Have faith: New beginnings

From left, Charlotte Wright, Armen Hanjian, and Vicky Hanjian. - Stacey Rupolo

The Reverends Vicky and Armen Hanjian began visiting the Island in the mid-1960s, eventually building a log home on about a half-acre of land in Oak Bluffs, a parcel that set them back approximately $2,400. The Hanjians moved to Martha’s Vineyard full-time roughly 24 years ago, and they’ve served or graced the pulpit at just about every Protestant church on the Island at one time or another. Their latest assignment is as interim pastors at the Chilmark Community Church until a replacement is found. That assignment ends in July, roughly two years after it began, with the assignment of the church’s latest pastor, the Rev. Charlotte Wright. We chatted a couple of weeks ago about the couple’s most recent transition, another foray into “retirement” as they end their service as interim pastors of the Chilmark Community Church.

The previous pastor was in the ordination process when he served in Chilmark, and left to go to another church in a full-time capacity. Chilmark Community Church is rural, with a small congregation, and is unlikely to support more than a part-time pastor. The first pastor arrived in the late 1700s, and was followed by many more, none of whom served more than a few years, with the exception of pastor emeritus the Rev. Arlene Bodge.

Finding the right fit for the small community church isn’t easy. But what might look like obstacles to finding a more permanent pastor may be part of what makes the congregation so special to the Hanjians.

Vicky said that one of the last pieces of advice she received from a beloved professor when she graduated from seminary was to “just love the socks off them,” referring to the way to enter into a relationship with a congregation.

“This was so easy to do in our relationship with the congregation of the Chilmark Community Church,” Vicky said. “They are a very special faith community. The downside of loving a congregation that much is, of course, that eventually there will be a time of parting, and this means a time of loss and a time of grieving. This characterizes every transition in life to some degree. It affects the congregation, and it affects us as well as we begin to absorb what it will mean for our own lives as we move on.”

Armen said they’ve known the Chilmark congregation for years, beginning when they first moved to the Island and the church’s then pastor, the Rev. Arlene Bodge, was the first female minister on the Island.

Part of the appeal is that the church functions very practically, the Hanjians explained, with lay leaders taking care of whatever needs to be done.

“The way the church functions is that if something needs to be done, it gets done without a lot of drama,” Vicky said. “I’ve loved that way of functioning; they do a lot of the work themselves.”

Armen said he appreciates the fact that he and Vicky served the church together.

“There’s only been a few times in our ministry through the years that we’ve served the same congregation together,” he said. “The simplicity of the service … the building and its sanctuary invite inner reflection, self-initiation of openness in thought, so the past two years have been the best worship service we’ve given, and that we’ve experienced.”

Vicky said that the Chilmark Community Church has a very strong sense of identity as a community church.

“It’s open all the time,” she said. “People stop in, play the piano, meditate, pray.”

I asked the Hanjians what lies ahead for them, and Vicky said, “Charlotte takes over on July 1, and I can’t tell you past that.”

She did say that the Christian tradition of understanding death and resurrection means that while a great loss is happening, it doesn’t mean that the relationship dies.

“It just takes on another form. The loving continues,” she said.

For the Rev. Charlotte Wright, the opportunity to serve in Chilmark came through a series of serendipitous events. She and her husband Don decided to downsize from their home in Connecticut, and take some time off to travel and discern what might be next. Charlotte had spent 20 years as a United Church of Christ minister, specializing in the transition at congregations as they said goodbye to one pastor and began the process of finding another. They decided to rent a house in Oak Bluffs for the off-season and get to know the Island community better, since they had traveled to the Vineyard in summer since they first got married.

Last November, Charlotte said, she decided to go to a Neighborhood Convention luncheon at the Hebrew Center, and that’s where she met Vicky and Armen.

“I chatted with Vicky a bit about not having a congregation,” Charlotte Wright said. The Hanjians invited her to lunch, along with the Rev. Cathlin Baker from the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. “This whole Chilmark thing started buzzing around in my head,” the Rev. Wright said.

She has a master’s of divinity from Andover Newton Seminary and a doctorate in ministry from Hartford Seminary. (She was ordained a UCC [Congregational] minister, but her credentials carry over to the Methodist church in Chilmark.)

She eventually made her way to the Chilmark Community Church. Charlotte said the congregation is “spiritually mature,” and that it thinks of “the wider good.”

Her intention was to take a break from leading a congregation until she met the Hanjians and the congregation at the Chilmark Community Church. Check out the church’s schedule of events at chilmarkchurch.org.

“It became an easy decision when I met the Chilmark folks,” she said. “It was serendipitous to meet them early on, and to be welcomed by them.”

Now, she said, she’s not serving as an interim pastor; she’s here to stay for however long the journey allows. She and her family will move into the parsonage in late June, and she’s prepared for that July 1 date when she will indeed become pastor of the Chilmark Community Church.

“It feels like the right place and the right time for me and for them,” she said.

Worship service and Sunday school at the Chilmark Community Church begin at 9 am; otherwise, stop by to soak in the sanctuary anytime.