Our first Woman of the Week of this new Church year is Christine Altinis-Kiraz. Christine was nominated for the role she played in founding the Suryoyto Women's Committee, which provides daylong retreats for women, to support them in expanding their roles in their church communities, in the service of Christ, and help them impart a strong Christian ethic to future generations. We asked her to tell you about herself.
"I am a Syriac Orthodox Christian who daylights as a chemistry professor, a publisher (at Gorgias Press, an academic press dedicated to publishing in minority fields with many titles on Eastern Christianity), a mother of three, and the chair of the Suryoyto Women’s Committee, and a Sunday School teacher who was born and raised in Istanbul and then immigrated to the US when I was 15.
"I have always considered it a blessing to have been born into the Syriac Orthodox Church and the rich spiritual heritage that was imparted to me by my parents. From Empress Theodora, who championed Oriental Orthodoxy and was instrumental in appointing Jacob Baradeus as bishop of Edessa, to St. Aphraim who defied the cultural norms and established an ascetic community made up of women and men at Bnoth Kyome (Daughters of the Covenant) and built the women's choirs, to the history of women deacons who ministered to their faithful, I’ve felt the blessing of being part of this rich heritage where women always had special roles to play. Learning from their examples, I have tried to impart the wisdom of the church fathers and lessons from our history to empower women and children in our communities. A big part of who I am today has been shaped in the role I have been serving as the chair of the Suryoyto Women’s Committee and Sunday School teacher at St. Mark’s Cathedral Sunday School.
"The fellowship that I’ve found by being a member of the various organizations in our church continually keeps me grounded in my faith and has been a foundation of strength through these difficult times as the world faces the Covid-19 pandemic and the social justice issues that still plague our societies at large."
Christine Altinis-Kiraz, our Woman of the Week, was nominated for her work with the Suryoyto Women's Committee. You see her here at the first ever daylong retreat held by that group. We asked her to tell you more about her journey:
"In 1998, I married Deacon George Kiraz and together we have three children. I love teaching pre-K and Kindergarten classes for St Mark’s Sunday School. I always try to integrate church history, liturgical tradition, and Syriac hymns and prayers into my teaching.
"In 2012, then-bishop H.E. Mor Kyrillos Aphrem Karim, along with our priest, Fr. Asmar, wanted to form a committee to honor Syriac Orthodox Women. After several meetings, rather than honoring the women, the committee decided instead to host a yearly conference that we would call “Suryoyto Women’s Day,” where we pick a theme, invite a keynote speaker, and have active discussions with ladies about what we learned from the keynote speech. The event would be open only to women, though clergy would be invited to give the opening blessing. We would design each event to engage, educate, and empower women around Syriac culture, heritage, language, and spirituality.
"The challenging aspect of organizing these events was that we needed to cater to the diverse linguistic heritage and educational backgrounds of the women in our community. We had to take into account that they spoke Turkish, Arabic, Syriac, and/or English. Their educational backgrounds varied from no formal education to post-secondary degrees in fields like engineering, health care, and STEM. The committee decided, 'Our mission is to invigorate the role of Suryoyto Women in our churches, encourage them to expand their roles in our communities, help impart Suryoyutho and Christian ethics to future generations, thereby expanding our contributions as women beyond traditional roles.'
"Since 2012, we have been holding this yearly event and have gone on to organize women’s retreats with the blessing of our former bishop, who has since been consecrated as the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. We hold Women’s Day events that host attendees from all walks of life. While the keynote speech is always delivered in English by a female scholar or professional, we still have first-generation immigrants who come to the event even when their knowledge of English is weak. I have been humbled by the sisterhood that has emerged from these occasions.
"Upon appointment of the new bishop H.E. Mor Dionysius John Kawak, a new archdiocesan executive council was appointed, and I was asked to be the vice president while a fellow committee member was asked to become the treasurer. H.E. Mor Dionysius wanted to ensure that women were put in positions of impact. Our committee was therefore able to engage successfully with the church leaders to create social spaces for women where their role expanded from hosting church parties/picnics to serving in executive governing boards within our diocese. Our group is made up of very strong-minded and educated women. We may not always agree with one another, but what I’ve learned is that when we women band together and come to a consensus, we are able to help not only women in the community but also their families."
Christine Altinis-Kiraz is our Woman of the Week. You see her here, pre-COVID, demonstrating the effect of catalysis to a classroom. We asked her about her daily rountine:
"Every morning, I start my day with a prayer of thanks upon waking up. As our home, nestled in Piscataway, New Jersey, is very close to the Rutgers University campus where I work, I start the day with an hour's walk, making sure that I stop and give thanks to all the beauty that I see in our lovely garden state. Pre-Covid-19 lockdown in New Jersey, my weekly routine would be waking up and getting ready, trying to get the kids ready, making sure there would be enough time for everyone to eat healthy. Then I would have headed into the office, dealing with any issues my students would have, making sure that I had all the resources ready for my daily teaching. I would also deal unfortunately with the departmental politics, where women always have to figure out a productive way to engage their colleagues. During the day, I used to check in with the kids via text to ensure that all was well with them. Following many committee meetings, I used to often make the hour-long drive to attend various church functions or events. When finally the day would be over, prior to going to sleep, I would make sure to take the time to count all my blessings (no matter how stressful the day was) and thank our Lord for them.
Once, the pandemic hit and the lockdown happened, I changed my routine and started incorporating more walks interspersed throughout my day. I try make sure that our family spends time together by doing a nightly reading hour. Now, whenever I go on walks, I always make a point of looking up at the blue and clear sky and not always down on my various devices. Rather than focus on the many issues that stress all women, I try to find in each day a blessing, whether it’s a supporting fellow colleague, a warm embrace from my family, or the beautiful birds that are now coming out to greet us. I look for something to always be thankful for. My heart and my prayers are with all who suffered losses due to Covid-19 or those who have encountered social, racial, and gender discrimination. I have also found that though difficult, with patience, understanding and hope, we are stronger together, my family, my orthodox church that has survived genocide, and my community, and that is what keeps me going daily."
Thank you, Christine!