When I was 6 years old, I thought that all Christians were Chinese.
I had gone to an “Asian church” all my life, partially because, for my immigrant parents, being able to listen to sermons in their native tongue was a blessing. Church was one of the few places where they didn’t need to put on their “American” selves.
It wasn’t until I came to Yale and joined Yale Students for Christ that I entered into multicultural fellowship. For me, seeing people from all ethnicities and walks of life come together for worship was both powerful and moving. The group was also the first place I’d come into contact with a Christian community that invited me to grapple with Christianity’s role in social issues, rather than holding them at arm’s length.
Last week at our retreat, there was a small area of the worship room wall dedicated to biographies of past Christians at Yale. Timothy Dwight, Benjamin Silliman and Horace Tracy Pitkin were three of the five men pinned on that wall. While reading their biographies, I realized that at least two of the men had been missionaries in China during China’s “century of humiliation,” a period of intervention and imperialism by Western powers that left China broken and scarred. Horace Tracy Pitkin’s murder in the Boxer Rebellion, a Chinese uprising against Christian missionaries and foreigners who had forced themselves into the country, led to the creation of the Yale China Mission, an organization dedicated to sending missionaries to China. That organization is known today as the Yale-China Association.
For myself and many Christians who are also people of color, issues like this can be difficult for us to reconcile. On one hand, I know that my faith is something I’d never give up. I believe too strongly in the fact that there is, at the very least, a God, based on how intricately the universe is designed. However, it is also deeply uncomfortable for me to think about how mission trips today, much like voluntourism, are more often than not an excuse for high school and college students to venture to a foreign country that they previously had never heard about or understood.
I am fully conscious of the fact that Christianity’s dark history cannot be changed. The brutality that accompanied mission trips into areas like Africa and Asia has left lasting marks on society and people that will never come fully undone. As a Christian, I see the situation as clean water being poured into a dirty cup. God is the water; humanity is the cup. God gives us free will, therefore the distortion of his holiness into vile brutality during that period of time is not representative of what the Christian faith represents. However, that is not an excuse for the church and its members to not acknowledge this history, even as it remains unalterable. It is also important to remember that history never fully leaves us, that the remnants of the past affect how people of color in the church feel included today.
My hope is that the Christian community will begin to pull these issues out of the attics of history and confront them in broad daylight — whether it’s race, gender equality or other issues of the like. In Revelation 7:9, the chapter of the Bible that describes what the future kingdom of God will look like, it states, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”
As a person of color and woman in the church, I am fortunate to have a fellowship like Yale Students for Christ and a church like Elm City Vineyard that strive to be multicultural, that put forward difficult discussions on why representation in church leadership matters. But I am lucky. As a broader Christian community, we still have improvements to make and discussions to have. The struggle with race and gender should never be the sole burden of those who are affected. If you are fortunate enough to not have to grapple with the issues at hand, then help your brothers and sisters who do shoulder them. Only then can people of every nation, tribe, people and language stand together.
Katherine Hu is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.