Church can be the loneliest place on earth.
Church is advertised as a safe haven for those seeking love and acceptance that the outside world lacks, yet I have seldom found the promise of community to be true. I dread the moments following the closing prayer, when people around me quickly vanish into their cliques, leaving me very much alone and awkward in a crowd of happy looking people beaming with smiles as I quietly head out to the parking lot with my car keys firmly in hand.
Reasons are many, not the least of which is my introverted nature and reluctance to intrude into where I have not been invited. This, along with other things, contributes to the elusiveness of "Christian fellowship" as I struggle to find my footing in church.
Often suggested by well meaning people when I share the aforementioned issue is that I look into "Asian American" churches in search of "acceptance."
That advice, as well intended as it may be, bothers me greatly for several reasons. For one thing, it is a knee jerk fallacy to assume race is the issue that when people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds fail to jive right away. How many of you have problems getting along with members of your own family? Not only do they share your ethnic background, but they’ve spent most of your childhood years living with you under the same roof. They've seen the side of you that most of your friends have not.
They even have your nose. Yeah, you heard me.
Having said that, I admit there is some validity to their suggestion. But before getting more into that, perhaps some background about so-called Asian American churches for those of you who live outside of regions with heavy immigrant populations may be in order.
Throughout Southern California is a myriad of churches geared towards immigrants whose language, dress and social habits are still deeply rooted in their home cultures. Often these churches function not just as houses of worship, but social and economic hubs for new arrivals to this country as well.
Naturally, they bring their children to church with the hopes of instilling in them not just their religious beliefs, but cultural values as well. But as children quickly master the new language and adapt to the mainstream American culture, they find themselves alienated in their parents’ immigrant church hampered by language and cultural barriers.
Some may venture into "American" churches (for lack of a better term) to find themselves just as disfranchised as they are in their parents’ churches. They have their own experiences and issues very few seem to understand and relate to, hense ensues an identity crisis.
With the purpose of meeting the needs unique to Asian Americans, some of my college friends have gone onto starting churches with an "Asian American focus" throughout Southern California, where you will find people with Asian faces whose speech patterns bear no traces of accent and their mannerisms hardly distinguishable from red blooded Americans. In such ethnically homogeneous congregations, they are said to have found comfort and "acceptance" that neither their parents’ immigrant churches nor mainstream American churches provide.
Obviously such social habits which amount to self imposed segregation are not limited to Asians in America. Most people are gravitated toward those with similar backgrounds and traits and their social circles tend to be homogeneous not just ethnically, but economically as well. Chances are that they don't harbor thoughts of racism. In this day and age of political correctness and racial hyper-sensitivity, people are loath to feel as though they are walking on egg shells so as not to offend people from different ethnic backgrounds. They just want to hang out with people they can feel comfortable around.
So the aforementioned sociological observations seem to support the notion that venturing into Asian American churches may lead me to more "acceptance" from those who can relate to me because they share similar life experiences and circumstances.
I understand. It makes sense.
However, I strongly object to the use of the word "acceptance" in that context. To me, the word acceptance connotes work and effort. If my fellow Asian Americans "accept" me, mostly because I look, talk, and think like them, I am not sure if they should be awarded with such a noble concept of acceptance. Gravitation toward the familiar is as natural as eating and breathing, which in and of themselves are neither moral nor immoral, so why should such behavior be elevated and praised?
To me, acceptance means an act of reaching out to others despite obstacles. It requires something of you. It takes rising above yourself. I love what the Jordanian young woman at a peace conference in the Middle East said. "In order to make peace with your enemies, you have to go to war with yourself."
Show me a person who actively resists his/her natural tendencies to stay in the comfort zone and seeks to reach out to others despite hurdles. That is acceptance. If my fellow Koreans had reached out to blacks in the ashes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, that would have been acceptance. Sadly very little, if any, of that took place.
When a young girl named Agnes Bojaxhiu from an upper middle class family in Albania decided to dedicate her life to the poorest of the poor in India to later become known as Mother Teresa, that is acceptance.
If you are a Christian who believes that the Son of God came in human flesh to be among us and ultimately died for us on the cross in our place, that, ladies and gentlemen, is
Those of us who call ourselves Christians should understand that better than anyone. After all, we are the beneficiaries of the ultimate and greatest Gift of Acceptance from Jesus Christ. And because of that, we should be out there leading the world in demolishing racial and cultural barriers and demonstrate to the world what acceptance is all about, because of what Jesus did. We should be out there kicking butt.
Yet, eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is said to be the most segregated hour in America.
One sociological observation I have noted over the years is a strong correlation between a group’s willingness to integrate and the criticality of its mission.
At the one end of the spectrum is the military which integrated years before the civil rights era. When bullets from the enemy are flying, you couldn’t care less about the skin color or economic status of the person next to you when your life is hanging in the balance. "There is no time for race shit," a Marine who had just finished a tour in Iraq bluntly told me.
Then at the other end of the spectrum are casual social groups. Their "mission," if you will, consists of very little beyond simply having a good time. Bullets aren’t flying, but the booze is. Casual social groups tend to be very homogenious because they can afford to be. Good looks, money and popularity play huge factors. Hanging out with the prettiest people in the crowd will pay off handsomely as you work your way up the social hierarchy.
No sane Marine would employ that tactic while battling the insurgents in Feluja, or he'd be dead before he knew it.
What does it say about the church of Jesus Christ in America today? Do we not bear more resemblance to casual social circles than the military? Interestingly enough, the Bible is full of military metaphors in describing how we ought to live out our Christian lives. We are to be mindful of Satan's "fiery darts" in our spiritual struggles, but my Gawd, we act as though we have all the luxury in the world to sit next to people who look, act, and talk just like us while dodging those darts from the Devil.
Homogeneity and the Christian Church in America: Perhaps we Christians should channel our fervency and dedication to eradicating this kind of "homo" instead of obsessing with the sex kind.