Saturday, July 7, 2007

Conversation with Dean Shahinian

Originally published in the Armenian Reporter on June 9 and 16, 2007

Washington’s Dean Shahinian straddles Congress, community

In May 25 interview with Washington editor Emil Sanamyan, Shahinian discusses his days as Armenian “guerilla diplomat,” battling corporate corruption through Congress, the challenges facing the Armenian Church and story behind the DC’s largest annual Armenian event.


Reporter: Can you say that your (so far) 27 years in the federal government have been rewarding? Would you recommend this line of work?

Shahinian: All in all yes. I have opportunity to exercise responsibility. [In this line of work] one has opportunity to try to formulate the law in a way that is appropriate or right. In my area of securities and banking, this has to do with trying to make relevant laws more fair, more righteous as it were. And because Congress makes law and regulatory agencies make regulations, you have a role in doing that.

As an example, I was involving in drafting legislation that came out of what became known as the Enron scandals in the early part of this decade, the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002, named after then Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee Paul Sarbanes and Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee Mike Oxley.

We were faced with the scandal at Enron and other companies, massive dishonesty in certain segments of the professions: accountants, executives in public companies, stock analysts and also failure to perform duties by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), as well as state regulators.

We had a massive problem, the stock market fell, savings were lost. So, what do you do? The Banking Committee under Sen. Sarbanes held ten hearings, and I staffed majority of them. As a result, we wrote legislation, and I drafted several titles of what became known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Reporter: As you were holding hearings and drafting legislation, was there an effort by companies through their interest groups to influence the process?

Shahinian: When the news was coming out, eleven congressional committees held hearings. That’s what Congress does, when there is a problem that people are upset about and it’s on TV – members of Congress make speeches, hold hearings or introduce legislation. Some of the committees invited former Enron executives, who by and large refused to testify, pleading the Fifth Amendment.

Sen. Sarbanes, a very brilliant man, and we at the Banking Committee decided to look not just at Enron, but also to see if there are systemic problems. Our staff was experienced in these issues. So we set up ten hearings, inviting people from the industry, as well as academics, former government officials.

At that point the industry started to get very active trying to prevent legislation from being enacted. Formally, lobbying members, and they were successful by and large until the WorldCom scandal hit the news. Until then, when we would try to have, for example, accounting representatives look at our draft legislation and provide suggestions, we would hear back from their lobbyists: “We are not going to help you make this bill any better.” And that was foolish on their part.

Reporter: More broadly, Congress is involved in many, many issues, some of which are on TV, and many more others that are not. When you do have serious corporate or government opposition on a legislative initiative, what typically makes or breaks legislation?

Shahinian: It depends. Some legislation is relatively uncontroversial, that type of legislation goes through if there are enough people who want it. But what if there some people who want, and some people who don’t what it? What can actually be enacted?

In my experience, when there is strong opposition, it is very difficult to get legislation through. There is a negotiations process, when some provisions might be eliminated. In the Enron case, there were lot of companies who cooked their books, and there was still a lot of opposition.

There were enough dishonest people [opposing reform], even though there was combination of media heat, so many instances of fraud, plus financial pain individuals felt. So, you had six or seven months of scandal in the media until WorldCom hit [and that created a momentum for passage.]


Reporter: Someone who straddles both the federal government and community life, why would you say there are so few Armenian Americans in government?

Shahinian: I think Armenians don’t generally get into the government for two reasons. One, they assume that truth will win out and therefore they don’t expend special effort to bringing truth or their concerns to the eyes of politicians. By and large, they are not involved in that.

Second, Armenians tend to go for professions such as lawyers, doctors, teachers, or for business, and they don’t view political involvement with the same degree of prestige.

Having said that, I am a lawyer and I am where I am because of legal background and work experience as a lawyer.

Reporter: For many years, there has been an effort by organizations, particularly by the Assembly and ANCA to bring young Armenian Americans as interns to Washington. From what I can tell, not too many have returned to make their careers here. Have you thought of ways more young Armenians could be attracted and do you even think there is a need for that?

Shahinian: I think it is a worthwhile goal. People could come and have responsible positions. Having said that, to do responsible work in Congress, you do need a graduate degree.

I think the best way to find out why so few come back, would be to ask those former interns. I don’t know, it may have something to do with internships they had. Because, in some of the internships, from what I hear, they Xerox copy papers and run errands. Well, that’s not a stimulating job description for anyone.

