Dear Hyde Park Family,
In the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, I offered a pastoral word and prayer earlier this week with which we can join in prayer and concern.
A PERSONAL WORD ABOUT RACE
A few people have reached out to me to offer their love and support in the wake of the rising violence and persecution committed to members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community. I am very grateful for those persons.
Today’s Midweek Message is longer than usual, and I thank you for receiving this personal word of reflection.
I have done a great deal of introspection this past week about my own race and ethnicity. Like a Pandora’s box with a loose-fitting lid, it doesn’t take much for difficult memories from my past to flood my mind. There was the trio of bullies in first grade who teased me every day about my name, my eyes, and my hair. There was the church member who gave me a ride from the church in his pick-up truck, motioning me to sit in the bed of the truck. “Minorities sit in the back,” he told me. There were the racial slurs I have been called to my face and behind my back in every decade of my life.
Once when I was about ten years old, I stared in the bathroom mirror and just wished that I had hair like the other kids. Not the jet-black hair that grew straight down on all sides, not the haircut that looked like someone just stuck a bowl on my head and trimmed around it. I was so desperate to fit in that in fifth grade, I started combing my bangs with a swoop to one side, like I saw on the other boys. I affixed every hair into place every morning with a ghastly volume of hair spray.
I did that every day for thirty years. That hairspray became a kind of enchantment charm to ward off my insecurities.
Over time, I thought this masquerade was working. I went from being the target of bullying to becoming a popular, high-achieving student. I became known for my academic success and my gentle demeanor. I was voted by my peers as having the quality of “Loyalty” during Homecoming festivities. My efforts to fit in had succeeded, not realizing until retrospect that it had come at the cost of subsuming my ethnicity. When I would refer to my being Filipino-American, it was usually as playful self-deprecation and comic relief, rather than out of pride. For most of my ministry career, friends have told me that they “don’t see me as a minority.” Church members have remarked, “Magrey doesn’t speak the way you would expect him to.” I’ve had clergy colleagues forget that I’m not white, even as recently as this past week.
Acceptance has sometimes come at a cost, reminding me of what I have had to lose in order to gain a sense of belonging.
It is very true that even my ability to subsume my ethnicity is itself a privilege not afforded to other minorities. For many, it’s not as simple as changing a hairstyle or speaking without an accent in order to feel like they can fit in. Many Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders have benefited from the “Model Minority” phenomenon, in which we are afforded recognition for actions and achievements that fit a prescribed stereotype, the very ones that benefited me in school: gentle, honorable, loyal, academically gifted. This mythology not only conceals a tragic history of racism against Asian-Americans, it offers beneficial perceptions not granted to other minority groups, especially African-Americans, who bear a greater historical burden of racial animosity, discrimination, and violence. Also, as a male, I have greater prospects for professional advancement and compensation. And as a heterosexual person, I am free in the eyes of the church to marry whom I love, and live out my sacred calling as a minister. This reality makes me sad and frustrated for many who are subjected to discrimination.
THE GREAT TENSION
Still, there is for me a tension between two polarities: Downplay who I am in order to fit in, or distinguish myself from others in order to be who I am?
I know I am not alone in this tension. The truth is, you feel it, too. None of us are immune from the conflict between the two deepest longings in each of us: to be who we are, and to belong. Between individuality and community. Between standing out and fitting in.
There are days when I’d rather not be asked by a stranger where I’m from. There are days when I’d rather just be known as a father, pastor, Floridian, and American, rather than use “Filipino” as a preceding adjective. There are days that I just want to belong. But there are also days when I want to be known for everything that makes me unique. I want to be able to speak with pride about who I am, without discrimination from others or being perceived as condescending of others. Most days, I feel a mixture of both these urges, and it is impossible for anyone else to know in any given moment what that mix within me is.
I know you feel this tension within yourself. It can become the basis of our own racial biases and prejudices, including my own. And this in part is what makes conversations about race so difficult.
We use well-meaning phrases like “color-blindness” and “unity” and “we are all part of one race, the human race.” Sometimes these ideas are helpful, but often they overly emphasize the communal at the expense of the individual. So, we swing the pendulum the other way, attending to people by their race, gender, sexual orientation, and other categories, often forgetting that no person is monolithic. I am more than one particular aspect of my identity, and you are, too.
Sound confusing? That’s because it is. Issues of racism and other kinds of discrimination are a hard, enduring mystery.
A FRAMEWORK FROM OUR FAITH
But it occurs to me that as Christian people, we have a framework for naming this mystery, and even learning to embrace it, rather than run from it.
We believe in a trinitarian God, whose very nature is both individual and communal. God cannot be solely defined as three distinct persons; nor is God a homogenous whole. As much as we may struggle over how to understand the trinity empirically, we can take heart that in God’s own nature is the possibility of finding the fullest, healthiest, and most life-giving expression of both being and belonging.
And if we are created in the same image of that trinitarian God, then we can in fact live out who we really are as individuals, as one vital community together.
But not only is the trinity a helpful framework for addressing racism, so is the other great mystery of the Christian faith: the incarnation. God was fully revealed in Jesus Christ through a personal, flesh-and-blood relationship with humanity. And because the Holy Spirit is working to make us more in the image of Jesus every day, we can then be an incarnate presence to each other. We can get to know each other personally, as fellow human beings, and hear the richness of all that makes us who we are. Issues of racism and discrimination separate us, but the incarnation offers a path toward reconciliation. When we hear each other’s stories, we can affirm one another’s dignity and worth, empathize with each other’s struggles, and celebrate each other’s uniqueness.
With the trinity and the incarnation, we can begin to realize a beautiful community of interconnected individuality.
And that is why I believe in the church. As much as Sunday mornings are still “the most segregated hour in America,” we have in our faith the model and the means to embrace the mystery of our racial differences. In the trinity, we can be fully individual and communal. In Christ, we can be in healthy relationships with people across our differences. Exploring our own racist tensions and tendencies need not be something we run from. We can learn to love one another, both as individual persons and as kindred spirits.
Writing this reflection has helped me process my feelings of grief over the events in Atlanta and around the country. But I remain hopeful in the work of the Spirit to remind us of the indomitable power of love. I hope my words can remind you of the basic right of every person to find their own balance between being and belonging. You deserve it, and so do I. We all do.
In 2011, while serving a church in Iowa, I preached a sermon prior to beginning a three-month renewal period, in which I and the girls would travel to the Philippines to rediscover our ethnic heritage.
In that sermon, I talked about how my hair had become for me a symbol for subverting my ethnicity, and how I was choosing that day to feel free to be who I was. So, at the end of the service, in the chancel of the sanctuary, we had a church member who was a hairstylist take a pair of #2 clippers to my head.
I have kept that hairstyle ever since. It felt liberating then, and it still does.
And that was the last time I ever touched a bottle of hair spray.
Grace and Peace,
EASTER APRIL 4
Join us for a glorious celebration of the resurrection, both in person and online. We have four in-person services that morning, including 7 a.m. at Water Works Park in downtown Tampa. We have just added an 8:00 a.m. service under our Ministry Tent on the Hyde Park Campus because our 9:30 and 11 a.m. services are nearly at capacity. We will also be offering a beautiful online service at 9:30 and 11 a.m. For more information, visit our website. You can also help decorate our worship spaces with the purchase of an Easter Lily.
INDOOR WORSHIP RETURNS APRIL 11
In case you missed our announcement last week, we will be returning to indoor worship on Sunday, April 11. It takes place at 9:30 a.m. in the Sanctuary. We will also be offering special children’s activities on campus. For details, and to reserve your seating, visit our website. We are really excited to welcome you back.