Sunday, March 11, 2018

Exodus, exile, and yearning for a ground to rest in

The ascendancy of Donald Trump is fraught for Christian evangelicals of color; after all, most of their white co-religionists embraced an unapologetic racist. New York Times reporter Campbell Robertson became aware that many black evangelicals seemed to be drifting away from largely white evangelical churches since the 2016 election. He reported sensitively on the trend, passing along this poignant quote:

“It said, to me, that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church,” said Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta. Early last year, Professor Walker-Barnes left the white-majority church where she had been on staff. Like an untold number of black Christians around the country, many of whom had left behind black-majority churches, she is not sure where she belongs anymore.

“We were willing to give up our preferred worship style for the chance to really try to live this vision of beloved community with a diverse group of people,” she said. “That didn’t work.”

Some U.S. evangelicals of color have long been striving to live their faith without feeling they had to take on a white Christianity that erased their roots, their families, their cultures. In January, Religion Dispatches published an interview with sociologist Russell Jeung under the pugnacious headline “I Think the White Evangelical Church is Dead”: on ‘Guilt’ vs. ‘Shame’ and Decolonizing Asian-American Christianity. The professor told correspondent Deborah Jian Lee how he sees Asian evangelicals adapting:

The American sense of doing justice is that things are unfair and so, you’d have to make things more fair. It’s a very individualistic, process-oriented sense of justice. I argue that the Asian’s sense of justice isn’t about fairness. It’s about right relationships and corporate responsibility.

It’s not about you individually losing your rights; it’s about people not being responsible for other people. Injustice occurs when people aren’t taking care of others. It’s when the government isn’t being responsible for the people. It’s when families don’t take care of each other. Justice is when people take corporate responsibility for each other. It shifts the sense of justice from being an individualized thing to a corporate thing and from a thing that’s rights-oriented to something that’s responsibility-oriented.

... Since the racial reconciliation movement, people of color have been going to these justice conferences and spoken to young white audiences about these issues. The white vote just disheartened me… all this effort, all these conversations and conferences… they haven’t made a dent. ...

Dr. Jeung, a long time resident of a tough Oakland Asian-immigrant neighborhood, has elaborated in a memoir on how his own life led him to a Christian faith inflected by his Chinese ancestral culture. At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus among My Ancestors and Refugee Neighbors is about Jeung learning who he is, and who his neighbors are. After graduating from San Francisco's Lowell High School and Stanford, he moved by choice and in faith into a decaying rental building populated by very poor Cambodian refugees, in a neighborhood of Mexican and Guatemalan undocumented laborers. What did he do there? Live and learn among his neighbors.

As I read the Bible at Oak Park, I realized that many of God's words, though offered to all, were directed to the poor and for the poor. .. When I was a stranger and new to Oakland, children and grandmothers invited me in. When I was hungry, they fed me bagel dogs. When I was thirsty, they offer me drink. For twenty years, this community of refugees took this privileged, wandering guy into their family and embraced me.

In Oakland, he reflected on what he had learned from his Chinese roots. His people who immigrated to California were Hakkas, an underclass minority in China who were landless, "guest people." His great grandmother was a tough character, fishing abalone in Monterey Bay until white merchants burned out the little Chinese settlement and the family ended up in San Francisco Chinatown. His father served in World War II, took advantage of the G.I. bill to complete college, and by the time Russell was growing up, had joined the Chinese middle class. Living in Oakland, Jeung came to name his identity:

I am a Hakka, a guest person. My identity derives from a simple, agrarian people who lived on the hillsides that no one wanted, dressed in black, and wore hats with curtains. And ate food that looked like crap.

My family in the United States were working class, people of color. They were victims of institutional discrimination, forcible removal, segregation, stereotyping, and underemployment.

I am grateful that God redeems this history. Yet, along with this redemption, I am reclaiming this history and my identity as a Chinese Hakka.

After many years, Jeung eventually helped his neighbors win a legal fight to have their building restored to habitability. In that context he discovered that, though living standards were improved, other qualities of his community that he valued were lost. Many of his neighbors

adopted American suburban lifestyles: privatized and nuclear family centered. ... Today, a decade later, I feel like I've lost the community that gave me so much joy, meaning, and friendship. I once again feel like a Hakka, in exile from home and community, Was justice won? This question haunts me. As an American Christian, I expect -- and even feel entitled to justice and happy endings. Some of us are optimistic and hopeful that we can effect social change ...

... Settling down, building family ties, and taking on mutual responsibility for one another is the first step in doing God's justice. Righteousness, and then peace, emerge when we are rooted and invested in each other's lives and take responsibility for each other. In the United States, we tend to believe that justice is an individual right that we need to defend. For [his Cambodian elder neighbor] Bech Chuom, justice required assuming one's corporate responsibility: we are obligated to take care of one another, and reciprocate the care we have received. In this sense, injustice occurs when we do not take care of one another, whether on an individual or systemic level.

Dr. Jeung's faith culture is not mine, but I can easily join with Dr. Jeung in affirming that all healthy cultures hold in high esteem both service to others from individuals and collective social responsibility, truths undervalued by our polity and society.

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