Erna Hackett is a half white, half Korean woman who never felt fully accepted by either culture. As she grew older, Erna had a hard time finding a community that would fully embrace her. Despite this barrier, she took her hardship and used it as an opportunity to build multiracial fellowships and look at God's Word in a brand new way.
Navigating Church Community as a Biracial Christian
Everybody’s family is a little bit Oprah or even a little bit Jerry Springer. We all have a little crazy in our family story.
Mine stands out from the start — my dad was white and grew up in rural Washington on a Native American reservation as the son of a sharecropper. My mother was born on a farm in rural South Korea on the tail end of the war. They met when my father was working in Korea and got married. She was promptly disowned by her family and moved to Seattle, Washington.
A couple of years later I was born — fated to be an only child because my father was 60 when they had me. It never occurred to me how odd our family would look to outsiders — a 60-year-old white man, a 25-year-old Korean woman, and a biracial baby. It seemed normal to me, but it was a little Jerry Springer from the outside.
It seemed normal to me, but it was a little Jerry Springer from the outside.
I grew up in a distinctly bicultural house. My mother spoke to me in Korean, we attended a small immigrant Korean church, and I traveled to Korea almost every summer. Each summer, my uncle would sit me down and lecture me about never forgetting what the Japanese had done to us. The elders at my church would sit me down and tell me never to forget my culture
On the other hand, my dad did most of the cooking, so we lived on gravy and chicken fried steak, and pot roast, with a side of kimchi. We spent a summer touring Eastern Oregon and Washington in an RV, visiting my dad’s sisters. We passed the time picking huckleberry, canning our own jams, and I received my first square dancing dress, complete with lacy pantaloons.
In spite of this bicultural upbringing, I strongly identified myself as a Korean American. I remember looking in the mirror in 9th grade and thinking — I am Korean.
So it came as quite a shock when I went to a Korean church camp the summer before my senior year of high school and began to be teased for being “just half” and for not speaking Korean perfectly. It was a painful moment of self-awareness. I identified myself as a Korean American, and yet they were telling me what I was on the outside. This threw me for a loop. I was hurt, insecure, and confused.
I identified myself as a Korean American, and yet they were telling me what I was on the outside.
I needed to talk about what I was experiencing, but nobody was talking about race. White people told me how Asian I looked and put me in the Asian box. Korean people told me I was white and put me on the outside. Neither community felt safe or hospitable.
A BIG TENT
That same summer I attended a month long leadership camp. My roommate Tiffany was an African American woman. She and I bonded and I was pulled into her friendship with Tahra, another African American woman. The camp program addressed issues of race, but it was really my friendship with these women that saved me. They talked about race all the time. It was like water to my soul. In listening to them I suddenly had vocabulary to talk about my ethnic identity, and I was introduced to a whole new world of experiences.
In listening to them I suddenly had vocabulary to talk about my ethnic identity.
As they processed their experiences of being black women, dynamics with black men, their feelings about black men
dating white women, and their frustration with other people’s ignorance, I felt liberated! I had language to express my anger and isolation. I didn’t feel alone anymore.
I definitely went through a phase where I adopted everything they did. Suddenly I was setting my curls with African American hair products. I took the cover of the first TLC album as my instruction book for how to dress and, out of nowhere, prep school Erna began wearing bright orange baggy shorts, folded down Dr. Martens, and hoop earrings that reached my shoulders. It was a bit of a Vanilla Ice phase — but I was young and confused.
As Tiffany and Tahra introduced me to their friends and family, I felt completely embraced. I loved that people who were black and white, or Korean and black, were embraced by the black community. After my sense of rejection by Korean Americans — I loved that the African American community seemed like a big tent — they weren’t pushing people out; they were embracing them. My introduction to the black community was one of total hospitality and love.
FINDING A VOICE
That school year I joined the black student group at my high school. I look back and realize that I was mentored in race relations by the black community — not in an abstract way, but through the lens of my own identity journey. I think that’s why I often use different vocabulary than many of my Asian American peers when I talk about race. I was mentored by another culture.
Through the black community I learned that there was room for anger, for voicing frustration, for welcoming everyone, and suddenly I saw systemic injustice issues. I started dating a African-American-Korean guy and his personal stories of being harassed by the police opened my eyes to a whole new set of experiences that I had never even considered. The biography of Malcolm X became my favorite book and he became my hero.
I decided to start a group for Asian American students at my school and our first activity was to take over the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. school assembly, because MLK was not just for black people! I presented a slide show on the LA riots and blasted my teachers for the lack of diversity among the teaching staff at my prep school. Not only had I found a way to process my own identity, but I was finding a voice for justice issues — something that is at the center of my life and ministry now.
