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Living Faith
Tested Faith
Heritage or Choice
Service and its Rewards
Armenian Christianity and the World
Armenian Christianity and Survival

Old Georgian Woman

I work as an associate producer in New York City. Last January, while working on the production of the documentary, "The Armenians: A Story of Survival" for Public Television, I was in Tbilisi, Georgia. The once prosperous and vibrant Armenian community in Tbilisi is suffering badly. Their money has run out, and there are no jobs. It's very sad.

One day, we visited St. Kevork, the main Armenian monastery in the city, to shoot some footage. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived. Outside, it was freezing cold. Inside the church, it wasn't much warmer. We were filming as the lady who cleaned the floors and the lady who sold the candles were preparing to close the church for the night. Then an old woman who looked like someone we would call a bag lady walked in. She looked like a typical Armenian grandmother, except that her face was black and blue. She wore a jacket tied closed with a piece of rope.

Our churches in that part of the world don't generally have pews. This church had two. She headed straight for the closest pew, saying, "This is where I'm going to sleep tonight." I watched as the two ladies who worked in the church exchanged glances. It was obvious that they knew this woman as someone who came in once in a while. "You can't stay here," they told her. "You'll freeze. Besides we are closing up. Don't you have somewhere to go?"

"No. No. I'm going to sleep here tonight. No worries. No worries." The old woman waved them away as she sat down on the pew. Then she pulled a frozen soggy piece of bread out of a plastic bag she had hidden under her coat. She looked up at me, held out the bread, and said in perfect Armenian, "There is a little heater over there. Put this on the heater. We will eat some bread." As she held the bread towards me, I noticed her hands were frozen in a crumbled, wrinkled way.

I was speechless. Here was this old woman, on the verge of starving, who was inviting me to share her bread. The ladies quickly filled the silence by telling me that she had no home or family as far as they knew and that her mind was not completely there.

"Grandma," I said finally. "What happened to you? Your face is covered with bruises."

"Oh, I get dizzy. I fall on my face. It happens often," she said in a lighthearted way, as if it was no big deal. I was so blown away that I turned to the church ladies and told them I wanted to give her some money. They said that she did not understand the concept of a $20 bill and would lose it or someone on the street would say it's worth a bottle of water. They would sell her the water and take the money. That's what she would get out of a gift of money.

I knew they were right, but I desperately wanted to do something for this Georgian-born and -raised Armenian grandmother who spoke beautiful Armenian. My heart was breaking. Finally it occurred to me that since we were in church we could light a candle together. She agreed and got up from the bench. Taking little inch steps, we made it to the candle stand and together we lit a candle. Then she pushed me out of her way. Honestly, I was a bit offended. I thought, What is she doing now? I was practically in tears I was so emotional.

I stood back and watched her shuffle towards the altar. She went around the little wood railing that separated the rest of the church from the altar. Underneath the altar in traditional Armenian churches is a khatchar, a cross, which faces the church. I watched as this old woman who routinely passed out, falling flat on her face, got down on her knees, made the sign of the cross, said a prayer, and kissed the cross under the altar. She had so much trouble standing back up I had to help her to her feet. "Okay," she said. "Now I need somewhere to sleep."

I was amazed. I couldn't understand why it had been so important to her to live out every single aspect of what she felt she was expected to do when she lit a candle. Not just light a candle and say a prayer, but go to the altar, get on her knees, and kiss the cross.

My boss, who was not Armenian, was standing in the background, saying, "Oh, this is incredible footage." But then he heard me crying. For the first time during the trip I broke down completely. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to hold her. I wanted to take her home with me. How could any human being suffer as much as this grandma was suffering? And yet, what had she done? She had gotten on her knees and thanked God for her life. I pulled my gloves and scarf out my backpack and gave them to her. She thanked me and blessed me as if I were a blood relative.

That Georgian-Armenian grandma amazed me with her faith and with her ability to survive. Her religion, her culture, and her language had survived through the years both good and bad.

Shant Petrossian, New York, New York


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