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faith between the lines

This post is an adapted essay I recently wrote as part of my very first seminary application.  It fleshes out some of my faith background and understanding of a personal call to ministry.

In the Catholic tradition in which I was reared, children and adults selected patron saints to serve as protectors and role models, piecemeal guardian angels of sorts. Martyrs and apostles, writers and ecclesiastical provocateurs, these hallowed figures provided people of various professions with great comfort in times of confusion or distress.

As a person of faith, I claim spiritual sages from a number of social spheres – individuals whose ongoing impact can be felt directly or indirectly in my life, across the pull of time or locale.  Among my most profound influencers remain individuals like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Clive Lewis, Martin King, John Sykes, Tsuyoko Nakamura, Anne Lamott, Jorge Bergoglio, Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Not all of these people share an earthly plane or a Christian faith with me.  Yet I have called upon many voices, including some of theirs, to ask for intercession and prayers before God as I apply to seminary.

Like a proper veneration of the saints, the flow of liturgy, patterned as spiritual breathing, has a way of infusing souls with an appreciation for the women and men who came before us.  Worshipping in liturgical contexts has taught me to appreciate tradition, to look backwards and walk in the ways of spiritual ancestors whose examples have been faithfully passed down through generations; I believe that a healthy Christianity is community-driven, longstanding, collectively inspired.

Yet my faith is also something I consider something wholly my own.  This is because I have had to fight for my beliefs, against my own doubts as well as those who would strip me of my convictions.  Others once dominated the private contours of my faith, but now I know that this sacred act is mine, and ours, and cannot be robbed by outside judgment or disappointment.

church

I spent my early childhood attending a theologically progressive Japanese American church in Chicago.  My father, whom I deeply admire, decided to leave our congregation after a guest preacher mentioned that he was gay and partnered.  We migrated us to my mother’s Catholic church, where I was dutifully confirmed.  This period of my life was consistently interrupted by my parents’ embattled and vicious divorce, which altered custody so that my siblings and I were standing/kneeling among hymns and chants, crossing ourselves and smelling incense one Sunday, then singing popular praise songs, hands in the air, surrounded by thousands the next.

My mother soon came out of the closet.  I balked and rejected this, rallying in pain and frustration to a fundamentalist worldview that I now recognize as stifling.  Two years ago, I departed from this camp and, after telling others about my change of heart, underwent a season of severe spiritual abuse at the hands of my local faith community.  Since being shattered by this culture of altar calls, ex-gay ministries, female submission, and campus crusades, I’ve gradually gravitated towards more moderate articulations of faith, where I’ve healed and regained some of my trust in religious institutions.

Years ago, in the evangelical era of Adventures in Odyssey and Awana, I startled from my sleep, woke my father through hot tears.  He asked what was wrong. “I think God wants me to be a missionary,” I managed, “but I don’t want to live in a hut in the jungle.”  My father laughed, swelled with pride.  He pulled me close, glowing in the dark.

My early understandings of ministry held that one either had to inhabit the secular world or embrace celibacy and become a priest; go into finance, policing, or film or become a megachurch pastor, a missionary to an unreached tribal group.  My own understanding of vocation has changed since then. I was encouraged by the 2014 ordination of Chris Hedges, who 31 years ago was told by an ordination committee that his call to war correspondence and journalism was “invalid.”

I also delighted in learning that Mr. Rogers, another of my informal patron saints, deeply considered his work in children’s education nothing less than a full call to Christian ministry.  I know some churches ordain scholars, who bless God’s people through careful academics infused with sacrament and spirituality.  Truly, those who claim the Christian mantle have not only the right to name our sages but also to discern what unique ways God is calling us to further the kingdom.  Earth is not demarcated into spiritual and secular realms, but God’s calling pervades every inch of each of our lives – regardless of ordination status.

Pain prepares us for ministry,” an anonymous commenter (whom I suspect to be my father) said on a recent blog post I wrote on Selma, Ferguson, and my visit to a former internment camp. As a fifth generation Japanese American, I know that my own community has been particularly impacted by racialized oppression in this country.  I am interested in helping my neighbors from privileged and marginalized backgrounds explore how modern “powers and principalities” so often degrade our shared humanity, distorting the image of God in us all.  I am passionate about advancing these conversations in the church.  Like Chris Hedges and Mr. Rogers, I too feel a sense of calling towards accomplishing these good things by using my gifts of writing and connecting with others through play.

