Archive for category Black American
On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.
I was the soloist.
Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.
Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.
What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.
In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.
The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.
Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.
Today I saw something that confirmed what I’ve been suspecting for a while… my neighborhood is changing.
I’ve been seeing the signs here and there, but bravely have tried to ignore them in hopes that perhaps I was wrong. You know how it is; just little things: A white woman walking her dog, a young Asian guy driving a late model Honda down the street, a Volvo parked inconspicuously in a driveway while the young, vaguely hippie looking homeowners enjoyed a drink on the front porch. All of these things were signs that I’ve been trying valiantly to ignore.
But what I saw today was something I could not ignore nor misinterpret, despite all my efforts. There he was in all his trendy splendor – a young white guy, casually dressed in the kind of clothes that look like they’re from Wal-Mart but you know are really from Banana Republic… sitting at the edge of his walkway, innocently, unobtrusively, and completely naturally – playing a guitar. There he sat, in front of an appropriately trendy Craftsman style home, barefoot, and playing his guitar in the calm of a late afternoon as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
My neighborhood is officially trendy.
White folks drinking wine on the front porch I could ignore; the White woman walking her dog was harder to rationalize, but still I made the effort. But this, this cannot be denied or explained away. It is only in trendy urban neighborhoods that White guys play guitars while sitting out in front of their houses I knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it so quickly.
Before I know it, there will be coffee shops with bearded baristas and black rimmed glasses wearing Mac users. The ubiquitous loud young Black girls with too much saunter and not quite enough jeans to cover their shape will be replaced by svelte looking people who ::gasp:: jog!!
I’m not quite sure what to make of it all. There goes the neighborhood.
It has been quite some time since I’ve put the metaphorical pen to paper and written anything on this blog. In fact, I haven’t done much writing at all in any arena. I have felt busy and overwhelmed and the creative juices have not been flowing very well. That is at least the line that I’m holding to.
In actual fact, in addition to my so-called writer’s block, I have been radically reluctant to write anything because I’ve been thinking mostly about politics, and haven’t wanted to put my thoughts out for the world to see in the midst of campaign season. It is not that I believe anything I say influences anyone in any particular way. I just don’t want to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. I also am tremendously picky about my word choice. I won’t say much today either, but here are some things that I’ve been thinking about. Maybe I’ll blog about these things at some point
Black people supporting Barack Obama largely because he’s considered “Black” but really he’s biracial and his background is really pretty “White” by some measurements
Racism in politics is bad, but sexism is ok, as long as you disguise it well
Candidates or political messiahs; why democracy is deceitful
Why whoever is elected won’t really change my life that much
There are so many other thoughts rolling around in my head that I cannot articulate. It is not an easy thing to put into words political thoughts because people hold their politics more seriously than their religion.
Singing, like worship, is an expression of the human soul that is universal in scope and yet as diverse as the myriad people that populates the globe. People every where and throughout history have puts words to music in order to somehow articulate their inmost thoughts and feelings. Music is like art, or poetry; it gives voice to the inexpressible in a way that actually communicates transcendentally. Is it any wonder then that almost every religion in the world incorporates music in its expression of worship to God?
When the holocaust of American slavery met the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, an entire culture of Black church that is as unique and diverse as the Black people who inhabit it was born. What a glorious multifaceted expression it is. This expression is made all the more glorious by the fact that it reflects the authentic African-ness of a people living in America. It was not that these Africans did not know how to worship, or were somehow deficit in their ability to relate to the transcendent reality of God as over against their European subjugators and would be interpreters of scripture. They simply lacked the language and understanding of the good news of Jesus.
When they received this gospel (though not the first Africans to do so) they “ate the meat and spat out the bones” of a gospel that said they were less than human and worthy of nothing more than to be vessels of dishonor in the White man’s house. They refused to bow in worship at the altar of the White man’s god.
Instead these Africans in America contextualized the gospel message and found a savior in Jesus as well as heroes in Moses, the Hebrew boys, and Esther. They reinvented and rearranged traditional hymnody and gave birth to both gospel music and its cousin, contemporary Christian music. They took the art of preaching and combined it with the traditions of African storytellers to create a synthesis of that is envied and copied to this day. These Africans in America already knew how to sing; the coming of the gospel merely gave them the words.
