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The "Other"

Can a diverse church be unified?

Several years ago, my friend LaTonya invited me to a gospel concert at her church, a predominantly African American congregation. Admittedly my first thought was, Will I be the only person there who isn't black? Before I could voice my concern, LaTonya told me she'd invited several mutual friends, people I knew were of various ethnicities. Still, I was rather fixated on how out of place I was going to feel.

At the concert, the tiny section of LaTonya's friends stood out in the nearly homogeneous sea of faces. Maybe I was imagining, but I felt eyes fixed on me. I later told LaTonya my fears about being "The Other" in the room. Her words stick with me to this day: "Holly, I feel that way everywhere except my church." Then it hit me—LaTonya had been incredibly bold inviting me to her concert. At the place where she fit in comfortably, where she was "The Every," she'd differentiated herself by bringing her ethnically diverse group of friends.

Questions filled my head. Why had I felt out of place—in a church?! Did I not recognize that I was part of the body of Christ, and that the body is diverse? How could I be so clueless to not see that my buddy LaTonya regularly felt like The Other?

Unlike LaTonya, I'm usually The Every, a gal who's used to fitting in just about everywhere. I have a mix of Caucasian, Filipino, Mexican, and Native American ancestry. I've been a member of Asian and Chicano social groups, and I proudly wear my "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" button on St. Patrick's Day. I feel comfortable around people of every ethnicity.

That is, until someone makes me feel I'm The Other. I've been told "You're not really Asian" and called pocha (a slur describing a Mexican woman who's lost her culture). When I was in third grade, a skinhead shouted at me, "Don't you wish you were white?" Just a few years ago, a complete stranger in a store snarled, "Why don't you go back where you came from?" as we both waited in the checkout line. The hurtful message sent to The Other is: You're not like us. You don't belong.

You'd hope folks wouldn't be made to feel like The Other within the Christian community. Unfortunately, hurts happen here, too.

When LifeWay Christian Resources began promoting "Far-out Far East Rickshaw Rally—Racing to the Son," its 2004 Vacation Bible School program, members of the Asian-American community noted stereotypical images such as rickshaws, take-out boxes, and karate uniforms, and called the material racially offensive. Despite a protest petition and a letter-writing campaign headed by an Asian pastor, LifeWay defended the curriculum and distributed it.

And just a couple months ago, a North Carolina church made headlines after three white members in blackface lip-synched to hymns at a church function. The church initially defended the performance, asserting it was meant to celebrate gospel music, not intended to poke fun. Soon after, the pastor issued a public apology to those who'd been offended, but didn't condemn the performance itself.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says we dismiss others' legitimate hurts because we feel entitled to our behavior. We err when we trust our own assessment of whether something is hurtful, when we think, They shouldn't be hurt. I wouldn't be. That's like telling The Other, "It's your fault for not being like me."

I've been thinking about how Jesus embraced The Other in his society: women, children, lepers, the poor, prostitutes, Samaritans, and tax collectors. And how early church leaders struggled over whether to include Gentiles. I'm beginning to realize how difficult reaching out to The Other is, because in doing so, we often set ourselves up for the same rejection and pain The Other feels.

My friend Brooke, who's white, recently voiced concern about an online Christian video he felt reflected racist attitudes toward African Americans. The response to his concern? Comments from church leaders such as "Give me a break" and "Lighten up." If only more Christians would recognize Brooke's concern is for the whole body of Christ: "If one part of our body hurts, we hurt all over. If one part of our body is honored, the whole body will be happy" (1 Corinthians 12:26, CEV).

This inclusive attitude was demonstrated when Youth Specialties, a branch of Zondervan, realized earlier this year it had published a racially offensive skit in one of its books. Mark Oestreicher, president of Youth Specialties, immediately offered a public apology. At great expense, Zondervan pulled the book from shelves, revised and reprinted it, and offered to replace previously purchased copies with the new edition. Their quick response and sincerity drew wide praise from the Christian community. Personally, their actions make me want to stand and cheer!

As a church, we need to recognize the wounds of The Other, and not dismiss their pain. To "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:28-31) is a profound undertaking, because it requires a respect and consideration that doesn't come naturally. It begins with submission: giving up my rights to meet another's needs. "Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another" (Ephesians 5:21, The Message).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Holly Vicente Robaina
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