Article by Ann-Margret Hovsepian  |  Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 Issue of live magazine
Precariously perched on the steep and slippery bank of the “Jordan” (our nickname for the river in Spitak, Armenia), I carefully helped one person out of the cold, swift current before the next one stepped in. A few of us who crowded the bushy and muddy slope stretched our hands out to guide 16 men and women in and out of the river during a baptismal service I will likely never forget.

It was Friday, August 23, 2013 and the midway point of my first mission trip to Armenia. This was my father’s fourth trip and his third baptismal service there. He and Arayik, the missionary our church supports in Armenia, have taken to calling this strip of water—in a somewhat secret location because of the potential for persecution—their Jordan River. It takes hours to get there, especially when you need to pick up dozens of people from various villages along the way, driving over winding mountain roads, and the baptismal service takes up an entire day (we were gone from our hotel for 13 hours). But oh—what a joyous celebration a baptismal service is in Armenia!

I’ve been attending a CBOQ church since I was about a week old so in the past 41 years I’ve witnessed many baptismal services. This was nothing like them. Not that there isn’t joy here in Canada when people are baptized, but the element of celebration can sometimes be muted or even lacking. In Spitak, I saw a large group of believers connecting and having fellowship with people they had never met before (a few different church groups were represented), worshipping, having communion, eating and, most of all, rejoicing together. For many of them, difficult circumstances had been overcome to reach this place in their lives.

I don’t know the story of each person who entered the “Jordan” that day but I can’t stop thinking about a mother and daughter who were both baptized—the mother by Arayik and the daughter by my dad. Their spiritual journey was not an easy one. Their past was dark and loveless and they desperately needed a Saviour. Thanks to the persistence of another Christian leader we partner with in Yerevan, who knocked on their door about a year ago during one of his visits to their town, these women had the opportunity to hear the Gospel and about the love of Jesus. Eventually, turning their lives over to Him, they were transformed. Just days before they were to be baptized, my father and I sat in their home, heard the story and saw the tears of joy. My heart still dances when I remember these dear sisters . . . my new sisters.

Before we approached the river that hot and sunny day, we all gathered under a large tree for my dad to briefly exhort those who were going to be baptized. There was also an opportunity for these men and women, ranging in age from 17 to 70-something, to share testimonies. It was moving to hear Arayik’s brother-in-law emphatically giving glory to God for the changes in his life and declaring his commitment to follow Christ for the rest of his life. The mother I mentioned earlier also praised God for rescuing her and turning her life around.

My father and Arayik baptized eight people each, in tandem. This was not simple or easy. The best spot we could find along the narrow river was a tiny opening in the trees where people could barely line up single-file. Young and old had to carefully step over branches and rocks, while the rest of us held their hands, to enter the water. After the first few people were baptized, that little patch of soil became slick with mud, making it even more difficult for those who followed.

Afterward, once everyone was changed and dry, we shared communion—standing up around the one small available table—and those who had been baptized were presented with a certificate, a New Testament and a small gold cross pin.

Moments later, the delightful aroma of barbecue began to drift toward those of us who were mingling, sharing hugs and taking photos. It was time for the khorovatz (picnic) before the long journey home. This was not the potato salad-sandwiches-and-carrot sticks picnic I’ve grown used to. This was huge pieces of pork and chicken cooked over an open fire, along with lavash (flat bread) and various vegetables and fruit (most of it from people’s gardens). The food was generously shared (in Armenia, you get used to having a full plate put into your hands) and the fellowship was spirited. With no benches or picnic tables, we all sat on the ground . . .but no one complained. They were too busy marvelling over the day’s events and the miracles God had performed in so many of their lives.

It’s now easy for me to imagine the first Christians and how they celebrated together: No fancy buildings, no high-tech equipment, no scripted speeches. Just honest and humble expressions of joy and thanksgiving, with Christ at the centre. More please!

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