The following words were shared during my personal testimony for AAHM at River City Community Church (Chicago) on Sunday May 5th, 2013. Some of the sentences have been edited for clarity, but the content remains the same. Please feel free to contact me with your feedback. I’d love to connect with you. (@themarktao / http://www.facebook.com/marktao)
Last week our small group decided to take an outing to get some Beijing Duck at a Chinese restaurant in Uptown. If you haven’t had it, I would definitely suggest you try it sometime.
I was excited for this trip as I had grown up eating Beijing Duck with my family. It was a special treat to have Beijing Duck. In fact, the last memories I have of my grandfather before the decline of his physical and mental health robbed him of his ability to go out were of eating Beijing Duck together.
But I will have to tell you, I was disappointed with my experience in Uptown. It was not just that the Duck was sub-par and served with unexpected accompaniments. Something felt off about the environment. What I perceived around me was discordant from my familial experience growing up and eating Beijing duck with my family.
The first point of discomfort came from observing the norms of other, mostly white, clientele in the packed out restaurant. They seemed to do things a lot differently. They were boisterous, drank soft drinks and alcohol rather than tea and water. They helped themselves individually to the food as it was set out, rather than serving other table members first.
But most surprising to me was when the waitress brought out a young roast suckling pig (head, legs, tail and all), set it by a neighboring table, and prepared to cut it up. Immediately, a surge of seated guests rose from their tables and went paparazzi; welding their iphones in force they began snapping pictures, Instagramming them, posting on Facebook, and uploading to Twitter. I began to hurt inside.
Perhaps I was over-reacting, but the incident stirred some painful memories in me. I’m sure these well-meaning folks were not intending at all any kind of animosity, ill-will, or disrespect but rather were merely curious as you or I would be to come across something different.
And yet, I pause to think about what could be happening on a subconscious level when we indulge our fascination with the “other”. Was the food bizarre or foreign enough that it merited taking photographs? Who gets to define what bizarre or foreign is anyway?
To me, growing up in a Chinese immigrant household, seeing and consuming whole roast duck and suckling pig was not an oddity- rather it was the norm. Thus, for me the oddity was to see random people clustering around perfectly normal food taking pictures.
In a strange way, I have often felt that the experience of being Chinese in America or Chinese American is similar to being treated like a Beijing duck or whole suckling pig. On the basis of the color of my skin, my complexion, and appearance I am often viewed as that which is foreign despite the fact that I was born, raised, educated, and work in the U.S.
I cannot count the number of times I have been asked, “Where are you from?” with the expected answer being “China”. I have been told a number of times that my English is pretty good. People have asked me if I know Jackie Chan, assuming we are related or that I practice martial arts. They are puzzled why I am offended when they visit Chinatown and purchase rice hats believing the apparel to essential to the Chinese experience. They think I am innately good at math and that I am a passive, timid, or subservient person without having interacted with me much at all. The list goes on and on.
My point is this. At the restaurant that night I was simply reminded that if we are not careful we can fall prey into a kind of behavior that excludes (however unintentionally) that which seems different from ever having belonging or acceptance.
Let me share with you that as these thoughts were racing through my head that night, my response to what I perceived was neither productive nor faithful to the gospel. I simply shut down. I withdrew and mentally checked out and my mind wandered to find my own happy place. And I was surprised to find that this happy place was a reminiscence of my childhood and being together with my extended family eating together at the common table.
Now, finding that I had retreated to this happy place of my childhood was amusing for me; namely because I did not have some sort of idyllic childhood. So I was left with the question, “Why, when I was feeling marginalized, did I run to this image of my family?”
The answer I came to was this; “Because I had a need to belong, to be understood, to not have to try so hard to be understood”. Although my family is far from perfect, my household allowed me the room to be myself in a bi-cultural space as I attempted to negotiate life on the hyphen between Asian and American.
I think that the need to belong is a pretty common human desire. And the nature of belonging itself (no matter what the group) is a privilege, not an entitlement. Group belonging means not only acceptance, but embrace.
I feel that there is some connection between this idea of perfect belonging and what reconciliation is. In my view, reconciliation is a restoration to right relationship, a return to the way things were always meant to be. This is what Christ lived, died, and rose again for; that through participation in his body and blood, we can have new life and be reconciled to the Father and to one another.
When I think of the eternal life that scripture promises, I don’t think of personal mansions and lavish material riches. Nor do I think of some disembodied spiritual realm where saved souls go to dwell forever. No, the book of Revelation Ch.21 tells us that in the end the new Jerusalem will come down, the earth and all of creation will be healed, and we will live in peace. There will no longer be wrongdoing. Past wrongs will not be remembered. Every people and nation and tribe and tongue will be united. We will celebrate diversity without division. We will not slander each other, nor hate each other on the basis of our differences. But there will be only love and laughter, and we will discover more about ourselves than we could ever imagine, glorifying God hand in hand.
And I am reminded that the process of becoming a reconciled people is not too far off in the distant future, but rather it is a present reality that has already begun. With Christ’s death and resurrection, the Kingdom of God has already broken into the world. Through Christ, the Church is called to be a witness to the reality that we are no longer in bondage to sin and death, though we are still very much a broken people in need of Grace.
But the sad thing is the church is often the worst perpetrator of exclusion, uncritically subscribing to the injustices of our time rather than resisting them. It has often been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. Instead of being communities that gather together under the foot of cross, and by our participation in the body and the blood reflect the broad tapestry of the image of God, we fashion our communities to be in our own image. Our churches have become little more than social clubs based on sameness; sameness of race, education, class, interests, politics, and personalities. In such communities of sameness, there is really little room for reconciliation- for what is there to be reconciled if we all feel that we get along so well already?
The church is called to a different witness. We are called to be unified in Christ, but that does not mean sameness. To the contrary, it means we need to learn how to celebrate our differences, speak the truth when there is wrongdoing, and seek forgiveness from each other when we marginalize or diminish one another.
I have been attending River City now for over 7 years. I am grateful that this church has truly become a community of belonging for me. During my years here I have formed bonds with brothers and sisters who have taught me to value difference, who have been patient with me in my moments of ignorance, and who have challenged me when I have participated in wrongdoing either by virtue of what I had done or left undone. I am grateful that River City has upheld reconciliation as one of its key pillars and is committed to that vision. I am grateful that being in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural body of believers has forced me to learn my own heritage better. I am grateful that River City has broadened my view of the Kingdom of God to include people who are nothing like me, except that they love Christ. But, I am also grateful that there is still much work to be done. We haven’t arrived yet.
I urge you to keep going; to persevere in making reconciliation a way of life. It’s easy to feel at times like giving up, to ask yourself whether it is really worth the struggle, the misunderstanding, and the pain. But I think if we are making any progress at all, struggle, mis-understanding, and pain might be good signs that we aren’t satisfied with merely co-existing in the same space, but that we’re committed to loving each other not because it’s the politically correct thing to do, but because it’s what God has intended for us to do. It would be easy for us to retreat to our own constructed communities of sameness when things get personal, but I ask you to keep sight of the cross through which liberation comes.
Reconciliation takes sacrifice. Wrongdoers must claim their wrongdoing and repent. When we abuse the power and the privileges we have been given, we must come before the throne of God and ask for mercy. When we suffer wrongdoing we must learn to forgive, even if it is only in time that we can. May we as River City Community church continue to live in a cruciform way, in solidarity and service to those who are hurting, believing that the reconciling work we undertake here by the grace of God will pave the way for new legacies of love in the future. Amen.
 See Miroslav Volf, End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World for more on this idea