Aren's Gift

Aren Sarkisian has had more than his share of obstacles to overcome. Born in Iran, Aren (pronounced “Are-in”) came to the United States at 13 years old and enrolled in school unable to speak a word of English. Eight years later, a horrific attack left Aren with a traumatic brain injury that permanently impeded his speech, cognition and ability to do things most take for granted, like drive and live independently.

But Aren, now 32 years old, doesn’t see these difficulties as obstacles at all. Nor does he use them as excuses. He considers them gifts. And he uses those gifts to share the love of Jesus with his “beautiful friends” in Burbank, California’s Young Life Capernaum ministry.

“I wouldn’t change anything about my story. I am thankful,” he said. “God knew what He was doing. He changed my life. Satan was trying to hurt me, but God came and said, ‘I have a better plan for your life.’”

“Something Needed to Change”

Without the ability to speak English, Aren was already at a disadvantage when he came to the United States in 2001. Feeling like he didn’t fit in, he started hanging out with the wrong crowd at school. He also found a church where he made friends, but he was still making poor choices.

“I was living a double life — going to parties on Saturday and church on Sunday,” he said. “I knew something needed to change.”

On his 21st birthday, Aren decided to invite his church friends to his party instead of the gang members that he’d gotten to know. The next day, the gang broke into his home and viciously attacked him, stabbing him in the head and back, missing his heart by one inch. He spent eight months in the hospital and months after that in therapy re-learning how to walk and speak.

“After I got out,” Aren said, “nobody wanted to be my friend or hang out with me.”

He enrolled in the FACTS program in Glendale, California — a transitional program that offers community college courses, vocational and life skills training, and the opportunity to interact with peers. Aren connected with friends who invited him to a birthday party.

There, he met Austin and Amy Nielsen who had just started Greater Pasadena Capernaum. Aren remembers the Nielsens inviting him to club the next week.

“I thought club was pretty cool because they were Christians and having fun too,” Aren said. “I thought that’s how being a Christian was meant to be.

“I became friends with Austin and Amy. They kept reaching out to me, and I started hanging out with Austin more and more. I went to camp with them at Lost Canyon. And that’s where I turned everything over to God. I told Him, if you want me, I’m all yours.”

Aren was so impacted by the forgiveness he experienced, he knew he needed to forgive too. His attacker was in prison several miles from where he lived, so he asked friends to drive him there. Aren said he made the drive 39 times before he got the courage to go in. On his 40th visit, he sat face-to-face with his attacker, forgave him and presented the gospel.

“It was a beautiful moment,” Aren recalled. “I started crying. I knew what the Bible said about forgiveness. I told him, ‘Jesus forgave me, so I forgive you.’”

Confident, Yet Humble

For Aren, the next step was serving others. He wanted to be a Young Life leader. He resisted volunteering with Capernaum at first, but “God worked in my heart. He told me, ‘Everything I put you through helps you understand what they are going through.’”

He’s been a Young Life Capernaum leader now for six years.

“We go to places nobody else goes,” Aren said. “We tell them Jesus said they don’t have to be perfect. They feel all alone in school, sometimes even at home. When Young Life comes in, we become their friend. We say we are here for you. That’s what I love about Young Life.”

Austin said he’s seen God work in Aren’s life and watched him grow tremendously over the years.

“Aren has grown from a shy, timid teenager to a confident, yet humble leader,” Austin said. “Aren exhibits a genuine love of Jesus, a servant’s heart and a boldness in sharing his faith. He has grown from not really having a voice, relying solely on his family, to becoming a young man who has a voice that he’s not afraid to use.

“Aren is bold in sharing his faith, giving club talks, doing contact work and serving as a leader at camp and also on summer staff.”

Hayley O’Reilly has served the last three years on Capernaum mission staff in Burbank alongside Aren. She said, “Aren’s heart is aligned with the Lord’s.” A blessing not only to their Capernaum friends but to the leadership team as well.

“It’s incredible to see the way Aren views his disability,” Hayley said. “He’ll tell you he’s thankful for it, and that he understands the kids better because of it. Often he can pick up on what the kids are feeling and is tuned in better with what they need than any of us. Capernaum wouldn’t be the same without him.”

Jesus Does It All

Aren is one of a growing number of leaders with special needs who has served on assignment at a Young Life camp. Austin said it was a challenge to work through the logistics, but it ended up being an amazing experience for everyone.

“I remember hearing from his summer staff coordinator that Aren was the glue of that team, so encouraging, positive and always a hard worker,” Austin said. “Aren is a living example of Romans 12, all the parts of the body of Christ working together as a whole. Without people like Aren in the body of Christ or in Young Life, we are incomplete.”

Aren said he is grateful for every relationship and experience God has given him in this ministry. He knows God is working through him to build friendships and show those friends the love of Jesus.

“I have two beautiful friends,” Aren said. “They were so shy at first and didn’t want to open up to me. Now they have really warmed up and opened up and become my closest friends. Jesus did that. He does everything.

“I believe I can do anything because God says whatever you ask in my name I will give you. Whatever I need, I ask God to do it for me. I know Jesus leads through me.”

Aren said his dream is to be on Young Life staff. Austin believes Aren’s perspective as a person with special needs makes him uniquely qualified to bring others into the arms of Christ.

“I believe the future of ministry for Aren is bright,” Austin said. “As more people are given the opportunity to see people like Aren in leadership positions, the better Young Life and the church will be.

“I believe there is more to be done to make the path smoother to get our Capernaum friends into positions of leadership. It hasn’t been easy and there have been obstacles along the way, but we’ll continue to fight to see it become normal. We need more Arens in positions of leadership! We need communities to rally around our Capernaum friends because God has uniquely gifted them for such a time as this.”