The Little Diamond
Living a life of service—anywhere and anytime
By Chantal J. Klingbeil
It’s the stuff dreams are made of. Just imagine being at the right place at the right time, having the ability to do something that no one else can do and doing it well! We all wish for that defining moment in which we will know exactly what we were born for. The Bible record is full of people, uniquely placed in history, who knew that they had “come into the kingdom for such a time as this”—Esther, Daniel, Joseph, Paul, the list goes on. In a world of mediocrity, wouldn’t it be wonderful to find that unique something that only you can do? Wouldn’t you like to be a champion?
So what do God’s champions look like? God’s champions are not all famous. More often they are quietly going about their business. Sometimes they are men; sometimes women; sometimes teens, sometimes children.
Diamondola was one of these unique persons. As a teenage girl she began her mission life preaching the gospel in Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, and Greece, and later on in Iran, Cyprus, and Lebanon. At the age of 89 she went as a missionary to Africa. Her story is a testament to God’s power in the life of a willing witness.1
The Makings of a Champion
The good news for most of us is that great Bible heroes normally came from humble inconspicuous backgrounds, as did Diamondola, the “little diamond.” She was born March 23, 1894, to Theodora and Elijah Keanides. Her parents were Greeks living in Eskishehir, Turkey, a town nearly 250 km. (c. 150 miles) west of Ankara. Diamondola was a very frail child and family and friends wondered if she would make it to her first birthday. When she was only a few months old, she was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. Soon after that, several relatives, including her father, Elijah, and sisters Alexandra (15) and Susanna (13), became Protestants.
Being God’s champion means not going with the flow—which is never easy. Diamondola grew up knowing the religious prejudices that ostracized her family from the tightly knit community. Her father’s business was boycotted because of his new religious beliefs, and the family was forced to move to Brousa, a town 160 km (100 miles) southeast of Istanbul.
In Brousa, Diamondola’s family discovered that following biblical truth doesn’t always bring short-term benefits. It was here that the family became Seventh-day Adventists, a choice that complicated their lives still further. Soon Mr. Keanides was imprisoned for possessing Adventist literature. After his release, his health was broken and he became an invalid. The family was penniless, so mother Theodora set up silk-weaving looms in their house.
Seize the Moment
God’s heroes don’t wait for that special something in life. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccl. 9:10, NASB)* seems to have been Diamondola’s motto. Diamondola educated herself at home while weaving silk cloth, her textbooks propped up beside her loom. Besides the regular school subjects, Diamondola mastered Armenian, Greek, Turkish, and English through self-taught grammar books.
She seemed to understand the commonsense principle that what you don’t use you lose. Diamondola began to use her gift for languages when she was only 13 years old. One of the first Adventist missionaries to Turkey, Pastor AcMoody, made an extended missionary trip throughout Turkey, using little Diamondola as his translator. Three years later, in 1910, she again braved bandits, extreme weather, and mosquito-infested swamps and spent several months translating for another Adventist leader, Pastor Greaves, in Greece and Albania.
Although she had only three years of formal education she was able to graduate from high school in 1912. She was immediately hired by the Adventist Levant Mission in Constantinople as a translator and secretary. She taught herself French and German in the evenings, extending her fluency to six languages. But Diamondola didn’t spend all her time holed up studying. She had a reputation for being fun and vivacious. She enjoyed doing fancy needlework and being with friends.
Despite loving her work and being happy to be working for God, Diamondola discovered in a painfully personal way that being God’s champion often means following duty rather than inclination. Diamondola fell in love, and was soon engaged to a promising young minister named Ares Aresian. As World War I loomed, the Levant Mission faced an enormous problem. Some of the countries that made up the mission sided with the Allies; others joined the Central Powers. The mission was already desperately short of workers, with many of the expatriate workers being called back to their home countries or forced to evacuate. Ares was asked by the mission to go to Greece to help with the work there. Initially, the couple wanted to get married and go together, but as they spoke things over, they realized that Diamondola, with her translating skills, was really needed in Constantinople. So Diamondola remained, trusting that the war would soon be over and that they could get married. Soon communication between the two countries was cut off. Six months later she got word that Ares had died of tuberculosis.
Not Immune From Heartache
God’s champions aren’t immune from heartache but they know where they can go with their pain.
