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.
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.