A Lenten Letter
Harutyan was born in Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey, to an Armenian Orthodox family. His great uncle was an Armenian Protestant pastor in the Diyarbakir region. Harutyan went by the name of Orhan, being of the age when ethnic minorities were not always comfortable using their ethnic names. Orhan’s family moved to Istanbul after he finished middle school, in the 1960’s. Though he never went on to high school, Orhan was to educate himself in a variety of areas, including business. He opened a shop in Baglarbasi, experimenting with a wide variety of product lines. In addition, he established a “Spor Loto” center, selling sports’ lottery tickets.
He eventually settled on shoes and sports’ wear. He opened a second shop and viewed his business as a service to the Baglarbasi community. Like many shopkeepers in Turkey, he maintained long hours. He was a community man, extending great flexibility in payment to people with limited resources. It is not uncommon for these types of shopkeepers to say, “Bring me the money when you can.” Orhan was that type of shopkeeper. He would listen to people talk about their day or share their joys or sorrows of life. Some would just come and sit in his shop for the company.
(Baglarbasi is a community in Uskudar / Istanbul where I live and work. Our school was founded in Baglarbasi, due to the high number of Armenian Christians living here at the time. Many Armenians still live in Baglarbasi today with several churches, schools and a cemetery belonging to the Armenian community.)
On January 17 Orhan died due to an allergenic reaction to penicillin. His death was a great shock to the Baglarbasi community, as it was to his wife and two adult children. I spent a great deal of time with this family over the years and have watched Orhan and Agavni’s children grow up to be well-educated professionals. Orhan’s funeral was held in the Surp Hac Armenian Orthodox Church in Baglarbasi. With the attendance of a multitude of people, a traffic jam occurred. There was standing room only in this very large church. As Agavni described to me, when the funeral hearse was transporting his body from the church to the Baglarbasi Armenian Orthodox cemetery, people who were not at the funeral came to the street and applauded as the hearse passed by. This action in Turkey is a sign of extreme high respect and affection. Other people stepped into the busy confluence of roads and stopped the traffic, to allow the hearse to pass. This outpouring of love and respect from the entire Baglarbasi community, from Christian and Muslim alike, was a definitive testimony to Orhan’s life. Agavni was extremely moved by these gestures.
The family had a special celebration of Orhan on February 26th, which marked the end of a period of 40 days after his death. In many religious traditions, the 40th day after the death of a loved one marks the end of a period of mourning.
The number 40 is symbolic in our religious tradition and represents a period of time when something of great significance has occurred. In the times of Noah, it rained 40 days and 40 nights causing the great flood. When the Israelites departed from Egypt they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus fasted in the wilderness after his baptism, preparing for his ministry. Lent lasts for 40 days as we prepare ourselves to commemorate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus prepared himself for his ministry by focusing on his relationship with God. As much as Satan tried to distract him, Jesus focused his heart on God. Many saints have theorized on what happens to the soul after death. Does the soul linger in the realm of the living, in an attempt to comfort those who sorrow? Does the soul linger as it attempts to adjust to its new state? Or does the soul immediately move on to what lies ahead for all of us? I personally believe a part of those we have loved will always reside within our hearts, comforting or talking with us, making us more whole and more full. I believe the same of Jesus as I am guided, supported and comforted in my journey through life. Lent affords us the special opportunity to put aside some of the busyness of life and to focus ourselves on the bigger picture.
During this time I also remember the Rev Bob Sandman who passed away in January. Bob and Olgha Sandman gave themselves fully to helping to establish a ministry in the 1990’s here in Istanbul with refugees, the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program. This ministry continues today, surviving on donations and on the energy of a few paid employees and many volunteers.
We pray this period of Lent, which began February 22nd, will be significant as we once again embark on our journey with Jesus accompanied by that cloud of saints who have touched our lives.
Selam / Shalom / Peace
Alison Stendahl serves with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey. She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.