plenty of material evidence that this part of my family existed. Most of the famous palaces and government buildings of the Ottoman period were designed by them. But I fear that their Armenianness, who they were, has been erased or rewritten, and that I by extension will discover that I have been erased.

There’s an Armenian proverb that says, “Gharib mart? odar degh yeres chi oonenar.” { “In a strange country, an exile will have no face”.} But what I’m describing is a reversal of this proverb. The strange country is the ancestral homeland itself. I have a face here in the U.S. It’s in the Armenia that no longer exists that I don’t.

And this is why I need my community to remember with me. To help me keep myself visible.

What a statement. In a strange country, an exile will have no face. It echoes for me a question asked in my Zen practice, “What is your face before your parents were born?” All the questions of identity, of self and other, of memory and place, tumble together, and we are left with what we have here and now.

People often, I believe, misunderstand the call to presence, to notice this place, to stand here. A person who cannot take memory into this moment is not fully present. And, that’s not the end of it, either. We need to have the cascade of hopes and fears for the future living in our hearts, as well. If there is no memory, and no thought of the future, then there is no present. Not really. Not in a way that counts. Not in a way that allows the pregnant possibility of our existence to come forth.

And living into that possibility is the task at hand. What does it mean to live full, to be fully visible?

I find as I consider the great sadness of the Armenian genocide, along with all the other horrors and indignities perpetuated upon people, great and small, I feel a sense of loss that I have trouble describing to you here today. But, I’m also very much conscious of the way Janice speaks to how she has found a face, her face. And within that I feel some sense of hope, some sense of that birthing of possibility as presence itself, shining present, fully visible.

And this seems to be our call. We must remember. To forget is to collaborate with those thieves of the heart who would deny what we have been and what we might yet become. But if we do remember, however much the world changes, we will find a place to stand.

To be here fully, to bring it all together.

And this work of our lives is the message Janice and I hope you will carry away: To take the invisible, and to make it visible.

To witness and to bear witness.

This is the great healing. Nothing less.