Angie Hong is a second year MDiv student at Duke Divinity School.
How we can resist the worldly narratives of our bodies and find belonging in the body of Christ?
Every time I preach a sermon, I canvas the audience and ask if this is the first time, they’ve ever heard a woman preach before. Then I ask if this is the first time, they’ve ever heard an Asian American woman preach before. A majority of hands shoot up and everyone looks around to reassure themselves that they are not the only ones who are witnessing this phenomenon for the first time.
When I rededicated my life to Jesus in high school, I was transformed. I fell in love with Jesus and I wanted to be comforted, challenged, and convicted by God. I wanted God to infiltrate my whole life. I read all the Christian books on how to live my life as a Christian. I listened to as many sermons by cool preachers as I possibly could. I had a collection of worship albums and played each song with all my heart and with passion on the piano and guitar.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized something strange.
As I got more serious about my ministry as a worship leader, writer, and speaker, I realized that most of my theological influences were all white men. There were a few women thrown in there – usually books about dating and waiting to save myself for marriage, but when it came to Scripture or learning about Jesus, I was taught and influenced by men. If I went to a conference that was outside of my own Korean church retreats, I went to a conference with mostly all white male preachers. If I sang any worship songs or hymns, most of those songs were written and sung by white men, and white women who were reserved only for slow songs.
But I wonder, and maybe you’re wondering, “Why is it even important to point out that the sermon is being given by an Asian American woman?” The Bible is the Bible. The Truth is the Truth. A song is a song. Who cares about the person from which the material came from? It should not matter if I learn it from someone who is white, black, Latinx, Native Indigenous American or Asian. The Bible is the Bible. The Truth is the Truth. A song is a song.
But then I have to ask, “Well, if this is the case, if it truly does not matter who I’m learning from, then why haven’t I learned from both men and women, white, black, Latinx, Native Indigenous American or Asian? Furthermore, where exactly can I find these books, sermons, and music by white, black, Latinx, Native Indigenous American or Asian people? What if I want to learn more about the perspectives and the theological conversations of the LGBTQIA community, or the theological practices of people who had different abilities? If it really doesn’t matter, then I should have all the access at my fingertips to these materials. I should see a lot of sermons and podcasts and books and songs by all sorts of people.”
I thought this was interesting, for although most of my resources were white and male for understanding how to be a Christian in this world, my physical body was not white and male in this world. I am the opposite. The way I experienced this world was radically different from someone who is the opposite of me.
Growing up, I was one of few Asian kids at my majority white high school, and I found myself thinking a lot about how different my physical body was compared to everyone else. I found myself strategizing how to move, dress, and adapt my body in order to live in my environment.
There were two main strategies that I employed in order to adapt to the environment. First, I tried to blend in with the other kids. I laughed at different types of jokes and I tried to be into the same foods and music, even though I didn’t really like it. I asked my mom to pack me “American” lunches so the kids wouldn’t laugh at my stinky Korean food. I dressed completely differently than how I dressed at my Korean church. I even talked differently.
The second strategy was to stand out by my accomplishments and talents. I competed with the others because my parents said that I needed to stand out and be better in order to gain respect among my white counterparts.
But it didn’t matter. The food that I ate at home was different. I had black hair and dark brown eyes. My eyes were shaped a different way. I had yellow skin. I was always going to be “the other.”
At times I found myself hating my body and wanting another one. My body was getting in the way of what I wanted to be and do. I felt severely limited by my body.
My body made it ok for people to call out racial slurs to me in public streets and to pinch my cheeks and call me “china doll” when I played piano at an all white church. My body made it ok to be a perpetual compliant side kick, and never a key character in a story. My body made it ok to assume that I’d be good at science and math and piano but nothing else.
And by the looks of all my Christian influencers, I realized my body didn’t fit in there, either, as someone who could speak, teach, and lead. Nope, I had the wrong body.
I’m not the only one with the wrong body. Two brown bodies, a dad and 23-month daughter, were found, drowned in the Rio Grande, because they were turned away at a port of entry and fleeing to cross the border to seek asylum and a better life.
Let’s not forget the black bodies of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Akai Gurley, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Amber Monroe, Laquan McDonald, and countless others of police brutality because they had the “wrong” body.
To put a personal touch on this, I will never forget my time in an Asian country, where I was surrounded by young Asian female bodies who were purchased and used at the pleasure of male tourists from around the world in broad daylight. I will never forget one particular tourist who stopped walking to stare hard at me, trying to figure out if I was for sale or not. I will never forget the way he looked at my body like a piece of meat. It made me feel sick to my stomach.
