There are few things as exhausting, draining, and disheartening as family drama. I’m not talking low-level sibling rivalry over who gets shotgun all the time. I’m talking deep-rooted family issues that go generations back. That kind of family drama shows up in the most inopportune times in the most inappropriate places — at someone’s wedding or funeral, at the family reunion, or while grocery shopping.
But when family drama shows up in the church, it grieves me. It riles me up like nothing else does because it is in my identity as a Christian and Jesus-follower where I am all of who God created me to be and has called me to be — Asian and American, Korean, female, friend, daughter, wife, mother, sister, aunt, writer, manager, advocate, activist. The church is the place where I and everyone else SHOULD be able to get real and raw and honest to work out the kinks and twists, to name the places of pain and hurt, and to find both healing and full restoration and redemption.
So when the church uses bits and pieces of “my” culture — the way my parents speak English (or the way majority culture people interpret the way my parents speak English) or the way I look (or the way the majority culture would reproduce what they think I look like) – for laughs and giggles, it’s not simply a weak attempt at humor. It’s wrong. It’s hurtful. It’s not honoring. It can start out as “an honest mistake” with “good intentions,” but ignored, it can lead to sin.
Fortunately, there is room for mistakes, apologies, dialogue, learning, and forgiveness.
When several of my friends shared with me their experience at a recent church planting conference, I had to remind myself that there is room even when actors in a video clip that is supposed to be about mentoring church planters digress into using fake Asian accents, whip out some fake Kung fu (or is karate? Isn’t it all the same?), and play some “Oriental” music in the background to help ground the moment. I had to remind myself that not all of my fellow Asian Americans will think this is a big deal, the sword to die on, the hill to charge. Some might even think it’s funny. Some might laugh because that has been the most acceptable response.
I have heard non-Asian American church leaders, publishers, and authors explain that they didn’t know it wasn’t OK to make fun of the way my parents speak their second language or use a mishmash of “Asian” images because they are cool.
I’ve been told to stop using my voice so LOUDLY, which is pretty funny considering my blog truly does not have as many followers as any one of those church leaders, publishers, authors, conferences, etc.
I’ve been told “complaining” doesn’t further God’s purposes.
I respectfully disagree. Leaders should know better, and when they don’t, they ought to find mentors —because that is what I’ve read in all those Christian leadership books, written by and large by white Christian men. And a lifetime in America has taught me that in America, and sometimes in the church, the squeaky wheel gets the grease even if I am the nail afraid to be pushed down. I am not complaining. I am pointing out a blind spot.
I am also remembering the first time my daughter thought she ought to have a beautiful doll with blonde hair and blue eyes because the dolls that looked like her weren’t beautiful. I am remembering the first time my son came home asking why anyone would talk to him funny and then chop the air and say “ah, soooo.” I am remembering the first time my son learned to pull the outer corner of his eyes to make “chinky eyes” and why that was problematic. And I am honoring the memory of those moments and of the lessons of love, courage, and forgiveness I had to teach my children in the face of playground taunts that can take root in their hearts.
The church cannot be, should never be, a place and a people who make fun of others and perpetuate stereotypes that demean and belittle others’ culture, race, ethnicity, or gender. The church can be funny, have a sense of humor, and have fun but not at the expense of other people. The church should be creating culture, not using it as a weapon to put one group down in the name of Jesus. The church should not be imitating culture for a cheap laugh. Those accents, martial arts, and music being used for the laugh? There are people connected to those caricatures and stereotypes.
My parents who speak “broken English” with an accent are people created in God’s image.
My children whose eyes are brown and shaped a little different than the blonde-eyed models in stock photos churches are using to publicize their ministries are created in God’s image.
The martial arts, the music, the language that come from the country of my birth were created by the imagination, artistry, discipline of people created in God’s image.
So, if you are so inclined to join me and others in addressing this family drama of the church, please consider reading this open letter to the evangelical church and signing it (don’t forget to verify your signature by checking your email).
Spread the word!
Kathy Kyoung Ah Khang is currently serving as a regional multiethnic ministries director with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF)/USA. Kathy is one of the authors of More Than Serving Tea, and she continues to write on her personal blog More than Serving Tea.
Image: Church with cross in the foreground, sunfun / Shutterstock.com