While my Roman Catholic and evangelical roots continue to influence my theology, I no longer identify with most popular expressions of these traditions.  Yet one of the reasons I am interested in studying theology is because my ecumenical commitments ensure that I will be able to remain in profound and playful dialogue with the traditions that at once housed, delivered, and afflicted me.  Through a deeper education, I hope to more fully inhabit the blank spaces in between the lines of my resume, as I learn to bring my outer actions and activisms into better alignment with my understanding of God’s values.

I know that our Lord and the saints have left us Christ-followers a series of holy examples.  I am eternally drawn towards the kind of otherworldly hospitality, beauty, and interconnectedness exemplified in the Eucharist, demonstrated in all those who risk and sacrifice for their neighbor during times of great persecution.  I stand amazed at the awesome justice and solidarity that God demonstrated through the incarnation and the at-one-ment, replicated in small part every time a member of a powerful group empties themselves of privilege.  I believe any theological reflection worth its salt must begin on the margins, among the dispossessed and the overlooked – the “crucified peoples of history.”  This is where the body of Christ is meant to dwell, and this is where I want to spend myself.

blacklist these UIUC businesses this Unofficial (and always)

Offensive imagery is a big problem on our campus.  That is, the entrenched white supremacy that formed and birthed my institution of higher learning resists erasure in powerful ways.  Each year we see a familiar slew of problems – in residence halls, some students hang Confederate flags and declare their southern pride; others, like the skinhead and ROTC student on the first floor of my friend’s apartment building (on campus) not only proudly displays a large Swastika flag and Nazi paraphernalia to all outside his window, but also blasts Third Reich-era music during weekend ragers (it’s okay, the apartment is “world war two themed.”)

Actions like these are rarely addressed, but they are at least generally frowned upon by administrators and students alike.  Yet an exception is made when it comes to the racist fake Native imagery around town, surrounding our school’s former mascot.  We in the Champaign-Urbana community constantly see the casual pardoning of blatantly racist bullshit when it comes to the Chief, whether we’re in class, out socializing, or just walking around campustown.

a display on the te shurt website

a display on the te shurt website, a t shirt shop nestled in the heart of campus

 

This trope plays out in particular around Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day every Spring.  What sets this holiday apart from the vast majority of banal student-coined drinking holidays across American universities – aside from Unofficial being invented by local bar owners instead of students themselves – is that many fiscally-minded students and community members take this opportunity each year to further a number of racist images revolving around the fictional Chief Illiniwek, our school’s former mascot.  T-shirts are sold and kitschy memorabilia distributed, all celebrating our school’s extremely racist and not-so-distant past icon.

Binge drinking isn’t healthy, but it’s honestly a personal choice, and it’s college, so you might not be surrounded by those who use alcohol responsibly, particularly if you’re a member of the Greek system.  But drinking aside, I stand with my fellow embarrassed university alumni and students who have had our inboxes flooded each year with unsolicited advertisements for Chief-themed paraphernalia.  We are embarrassed that while our university and various departments send us students emails year after year asking us not to participate in glorifying alcohol abuse for this “dying holiday,” never have the racist images that reemerge each March been publicly addressed.

UIUC's chief is a proud tradition of white supremacy

UIUC’s chief is a proud tradition…of white supremacy

My friend Ross recently asked his Facebook friends to give him the names of businesses in the Champaign-Urbana community who support fake Native American imagery so he can withhold his patronage from them.  Based off comments on that thread, I’ve created what I hope will become a running list of businesses, administrators, and organizations in the UIUC community who actively support white supremacy, settler colonialism, and anti-Native sentiment in the name of “protecting tradition” and propagating irresponsible and racist depictions of indigenous peoples.

In short, if you’re going to sanction and hallow white supremacy in the name of making a buck, we are not going to support your business.  Below are some of the places (and people) to avoid in Champaign-Urbana, listed along with their specific transgressions, if possible.  Without further ado, here are your neighborhood establishments to avoid this Unofficial, and always:

Bars

Legends – their website displays the photo of a man in a Chief costume and reads: “The Chief Lives On at Legends: Come see the life-sized statue commemorating Chief Illiniwek and other Illini legends.”  If being assailed by a polyester, life-sized racist costume behind a glass case is your thing, stop by Legends honor these Legendary acts of white supremacy and more with daily drink specials.

KAMS: Home of the Drinking Illini – so that’s the actual full name of the bar?  Not surprising.  If the place’s vomit-imbued atmosphere and dank fraternity vibe wasn’t enough reason to skip out, the large murals of the Chief displayed on the floor and wall inside and outside might be another reason.

Restaurants

TGI Fridays – a gigantic Chief mural is emblazoned across the wall of their restaurant.  The community considers them martyrs for keeping this up.  (UPDATE: this branch is apparently recently closed.)

