What Are They Doing Here?
An experience of exclusion during a visit to “Honky Tonk Row” gave Gabriel a new perspective on how to live out God’s hospitality through the local church.
BY GABRIEL J. CATANUS
in
37: Blind Spots
Nov 01, 2015 | min read

ACCORDING TO TRIPADVISOR, you can’t experience Nashville without a visit to “Honky Tonk Row”, a downtown strip packed with world-famous venues where many great musicians started out. Armed with a list of must-see attractions, my wife, some cousins, and I drove 500 miles from Chicago to enjoy delicious food and some live music.

When we finally stepped into the heart of “Music City”, every venue turned out to be full. So after wandering the strip, we finally settled on the first venue that let us in and searched for standing room in the packed venue. Then in a tone I’ll never forget, an older white woman turned to her friends, pointed at our group, and said angrily, “What are they doing here?!”

Having heard this woman as clearly as if that were her actual goal, I looked immediately in her direction only to find her already staring, undeterred by my reaction. More shocked than discouraged by her question, I followed our group through the lounge and within minutes, away from the strip itself. It wasn’t the drunken crowds or the “woo girls” (girls partying together, frequently yelling out “Woo!”) everywhere that ruined my experience of Honky Tonk Row.

It was this woman’s stinging rhetorical question that stayed with me through the trip.

Maybe she wondered why six Asian-looking people were trying to hang out at a country bar in Nashville. I started to think that “we city folk” with snapbacks and tattoos had no place on Honky Tonk Row. Or maybe she and her friends had saved up for this trip and were enjoying themselves until we walked in and our presence ruined it for her. And she wanted to know why we were there, or better yet, make her distaste known.

But the same issues behind her question are too often at work in my own heart and community. Ironically, my own quickness to perceive and analyze when I am the object of racism can blind me to the fact that I am often actually an agent of racism.

My own quickness to perceive and analyze when I am the object of racism can blind me to the fact that I am often actually an agent of racism.

When we returned home, I shared this experience at our church, an established Filipino American congregation currently becoming more multiethnic. Since we happened to be in a sermon series on the Spirit’s diversifying work in Acts 10, I began to wonder what it would be like if a real Honky Tonk — with the proper bots, a belt buckle, and a big hat, assuming that is correct Honky Tonk attire — came to one of our church services. I thought about what might happen if that woman from Nashville showed up with her friends to one of our Filipino potlucks.

Most likely, their presence would be met by many asking what they were doing there. Some of our folks might wonder if she had seen the church sign, that this is our church. And if she had read the signs, she wouldn’t be shocked to be the object of staring and pointing.

She should know that we work hard all week despite being teased by peers for our accents and passed over by employers for promotions, and that this place of safety is where we gather to worship God with people like us. She should know better than to come in and ruin what we’ve sacrificed for so many years to enjoy. Apparently, our idea of a good time or good community didn’t include this woman either.

What Are They Doing Here?

Because of painful experiences we endure, our communities can quietly change from having ethnic roots to being outright ethnocentric. The two places might seem worlds apart, but without ongoing and critical self-reflection, our churches can become for us what that Honky Tonk lounge might have been for her — a community that belongs more to us than to God.

Our communities can quietly change from having ethnic roots to being outright ethnocentric.

Many churches need to seriously reflect on this today. Most of the congregations I serve were founded after 1965 to reach out to new arrivals from the Philippines. But, facing the current and dramatically reduced immigration from the Philippines, many of these same churches are shrinking and struggling to find their purpose.

Some of our churches have tried to assimilate, insisting that times and needs have changed. Their reasoning is that since most Filipinos speak English and don’t need a “Filipino-town”, we should move on from ethnic ministry and join the megachurches. After all, marriage to non-Filipinos is seen as progress, and many of our mestizo children are either disconnected from their parents’ culture or ashamed of it. Ironically, many U.S. megachurches now have pockets of Filipinos who meet on their own regularly and long for recognition within their churches. This approach fails to see difference as a gift, and beneath it is a longing to be accepted as American.

On the other hand, a few of our churches have embraced our cultural uniqueness and how God is using us in the world. We’re more realistic about denominations and seminaries, and we want to tell our own story. Seeking freedom from colonialism and advocating for the marginalized, we are protective of our churches, and we don’t want them to be whitewashed. But only through this experience did I see that this approach also has a shadow side. We can be sensitive to being excluded despite our tendency to also exclude.

We can be sensitive to being excluded despite our tendency to also exclude.

Adding to the urgency of these issues, the founding pastors of our churches are now retiring, with no one who understands Filipino culture positioned to succeed them, thus leading to the assimilation of more churches. I saw this recently at a leadership conference where, of the 25 Filipino American churches represented, only one of the churches had a paid youth pastor and he was not a Filipino American. In just the last few months, I’ve been approached by three churches whose parents are retiring and their churches have no “Fil Am” prospects.

We need a new approach that neither assimilates nor excludes, and this is what God has been showing us. Having felt excluded in Nashville, I felt again what many of my church members feel. Our non-Filipinos feel left out by the name on the church sign outside, while our elderly Filipinos and new immigrants feel overlooked by an Americanized way of ministry.So rather than deciding to embrace one group and exclude the other, we are learning to serve everyone better by teaching them to make room for others. Understanding each other’s pain is helping us to share in each other’s joys.

Though this is tense and uncomfortable at times, we want this to be our legacy. Our church will only be better if more cultures and languages are welcomed. By showing hospitality to one another, we can welcome and make room for God. He has been present in a unique way and we don’t want to miss out. So the question turns out to be an important one for us, especially in times like these: what are we doing here?

By showing hospitality to one another, we can welcome and make room for God.

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