To the extent possible, you need to identify people who would really work with a student. I have had interns through the offices I worked at and I gave them responsible work, helping staff hearings and doing research. Some of them ended up going into financial services. The intern I had last summer just got a job on the House Financial Services Committee.

Shahinian: Years ago, after the earthquake, I started a small foundation, called the Ararat Foundation. And over the years we have done a bunch of different things.

Before the Embassy was established [in Washington in 1992], arrogant as I am, if there were visiting heads of state at a venue that I could get into, I would arrange to meet them and give a book or something about Armenia.

Prime Minister of Iceland, a delegation from Romania. And I remember Romanians kind of spooked me, because after it was over they said let’s get together and have a meeting. That was just after the dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown.

Reporter: You have been active with the Armenian Church. Are you on the parish council?

Shahinian: No, but I am a Diocesan delegate, which means I represent my home parish, Washington’s St. Mary’s, the Church where I was baptized, at the Diocesan Assembly. I have also been elected by the Diocesan Assembly to serve on the Diocesan Council -- the board of directors -- of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in the U.S.

I have also been elected by the Diocesan Assembly to represent the Diocese as a member of the National Ecclesiastical Assembly – that’s the body that elects the Catholicos of All Armenians.

So I was a patgamavor or delegate in the 1995 and 1999 elections.

Reporter: What highlights do you recall from those elections?

Shahinian: In 1995, our pastor at St. Mary’s, Rev. Vertanes Kalayjian, shortly before the delegates were to leave for Armenia, gave a sermon where he said that here we are having a first National Ecclesiastical Assembly in forty years and we have no agenda.

Reporter: First in forty years because of passing of Catholicos Vazgen I? So the assemblies take place only when there is a need to elect a new Catholicos?

Shahinian: This is what has evolved. Well, I took Rev. Kalayjian’s words to heart. While the Diocese did not have an agenda, for me to go half way around the world, spend money to do it and take off from work, I should have some reason other than just to cast a ballot for a Catholicos – even though that is important.

So, I reflected on the potential of the Armenian Church and thought about what might make the Church better that could be addressed at this National Ecclesiastical Assembly. I read that this is the highest body in the Armenian Church, if they vote for something – that is it. In fact, they select the Catholicos.

I came with a four-part proposal which I offered in 1995 and again in 1999.

The first part was to allow married priests to be elected Primates [of Dioceses], because that would give us a larger pool of talent from which to select. If a married priest is chosen Primate, he may be more concerned with making the Diocese a better place for his kids. If you have a married priest with a wife who is caring for him, he might be better able to understand and help his clergy and laymen. And while an unmarried priest may be able to devote more time to his job, I don’t think there is anything that presumptively makes an unmarried priest a better Primate than a married priest.

Second, for married priests to be able to become consecrated bishops – this going back to ancient Armenian Practice and ancient Christian Practice. The great Patriarch Malachia Ormanian called for this a century ago.

Third, allow unmarried men to be ordained as priests without taking the vow of celibacy. And I think this is important, because to take a vow and say that “I am not going to get married” is presuming to know God’s will for the future. It may be that it is God’s will that a priest already ordained should get married, and we are precluding that. Marriage is a sacrament, why would we require someone vow not to take a sacrament in the church?

Finally, resume the practice of ordaining women as deaconesses.

Reporter: When was this last practice ended?

Shahinian: I understand there are still some women deaconessess [in the Armenian Church] in Turkey. And the doors to the Holy Etchmiadzin are dedicated to a deaconess.

Now in 1995 I presented this four-part proposal together with Rev. Dajad Davidian, who used to be the pastor in Watertown, Mass. and now serves in Armenia. It was presented to the Assembly after the election of the Catholicos. His Holiness Karekin I said: Oh that’s a very important proposal – too important to be discussed here; I am going to have another National Ecclesiastical Assembly in two years and we will discuss it and other issues then.

As it turns out, he did not call another Assembly and unfortunately passed away.

In 1999, I prepared the same proposal again and made 450 copies with background information translated into eastern Armenian, Russian, and English. My sense was that the overwhelming number of delegates could read at least one of those languages. The proposal was introduced and referred to something called the Proposals Committee, which I was informed was not actually in the [Church] charter at the time.

Reporter: Were there other proposals or was yours the only one?

Shahinian: Well, there may have been others, I do not recall. Archbishop Zaven Chinchinian told me it was given to the Proposals Committee chaired by the Patriarch [of Jerusalem] Torgom Manougian for potential discussion after the election at the Assembly. However, the election of the Catholicos coincided with the shootings in Parliament [on October 27, 1999], and when this occurred, the Assembly was stopped.