For Diamondola the pain of the loss of Ares made her cling even closer to Jesus. She wanted with all her heart to hasten His coming. Soon she was arrested for sending out what was thought to be Adventist propaganda literature. She was thrown into prison and then brought into the court of Bedri Bey, a cruel chief of security in Turkey. Amazingly calm, Diamondola asked for her Bibles. She gave the judge her Turkish Bible to follow along and then she went on to give everyone present a two-hour Bible study on the Christian’s duty toward government and God. She emphasized the second commandment, which prohibited the worship of idols, and explained that Adventists, believing their bodies to be God’s temples, do not use tobacco, alcohol, and pork. Bedri Bey commented, echoing Agrippa’s reply to Paul in Acts 26:28: “Almost you have persuaded us to be like you. You are acquitted. Go in peace.” Diamondola was set free.
Diamondola’s loss of Ares made her even more sensitive to the pain of others. In the winter of 1915-1916, reports began to filter through that Christians were being expelled from the region. Diamondola collected money and supplies and volunteered to travel with Elder Frauchiger throughout Turkey trying to bring food, clothing, and money to them on what turned out to be a death march into Syria. Frauchiger, a German citizen (Germany and Turkey were allies), had some diplomatic immunity, but Diamondola was in real danger of being forced to join the death march. Most Adventists, along with a million other Christians, died.
No one becomes a hero in a vacuum. God’s champions are almost always part of a God-given commu- nity. For Diamondola, being part of this community was literally life- saving. In 1919, with the ministers and colporteurs either dead, deported, or imprisoned, Diamondola and Elder and Mrs. Erzberger,2 while operating the Levant Union Mission, were swamped with refugees who started pouring back into Constantinople. All facilities in the city were hopelessly overburdened. Most of the Adventist survivors were desperately in need of medical and nursing care. All the office rooms of the mission became an impromptu hospital. The responsibility of feeding and nursing all these refugees, as well as trying to run the office, fell to Diamondola, the Erzbergers, and Diamondola’s elderly mother. Then the only male, Elder Erzberger, became critically ill with dysentery. This left the women to struggle on alone. One young mother, infected with typhus, died in Diamondola’s arms. A few days later Diamondola, weak from exhaustion and overexposure, came down with the dreaded disease. For six weeks Diamondola ran a high fever. She could take only liquids and soon became a wasted skeleton. Then at last she drifted into a coma. For three days she showed hardly any signs of life. Finally she lay totally unresponsive. Diamondola had died.
Mrs. Erzberger, a trained nurse, checked Diamondola for vital signs—there weren’t any. Despite their deep sorrow, Mrs. Erzberger and Diamondola’s aged mother continued caring for the many refugees crowded into the mission. Six hours later the two women came to prepare Diamondola’s body for burial. They couldn’t move her because rigor mortis had set in. The two women prayed for help. Weak themselves from exhaustion, they needed a man to get a coffin and help with the funeral. At that moment God sent Diran Tcharakian.3 He looked down upon the still, stiff form of Diamondola and, like Peter with Tabitha, knelt and prayed: “In the name of Jesus, I say unto you, arise.” The two women stared wide-eyed as Diamondola sat up and began to speak.
Life, even after this special event, was filled to the seams with caring for refugees and orphans and helping people to find hope in God. But in the midst of all this activity, love came for a second time to Diamondola. In 1921 she married Aram Ashod,4 an Armenian Adventist, who had been forced into the Turkish army and then captured and held as a prisoner of war by the British for the duration of the war. Besides their work in the mission office, the young couple felt a real burden for the many war orphans.
They began an orphanage that was later moved to Greece. A few years later, just as the work was again taking root, the volatile political situation forced all the foreign missionaries and church leaders to leave Turkey. Although Diamondola and Aram had the opportunity to leave, they decided to stay. For Diamondola it must have felt a little like the momentous time during World War I when, though isolated from the world church family, she—together with the Erzbergers—worked alone to try to keep the organized church work going. This time Diamondola and Aram held the church work together. They ran the mission, saw to the local church work, kept the accounts, and continued translating, publishing, corresponding, and giving Bible studies.
