Thursday, March 15, 2012

Who Owns This House?

I lied.
I said I finished my series on race, but I’m not done—and I worry it makes folks uncomfortable out there.
Because talking about race in America almost always feels uncomfortable.
I spent last week at InterVarsity’s Multiethnic Conference.   350 campus staff of almost every stripe showed up—we had Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Natives, and Middle Easterners.  The Asian group alone included focus groups of East Asians, South Asians, Southeast Asians and Filipinos.
I suspect it felt a little tense for everyone.
Especially when certain groups cheered when certain things were preached.  Especially when folks made edgy comments, or voiced pain, or even a little rage.  The danger, as Tara Edelschick pointed out in “Why White Parents Don’t Talk about Race,” is that research suggests racial attitudes worsen when diverse groups gather.
Years ago, when I worked in New York City on a team with 2-3 of every kind, a major conflict arose over when to hold our ethnic student conferences.  At these conferences, Black, Latino, Asian, and White students worked through issues of ethnic identity, community and faith in a safe environment.   Our leaders had put the conferences at a time that felt difficult, which led some of us, me in particular, to talk about feeling exploited.
Nothing like a person of color using strong words to get a meeting convened!
When we met with our two White leaders, I realized I was talking far more than my minority teammates.  Not only was I talking more, I was saying the things they had said privately, but weren’t voicing in the group.  I finally called them on it.
The discussion then focused on what prevented them from speaking up.
And God gave me a picture.
Our ministry was like a house with all sorts of staff living in it.  Most of the White staff felt like they owned the house.  They felt free to move the furniture, decorate the walls, put their feet up, and cook the foods they liked to eat.
But most of the minority staff felt like guests.  As a guest, it’s impolite to move the furniture or criticize the decor, and if you don’t like the food served, you don’t complain, because if you complain, you’re not invited back.
Despite being Chinese, I felt like I an owner not a guest.  There were all sorts of reason this may have been so.  Maybe growing up in Hawaii as part of the majority gave me confidence.  Maybe all the privileges I’d enjoyed gave me a sense of entitlement.  Maybe I’d been welcomed so well I had heard the message I was part of the family.  Maybe I’m just kind of arrogant that way.
Whatever the reason, I felt completely free to move furniture, discuss the decorations and serve my own style of food to make our ministry feel like home.
The picture resonated.  My colleagues of color admitted they didn’t feel like they owned the house.  They felt like guests, and at times like unwelcome guests.
In the discussion that followed, our supervisors made clear that they wanted every one of us to own the house.
But we realized that if we all own the house, the house will feel a little awkward for everyone. It might even look tacky to some tastes.  There may be a kente cloth hanging from the wall, and feijoada in the fridge, a Japanese screen to go with the clean lines of a Scandinavian sofa.  Rock and roll might play in the living room, hip hop in the family room, salsa in the kitchen, and a Beethovan concerto in the den.
The Multiethnic Conference also felt messy at times.  It’s difficult to sing in a language you don’t speak.  It’s painful to learn truths about American history you never knew while watching Race, the Power of an Illusion pt. 3.  But in that chaotic blend, as we talked and prayed, as we humbled ourselves to listen, and risked saying stupid things, my hope and prayer is that bad racial attitudes didn’t solidify, but that we took a step closer to our future—one where every tongue, nation and tribe gathers in worship before the throne of God.
Because in Jesus’s kingdom, we all get to be owners.

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