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Beginnings of Consciousness: Asian American Christians share how they started connecting race and culture to their faith.
Wrestling 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 2: The clashing of ethnicity and faith and God’s transformation of it through the diversity of God’s people.
In Part 1, you shared about ethnicity and faith clashing in college, Madison and seminary. What happened post-seminary?
Post-seminary, I started working as a staff worker with InterVarsity. I first started out at a university—I’ll leave this one nameless—where I had such a horrible experience with ignorant people. You know, they were trying to learn. They just didn’t know, and they weren’t exactly getting it[multi-ethnic awareness]. I’d see the same mistakes made over and over, statements like, “Oh, I totally understand what you’re going through!” And I’m thinking, “No, you don’t. Don’t you even make that statement!” They desired within their hearts to identify, but the reality is that they never really could. I think they should have just left it at that. They needed to sympathize and not pretend to empathize.
There was one significant experience while I was there. This really hurt quite a bit because these were students I knew really well. They used the house that I lived in where we would have meetings and events, and I spent a lot of time with them. Some of these students got up at the end of our chapter camp [fellowship retreat] and they started to make fun of Indian people as a joke. There were five students who were like, “Oh we’ve got this really cool thing we want to do and show you.” And it wasn’t just for me, it was for the whole fellowship. (Later, a few told me that they told them not to do it.) But they got up and started making fun of Indian people by dancing to Indian music in some not very honoring ways to the culture. After two minutes, I had had enough. I literally just left the room. Things were already tough enough with the staff team, but now I’ve got students making fun of Indian people as well. So I’m taking this ethnicity stuff on two fronts. Honestly, that night I just wanted to quit. I was going to leave working with students at that point.
I remember going back to the room where I was staying, and I started to pray. “You know, I’ve had enough of this. I’m about to quit unless you say otherwise.” I remember sitting there, waiting to listen, and I heard God say, “You need to stay.” And I was like, “What? I don’t want any of this. Why should I sit through all this pain? Why should I stay here?” Up to this point, faith and ethnicity were two things that could never go together. If being Christian meant living with pain because of the ignorance of people, than I really wanted nothing to do with that. Up until that point of my life, it was a painful experience every single time.
The funny thing was, though I grew up in the Indian Church, I didn’t really have fellowship with other Indian people at this point in my life. So, it was really hard for me to reconcile what it meant to be Indian and Christian, and the people I’m around were not being very Christian when it comes to accepting people of other ethnicities. It was at this point that I really had to dig deeper and think: what does it mean to be Indian and Christian? Christianity for me at this point, everything that I read was coming from a very white perspective, very white way of doing things. And the Indianness didn’t quite fit in with that—so what does it mean to be Indian and Christian? I started to think through some of these things.
How did you begin to think about being Indian and Christian?
Honestly, my situation at the university got even worse, and I fell into a bout of clinical depression. I found myself in that place, and this is where God really met me. In many ways, in my own life, it’s one of those mini-miracles, mini re-commitments to follow Jesus.
In my third year at this university, some of my friends were leading a conference in Texas for an Indian Christian group that was part of InterVarsity. Honestly, the only reason I went down there for this conference was because I didn’t want to be in my situation any longer. I wanted to be out. It was there that God really met me. I sat in this room of 70-80 students from the University of Texas [Austin], part of this Indian Christian fellowship, that was trying to explore what it meant to be Indian and Christian at the same time and live that out.
God really met me. I remember the Saturday night of the conference, I couldn’t sleep. I was sitting and praying and wrestling with God. I slept for maybe thirty minutes in the morning, and I then woke up—and, no joke, the depression was gone. God had met me that night. I felt like a new person. It was at that point that I realized I needed to find a way to reconcile these issues I had been dealing with, faith and ethnicity. This is when some of my friends said, “John, why don’t you come here and work with the students at the University of Texas?” So, I moved from Chicago to Texas. I thought it would be a good place to explore faith and what it means to be Indian, how those two work together at the same time.
Wow! What happened when you transferred to the University of Texas?
God really transformed me. It was very interesting because when I went there—initially I was there to work with the Indian students. In working with the Indian students, I understood that I was joining in their journey. A lot of them started that fellowship because they wanted to create a place where Indian folks could experience God not in a Westernized way, but in some way where they could experience their faith and Indian ethnicity as well.
But because of the way the fellowships are set up there—you start about by being with other Indian Christians, and then everyone from different fellowships would come together.
They have a very unique set up at the University of Texas. When I was there, they had five unique fellowships. The group that I worked with was called One Way which was a South Asian fellowship. The African American fellowship was called the Texas Gospel Fellowship. There was this primarily East Asian American Group, Asian American Campus Ministry. And there’s this Latino Group called La Fe, and the multi-ethnic fellowship was called TCF, Texas Christian Fellowship [now called InterVarsity Residential].
We would do things together like have leadership meetings together, or we would interact with them at our weeklong camp. Because there was so much interaction, there were relationships with people from the other fellowships that were not necessarily their ethnicity. They would see each other on campus and say hello. There were some students who were more invested and would actually have real friendships. I think that’s a little bit more of the picture of how God wants us to appreciate each others ethnicities because all of us bring something to the table.
And it was interesting to see the transformation that took place in my heart as well too. My attitude when I came: “I’m not here to serve other leaders. I’m just here for the Indian folks, because you know, I’ve had my fair dose of non-Indian people and I don’t want any more of it.” And in the end, it’s funny, I cared about the other students just as much as I cared for my students. In a lot of ways, they became my own students. Student leaders from other fellowships that I’d run into, I’d talk to them on the side, and check in with them, pray with them. I grew and understood what it meant to be Indian and Christian while I was there, but at the same time, I grew in my appreciation for all ethnicities God had created, learning to respect and love people.
