April 12th, 2006 - Post No. 52
On the eve of Great Thursday in Holy Week, Fr. Vaghinag (Var-hi-nach) invites me to join him when he goes to preach at the weekly session of an on-going, three month Armenian evangelistic mission. Hayr Vaghinag has recently published what seems to be a very popular "spiritual study" of the Gospel of John in Armenian, and he is the much admired teacher of a weekly meeting of about 50 adults, most in the 30-something range, here at the Catholicosate.
The mission takes place in a large auditorium, part of the complex of buildings associated with Holy Spirit Armenian Catholic Church in the famous Armenian neighbourhood of Bouj Hammoud, Beirut.
The meeting follows the standard format for gatherings of this kind. First there is a period of "worship and praise" (with star soloist and band) followed by the personal testimony of a believer, then an "altar call" sermon, and finally a time of closing alleluias and praise. It all takes about two hours and unlike Sunday services, the crowd of about 500 gathers early and would clearly like to see the meeting go on all night!
The headliner of the evening, is the popular Armenian Orthodox singer Salpi Keleshian, whom I first hear sing at the World Day of Prayer service in Bourj Hammoud at the beginning of March. Salpi has a wonderfully expressive voice, and a great heart for the Lord. Her singing at the beginning of the service is combined with prayer and testimony and is clearly very effective. Here is a beautiful sample (10MB) of her singing from her new album Shout with Me! In the song's refrain you'll hear Salpi repeatedly sing "sourp e" -- He is holy!
The crowd is more than warmed up for Fr. Vaghinag when the time comes for him to preach the call. (If you are familiar with a Billy Graham rally, Fr. Vaghinag has Bill Graham's role.) His rapport with the audience is wonderful. There are light hearted moments mixed in with the serious, Father comes across as a humble priest addressing real issues for real people. He gets the audience involved inviting them to stand on a couple of occasions, and at one point repeat after him a kind of moral-spiritual creed. I comment later that I understood everything in the sermon but not a word. Not quite true, I am beginning to recognize quite a few words in spoken Armenian, but what I mostly understand is that Fr. Vaghinag is preaching a gem of a sermon full of grace and passion.
The sermon builds masterfully to a powerful climax and settles into the quiet spirit of the altar call. And the people come! Of the 500 or so on hand for the evening, probably a quarter come forward to stand in front of the stage, confess their sins and accept Jesus as their Lord. The service ends with musical rejoicing lead by Salpi ... "bringing in the sheaves;" and many come to express their appreciation to Fr. Vaghinag (above) as the crowd begins to go its way at the close of the service.
I suspect the Armenian Orthodox community isn't quite sure what to make of the evangelistic ministry of Salpi and Fr. Vaghinag. This is certainly not the preferred style of evangelistic mission in the Anglican world (we prefer a much lower profile in evangelism, the Alpha program for example). There is no guarantee that those who came forward tonight will find their way to the Orthodox fold, but among the committed Christians here tonight, I recognize the faces of many of younger "regulars" at the Catholicosate.