Below is a transcript of my talk during week 2 of Faith & Race. I describe the logic and work of race in my own life, and look to hospitality as a way forward.
When I arrived at the UW campus for college, there were two things that I was certain of. First, I would be an active member of an on-campus ministry. I grew up at Chinese Baptist Church on Beacon Hill, where I was formed and nurtured in our youth group to love serving in ministry. It was within the context of this ethnic-specific community that I first came to understand God’s love for all humanity. Second, despite my appreciation for my Chinese church, the on-campus ministry that I would join would have to be multi-ethnic. I reasoned that the next step in my spiritual maturation would be to worship with people not like me.
At this point, it’s important to point out that I was already worshipping with people not like me. Even in “homogenous” Asian communities like CBC, there is messiness and diversity, with a wide range of experiences, beliefs and opinions. We’re not all alike. I was only marginally connected to the Chinese immigrant congregants at my church, and by leaving my home church in favor of a multi-ethnic community, I lost my family’s immigrant story. I moved away from the story of their courageous journey to America, a story to which I am inextricably bound, regardless of how embarrassing it might feel to be connected to broken English and funny accents. That’s my story; they are my parents. It is ironic that by moving away from a multi-ethnic fellowship, I actually moved from a bilingual faith community to an English-only faith community, away from a community of people that were really different from me, to a place already quite familiar.
This is not to say that my experience with Intervarsity in college was not good for me; in fact, I would point to my four years with IV as the most formative time in my life. This was a community that put on conferences on racial reconciliation and a quarterly community gathering called Race Matters, our own version of Faith & Race. It was here that I grew to care deeply about racial injustice, inequality, poverty, and all the other systemic evils that persist in our world, the many systemic evils that Christians must be concerned with.
Here is what I’ve come to understand: talking about racial strife as a general social reality is strangely enjoyable sometimes, because it remains a safe abstraction, even a fun intellectual exercise, something beyond me that I can rage against. I love getting fired up about how racist other people are. But when it comes to reckoning with the reality of my own life, with the painful realization that the logics of race are so deeply embedded in my life in ways that I am not even aware of, it is another matter altogether.
A couple years after I graduated from college, I married my college sweetheart, a fellow IVer. It was difficult for us to put together our wedding party. While we were blessed to be in relationship with a lot of good people with whom we had really meaningful relationships, when it came down to identifying who our very closest friends were, the people with whom we belonged to, to whom we turned when we needed to talk, indeed, when it came down to essentially naming who we were and who we were not, we had an entirely Asian American wedding party. How can it be that someone could spend four years being formed in a multi-ethnic faith community and come out looking like nothing had changed?
This is of course not an uncommon experience. Many people tend to gravitate toward other people of their own race. But how might we try to account for this? We might suggest, as Beverly Daniel Tatum does, that the reason this happens, the reason why “all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria” is a matter of survival. It might be the case that we just naturally like who we like; Asians justnaturally only love other Asians. We might argue that we can only establish our identity by being with people of the same race. We cannot be with others, because their presence means we can no longer be what we are. This is self-establishment but at a great cost: the refusal of others. The racially homogenouscommunity isn’t always across-the-board a bad thing, but the exclusive one should be scrutinized. When we assert who we can be with and who we cannot be with, we refuse Jesus’s work in our lives. The very fact that we can be in Christ, who brings together the far and near into one body, and still believe we can have a fully coherent sense of our identity, speaks to the extent of our delusion. We ought to feel like something is missing when we are only with people like ourselves.
Let’s take a step back and think about how race is working here. On one hand, the logic of race would affirm the homogeneity of my wedding party. Of course we’re all just the same; look at our skin color! This marriage is not an intercultural marriage. The logic of race would assume that a fourth generation Japanese American woman and a second generation Chinese American man somehow ‘naturally’ belong together.