So, this proposal is still with the Proposals Committee.

Reporter: Was there any support for your proposals from other delegates?

Shahinian: There were several American and Canadian delegates who were supportive. Many Russian delegates said they were supportive, some said: some unmarried priests and bishops have wives and kids anyway, why not institutionalize it?

There would have been support.

Reporter: So, are you still technically a delegate to the Assembly, is there a term of some kind?

Shahinian: The term, to my knowledge, is just for one Assembly. In the U.S., there were special meetings of the Diocesan Assembly to elect the delegates for each NEA -- one representative for each 25,000 baptized Armenians living in the geographic jurisdiction of a diocese, based on a number stated by each diocese.

Reporter: And is that typically a competitive process?

Shahinian: In this diocese, there were three to four times the number of people who ran for the office than were elected. So it was competitive.

Reporter: How does it work with the process of the elections of the Catholicos?

Shahinian: Anyone can be elected Catholicos. But the Committee that organizes the election allowed each current bishop to be a nominee unless he asked that his name be taken off the ballot.

In 1995, after that process, there were eight clergymen whose names were left on the ballot. The next day, the delegates met inside the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin to vote. The protocol was to call each delegate by name. He or she would sign a book, take a ballot, walk to a table in front of the altar and cross out the names of all the nominees except the one he wanted to vote for, and dropped the ballot into a tall wooden box.

After everyone voted, the box was emptied and each vote was announced and the votes counted in plain view of the delegates.

In 1995, on the first ballot, Garegin Catholicos was first, Garegin Arkepiskopos second, and Barkev Episkopos – third and no one had the majority. The Assembly voted to leave the top three nominees for the second ballot. So, we went through the same process of voting and Garegin Catholicos had more votes, but still did not have a majority.

So at that, Garegin Arkepiskopos said: “I give my votes to Garegin Catholicos,” which puzzled many delegates. But before most people could figure out what happened, the bells were ringing to announce to those outside the cathedral that a new Catholicos had been elected.

In 1999, only two clergymen allowed their names to be placed on the ballot and the delegates elected His Holiness Karekin II.

Reporter: This sounds like a generally straightforward, democratic process. But how does the lobbying of delegates go before the vote?

Shahinian: Each time it was different. In 1995, there were policemen all over Holy Etchmiadzin, in their uniforms, controlling where people could go. One policeman came up to me, asking “Oh, who are you going to vote for?” I told him, “I don’t tell anyone.” I thought “He is trying to intimidate me?”

In 1999, I recall that some Primates had meetings with their delegates and made comments about things to consider in voting. At both Assemblies, some clergy and lay delegates lobbied others.

Reporter: In general, what is your sense of where the Armenian Church is today? What are its major issues?

Shahinian: I’ll speak about the issues in U.S., because that is what I know about. The major issue is whether the Church will be a social club for first generation Armenian Americans, or will it aspire to be a church that reaches the third generation and beyond. Right now, it is positioned primarily for the first generation.

If one looks at the statistics, you see for example that in the last 10 to 15 years the number of dues-paying members in the Eastern Diocese has gone down, and that is in a period when immigration has brought tens of thousands, if not more, of Armenians into the geographic area of the diocese. Sociologists – and those who attend -- have found that the third generation is virtually gone from our parishes.

That speaks of an institution that meets the needs of a very limited number of Armenian-Americans. Church leaders’ notion that Armenians are there to serve the church may play well at the seminaries but that is not an operative concept for most Americans. A church needs to serve the needs of individuals.

The Diocese a few years ago adopted a statement of intent that it is significant in the life of every Armenian living in its geographic jurisdiction. But many people do not take this statement seriously, because the church has generally not been effective in achieving this goal. Some have noted that less than two percent of Armenians living in the diocese area are parish members.

We have some outstanding clergy, who have made important contributions in many people’s lives. But too few. We have many laymen who are talented and of outstanding character, who donate tremendous amounts of time and resources to heroically serve through the church. They need to be given more authority and visibility.

But when the church leadership does not articulate a true vision or demonstrate an ability to meet people’s needs, people leave. They may go to other churches, embrace false religions or become atheists or agnostics.

We have some fine seminarians here and new priests. However, a concern is the diocese’s inability to attract more clergy from among us. Some impediments need to be removed.

I think that these are among the primary challenges facing the church in the U.S.

