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This is the first in our occasional column called “Beginnings of Consciousness” where various Asian American Christian voices will share how they started connecting race and culture to their faith.
. . .
Knowing I was a part of InterVarsity (IV), a non-Christian non-Asian friend pulled me aside and asked me if my college fellowship was purposefully aimed towards Asians. I remember furiously shaking my head, “No, in fact, I stuck with InterVarsity because it is not exclusively Asian.” I was taken aback; I was startled. I don’t just hang out with Asians. I’m friends with all people. Why she would even think of such a question puzzled me. How strange for her to see my race. Shouldn’t she be sophisticated enough to see no color? And then I thought about it some more.
Though not Asian American by name or intent, our IV chapter was indeed predominately Asian American. But it was a non-issue, we said nothing about it. In fact, the only time I remember a staffworker addressing it was to say this, “Uh, yes, we know that are fellowship is growing increasingly Asian—we’re not sure why that is, but it is on our screen.” We never talked about ethnicity or race, and I preferred it that way. It’s complicated and touchy and it made me nervous—and I could tell it made others nervous too. More importantly in the big picture, what does it have to do with Christ and with growing my identity in Christ? Surely, in Christ there is “no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised…but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
Fast forward three or four years…to 1998.
Was it my first day? I don’t remember, but surely it had to be my first week. I remember my vey first chapel at InterVarsity’s National Service Center. It was not what I thought it would be.
I had just moved to Madison, Wisconsin for my very first post-college job promoting the Urbana Student Mission Convention. And I was nervous, but mostly excited. I was excited to be doing something I thought was so worthwhile—mobilizing God’s people in mission! I was excited to be around so many Christians serving God! I was excited to be around so many who loved God, who had so much wisdom to teach me!
And there I was, about to meet most of these Christians for the first time at my very first chapel. In the middle of cubicles was an open space with a hundred chairs lined up in neat rows facing a screen. As people filled in, my neighbors told me it was a special chapel that day, a detour from the usual songs and short talk. It was a presentation from the Multiethnic Task Force, a group who for the past year had been studying the diversity of the National Service Center. And their core finding was this: that we were not diverse at all. The multi-ethnicity of InterVarsity nationwide was not mirrored here in this building, the headquarters of InterVarsity.
The room fell quiet, and everyone seemed uncomfortable, and I felt uncomfortable too. As I looked around, I noticed for the first time that almost everyone else was white. And before I could think about it any more, it came time to introduce the new person, me.
“Well, here is our diversity! This is Grace Hsiao, she’s a recent graduate and just moved here from California!”
People seemed to stare with new intensity, and I think I even heard some physical sighs of relief. I remember forcing a smile while fighting back the tears emerging from my eyes.
The very second chapel ended, I walked quickly to my cubicle and cried. I had not moved to Wisconsin to be hired for my ethnicity. I wanted to be hired because I loved God and wanted to follow God. I wanted to be hired because of my character, and thought about Martin Luther King Jr’s line: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Surely at a Christian organization, character mattered most.
A well-meaning co-worker found me hunched over, and I found myself confessing this to him.
“Grace, they hired you because you went to Stanford.”
That made me feel a lot worse. A few days before, the last Christian I had met before I flew to Wisconsin—this was my one and only meeting with this person—had muttered loudly under his breath after I told him my plans: “What a waste of a Stanford education.” I had dismissed this thought as un-Biblical. Surely most Christians could see through the worldly status of Stanford and know what God truly valued!
Now, I did not know what to think. I wanted to run, but the shame from that would be worse. Jostled and confused, I now was forced to think through race and ethnicity and faith, especially since this Multiethnic Task Force had just vowed to amend the situation in the building. In the months that followed, I was asked a lot of questions about my culture, my family, traditions and how we did things. I found myself ill-prepared, and though I started reading like mad, I found it impossible to represent. There was pain in being a token, in not knowing how to answer the questions about my culture—if my ethnicity was my culture at all. There was a pain in being expected to know, despite being one of the youngest in the building where the average age was perhaps 45. Who could I turn to? What should I say? But God started speaking to me a lot that year—I hadn’t really heard his voice that much before. God became a personal comfort, a personal guide, a mentor to me in that season as I began to think about being Asian, American and Christian. God began to broaden what each of those terms mean, and best of all, like Jacob, God began to be my God.
Christ is all and in all as we put on our new selves (Colossians 3:10), but putting on these new selves means a death to the old, and a death to the old means knowing what the old actually is. I wanted to stay color-blind to race because it was just easier. I wanted to not think about what it means to be Asian American because I didn’t like what it brought up. It made me angry and confused and cut to the heart of my identity. The hardest part was having few if any Asian Americans around to observe what an Asian American response could be. As I confronted these issues and faced the jumbled knot of emotions, God began to give me his heart and eyes. and God gave me peace with not knowing, with mystery. For the first time in my life, I began to understand myself, to know really who I was—my preferences, my modus operandi, my temperaments. For the first time, it opened me up to really know others, to accept them as different and to receive from them what they could give on their terms, to receive them as they were. And what faithful and amazing people they were (and still are)! It was a rich three years at the National Service Center, a very deep relational time. I got my first taste of what it meant to be brothers and sisters in Christ with people of all ages, and I learned much more about how Christ is indeed all and in all.
. . .
In the last “Weekly Summary,” we mentioned that this week Tim Tseng would tell us stories of hope. Those stories have been postponed.
A version of this above column was originally posted on January 10, 2012 on Grace Hsiao Hanford’s blog incarnatethinking.org and has been re-posted with permission.
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