By Joe Snell | August 2022 | Photos contributed
The first Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) youth conference was held in Chicago in 1985 and consisted of about 80 people, according to Qasha Gewargis, a priest of the church and president of the National Executive Committee for the church’s youth groups.
Thirty-seven years later, as the event returned to Chicago after nearly a decade absence, that number swelled to a record-setting 650 participants.
“After COVID, people are yearning to meet new people and for their lives to be interactive once more,” said Peter Azzo, 22, a member of the conference planning committee who has participated in every conference since 2013. “But also as a youth, we’re becoming more organized and I think it’s having an impact at the parish level.”
The five-day event, held in Chicago from June 30-July 5, drew attendees from California, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Texas and Canada and included lectures on growing closer to Christ, self-evaluation workshops and a meeting with the newly-elected patriarch.
1985: The beginnings of youth conference
Before 1985, communication between North American ACOE parishes was limited to a handful of yearly meetings, according to Sargon Sarkis, who was president at the time of the Mar Gewargis youth group in Chicago.
The youth conference was developed by the church’s late patriarch Mar Dinkha and led by Sarkis, Gewargis and a handful of Chicago youth leaders in an effort to connect young people across parishes. The first event was held at the Mar Gewargis church and included an outdoor picnic, evenings parties and meetings on how to support parish projects.
“We sent letters to other youth groups to participate,” Sarkis said, and confirmed that enthusiastic responses were received from others parishes in Chicago, New York, California, Detroit and Canada.
The conference has since been held annually. Attendance has steadily grown as the host city started alternating and with the establishment of a National Executive Committee.
But Gewargis said the conference mission has remained the same: bring young people to Christ and bring them into their Assyrian identity through learning the language, culture, reading and writing and promoting the Assyrian entity as a whole.
Conference returns to the Windy City
Chicago was slated to host conference in 2020, but the global coronavirus pandemic sidelined those plans.
Development, however, continued around the conference theme: “Be Rooted,” after John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
The theme is in the vein of “a plant or a tree being rooted,” Gewargis told the Journal. One lecture discussed how the holy scriptures help one become rooted into the church and into Christ. Another was on self evaluation and preparedness in understanding your personal relationship with the Lord.
Attendance at scheduled events was mandatory as each participant had to join five lectures and prayer services.
Due to the large turnout, lectures were divided between two age groups: 21-years-old and older, and those 20-years-old and younger. A separate hotel was booked across the street as new lecture rooms had to be reserved.
Attendees also explored the city, taking in boat tours and on the final day, visiting the Six Flags theme park.
The newly elected patriarch of the church, Mar Awa Royel, who was on a US tour before returning to Iraq this month, handed out medals and took photos with each participant.
“[The patriarch] being with us showed another standing of our patriarch with our youth, especially in the diaspora,” Azzo said.
Royel was elected in September as the church’s new patriarch. He is the first American-born leader of the church and only the ninth new patriarch since 1780. He moved last year from California to Iraq to head the patriarchal seat. Construction on the new patriarchy headquarters is scheduled to finish by next month.
Growing North American youth presence
The National Executive Committee is an arm of the church that oversees the country’s parish-level youth groups. It’s made up of a president, vice president and three representatives from each of the church’s three US dioceses (Eastern US, California and Western/Southern US).
Canada returned to this year’s conference after over a decade absence. About 40 youth attended from the country. Gewargis confirmed that representatives from the Canada diocese will soon be added to the National Executive Committee and they are discussing for the country to host the conference as early as 2025.
Conference attendance is not open to everyone. Participants must be active members of their youth parish, having attended at least 50% of their bible study classes and church services.
“Our goal is to strengthen and educate our youth, not just bring them once a year to a vacation,” Gewargis said. “We didn’t want them to join the youth conference and then forget about it the rest of the year. It’s like a reward for them to go to church, to go to their bible study programs and attend Assyrian bible classes. Otherwise it would be in vain if we just gathered once a year to have fun.”
The requirement has made increasing participation even more impressive. Last year’s conference in Los Angeles drew 450 participants, a record at the time. This year’s event raised that record by another 200 attendees.
Local parishes are typically notified two years prior to their hosting of conference. Next year’s event will take place in California and 2024 will move to Arizona. There are also discussions to host an international youth conference next August in Erbil, Iraq.
“Throughout my experiences at this conference, one thing that has solidified in me is that as a unit, we work better,” Azzo said. “Those five days at the conference you feel more connected to your faith, to your brothers and sisters in Christ, and also as Assyrians you see that if we work all together, our days look brighter and our future is much more clear.”