By Emily Harrison Weir
The question most often asked of new Dean of Religious Life Andrea Ayvazian isn't about spirituality or her legendary social activism. "Do you drink a lot of coffee?" people inquire when in her ebullient presence. But Ayvazian's extraordinary energy and enthusiasm are natural, not caffeine-induced.
"I'm out of step with my age cohort," admits the forty-seven-year-old United Church of Christ minister. "I'm emotional and full of praise, get very sad, hug people, and cry in the pulpit. In an academic community, people are socialized to be much cooler and more careful than I am."
Careful is a word not often applied to Ayvazian, who's made half a dozen career changes, earned five academic degrees, and climbed the highest mountain in North America while also a front-line activist in progressive causes for the last twenty-five years. Ayvazian has been a war-tax resister since 1982 (in return, the IRS is a "regular visitor" to her bank account), and spent weeks in jail for peaceful antinuclear protests. And Ayvazian has devoted the past dozen years to antiracism work. She believes the charge is clear "to make our beliefs and our behaviors congruent."
To her, this has meant evolving as an activist-theologian. "My ministry seeks to create a nonhierarchical, loving, bold community that works together to transform the world."Theology and activism come together at such events as Northampton's annual gay and lesbian pride parade. Amid a sea of bystanders in T-shirts and shorts applauding the marchers, Ayvazian stood out like a beacon in her clerical collar.
"I have a specific understanding of myself as a progressive, feminist Christian, and of the social gospel that I try to live,"she explains. "These have been honed over time by study, reflection, divinity school, life experience, and prayer. I want students to know that idealism is not a phase one goes through, but a viable way of life. We are all invited to take part in the mending of creation. However, this is my course; it is not necessarily the blueprint for anyone else." Ayvazian does not lead with the foot of her progressive politics when talking to others. "Although very important to me, that's not what people need to hear from me first, or maybe ever," she says.
"I preach a pretty radical social gospel, yet it doesn't seem to alienate students who are far more conservative," Ayvazian says. "I think that's because they feel that I honor and respect them in a way that transcends the specifics of theology and politics. "Unless asked a direct question about her views, Ayvazian listens rather than talks.
When she applied for the deanship last spring, Ayvazian was well known from her two years as MHC's Protestant chaplain. During that time, she diversified what's been called the most segregated hour in American society—Sunday from11 am to noon. Under Ayvazian's leadership, the Protestant worship services became what a UCC colleague called "the most multiethnic congregation in New England."
One goal as dean is to bring that sort of diversity and inclusion to all services and programs sponsored by Eliot House. "I envision Eliot House as the keeper of the flame—preserving the College's historic commitment to social justice," she says. "Religious pluralism on campus is extensive, and it's a treasure. We need to emphasize both ecumenical and interfaith approaches so we can be in greater dialogue. We need to hear from theorists and practitioners of various faiths about what gives meaning to each tradition, and we need to be unafraid of our differences."
Speaking on a more theological level, Ayvazian notes, "My path to God is not of any greater or lesser value than other paths. I believe that salvation is open to all, not just to Protestants. In every faith, people struggle to be in right relationship with that which they experience as the divine."
Ayvazian feels the divine daily when she prays, visualizing Jesus as a brother at her side. And on the summit of Mount McKinley, she felt God's presence so powerfully she was brought to her knees in tears. Spirituality is one powerful restorative in her busy life; family is the other. "The right wing has tried to monopolize the use of 'family values,' but I too am a walking example of the importance of faith and family." Ayvazian's life partner Michael Klare, their ten-year-old son Sasha, and her family of origin "are a constant source of daily renewal."
Ayvazian felt drawn to religious life early, yet doubted for years that it was a true "call." As a young person, Ayvazian thought she couldn't be a minister since she was nothing like her grandfather, a Congregational minister and leader in New York's Armenian-American community. As an adult, Ayvazian became a Quaker, a denomination in which most congregations have no ordained clergy.
Yet the signs were clear. Ayvazian's interest in spirituality was so intense that she took a stack of religious books on vacations. It was while reading during a 1994 trip to Prince Edward Island that Ayvazian was struck by an overwhelming sense of God's presence. "I knew then, without any doubt or question, that I was called to the ministry," she recalls. Ayvazian focused her studies at Yale Divinity School on liberation theology and feminist theology, and was ordained this December.
Before seeking the ministry, Ayvazian poured herself into careers as a labor and delivery nurse, mountaineering instructor, elementary school teacher, folk singer, antiracism consultant, and college professor in both psychology and biology. "Fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have told you that high-altitude mountaineering and nursing had anything in common, but now I see that all the different experiences I've had are meaningful in my new position," Ayvazian says. "The pain I witnessed at the bedside as a nurse, the exhilaration I felt on the summit of Mount McKinley, the tenderness I felt as a teacher … they all have relevance now. These experiences chiseled my soul and made me an empathetic and humble pastor."
Photo by Suejong Shin