Sandra Shahinian Leitner will be named the 2017 “Armenian Church Member of the Year” during the 115th Diocesan Assembly gala banquet in Palm Harbor, FL, on May 5. She has served the Armenian Church in a variety of capacities in her home parish of St. Leon Church of Fair Lawn, NJ, and on the Diocesan level. She is currently a Diocesan Trustee and board member of the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR).
Sandra took time out to talk about her thoughts and accomplishments in service to the Armenian Church.
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How important was life in the Armenian Church for you growing up?
I grew up in a suburb of New York City. My father was a veteran, my mother was a young bride, and it was a time of great optimism. They bought their home in a new development with a loan under the G.I. Bill. Everyone knew everyone else and backdoors were constantly opening and slamming as neighbors dropped by unannounced. Children spent most of the day outdoors until someone’s mother yelled “time for dinner” and we all scattered.
When my father purchased the lot, sight unseen and without telling my mother, he also purchased a lot for his parents a few doors down. My grandfather was a war hero from Van who fought on the battlefield of Sardarabad to turn Turkish forces back and prevent them from overrunning Yerevan. My grandmother was similarly a great patriot. Theirs became a second home for me: some days it smelled of cigarette smoke, some days of fresh-baked choereg, other days of chives that she mixed into farmers cheese and aged by burying in her backyard. What permeated even more than the smells were great stories, songs, and lessons about identity and service to one’s country.
My mother sent my three sisters and me to a local Methodist bible camp every summer. My father read nightly to us from Great Stories from the Bible. That was my early Christian education. My mother’s father was on the parish council of St. James Church of Watertown, MA. Easters always found us there and I could see that he was greatly respected as Baron Paul. His piety and in-depth knowledge of the Armenian Church made a deep impression on me.
There was no Armenian church in northern New Jersey until my parents and others of their generation founded the Armenian Church of Bergen County. This ultimately became St. Thomas Church of Tenafly, NJ. They could not have been prouder of their achievement and all worked tirelessly to create a vibrant parish which was the center of spiritual and social life for us all.
The church was integral to our lives. My Christian education continued there under dedicated Sunday school teachers. Our pastors—first the Rev. Fr. Dajad Davidian, who came to us as Deacon Arthur, and then the Rev. Fr. Arnak Kasparian and Yeretzgin Violet—made an indelible and lasting impact on my generation. The importance of dedicated and open-minded clergy cannot be overestimated and I am grateful to those whom I have known.
Like many teens, I was a member of ACYOA. Our advisor Floraine Halejian made the meetings and outings lively and we looked forward to being together. I danced in the ensemble that my father founded at St. Thomas and we took it on the road to perform in other parishes. My Armenian Church circle was a haven of acceptance and attachment that always made me feel special.
Why has staying involved with the Armenian Church been important for you?
Like many young people, my several-times-weekly involvement with parish life ended when I went off to college. Once I had children of my own, my family became members of St. Leon Church of Fair Lawn, NJ. Involvement was second nature, given my upbringing. Also, unlike during my childhood when Sunday for children was dedicated to Christian education, I was able to worship on Sundays and explore the rich mystery of our badarak. The rituals and message of our liturgy are timeless and ever so relevant at times of joy and sorrow. I grew to love the church in new ways as its message gave new meaning to my life.
Community involvement and its resultant fellowship come naturally when parishioners make an effort to engage new members. I am grateful to those who reached out to me. I served on many committees and at one point was chair of the parish council at St. Leon. When St. Leon hosted the Diocesan Assembly, I introduced the “Friend of the Armenians” award honoree. I have since introduced many “Armenian Church Member of the Year” award honorees at subsequent assemblies, and certainly did not imagine that one day I would be on the receiving end of this award.
A term as a Diocesan delegate was followed by a term on Diocesan Council. My female predecessors Lillian Chapian and Janet Mardigian were role models and I admired their strength. I was also greatly encouraged by Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Eastern Diocese, and then-Diocesan Council Chair Oscar Tatosian and am grateful for their leadership and example.
