Beginnings of Consciousness: Asian American Christians share how they started connecting race and culture to their faith.

 

John SleebaWrestling with painful aspects of faith and ethnicity, God has blessed John Sleeba’s persistence.

John has a long history with InterVarsity as campus staff and as staff of three Urbana Conventions. Formerly with the Cape Town 2010 Lausanne Gathering, he is currently the COO of Re:source Global, a group that strategically invests in individuals and initiatives to advance the Gospel. He lives in Chicagoland with his wife, Saru, and his dog, Cooper.

He’ll be sharing in 3 parts:

Part 1: John’s beginnings as Malayalee Indian American accustomed to having separate Indian and white American worlds—though both Christian

Part 2: The clashing of ethnicity and faith and God’s transformation of it through the diversity of God’s people

Part 3: Being South Asian American Christian: learning what that means

 

Part 1: John’s beginnings as Malayalee Indian American accustomed to having separate Indian and white American worlds—though both Christian

 

John, tell us about yourself. You’re Mulayalee, right?

Yes, I’m Mulayalee Christian. I come from a Thomas Christian background. You might be somewhat aware of it? The church has been in India since the first century.

My parents are Syrian Orthodox, but they’re really a hybrid of Orthodox/Anglican. Back in the 1800s, some of the Anglican missionaries influenced some of the Orthodox, so the church they grew up in was really Orthodox and Anglican.

I was born in the Middle East, but my family came here when I was 2. I’ve been in the States for a long time now.

 

How did your family decide to come to the United States?

From what I understand, initially, they did not want to come to the US. My parents were working in the Middle East, and they were perfectly content there. But my grandfather had told my parents—this is the early 70s, ”If you get a chance, go to the US because it’s a Christian country, and it’ll be a better place to raise your children.”

When my parents got here they were absolutely shocked. You’d think for a “Christian” nation that these things wouldn’t be happening: corruptness, the evil. One family friend who was also Mulayalee lived in the apartment across the street. One day he showed up at our door, and he had been attacked for his watch. He required a few days of medical attention at the hospital because of what happened. It is things like this that you just don’t expect from what has been widely publicized in the world in the ’50s and ’60s as Christian America.

So my parents tried to insulate us as much as they could. They ended up sending us to Christian schools. Also, there’s this perception in India that Christian private schools were considered the best. From third grade until I went to college, I’ve been in Christian schools. We were not quite insulated and some of the Christian schools we attended were not actually better than the public schools in our district. But my parents were working off the knowledge that they had.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about your Mulayalee Church in the 1970s?

When I was growing up, my parents were some of the first Mulayalees in the Chicago area. Back then, there used to be just one Mulayalee Christian church. It didn’t matter which denomination you belonged to. So to this day, my parents still have friends who are Catholic and Orthodox from the early 70s. But once more people came, Marthomites, Orthodox, Jacobites, Catholics, Pentecostals, Brethren. Today, there’s a lot of Mulayalee churches just in the Chicago area alone.

I grew up going to the Indian Christian Church here in the Chicago area; that was my raising when it came to faith. I went to church every Sunday. It was the place where you connected with Indian people. It was considered kind of our safe place. I remember growing up, my parents only told us, you can only trust Indian people—more specifically Mulayalee people. You can’t trust anybody else. Church became this safe haven where you could be Indian, and everywhere outside, you adapted to whatever you needed to adapt to.

 

What was school like for you?

So when I went to school, for the most part, then, there weren’t that many Indian people in our school. I went to public school when we lived in the city, and then when we moved to the suburbs I went to a public school, and then to private Christian schools through high school. For the most part, we were the only Indian family that was there.

My faith and culture was disassociated from school. What I mean is that when I went to Christian school, that was white America; this is not anything Indian. I didn’t associate faith and race together at all. I’ve always experienced some form of racism or prejudice within the school, even though they were Christian schools.

For example, in sixth grade, I don’t know if it was racism or prejudice or whatever. There was an incident that happened at school. I didn’t understand what was happening at the moment; I remember being yelled at by this woman, another mother, who was head of the school board. When it was brought to the school board what had happened, she dismissed the whole thing. It really pissed my parents off. The principals and teachers knew what had happened, but they never spoke up or did anything. I remember one teacher telling us, “You know, I wish I could say something, but I’m going to lose my job.” My parents understood we were being discriminated against because we were Indian and nothing was being done for us because we were Indian. After that, I kind of associated non-Indian people with being bad—even though they were Christian. Even in high school, when we were being called names and different things would happen to me, faith and race were two things that didn’t mix.

 

How did you understand this as a Christian? Were you a Christian then?

I didn’t really come to faith until my senior year of high school. That was really through a friend who had gone off to college and through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship [or IV] had discovered what following Jesus really was. He shared the gospel with me, and it was at that point that I really investigated and started to follow Jesus.

