This article was originally published in Inheritance Magazine. Please do not reproduce this article without the expressed written consent of Inheritance Magazine. Visit www.inheritancemag.com to learn more about them. Artwork by: Alice Young.
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.
— Edwin Markham
The group leader mocked me as he put his thumb and index finger in front of his forehead.
“So, you showed up. What, were you waiting by the phone all day, hoping that one of us would invite you?”
A group of friends around him laughed. “Let’s go in, we’re late. The service is starting.”
One girl lingered behind, looking at me with sympathy. “You know we’re just messing with you, right? It isn’t because you’re non-Christian or anything.” She gave an awkward shrug before entering the double doors to catch up with the others.
I stood alone outside the church, with the darkness of evening surrounding me. Through the glass, I could see lights shining and people gathering. I heard the chorus of praise music echoing.
And I wanted to disappear.
I had no words, only racing thoughts: These are Christians … is this how their God teaches them to treat others? I’ll never be like those hypocrites.
CLOSED CHRISTIAN CIRCLES
I was wrong. A few years later, when I had graduated from high school, I became a Christian and was a small group leader in my college’s Asian American fellowship. I was well-respected and liked, and I now had the power to include or exclude.
The power dynamics hadn’t changed much. The most eloquent and popular members who fit the “Christian culture” of the group rose to the top and became leaders. Those who didn’t fit the mold socially — or ideologically — sat on the sidelines. I had simply learned the game and how to fit in.
Unfortunately, this was all too common in fellowships and churches. We had formed a culture of people who not only looked similar, but talked and thought the same way. In an effort to build community, we had instead constructed highly-controlled environments of security.
These were our circles: neat, closed, and safe.
We had fun together, hoping that outsiders would see us and want to enter our circle, and maybe even become like us. Some did join our group, but I also observed the damage this approach caused on campus.
I heard the murmurs: “Those Christians, they’re never around. They’re always just hanging out with each other.” I saw people roll their eyes at groups who chose to live together, mocking them as the “Asian Christian dorms.” Relationships and trust were marred before anyone had a chance to say a word.
As a young Christian, I couldn’t believe that this was the extent of Jesus’ vision of a “city on the hill;” of a community that was light to the world and salt of the earth. Dissatisfied, I left the fellowship during my senior year.
I was frustrated by my own culture. I thought that Asian Americans just didn’t have the social skills or courage to do any better.
WORKING TOWARDS AN INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY
God proved me wrong yet again. In the past few years, I served on the national leadership team of Epic Movement, the Asian American ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, and I’ve seen our staff and students live out their faith in ways I never could.
They pushed beyond their comfort zones towards a vision of community that is bold, broad, and inclusive. Let me share with you some examples.
Jonathan Le sat in a group of thirteen people at a meeting of the Secular Students’ Society (aka “atheist’s club”). However, half of those students were from Epic, and this was not a one-time visit — they attended every week.
Their goal was not to debate or unleash a barrage of apologetics arguments, but to encourage a deeper level of personal sharing and community.
As a result, trust grew, and many atheists applauded Epic for working to rebuild relational lines between Christians and secularists.
On September 28, 2010, the University of Texas, Austin campus was rocked by the news that a masked man was in the library, armed with an assault rifle. Le gathered off campus with Epic students for Tuesday prayer, as they usually did.
However, this time, one of the atheist students called, asking if he could join them. Clearly shaken from the event, he wanted to see how the Epic students responded. So the group prayed for the shooter, for the campus, and for their friends’ safety, including each member of the Secular Students’ Society.
As they were closing, they were stopped by the words of the one nonbeliever among them.
“So, can I pray for you guys too?”
LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA
Larry Tu responded to the group of students assembled before him as they asked question after question.
“I want to start a non-profit organization to help with human trafficking. How can I raise awareness about this as a Christian?”
“How do I share my faith with my girlfriend and roommates without offending them?”
Every week, this group gathered to talk about their own diverse communities, whether in a park with skateboarding friends, in a house with non-Christian roommates, or at a table on campus engaging people about social justice issues.
Epic wasn’t just a club where they made all of their friends. It was a learning community that empowered them to minister where they already were — at work, home, or play.
FLUSHING, NEW YORK
Glennis Shih gave a ride to the president of an Asian campus club.
“That event was so meaningful,” he told her. “I wish we could have more in the future.”
Epic had just hosted a film night with the Chinese Student Association and Science Fiction clubs from Queens College. After viewing videos about cultural identity and stereotypes, they ended with a short film called “Pothead.” Shih then posed the questions, “Whose perception really matters? How do we respond to racial slurs in a constructive way?”
This wasn’t just any group of Asian American students. During any given week, over half of the group members were nonbelievers. Sometimes the Epic staff discussed a passage from the Bible; sometimes they didn’t.
Regardless, they emphasized that there was no “secret language” students had to know to be part of their group. All one needed was the openness to talk about culture, faith, and one’s own life.
Epic intern Clarence Chan described it well. “We’re 0% Christian culture, but 100% Christian message.”
This kind of mindset didn’t happen by accident. It required intentionality. It took leaders who had expanded their circles to those who might never attend a Bible study or campus fellowship. With this in mind, Epic Movement has continued to develop new resources to build an inclusive culture.
For example, Epic Fortune was a small group discussion tool designed for campuses, churches, and culture clubs. Imagine breaking open fortune cookies, to find messages inside with stimulating questions about culture and faith. Imagine participants sitting in a circle, taking turns sharing their perspectives and stories.
Queens College was one of dozens of campuses where students used Epic Fortune as a resource to deepen conversations and build relationships. It was here two years ago when nonbelievers sat around a table with broken cookies, sharing about their family struggles and asking questions about the Bible. It was here that Jerry, now the president of Epic, shared the gospel for the first time in his life.
What was once hidden on the inside, God had brought forth to impact an entire fellowship.
EXPANDING THE ASIAN AMERICAN CIRCLE
Traditionally, Asian cultures can be quite “closed.” We don’t share failures, weaknesses, or emotions, because it’s considered shameful to do so. We keep everything bottled inside us, and if we do tell anybody, it doesn’t go much beyond our tightest circles of family and friends.
Don’t get me wrong — great strength exists in the family and community emphasis among Asian Americans. The point is not to break up a strong circle, but to expand it to include other groups and possibilities. How much are we missing, if we keep our minds and lives so closed?
Just as importantly, how much might we be holding back that others need to see and hear? What about our values and legacy? It is easy to lament the lack of Asian representation in history books and popular culture, and to feel bitter about stereotypes and discrimination.
But each moment we sit in silence is a page of history that passes us by, devoid of our voice and story. Each caricature in the media is a distorted image, waiting to be restored into a beautiful one. Will we have the courage to break out of our pockets of safety and paralysis, and bring all we have to offer to the world?
How big are your circles? Do they include only those of your ethnicity, age group, social class, denomination, or worldview? What does your “city on a hill” that shines light to the world look like? Does it radiate with the brilliance of many colors, or just one?
Remember Jesus, whose circles were wide enough to include the most despised and marginalized of society — from tax collectors and prostitutes — to Samaritans and lepers. Remember His circles included the most educated and wealthy of His time, from Nicodemus to Saul, the most zealous Pharisee of all.
Jesus’ love knew no bounds, even though his closest friends deserted him and those he had come to save beat him, leaving him alone to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Much pain permeates the history and psyche of our Asian American identity and culture, and many of us have known shame and marginalization on deep levels. As we reflect on the meaning of true community, let us bring our suffering to the foot of the cross, to the One who was ostracized so that all might have access to God.
In Christ alone may we find the grace to transform our pain into a courageous and unbounded love.