20 years ago: Tearing Prejudice
It was 20 years ago today: The untold story of the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center.
Between the years 2003 and 2016 we ran an experiment in an area of Glendale, California known as “Ground Zero,” a place that Armenian organizations have ignored and forgotten, a place where education, identity and prayer came together.
This is a series about the miracles that we witnessed at this small church on the corner with a worldwide ministry. This is part of the Armodoxy for Today podcast series about the Armenian Church now, patterned after the ancient Apostolic Church, then.
Today’s Episode: Tearing Prejudice
Not everyone was happy that we had established the Armenian Church Youth Ministries on that special corner in Glendale. About a week or two after we had moved in I was visited by a member of the Glendale School Board. He was the only Armenian member at the time and he was the only one who expressed his dissatisfaction with our presence. His demeaner wasn’t stern, as much it was confusing. “You had no business starting this Youth Ministries without asking me!” he ordered. Because he was talking to an Armenian priest he figured I was someone who had no knowledge of the country and its laws. I looked at him with a you’ve-gotta-be-kidding expression and he responded with a sad delusional look. It was obvious the seat on the School Board had gotten to his head and he thought he was the gatekeeper. He left my office that day unhappy. I began my work understanding that the town had an old-boys network and I had crossed one of the lines.
The place where it mattered, though, was the school itself. Mrs. Hasmik Danielian was the principal of Hoover High School. She not only welcomed me but embraced my arrival by extending an invitation to Catalina Island for an overnight retreat for the Senior class. Linda Maxwell and Jose Quintanar from We Care for Youth were running the retreat to deal with prejudices, especially among the school’s minorities: Hispanic, Armenian, Asian and African American.
I was honored to be asked to attend. In a time when the conversation about separation of church and state was reaching its peak, here I was, an Armenian priest, invited to a public school event, where issues of social and ethical concerns were being discussed.
Catalina Island is an hour-and-a-half boat ride from Los Angeles harbor. We got to an area of the island that was secluded and away from the touristic area. Linda and Jose had organized different panels and discussions for the students to express and speak. Danielian, a few other administrators and I went along as a “support crew.” I was intrigued and was content observing and learning.
During that time, tensions ran high inside the high school between the different ethnic groups. Street fights were common after school, and the number of expulsions became evident by the kids hanging out on the street corners during the days.
At the evening activity Linda and Jose did their magic. They handed out large sheets of paper – poster size – and had students write their prejudices. No holds were barred. “Mexicans are lazy,” “Armenians are filthy,” “Asians are high-achievers,” “Black people are not bright.” And so on… some were brutal. All around us, in this large room, the posters hung as a reminder of how hurtful and disgusting prejudice comments could get.
And then the magic happened. One-by-one Linda and Jose went around the room challenging the prejudiced with hard fact. Fact, not from a book, but from the audience itself.
There an Asian student stood up. She was a C-average student and had failed to get into the university she had chosen. High achiever? Not a chance. An Armenian young man stood up. He was well groomed, even at this outdoor retreat, the antithesis of “dirty and smelly.” A young Mexican girl spoke of her accomplishment academically while maintaining employment for the last three years. Her key to success, she admitted, was hard work. And a black student attested that he had picked up a scholarship in mathematics at UCLA, for his achievements in the physics club at school. One-by-one, the prejudices written on the posters were destroyed and accordingly, the students destroyed the posters. They tore them up!
It was as easy and as simple as communicating, learning, knowing, talking and establishing a dialogue with your neighbor. It may sound like a lot of work, but these are all manifestations of love, which is the starting point.
The trip back to the mainland was quicker – we had dumped our prejudices at the island. Some might have thought that because we were lighter, the trip was faster. I think it was because we wanted this magical weekend to last longer.
Prejudices, whether they are among ethnic groups, students, or even a School Board member looking at a young priest, are built on ignorance. They are overcome by the knowledge which comes from education. It’s the basic education given to us by Jesus when he taught that we all are chosen by God. Each of us, not a special ethnic group or financial status defines us in front of God. As the song says, “Yellow, red, black and white, we are precious in His sight.” You may think it’s a child’s song, but children already know that. It’s the rest of us that need to learn.
After those couple of days, we felt our place on the corner was ordained, sacred, special and unique, because we, the Armenian Church Youth Ministries Center was now a part of the education process to promote peace.
Join me tomorrow, as we continue the journey which began 20 years ago today.
If you missed earlier episodes, you can binge listen on your favorite podcatcher or at Epostle.net under the “Armodoxy for Today” tab. Remember to leave a comment and/or write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.