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

 

Robyn AfrikFrom her perspective as a Korean adoptee, the new coordinator of local missions for the Reformed Church in America, Robyn Afrik speaks and trains nationally on issues related to diversity, international adoption and race relations.   A lifelong resident of Holland, Michigan, Robyn lives with her West African husband and three children.  Her twitter: @afrikadvantage

This is the second of a two-part interview.   In part 1, Robyn highlighted various levels of racial awareness from her own story as a Korean adoptee.  While a “color-blind” mentality shielded her from much structural racism before college, a meeting with the Ku Klux Klan made it real to her.  She continues her story below and shares how she encountered God through understanding herself and the reality of race through Afrik Advantage.

 

Let’s continue your story from Part 1 of our interview.  So, the Ku Klux Klan handed their pamphlets to your white friends and completely bypassed you. What happened next? 

Robyn: I remember going back to my dorm, and I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I just needed to figure out what I should be doing. I didn’t even know who I was. 

I started immersing myself with the next best thing I could think of: Korean students from Korea, international students. It was totally not the right narrative, but I was so desperate because I couldn’t call anyone back home.  I didn’t know who to talk to. I reached out to people who looked like me, who might understand this even though I had no idea that it wasn’t necessarily true. This, of course, didn’t really work on the level I had hoped, but I tried to figure it out that way.

And then I met [my-now] husband through the track team. It was his kindness and his ability to work with me through that narrative was huge. He obviously understood it, and I never had anyone talk with me or share with me on that level before. And so, we became very good friends and then obviously, we fell in love, and [now,] we’re married. But it’s been interesting because even being married to him, we’ve had to go through our own set of cultural/race issues as a couple.

 

What did he say that was helpful? 

Robyn: I think for me it was just having somebody that could empathize or understand those levels of complexities. I didn’t really know how to explain it really, but when I [tried to], he was able to say, “Hey, you know, I think this is what’s going on.” Being able to give voice and words from that consciousness [that] I’ve never really had to have or develop. That was very helpful, and from there I was like, “What am I not seeing?”

My husband, though he comes from a third world country [Sierra Leone] actually had the privilege of traveling and studying in other English and French speaking countries. He’s the oldest of five, and each of the kids grew up studying in Christian European [schools]. My husband was very aware of those race dynamics, being both a minority and a majority, being a part of a third world dynamic, and also being educated in different school systems.

 

What happened next?

Robyn: I lost trust for people who raised me.   What happened to me was a huge sword in the stomach, because I grew up believing in the lie that was told to me, that I was just the same as them. But I’m not white and I’m not equal to them according to another set of white people over in Indiana.   And somehow, I wasn’t given the right tools or education to handle these situations, especially to defend myself. I was not taught how to live outside of a community that wishes to remain color blind.

This also made me realize that in order to live a ‘decent’ but delusional life, I would have to stay with in a community that can uphold [a] color blind mentality and somehow that became the ‘answer’ to fixing the race issue [for me temporarily].

Some of my ‘loss of trust’ in the people that raised me came from the realization that this topic wasn’t ever really talked about.   It makes me wonder, what is their love based on?   I often use the following [Thomas Merton] quote in my talks: “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”    So, do they love me for who I am, or is it because of who I’m not? Do they love me because of how much I assimilate and keep their world happy and going, or is it because they truly love me because they don’t know any better? I started questioning all those things.

I had come back to Michigan with my husband, because his family was living in Senegal and my family was here. We went through our first few years of marriage, dealing with all that comes with my family trying to figure out what marriage is, much less an interracial, intercultural marriage.  Then, I personally had to go through my own journey.

 

How did you continue to think through your own story?

Robyn: I started enrolling in advocacy classes, institutes for healing racism and attending support groups for minorities. I started asking, “What is racism? Why am I feeling this way? And how can I get involved in stopping structural racism?”  I started looking more closely at the marginalized in my community, [and asking,] “What are they going through, how are they going through these things?”  I needed to understand by myself what happened to me and never to allow it to happen again.

