It was a chilly Sunday morning. As usual, I made my way after the worship service to the church gym for coffee time. As I sipped my black coffee and chatted with a couple of people, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was an elderly gentleman who complimented me for my “silky black hair,” saying the aide at his nursing home also had black hair. He then put his arms around me and told me to not worry about my black hair because “Jesus’ tent is big enough to cover everyone, including you.”
About a year later, on yet another chilly Sunday morning, I was visiting another church in a nearby city. At the end of the service, the pastor asked visitors to join everyone for coffee, so I headed to the church gym with the rest of the congregation. As I filled my mug, a lady came up and told me she had “a daughter whose friend has a friend who is Asian.”
If it is not clear from the two stories I just told you, I am of East Asian descent and have black hair. More specifically, I am Korean Canadian. Before moving to Canada, my parents served as missionaries under the Korean Full Gospel Church in mainland China for 11 years. I am married to Douglas, the son of a Christian Reformed pastor.
I joined the CRC as a member about a year ago after attending CRCs with Douglas in different cities for about seven years. Why did it take me that long to join the CRC? Did it take me that long to agree with the CRC’s policies or teachings, or the general direction in which the denomination appeared to be headed? No, to the contrary—the Reformed worldview has thoroughly permeated my thinking as a young adult, well into my marriage, my work, and now motherhood. The Kuyperian manifesto, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”, is in my mind everywhere I go—whether it is at my home, my office, the grocery store, or at church. The CRC’s teachings have benefited me immensely, and I cherish them deeply.
The truth is that I often attended Christian Reformed churches that did not have the most ethnically diverse congregations. Most members of these congregations were of Dutch descent and to varying degrees seemed to associate the CRC with being Dutch.
As a Korean Canadian, I stood out visibly in the congregations in which I mingled. While most of the relationships I formed at these congregations nurtured and supported me, I had a few interactions like the ones described above that prolonged my hesitation to join the CRC.
In those two interactions, the man and woman were being friendly and trying to make a connection, but their attempts backfired, and I felt alienated as a result. The gentleman’s comment that I should not worry about my black hair because “Jesus’ tent is big enough to cover me” was bizarre, to say the least, because I was born into and raised in the Christian faith—my missionary father had even been captured during an underground mission festival in China and spent a week in prison being interrogated for attempting to spread the gospel. And the gentleman’s comment was not only bizarre, but deeply hurtful to me as a young adult volunteering and trying to form relationships in that congregation. I had just finished serving that church community by singing on the worship team that morning, yet after receiving that comment, I began to doubt whether I would ever feel accepted as a member of the congregation.
As for the second interaction with the woman who had “a daughter whose friend has a friend who is Asian”: if I were white, the woman would most likely have begun her small talk by asking about my job, my family, or why I was visiting that particular city—topics that would have been much more meaningful than “By the way, if I go out two or three connections in my social circle, there is someone who is Asian.” These interactions contributed to my feeling like an outsider in the CRC despite the many meaningful relationships I had formed through the denomination.
I believe the man and the woman approached me with good intentions. But these interactions have led me to think about how I can welcome a newcomer at church with whom I feel I have little in common. After moving to Vancouver (one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Canada) with my husband in 2018, I eventually joined First CRC there. Not only did this church have an ethnically diverse congregation, but the members tried to make newcomers, including some of the most recent immigrants to Canada, feel integrated into the church community.
I wrote this piece after much contemplation about how to portray the two interactions with as much grace and objectivity as possible. I’ve had numerous other interactions over the years with CRC members who are unable (or maybe unwilling) to move beyond visible racial characteristics, such as my black hair, to engage in more meaningful fellowship with me. Perhaps members who have long associated the CRC with “being Dutch” could learn to engage with attendees of an ethnic minority in conversations that are more conducive to building Christian community.