Jinishian Commission Visits Armenia: Reflections of a Commission Member

Cynthia E. White, JMP Commission Member
Coordinator, Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People

Armenia is one of the oldest civilizations and the first in the world to officially accept Christianity as its state religion. It is a nation desperately trying to survive, trying to overcome its tragic history. It is a nation fighting for independence, democracy, and a brighter future. The spirit of the Armenia people and the nation’s determination create the potential to pull the country out of an endless cycle of mediocrity and on to a course of economic and political growth.

In the midst of this struggling nation is the Jinishian Memorial Foundation Armenia (JMF) working with the people in their fight for independence and self-determination. The Jinishian Memorial Program (JMP) Commission, the governing body of the international Jinishian program, had the pleasure of spending 10 days in October 2009 with members of the JMF Armenia staff, local advisory board members, and JMF community partners throughout the country.

The mission of the JMF is to move Armenians from poverty and despair to self-sufficiency and hope through relief, development, and spiritual upliftment. And they are doing just that.  Most amazingly they are doing it ecumenically with the three Armenian denominations, the Apostolic, Evangelical and Catholic Churches.

Father Vartanes travels to different remote villages in the Lori region of Armenia several times a week to enrich and foster the religious and spiritual lives of over 260 children.  He does this in association with JMF as a part of their Spiritual Uplift and Education Program for children. Sister Arousiag is an amazing woman.  In addition to running the Our Lady of Armenia Orphanage, she works with JMF to ensure at least 130 children from vulnerable families have the opportunity to attend summer camp.  Sister Arousiag and the leadership of JMF have made the camps a reality for children since 1994.  

Then there are the brothers Grigor Babakhanyan and Father Endza who are committed to bringing true and fulfilled childhoods to parentless children in their community through their work at the Cross of Armenian Unity Cultural Center. Grigor, a poet, and Father Endza, a nationally renowned artist, donate proceeds from their work to keep the Center operating. The children at the center are confident, self-respecting, and talented. They are discovering and developing skills in rug making, painting, pottery, wood carving, theatrical arts, and computer literacy. The partnership with JMF is vital to the ongoing operation of the Center.

Additionally, there are the JMF development projects, ranging from micro-lending for organic farming, assisting in the establishment and management of seedling production cooperatives, community mobilization initiatives, and civic dialogue and action initiatives. The Civic Dialogue and Action Initiative involve an impressive group of students from three different institutions of higher learning engaged in civic dialogue. Our visit with the students focused on visual exhibits of how they see the future. The exhibits were deeply thought provoking and opened the door to conversation on many different levels. I especially found the exhibit Hands: from Birth to Old Age inspiring. The young ladies responsible explained how, from their perspective, the future of the children, their peers, and their elders are in the hands of the current generation of college students. Other exhibits concentrated on the environment, domestic violence, and healthy living, to name just a few.   

While in Armenia, we had the absolute pleasure of being a part of the 15th Anniversary Celebration of JMF in Armenia. The celebration began with a dinner celebration attended by the JMF staff from Armenia, as well as JMP international staff from Lebanon, Syria, and the United States. Also attending were representatives from the local Advisory Committee and the JMP Commission members. The following night, religious and community partners, and government officials joined in the celebration, entertained by the National Dance Troupe of Armenia. It was indeed a night of celebration.

Our next adventure was traveling to the unrecognized country of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. Reaching there took us through the incredible mountain range of Karabakh.  Enroute we visited monasteries and churches from the 13th and 14th centuries. All were incredibly spiritual.  

The projects in Nagorno Karabakh were all health related. When looking at the Lady Cox Rehabilitation Center in Stepanakert from the outside it is nothing remarkable; inside it is truly a place of miracles. A rehabilitation place for the forgotten -- war veterans from a long since fought war, babies with no place to go, teenagers wheelchair bound.  It is a place of love. There we saw a nursery that rivals the best seen anywhere, a therapuratic  pool, nurses and counselors who knew and cared about the people coming in and out on a daily basis. Later we visited with the Minister of Health who thanked JMF for their work in training village nurses. This is another major focus of JMF as there are very few doctors in rural villages; villagers do not have access to hospitals or up-to-date medical care. Training of village nurses begins to address health care issues in these rural areas.

It was an incredible trip -- spiritually, emotionally, and physically! JMF is to be commended for the outstanding work they are doing throughout the country.