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Community?

By V ~

I was a happy kid before I entered the church. My family had moved from Washington State to West Virginia and the landscape was amazing. Across my house was a yawning gorge and I would spend endless days building little mud dams and floating my little foam boats down the stream. My family would go for walks to a park near our house and tiny little turtles floated in the pond.

So here is where it drops that church made me unhappy and ruined my childhood. Well, yes. But it is slightly more complicated than that.

My family decided to join a church. They did so because there was a sizable Chinese community in that church. The Chinese community sat in the same congregation as the "American" community as they put it, though all in a section. So the "American" preacher would be preaching to everyone and the Chinese community would be clustered to the left.

My Sunday school teacher was a very intense man. He told us about how amazed he was by God's grace and how hell was a real place. I'm seven years old and I look in the mirror and think I might go to hell. I become paranoid. I close my eyes and try to think about Jesus. I pray constantly.

But he also took us on camping trips which were great fun. My fondest memory of him is him leading a troop of us to a hiking path. He went ahead and he made Indian markers for us to follow. Two piles of stones, and you followed the bigger pile. At the end he gave us each a snickers bar and we then swung on a vine across a river. One camping trip my sleeping bag was soaked so he let me use his, drying my wet bag out over the fire and sleeping in it.

I grew to appreciate the people in the community, with the ideology sort of becoming background noise. Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but the palm leaves on Easter Sunday made the sanctuary into a little garden, with flags of all nations draped around. Christmas was cozy like a mouse hole. One day the sound guy screwed up and so during prayer, everyone in the congregation heard "born to be wild".

So what happened? The Chinese congregation, which I mentioned earlier, well, one day they organized together and formed their own congregation. They met in the same building, but in a different sanctuary, the old one that used to be a gymnasium. It came when the congregation which I had liked so much were taken away, just like that.

Adolescence is when many racial minorities discover their otherness. Mine came in the form of racial taunts in school. Racial taunts which eventually turned violent. I was assaulted, punched in the back of the head, shoved into lockers, one day in gym class a kid called me a chink and when I confronted him about it later he knocked me so hard that I saw my own blood on the locker room floor. If this had happened to an adult in a workplace there would have been lawsuits and settlements. Instead, I had my parents castigating me for provoking the racists who attacked me.

It was not a good time to be Asian, to be me. To make things worse, it was at this time that my dad became very serious about religion. Pathologically serious. One day at dinner, he says this to me, "one day you will be a true Christian" which implies of course that I am not a Christian right now. He wanted to teach his own Bible class, and being his son, I had to attend. He is exhaustingly intense about the Bible. Intense in a way that scares me, like, there were times that I was afraid he might turn violent. The community I had grown to cherish has evaporated overnight and all I have is ideology. Ideology that is paranoid and cruel, which dwells on harsh subjects a desperation.

But you put a good face on it and try to endure. High school was relatively better. Girls took a liking to me. I grew to appreciate the people in the Chinese church, who were good people. I liked the dinners we ate and the picnics we went on. Still, I felt empty. I craved the brotherhood that we had had in the camping trips. In the back of my mind the ideology of spiritual warfare against satan and the world still endured. That seriousness of purpose was missing in the Chinese church I felt.

The last memory of the Chinese church was a dinner when I came back from my first year of college. Everyone was there and they were beautiful and prosperous.

But something happened. My dad, again. He was teaching Sunday school and while I had stopped going long ago, he still taught my brothers and kids their age. Then one day he didn't. The other adults in the church found him too extreme, too intense. They didn't want him around their children. So they stripped him of this. He was angry. He wasn't mature enough to realize why it had happened. So he left, abruptly. He quit the church, just as I had grown to appreciate it.

This was when things truly became bad. Really really bad. Without the community of the church he withdrew and became even worse. More tense, more nervous, more angry. He became obsessed with television preachers. He said that the Chinese church weren't "true christians" anyways, and treated it too much like a social club. A social club! That was exactly what I wanted him to treat it as!

He later joined an evangelical church that has theatre seating and a congregation of like 10,000 people. I don't go, of course. The evangelical church they attend is steeped in lower middle class Scot-Irish settler culture. There's a lot of talk about good looking men and strong women and faithful children. There are videos and testimonials of faith. They like the production. I find it too stagey and fake, without any of the charming humor.

My vulnerability to racial taunts I believe is because I never had any rituals, religious rituals affirming my identity. I celebrate Christmas and Easter, both European holidays. It's all I know. And at the core, religion is identity. Full stop. There is no way around this. But even without it, community matters. My father was a deacon of sorts in the old Chinese church. A pillar. now, he's just a spectator.

In the end, I do think that if I had been born with blond hair and blue eyes, today I would be a fervent Christian. I would be a Christian athlete, going on mission trips and giving testimonials. Ultimately, I cannot reconcile Christianity with being Asian in America. I am interested in the community, of course, but the core of it just is not there.


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