hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

April 12, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: Blessed are the church babies

Tom Vartabedian

Let us bow our heads and offer a simple but casual prayer to our future generation.

"Blessed be the babies who exercise their lungs each Sunday in our churches, whether Christian or otherwise. While we're at it, may God comfort the ears of those who stand and pray within proximity."

There seems to be a lot of talk — err wailing — these days from people who think babies are a nuisance in church and disrupt the service. Might you recall that once upon a time, you were in their booties and perhaps crying in the pews yourself.

Would it be better to have these parents remain home with their children and not attend worship service at all? Or pay a sitter?

I've heard it said that babies are angels whose wings grow shorter as their legs grow longer. Let these little cherubs surround us all and give our churches hope for the future.

Ironic as this might appear, there are three Armenian Apostolic churches in Merrimack Valley within a 20-mile radius. All have young pastors with very young children. So young, in fact, that if eyes are drifting from the altar to admire the beauty of such children before us, God might understand.

In North Andover, the parish hired a new pastor just over a year ago. He brought with him a new wife from Syria. The two welcomed a daughter to the family and seldom does she miss a Mass, right there in the front pew while her father conducts the service.

When her dad chants a hymn or delivers a sermon, the infant takes notice. Her arms reach forward and out comes a cacophony of sounds. But more often than not, this child is content to simply look, listen and become mesmerized by the surroundings and attention she might receive from other pew-dwellers.

The priest wouldn't have it any other way, being the dutiful patriarch that he is. Seeing his daughter before him is stimulating, he says. Even the sermons tend to be more spirited, knowing she's there taking in the monologue.

A baby in church is a breath of fresh air. It denotes a healthy presence, a vitality that promotes new life. Often, it becomes an infusion. Out of it comes a potential activist, maybe a deacon, trustee member, or your next priest. It all starts from a genesis.

I recall a former pastor of my church who had the patience of Job with boisterous children in his flock. An infant seemed to be overly vocal on this particular day, causing the mother to scramble from her seat and hightail it out the door.

"Madam," he said. "Please don't be so hasty in leaving the church with your daughter. She has every right to cry. I'm enamored by such sounds in God's house. It's music to my ears. Let her cry. Some day they will be tears of happiness."

This priest had a standing rule in his church: Bring on the babies and let them develop accordingly. Removing them is not an option.

The Armenian Church in Haverhill also has a relatively new pastor with a daughter whose eyes are as big as plums. I learned from others that she's a show-stealer when she makes her grand entrance in church every Sunday.

No doubt the new pastor is also mesmerized by his daughter's presence in the front pew as she takes her baby steps in the Armenian Church.

In Chelmsford, the priest has served as pastor for four years. A 5-year-old daughter was literally raised inside the church. I got to talk to him about the experience.

"I enjoy the best of both worlds — that of a proud father and a proud priest," he told me. "I've seen her as a baby and now she's in Sunday school. The early years were precious indeed. Each generation cultivates its own beauty."

The priest recalled seeing his daughter in a porta-crib while his wife was singing in the choir. The music impacted the child to the point where she was swinging her arms in cadence to the music.

"It was as if the child was conducting the choir," he smiled. "It's so uplifting to hear the voices of children in my congregation. Several biblical scriptures acknowledge that presence."

What can be more demoralizing than a church void of a younger generation that should be ready to take command? Or a sanctuary without the precious sound of an infant?

The nicest thing about being a baby in church is that everything you do is wonderful — even an outcry! These are moments that are meant to be packaged and preserved forever.

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.