Pastoral work is a key part of a growing church. Armenian-Americans live in a society that presents a lot of stress and problems, and it would be good for our leaders to provide or delegate to laymen to effectively counsel and encourage.

America is a Western country, a verbal country. People who profess Christianity here are challenged to justify their beliefs, to explain how Christianity impacts on their work, on their family life. To be meaningful our clergy and lay leaders have to provide thoughtful answers how to relate Christ to everyday life. There are too many people in too many parishes saying this is not happening.

Another issue involves inspiring trust and confidence in the Church leadership. Over the years, there have been too many instances, for example, of the Diocesan Assembly voting to take an action which the Diocese leadership does not implement, or voting against an action which the Diocese leadership takes anyway.

Information provided to delegates about significant issues has at times been inaccurately communicated or has omitted important facts necessary to correctly understand the issue. Too many talented and successful laymen have left the Church in frustration because their good ideas or constructive criticisms were ignored or not seriously considered by leadership. Changing these types of behaviors would engage more people and improve the vitality of the church.

Reporter: Are these cross-denominational issues in U.S. or are the challenges you describe peculiar to the Armenian Church as a more conservative institution?

Shahinian: In every area there are churches that are dying, and there are churches that are growing. It is not the case that all Christian churches are losing people or are deemed irrelevant. Having said that, if the Armenian Church leadership cared more about its people in ways that meet their needs, we would have a lot of people coming in – it is not like the market is saturated.

And there are enough churches that are doing this, so many Armenians leave and go to those.

Reporter: The fastest growing churches are the new protestant churches, what do you think attracts people there?

Shahinian: Part of the attraction is sermons that reflect an understanding of current the American culture and specifically suggest ways to faithfully address life’s challenges as a Christian.

The sermons are well-prepared and easy to understand. They are not overly sentimentalized. People learn things that they can use in their everyday lives.
Another attraction is their contemporary music. Their songs often are easy to sing and remember, and teach the faith.

In the Armenian Church we have a beautiful service, but some people have mistaken the form and language for substance of the faith for. Seems to me if you want people in your parish to learn about God or worship Him, you want to do it in a way they can understand. And why not at least have a service in modern Armenian so that some people can understand, instead of classical Armenian, which virtually no layman understands.

Reporter: Do you think there is a general fear of change? Perhaps related to fears of a schism?

Shahinian: Well, I am not advocating any change in theology, which you have, for example, with Episcopalians. Our theology is great.

What I would like to see happen is to improve the clarity and effectiveness of how our theology and faith are communicated.

And we are fortunate to have a church theology that has remained faithful to God. We have many qualities, like hospitality and informality, and a rich cultural heritage of Christian faith, on which we can build. And we have the good will of many wonderful parishioners who are working hard to provide vision and leadership in order for the community to be faithful to God and helpful to each other. With God, we have great potential.

Reporter: Can you tell me about the Alexandria Festival, how it came about?
Shahinian: After the earthquake in December 1988, citizens in Alexandria wanted to help. The City Council formed a committee to see how they could help. There were architecture students who were brought over [from Armenia to study]; there was artwork from Gyumri that was exhibited in Washington.

And they thought how can we fund some sort of ongoing relief? And they said, Alexandria has ethnic festivals, let’s do an Armenian one in addition to an Italian, Irish and so forth!

So we had a festival with food which St. Mary’s and Surb Khach Churches helped prepare, live entertainment and tables with arts and crafts, and had it all in front of the City Hall in Alexandria during spring, so that people could come by and participate. And we did it for another year and now we are in the fifteenth year. The proceeds, fairly modest, have been used to help children in Armenia, including orphans, at risk youth.

In the process, we try to showcase the local Armenian talent to make people aware of the Armenian culture and let Armenians be proud of it.

Reporter: Would you say this is the biggest Armenian event in Washington area?
Shahinian: Parks and recreation officers tell us that several thousands come to the Festival. I personally don’t think so, but we do get one to three thousand. But in terms of number of people that still makes us the largest regular Armenian event in the area, when youth Olympics take place here – they are certainly larger.

Reporter: How did you yourself get involved? Since 1998, when I moved here, I can’t remember a Festival without you.

Shahinian: What happened was on a Saturday morning, it was in 1990 I think, I got a phone call from the Der Hayr, Rev. Vertanes who had a very bad cold and said that he was supposed to go and testify before the Alexandria City Council on why we need this [Alexandria-Gyumri Sister-City] Committee. So, I went and testified, and since then I have been a Committee member and involved with the Festival.

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