Making Ourselves the Strangers
Recently, an open letter from the Asian American community to the evangelical church pointed out that all too often we are racially divided, indifferent, and prefer to make generalizations at a safe distance rather than confront difference and make amends face to face.
The authors call on evangelicals to take further steps toward racial unity by hosting dialogues to discuss racial stereotyping, examining hiring practices in Christian organizations, and committing to higher standards of media portrayals of Asian Americans. I would add this call to action: White Christians, make an active effort to put yourselves in situations where you are a minority.
White Christians hold a majority of the power in the American evangelical church. They hold most leadership positions in nationally influential Christian organizations, including Christian media. Their congregations are usually wealthier and have members with higher social status. Also, white evangelicals, like all other white Americans, benefit from living in a society that has historically been tilted to their advantage.
When you have always been in the position of power and privilege, it can be difficult to understand what it's like to be in the minority. As much as well-intended efforts by majority white churches to be more culturally inclusive are necessary to bridge racial divides, things such as hosting conversations on race, I think something more is needed. Why? Because these efforts still start with white people operating from their position of power. They remain the hosts, the benefactors, the do-gooders.
But when people put themselves in the minority, the power dynamic is reversed. For example, when my husband and I started attending our Hispanic church, we found ourselves on the cultural margins as the only white and Asian in the group. We struggled to make ourselves understood in our halting Spanish, we strained our ears and mental energy to catch culturally embedded jokes, we waited shyly by the coffee until others beckoned us to join their conversations.
In a country where whites and Asians generally hold higher status than Hispanics, our attending the Hispanic church reversed that dynamic. Our Hispanic sisters and brothers became the hosts; we were the ones who needed to be accommodated to. They had the linguistic and cultural advantage; we became like children who need to be led around by the hand and have the obvious explained. They gave; we received.
After several years of going to this church and receiving such generous hospitality, we truly feel that this church is our family. We know them as Gloria, Carlos, and Elizabeth, not as "those Mexicans" or "those Latinos." We've prayed with families through hard immigration situations, we know the difference between Peruvian "ají" and Mexican salsa, and we know we'll never go hungry at any church event. We are part of them. They are part of us.
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