Equals at the table
By Angie Hong
Whenever I think about the Holy Spirit pouring out over the masses at Pentecost, I vividly imagine the diverse groups of people from all of Jerusalem being transformed by the power of the triune God in corporate worship.
In that supernatural moment, hearts and minds were fully alive, allowing believers to lay down their vulnerable selves in the presence of God and one another in unity. Even more amazing were the ways in which the believers daily lived in this transformed reality, as they worshiped together daily and met each other’s needs in tangible ways as a united Christian community.
This biblical vision of Jewish and Gentile believers in an inclusive worshiping community should help sustain diverse and intercultural Christian communities today. When God called me away from my primarily mono-ethnic church upbringing to step into a vision of a multi-ethnic church in Durham, N.C., I dared to believe that a Christ-transformed community of people from all nations as described at Pentecost was possible. I was ecstatic and eager to participate in this kind of ministry, and I went on a quest to seek wisdom and knowledge from the many communities who went before me.
What I found in reality was quite different. As if personal and interpersonal brokenness and sin weren’t enough to struggle with as Christians, churches today remain the most segregated organizations that exist, more than any other institution in America. Racism, which divides society to keep dominant power structures intact, has taken deep roots in the church in ways that are subtle, hidden and twisted. Instead of inclusive and countercultural communities, there exist highly exclusive, business-as-usual spirituality clubs or spiritless social justice groups.
The churches I found that did offer wisdom were, in fact, relatively young and struggling in their efforts to make diverse intercultural congregations. Other churches that had existed longer as diverse congregations had leadership that consisted of mostly white males, which seemed inauthentic to me. In other words, the idyllic, supernatural and transformative Pentecost vision I pictured in my mind seemed almost impossible to achieve in the real world. Almost.
I have seen glimmers of hope in some communities, including my own. But I am no longer naïve about how excruciating this journey can be, as it calls me to be awakened to myself in ways that invoke pain, sacrifice, resurrection, hope and joy. It calls me to peel back the many armored layers I have built up over the years — sharp edges that have been formed and fortified based on my personal experiences as a minority female in church, as both an ignorant participant and recipient of systemic oppression. But I find hope each Sunday during Communion, as I am reminded that Jesus still invites all of us to covenantal love.
Gifted as created
I am a second-generation Korean-American woman, born in the United States and raised in the American South. There are many assumptions and expectations of these different parts of my identity, and, as I grew up and matured, I noticed how the world viewed most of these parts in a negative light.
To survive as poor immigrants with little education, my parents sought community and business networks through the Korean church. In that Korean church community, I found belonging and normalcy among my peers with similar narratives. There was no need to assimilate or pretend to laugh off micro-aggressions and ignorant bigotry, nor was it assumed that I was automatically gifted in math and science. I was me, and I fit in just as I was.
When God first called me out of the safe haven of my church community into intercultural ministry, I had no idea the degree to which it would be disorienting, shocking and, at times, traumatic. I first chalked it up to clashing personalities and a general resistance to change by the leaders, possibly even generational differences. As other newcomers from the dominant culture joined and were given power and voice, however, I began to sense that it wasn’t just my personality or my communication style. I did not have the right gender, race, ethnicity and geographical location to make an impact in the kin-dom of God.
If I had not left the enclave of my Korean community bubble, I would not have been awakened to such views on who I was and opinions on who God created me to be. I fluctuated between signs of hope and even more signs of discouragement over my calling, resulting in a sort of wilderness period.
Then came another calling to join CityWell, an urban Durham, N.C., church plant that would be intentionally multiethnic with a focus on the reconciliation of God’s people. By this point I had become acquainted with many pastors, mostly white and male, who were excited about the idea of an intercultural church. I had experienced tokenism and marginalization more than I had ever wanted to in my lifetime, and I was highly suspicious of anyone who used the language of reconciliation without concrete action. I proceeded forward into the church plant with caution, building up a mental and emotional wall to protect myself from being vulnerable to harm or rejection. I intentionally made myself an outside observer, watching out for the same methods of implicit bias I had experienced before.
Sure enough, there were many initial mistakes made by the pastor and leadership team at CityWell. And yet, something was different about this pastor and leadership team in the ways they took seriously the call to bring the Acts 2 vision to life. The emphasis on realizing and seeking out the gifts of each person and group in the community and building trusting relationships in which to struggle, fail and recover began to infuse breath into our community.
I developed a restored hope that breaking down my guarded walls would bring new life in my community and for myself. Despite past church experiences that made parts of my identity seem disruptive and easily dismissed, the CityWell community helped each part be seen as a God-given gift. My Korean-American identity added to the richness of my community, as people eagerly sought to learn from the narrative, experiences and gifts I contributed from my immigrant church upbringing.
The fact that I was a woman serving in a leadership capacity as music minister gave other women in the congregation a sense of representation and voice. As a Southerner, I knew how to empathize with those who grew up in Southern culture and gently enter into dialogue about justice and race with those on multiple sides of cultural and political issues. And as an Asian-American female, I sought to bear witness to the fact that Jesus is working in all of us and has a specific place in ministry for people like me.
The individual transformation and identity development journeys that I and other CityWell members were experiencing translated to the flourishing of our journeys with one another, making it possible for our hearts to become fully alive together in our gathered worship. We desired realization of the vision in Revelation 21:22–26: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. …People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (NRSV).
Angie Hong is a music therapist, worship leader and liturgical curator concentrating on the intersection of worship and reconciliation. She serves as creative director for Willow Creek Church’s Chicago campus. This article is excerpted and adapted from her chapter, “Equals at the Table,” in Intercultural Ministry: Hope for a Changing World (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2017, 125–33). Used by permission of the publisher.