Orange and Brew

Dos Reales – Chief paraphernalia on display

Zorba’s

The Ribeye – Chief paraphernalia and photos everywhere.

UPDATE: Kofusion. Apparently their on-campus location has started selling a Chief roll. Honestly, as a Japanese American, their sushi is gaudy and cut rate anyway. Head over to Sakanaya instead for a better deal.

Stores

Evergreen Tobacco – among other Chief products, they apparently sell this travesty of a shirt.  If you’re really set on purchasing expensive smoking products on campus, make sure to buy your cigarettes, cigars, hookahs, and weed-rolling shit elsewhere.

Te Shurta slew of fake Native imagery is mostly how this clothing business makes a profit.  Our school’s former mascot stands as a statue in the display of their store, half a block from the heart of campus.

T.I.S Bookstorean entire department of racist paraphernalia and merchandise is featured on their website and in the store.  A large picture of white men dressed as Native Americans is emblazoned on a far wall and a life-sized cardboard cutout (of white dude dressed as the Chief) is placed near the exit.

Realty Offices

Village at Colbert Park – they handed out Chief-themed shirts to advertise for their rental apartment properties last year.

University Affiliates

Office of the University President – has a Chief mascot displayed in a painting on his wall.

Our current Student Trustee – purportedly has a Chief flag displayed in his office.

Sports

The UIUC Hockey team – they have Chief insignia on each of their team/sweater polos UPDATE: apparently they no longer print the chief, though I have seen old Chief-themed polos THAT SAY UIUC HOCKEY TEAM being worn around the ice rink.

Football Games – do not. Do not. Do not go if you are triggered or upset by anti-Native racism.

UPDATE: Other

First Federal Bank in Champaign

* * * * *

Blacklisting these businesses is a good start.  Emailing the owners (especially if they’re corporate branches?) might be a good idea as well, in addition to informing them directly why they are no longer going to receive your patronage.

I know I’m missing quite a few.  What did I forget?  Fill me in here.  I will update this list as necessary – email suggestions to arealrattlesnake@gmail.com or leave them as a comment below; if the above information is inaccurate, let me know as well and I’ll update it with apologies.  If an establishment removes their racist image, I will remove them from the list.

from the inside out

This January, my significant other and I boarded a plane and headed to Portland for the Gay Christian Network (GCN) conference.  Attending this event has become what I hope will remain an annual tradition for us; catching up with old friends and making new ones in this unexpected and indescribably holy space is something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

While there, I co-facilitated an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) lunch and breakout session with my friend Kris*, a gay college student and Bible study leader with a large parachurch ministry whose official stance on same sex relationships is strictly nonaffirming.  Before we ate, Kris and I asked everyone in attendance to introduce themselves and briefly outline their church and work affiliations.  My stomach twisted into thick knots as one of the men in our group shared that he was a decades-old staffer with an organization that I have experienced significant hardships with.  The last time I felt my insides curdle in this way was at another LGBT Christian conference this fall, where I met Brent*, an openly gay man and longtime staff member for the same ministry.  Both of these men, I was surprised to learn, are seeking to create positive change for the LGBT people in their midst, trying to reform Cru from the inside out.  While I would literally rather eat a live beetle than ever return to an event affiliated with their employer, I couldn’t help but appreciate their example and marvel at their staying.

catching up with old friends at GCN

catching up with old friends at GCN

There is something innately subversive and special about discreetly inhabiting a religious space from which you are unjustly excluded.  My friend Morgan, a Methodist minister, has written about the inexplicable glee and bliss he receives from attending Catholic mass, dwelling on the sufferings of Christ on certain holy days, taking outlaw communion when he is feeling bold.  I too know the pleasures of worshipping in the pews of churches where no one knows me. The anonymity can be liberating.  Dipping my fingers in holy water that isn’t mine, praying with people who don’t know what a screwup I can be, this is profound.  Yet I’ve also kneeled in my local church, surrounded by warm faces, and thought to myself “if these people really knew how I felt, they would not accept me.”  That’s probably the loneliest I’ve felt, in the house of God or just about anywhere else.

For those of us who have been deeply wounded by religion, the prospect of re-entering these spaces strikes us with debilitating anxiety.  In the two years since I was hurt, I’ve never rejoined a college ministry, never reinvested in meaningful relationships with a church community.  This is why I can’t help but gape at – and struggle to trust, at times – the examples of friends and colleagues who are capable of doing the kind of advocacy work I want to do, from within nonaffirming environments.

