Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Lesson in Identity

From March 5-8, I had the privilege of attending InterVarsity's annual Black Campus Ministries Staff Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was an incredibly refreshing experience. It felt like family, and the content was literally amazing. Reverend Jackie Thompson (from Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland) preached in the mornings, and it was food for our souls. Some highlights for me: She first preached out of 1 Kings 19 when Elijah was complaining to God after a big ministry success, and God called him to anoint Elisha as the next prophet. She said "sometimes God doesn't deal with your feelings, He just gives you a new action plan." The next day she taught out of Mark 5 and the bleeding woman who touched Jesus' cloak, and what spoke to me was when she said "Sometimes God allows things to stay in our life to change us." It was some good stuff. And I was amazed that she taught the whole time with zero notes. I do not have that gift.

A highlight of the conference for me was on the first day when we broke up in to groups to talk about reaching Black students on campus in all their diversity. We joined the group that we felt we could contribute the most to, and the options were: African-Americans in a Black context, African-Americans in a non-Black context, African nationals, Caribbeans, Historically Black College and University (HBCU) students, and Multi-Racial students. I joined the Multi-Racial student group, and 5 of us sat down and thought about: What is the religious context of our group? What are the cultural values? What are the influential voices or poets? What are the stumbling blocks to the Gospel for this group? And what are potential bridges to the Gospel?
It was fascinating to think about, and it also helped me learn more about myself as a Multi-Racial person. We talked about how often community can be a struggle for Multi-Racial people. I didn't realize it until that moment, but I realized how when I walk in to a room full of new people, immediately my "radar" goes on. Will I be "enough" to this person? Or to this person? Will this person or group be able to handle my complexity? Or will they only see me from a limited perspective? We as Multi-Racial people often anticipate rejection or feeling outside a group, and therefore we anticipate isolation.
We talked about how absolutes can be a struggle for Multi-Racial people, because that is not their reality- it isn't their experience. This can be a stumbling block to the Gospel, because God is an absolute. But it helps me and I think many other Multi-Racial students when faith and following God is presented in a way that makes room for complexity, and is not stuck in black and white thinking. The experience and need for complexity can also be a bridge to the Gospel, and has been for me, because of course, Jesus can handle my complexity, where few others can. It makes a big difference to me when a community can handle my complexity too.But I think Americans need to get used to this complexity and tension, because by 2050 Multi-Racial people will be 20% of the US population. We're growing. Fast.
What has been a struggle for me at times has been that when I am in majority Black contexts, I can get the feeling of being "not enough". But many times when I am in majority culture (white) contexts, my ethnicity is completely disregarded and seen as unimportant, when it is of immense importance to me, and very much colors how I live and see the world, and who God has made me to be. So it can feel like I am not fully seen or understood.  It is always a blessing for me when neither of those scenarios occur. Unfortunately it tends to be a pleasant surprise, and not the norm.

Each group presented the material they came up with, and it was so amazing to see the incredible diversity that exists within Black people, and the challenges and opportunities that exist for reaching the diversity of Black students on campus.

But it was also very good for me to learn more about myself.

On the plane trips to and from the conference I was also reading Beverly Daniel Tatum's "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" which is a psychologist and a professors' discussion of the process of racial identity development. Fascinating, and so helpful. Everyone should probably read that book. I don't know what's taken me so long to read it, since we always have students read the chapter about White identity development at FUI.

Culture and ethnicity are so fascinating to me, and so important for me to discover who I am and what that means for living in this world.