Ayvazian will leave Haydenville church for role as climate-change activist

  • Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, who is retiring as senior pastor at Haydenville Congregational Church, stands in her office at the church, Friday. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Saturday, November 26, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Plans by the Bush administration to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in spring 2001 led the Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian to Washington, D.C., where she and others were arrested after blocking the doors to the U.S. Department of Energy building.

As a cofounder of Religious Witness for the Earth, Ayvazian has long called for halting the emission of greenhouse gases and stopping global warming, including undertaking an Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue in 2007, when 1,000 people arrived in Boston after trekking across the state.

Confronting what she continues to see as a critical issue that is compromising the well-being of the planet is leading her to become a volunteer interfaith fellow for climate justice at the Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue, 253 Prospect St., in Northampton, starting Jan. 1.

“My feeling is we’re living in a time of crisis, and we’re called to respond with all the gifts, talents and strengths at this time of crisis,” Ayvazian said in an interview Friday.

“I feel very deeply called to interfaith work and climate work,” Ayvazian added. “I want to do climate-change work embedded in a community, and to be accountable to a community.”

The decision to pursue this new endeavor means that Ayvazian, 65, will retire from the Haydenville Congregational Church, where she has served as senior pastor since 2005, after the Jan. 1 service.

She helped revive a congregation that was down to 13 active members, and has helped to turn it into a progressive church that is alive and thriving, “wildly welcoming,” as she puts it, and draws congregants and visitors from throughout the region. Around 130 people attend the weekly Sunday services and 250 people are on the church roll.

“It has made a huge, huge comeback,” Ayvazian said. “It’s important for me to say this is the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Interfaith initiative

Last spring, Ayvazian met at the Haymarket Cafe with Rabbi Justin David, telling him that after praying she had the idea of pursuing an interfaith initiative aimed at combating climate change with people already active around the issue.

In July, she drafted her proposal, submitting it to the rabbi. This proposal included affiliating with the wider community on climate change, bringing back ideas from meetings and events in the Pioneer Valley and throughout New England that could involve the synagogue, organizing workshops and activities, raising awareness of the dangers of global warming and working with Abundance Farm, the organic Jewish food justice farm and outdoor classroom.

That proposal was accepted by the synagogue.

“It’s an unprecedented opportunity for the interfaith community and for us as a synagogue,” David said. “It’s imperative that communities of worship take a moral stand on one of the most important moral issues for us and the next generation.

“Over the years we have engaged in actions to raise consciousness,” David said, pointing to Abundance Farm that raises food for the Northampton Survival Center.

Upon approval of her concept by the synagogue, Ayvazian notified her congregation, in letters sent during August, of her intent to retire. “I have served you with my whole heart,” she wrote.

Once the new year arrives, Ayvazian said she will be listening to what is already being done at the synagogue for climate justice and related matters, such as food security,

“They are already far along on this issue,” she said. “I’m hoping to be involved in work in churches, synagogues and mosques. We will find ways to raise awareness in faith communities.”

“I’m going to bring more activity on their part and bring them back news regarding climate change,” Ayvazian added.

David said he believes her role will help galvanize the community.

“The beauty of it is the opportunity for Andrea to figure out what to do for the short term as she and we develop a vision for the long term,” David said. “We’re providing her a home base to figure out the kind of activism that will be best for all of us.”

Church resurrection

Coming to Haydenville after serving a decade as the dean of religious life at Mount Holyoke College, where three faith communities blossomed into nine, Ayvazian discovered a church in need of resurrection. “I will always say I truly felt called,” Ayvazian said.

She found a church building with dilapidated front steps and paint specks falling from the ceiling that would shower people with dust during services.

The church was closed for two months as Ayvazian led a an effort of scraping and painting walls, removing wallpaper, vacuuming carpets and making the bathroom wheelchair accessible, before securing donations to install scaffolding to paint the roof.

When reopened, the church had 40 congregants. “The original 13 thought we’d become the mega-church of western Massachusetts,” Ayvazian said.

Two years later, on All Saints Day, the 13 original members became saints of the church, given appreciation for keeping it alive.

One of those saints is Diane Scott of Florence, who was baptized at the Haydenville Congregational Church. Scott said Ayvazian immediately brought energy, comparing her to a gust of wind that blew open the doors and windows.

“As a child, church was very active. It was nice for me to go in again and see the church full again,” Scott said.

The number attending weekly services has grown tenfold, Sunday school has 40 children and there is an active choir. The church, which identifies Jesus as a radical leader and has interactive worship services, is a transgender ally — including holding renaming ceremonies for transgendered individuals in which Ayvazian will call out their names. The church also is gay-affirming, LGBT-friendly and anti-racist.

“A truly progressive church is one that people who have been hurt by organized religion are welcome here,” Ayvazian said.

The congregation chants at the beginning of each service: “Whoever you are, wherever you are in life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”

Alice Barber, chairwoman of the church’s trustees, in an email praised Ayvazian as an exemplary leader.

“The strength of our community is a tribute to her strength and wisdom as a leader,” Barber said. “We have all learned so much from her and will miss her, but, because of her, we know how to keep on pushing for change that is right and fair in our world.”

“I’m leaving partly because I really felt called to do what I’ve done, resurrecting a faith community,” Ayvazian said. “I have every confidence they’ll be fine.”

The Rev. Chris Mereschuk will serve as the acting pastor. “That helps me leave with great confidence and joy,” Ayvazian said.

Scott said Ayvazian’s departure will pose challenges, but faith will guide the way. “If we’re truly meant to be, we’ll stay on, no matter who’s in the pulpit,” Scott said.

Ayvazian said she will continue with the “work, words and witness that create positive change” in her new project. “People of faith have a long tradition of witnessing. People of faith have a special call to respond,” Ayavazian said. “I’m looking at this as a calling, not a job or a task.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.