My slanted eyes

There are very obvious landmark moments in my faith journey that have shaped my trust in Jesus: my baptism (complete with a line by line tribute to Steven Curtis Chapman for his adept water analogies wherein I was preparing to "dive in"), my involvement with InterVarsity in college, and my choice to pursue full-time ministry with their international student ministry department. They are places where I very clearly made commitments to follow Jesus into unknown spaces, believing that He would be sufficient for me.

But there have also been hidden times where I sensed there was an unknown space within myself where typical church frameworks for discipleship did not have vocabulary to follow. When people ask how to begin connecting the dots between their ethnicity, gender, and faith, I wish the tools were accessible and mainstream enough to point to a podcast, conference, or contemporary Christian music artist. The reality is that most of the discipleship around this area is a process of reflecting back and rediscovering moments as crucial as baptisms where Jesus was still so present but the church did not give us words. Sometimes uncovering these moments feels like waking up or reconstructing a more "woke" consciousness. Honestly, it just feels like I'm getting my relationship with Jesus back in a deeper and richer way. Here is a moment that, looking back, shaped me and molded me into a truer disciple:

My cousin and I are the Chinese ones.

My cousin and I are the Chinese ones.

I went to Botswana for my first short term missions trip when I was 17. I joined a team of 150 teens from around the nation and, with the exception of my cousin, was the only Asian-American woman. At first, I thought it was humorous that people assumed I was adopted and complimented my fluent English. Come on, I grew up in San Francisco- I'd never encountered such delightfully ignorant white people before! Their questions were so quaint and I was so novel! What a world!! And then we stood in a line to unload luggage at the missionary compound and I took my place in our zipper formation to pass along sleeping bags and duffels when the lead missionary shouted out: "We have a chink in the chain!"

And I was the chink.

I remember laughing and I remember the heat of a hundred eyes watching my reaction and joining in with relief.. I was glad my laughter brought them relief. It got worse from there because part of being a Sarah born in the 80's is that you have a lot of friends named Sarah. Luckily, I could be distinguished from the others because of my slanted eyes, apparently. And I remember being singled out by those hundred eyes crudely distorted into tiny slits by hundreds of white pointer fingers. 

And so I let them name me.

There is a double oppression at work when one is not only categorically mistreated because of the color of her skin, but when there is such an overwhelming current of hierarchy and power that she will use her laughter and gentleness to reaffirm the good intentions of the oppressor. I feel it every time someone cuts me in line and I immediately say "sorry" and give them more space. I feel it when I get interrupted in meetings and, when a more aware interrupter flashes me a remorseful glance to acknowledge what they did, I smile in the way all of us have learned to smile. 

To reclaim this experience is to realize that this missions organization simultaneously had a heart to love the nations and lacked the tools, experience, and posture to fully embody a reconciled community itself. They were wrong, their theology was incomplete, and frankly, they maintained a missionary worldview that enabled the laziest form of love. Secondly, my survival instincts were hella on point. Without anyone taking the time to prepare me for ultimate displacement as an Asian American on a white team in Sub-Saharan Africa, 17 years of being Chinese-American in this country had engrained specific intuitions that ultimately preserved white supremacy and left me shattered. For example, I cared more about the missionaries feeling embarrassed if I showed discomfort than realizing and expressing the discomfort I actually felt. Third, I assumed that the narratives of race weren't as important as the mission of the Gospel, meaning that any alienation I felt was rooted in my spiritual blindness rather than a system of injustice.

See, to the evangelical church in America, this missions trip was a pivotal faith moment because of the physical discomfort I'd brave in the "bushes" of Africa. It was pivotal because I would speak salvation to unsaved villages and would sacrifice my time and money to give to the Great Commission.

But looking back, allow me to reclaim my time. Because this trip was where I sacrificed my humanity to give white fragility a foothold. It is where I gave over my name, my eyes, my skin to missionaries who assumed salvation was written inherently in their white bodies. This trip was pivotal because I felt unaccepted, ashamed, and intrinsically flawed in a way I had never felt before. I know the American church loves seeing us move from glory to glory- from revelation to revelation of God's goodness, but I know from that summer in 2004 that the discipleship that has been my lasting foundation has been one where I went from glory to shame. I went from revelation to self-deception.

This is the baptism where I entered into a death the church never prepared me for, but I also discovered a resurrection the church still has no vision for.

A theology hidden in the alleys

My home church is the San Francisco Chinese Church of the Nazarene. My maternal grandmother started attending in 1957, my parents fell in love there (weird) and I spent way too many Sundays playing mediocre piano pieces during offering.

My home church is the San Francisco Chinese Church of the Nazarene. My maternal grandmother started attending in 1957, my parents fell in love there (weird) and I spent way too many Sundays playing mediocre piano pieces during offering.

I spent yesterday with an incredible team of Asian American women planning InterVarsity's Chinatown Program. This week long immersion for Chinese and Taiwanese American college students attempts to introduce an intergenerational theology that is embodied in family narratives and revealed in San Francisco Chinatown's history. There is an implicit discipleship of sacrifice, resilience, and gratitude woven in the Chinese American immigration experience and this program aims to cultivate a theology from within this lens. 

My experience in a multi-generational immigrant church felt awkward and separate from the wider evangelical network around me. My Sundays were off key hymns and bilingual sermons. There was an ongoing frustration about church that was often masked in language about family, surrender, and obedience. I think I get it now, though. Many of the Chinatown churches that served in the 1950's received little to no support from mainline denominations*- and certainly not contextualized resources for the Chinese and Chinese American congregations they were building. Almost in exact parallel to the hostility Chinese Americans faced throughout the nation, the notion that "we can survive because we are family" and "they can't take away what we have if we work hard enough to keep it" permeated monthly potluck sign ups and vacant Sunday School teacher roles. I am beginning to have a greater appreciation for the gift of resilience in Chinatown churches- that despite a world waiting for them to give up, they model the intensity and love that moves grandparents to learn Hillsong tunes and insists that the Christmas program must carry on. These churches look to the ones who came before them and those who come after them with a deep faith that these things are not in vain. This is, after all, a God who led Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

This is the story I hope Chinatown uncovers for students: the untold stories of struggling communities that grasped the light of the Gospel in a city that knew them only as strangers. I want to carve out space in my theology for the moments that Jesus made His name magnified when remodeled garages became sanctuaries. 


*Timothy Tseng// Protestantism in Twentieth-Century Chinese America: The Impact of Transnationalism on the Chinese Diaspora
The Journal of American-East Asian Relations
Vol. 13, Special Volume− Christianity as an Issue in the History of U.S.-China Relations (2004-2006)