I have power and privilege as a queer hapa yonsei pastor.
This is not a sentence I would have imagined speaking just a few years ago. I am a minority in many ways: Generation X in a church of Boomers, queer in a church with a strong preference for heterosexuals, a woman of color in a predominantly white church. I’m aware of my own intersectional location.
Bear with me. There is another way to see my place in the world.
I’m a queer biracial fourth-generation Asian American of Japanese and white Jewish descent in a mainline denomination with numerous policies outlining theological and biblical commitments to racial justice. This denomination figured out ordaining women decades ago (with some streams having ordained women in the 1800s). The Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) recently opened the doors for the ordination of LGBTQ persons, and has authorized pastors to treat same gender marriage the same as heterosexual marriage. The insurance and pensions program covers all married couples.
Within the past 20 years, the shift in my own denomination toward full inclusion of LGBTQ persons has been dramatic. By the end, the people arguing against inclusion were outnumbered by the people in support of biblical, theological, and pastoral interpretations and actions that would recognize me as a full person, capable of being called into ministry whether or not I was in a relationship, and permitted to be married according to the laws of the country.
The people arguing against inclusion were outnumbered by the people in support of biblical, theological, and pastoral interpretations and actions that would recognize me as a full person.
The PC(USA) is fairly unique in that it took church-wide discernment to change the church constitution, rather than relying upon bishops or a few representatives. The many people involved included our national governing structure that had equal numbers of ministers and elders from every region and also regional governing structures involving ministers and elders.
In some recent conversations among colleagues from different denominations, I was struck by how different our lives were.
Despite the ways in which I experience structural oppression and cultural preferences for what I am not, I take for granted my church’s support for women’s reproductive rights, the assumption that women can be just as called to ministry as men, and that we no longer require LGBTQ people to be celibate in order to participate fully in the life of the church due to our interpretation of Scripture and
That my denomination meets basic human rights standards on paper makes me feel privileged. Compared to people like me in other churches, I am.
That my denomination meets basic human rights standards
on paper makes me
Yes. I’m saying that being part of a church that does not have legal discrimination based on gender and sexual behavior written into its regulations is a point of privilege for someone like me. In other sectors, we would probably call this “human rights”, but the Church does discrimination so well we have come to think of churches that do not officially discriminate gender and sexual orientation as out of
My church isn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. It has a long history of discrimination cloaked in theological language with biblical rationales. A policy change does not consistently translate into cultural change, where suddenly all churches are likely to hire women, people of color, single people, and LGBTQ people as
But now that congregations are free to do so, the struggle is less about articulating a theology — one that allows us to see women, people of color, divorced people, single people, and LGBTQ people as equally called as your normative, heterosexually married once white man — and more about working toward living into the gospel upon which we largely agree in our own polity.
The predominantly white mainline church has long been on the side of racial and gender justice, and more recently, LGBTQ community justice.
But because this is the United States, which is white supremacist and patriarchal to its core, because the U.S. is predominantly white, and because this form of Christianity emerged from colonialist narratives, I cannot claim any moral superiority.
My church is responsible for the maintenance of structural oppression, as it established most major institutions and has had a significant influence on the way the U.S. government works throughout history. I know, evangelicals may get more press time, but it’s the mainline (and Roman Catholics) that founded hospitals and schools, stitching racism and misogyny into our national fabric in a way that evangelicals have only capitalized upon. My own church is founded upon a tradition that marginalizes me.
My church is responsible for the maintenance
of structural oppression and has had a significant influence on the way the
U.S. government works throughout history.
This marginalization also finds me worshiping away from my own Asian American Christian community, which tends to be more conservative than I am, and offers few choices of worshiping communities for an English-dominant multiracial Asian American woman in Kentucky.
Moses is my guy in the Bible — with his relative privilege and his multiple communities of belonging. His experience resonates with me as a multiracial Asian American in a multiracial relationship.