If this is true in the Black American experience, is there any less reason for it to be true within the Asian American experience? It seems that there remains complex and insidious stronghold of neocolonialism deeply ingrained in the Asian America psyche that resists any true effort to contextualize the gospel within their own communities. Perhaps I am speaking out of school, so to speak, that is, outside of my range of experience or level of trust. If so, I implore your forgiveness.
Nevertheless, I marvel that on the one hand Asian Americans are some of the most gifted, highly educated, and creative people in evangelical Christendom today, and yet “with hands high and hearts abandoned” the gospel that is preached and sung sounds remarkably exactly like that heard in any White suburban church. Asians clearly know how to sing; there is no lack of cultural creativity within Asian and Asian American communities. And the words of the gospel are accessible and present to all, Asians and Asian Americans together. Can there be a generation raised up who would be willing to integrate these powerful realities into something that can speak in a lovingly prophetic way to multiple generations of Asian Americans and invite them into the choir? Oh Lord God would you be so gracious as to raise up people who will indeed seek to be faithful to you in this generation; a generation who will sing the Lord’s song with their own melody but with your words?
I am just exhausted from a wonderful weekend of service in the inner city with over 50 students from around the state of Tennessee. My church was gracious to host us, although some students sleep was cut a bit short by an overly zealous chipsanim* opening the sanctuary for early Morning Prayer on Saturday. Lesson: 6 AM prayer really means 5:30 AM.
In any event, I and the students had a great time and we learned quite a bit about God’s passionate concern for our “neighbors”, and I had the privilege of mounting the pulpit Sunday to preach to both the normal English Ministry crowd, and the InterVarsity students who were gathered. It was great to stand at the “Intersection” (note subtle but shameless insertion of my blog name!!) of at least two parts of my world.
I preached from Exodus on the call of Moses by God, and emphasized our need to get beyond our reasons and excuses for not being involved in God’s purposes. God had placed in our hands the very instruments we need to achieve, by his grace and power, the things he calls us to.
As I reflect on this sermon and the weekend, I am reminded about how much of my preaching focuses on our responsibility, on our stewardship, on our need to get involved actively in what God is doing. These sermons are so different than the ones I preach to my father’s congregation, which is much poorer, and ironically needs much less motivation to serve either in church or in the community. It seems that more privilege people enjoy in terms of wealth and education, the more effort it takes to goad them into service.
It is a well attested fact that poor people are more generous in their charitable giving than wealthy people (as a percentage of income), and that poorer people tend to be more religious, and more committed in their religious observance. In fact, Christianity was initially and currently is globally, a religion of the poor and disenfranchised. It seems that privilege carries with it the increased perils of loss of generosity and even of faith.
A recent article in the New York Times citing a Pew Research poll indicates that an increase in wealth is correlated with a decrease in religiosity. How prescient are the words of the apostle that “those who desire to get rich fall into a snare and find themselves pierced through with many sorrows.” Unfortunately we don’t hear much preached about this.
Could it be that part of the reason for the so called “silent exodus” of Asian Americans from the church (which is paralleled in the Black community as well) is partially caused by the wealth experienced in these communities? Although the average household wealth and income of Asian American families is higher than even that of Whites, what is often obscured is that it is the wealth of families, many of whom work very hard and sacrifice greatly in order to send their children off to the best schools.
In the process of securing the future for their children financially, are they perhaps selling them out spiritually in the same way that Israel’s decision to move to Egypt to avoid famine eventually led to the enslavement of his descendants to the Egyptian pharaoh? The irony of their enslavement is that they were so busy working at the behest of Pharaoh, they did not even have time for a three day spiritual retreat. Even more ironic for us is the ways in which this pursuit of wealth has routinely been spiritualized and made to seem itself as an exercise in discipleship.
If Asian American and Black Christians are to have a future as people of vibrant faith, we need to take a serious look at the our wholesale swallowing of the pursuit of economic security (really wealth) and what such pursuit does not only to our souls, but to the faith of those who will come after us.
*chipsanim = deacon
Given the stereotypical love of my people for chicken, perhaps this can be a place for the beginnings of reconciliation and partnership…
“Koreans are stupid.”
“Koreans are too stubborn.”
