As English-speaking Peace Corps volunteers, David and I periodically receive requests to help others who are trying to learn English or simply want to practice conversing with an English speaker. David currently tutors a high school student preparing for an entrance test into university. In one of the texts they were reading yesterday, the words Bible and religion were present. Although she could read the words, the student did not understand them—a common finding with persons learning a foreign language. After a bit of translation into the Armenian language, she understood “religion” but had no concept of the Bible. With further conversation, David found that the high school student had never attended church and truly did not know anything about the Bible. He was amazed, since Armenia is a country that adopted Christianity as their state religion in 301 A.D. As we discussed this, we remembered that for over 70 years during Soviet Union times, Armenian people were not allowed to practice their religion and were, indeed, severely punished if found with Bibles or other signs of religious involvement. Many people in this young woman’s age group, and even older generations, were not brought up with religion as a regular part of their lives. In fact, no actual church exists in our town. Because of her educational level and ability to read, Dave’s student knew of Shakespeare and other famous writers but had not heard of the Bible.
The same day we discussed this, I was riding the autobus home and sat near two young women who persisted in staring at me. Although this behavior is common, these young women were smiling and whispering as they looked at me. I was talking with the person next to me so they could hear that English was spoken, mixed with Hayeren. One of the women then brought out a small book and handed it to me without saying a word. The text, in English, began with asking me to read it. The message was one about belief in God, revelations and the mission of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. It offered to provide me with a Bible and other religious literature in English. I read the text and handed the book back to the woman. I found that the two women were visiting Dilijan to discuss their religious beliefs. They soon exited the autobus, which left me wondering where they were headed in an unfamiliar town that is not overly warm toward strangers.
Both of these occurrences in our new country touch on religion. This synchronicity of events is unsettling. What does it mean? Is it just by accident that David mentioned his encounter with the student who did not know about the Bible, then I encountered women charged with sharing their religion? Also, in the back of my mind is the fact that yesterday, we experienced our first earthquake. Though its epicenter was in Azerbaijan, a neighboring country, this mild shaking of the earth was definitely felt in Armenia and was disturbing to everyone. Apparently this area frequently sustains small but usually undetected tremors. Yesterday was different because we briefly evacuated our school, and some people also felt tremors last evening.
Through the training and planning of our Peace Corps safety and security program, we are as prepared for a natural emergency as possible with evacuation plans in place and Go Bags of essential items ready. But there is no way to be totally prepared for every type of emergency event. Does religion now come into play and faith become more a part of our life? We knew of the risks associated with living in Armenia when we agreed to serve here with the Peace Corps. Without attaching a religious connotation to that decision, there was a measure of faith involved. We came with the idea that if forced to endure a disaster, we would be able to handle it. This is the same faith that knows flowers will bloom each spring even after a harsh, frigid winter. David and I will continue our Peace Corps service and no doubt meet others with and without religious affiliation. We will continue to live our lives as prepared as possible and deal with the future as it comes, no matter where we are.