Patient in Affliction
Despite overwhelmingly difficult circumstances, Christians in rural Armenia courageously live out the gospel.
by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
Twenty-one people, mostly women, gathered in a shabby room at the back of a one-story building. It looked more like an abandoned warehouse than a church. The floor was covered with curling, overlapped pieces of linoleum. The furniture consisted of a tiny table, a bookcase, and two dozen rickety chairs lining the walls.
There was no piano or sound system—only a few song sheets to share.
Thousands of praises to You, good Jesus. You died on the cross for me and cleansed my sins with Your precious blood. Blessed are You, oh Lord, Alleluia. My soul will bless You ceaselessly and will sing of Your endless love, rejoicing forever.
These words, sung soulfully in Armenian, echoed off the bare, peeling walls. On a hot Friday afternoon, these women had left their farms—their only source of provision for the upcoming winter months—to walk to the church in Horom for worship and a Bible study. My father and I were there on a 20-day mission trip to the land of our ancestors. Even now, thinking back on that moment, I recognize that a piece of my heart is still lodged in that village, with those people. And to think, I never wanted to go to Armenia.
Although my heritage is Armenian, my grandparents and parents were born in Turkey, Egypt, and Greece, so none of the stories I heard as a child were about the country. I admit I was somewhat indifferent about the fact that it was my ancestral homeland; nothing about it tugged at my heartstrings or compelled me to visit.
All of that changed after my parents went to Armenia for the first time in 2008. Fifty years of ministry in Montreal did not prepare my father for what he encountered there. Historically, it was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion, but it is now a spiritually famished land. He went back twice more before taking me along—my first trip—in August 2013.
It was on our second day that we visited Horom, a town nearly two hours from the capital city of Yerevan. We’d been invited by Tigran Muradyan, the church planter and unofficial pastor of the area, who, upon hearing of our plans to visit, was eager to meet my father and have him speak to the local believers.
The first things we noticed when we arrived at the church were rough brown clumps neatly lined up against one exterior wall. They were dung “bricks” used for fuel in the winter. The temperatures in Horom dip to -35 or even -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and when combined with a few feet of snow, it’s nearly impossible for people to leave their homes. Most families are locked in for six months, gathering into the one room they can afford to heat and living off the food they’ve stored up. They do backbreaking work for six months so that they can survive the time they are homebound.
A tourist visiting the vast metropolis of Yerevan, where scores of modern, trendy young adults fill the streets, could never imagine the stark contrast found in the surrounding villages where even farming is not a guaranteed means of self-support. Not only do the hot, typically rainless summers dry out the countryside, but most rural communities also have a distinct lack of males. Many husbands and fathers who once provided for their families have gone to Russia to look for jobs. A shocking percentage of these men never return home or send support; many of them remarry and abandon their families. This has left an aging population of women to fend for themselves.
But when Dad addressed the group gathered in the tiny back room, he remarked that he sensed the Lord’s presence more than he has in many larger or more affluent churches. It was obvious that these women of various ages had a love for Jesus and a hunger for spiritual nourishment. Not one spoke of or complained about physical hunger, though the lack of resources was evident to our Western eyes.
Like the people they’re called to serve, Tigran and Valya Muradyan have no running water in their home and rely on a small well in the backyard. They grow their own food, have no regular income, and don’t even own a car. And yet, when we arrived at their home for fellowship before the church service, they had prepared a table laden with the fruits of their labor. Before we left Horom to return to the city, bulging bags of homegrown potatoes, green beans, apples, and sunflower heads the size of serving trays—provisions precious to the Muradyans—were freely given away.
This extravagant generosity did not come from a place of prosperity and abundance. It was a sacrifice made without hesitation or calculation. All the people in Horom were warm and affectionate and immediately made us feel like part of their community—their family. Their unmistakable and genuine joy wafted around them like a sweet perfume. But the challenges are real. Muradyan says the biggest one his ministry faces is making people understand and acknowledge the truth. “People generally don’t read the Bible,” he says. “We also have everyday difficulties. One is our meeting place; its condition is terrible. In winter, some of our meetings are canceled because of the severe cold. It becomes more and more difficult to visit people during the cold weather because we don’t have a car. But praise God! We know there is nothing too hard for Him.”
Although my best experience of village life in Armenia was our stay in Horom, I got a taste of this same faith, humility, and generosity in other small towns we visited. Most of the laypeople we work with in Armenia readily open their doors for Bible studies, home-cooked meals, and fellowship. More than one told us that their home belongs not to them but to the Lord. Even unexpected visits are not considered an inconvenience.
About a month after our return, we learned that a missionary couple our church supports traveled to Spitak (the town devastated by the 1988 earthquake and still in dire straits). The journey over rough mountain roads is long, even under the best conditions. That day they found themselves driving through snow they had not expected, without snow tires, and shivering from the sudden temperature drop. Upon their arrival, they found two elderly sisters huddled in bed, trying to keep warm under blankets because they had no firewood.
And still the Armenian believers praise the Lord. These sisters would offer you their last piece of bread without a second thought. We know that many of the families we visited in this amazing country probably deprived themselves for days just to be able to honor their guests with a generous meal.
Romans 12:11-12 (NIV) is a verse I’ve committed to memory, but I never truly understood how to live it out until I went to Armenia: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” And the believers I met there also taught me the true meaning of verse 13: “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
When I am tempted to complain about unpleasant situations that disrupt my organized life, make me feel uncomfortable, or force me to step out of my cozy solitude, I need only consider what my friends in Armenia are doing. Conviction swoops down swiftly. I still have much to learn about the joy, patience, faithfulness, and hospitality Paul spoke about in his letter to the church at Rome. Perhaps, though, that is why God sent me to Armenia: not only to encourage and support the people there, but also to witness how courage and perseverance—in circumstances far worse than any I may ever face—are possible through Christ.