Dear Mommy and Deddy,
Remember those months as a college senior when I told you about becoming a campus minister? We talked for hours before my graduation about joining staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I shared with you that as a student, I had found a place to practice faith that confronted the preventable and systemic suffering in our world.
InterVarsity connected me to a faith community to learn and respond to God’s justice for the neglected, abused, and imprisoned and called for their inherent dignity. I had found work where, as a Chinese woman, I could imagine growing in spiritual leadership ministering among students.
We can’t stop you, I heard you say. Your response during those first months lasted most of the years I was on InterVarsity staff. Every holiday at home, you asked me more questions about plans for my next job than about my current work. It was the first time arguments between us brought me to tears because I felt you dissociating not only with my decisions, but also from me as your daughter.
When Josh got into medical school, my excitement for my brother was tempered with heartache after realizing I would not be able to evoke in you a similar pride or happiness. What was it about my particular pursuit of justice as a person of faith that created so much distance between us?
What was it about my particular pursuit of justice as a person of faith that created so much distance between us?
In trying to make sense of the distance, I blamed you for buying into the American dream of upward mobility and financial gain because my ministry career stood in contrast. As Christian parents, I questioned your assimilationist faith that conformed to white America’s expectation of normality, even daring to believe you lacked faith.
Through the words you didn’t say
Faith you displayed was this:
That through loss of homelands, language, and dignity
You would choose to survive
And love your children into existence.
During my first full-time year as a campus minister, I participated in a national training for new InterVarsity staff. In the middle of the training, two white staff members came on the stage. They told us that they would pray a substitutionary prayer as our mothers and fathers. They prayed blessings on each new staff, affirming our call to follow God in InterVarsity ministry. They requested that God comfort their doubts as parents for their children’s decision. I cried after that prayer. Mom and Dad, these were words and affirmations I longed to hear from you.
What I didn’t realize was that in embracing InterVarsity as my family where I could pursue ministry, I left you behind.
I played into a definition of justice and faithfulness still defined by white experiences in InterVarsity. My draw to InterVarsity as a justice-oriented faith organization is complex, because staff of color had created pockets of safety. But I was also unable to distinguish that the practice of justice can be defined narrowly through whiteness as well. Whiteness as supreme, defining our faith and attempt at justice, in the end avoids our country’s roots in racism, and is at root where our relationship broke, too.*
I played into a definition of justice and faithfulness still defined by white experiences in InterVarsity.
Mom and Dad, I want to take some time to share specifically how this affected us. Faithful justice work, tied to a white agenda, meant seeing ourselves devoid of history, culture, multiple identities, while numbing experiences of systemic injustice that hit the vast experiences of people from Asian descent.
It meant standing in solidarity with other people of color without expectation of holding my own people closely, or expectations that others would come alongside. It meant calling out anti-Blackness in Asian communities, though vital and necessary, as often the only framing for racial justice in relationship to people from Asian descent. Lastly, racial justice diluted in whiteness meant flattening our ancestors’ migration journeys as assimilation instead of recognizing their survival through war and trauma. Ironically, assimilating into InterVarsity’s version of faithfulness as an Asian American staff meant criticizing your assimilationist faith.
Then could it be that assimilation
Never described either of our experiences
Could it be that assimilation was a lens given to us
To hide the structures that force us to conform
So that we never question these systems
That break apart families and generations.
There were seasons I cherished during my time on InterVarsity staff. Because of the labor of staff of color who fought for ministry spaces for staff like me, I got to explore some of the most creative parts of myself and met students and staff who have become dear friends. I had the opportunity to facilitate programs with brilliant colleagues where students grappled with racism, U.S. imperialism, and immigration through the lens of faith. Students, especially those of color, became rooted in a faith loosened from its white supremacist center, and got to experience the living God present in their culture, histories, and stories of both marginalization and resiliency.
Students, especially those of color, became rooted in a faith loosened from its white supremacist center
In my particular experience with students from Chinese descent, we felt together, some for the first time, a theology that included our ancestors — one that held sacred their migrant journeys. Doing this kind of ministry has shaped who I am today, and I reflect back with deep gratitude for the mentors and colleagues who shared these seasons with me on InterVarsity staff.
Mom and Dad, could you share these seasons of joy with me? But how could I ask that of you when you knew I had been underpaid for five years, fundraising my own salary often through the generosity of your peers? When you jokingly asked how “you raised a daughter like this”, did you mean to say that I shamed you? I talked back in words soaked in a colonized faith that ignored your story, asking why you couldn’t see the sacrifice I was making for God and others.