I’m talking about people like the woman who wrote this article.  People like my friend Stan*, the gay lawyer-in-training at Harvard, and my friend Manuel*, the young transgender humanitarian and nonprofit leader, both of whom advocate for the full inclusion of gender and sexual minorities from the pews of their beloved Catholic church.  I’m talking about people like my friend Allen*, the gay triathlete and community leader at Tim Keller’s church in New York City who runs a support and visibility group for LGBT worshippers at Redeemer, or Amy*, who is queer and starting a safe network to help connect LGBT and LGBT-affirming InterVarsity students who are seeking to change the organization as a whole.

These people prove that one can do the hard work of changing minds and hearts from within constructs that are not entirely welcoming.  And yet, for me, and perhaps others who have been lacerated by cutting conversations and in-pulpit condemnations, these spaces feel too dangerous. We have been bled out by too many tight smiles, barbed emails, impassioned shouts, whispered indictments, sharp glances.  We cannot picture going back.

a photo of the wonderful AAPI lunch we shared at GCN

a photo of the wonderful AAPI lunch we shared at GCN

When I finally changed my mind on same sex relationships, it my worldview lurched ninety degrees counter-clockwise.  My core theology, my campus ministry, my churches, all my favorite authors, and many of my closest friends, I realized in a series of mental nuclear strikes, were all completely wrong.  I quickly began to see all their teaching as questionable, their every statement morally bankrupt.  My personal litmus test on which trust depended became: what does this person think of LGBT people?  A wavering or cruel answer in this arena was often enough to write the person off as unsafe, thoroughly untouchable.

I’m not one of those people who spends eternities mourning my past.  This was a developmental stage I had to move through.  Yet I lost a lot of relationships.  I had to leave my church.  Worse happened.  And then I heard Julie’s* story, how she is serving as the worship leader for a large nonaffirming evangelical church, where she openly advocates for LGBT people with the full weight of her position.  Baffled, I wondered – what did I do wrong?  Why was I so brash, so impatient?  Still, I ask, could I have done things different, better, and have remained connected and respected on the inside of my church and ministry while I subtly tried to further our cause?

When I am feeling cynical or hurt, I tell myself that the Julies*, who work from the inside, must not be doing all they can, or else they would have been pushed out as I was.  On my more responsible days, I own part of what happened to me, and my Catholic roots harken me back to Vatican II, where the church first encouraged its faithful to “recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found” in other faith traditions.

In other words, I don’t have the fullness of truth in my corner and real good is being done outside of my post-evangelical camp.  There are plenty of folks faithfully grinding away with access far beyond my own, carefully advancing human dignity and the kingdom in the closed settings in which they labor.  These people remain an important part of organizations my finger has left the pulse of, serving as conscientious objectors against broad currents that refuse to affirm the dignity of LGBT persons.

Others of us, of course, cautiously inhabit the outer fringes of these circles, where we continue to stand as interested observers and passionate advocates for those who, like us, have been expelled from religious communities and been scarred deeply by these experiences.

We are owed an apology by somebody.  Probably, by a whole group of somebodies.  We are due reparations we may never receive, so instead, many of us innovate, fight for the survival of our faith.  We shore up our own resources, building tangled coalitions of perpetual outsiders: Gay Christian Networks, Despised Ones, AnaBlacktivists, Killjoy Prophet Collectives.  We lay claim to a number of improvised saints.  Rachel Held Evans sings our stories with unique talent; Merton captures our doubts, Baldwin and Hedges our pent-up rage, Lewis our curiosity.  Hozier is our prophet.

Really, I shouldn’t speak for each of us, so I’ll only speak for me: I would do well to learn from the example of those who are inhabiting the spaces I am too terrified to let myself get close to right now.  Change is possible on this and a number of issues, and each of us has an important role to play; we need folks in the trenches and nurses and doctors outside of the fray, applying salves and patching wounds.  My hope is that I am able to heal, slowly and surely, and one day get to the point where I can have these conversations in person rather than spilling my insides out online.  Until then, I’ll be here on the outside, cheering on my friends who are doing the work from within, and ministering to my fellow wanderers.

on selma, the curve of time, and being born again

I’ve felt intense, enduring pangs of pain and sorrow at a few pointed moments this past year.  On some of these occasions, my sadness manifested sharply and solely as a sort of deep grief, the kind I felt when a musician played taps at my grandfather’s burial.  At other times, the pressure in my head and heart has been more akin to feelings of intense, helpless anger at some cruel betrayal.

The first time in recent memory that I can remember feeling this way was in June, when I visited a former American concentration camp on a pilgrimage with Japanese American youth.  As I looked over barbed wire and metal gates, I couldn’t help but thinking of family members who were locked up in camps like these, and all the innocent people who were torn from their homes by police officers and FBI agents and incarcerated here.