How is it that the world was showing me that I had the “wrong” body to do some things like teach, lead, and do ministry, but the “right” body to use as a subservient exotic object?
I constantly have a choice to make. I could listen to the world, hate my body and resign that I’m just not meant to teach, lead, or minister. Or, I could choose to reject the world and love God’s right creation of my body.
This is why I canvas the congregation whenever I stand to preach. It is an act of resisting the world’s narratives of my body and to answer the call of God to what I was meant to do, regardless of the way the world viewed my body. I decided disrupt the worldly narrative that I had the wrong body to spread the gospel message to the world.
I came to the conclusion that I don’t have a “wrong” body. I just live in a “wrong” place.
So how do I move my “right” body in a “wrong” place?
The very best model of how to do this in all of history is Jesus himself.
God put on flesh, pitched a tent and moved into the neighborhood (John 1). He was born in the outskirts of the Roman urban city center where there wasn’t anybody important at all. He chose to live in a place full of commoners, sick people, the marginalized, widows, and some other kinds of shady characters.
I can’t think of a more “right” body in a “wrong” place.
Dr. Shawn Copeland, in her book “Enfleshing Freedom,” writes about how theology can be enriched if we place the body at the center of inquiry, in her case, the inquiry into the Western European Christian treatment of black women’s bodies.
She writes, “The body provokes theology.” The body provokes the study of the nature of God, and religious beliefs, and through Jesus’ body we are able to understand the nature of God.
As Jesus moved his body on earth, he created the richest and most fascinating narrative of how to move a right body in a wrong place. He allowed himself to be touched by the bleeding woman and Jairus at the same time (Luke 8). He bent his body down to wash the disciples’ feet. He rode a donkey instead of a horse while the crowd cheered to show that he was not an empirical ruler but a servant king. He walked on water in front of his disciples. He transfigured his body in front of Peter, James, and John. He offered his own body and blood to the disciples during the Last Supper through bread and wine. He was intentional all the way to the gruesome process of crucifixion and slow painful death of his body.
I can’t think of a more “right” body in a “wrong” place.
As Christ followers, how are we to live as God’s created bodies in the wrong place of the world?
The early church in Corinth was filled with dissension and arguments among the Jews and Gentiles about which bodies were fit to be true Christians. These early Christians knew that they were the “wrong” bodies in the midst of the Roman Empire as they proclaimed that Jesus was Lord, not Caesar. But there was intercultural tension as the right rituals and procedures for being a Christian were being set. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 sought to challenge and ease the tension. He affirmed their bodies as Jewish bodies and Gentile bodies. But they all received the holy spirit, and they all had access to Jesus acting as one living body with many members. In other words, Paul was saying that everyone had the right bodies and everyone was in the right place, united in Christ. Our right bodies have found the right place in the body of Christ and the body of believers.
But this body, the Church, has a lot of broken parts. It has many parts that are unseen and invisible. It has a lot of parts that are lonely, traumatized, and overlooked. We have always been in a constant state of Jew-Gentile inner battles.
All of our right bodies need to work together to heal and restore our broken, invisible, traumatized, lonely parts so that it can move with freedom, coordination, and witness in this wrong place. As one body of Christ, we need to invite and include other members to give hope, truth, and love- especially those who are considered to be “wrong” bodies in this world, until we can move together more gracefully as a right body in the wrong place.
Editor’s note: This is a published sermon delivered at DYA Residency 2019.
More youth ministry resources
Unity Does Not Equal Uniformity from Trey L. Clark, Pastor at South Bay Church of God and Doctoral Student at Fuller Seminary.
Trey Clark thoughtfully reflects on lessons learned from working as a youth minister in multiethnic ecclesial contexts. Clark’s insights will engender reflection on your ministry context, provide action steps, and additional resources for learning and reflecting.
Disability Theology: Taking the Body of Jesus Seriously from John Swinton, Professor of Divinity and Religious Studies, University of Aberdeen
John Swinton challenges the church to remember “the church that it truly is the Body of Jesus, and that a failure to remember this and to act in ways which fail to ensure that all of the bodies within the Body truly belong, is a re-wounding of the body of Jesus.”
Creating an Inclusive Youth Ministry (online training resource) from the Unitarian Universalist Association
This resource is an online training that includes videos and notes for youth ministry workers and volunteers; to facilitate an inclusive youth group that recognizes the diverse racial, sexual, neurological, and economic backgrounds of your youth group. This resource may be adapted for your cultural and theological ecclesial context.