My Story

Jessica Johnson

When I was born, I was almost immediately rushed from hospital to St. Johns Armenian Church. My mom said my baptism was a beautiful ceremony. She said she was proud as she watched our head priest at the time dip me into the holy water that is said to cleanse my sins for eternity. My family has a long history at our church. It is where not only my parents but also grandparents got married. My whole world regarding the Armenian side of things surrounded this church. Everything to them was Armenian. Armenian traditions, Armenian foods, Armenian friends, Armenian family. 100%. Pure. But then my dad came along, a white guy. He got baptised into the Armenian church and married my mom. Then had me. My grandma said when I was around ten that I should be proud to be Armenian, even if I was “only half.”

Growing up, I was quickly enrolled into the St. John’s Sunday School program. The golden dome that reflected the morning Sunday light and stain glass windows you could spot from the highway was a sight that had become ingrained in my memory forever. For two hours every Sunday morning, I would feel out of place. My skin was lighter than most of the kids, my accent wasn’t very good, and no one would find me at church outside of the two hours every sunday morning. The other kids in my class spoke perfect Armenian, and my mind couldn’t help but wonder if those foreign words of my homeland was about me. Our class always had the same routine. Go to class for 45 min, chapel for 15, and then the rest of the remaining hour was spent in church on our boney knees, repenting our 6-year-old sins. In class we would learn about our religion and rarely about our culture, and in chapel we would attempt to strain our voices high enough in order to sing the complicated songs of our church. We were always an octave too high. I would always keep quiet, only talking when spoken to. I sat in the back of our freezing cold, box-like classrooms, curled up in my metal seat and making sure that my dress covered my legs.

For grades 1-5, classrooms were upstairs, which meant when the teacher would start speaking the language I could never understand, I would be able to catch glimpses of cars passing on the highway just beyond the view of our gravel-covered roof. As I got older, I progressed through Sunday school. I begun to become more and more aware of the fact that I wasn’t 100%- half-armenian, half white. I felt more like a mutt as the days went by. White name. White genes. A watered-down version of who I was supposed to be. I soon graduated from the elementary level and moved on to middle school. I still sat in the back, still barely spoke. The only differences was now we were downstairs, a little older, and no more windows.

I started to dread waking up. I would protest and hide underneath my covers, I would fake sick so I wouldn’t have to go. I was rarely ever sick, just sick of feeling like an outsider in what was expected to be my home. Going felt more like a chore than a choice. I was in the 8th grade now. My class still consisted of the same ten people I started preschool with and I was pretty sure only two of them knew my name. Being Armenian was not something I was proud of. All the other kids seemed to know what they were doing there, or at least seem to enjoy it. I, on the other hand, felt frustrated and confused because I couldn’t understand what it was. What was it that made me feel so out of place?

But then came my high school years. I don’t know what exactly turned things around for me, but here I was, participating in discussions and talking to my fellow peers outside of the classroom. I became involved in the community, participating in volunteer events and social activities. I became close with the group and instead of my mom having to drag me out of bed kicking and screaming each morning, I now would be up at 7:30, picking out my dress for the day and wondering if this newfound excitement was a feeling that was going to stick around. I finally begun to feel not as though I belonged quite yet but at least not dreading the Sunday mornings. It was a start. The summer in between my junior and senior year of high school however, changed me for the better.

Hye Camp is the holy grail of the Armenian youth in the midwest. It was a small campsite in up north Illinois, about one hour up from Chicago. The youth members of my church in Detroit all gets together on a bus and make the drive. We were there for a week and a half- no cell service, no clean showers, all Armenians. It was something on the way up that I was excited for but also nervous. Many of these kids have been going to this camp their whole lives, and here I was just now showing up too many years too late as a counselor-in-training. However, when I left those 10 days later, I was in tears. It was an experience like no other, and although the purpose of many activities and messages throughout our time there was geared towards finding yourself religiously, I rather found myself culturally.

Each morning I’d wake up at 6. I’d make sure to make little noise as I stepped out of Cabin three to go run around the sports field just down the path. It was quiet in the mornings and everything was still. The world was just waking up, and the blue jays would swirl around my legs if I got too close to their nests while running. At 6:30 I’d shower and then 7 on-the-dot, wake up my 12 year old campers for breakfast. We’d all eat in one big mess hall in the middle of the campsite, and then head to morning service in the small chapel. Then we’d go back to the cabin, get our campers ready for the day, and head to sports. From sports to swim. From swim to lunch. Lunch to classes. Classes that consisted of Armenian dancing, Armenian singing, Armenian language, and Armenian arts and crafts. From classes to dinner. Dinner to our nightly activity, and our nightly activity to night service. Then, once the girls were all tucked in and in bed, us CIT’s would all sneak out, making sure at least one person stayed behind with our girls. We’d all meet up at around 12 and stay out until 4, dodging the “security” that roamed the fields and running back and forth between the guys and girls side of the campground. We’d stay out on our porches and gossip and then go to bed. Then do it all over again.

I hated that I loved it. I hated that my own stubbornness ended up depriving me of these memories that I could have made sooner. I met so many people from around the midwest and was able to just learn that there aren’t just 10 of us out there. I fell in love with my culture as we would pinkie-dance around the mess hall after hours and sit on the swings and tell stories of our Armenian grandmas feeding us too much dolma. I was finally able to connect, and by the end of that week and a half, I finally felt as though I had belonged. The bus ride home consisted of tears and reminiscing, already texting those who were once strangers about how much they would be missed.

Back home, I suddenly didn’t feel so 50/50. Connecting with my roots allowed me to grow into a proud Armenian. I love my church now, not only for the building, but for the people. I now can look up at the incredible dome during service and feel warm. I can look at the Virgin Mary on the altar mural and see my grandmother saying “you look like her.” I can look back at the memories I have made and believe that I am in the right place. I am the right person. I am something to be proud of.DSC_0212

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