Divisions in the Church, Divisions in the Heart

Part of 5 of in
by Joyce Lee
Illustrations by KIN LOK
Jan 01, 2015 | min read
Part of 29: Do Good
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Do you want to try Korean-style prayer?”

I was sitting cross-legged at our weekly college prayer meeting when I heard my InterVarsity staff worker make this suggestion to a room of 10 or so students from all different ethnic backgrounds.

“You could also call it non-American style prayer since many countries besides America use it. It’s when everyone prays out loud at the same time,” he elaborated.

I tried to suppress my laugh. I had been attending this meeting for five weeks and so far we had only used the “American” style of one person praying out loud at a time. Every week, I tried to muster the courage to pray this way, but felt awkward hearing my own voice. Somehow, it felt less intimate with God and more embarrassing with others listening in on our conversation.

At the Korean American church I grew up in, whenever the congregation came together to pray, everyone passionately yelled their prayers to God in unison, creating a loud jumble of Korean words booming through the chapel, led by the elderly Korean lady behind you shouting, “Bless us, Lord!” As chaotic as it was, this style of communal prayer felt the most natural to me. When others’ prayers drowned out my voice, I felt like I was having a private conversation with God. Our passionate weeping and yelling seemed like an honest, collective expression to God.

Prayer style is just one example of how growing up in a Korean American church shaped my relationship with God. In that family of believers, we woke up at 4 a.m. to attend annual morning revivals, and I would plug in headphones to English translation kits for the Korean sermons. We went to summer and winter youth retreats and ate late-night snacks of ramen and shrimp crackers after hours of praying into the night. 

When I transitioned to college, I entered a different kind of Christian community — Pomona Pitzer Christian Fellowship (PPCF), an InterVarsity group at the Claremont Colleges. Everything felt new and different at PPCF — our group wasn’t 100% Korean, we didn’t pray out loud at the same time, and none of the songs we sang were from the David Crowder Band. But we worshipped the same God. And for the first time, I learned that God cares about ethnicity and that, in fact, he wants to break down divisions between ethnic groups in order to bring reconciliation.

For the first time, I learned that God cares about ethnicity and that, in fact, he wants to break down divisions between ethnic groups in order to bring reconciliation.

Reconciliation isn’t easy. In Acts 10, Peter received a vision of four-footed animals on a sheet led down from heaven and a voice commanded him to eat. He immediately declared, “Surely not, Lord!” (Acts 10:14 NIV). Peter was being asked to do something that felt unnatural and perhaps even offensive to him. This vision led him on his first cross-cultural mission to Cornelius the centurion. When Peter entered Cornelius’ house a few days later, he crossed into a world that he never had to interact with positively or closely before. He acknowledged to the group, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (Acts 10:28 NIV).

The multiethnic Christian community felt unnatural for someone like me who grew up with segregated Sundays — the larger Christian body sorted into their own ethnic- and denomination-based churches. Even at my own church, the Korean-speaking and English-speaking congregations usually worshipped separately. 

When I first began singing songs in other languages during worship, I self-consciously lip-synced the words to myself so I wouldn’t mess up. When we tried “Korean style prayer” at a prayer meeting, everyone prayed under their breath, a quiet, unified mumbling because it felt so awkward to be loud. When my friend and I had conflict and realized that we were constantly offending one another with our culturally-formed expectations for each other, instinctively we wanted to resist conflict resolution and forgiveness. Our reaction was, “Surely not, Lord!”

Instinctively we wanted to resist conflict resolution and forgiveness. Our reaction was, “Surely not, Lord!”

Despite how the vision contradicted the rules that he was brought up with, Peter obeyed God and went to Cornelius. Through this act of faith, both men experienced God in profound, far-reaching ways! Peter confessed, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35 NIV). Then as preached the good news, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius’ household. People exploded in tongues and got baptized!

As awkward as a multiethnic community could be, the blessings far outweighed the costs. I grew to love praising God in different languages, telling him “Eres Todopoderoso” (You are all powerful) and “Hakuna Mungu Kama Wewe” (There’s no God like you). These songs released a spirit of joy in worship and I explored new expressions of praise. In cross-cultural conflict, God taught my friends and me to actively compromise, forgive each other, and extend grace. Honestly admitting our biases and feelings of mutual resentment or guilt healed our relationship with each other, the larger community, and God. 

I began to lose the sense of belonging at my home church and felt like I couldn’t share my newfound individuality. My attitude toward the church transformed from joyful and invested to judgmental and perhaps angry. Instead of seeing a tightly knit community of believers, I saw an exclusive clique resistant to putting in the hard work of relating to people different from them. Every joke felt insensitive, every opinion seemed unsound, and most interactions left me angry or frustrated at the very least. 

My parents tried their best to interact with how I was changing, but my same judgmental attitude created rifts in our relationship. Our interactions, complicated by our language barrier, intensified the tension of having a dual identity, Korean and American, and I began to resent the way God had created me.

While pursuing reconciliation with others in our multiethnic Christian community, I remained unreconciled with myself, my family, and God. I could not accept the differences in myself, my home, and my church. I valued multiethnicity so that I could see God break divisions between people, yet my own heart was divided.

While pursuing reconciliation with others in our multiethnic Christian community, I remained unreconciled with myself, my family, and God.

Bitterness cannot be compartmentalized. It seeped into my passion for multiethnicity itself and spoiled what God had given to me to enjoy. I became more critical of Christian communities that didn’t have diversity, but forfeited the grace that had led me to adopt this value in the first place. 

Now imagine trying to ask the very community I judged to support me in my crusade for multiethnicity. Toward the end of my senior year in college, I had to fundraise for a two-year program in which I would work and live among the urban poor in Los Angeles. A pastor encouraged me to apply for financial support from the church’s missions department. I wasn’t too optimistic about it so it came as a total shock when my application was approved. My church decided to support me as a congregation through prayer and financial support, above and beyond my needs for the two years.

The same church that I had harbored anger against and criticized to no end decided to graciously give their money to me. Of course, they had no idea of this, but God knew! God knew my heart all along and how undeserving I was of such love from a congregation of 8,000 people. I had steadfastly made myself their most vocal enemy. And fully aware of this, God responded with abundant grace.

Out of all the experiences of forgiveness and grace I experienced in community, this one topped them all. 

My multiethnic Christian community was never good just because it was multiethnic; it was good because the diversity created opportunities to experience reconciliation and forgiveness with each other and God. 

My multiethnic Christian community was never good just because it was multiethnic; it was good because the diversity created opportunities to experience reconciliation and forgiveness with each other and God. 

It has always been challenging to remember the love that started it all. Two years later, I’m still wrestling with my ethnic identity and how to lovingly interact with a community of believers, whether they’re multiethnic or not. Recently, I am learning to celebrate the diversity within a predominantly Asian American church. It’s a new family of believers, and it comes with new lessons on learning to receive and give grace.

Although I still believe that a shift toward multiethnicity in Christian churches is necessary, I also understand that every community is striving for the Kingdom in many different ways. Visiting various churches in my city has taught me that. Multiethnicity and racial reconciliation may be on the agenda for many communities but it will take time to get there. 

We’re all on a journey. Our journeys of reconciliation with our own ethnic identities and Christian communities may take time, but thankfully God waits with us.

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