Given that I worked as a Diocesan employee for a few years after graduate school, the Cathedral and Diocesan Center were always dear to my heart. Several decades later, once my service on Diocesan Council ended, I was lucky to be involved in many wonderful projects there: the 40th anniversary of St. Vartan Cathedral, the installation of Michael Aram’s sculpture “Migrations” on the St. Vartan Cathedral plaza, the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Armenia’s Independence, and others. In 2016, I released the doves after Easter services. It is a gift to me to have worked with so many wonderful Diocesan staff and volunteers who share the mission of service to the church and to others.
What Armenian Church projects that you have been involved with mean the most to you?
I like to create connections where none existed before. At St. Leon, some other Women’s Guild members and I designed and implemented a reading and craft program for the children of the Hope Residence of Eva’s Village in Paterson, NJ, the city where St. Leon was originally incorporated. The children and mothers who live there would be homeless otherwise, and stay there until they get back on their feet. On a monthly basis, ACYOA and Women’s Guild members would visit the home, read to the children and do a craft with them while their mothers also had a group discussion led by one of our members. This was a meaningful way for St. Leon to reach out to a wider community and gave our ACYOA members a valuable experience.
I am gratified when non-Armenians are exposed to the Armenian Church. The “Migrations” sculpture, created on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, draws passersby to the St. Vartan Cathedral plaza and connects us to the community; so that was a meaningful involvement for me.
In Armenia, the renovation of a former Soviet recreation hall into a youth center under the aegis of Holy Etchmiadzin gives children the opportunity to learn a wide range of skills, encourages creative expression, and enhances their ability to compete and succeed as adults. I benefited from the Soviet system by studying free of charge for one year at Yerevan State University; this project completes that loop for me.
You also currently serve on the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) board. How important are the projects that FAR undertakes in Armenia?
FAR is a unique vehicle by which to give a hand up to the people of Armenia. I could have well been living in Yerevan had had my parents bought into my paternal grandparents’ notion to repatriate en masse to Armenia in Stalinist times. Each of FAR’s projects is worthy of support and I encourage everyone to learn more about their work. I am happy that I got involved with supporting a summer camp for disadvantaged and/or orphaned youth; the acculturation of new Syrian Armenian transplants, IT education in Gyumri. Being on the FAR Board of Directors now will help me deepen my connection and, I hope, add value to the work that is done.
What is your hope for the future of the Armenian Church?
My hope is that the Armenian Church in the diaspora and specifically in the Eastern Diocese can attract and retain members by staying relevant to life in the 21st century with all its distractions and challenges.
To quote a recent slogan: “we are stronger together;” so maintaining harmonious relations and understanding amongst Armenian Church centers, both diasporan and Armenian, is crucial.
The role of women in the Armenian Church is something I think about. While women in our Diocese hold leadership roles in parishes and on a Diocesan level, those who wish to have a pastoral role struggle to find that meaningful place in our church.
What would be your legacy from your service to the Armenian Church?
My legacy is fleeting. There have been titans before me and my contributions pale in comparison. If anything, I hope that I have both touched individuals and influenced ways of thinking that will benefit us as a community of people who want to do good in the world.
My children Allegra, Evan, and Olivia and my granddaughter Alanna — and not to leave out my son-in-law Michael — fill me with joy. They are great cheerleaders in all my endeavors and adventures as I am for them.
What message would you want members of the Armenian Church to take from your years of dedicated service?
I have a backyard bird feeder and enjoy watching the dynamics of the birds who flock there. There is most definitely a pecking order amongst birds. There should not be a pecking order amongst humans. How we treat one another on the most micro level — one to one — sets the tone for the way we treat people in our communities and in the world at large. Since we are all interconnected and equal in the eyes of God, we are meant to serve each other. As Armenian Christians, it is natural that we serve the church and nurture it to help others benefit from its message. But I encourage service of any kind, within the church or not. It is an expression of our highest selves to spread compassion, loving kindness, and sympathy.
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The 115th Diocesan Assembly, hosted by St. Hagop Church of Pinellas Park, FL, will take place May 4-7 at Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor, FL. The gala banquet will take place at Innisbrook Golf Resort on Friday, May 5. Visit the St. Hagop Church website (www.sthagopfl.org) for information regarding purchasing tickets for the gala banquet and registering for the 115th Diocesan Assembly, including hotel room reservations. The deadline to register for Diocesan Assembly is April 1.