The next time my chest felt like it was going to collapse was on the night of the Ferguson grand jury verdict. I wept silently as my family cast strange glances and threw weighty barbs in my direction. That night, I stayed up alone, angry and afraid for countless hours, my face lit up blue in the bedroom dark as I scrolled through social media reading friends’ alternating reactions of pain and glee.

Earlier this month at a weeklong retreat called Leadershape, I again felt this refrigerator-grade weight pushing down on my rib cage, grating at my chest like acid.  The sixty or so students in attendance participated in an interactive simulation meant to evoke incisive comparisons to class/ism (and perhaps poverty and race). It felt like I was on the front lines of the Stanford prison experiment.  Many of us felt crushed or traumatized after we examined the implications of our behavior – I myself was cut to the bone by my own actions and particularly by the ways that the most privileged groups acted when it came to looking out for those of us on the way, way bottom.

a snapshot from Ava DuVernay's Selma

a snapshot from Ava DuVernay’s Selma

Shortly after this I was fortunate enough to see the spiritual epic that is Ava DuVernay’s Selma.  I cannot express how much I believe that every American – black, white, whatever color you claim – should see this film.  The intimate glimpses of the tale (of Malcolm and Martin, of nonviolence and brutality) that we are exposed to in this movie is an integral part of our country’s history. As Americans from all backgrounds and nationalities, we must recognize that billy clubs, police hoses, confederate flags, and staunch, segregationist state-sponsored terrorists comprise our collective inheritance. Black, white, Latino, Arab, Japanese American, we all inhabit different spheres of this history and its legacy impacts us differently, but its marks, scars, martyrs and heroes remain.

White folks should see Selma for the same reason they should read books like Farewell to Manzanar, or reckon with Solomon Northup’s journey – if you are a product of the American educational system, it is likely that these stories have been glossed over at best, obscured and swept aside at worst. White folks should seek to understand these historic brutalities in order to better recognize their complicity in upholding modern racist frameworks. (White Christians in particular might seek to also learn how they might come to the cross of Jesus in the name of repentance from the white supremacy that infects the cultural air we all breathe.)

I would encourage my friends of color to see Selma because it is the telling of the stories of the underdog. Because before the civil rights movement was ever viewed as a positive thing, before Dr. King was ever called Dr. King by white folks, there was a burgeoning and bloodied movement for justice and freedom that upset the president, the FBI, white liberals, and millions of Northern and Southern segregationists. The series of moments in history captured in this film serve as important reminders of how far we still have to come, and it helped me connect to the not-so-distant past in a novel way.

a plant blooming in the desert dirt of Manzanar

My friend Broderick has written about the curve of time, asking what would change if we viewed time as an ocean rather than as a flat trajectory.  I played with this same idea in a personal reflection after visiting Manzanar: if we see time as a sort of stream, we find that past trauma can revisit us in startling ways, as if these atrocities aren’t ancient history but mere inches away. If we understand the passage of time as winding and fluid, then the suffering in places like Manzanar, Selma, Dachau, and Ferguson is not only intertwined, but more than inclined to hit each of its descendants just as hard with each new breath.

This always feels like a breaking down. You turn on the news and see death in the streets of your country, murderers walking free. A parent sits you down on a couch and tells you that your mom and dad are getting a divorce. Your sibling calls you sobbing and asks why she can’t live with you anymore. You visit a Californian concentration camp, and wonder where all the good (white) people were. A family matriarch succumbs to mental illness and your heart tightens in fear of your own future. A friend comes out to you and your heart shatters, wondering why you weren’t there for her more. You discover human trafficking going on in your home town.

I look back at the times that I have felt destroyed. The pain in my chest has always felt like a forest fire, a dam bursting. There is this overwhelming period of hurt and circulatory congestion, but it is usually followed by a kind of growth. Something sprouts from the ashes not long after. I’ve honestly been made harder, better, faster, stronger by the things that have shattered me (na, na, na, that that don’t kill me…).

We improve, our eyes and ears continually open to the world, and we affirm the possibility for positive change. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his memoir, “You know one way or the other we all get touched…All the truly living, at least once, are born again.” This sounds similar to something my uncle Warner said reflecting on his interview with George Wallace (played by Tim Roth in Selma) towards the end of the former governor’s life: “people can become something different.”

I’m not entirely sure how to conclude these thoughts. Maybe it’s enough to reaffirm that the past has a way of winding around and breaking us apart, paving the way for new possibilities going forward. In my experience, healing can begin to enter when we remain open to this process, and to the depths of human emotion and intensity that accompany it.

This doesn’t always cut it. But it’s sometimes enough to light up our faces with hope, resplendent with the glow of tomorrow’s promise.

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