Here, the logic of race actually provides a messed up kind of “reconciliation.” It brings two opposing people groups together, but at an enormous cost: the erasure of our histories. This is not true reconciliation because it is done without Paul’s instructions for us to “remember what we were.” Our ancestors hated one another, could not even look at one another. This is a poor stab at reconciliation that pretends there’s no particularity. It in fact homogenizes. We’re all the samebecause we kinda look the same. This is part of the tragic work that race does. And on the flip side, race is a persistent reminder of the arbitrary barriers that exist between people that do not look much alike. While on one hand all Asian Americans are the same, while our histories and identities can be collapsed into a single totalizing story, Asian Americans and African Americans, on the other hand, are too different to ever truly be with one another. We know this is not true. We know that there is a plurality of experiences within the Asian American community and that the gulf between Asian American and African American is much smaller than we think; we know that Jesus takes within himself every difference, and brings together the near and far into a single body. Yet, we must still reckon with this logic of race that is so powerful, whose reach is so deep that it can determine who we will talk to.
It’s tempting to think at this point that the multiethnic community is the answer now, but I’m not entirely sure we can look at the multiethnic community as an automatic fix, either. We can’t simply throw together a diverse group of people and do away with the problem of race. Even in diverse communities, we still often see the logic of race at work. In some instances, there is a single, dominant, and unchanging culture in a church that all must participate under if they are to be a part of the church. Other times, you see the persistence of racial enclaves, which is basically the adult version of your high school cafeteria. Even though we are together, we’re not really together; we just pass by each other in the hallways. When things get really bad, there can be an unspoken cold war in the multiethnic community, an arms race for airtime and representation on stage. They can only see someone of another race, not as a friend, but as a threat to their own self-constitution. What is worse is the reality that in multiethnic communities, we can be more concerned about maintaining a perfect racial balance, an illusion that hides what is actually happening. We need a perfect balance in our demographics to wear as a kind of badge that signifies our arrival at the point where we love everyone equally. Is this not what Paul rails against in Ephesians 2? Paul did not call for the church to strive after a golden ratio, half Jew half Gentile, perfectly split down the middle. Paul did not call the church to merely enter into an uneasy coexistence with one another. Instead, when we come across one who is “far away,” we must remember that “we were once far away” too. This is not just coexistence; this is a unity marked by an identification in and with the Other. We are the church when the very way we constitute our identity is, not merely in the familiar, but with the stranger, because we were once strange, too. All this to say that too often, the multiethnic community doesn’t do away with the problem of racial exclusivity, but it can actually magnify it.
What I suspect we miss in both types of communities is a sense of hospitality. Have you ever had a person over that you didn’t really want over? I have. You behave differently toward them. Yes, you may be willing to offer them a glass of water, maybe a bite to eat, and a place to sit, but you are cold toward them. Your every action is carefully calculated as to not give the false impression that you’d like this person to stick around longer. Of course, when you have someone over that you truly love, it does not matter how you are feeling or what time of day it is, you make room for this person in your life. This doesn’t mean that you have to rearrange the furniture for them or do anything extravagant, but everything you do, everything you offer is done with great love, with a spirit of hospitality. If you are really close with this person, you may not even need to be in the same room for your guest to know that your space is open to them, open to them as if it were their own. This time, when you offer a bite to eat, it is the same act, but it is not the same act.
I am pointing toward a way forward that is both modest and radical. Modest because it doesn’t necessarily require everyone’s circle of friendships to change overnight. This is intentional. I don’t believe having a lot of close Asian American friends makes you an unfaithful Christian, anymore than I believe that having a diverse set of friends makes you a saint. Let me state unequivocally that you do not need to forsake the people you love because they look like you. But this call to hospitality is quite radical. Being hospitable to the Other is demanding, because it requires you to look at your own identity and conclude that you have nothing to defend, nothing to safeguard, nothing to protect from the Other, but all to give.
How do you know if you are hospitable? I think one way we might try to measure our hospitality is by this question: are you cool with change? The practices of hospitality will not only change you and your circle of friends, but it will invariably change our church, as more people come to be with us in our house. I suspect that the presence of the stranger, the one who comes in as a guest into our home, the one we believe will frustrate our attempts to establish our identities, is in fact the very grace of God that allows you to truly understand who you are and who you were made to become. Contrary to the logic of race, you are not you, without them. We need the stranger to be with us, to help determine us, in order for us to be ourselves.