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It’s September 2010, and the smell of old books and new laptops filled the air at Calvin Theological Seminary. At the time, I was a first-year seminarian who had never lived outside of California, and here I stood, in the middle of the student center, about to eat lunch after spending all morning in classes for Gateway, the seminary’s orientation for new students.

I did not want to eat our seminary-provided Jimmy John’s sandwiches alone, so I looked around for a friendly conversation with even friendlier faces. As I made my way through the rows of tables, two of the friendliest words caught my ear: fantasy football. I turned around and saw four men seated around a table, sandwiches in hand, talking about Brett Favre’s outlook in his second year with the Minnesota Vikings. It’s almost as if God had ordained this table for me—which, I would later come to learn through my systematic theology course, he did.

“Mind if I sit?” I was 12 years old again, looking for a seat on the first day of school. 

I was welcomed by a young, bearded man with a warm smile. “Sure, brother; grab a chair.”

“My name’s Daniel. Nice to meet you. I heard ‘fantasy football.’ Y’all interested in starting a league?” (I was already in six leagues, but if this would help me bond with new friends, I would gladly join a seventh.)

The young bearded man responded, “Oh, we already drafted. But that’s so cool that you know about fantasy football! Do they play in your country?”

“Oh, ha ha, I’m from California, and I play in a couple of leagues. I actually don’t like Brett Favre’s chances of repeating what he did last year. I don’t think he’ll have much help outside of Adrian Peterson.”

As I continued explaining Favre’s miserable touchdown-to-turnover ratio, I saw Young-Bearded-Man’s face growing more and more puzzled. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, and it wasn’t until my wife—who grew up in West Michigan as only one of two Korean Americans at her middle school—explained the situation to me. “They’re probably not used to seeing Korean Americans,” she said. “There are Korean international students, and there are white Americans. You’re neither.”

Regardless of whether Young-Bearded-Man’s bewilderment was due to my binary-busting identity as a Korean American or if he was simply mesmerized by my fantasy football acumen (I’m still holding out hope for the latter), repeated encounters like these throughout my time in Grand Rapids led me to believe the former. Over time, these ambiguously uncomfortable encounters left me feeling deficient, that my place within the denomination was undesired.

CTS boasts of enrollment from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, and Koreans make up a sizable portion of that population. But most of the Korean students were pursuing master of theology degrees, with limited lived experiences in America and English often being a second language. I was a Bay Area kid who grew up learning my times tables from Sesame Street and binge-watching ABC’s family-friendly Friday night sitcoms. I didn’t fit the perceived template of a Korean student because I was too American. 

I left West Michigan in 2015 and was ordained outside the CRC in 2018, and I can’t help but wonder: has more space been made for Korean Americans at the denominational table? I am hopeful that the opportunity to write this reflection is a small but significant affirmative answer to that question.

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