Federal Judge Found His Calling at Evangel
From the time Samuel Der-Yeghiayan was 18 years old, he’d read the entire Bible 17 times. Gleaning from its pages, as well as coming from a long line of Christians — his paternal great-grandfather was an Orthodox priest, his maternal grandfather was an evangelical pastor — Der-Yeghiayan understood the scriptural importance of helping others and working hard to affect change in his community.
Der-Yeghiayan, an Armenian living with his evangelical family in Lebanon, put his biblical knowledge into action when, in his teens, he ran a food-service kiosk in his high school to help pay tuition for students who could otherwise not afford it. His charisma and leadership skills soon gained the attention of an Assemblies of God minister pastoring in Der-Yeghiayan’s neighborhood. The minister approached Der-Yeghiayan, and asked if he’d gather his friends and come to church services. Der-Yeghiayan agreed, and soon found himself enjoying the gatherings and wanting to become more involved.
After a couple of years, the pastor approached Der-Yeghiayan again, and encouraged him to attend Evangel University.
“He saw something in me,” Der-Yeghiayan says. “He thought I’d be a good fit at Evangel.”
With his family’s blessing, Der-Yeghiayan headed to the U.S. and Evangel in Springfield, Missouri, with the intention of studying theology to become a pastor. He figured once he graduated, he would return to Lebanon to lead a congregation.
A year into his studies, Der-Yeghiayan decided to follow a different dream. He became intrigued when he witnessed the political process at work during an election in which John Ashcroft, future U.S. attorney general, became state auditor of Missouri at the age of 30. Ashcroft had close ties to Evangel because his father, J. Robert Ashcroft, served as the school’s president at the time, while his brother, Wes — a close friend and soccer teammate of Der-Yeghiayan’s — attended the university. The experience during that campaign left a profound impact on Der-Yeghiayan.
“I realized I could be a pastor and influence my congregation for good, or I could get involved in the legal field and influence a whole country of people for good,” he says.
Der-Yeghiayan changed his major to political science, and upon graduation in 1975, with his new wife, Becky, also an Evangel graduate, he headed to the University of New Hampshire to study law. He then worked for 25 years as an attorney and judge in the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2003, President George W. Bush nominated him to serve as federal judge for the Northern District of Illinois. With unanimous confirmation from Congress, Der-Yeghiayan became the first Evangel graduate, as well as the first Armenian immigrant, to serve as a federal judge.
Though Der-Yeghiayan, 65, holds strong to his Christian beliefs and attends an AG church, he is quick to point out that he doesn’t allow his personal faith to sway the outcome of a case.
“As a judge, for most cases I rely on precedents — what’s been determined in prior cases,” he says. But Der-Yeghiayan adds his Christian upbringing and his faith help him to apply the law in a fair, unbiased, and consistent way.
“Some Christians think that if you have faith, somehow that makes you a different judge; it doesn’t,” Der-Yeghiayan says. “And it doesn’t change the outcome of a case.”
Der-Yeghiayan, through his relationships with colleagues and others, tries to model God’s goodness. He understands the position he holds brings with it a great amount of influence and respect, so he works to wield it wisely.
“I don’t preach to people to accept Christ,” he says. “I live the life and treat others with respect. I gain them as friends and then I influence them for Christ.”
Evangel University presented Der-Yeghiayan with a Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2008. He served as the school’s commencement speaker in 2015.