I’ve grown also in my understanding of what it means to be Indian and Christian at the same time. When our group started, we were pretty much all Mulayalee Christians, and slowly as we started to grow, other Indian Christians joined us; people who were not like ourselves would join us to understand what it meant to be South Asian and Christian at the same time. South Asia is a place of many ethnicities and many cultures. We even had this Hindu and Muslim who would normally come. And we learned to appreciate and love the different ways God has blessed not only us, but other Caucasians or African Americans or Latinos. You start to see a little of the picture of how God blessed us with ethnicity so we can bless one another. If it wasn’t for that University of Texas experience with IV, I might still be very much a very bitter angry person about people who weren’t Indian, and possibly also, not really learning to love the culture God had given me as well.
Other than the structure, what do you think allowed for this kind of transformation and taste for multi-ethnicity?
The University of Texas was so different because the leaders took a different approach. “We don’t know. We don’t have it figured out. Let’s jump on board with what God is doing.” I think a lot of that is that they didn’t start the fellowships. The fellowships at the University of Texas, apart from the multi-ethnic fellowship they had, all started independently outside of InterVarsity. God slowly brought the different groups to them because of the humility they had. Those ethnic groups affiliated with InterVarsity largely because you had these white folks who said, “We don’t know, we don’t have the answers, but we’re willing to walk on the journey with you, and make mistakes together.” That’s what really was the difference. That’s what I really appreciated when I went there. I worked on a very diverse staff team who accepted me for where I was, and knew I was also on a journey figuring things out, rather than with a very myopic perspective of where I should be starting. And they allowed God to work. I don’t know where they are now—it’s been a few years since I’ve been in the inner circles—but I’ve seen them go through a bunch of things.
What else did you see them go through?
There were a couple of Mulayalee folks who were heavily involved in Texas Christian Fellowship, and they left to become leaders in OneWay to help bridge a gap, to help plant the ministry. When One Way started, it was very new, they didn’t know what they were doing. But you had these other student Indian leaders who were trained; they were actually sent as missionaries from Texas Christian Fellowship to help lead there, to help plant that fellowship. It’s interesting, because that kind of pollination happened quite a bit. I think it was about my third year at UT, the initial group Texas Christian Fellowship had died down to 5 or 6 people. Since the ethnic ministries were thriving and doing really well, we did something different and said, ”There are people within our fellowships who need to go back to Texas Christian Fellowship to replant.” So there were leaders from the Asian American Christian Fellowship, and there were leaders from One Way, and there were leaders from the Gospel fellowship and the multi-ethnic fellowship. I think it is doing really well today, and this replanting helped to provide a great strong multi-ethnic foundation. They’re trying to work and build a true multi-ethnic community walking together and growing for their love for God. It was kind of a cool kind of thing that has happened.
It’s always scary, because I remember sending away one of the better leaders. This guy was one of the most forward thinking people I knew. I’d always have these conversations with him: “You know we really need to do this.” And I’d say, “You’re right.” And it was that person who ended up going back. We didn’t force anyone to go back. We said, “If you want to go back or if God is putting this on your heart, you should go and do this.” I felt like we’re going to take two steps back when he left but really, God had continued to bless both ministries through that act of faithfulness.
It seems like you’ve really seen God’s faithfulness, to you and others—though things did need to get worse for you before they got better.
I don’t regret any of my experience today at all because I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if it wasn’t for the personal and painful experience that I had.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Probably the only thing that I left out was that I’ve had some really good redeeming relationships with white folks along the way, in the journey. A lot of that came through sticking with people through a lot of the ignorance.
I really appreciated when I worked for Mark Felton in 1996 on Urbana. I didn’t work for him directly, but he started to open up and ask me questions about things he didn’t understand. And I understood that he didn’t understand, but he was trying to understand. I really appreciated that. By the time I returned to work on Urbana in 2000, I could tell he had changed a lot in four years, and I still have a friendship with him to this day. I’ve seen a number of those types of things in my life, which gives me hope.
There was one point during Urbana 96, where I was working 12-14 hours a day. I was doing the customer service hotline, and because Urbana was full, this pastor was going to take away the office space at his church from their InterVarsity staff worker because we couldn’t allow their students to come. I said, “You know, that’s not honoring because you waited all this time, and you’re trying to wrangle them in after the deadline.” The pastor was trying to manipulate. And I remember hanging up that phone and needing to go for a walk to clear my head, and Mark saw me. He just knew something was wrong. I didn’t really know him that well, and he just pulled me aside, and asked me, “Hey, is everything going okay?” And I remember going back to his office and breaking down and crying because, I’m tired and I just cost an InterVarsity staff worker their office. And Mark’s like, “Let’s find out more about this.” I remember sitting there and praying with him, and he said, “Let me just call the area director and let him know what happened.” I’m ready to say “I’m so sorry” but as soon as Mark said his name, the area director was like, “So, what did he do this time?” It became one of those funny moments, but I would have never known. I would have walked around with that burden for some time if Mark hadn’t had the sensitivity to notice and follow up. That’s why I went back to work Urbana 2000. If I wasn’t working with Mark’s group, I probably wouldn’t have gone back.
It doesn’t mean that people will always change, but there is a chance and opportunity that they could change. And if you get to see that, that’s probably the most incredible thing to see: lives transformed when it comes to understanding how your faith intersects with your ethnicity. Especially with someone like Mark. He definitely understood, just because he grew up in this Wisconsin world, it doesn’t mean that that’s the way it always is. Things are different in different places. It’s things like that, that I got to see along the way that’s really a blessing. It’s helped and encouraged me.
. . .
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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