Written by Mark Bair for Evangel Magazine Spring 2021
“Call me Sam, please,” said the assuring voice on the phone after I nervously said, “Good afternoon, Your Honor.” I knew Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan exercised great power for many decades from my reading. But when I heard his voice, I immediately sensed he was humble and approachable. He soon told me that he came to America as a young immigrant, barely speaking English, with an accent—“which I still have because I like my accent.” Der-Yeghiayan’s voice is just one of his many distinctive traits.
We had a wide-ranging conversation about his family roots in the Middle East, his journey to the United States to attend Evangel, his justice work, and his memoir, Throw it into the Sea, published in February.
Der-Yeghiayan was born into an Armenian family of refugees in Aleppo, Syria. Most of his ancestors perished in the genocide of 1915, when the Ottoman Empire exterminated 1.5 million Armenians. When his grandfather returned home in 1919, he discovered that the vast majority of his family had been killed. When he was eight, Der-Yeghiayan’s parents moved the family to Beirut, Lebanon. He came to the United States when he was nineteen to attend Evangel University, where he met his future wife, Becky. After graduating in 1975, the newlyweds moved to New Hampshire, where Der-Yeghiayan went to law school.
His 40-year legal career included serving as an immigration judge in the Department of Justice from 2000 to 2003. He was then nominated by President George W. Bush for a seat on the District Court, was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, and served through February 2018. He was the first Armenian immigrant to serve at the federal level in America.
Der-Yeghiayan had a sense of calling from a very young age.“If I saw a bully hurting someone, I would enforce justice. If people were falsely accused of wrongdoing, I would help them.” Through his love of soccer, he learned the art of being a referee. When he became a judge, part of his job was to “blow the whistle when a litigant went out of control.” Der-Yeghiayan has always been passionate about justice—consistently seeking to make things right and fair.
Evangel was instrumental in preparing Der-Yeghiayan for his future service and gave him a sense of family. Initially, he intended to be a pastor. However, he later was inspired by John Ashcroft, the future Attorney General of the United States, about the potential impact of working in the legal system.
His book, Throw it into the Sea, takes the reader on an epic journey. Starting decades before his birth, the story begins in the sorrowful years of the Armenian suffering and genocide. Because his grandfather found work in Wisconsin, his family survived. The testimony continues through Der-Yeghiayan’s childhood to his journey as an immigrant and on to his schooling and justice work. One thing that stands out is his commitment to family and building so many lifelong friendships—people he has stayed connected to even in this year of Covid.
The book’s title comes from a lesson he was taught early in life. When they lived in Beirut, his mother would point to the Mediterranean and say, “Do good, and throw it into the sea.” Der-Yeghiayan explained, “It’s not a matter of quid pro quo. Do for others and seek nothing in return. It gets lost in the sea.” Over the course of your life, what matters most is not your title but how you treat and care for others. “I have been fortunate enough along the way to make many amazing friends from all walks of life. But regardless of whether someone is a lifelong friend or a stranger whose path you happen to cross today, we must use our talents to give selflessly to others. Then, upon doing so, throw it in the sea.”
Having recently broken his arm, Der-Yeghiayan said, “When something fails, something else gets stronger. I learned to use my left hand. When there is Covid, you don’t sit back and feel sorry for yourself. You get creative. For me, I’m often on the phone giving free legal advice. I made a point of calling every relative I have, which is in the hundreds. Just to say hello, how are you doing? Don’t delay what you can do right away.”
Reading his book after our conversation, I realized I’d spoken to a larger-than-life public servant, a man who had made an impact at the highest levels of power and traveled the world. But when he greets you, he says, “Call me Sam.” He’s still Sam, and Sam with the accent—an accent that radiates humility and a love for life rather than power. His life challenges us to ask if we’ve kept our God-given “accents.” It’s a challenge to be who you were made to be and refuse to simply “blend in” out of fear. Der-Yeghiayan has resisted stagnation and abandoned himself to doing good. A life thrown into the sea is certainly not a life thrown away.