Name: James Tufenkian
Hometown: New York City
Occupation: Founder and Chairman of Tufenkian Foundation; entrepreneur; businessman.
Heroes: Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the many doctors, nurses, priests and nuns who act as first responders in times of crisis.
Relation to Sojourners: Major Donor
I Sojourn Because: My life and my faith would be meaningless if I didn’t.
I spoke with James Tufenkian, founder of Tufenkian Foundation which serves to promote social, economic, cultural and environment justice in Armenia as it recovers from its genocide. I asked him about his connection with Sojourners, and how his work and faith intersect.
Ariana Denardo (AD): How did you get connected with Sojourners, and why did you decide to become a donor?
James Tufenkian (JT): My brother, a retired pastor, and I were having a series of conversations about the involvement of the church in social issues. He mentioned Sojourners, so I visited the website, read the magazine, and got interested. I found Sojourners to be the best, maybe the only organization I know of that works on social justice as Christians living out Christ’s example. It was natural for me to want to support that in different ways, one of them being as a donor.
AD: You‘ve self-described as a “born-again Armenian.” Tell me more about that.
JT: I was raised in California by my parents, first-generation Armenians who had moved on to assimilating as “pure Americans.” Growing up I didn’t know anything about Armenian history, other than through food and relatives. But one day just before graduation I ran into a book about the Armenian genocide in my college library. When I read about it I was shocked, horrified, and my sense of justice was hugely offended. I learned that genocide is the actions to try to make a race of people disappear, and that I myself was disappearing.
There is the red genocide, and the white genocide. The red genocide is when blood is being shed, and they don’t usually manage to eliminate every single person. The survivors must determine whether they will make the race disappear further [as a part of the white genocide] or whether they will somehow assert that they are alive and recovering. I wanted to choose that path, to become Armenian, and be a part of the recovery and rebirth.
AD: How did learning about the genocide affect your work and where you turned both in terms of your business and non-profit?
JT: Armenia’s independence in 1991 presented challenges for developing as a nation but also opportunities for those of us who were survivors to go back and help rebuild it. I had been looking for what Christ wanted me to do for the world in service of him, and it became clear than an obvious calling was to go to Armenia and participate in this rebirth. One of the big things that died during the fall of the Soviet rule was Christianity, so returning as a Christian presented opportunities to work on the social front, business front, and spiritual front. I returned in 1993 and got started manufacturing carpets, which led me to building hotels in the countryside, which then led me to starting a bunch of nonprofit activities.
AD: How has your work shaped your faith?
JT: Becoming a part of a really great community of believers, friends and associates in the Armenian Apostolic Church who are also working there trying to seek the same things as me has been a tremendous blessing for my Christian journey. Beyond that, it is very challenging to be there. When you are working hard in a stressful environment against lots of opposition, it really forces you to draw nearer to God and to seek guidance and go deeper in your faith.
AD: Which injustices in Armenia most offend your sense of justice today?
JT: The unequal application of law. Almost everyone is in constant fear of the law, except the very rich. On the one hand, when a very poor farmer is trying to bring his produce to market on the day it’s harvested and is pulled over by the police, he receives a punitive fine that just about ruins him. Whereas, when the son of a wealthy oligarch driving an expensive car gets drunk and runs over a pedestrian, he basically buys his way out of responsibility. That system is horrendous.
What’s worse is that I return to America and find that it’s really no different here. If you’re a poor black kid living in the wrong neighborhood it’s really hard for you to live through your teen years without getting arrested for something. Whereas if a wealthy banker is found criminally guilty of price fixing and choosing their clients in foreign currency transactions, some small fine placed on the company and no individual is held accountable. It is doubly offensive to me that what I see in Armenia and find so terrible is really no different in America.
AD: What gives you the most hope?
JT: There are masses of Christians in the U.S. who are hyper absorbed on one or two issues, and not yet on board with the bigger picture of justice. I’m super hopeful that if they ever get mobilized, together we can be a strong force.