So That Nothing May Be Lost: A Reflection on the Role of a Small Christian Community

hoon

I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 2014 after living near major metropolitan areas most of my life. I am used to having a plethora of choices on Sundays for worship. I could easily attend a Korean American Mass in Korean, an English-speaking service with a Korean American Catholic community, a local non-Korean parish, a bilingual Mass, or even “mega church”-style services on occasion.

However, my options for the Sunday religious service du jour quickly changed when I moved to Kentucky. The first Korean American Christian service that my family attended consisted of about 20 people in the congregation celebrating Mass. Because our “home base” church was Roman Catholic, this community was the only option we had for a Korean American Catholic liturgy. Adjusting to a group resembling a small early church community after attending the oldest and biggest Korean American Catholic church in Queens, New York, was not an easy transition. However, belonging to this subgroup of an Asian American Christian subgroup enabled me to gain insight into a struggling congregation and a new vision from the periphery. My attention shifted away from the “platter of options” to the “crumbs off the table.”

In addition, I discovered my calling within the diverse Asian American scholarly community from such a new belonging. Through these exposures and experiences, I came to realize that similar small Christian communities all over the country, indeed all over the world, must recognize their significance and that the wider church community must not ignore these stories of faith. These smaller pieces of the mosaic we call Christianity contribute to the enduring, enriching, and even correcting of the bigger pieces of that mosaic. If we were honest, we would acknowledge that many Asian American Christian churches have become bigger and often self-concerned churches that may lose sight or even become tone-deaf to the real needs of marginalized groups for which they constantly preach about caring. To curb the institutional inclination to ignore the voices from the margins of society, one must recognize how society prevents people from exercising the power of their voice, so that they avoid contact with these smaller churches or segments of society. One of the many ways to start such a process is by listening to the stories of marginalization from fellow Asian American Christians, not simply for the sake of being inclusive or diverse, but as essential stories of Christianity.

How can that be? How can one make a claim that these stories of faith from small Christian churches are essential stories? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? That is, should there not be a dominant, essential, and central church structure and stories from which smaller Christian churches learn, emulate, and accept their smaller roles? In An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective, Stephen Bevans refers to this dilemma in a chapter titled “Contextual Method.” In his discussion of a “transitional model” for contextual theology, Bevans points to those who hold that there is an essential foundation within Christianity, namely the essence of the Gospel, which may be clothed “with the trappings of the culture or context into which one is translating it.”1 For this view, a grain of rice is an appropriate image for Christianity. The essence, or the “kernel,” of Christianity, then, must stay intact and untouched. The husk—or different cultural, local, or contextual “appearance”—is not unimportant or unacceptable, but serves to decorate what is at the core. The implication is that one must hone the different types of soil so that the seeds from “outside” of that context can be “inserted” into the ground. Furthermore, this view implies that the husk must be stripped off to find the kernel.2 Theologians and Christians of color may immediately become suspicious and ask: Who determines the essence of the message of Christianity? Have not the Gospel stories and Jesus’ Aramaic sayings already been translated? Who has the interpretive and authoritative power to regulate which interpretation or translation is correct or “essential”? Is the husk stripped away so that local and/or cultural expressions of Christianity acquiesce to the “main” and normative groups that maintain their dominant power? From the perspectives of groups with collective experiences and memories of unjust discrimination and treatment, this simplistic image of rice/husk is deeply suspect.

Instead, Bevans suggests an onion as an alternative model. The layers of an onion do not cover an essential core, but the onion is its various layers. In this sense, the “deposit of faith” is interchangeable and interconnected.3 There exists no better, main, essential, normative form in the hierarchy of Christian expression and culture, but instead different manifestations contributing to the ever-growing crystallization of it. Rather than having a hegemonic meta-narrative, each story becomes an essential story and thus the story that is silenced or unremarked would take precedence over stories with which we are already familiar. These untold stories that have hitherto gone unnoticed may shed new light on our own worship services that we take for granted and help us avoid losing sight of the struggles, reliance, and sacrifices required of our Asian American Christian foremothers and forefathers (and the early Christians) from whom we all came. In a way, the most local story can become the most universal and serve as a reminder of the unifying locus theologicus.4

I am keenly aware of the importance of the places of my origin. My conviction is that being united with the place of my origin will lead me to the Ultimate Origin.5 As such, I chose not to attend a larger, more comfortable, and well-structured parish that has a “crying room” for infants, does not need volunteers to spend so many hours of church service, has a well-established religious education program, and has committees that make church operations self-sufficient. I chose to give up the easier path and instead serve my ethnic church, where noises resulting from dissatisfied babies crying while breast/bottle feeding and toddlers constantly dropping items happen in the same space where worship takes place, which requires all members to serve in more than one capacity; whose barely surviving, Korean-heritage-inspired, religious education program is run by a handful of people instead of sending students next door to well-budgeted CCD programs consisting mostly of Anglo children and a surplus of teachers and volunteers; where the absence of one member on any given Sunday forces them to resort, for example, to a recorded accompaniment without a cantor; whose financial stability would be shaken if just a few families move out of town or simply decide not to attend anymore; which relies on the local Anglo parish allowing the congregation to use its smaller chapel and parking spaces; which struggles to sponsor a priest whose fee for visa processing, living space, automobile, and health and car insurances is cost-prohibitive without the help of at least one generous donor and the support of the archdiocese.