Not only had I found a way to process my own identity, but I was finding a voice for justice issues.
When I went to college, I joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and heard biblical teaching on racial reconciliation and social justice for the first time. I studied the life of Jesus in depth through InterVarsity’s Mark Study and realized that Jesus was a passionate, exciting, and interesting leader, way more interesting than the guy depicted in paintings in church. Those paintings made Jesus look like a weird white guy gazing into space holding a sheep.
I began to think that Jesus might turn out to be as interesting as Malcolm X. My passion for talking about race and justice was now connecting to my Christian life.
When I came on staff with a campus ministry after I graduated, I really believed that we were supposed to be creating multiethnic communities on campus. I asked to be placed at Occidental College, which was the most diverse liberal arts college in the country at the time.
Our group was mostly white and Asian American. It seemed to me that the only way to be multiethnic was to figure out who were on the margins and work to bring them to the center. At that time the black and Latino students were on the margins, so I began to reach out to them. I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing. But somehow I bonded with two black freshmen football players. I didn’t know what to do — so I just cooked.
I didn’t know what to do — so I just cooked.
I cooked and cooked and told them to invite their friends over. Soon I was hosting study breaks for eight to 10 of their football and fraternity buddies. I knew nothing of the black fraternity system, but I learned a bit through them. And I just kept feeding them.
Turns out that soul food and Anglo-American farm food are pretty similar, and suddenly all that cooking my dad did came in handy. I could easily make mac and cheese or biscuits and gravy from scratch and, after a few tries, I got my grits right.
We started a Bible study for black women. I felt so conspicuous — did anyone else feel weird about a non-black person leading this study? I sure did! It wasn’t like high school; now I was trying to lead groups of black students, and honestly, I felt self conscious about it. My goal was to raise up black leaders, but until then, it was going to be me! I just kept showing up. I owed a debt of gratitude to the black community — they had walked me through a dark time in my life, and I didn’t want to leave them on the outside now that I was leading a Christian community.
We were studying the passage where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. I had led on this passage multiple times for a predominantly white and Asian American crowd. The typical application on campus was to suggest that we serve the dorms in some practical way — students would often go around emptying people’s garbage and offering to vacuum people’s rooms.
I offered up this application idea to the 15 black women in the study. There was some resistance, and then one woman finally said, “I’m not doing that! They already treat me like I’m the help around here. They already think I’m a servant and you want me to go around taking out their garbage?”
I had nothing to say. I had studied that passage numerous times. But it had never occurred to me that my interpretation and application were being shaped by my culture and experience. The passage was speaking to these women in a completely different way. This happened again and again.
It had never occurred to me that my interpretation and application were being shaped by my culture and experience.
I went on an urban project and fell in love with God’s heart for the city and for social justice. But I was challenged by my black and Latino students who had grown up in the city — I assumed that the passages that spoke to me would speak to them in the same way. But I had so many blind spots.
When we studied the rich man and Lazarus, I assumed that everyone would identify with the rich man. But one of my African immigrant students expressed hurt after I had led the study from that perspective. She had seen herself in Lazarus. My own experience in the suburbs was shaping my entry point and assumptions as a Bible teacher. My students pressed me to see that Scripture was deeper and wider than I could see through the lens of my own experience.
One of my favorite moments of leading a multiethnic community was leading worship for a staff conference. I had chosen several gospel songs, although there were very few black staff members in the room, as an act of hospitality. I wanted to communicate that I saw and valued my black brothers and sisters in the room. My friend Lisa, an African American woman on staff, thanked me for making space for gospel music in the worship. “You made it feel like home.” My heart felt full. That is what the black community had done for me in high school and now I had an opportunity to do the same.
I don’t believe in the cliché that all multiracial people are inherently bridge builders. If anything, I think we feel the dividing wall of hostility more than most. But my own pain and confusion did make me uniquely open to friendship with Tiffany and Tahra. And those friendships shifted my worldview and my life trajectory.
by Erna Hackett
Photography by Wonho "Frank" Lee
ERNA HACKETT has worked with InterVarsity
Christian Fellowship since 1999. She currently
serves as a worship director for Urbana and as a
growth coach for the state of Oregon. She blogs at
feistythoughts.com and shares her music at erna.me.
WONHO FRANK LEE is a freelance photographer who primarily shoots for Eater LA and recently received his MFA from Cal State LA. Follow him on Instagram @WonhoPhoto.