Monday, January 25, 2010

On Men and Culture

I didn't grow up in the Armenian Orthodox Church but my friend Gary and his wife Sona have opened their arms to me and made me welcome into the community. You may not think that's such a big thing. Christian churches are supposed to be welcoming to new members. But I'm ges-hye, only half Armenian.

Remember Cher's big hit "Half Breed"? She wasn't singing about being half Native American. She was signing about being half Armenian.

The Armenians, like the Japanese and Amish, have been, by necessity, are an insular culture. Like the Jews, they have been scattered to the far corners of the earth. Holding onto cultural identity has been key to the Armenians survival. And marrying outside any ethnic group is definitely the way to dilute culture.

What holds a culture together?

I often say that food is the last thing that disappears in a culture. The first thing is dress, for sure. I hate to think there may be a day when everyone on the face of the earth will be wearing dull-colored, baggy workout clothes and Nike shower slippers on the street.

Yesterday, I witnessed a big part of what holds the Armenian culture together, the church. Armenians pride themselves as the first country that converted as a whole to Christianity. They say their Bible is the "Queen of Translations."

So the 65th anniversary of St. James Armenian Church paired with the ordination of sub-deacons was a big event. Sona and Gary's son Nicky was one of the three young men being ordained so I had to go.

The ceremony began with a service that looks very much like a Catholic high mass. Lots of candles and incense burning. The choir signing. This is something I could relate to being brought up Catholic.

Gary and Sona's 9-year old son, dressed in a sharp suit, assumed the role of usher, helping people find empty seats. And the church was packed.

When the ordination began, one of the young men was taken to the back of the church. Surrounded by the bishop, the pastor, the several deacons and sub-deacons, he knelt down. We were told that he would be tonsured to show his submission to the church.

Tonsured monks have a circle about 3 inches in diameter shaved on the crown of their heads. A woman behind me, obviously a non-church goer like myself, gasped and said, "Are they really going to cut his hair?" She voiced my thoughts exactly.

Scissors were produced and a tiny bit of hair was cut. The young man then walked forward on his knees about 6 feet and was given a whisk broom. We were all told that this signified that he was now worthy of sweeping out the church.

He walked forward another six feet. This time he was given a candlestick to signify that he was worthy of lighting the candles on the alter. He proceeded forward being stopped again and again to accept the symbols of his new station in the church.

I looked around at the others watching the ceremony. The elders, the middle-aged, the parents with babies in their arms, the young marrieds, the teenagers. All of us focused on this young man. All of us bearing witness to the threshold he was crossing over. All of us recognizing his new status in the community.

After the ordination, the Sunday School students entered the church holding candles, sometimes rather precariously. They approached the altar for a special requiem ceremony to honor those "who have gone before us to their eternal rest."

Here was the whole of the church's history laid out before me. From birth to death and beyond we were all included. We were all part of the fabric of this life.

And what stood out for me was the men in the gathering. I usually am so woman-centric but this time I focused on the men. Here on the altar were men I knew, men I had joked with, men who just a few short years ago were boys.

I thought about how the church had been supported for nearly 2 thousand years by the men like these and how important it was to have a new generation of men be invited, generation after generation to take up responsibilities, to make vows to the community.

Men are early adopters of alien culture. Men switch from sarongs to blue jeans first. In Tanzania, they will wear traditional garb plus a Yankees baseball cap. In a very short time, as men emulate a more profitable or invading culture, essential things get lost.

How does a culture keep their men hooked in?

What I saw in that church definitely said it's not just role-models, but being included, inducted into the group.

It works for the military. It works for street gangs. It works for terrorist organizations.

The challenge is providing a positive structure for young men. Because the way young men go the rest of us follow. That's why television programmers are so desperate to attract that group.

And so I am going to follow. I'm going to follow the young man with the tonsured hair. Witnessing his induction as sub-deacon of the church, I became closer to the community. I've been dancing on the edge of this culture all my life.

It's time to take a step into the circle.