I talked back in words soaked in a colonized faith that ignored your story, asking why you couldn’t see the sacrifice I was making for God and others.
And still, many times you swallowed your pain and my anger, cooked meals for me when I was home, visited campus to meet my students, and donated monthly to support your daughter’s work.
Mom and Dad
Did you know that you saved me
Your love and persistence
Awaken me to a faith reclaimed.
Do you remember how you felt last year when we sat down at my kitchen table, and I told you that I had to resign from InterVarsity?
I explained to you that InterVarsity rolled out a policy to force the resignation of all staff who did not believe and behave in their non-affirming theological stance on sexuality. The way InterVarsity dismissed voices of dissent — especially from queer students, staff, and alumni — exposed InterVarsity’s relentless protection of itself over human life. InterVarsity prioritized their own interpretation of Biblical sexuality over the safety of queer and trans people who are already targeted, especially inside the church.
In the end, I realized InterVarsity would only listen and applaud itself with their own version of justice and develop its own parameters of who is deserving and undeserving to live as children of God. My relationships with queer and trans students, staff, and friends, and the way that they expanded my theology and love of God, eventually put a target on my back as well.
InterVarsity would only listen and applaud itself with their own version of justice and develop its own parameters of who is deserving and undeserving to live as children of God.
Mom and Dad, to shield you from worrying too much last year, I did not tell you about the many evenings when I cried until my body ached with chest pains from witnessing the impact of this policy on queer students and staff. I did not tell you about the depression and weight loss that came from simultaneously carrying students’ trauma and my own trauma. I did not tell you of the stress and guilt of leaving 40 students and two interns because of my deteriorating mental health that resulted from this policy. I did not tell you of the horror of seeing how quickly InterVarsity moved on, and the vulnerability of feeling so easily disposable.
When I saw the pain in your faces as I shared that day in my apartment, I felt that InterVarsity disposed of you, too. The labor of sacrifice you invested in your daughter did not matter to them. Your experience was not part of their justice agenda.
I spent the last three months on staff after InterVarsity’s announcement sharing story after story of its violent consequences in front of supervisors and staff in national positions. I followed the lead of queer staff who had already organized, collected, and shared dozens of stories from students, staff, and alumni documenting spiritual abuse that stemmed from this policy.
No amount of storytelling would change InterVarsity’s position. This method of institutional silencing compounds the silencing that people of color, queer, and trans communities already face in the U.S. In particular, as Asians and Asian Americans, our experiences have yet to provoke and shape this country’s racial justice frameworks, especially in Christian circles. Roughly 60 percent of all staff who left during InterVarsity’s policy rollout were people from Asian descent. What is it about our suffering that creates no outcry?
As Asians and Asian Americans, our experiences have yet to provoke and shape this country’s racial justice frameworks, especially in Christian circles.
And so I left this spiritual home of almost a decade, knowing there was another way to find and practice faith while honoring our queer and trans family, while honoring you, Mom and Dad, while honoring my own mental health.
When our homelands made it impossible
For Po Po, Gong Gong, Ma Ma, and Yeh Yeh to stay
Were they disposed of
Or did they find faith and imagination to realize
There was another way, to call for their own dignity
Though denied in both homeland and the Americas
To create new breath and life for their children and grandchildren
Mommy and Deddy, one year later, I am finding strength and faith through the generational story of our family. One year later, my queer and trans community are the clearest example of love and God’s presence in my life. One year later, ex-InterVarsity staff have taken care of each other; friends have supported my income while I searched for other work. Roommates, community, and former students have brought me joy in the midst of despair.
I am with many who are searching for another way that calls for our own dignity, though denied in our spiritual homes, to create new breath and life for each other.
All throughout, thank you, Mommy and Deddy, for continuing to welcome me home.
I love and honor you,
Sarah 李 思 华
*I know you’ve expressed concern that I use the word “white” often. I hope you know I am not trying to diminish people who call themselves white. My use of the word is about the myth of whiteness as inherently better than those whose skin color is different and which holds other identities supreme alongside: male, heterosexual, cis-gender, able-bodied, Christian, and citizen. In this country and world, this myth that whiteness is supreme influences every part of our system — faith institutions, criminal legal system, immigration, education, employment, environment etc. that ultimately bring violence upon people of color, women, and people who identify as queer, trans, differently abled, Muslim, and/or immigrant.
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