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Colorado Springs pastor born in Syria: Know each other's story and you'll never have an enemy

January 30, 2017 Updated: January 31, 2017 at 1:59 pm
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Nayiri Karjian is the interim pastor at the First Congregational Church in downtown Colorado Springs. Karjian grew up in Syria and came to the United States in 1982 from her war-torn country. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

On the topic of fear, two things come to the mind of Nayiri Karjian.

One: A dog, like the one that chased her on the streets of Aleppo when she was 3.

And two: The thought of being in some deserted place in the middle of nowhere.

"I think probably that's a war response," she said, referring to her formative years in Syria and pockets of the Middle East where bombs dropped and sniper fire flew.

Otherwise, fear does not settle with Karjian, the interim pastor at Colorado Springs' First Congregational Church. She does not let her concern elevate to that level, even as her concern heightens for the United States, her home of 35 years. On Monday, she considered herself "heartbroken" and "overwhelmed" by President Donald Trump's executive order that barred entry into the country for immigrants and refugees of Syria, where the Armenian Karjian was born.

On Monday, Karjian was thinking of her grandmother, who in 1915 fled Turkey's ethnic cleansing of her village in Armenia and marched with her people through the woods before arriving in Syria. "What if she had nowhere to be?" Karjian asked, what if she had been like the many over the weekend who found themselves stranded at airports?

"I do not generally get afraid," Karjian said while discussing the president's directive. "More than anything, I get disappointed in human beings and our narrow-mindedness, and our inability to be compassionate.

"It's very disappointing," she continued, "that any president of any country would concentrate on differences, or see part of the world as the enemy. That really is heartbreaking to me."

She was taught hope growing up, one of four children to an Armenian Protestant pastor. She experienced her first war as a toddler in 1967, when the family lit a candle at night as Aleppo went totally dark, hoping to be hidden from Israeli bombers. Karjian went to college in Beirut, and her family moved there with her as Lebanon's civil war raged. Outside their seventh-floor parsonage, bullets whizzed by. They'd seek shelter below, where they could feel the rumble of explosives. One day, a friend from the family's church was shot by the militants whom he accused of stealing his car.

"Where I was brought up, we didn't expect that everything was fair. We knew life wasn't fair," Karjian said. "I think that makes accepting what life is easier. Otherwise, you'd struggle with life constantly. You'd constantly chase after fairness, which doesn't exist."

War, as she put it, "just happened." It was a fact of life, like the diversity she grew up around. In Aleppo, along the streets now torn apart by long strife, she'd pass Orthodox churches of various ethnicities. She went to school with religious classes for fellow Christians and for Muslims.

"You know that diversity is a fact of life, and I think it helps growing up like that," she said. "You know there's so much difference in the world, but you realize also that everybody is the same."

In 1982, the fighting in Beirut intensified. In the middle of a three-day ceasefire, she fled with two bags of clothes, $300 and hope that her student visa had arrived at an Aleppo church where she had ordered it to be delivered. It got there the day before she did. She arrived in the U.S. a week later, bound for seminary in Pennsylvania at age 23. (The rest of the family arrived to the country over the next 20 years.)

As part of a course, she and classmates embedded themselves in an "urban experience," staying in a beleaguered part of Philadelphia. An instructor was shocked by Karjian's request to explore the city alone. "Aren't you afraid?" the instructor asked. Karjian was most happy to wander.

Which explains why she enjoys her role as an interim pastor through the United Church of Christ. Karjian has served congregations in seven states since being ordained in 1985 - achieving something women back in the Middle East cannot. She's been in Colorado Springs since September, and she could be here through the fall as the First Congregational Church searches for its next permanent leader.

"People are getting a lot out of her," said Lee Lehmkuhl, a longtime member and council moderator at the church, with a predominantly white congregation of 720. "Her perspective on scripture and her perspective on current times, we were ready for that. We needed that."

At other churches along the way, Karjian has felt less welcome. Sadly, she knows, that is natural.

"A transitional pastor is meant to be a transforming presence, an agent of change and renewal, which isn't so easy for some congregations," she said.

Wherever she goes, she always encourages congregation members to share their stories.

"The way I encourage that is by telling my own. To get to know each other, you have to know each other's story," she said. "Actually, you'll never have an enemy if you hear stories."

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Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332

Twitter: @SethBoster­­

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