He’s adopted, so he might have looked different in his adopted family. He likely practiced the religion of his adoptive family, but also learned the religion of his birth family. He was likely educated in the language and culture of his adoptive family, and also spoke the language of his birth family. Perhaps he spoke with an accent. His own people didn’t seem quite sure of him, and I can imagine that going up against his adoptive world — killing someone who was oppressing someone of his birth community and specifically going against Pharaoh in his adoptive family — meant that his adoptive family disavowed him. He married a woman of yet another community, and his own birth sister mocked him for it. He could lead his people out of oppression, but he was never quite theirs. He couldn’t take them all the way. He bridged communities, but that in itself is a constant reminder that he’s only the bridge.
In the church, I’m often the bridge, and the church won’t let me forget it. How it works in my church is this: I don’t have to lie about who I am, and in exchange, I pay the cultural tax. I’m invited to speak and write, as a voice of authority, and I say yes, which means I run the risk of putting myself out there too much, stretching myself too far, tiring myself out — acting as a filled quota that excuses the church from cultivating more leaders who are competent to speak and write on racism.
I run the risk of putting myself out there too much, stretching myself too far, tiring myself out — acting as a filled quota that excuses the church from cultivating more leaders who are competent to speak and write on racism.
Compared to LGBTQ people in denominations that require us to remain celibate, or perhaps worse, closeted, I am very privileged. If I want, I get to say that I’m queer. I get to say that I’m partnered without living in fear that someone will bring charges against me (that used to happen, and yes, I still remember which individuals and congregations and judicatories would do that). I can perform a marriage service for a same-gender couple. This is liberation compared to who we used to be, which was brutal, short-sighted, bigoted in both attitudes and policies, driving people away into other more inclusive denominations, or away from the church altogether.
But in my own context, it’s not perfect. There are still meetings and regions I go to where I know it’s best to keep my mouth shut. I still prefer to work within a part of the church that has a human resources office for my own protection, as opposed to a congregation, where it’s still possible that almost anything goes, especially from church members toward staff (we do have protections based on our connectional polity, but it’s really not the same as
Heteronormativity runs rampant, so much that most people still presume that same-gender-loving people will have families and lives that conform to the stereotypical heterosexual two-parent, two-child household. People who are gender- nonconforming and transgender have pointed out the church’s commitment to inclusive language for humanity is outdated and oppressive because it conforms to binary constructions of gender.
The church’s commitment to inclusive language for humanity is outdated and oppressive because it conforms to binary constructions of gender.
While the church was working toward inclusion at a legal level (as I would argue we are not at inclusion at a de facto level), I never had to take time off from my work in ministry to argue women should be ordained. The level of exhaustion I have felt as a queer woman of color is probably nowhere near what others in other churches have experienced. My humanity may be undermined, but it is not under assault the way I imagine it must be in traditions that do not recognize women or LGBTQ persons in ministry.
Having to argue the biblical and theological underpinnings for women’s ordination can feel like a distraction from working to end the structural ways in which women pastors and elders are sidelined
The immense privilege I have is being able to say out loud, in print, that I’m a queer biracial Asian American woman. I’m a Presbyterian minister. I serve the church.
Yes, saying that out loud should be a basic human right, but for so many of us, it isn’t. I know so many people who cannot be honest about who they are. Just a few years ago, I couldn’t. I’m so glad I am where I am. And I will fight like hell to make it better here.
I’m so glad I am where I am. And I will fight like hell to make it better here.
By Laura Mariko Cheifetz
Illustrations by Maggie Chiang
The Reverend LAURA MARIKO CHEIFETZ serves as the Deputy Director of Systems & Sustainability at the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. She is a contributor to "Leading Wisdom: Asian and Asian North American Women Leaders and Race in a Post-Obama America: The Church Responds" from Westminster John Knox Press, a contributor to "Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color", and co-editor of "Church on Purpose: Reinventing Discipleship, Community, and Justice" from Judson Press. She received her M.Div. from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, and her MBA from North Park University in Chicago. She is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She and her partner live in Decatur, GA, enjoy spending time with friends over food, exploring whichever region in which they happens to live, and believe "The Wire" is the greatest television show in history.
MAGGIE CHIANG was born to a Taiwanese family in the City of Angels and is a full-time artist and part-time dreamer. Inspired by places both real and fictitious, her illustrations evoke a longing for adventure and the pursuit of the unknown, exploring impossible landscapes and places unseen. You can find her online at hellomaggiec.com.