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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 3: Being South Asian American Christian: learning what that means
John, thanks so much for sharing with us your story of how ethnicity became important to you (Part 1) and how God began to reconcile the two in your life (Part 2). Can you share some more about your South Asian journey?
I’m always on the journey to be a Christian and also South Asian, or Indian in general. What are the traits, habits and values that are at the core of being South Asian? Those are gifts from God that I think we’re meant to share with the larger body.
For example, we have such a great understanding of what it means to live in community. It’s funny, back when I was at the University of Texas, I remember a lot of the white fellowships trying to figure out what that means—and I turn around and look at the Indian students. They understood intuitively what it meant to live in community: you care for one another, you know what is going on with one another. I mean, there are bad things about that because of sin, but they understood at the core, it wasn’t just about yourself but it’s also about the people around you and how you fit into a larger picture. It’s things like that that I really started to appreciate and learn to see.
I still have a lot to learn from my Indian side. I did grow up here in an American setting and my mind thinks a certain way. And I’m learning to re-train it to think a lot more holistically, and I’ve got a long way to go. Because my parents come from a culture where things are very different, these aspects of faith are still there. It’s a bigger picture of what it means to follow Jesus, and it helps to give a bigger picture of who God is. God is not just a person who can be studied by the Bible, so that if you do this, then you’ll get this result. We were just discussing in Bible study about miracles, and they had a hard time believing that that can happen. And a lot of that is that we’ve bought in to these Western ideas that everything can be explained by x, y and z. We’ve lost that mystery. Whereas, you go to India, you see people praying, knowing that God is bigger than how he’s being explained by us, because that’s part of the culture there. And that’s part of the culture that I think American Christianity can really benefit from. Sometimes in our own arrogance, we’re thinking we’re the end all, or it can all be figured out…we’re missing out on who God is.
What do you think of the term “Asian American?” Do you see yourself as “Asian American?”
Because of the way it’s been framed, and a lot of conversations I’ve had with South Asian Americans, I see Asian Americans as East Asian Americans. A lot of East Asians really have a myopic view of what Asian America really is.
During college, I was in class with one of my friends who is Chinese, and as part of the discussion, I mentioned that India was part of Asia. To this my Chinese friend said, “No, India is not part of Asia. What are you talking about?” It was interesting because it was her white boyfriend who had to actually say to her that India is part of Asia; it’s South Asia.
That was fifteen years ago, and I think it’s starting to change. The challenges that East Asian Americans face are different from South Asian Americans. I remember one InterVarsity staff conference where my Indian friend and I went to this seminar together on East Asian American male issues—they were at least good about delineating that it was that group. We walked away thinking, “Yeah, we don’t have those issues.” They were talking about how women tend to overtake men and have more authority and things like that. The interesting thing is that we have the exact opposite problem, where men are chauvinistic and mistreat women instead of being bossed around by them. Because of our own cultural background, we kind of have our own set of issues. Sometimes there is some overlap, like dealing with parents—but I see them as more common immigrant issues, than this is an Indian/South Asian issue. The lines between what is an immigrant issue, and what is a cultural issue kind of get blurred.
I understand that I’m an Asian American, but I more specifically identify as a South Asian American more than anything.
I don’t want people to have assumptions that you’re “Asian American,” so you deal with x, y, z. It’s already pretty complex. Some non-Asians have said to me,”Oh, you’re Asian American, so you deal with this, this and this.” And I’m like no. Not really. That might be something you read about East Asian Americans, but it’s not a South Asian issue.
Not that it’s fair or possible for you to represent of all South Asians, but what are some South Asian issues?
Let me ask some of my former colleagues and see what they have to say. While there are always generalities, when it comes down to specifics, not all South Asian families are going to face the same issues that other South Asians are going to experience.
I know I’m South Asian, because I’m “brown”—that’s what we joke around and say—but I don’t know if people from India and Pakistan embrace “South Asian” because that would be including historical people who don’t like each other very much. Category-wise, people are aware of “South Asian” when we say it, at least in InterVarsity circles. But if I was to go to the Indian church, and say I’m South Asian, most people wouldn’t be aware of it unless they were second generation. Still more likely they’re going to say I’m Indian, or I’m Bengali, or I’m Gujarati—that’s more likely what people are going to identify with. It’s many cultures within one culture, and I don’t know if people necessarily identify with the larger as much as the more specific indigenous culture.
[ASIANAMERICANCHRISTIAN.ORG will host a discussion on what God is doing among South Asians to follow up later.]
One last question: is there a place for South Asian Christians under the Asian American Christian umbrella, and what is it?
Whether we want to be or don’t want to be, we definitely are under that umbrella. Geographically, South Asia and East Asia are different, and ethnically, we’re different. But because of immigrant issues that our parents faced and the way this country is, our parents faced a lot of similar issues when they came here. So, there’s a lot of similarities that we as second generation Asian Americans face.
The roots of some East Asian values, if I’m not mistaken, are more influenced by Confucius, whereas South Asia is not influenced by Confucius, though there are some similar values. Shame is also part of our culture, so is guilt—guilt just as much as shame. The orientation towards family and community is very similar.
There’s a lot we can learn from one another. We can’t throw the baby out with the bath water just because South Asians tend to be brown skinned and East Asians are not as brown skinned. In general, I take the perspective, as people, we need to learn from one another—it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are—[perhaps more so] because of the fact that East Asians and South Asians do have similarities.
I ask because as you’ve noticed, the Asian American Christian conversation tends to be focused on East Asians. The sense I get is that we want to extend that branch to you, but we don’t necessarily know how or have the opportunity.
No, I definitely sense the branch being extended, especially within InterVaristy circles. It started from the top with Paul Tokunaga [former National Asian American Ministries Coordinator, now Vice President of Strategic Ministries]. When there was only 5 of us [South Asians] on staff, I remember—we have a picture of this back from 2003—he set aside money for us to come, meet and talk about South Asian stuff. He didn’t just lump us into the larger Asian American collective. It was much appreciated, and I think he did similar things for Filipino Americans too.
I definitely can see that people are trying to include, or letting us identify and be ourselves at the same time. As much I talked about that one bad InterVarsity experience, in general, I’m really grateful to InterVarsity and their forward thinking. I think InterVarsity in some ways is paving a road that’s new, to this ethnic stuff. So there’s going to bumps in the road and it’s going to go the wrong way sometimes, but in general, they try to listen to God and try to follow his leading. And generally, they’ve done a good job to try to find a way.
. . .
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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