Fr. Daja Davidian

How a priest helped shape a lawyer and mediator. Remembering the pastor of my youth.

Michael Zeytoonian Perspectives

When people think about what goes into the training of a lawyer and a mediator, the contribution of one’s pastor is probably not on the list of ingredients. There’s law school, there’s training and direction from veteran lawyers, reading laws, cases, court decisions and continuing legal education, all shaping the legal mind.

But the people our lives cross paths with shape the kind of lawyer we are, help crystalize the “why” we do what we do and the way we do it. The people we interact with shape the kind of person that is inside the lawyer’s suit. I probably would not have become a lawyer if not for the influence of my parish priest during my teen and college years, and certainly would not have been the kind of lawyer and conflict resolution advocate I am today. As I remember the pastor of my youth this week that he passed away, the memories of how profoundly he influenced me – along with thousands of others he touched – are worth sharing here, and connecting it to the way I see my chosen profession’s highest calling – serving others in need of counsel and advocacy.

Fr. Dajad Davidian, who passed away this week, was my priest in Watertown, MA at the St. James Armenian Church at a critical time in my life, from age 15 through graduate school. Later, in my adulthood, he was my friend and mentor. After he “retired” as pastor at St. James in 1999 after 30 years of service, he served people’s needs as a priest by going to Armenia every year for months at a time, leading youth groups, counseling young people, leading Bible study and prayer groups in Armenia, and just doing what he did best – being there, in the moment, for people – up until the last week of his life. I am proud and feel blessed to be able to call him “my pastor”.

Fr. Dajad, born in Worcester (1934) was one of the first American-born priests to serve in the Armenian Church. Among his gifts were the ability to relate to everyone, from the smallest child to those in their last years, and everyone in between. He was a rare man who could balance being a brilliant mind – well-read and conversant on any subject – with his person who could humbly sit down with any person or group and just be there as one of us, and also counsel us when we sought out his good counsel. Most people – clergy, parishioners and people that knew him – agreed that Fr. Dajad was the gold standard for what a pastor in an ethnic, traditional Christian Church in America should be like. In fifty years, I have not heard a better preacher in the entire Orthodox Church, and I have not seen a better pastor in my lifetime.

One great quality he modeled for us was always being centered and grounded, totally comfortable with who he was, never needing to put on any airs about who he wasn’t, and able to relate to and respect all types of people. To his last days, he lived life on his own terms, always serving others. Those of us that were lucky enough to pick this quality up from him know its value in any chosen profession – for me as a mediator or lawyer. He was someone who was perfectly at ease being one of the guys hanging out talking about the Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots, what the editorial page writers and columnists had to say in the morning’s Boston Globe, quoting a high level economist or theologian, and offering his opinion that Congressman Barney Frank was right about some political issue. The beauty of this was that he could do it in the same conversation, shifting gears seamlessly, and keep everyone engaged! Who does that?

Picture this scene: I can easily imagine my pastor causally sitting down at a coffee house, pub or a picnic table, joining an ongoing conversation with (then House Speaker) Tip O’Neill, (columnist) Mike Barnacle, (psychologist) Amos Tversky, (songwriters) Dave Matthews and Alanis Morissette, (writers) Bill Reilly and William Saroyan and (sportswriters) Frank Deford and Karen Guregian, along with a couple of guys that happen to be sitting at the bar, all at the same time!  The human glue and junction of the group would have been Fr. Dajad, who could easily connect with each of them.  That would have been a conversation for the ages!

My pastor was a man who could listen with empathy and give you his support and love, and also subtly challenge your thinking, get you to improve yourself and move you out of your comfort zone – especially when it came to discussing any number of issues. During Lent each year, he would gather the teenagers in the church chancel one evening a week, sit on the floor and have these “Lenten Dialogues” in which we discussed all kinds of life issues, and in which he offered us teachings from Scripture that were right on point, insights from a variety of other sources and challenged us to do better and drill deeper (before drill deeper was a concept). If you mentioned a story that moved you from Profiles in Courage about Sen. Edmund G, Ross, he would nudge you up a notch to read The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington.

If you commented on something you related to in his Sunday sermon, he would connect it to Scripture (or sports) and throw in something he recently read by theologian Paul Tillich. He could easily connect the dots from the simple yet profound teachings of Jesus to St. Augustine to a writing of an obscure Armenian Church father to “why is all that relevant or important to 17 year old me today, here?” Then, he would segue that to a political article he read that week in The Wall Street Journal or The New Republic magazine, and in the next sentence, tell me that I should have driven to the hoop more and taken less jump shots in the past weekend’s church league basketball game. “You know your drive is a stronger skill than your streaky outside shooting,” he would comment. (He was right.)

My pastor didn’t just meet people or know who they were; he listened to us deeply and got to know our lives well. He listened to what you were saying but also heard what you weren’t saying. He gave every person, no matter what one’s station in life, the same level of attention and care. And because of that, because he knew us all well and loved us all fully, he could give us a true friend’s comfort as well as a wise man’s advice. It might have been tough advice to hear sometimes, but we always knew that as much as it came from his mind and life experience and was worth thinking about and applying, it also came from a place of love, and always from his heart. His was the model for how to listen to a client, or parties in mediation!

His teachings, advice on life, modeling a life of serving others and his just being there for people were as much a factor for me to go to Boston College (also because a priest like him, Fr. Robert Drinan, dean of the law school and later a Congressman at the time, was there), as to later go to seminary, to serve the community, later in life to pursue being a lawyer (at the age of 33), and then think about how to better serve others as a lawyer (at the age of 55). The thousands of people he touched, the families we raised, the friendships we engaged in fully, the involvements in our respective faith communities, and the professions through which we have worked to serve others have all benefited from a once in a lifetime gift and blessing: The presence in our lives of this one man, our pastor and friend, Fr. Dajad – back then, now and always.

Photo credit: Winslow Martin