“You don’t look WASPy. What are you?”
It’s not the usual greeting a visitor hears after church, but it was mine that day.
I shared my ethnic background with her, satisfying her curiosity about someone who didn’t look White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. She carried on the conversation, eventually asking me about my occupation. I told her I was a teacher at a local school. Her response was equally unusual: “That’s great! I’m glad they hired someone . . .” she paused, searching for the right word “. . . impure!”
I stood there, trying to process what she said as she laughed at her own joke. Acknowledging the homogeneity of the school staff, she was commending the school for hiring someone like me, someone not white. Someone whose skin color makes her “impure.”
On a different occasion at another church, a woman told me that she and others in the congregation believed I was a mail-order bride and that I didn’t speak English. In the context of the conversation, her point was clear. Since I wasn’t ordered from a catalog, I was acceptable and could start developing relationships at the church.
I could go on and on about well-intentioned comments and so-called compliments I’ve received as an ethnic minority in the church. Nobody has been violent. No one has been directly hateful. All the comments have come from “harmless” jokes and poor word choices. Though I’ve asked the Lord to help me forgive the individuals who have said such things, the sheer volume of the comments in the local church have affected the way I approach public worship.
At times I’ve felt like Pavlov’s dog, with the mere mention of the word church prompting a sense of dread instead of delight. What hurtful comment will someone make to me today? Many times, I’ve wished I could go to worship as a white person and experience the freedom of just existing without the inevitable questions. Why wouldn’t people get to know me beyond trying to figure out my “exotic” skin tone and dark curly hair? Why couldn’t I just be . . . “normal”?
What Is ‘Normal’?
In summer 2016, on the night before my denomination voted in favor of an overture on racial reconciliation, the Rev. Duke Kwon gave a phenomenal talk that finally made me feel seen and understood. He addressed the general culture of many majority-white churches that maintain a sort of “right” way to do things or a “normal” way to be, typically rooted in white American culture.
These standards aren’t always intentional or articulated but are embedded in activities and attitudes. Unfortunately, people swimming in the waters of what is considered “normal” often make incorrect assumptions about those who don’t fit the norm.
You can see this just from my personal examples. By calling me impure, the woman gave words to what she considered “normal”: educators at the school are white. By assuming I was a mail-order bride, the woman revealed her expectation that white people marry white people and that brown people usually don’t speak English.
Their assumptions about me demonstrate that even Christians have a perception of what is normal, common, or acceptable—and it often elevates the comfort and experiences common to white people while devaluing the dignity and perspectives of people of color. It causes the dominant group to see the ethnic minority as “other” and never fully part of the community. Kwon calls this “white cultural normativity,” and it has poisoned many of our churches and affects our members in painful ways.
When we treat people not like us as “other,” making assumptions based on differences, we’re guilty of what Scripture calls the sin of partiality. James 2 explains:
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? . . . If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (vv. 1–10)
When we subliminally maintain a culture of “white is right,” or assume the culturally white way is the normal, preferred, or even neutral way, we are showing partiality to one group over all others.
The result is devastating: our strong belief about the image of God in all people isn’t matched by our churches’ cultures and actions in everyday situations with ethnic minorities. Our dedication to biblical fellowship is undermined by poor word choices, assumptions, and cultural insensitivity. We are failing to love all of our neighbors as we love ourselves.
If you haven’t experienced this cascade of indignities yourself, you may not realize their severity. Hasn’t the Enemy already proven his tactics of causing sin to seem innocuous? James reminds us that any form of partiality within the church is violating the command to love our neighbors.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Learning how to love our neighbors is a process that is often littered with mistakes and differs from person to person. Here are some ideas to help you begin.
1. Start with humility.
When Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, they quickly asked, “Lord, is it I?” I used to think their faith was weak, but now I wonder if they knew that no sin is beneath us. Instead of getting defensive, we should follow the disciples’ example and ask: “Lord, is it I?” Prayerfully ask the Lord to give you humility about the experiences of ethnic minorities around you. Believe your neighbors, and lament with them when they’re vulnerable enough to share.
2. Consider your assumptions.
Think about the judgments you make when you see someone not like you. Take an implicit-bias test online. Intentionally diversify your friends, podcasts, music, books, and spaces, and let others break your stereotypes. Join a study group committed to doing the work of racial unity. Learn the history of racism in the church. Remember that acknowledging your assumptions is just the start. Intentionally undoing your assumptions will help you truly repent of your sin, be on guard against temptation, and intentionally avoid hurting others with your words and actions.
3. Practice making biblical assumptions.
Scripture teaches us that each person is made in God’s image and has inherent dignity (Gen. 1:27–28). Assume you are called to love each person with brotherly affection and even go above and beyond to show honor (Rom. 12:10). Assume each person is more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3). Assume each person is your neighbor, and you are to be compassionate, kind, and patient (Col. 3:12). Then, allow these biblical assumptions to transform the way you speak, how you form your questions, and how you understand and steer your own curiosity about someone not like you. Welcoming others begins with your assumptions, then your words.
The woman who called me impure may have been on to something. I am impure, not because of my skin, but because of my sin. Every one of us is impure in this way, and that’s what makes our relationships difficult. Yet thanks be to God who has given us his Son! Jesus is building his church regardless of our weaknesses, blind spots, and unintentional prejudices. Our King is calling us to live out the reality of his colorful, unified kingdom—right here and now.