LOS ANGELES, Calif.- The needs of Father David Bedrossian’s parish are unique.
While many priests grapple with budgetary concerns and a desire to fill pews, Bedrossian is wondering where he’s going to find the resources to house the next Syrian refugee who shows up on the church steps.
Bedrossian’s parish, Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Armenian Catholic Church, has a long history of sheltering displaced persons. From the Armenian refugees escaping genocide and communism through the 1900s to the present-day Christian Syrian refugees, the parish has been a sanctuary for a generation of persecuted persons.
Each month, Syrian refugees show up at the church with their last penny to meet the man everyone calls “Abouna,” (Arabic for father) Bedrossian. He is their job coach, landlord, translator, teacher and priest. And to many, Bedrossian is their last hope.
Seventeen years ago, Bedrossian had to flee Syria, leaving his home, his brothers and sisters and his parishioners. Since leaving, six of his family members were killed and his beloved church was ransacked.
“I remember our church. They destroyed everything,” Bedrossian said. “They got rid of the crosses, the altars and turned it into ISIS headquarters with offices.”
He now lovingly tends to the wounds of his Syrian family in Los Angeles by making Our Lady Queen of Martyrs a true refuge, an elegant respite, a church resurrected far from home.
A labor of love
There is not a corner of the church that doesn’t have Bedrossian’s devoted and loving hand scrawled all over it. With few resources, he has imbued the church with all the ethnic charm and sacred beauty a few dollars and calloused hands can muster. The candles and sconces he bought from Ross’ Dress for Less. The crosses in the sacristy he bought from Hobby Lobby. The pews and roof of the church were artfully refurbished and hand-painted by Bedrossian himself.
But the tireless devotion he shows to his physical church is just a shadow of the attention he offers to each and every person in need that crosses his path: Muslim, and Christian, citizen or non, destitute or rich, he is “abouna” to all.
“I have no idea how they find me,” Bedrossian said. “I don’t find them, people send them to me. They show up here looking for help and I help them.”
A disappearing generation
In the last 10 years, the Christian community in Syria has gone from 10 percent of the population to less than 2 percent. Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes or kidnapped and held at ransom. Those who stayed were given three options — convert to Islam, pay the minority tax or face death. Thousands of Christians have been killed, entire villages have been cleared and hundreds of churches have been damaged or destroyed.
“We will disappear in the Middle East,” Bedrossian explains. “Before the war started, Christians were over 1.3 million. Now there are 200,000. You think we’ll survive there? I don’t think so.” And in spite of the terror in his home, Bedrossian sees little to no acknowledgment here.
“Everybody who is silent is ISIS. Everybody who is silent is killing Christians. Nobody is raising a voice.”
Bedrossian says the five main obstacles for refugees are language, paperwork, unemployment, housing and transportation.
“How are they supposed to get a job when they only speak Arabic? They have no papers, no social security number. Are they going to pay their last penny to a lawyer to help them with papers they don’t understand? And without welfare, food stamps, how will they eat? People come here with enough to survive for three months. After that they will be homeless. What do you want these people to do?”
One refugee at a time
The number of refugees and the needs are insurmountable, but Bedrossian does what he can one person at a time. Last month, he picked up a Syrian refugee from a homeless shelter and found her temporary housing and meals. He checks in on her daily and is job-hunting for her and many others.
Vaskin Rashdouni, a friend from his hometown, came to the U.S. a few months ago after being kidnapped by ISIS and escaping. Finding work has been near impossible with the language barrier and his health issues. Ever since leaving Syria he has been suffering PTSD and type 1 diabetes. But this doesn’t stop Bedrossian from searching.
And Syrian soldier Yousef Hakim Hassake, one of Bedrossian’s former altar servers in Syria, is slowly rebuilding a life in the U.S. He has learned English and has found work in a manufacturing company. He has made enough money to take care of his mother. Any spare time he offers to Bedrossian and the church in gratitude, doing everything from cleaning and making meals to feeding doves in the garden.
Bedrossian explains, “If you choose to help these people, they will never stop repaying you. They will give you everything they have.”
Despite immeasurable obstacles for refugees, and unknown futures, there is no silencing the gnawing realization that being a refugee in the U.S. makes you one of the “lucky ones.”
Bedrossian continues to hear word from his family and friends in the Middle East — the escape of his sister to Greece on broken legs, his nephew killed by ISIS, his friend beheaded in a CNN video — these are the things that haunt him.
“I want to go and fight and protect them,” he says. But it seems God has other plans. There is a fight to be fought here.
Doing what you can
The burdens Bedrossian bears seem insurmountable: the livelihood of a forgotten nation, the survival of the persecuted in a new nation. Each morning brings the promise of a new refugee at his office door. A new family who needs food and housing. Another man suffering PTSD. Another woman from the homeless shelter. Each morning promises more news reports tallying the lives of his former parishioners like numbers and not lives he shepherded.
But it does no good to focus on that, he explains.
“We must do what we can. It’s the little things that will help a lot.” And he doesn’t work alone.
Strength lies in numbers
He and his parishioners work together. There’s a rolodex of parishioner lawyers he calls upon to help with legal issues. Parishioners “adopt” families financially, or house them until they get on their feet. Collection baskets continually finance a refugee’s month of rent, or a babysitter, or a week’s groceries. Volunteers offer English classes in a tiny classroom off the rectory.
Bedrossian has inspired this ragtag grassroots ministry in a way only a priest who stubbornly paints his own church can.
“You teach by doing. If you work they will come to help,” he said.
This parish is unique in their shared history of persecution. Their community has consistently grappled with questions of survival and the worth of one’s faith. Their strength lies in uniting a community of broken people, in selfless charity when it hurts, and a rigorous love for Christ that was worth leaving home for.
For the priest, this is everything. “I am tired. Very tired. Never tired of praying, only tired of thinking. What gets me out of bed each morning is my belief in God. It’s what keeps me alive. And even if I stop believing in him, he won’t stop believing in me.”
In a church named for the thousands of Christians who lost their lives protecting the belief in Christ they held so sacredly, the gift of faith is all too known. And he will continue to wake up, and fight for that gift, and protect his people. It will just be in a little adobe church off of Cesar Chavez Avenue in L.A. It will be in the “little things.”
This article originally appeared in Angelus News, publication of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.