In college, I got involved in the same campus ministry. The interesting thing was that even though the whole fellowship was mostly white—all my friends were minorities. I hung out with a bunch of Chinese folks; it was me and a bunch of Chinese folks. And it was really my junior or senior year that this whole concept of ethnic identity started to kick in.

 

What got you thinking about ethnic identity?

College

There was a white dude, a freshman who started to make fun of some Indian things. That really really got to me. “Hey, what right do you have to make fun of this part of me that’s Indian?” And he just nonchalantly did it and thought it was not a big deal. But it was a very big deal to me. I think that was the beginning of my ethnic journey—of what it means to be an Indian Christian, what it means to be a Mulayalee Christian. I found out later on that there’s a lot of differences between the different Indian Christian groups.

Madison, Wisconsin

After I graduated from college, I started to work in Madison, Wisconsin for InterVarsity on the Urbana 96 Conference. Back then, I remember reading US News and World Report that it was one of the top places to live in the country, so I thought, “this should be fun!” I went there—and I wouldn’t say it was prejudice or anything—but I experienced more ignorance. I didn’t think people at InterVarsity were exposed to minorities—and now looking back, I suppose they were just beginning a journey themselves of being a multi-ethnic Christian organization. In the city, people would kind of look at you funny. I was thinking, “I’m living in Madison, Wisconsin. This is suppose to be very liberal place.” And to me, liberal equates to respecting minorities, but that was not the case.

There was one incident: there were five of us minorities working at IV on the Urbana conference. There was a Latina person, an Asian person, a couple African Americans and me. And I remember there was this one time that we all decided to go to a restaurant, and all of us walked away wondering, “Did you guys just experience the same thing I did?” The waitress walked by, she was very rude to us, but very nice to the white folks also in the restaurant. Our drinks didn’t get refilled, but you saw it happening at the other tables. It wasn’t so much that “I don’t like you” but it’s more like these subtle cues you pick up, that are more like, “we don’t really want you here.” That was more the thing that I remember from that experience.

We also experienced those things in the Christian organization as well. But that I equate more to ignorance—I only say that now because I had the chance to go back to InterVarsity and work the Urbana 2000 conference. I’ve seen how some who were really ignorant had come a long way. They were learning, growing, and admitting that they were not perfect, that they wanted to learn. And I appreciated that. I’m still friends with a lot of those people to this day, where I still chat with them and talk to them. And it’s amazing what God has done in their lives.

Seminary

In between Urbana 96 and 2000, I actually attended seminary at Trinity in the Chicago area. And that was also a very interesting experience. A couple of the snapshots of some the mentality of the folks that were there—

I’m not saying that this is everybody. There were some professors there that I really appreciated like Peter Cha and my Old Testament Professor, Willem VanGemeren. They were aware of some of these issues. Pastor VanGemeren was Dutch, and not raised in the US so he had more perspective. Dr. Cha I really appreciated because we’d talk or he had classes about Asian American stuff, ethnicity, social exegesis. I think he was far ahead of his time.

There was an intro level class, Christian Educational Ministries. If I remember this right, one assignment was to create a curriculum for your congregation to move them in their spiritual growth. They said, “Write for your church perspective.” So, I had written it for Indian Christians. The way I approached it: this is where Indian Christians are at within the church, and here’s what they need to grow. I wrote it very specific to the ethnicity, and then I get this paper back, and I get a “C.” I looked at the comments, and it felt unfair.

What he was expecting, and what would be acceptable in the Indian Christian context were two completely different things. So I went up and talked to him, and he was like, “No. It’s all the same way. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are. This is what you actually need.” I didn’t actually understand it then, but he had actually just came from some big church in Texas. He had written a curriculum like this for his church. After we had turned in the assignment, he showed us what he had done. It was all fancy with mnemonics; he had this word “PREACH” and “P” stands for something, “R” stands for something…this finished product type thing, which works really well for a very white context, especially coming form Texas. But when you get down to the nitty gritty, is this relevant for your congregation where you are at, especially if you are Indian? The answer is no. But his perspective: “No, my thing is universal. it can be used everywhere.” This was the arrogance that we can all be the same, it doesn’t matter.

Honestly, I still see some of the same attitudes especially among middle- and upper-middle class white folks when it comes to understanding that things need to be different. So it was this same thing, I experienced back then. I don’t really feel like it’s changed. Granted it was some 15-16 years ago, so I hope they’ve learned and come further, but I don’t know…

Ever since then for me, I’ve come to see that faith and ethnicity are kind of important to me, but I wasn’t going to have any help figuring it out. It’s something I’d have to go on a journey on, on my own.

. . .

This is not a strict transcript of the conversation. While preserving as much of the interviewee’s voice as possible, this interview has been edited for clarity.

 

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