Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
I am part of the Camino de San Diego Virtual Border Trip, which is being offered in conjunction with Via International and the Southern California Presbyterian Immigrant Accompaniment Ministry. Our first stop was Chicano Park in San Diego. I didn’t even know about this wonderful place, a true model of community claiming, defending, and building on their rights!
Two of the artists who work on the amazing murals at Chicano Park spoke with us. As they live close to the border between Mexico and the United States, they regularly cross back and forth between the nations; about 100,000 people commute regularly between Tijuana and San Ysidro. They are called “fronteriz@s” or borderlanders. They are connected to both nations.
Among many things, I was struck by the discussion of identity. At one level, the artists shared the challenge of their dual identity, not being fully accepted as Mexican in Mexico, or as American in the United States. But they also gain strength from asserting and expressing and celebrating their identity: through their artwork, through revived traditions such as Aztec dances and healing practices, and through storytelling within the community.
I was intrigued by this as an Asian-American. When asked, Asian-Americans speak most passionately about identity. I believe that a key benefit that Asian-Americans have is our ability, for the most part, to trace our ancestry back several generations to our ancestral homeland. Our ancestral identity is relatively intact, which gives us a sense of security from knowledge of our roots. This just happens to be my belief; I am aware that there are Asians who have either lost or rejected their family and cultural heritage. But when I consider the way Africans were ripped away from their roots during the days of the slave trade, or the number of White Americans who do not have a sense of identity, I think of the stories of my ancestors to be a blessing.
Because of this, I had to ponder the words of our guides, who also gained strength from their identity—but their identity was much more complicated than mine. How could people look back on generations of struggle and persecution, and gain strength?
As much as I lean on my sense of identity as a Japanese-American, I also look to the Bible to understand my identity, my spiritual ancestral roots among the people of Israel and followers of Jesus Christ. What is my identity as a Christian?
In our Presbytery meeting this Saturday (have you registered yet?!), we will discuss the results of the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), which measures our intercultural competence as the Presbytery. One thing that the developers of the IDI recommend to most of us is to learn more about our own culture. Because “culture” is not limited to ethnicity, perhaps it would be helpful for us to explore our cultural identity as Christians—or even as Presbyterians. In a recent conversation after one of our “Reforming Presbytery Practices” group meetings, some young teaching elders shared how they do not feel included in the Presbyterian in-circle, because they did not grow up in Presbyterian families. There are assumptions and values that are shared almost subconsciously among cradle Presbyterians—sometimes people refer to this as “Presbyterian DNA.”
In some ways, our Presbyterian identity is a guide and even a source of pride for many of us. But it is quite possible that elements of that identity can constrain us as a church, especially when we fail to recognize that some of those elements keep us from welcoming and flexing with people from different backgrounds. For instance, our appreciation of traditional Western education and the related attachment to the written word in English can make us develop very rationalistic, word-heavy and complicated approaches to worship and church governance. This has resulted in expectations of church sessions that are daunting to people of nearly every background.
Perhaps it would be helpful for us to consider who we are—as individuals, as Presbyterians, as Christians. And the Bible does give us great insight into our identity, and it’s almost as complicated as our friends at the border. We can look back and remember that Jesus told his followers that they will have the power of the Holy Spirit—but also that the world will reject them, as Jesus was rejected. We are a people who are strengthened by knowledge that we connect with an authority far beyond earthly powers, and that even when we are persecuted, God will protect us and even work through our faithful witness. Like the Fronteriz@s, we can be bold to challenge oppression, because we know what God would want for us and for all marginalized peoples. All we need to do is trust in God, and follow the teachings that Jesus offers for God’s children, teachings that surround the bold statement “you will be children of the Most High”— teachings like humility, love for one’s enemies, and radical forgiveness.
As we consider ways we must change in order to welcome more of God’s children into our shared ministry, it might be compelling to consider what it means to be Presbyterian in a very changed context. And as we consider who we are and whose we are, may we be grateful for and recognize the gifts of our spiritual roots. And may we also be emboldened to do the will of the God who made us and saved us, and got us to this point. May we bearers of the grace that God has offered to us.
See you on Saturday, on Zoom or at San Marino!
Together with you in Christ,