If I were honest with myself, even I would admit that sometimes I come home wishing to attend a parish near my house where I would not have to do so much (expected of me because I am “young” in my current parish), worry so much about surviving as a community, or spend so much time and energy preparing for liturgy and worship. However, my experience gave me a new vision (a sacramental moment, if you like) from the vantage point of this struggling community that led to a personal vocation. Even when I belonged in a marginalized group in the U.S., I realized that I was privileged within that group and failed to translate the Gospel messages from and in the context of the margins. My calling now includes not only exposing the dominant power structure and its system that suppresses people of color, but also highlighting where Christian communities of color slowly lost sight of their preferred vision from the periphery that Jesus preached as they became more comfortable.

This new vision gave me another important calling within academia. While I enjoy a great amount of acceptance in my “ethics/moral theology circles” and “Catholic circles,” I find it difficult to engage in or to be invited to join a conversation with Asian American Christian scholars as a Catholic scholar (although AATF has been inclusive in this regard). Of course, my personality and my inability to connect may be part of it. However, the question is still worth asking: Have Asian American Christian theological scholarly communities been mostly Protestant? Are there voices that we inadvertently leave out? Are we marginalizing any groups with whom we do not care to have conversations because their theology and language are (perceived as) too different? Too Catholic? Too conservative? Too liberal? Are we leaving behind segments of the population so that some are lost in the process?

In this regard, I am reminded of Jesus’ miracle story, when Jesus ordered his disciples to gather all of the crumbs (or left-overs) after a miraculous feeding of thousands of people, “so that nothing may be lost” (John 6:1-14). It is a reminder that after all of the struggles and miraculous survival of many Asian American Christian communities, they should not lose sight of the “crumbs,” as we were treated as such. We come from that location, and we ought to bear witness to Jesus’ teaching that we take care of the crumbs. It ought to serve as a wakeup call for many of the self-serving churches that have lost their original hearts (which Koreans call choshim) of Christianity in general and Asian American Christians in particular. Who are we silencing? Whose voice is not counted? How are we shunning the same way the dominant group has shunned us previously and currently? What are the needs of people in the neighborhood and how are we helping to ameliorate these situations of need? In what ways have we lost our Christian choshim?

Sometimes I feel that a small community like mine in Kentucky is treated as, or even thinks of itself as, leftovers, or “crumbs” of Christianity. I say far from it. This seemingly insignificant community in Pewee Valley, Kentucky, can provide a corrective vision to the wider church community, as it has given me, so that we all can see more clearly what a more authentic manifestation of Christianities might look like.6 If our ministry is simply self-serving and not extended outward, then we not only have lost our choshim as struggling Asian American Christians, but also our Christianity per se. Let us pay attention to and allow more voices from our own margins and listen to their stories. Let these stories point us to the place of our origin, and in that journey, let us discover the Ultimate Origin. Let us not be content with the miracle that fed all of us, but instead wake up and gather the crumbs so that nothing may be lost.

 

Hoon Choi

Assistant Professor in Christianity (Ethics), Bellarmine University

 


  1. Stephen B. Bevans, An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Press, 2009), 173. 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. Ibid., 173-174. “Within World Christianity, there are no victors, interpretations, or normative and privileged forms of Christianity. Diverse expressions of Christianity are valuable because they express God’s goodness in different ways. All participating diversities unify in their reference to God.” Frans Dokman, “Europe and the World,” in Jonathan Y. Tan and Anh Q. Tran, SJ eds., World Christianity: Perspectives and Insights (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2016), 81. 
  4. Bevans, 165. 
  5. “Yet there is something deep within us that secretly longs to be united with our origins, with our roots, with the ground of our existence. Even if we had difficult experience growing up, there is still a spark buried deep within our psyche that pulls us toward the place of our origin… We come from God… and our final destiny is to be reunited with God in love.” Virgilio Elizondo, Spiritual Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 72-73. 
  6. Christianity has to be spoken of in the plural because of its “historical, sociological, cultural and theological diversity and multiplicity of Christianity, from its very beginning, throughout its two millennia history, and arguably more so in the future.” Peter C. Phan, “World Christianity: Its Implication for History, Religious Studies and Theology,” Horizons 39/2 (2012): 171, quoted in Tan and Tran, 81. 


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