“Korean people have too much drama.”
“Korean people are too prideful and cliquish.”
“Korean people like to fight about dumb stuff.”
“Koreans are too materialistic, too divisive, too petty, too…Korean!”
These comments, and others like them, have been standard fare in conversations I’ve had with people since becoming involved in Asian American ministry and a Korean Church; comments that sear, burn and bite and reinforce all the worse stereotypes of Koreans specifically and Asian Americans more broadly. If phrases like this where directed to the Black community they would be fighting words; but not now and not in this community. These comments are the words of Koreans, or more properly speaking Asian-Americans, themselves. And since I work in the context of ministry, these words come from the lips of those who love God, serve the church, and would not be caught directing such venomous words towards any other ethnic group.
In my time in ministry in and around Koreans and Korean Americans, I’ve becoming somewhat accustomed to hearing these types of sentiment expressed; accustomed, but not comfortable. And in general, the positive comments I hear about the community do not come from within it, but from those like me who are in, but not of the community. Early on in my exploration of this world, I compared this type of attitude to that which I find among Black Americans. We are indeed our own worst critics and I can with angry and vehemence decry the foolishness and sin of my own people. I indeed grieve it and I grieve the consequences it brings. So I thought it might be something similar, and indeed there is a need for self critique, a need for humility that counters our naturally sinful bent towards self promotion.
Yet this is different. For my experience in the Black community suggests that we are as ready to celebrate the beauty and grace of our ethnicity and culture as we are to critique its depravity. When asked recently by a colleague where I say the grace and beauty of God in African American culture, it was not difficult for me to recognize his handiwork and to inwardly give a quiet prayer of thanks that God did indeed make me Black, with all the joys and challenges that brings. But in another setting, when pressed by another (Asian) colleague to say what things were good and beautiful about being Asian American, my students sat silently, unable to articulate or even call to mind anything other than good food and hot Asian chicks (the group was mostly guys after all).
Over and again through the years I’ve heard the comments repeated. When I’ve mentioned that I want to learn something of Asian culture, the response is a disdainful, even disgusted, “Why?” as if everyone knows there is nothing of value there to learn. When I’ve commented about some thing which I find beautiful or intriguing, there is always a rebuttal indicating that what seems to be beautiful is really horrible and evil. And every time, I inwardly cringe, restraining myself from asking the question that threatens to escape from my lips, “Do you really hate yourself so much?” I do not ask it, because it does not seem my place. I do not ask it, because I don’t feel the freedom to comment on another man’s story.
This is no self effacing humility that comes in response to recognizing the bigness of God and the smallness of man. Nor is it countered by an equally poisonous Asian pride that exalts a caricatured stereotype of Asian-ness or Korean-ness over and above others. It is, quite simply, a sinful and disgusting disdain for God’s creation that culminates the quite sad response of my Korean American friend who said to me with a straight face and firm conviction, “I am not Korean.”
To be clear, he did not say this as an affirmation of his identity as an American citizen or in recognition of his embrace of American culture. In fact it came after a discussion in which we agreed that essentially American-ness is largely equated with being White; and he is most assuredly not White. No, it was rather a negative affirmation. It was a rejection of an identity that for him is tainted with some stain that cannot be washed away. The best that can possibly be hoped for is that the blood of Christ which cleanses us from all sin will as a side effect eliminate the unpleasant and unfortunate reality of his Asian ethnicity.
As a Black man, such self hatred (if it can be called that) is all the more painful given our own history in this country. Our bodies, our histories, our languages were all stolen from us, and yet, by the grace of God we refused to allow our identity to be stolen as well. It took many years to wrest the name “Black” that had been used as little more than an epitaph and make into a proud label of a proud people. It took courage to face the historical and cultural racism that made us ashamed of being associated with Africa to the point that many call themselves African American and celebrate the association with joy. It took persisting in our belief that though we were despised by men we were loved by God to craft a tradition of preaching and worship that is arguably the most distinctively recognized and emotionally stirring in Christendom. So it grieves me deeply to see my Asian brothers plunge themselves wholeheartedly into a mental and culturally slavery, to hate their image and their names, to despise their legacy and remain ignorant of the grace and beauty of who they are, and to run willy-nilly after the worship of a White Man’s god.