Between Plainfield and Barrio Three

Theological Reflections on Home and Belonging

Part of 2 of in
By Colton Bernasol
Photography by Aaron Huang
Sep 10, 2020 | 8 min read
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I spent my childhood and teenage years in a small suburban village just on the boundary of the Chicagoland area, Plainfield. Memories from that time flow with a thick, childlike belonging, a sense that this place — its people, cornfields, dilapidated business strips, skateparks, prairies, and forests — was my home, a space where I was loved, a space that I loved. This isn’t to say that I lived shielded from the ill-shaping forces that decimate this world. I am an immigrant’s son, aware of my family’s fragile and strange presence in a place of mostly white families. Still, this awareness comes with the fact that I discovered those wonderful parts of life like joy, laughter, friendship, and community in the only place I ever knew.

My parents were deeply Pentecostal, so I learned to think of home through vibrant religious language, the biblical stories of the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament. Plainfield was home for me, not simply because of my attachment to this particular place, but because of the feeling of a quiet and personal presence sustaining this attachment: a suggestive whisper witnessing to the reality that God loved me, loved my family, loved my neighbors, and loved the world we inhabited. Even still, I always had a nagging sense that my father struggled to belong, struggled to make this outskirt village his home, as much as it was mine.

Memory of fracture

My father is from Barrio Three, South Cotabato, the Philippines.(1) When I was a child, he’d tell me stories of this island he was from, always with an erupting pride. In one story, he recalled an early morning responsibility he had to feed his family’s water buffalo. He was supposed to feed it a tiny proportion of the already eaten grass but had accidentally fallen asleep to the gentle heat of dawn and the slow graze of the animal. He spoke to me of the clear and pristine water that swayed between the islands and of the blooming and blossoming density of foliage that clothed Mindanao’s mountains. As I reflect on it now, I sense he felt rooted. He managed to feel at home in Barrio Three, at home enough to rest on top of a grazing animal.

Still, this sense of home does not take away from the tremendous difficulties that accompanied my father’s childhood. His parents — my grandparents — ranked among the lowest classes of Filipino society. Their house was pieced together by scraps of cardboard, sheets of metal, and plastic, built on land they did not own. In size, their house was probably equivalent to today’s suburban one-port garage. They had learned to keep anything nice in plastic bags because a rainstorm would soak their little house thoroughly. In tears, my grandma would send my dad off to school with tattered clothes, muddied flip flops, and a measly handful of rice for lunch.

This poverty was caused by the colonial history my father was born into. In the late 1500s, the Philippines was conquered and colonized by the Spanish empire. For a short period in the late 1800s, Filipino revolutionaries managed to overthrow this colonial regime. But after a few years of independence, the United States sent an army over and waged war until they gained control of the islands. From then until 1946, the Philippines was an official colony of the United States.(2)

The most sickening consequence of colonization was the establishment of a society organized around white supremacy. One of the ways the United States did this was through the development of an education program known as the “Pensionado program”. Through this education program, the U.S. sent Filipinos to colleges and universities in the United States, and then sent them back to the Philippines as teachers to aid in the transformation of Filipino society around U.S. cultural values. This vision was rooted in the desire to make Filipinos “educated and civilized”, according to the then-U.S. President William McKinley. This U.S.-centered education engrained within many Filipinos the idea that what was good, true, and beautiful was possessed only by those who declared themselves to be white. If Filipinos were to gain any sort of status in the eyes of their colonizers, they’d have to adopt and mimic their ways of life — everything from the language they spoke, the food they ate, and the extent to which they could lighten their skin.

This colonial legacy affected my father. The first time he went to school was the first time he encountered someone with much lighter skin. He was bedazzled by the fairness of this light-skinned person. In his memory, he recalls them being clean, kept up, and having nice clothes. The tragedy is borne out of the comparison he begins to make after seeing them. His skin is dark, deeply dark because of his work out in the tropic sun, and he recalled it as being scorched and dirt-crusted, signifying everything that fair skin is not: poverty and inferiority.

This inferiority became a driving force for his immigration to the United States. After working some time as a merchant marine, he decided to move to Chicago to prove that he could become everything the color of his skin seemed to deny. And for some time, it appeared to work. He started a family, managed a successful business, sent his children to good universities, and semi-retired at the age of 50 to focus on humanitarian work.

But this kind of success did not exist without a slow wounding alienation. He worked 20-hour shifts, was diagnosed with a blood disease due to high levels of stress, strained his marriage, attempted multiple failed business ventures, and slowly grew distant from his sons and family. In it all, I’m sure he was ever reminded of this infinite chasm that separated his instability from the stability of those white families that surrounded us. In the shadow of this alienation, I could sense the looming belief of inferiority become more real to him. In his eyes, the stability of white families, the size of their houses, and the ease with which they appeared to navigate Plainfield only magnified the instability of our family, the struggle to pay for our house, and his failing business ventures. The tragedy of comparison was back, and this drove him to work with greater intensity. During this time, he started taking trips back to the Philippines for longer periods. First, one month; then two months; then four. I saw him less, talked to him less, and his presence slowly faded to absence as he delved deeper into his attempt to become what he saw in those successful white individuals.

