“Come on and lift your hands to honor God right now,” my church’s worship leader exhorted the congregation. We sang the chorus for “I Will Exalt You.” Across the room, arms began rising in a physical amen. I hesitantly lifted my hands straight in the air.
It was not comfortable. I grew up in predominantly Korean American congregations where hands rarely rose above elbow level. Any movement was self-contained—clapping, maybe a slight side-to-side sway. That Sunday, I raised my hands because frankly, other people were doing it. I was attending a new church, predominantly African American, which unlike the services in which I grew up, embraced exuberance and movement during worship.
Lost in the music, I remembered recently watching two more videos of police killing black men. Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson had sparked the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and coined a catchphrase protesting police brutality: “Hands up, don’t shoot.
As the band played in the background, I thought of the tired arms of distressed black men, women, and children facing police officers. I considered the weariness of people protesting police brutality, reclaiming their hands up in nonviolent dissent as they marched in the streets, highlighting the absurdity of violent death while in such a yielding posture.
A Single Body
That Sunday forced me to reconsider my experience of worship and how it was formed by my culture. In the Presbyterian Korean American churches of my childhood, I was taught to approach God from a posture of dependence and deference. Open hands symbolized my congregation’s desperate need for a material and spiritual provider. Elbow-level arms suggested our humility and attitude of respect to our good Father. When the congregation sang songs of thanksgiving, I remembered how my generation had benefited from the sacrifices of my parents and their peers; when we thanked God, it was through tears.
The ostentatiousness of fully extended and raised hands conflicted with my upbringing. The posture made me feel exposed and vulnerable, offering fodder for judgment. I didn't want to publicly look as if I needed God that badly—it might reflect poorly on my parents.
My churches valued corporate expressions and saw standing out as distracting. This conformity reinforced the way our community often functioned as a single body. Our tight-knit nature was a consequence of our collective identity as exiles and strangers looking for the proverbial promised land.
Similarly, my experience of church influenced what justice looked like as well. My former churches were built to make sure that our families could sustain themselves in a place they were not necessarily welcome. I treasure the discipleship and fellowship that they excelled at fostering—so necessary for a community disenfranchised and forced to turn to their own for support. Church served as an extension of my Korean American community, likely because it was one of the few spaces and networks to which many immigrant families had access. For those perpetually perceived as the foreigner, this was home.
At times, these bodies would become overly insular, focused on loving each other at the expense of the external world and those who were unlike us. In the suburbs of Southern California, our black and brown neighbors were physically and mentally invisible from our purview. Even when we rubbed shoulders, they were not family.
I am deeply thankful for the sense of family offered to me by the Korean American and Asian American churches of my life. From that gratitude I have broadened my definition of family and taken that fierce protectiveness that they have for its members and applied it to our country’s most vulnerable.