“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.
I cannot help but be reminded of Moses, who also once raised his hands. Standing at the top of the hill, Moses watched the Israelites fight the Amalekites, distant kin who threatened to destroy them. When he raised his hands, his people prevailed. When he lowered them, they struggled. As time wore on, Moses could barely stand, let alone keep his hands up. So two people came alongside him, holding up his hands—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.
I can never impute the lived experience of being black by how I worship on Sundays. Raising my hands cannot be my only gesture. But I lift my arms in church once a week to remind my body of our shared humanity. I pray that God would give me the courage to not only raise my hands but to raise my voice.
Looking God in the Eye
Raised hands, palms out, I’m now demanding something from God. Raised hands, palms up, I’m celebrating who he is. I’m standing straighter, claiming my right to stand before God and asking him to be accountable to his Word. Having grown up in a culture where meeting my father’s gaze was a direct challenge to his authority, I have had to slowly let go of how inappropriate it feels to approach God with such boldness. The more I raise my hands, the more liberating it feels.
I literally reach out to God, pushing into and against the only one who has real power. Do something with your power. Be who you say you are. Show us your mercy and deliver justice, God. Hands low challenged me to offer everything to him. Hands high in this powerful, physical posture emboldens my prayers as I continue to explore unfamiliar ways of encountering a Savior. With my body, I not only submit myself to God’s authority—I confront it.
Where are the signs of your kingdom, God? Where are the miracles? May the lame walk, leaving their couches for a protest in the streets. Let the dead return from the grave, resurrected by those who chant their names. Michael. Eric. Sandra. Make the blind see the racism that has plagued us all.
As I turn my palms out to God, my focus faces outward, too.
Sarah D. Park is a writer in Berkeley, California. There, she’s currently embracing new communities while learning to honor her Los Angeles, Orange County, and Korean roots.