Eventually, my father returned to the Philippines because he decided he couldn’t live here. When he left, he told me that he felt he could either be Filipino or human, and that in the United States, the former was incompatible with the latter. That is what colonialism and white supremacy do. They crush the possibility of belonging either through poverty or shame, which forces you to leave a place you once learned to rest in; they teach that only white people belong in certain places and have the authority to make a place like Plainfield home. Such alienation can plunge a person so deeply into a pool of confusion, anxiety, and crippling pain that one wants out in any way possible; we don’t realize how these forces can strangle the souls of those caught in them.(3)

Belonging amidst fracture

My father’s alienation must be close to what the exiled Israelites must have felt so far from Jerusalem. Like the Israelites, my dad’s sense of belonging was fractured by forces and powers he could not control, and he found himself searching for life within the swirl of this violence. The Israelites were forced into such a position as the Babylonian empire invaded their land, pillaged villages, and decimated Jerusalem and the temple, the dwelling place of God. The survivors were then sent into a foreign land, and this exilic state is all the more extraordinary that even in Babylon, they continued to affirm the idea that their creaturely existence on earth meant that God had not abandoned them.

Scholars believe that the Old Testament was collected in today’s form during this traumatic period of Israelite destruction.(4) In the ashes of a destroyed temple, away from the promised land, Jewish readers gathered around to listen to prayers: “O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” Despite the shadow of their devastation, they pray on: “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hands are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.” In their view, there is no relationship to creation that is not mediated by God. All of creation lives in the palms of God. And if God is the liberating God whose divine will is for Israel’s flourishing, exile cannot undo this fact. So long as they were creatures in creation, they exhaled God’s promise with every breath they took, signifying a freedom that at any point could dawn. This was both a comfort and a call: If it were true that their bodies signaled liberation, then they had the responsibility to witness in their actions to this liberating end.

The New Testament heightens and expands this liberating promise. The gospels, for example, declare Jesus to be God-in-flesh and liberator of the world. But Jesus wasn’t just any god, nor was his message of liberation quite what Israel expected. He threatened the religious establishment, denounced the corruption of the temple, and proclaimed a new kingdom oriented around love for those who were oppressed.(5) His message entailed a promise of freedom and flourishing to those who found themselves to be outcasts of societies — Gentiles, the sick, the dying, the poor — everyone who the Jewish elites and the Roman Empire ostracized from community. In other words, Jesus formed a community of the alienated and lowly, oriented around his message that the kingdom was near. He opened up a space that centered love of neighbor and justice as essential actions.(6)

A high responsibility

In truth, my dad’s story is just one among many. Though existence exhales the promise of liberation, this breath is often brutally cut short by colonialism and white supremacy’s annihilation of life. This can be seen in high rates of infection and death among Black and Latinx communities and by the ongoing racialized police violence, highlighted in the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the shooting of Jacob Blake. That Kyle Rittenhouse could kill two people protesting in solidarity with Blake only stresses the extent to which white supremacy ensnares us all. We remain trapped in the myth that this land only belongs to those who are white.

But this land is also God’s pasture, a space opened up to be a place of belonging for the exiled and alienated, for racialized minority communities, for my father, and for myself. Christians, then, are here imbued with a high responsibility: We must — whether in protest, policymaking, writing, community organizing, teaching, or pastoring — bear witness against white supremacy and colonialism to God’s liberation, to Jesus’s kingdom of the alienated, and make a space for all to belong. If colonialism and white supremacy are witnesses trying to proclaim my father’s inferiority, then scripture is an equally powerful counter-witness. No matter where I or my father choose to claim as home, I pray that we might bear witness to the reality of belonging, and trust that quiet but liberating whisper of love.

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(1) See Godofredo Bernasol, Jr. “Fresh Milk is Like Heaven: A Walk with God and a Life of Missions”. Stories from my dad are drawn from my memory and his memoir. I admit that I have a complex relationship with this book. On the one hand, it was written 11 years ago, when his business was successful, and he believed that he fulfilled both God’s will and the American Dream. They were equated in his mind. On the other hand, this book highlights the struggle of a Filipino immigrant in the United States. It’s a treasure of stories told from the perspective of someone I not only love, but also someone searching for meaning in an immensely beautiful, painful, and complex life.

(2) For a short and accessible survey of American colonization of the Philippines, see Erika Lee, “The Making of Asian America: A History”. See also Anthony Christian Ocampo, “The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race”.

(3) See Willie James Jennings, “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race”. This book has been immensely helpful in thinking about the relationship between colonialism and white supremacy and how these forces have alienated us from place.

(4) See Jacob L. Wright, “The Commemoration of Defeat and the Formation of a Nation in the Hebrew Bible”.

(5) For classic accounts of God’s desire to liberate creation, see Gustavo Gutiérrez, Caridad Inda, and John Eagleson,“A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation". See also James H. Cone, “God of the Oppressed".

(6) For a reading of how Jesus creates a new community of belonging, see Willie James Jennings, “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race” and his commentary “Acts”.

Colton Bernasol

Colton Bernasol (he/him/his) is from Plainfield Illinois, a Southwest suburb in the Chicagoland area. He is a graduate from Wheaton College with a bachelors degree in Philosophy and Biblical and Theological studies. Currently, he is a student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary where he is pursuing a Masters in Theological Studies with a concentration in Theology and Ethics. In particular, he is interested in questions at the intersection of theology, race, and colonialism. Reach out or read more at his website: coltonbernasol.com.

Aaron Huang

Aaron Huang was born in a Christian family, but never had an “aha” moment. Traveling and nature photography help him experience the beauty of God’s creation and remind him of his own insignificance and God’s grandeur. Find him on Instagram @heyeyron.

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