Do you ever wonder this? I do these days, especially while cringing at the public display of self-professed Evangelicals like Roy Moore or that pastor who got a standing ovation for admitting sexual assault or so-called Christians online who spew hatred against anyone who doesn’t look like them. It seems as if religion continues (as it always has) to be yet another platform for the worst instincts in humankind.
Now, I acknowledge that these examples only reflect the public Christianity of a certain majority culture. Are there other "types"? Of course. Is there a Christianity of a more private, distinctly minority Christian experience? Yes, my own, in fact. Did I realize its impact on my life before this week? No, not really.
Like many Chinese students who arrived here in the 1970's, my parents first experienced Christianity through the local families who took them in. These Americans welcomed students to their new country by inviting them into their homes, feeding them, hosting them for holidays, and introducing them to pastimes like apple-picking. This generosity ran so deep that the couple who took in Chinese students in Cincinnati even threw my parents' wedding! I don't know my real grandparents well, but Grandpa and Grandma Smith have been there my entire life. I spent my first Christmas at their house, clutching the little stocking they gave me. They read us books and told us stories. After Grandpa Smith passed away, Grandma Smith made the trip to cheer me on at my college graduation. For birthdays and holidays, she sent handwritten cards and homemade gifts and the tastiest cookies. At 93, she still keeps up with all of her grandchildren, real and adopted, like me. She is the very paragon of what a Christian should be - attuned to the needy, open and loving to all.
It’s no wonder then, that many of these immigrants planted their new community in a church. Ours was Cincinnati Chinese Church, or CCC, as we called it, and for many in the area, it is a safe enclave in a foreign land, a place where newcomers are welcomed, a surefire place to seek help. The church grew quickly because the earlier arrivals were quick to pay forward the hospitality they had received. The more established immigrants became the ones driving church vans to Asian grocery stores, cooking hot meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, translating for people in courts and hospitals, visiting with the sick. Religion, for these, was nothing short of a lifeline from social isolation. As I grew up at CCC, I could see that, even if I didn’t feel it myself.
I always assumed I didn’t need any of those benefits. Yes, it was great for newcomers, but for us ABC’s, it could be a burden. I called it “CCC(CC)” - CCC with two extra layers of conservatism from parents stuck in the Chinese cultural mores of the 70’s, plus a conservative brand of Christianity. I bristled when the adults got into my business, commenting on my dress, appearance, behavior, etc. (turns out, that’s just how Asian moms roll). Also, I questioned certain views propounded by our elders. When I traveled to South African schools to help build sex-ed programs to prevent HIV/AIDS, I got articles sent to me about the (purported) efficacy of abstinence-only education. As I struggled to make sense of the world and my role in it, CCC(CC) sometimes marked a division between what I was told and what I believed to be true.
When I left home for college, I kept some aspects of organized religion. I like the ethic of service to others; I appreciate the perspective that I am just a small part of a bigger universe; and I love a good sermon. Not the gentle, feel-good sermon, full of saccharine anecdotes from Chicken Soup for the Soul and teaching me nothing new, but one that tackles a Bible verse swaying like a cobra and wrestles it to the ground. I sought out preachers who could convincingly lead you through a complex argument, artfully unpack an opaque text, or paint an image of some huge idea - like love, or heaven, or right and wrong - in a way that forever changed how you thought about it. I hate taking notes in class, but I whip out my notepad for a good sermon! As for the the rest of church? I found myself shying away from social expectations, conformity, weak debate, and the feeling that I fell short no matter what I did. So I took to listening to my favorite pastors on the radio -- all of the intellectual exercise without any of the human judgment. But with no one to keep me accountable, that wasn’t even worth it after a while.
Until this week, I assumed that I had mostly tolerated church. But this week, I was reminded that I had gained something of immense value: the fellowship of all of those kids who grew up there with me. On Sundays, we went to Sunday School. On Friday nights, we went to youth group (after which we all honed our free throw shots in the attached gym). During the week, we went to Bible studies at each others’ houses, where the kids went straight to the basement to play video games, emerging only when the parents were done and dessert was served. To this day, I can tell you the layout of everyone’s basement and what Super NES or Sega Genesis games they had. Oh, and what snacks their moms made best.
On top of these regular meetings, we went to summer retreats with other Chinese churches in the midwest. We sometimes even went on group vacations! Man. We spent A WHOLE LOT OF TIME TOGETHER. But during that time, as petty teens and internet trolls do, I focused on differences. I was a nerd, you were a jock, he was trying to be black, she was trying to be white, they were rich, they were poor, etc. And as we grew up, we mostly went our separate ways.
Last week we lost one of our own, one of us “kids.” He was 33. The last time I saw him was five years ago, but his passing still hit close to home. It made me realize that, despite my angst, I had not just one but more like 20 brothers and sisters growing up. I remember that for some years after we left home, we would still gather at Christmas to catch up and hang out, and those moments of sharing were the most vulnerable we could be all year. People could drop the cool and confident facades they wore in front of classmates and coworkers and instead be real and break down about how hard medical school was, about how lonely it was after college, about how love and loss never seem to get any easier. You could be a bit of a mess because we’d all seen each other in braces and bad haircuts and tough times and all kinds of awkwardness for years. Turns out, church was an enclave for us too - filled with a form of love that’s hard for me to describe.
As I keep up with people’s lives on Facebook, the overwhelming emotion I feel is pride. I am just so damn proud to be a part of this crew. I honestly marvel at how life has given us all a chance to find our way, to keep figuring out what it means to be good people. As the years fly by, I’ve realized that we have so much more in common than our differences.
So. Despite my own contribution to the smallness and arrogance that can characterize organized religion, I’m grateful for all the giving and loving aspects of the church I had. Losing one of our own, far too soon, reminds me again to live out those aspects in my own life. After all, isn’t any belief only as compelling as the individual professing it? That’s on us, 100%.