How are we expressing love to each other, if we are truly who God says we’re supposed to be?  If we’re Christian people who are supposed to express love to one another, and they can’t receive it, or you’re not expressing it in a way they can hear it, is that love?  As an adoptee, it seems that I had to assimilate before I’d get love from my dominant majority context.

 

You said you lost trust for the people? 

Robyn: I did. I got very bitter. My husband even noticed it. There was a point in my ministry where my husband was like: “You gotta stop, because you’re so bitter about it.” And he was right. I got really angry. Because, you know, when you look around and all you can see and smell and taste is the injustice, you see unconscious bias from miles away. You become so frustrated with the system, with the ignorance, with the way policies and procedures continue to play out the same old narratives that you start to get jagged inside. You can’t speak it up or else you become pegged as an angry Asian and if you’re too passive, you become part of the problem. It’s terrible.

 

How did you keep your faith in God?

Robyn: I believe God shows himself to people in interesting ways. But there are two in particular that have affected me most in my faith journey.

One of them is through remaining hidden —which sounds so counterintuitive.  Not because he’s mean, or he’s trying to make your life miserable, but it has all to do with the process of going through this real genuine seeking and building and stretching and listening. Especially when you realize there’s nothing else that’s going to work, and you have nothing else but to seek who he is, to become so desperate to see his face, then, you may meet God for real.  There’s is a genuine, pure and raw meeting that can take place in that particular space.

For me, I’ve had a lot of time of hidden-ness obviously when I couldn’t figure out what was going on. It was incredibly frustrating. But because of the things I’ve had to step out in faith [on] regarding this complete deconstruction of my own narrative, it was only after this that God was able to show himself to me in different arenas.    I have no words [for these experiences]…they were that powerful.  And I pray that for everybody, because they’re beyond anything my pastor has ever tried to explain. It’s also incredibly personal.

But I also have to be very careful because some people [will] say, “Well, that’s not fair. Does that mean he doesn’t love me because he’s never showed up?” No. Not at all. God can’t stop loving because he IS love—so that is not a correct way of thinking. But I think for me—if I have a preconceived notion of who God is, then I may have a relationship with that notion versus the truth of who God may really be. It is through the process of searching and seeking that can potentially filter out our preconceived notions of him.

 

In this process of seeking, what have you learned about God?

Robyn: I think in the Christian Evangelical world that I grew up in, questions we asked around faith were not necessarily right. I think many of our questions were asked subconsciously around how Jesus [could] look more like me?  How can we create a safety net or an echo chamber that mimics faith, just in case our faith isn’t really there?   Then our community starts using monoculture systems as a replacement for faith in God.  But God is nothing to do with that.  

He is about making all things new! It is in his identity that says, there is neither Greek, nor Jew nor man nor woman—all these labels that we have in the world do not exist in the same way we currently operate—especially in this ‘new’—because we now live by the Spirit alone. His Spirit is filled with kindness, goodness, gentleness, self control, forgiveness, mercy, grace—even in the face of being hated, killed, hurt and marginalized. We are to be new and filled with fruits of the Spirit. We may not get satisfaction in the moment of pain or pleasure, but we will be planting new seeds for generations to come.

I fully admit to struggling with these concepts: balancing both identities because the world demands one and the Kingdom requires another, [and] being made new. I believe when God created different nationalities and cultures and colors, it was to be genuinely celebrated. It was when things went out of balance—when for example, ethnic groups decided to hate one another and violate the spirit of who we are called to be—that caused a cascade of what we see today. To reconcile this spiritually and physically is a whole other process.

Questions like, what does dying to self really mean if one ethnic group has already been forced to physically die because of an other’s hatred? [How do we] ask them once again, how does ones drop their identity to take up the “new?” These are questions I juggle every single day.

. . .

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.

The interviewee wishes you to know that these opinions are hers alone, and not necessarily those of her affiliated organizations.

 

 

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