Even on gray days there are often sunny moments. After having been involved with orphan children for years Diamondola and Aram were finally surprised by the news that they would become parents. Little Indra was born in 1927 and filled their home with sunshine. Shortly after their daughter’s birth Diamondola and Aram were sent to help with a different kind of birthing. They went to Iran where they were to spend an important part of their lives building up the work in Teheran. Their new missionary assignment vividly reinforced the timeless truth that God’s champions in each generation are called to take God’s love to their contemporary world. Their journey had taken them from Paul’s mission field in Asia Minor to the land where Esther and Daniel had served.
Sometime later, when Diamondola and Aram returned to Turkey, they found that Adventists still had no official church buildings. Adventists were not recognized as a legal denomination by the Turkish government before World War I. All church buildings had been confiscated. After the war the Lausanne Treaty specified that no Christian churches could be built in Turkey. Diamondola and Aram had a foretaste of how life would be for many Christians in the twentieth century as they joined members for secret meetings in different homes on Sabbaths. Although it was a time of great danger as they braced themselves for sudden police raids, it was also a time of experiencing a special closeness to God and to each other. Eventually they were able to rent a room in the basement of the Armenian Protestant church. But even with this small victory the next battle was brewing. With the beginning of World War II once again all foreign workers returned to their homelands. Again, Aram and Diamondola carried the official church work in the region.
Learning and Growing
Living a life with God does not mean living in the past—even though some high points and mountaintop experiences may stand out. God’s champions are always ready to learn and willing to grow. For Diamondola and Aram this willingness to learn and be even more useful meant that at the age of 54 and 64, respectively, they learned to ride bicycles when they were called to work in Cyprus in 1948.
And more change came their way. At an age when most people think about retirement, Diamondola and Aram sailed for Beirut, Lebanon. Aram worked at the Bible correspondence school. Diamondola, always willing to do whatever she could for God, gave French and German Bible studies and helped the poor in the community. She loved young people, and later when she had the opportunity she had no qualms about joining a Master Guide class and being instructed by people half her age.
After 45 years of service in the Middle East, Diamondola and Aram finally joined their daughter and son-in-law in the United States. Aram passed away in 1977 at age 93. Diamondola remained ready for adventure. When her son-in-law and daughter were asked to serve in the Masanga Leprosy Hospital in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, Diamondola, age 89, went along to help, quickly becoming known as “old grandmummy.” Diamondola had once again found an important niche in her mission field. She showed Jesus’ love by her willingness to reach out and physically hug the shunned lepers. Her smiles and hugs probably contributed as much as the medications to the healing of the patients.
Diamondola passed to her rest on May 12, 1990, at the age of 96.5 Her long life of service challenges us not to settle for mediocrity. Each of us is born for such a time as this. We have a unique place to fill. As we strive to be God’s champions, He will go with us every step of the way through the adventures, dangers, as well as the everyday doldrums. Diamondola’s life legacy demonstrates that there is “no limit to the usefulness of those who, putting self out of sight, make room for the working of the Holy Spirit.”6
*Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
1 This article is based on significant research, including several interviews with Diamondola’s daughter, Indra Greer, as well as the following resources: N. Ouzounian, “Diran Tcharakian: A Biographical Sketch,” unpublished manuscript (2004); Mildred Thompson Olson, Diamondola (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1966); Mildred Thompson Olson, Diamondola and Aram: Middle East Ambassadors (New York: TEACH Services, 2004). It should be noted that some historical sources spell Tcherakian and Erzburger instead of the spelling that has been adopted in this article.
2 Elder Erzberger was the son of the European pioneer Jakob Erzberger. See the recent article by Daniel Heinz, “Jakob Erzberger: The Forgotten Pioneer,” Adventist World, May 2010, pp. 24, 25.
3 Diran Tcharakian was an Armenian university professor, famous author, and poet. When he became an Adventist he sacrificed everything to follow Jesus. His family left him, and critics dubbed him crazy. He died on the death march in 1920.
4 Ironically, it was Aram who had first convinced Diran Tcharakian that there is a God and it was Tcharakian who, in the name of Jesus, resurrected Diamondola in 1919.
5 See the obituary note appearing in Adventist Review, Feb. 14, 1991, p. 22.
6 Ellen G. White, “Taught of God,” Signs of the Times, July 12, 1905, p. 10.
Chantal J. Klingbeil is a homeschool mom, author, and speaker living in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. She is married to Gerald Klingbeil and enjoys spending time with their three daughters.