Being Racially “Useful” in Evangelical and Reformed Churches
“Do you speak Chinese?”
Years ago during my seminary studies, my family and I were worshipping at an almost exclusively White Reformed church. We chose to worship at this church for about two and half years for multifaceted reasons, ranging from being the closest Reformed church from our house, the fact that there were many families and ages represented, and the fact that several of my seminary professors were members of the church.
A specific incident at this church has always stuck with us as being exemplary of our time at the church. After morning worship one Sunday, a middle-aged woman beelined straight to me in the church’s foyer and immediately asked me the question, “Do you speak Chinese?” “No,” I responded, and corrected her, “I’m Korean, actually.” The woman followed up with a despondent sigh, as though my response had been the biggest disappointment and inconvenience of her life. “I was hoping you’d be able to speak to a Chinese exchange student who’s living with us for the next year.”
Over the course of the next five minutes, as I began to ask follow up questions to try to be somewhat helpful, I came to the startling realization that the woman and her family were entirely unprepared to host this exchange student. She hadn’t done any work to find out which dialect of Chinese he spoke — “I have no idea” was her response to that question. Nor had she tried to find out more about the student — what part of China was he from? Does he have any specific needs? Rather, her only focus was “to make him come to church” to fulfill the requirements of his enrollment at the private Christian school that was connected to the church. To her, he was “being rebellious” and was “refusing to come to church,” so she was hoping that I could “speak Chinese” to him to convince him to come to church without a fuss.
Then, as abruptly as the conversation began, the woman stopped the conversation and went on to speak to other people in the church. There was no exchange of names (e.g. “Hi, my name is Mary, what’s your name?”). There was no attempt to close the conversation (e.g. “Thank you for trying to help”). Once I had reached the limit of my racial usefulness and utility to this woman’s hopes of “evangelizing” (colonizing?) this Chinese exchange student, I was dispensable. Worse than that, I wasn’t even deserving of a greeting, introduction, encouragement in Christ, and brotherly/sisterly blessing for the week ahead. I was just the Chinese?/Japanese?/Korean?/Asian?/”Oriental?” guy in the church who wasn’t helpful. Experiences like this combined with other significant reasons made us eventually move on to a different church.
“You’re welcome here, as long as you’re useful…”
As a Korean American Christian who’s been around the block enough times in predominantly White Christian spaces, I dread these sorts of interactions. They are what sociologists Glenn Bracey and Wendy Moore call “Utility-Based Race Tests” that White Evangelicals use in order to maintain a semipermeable racial boundary that promotes their own racial interests in religious White spaces. The racial boundary is “semipermeable” because White Evangelicals get to dictate who can come into and stay in the space. Christians of color are welcomed into White Evangelical spaces on a conditional basis — insofar they are deemed “useful” to the church’s “perceived racial needs while not challenging the normative boundaries of White privilege and power within the space.” When a Christian of color is deemed no longer “useful” or is actively challenging the boundaries of White normativity in a space, they are also no longer welcome.
My experience at this Reformed church is a small sample of what other Christians of color experience in similar White Christian spaces. Bracey and Moore bring up the example of a Black Christian who is immediately introduced to a biracial toddler and his Black mother to be a “father figure” to the child, to the horror of both mother and child. Another example they bring up is when a White pastor, upon meeting a Black Christian in his church, immediately asks him if he sings, since “we just need someone who can get on stage and sing out.”
In these and many other instances that I have become familiar with through conversations with Christians of color, it is clear that Christians of color are often given probationary and conditional status in predominantly White Christian spaces. Often under the guise of “evangelism” or “mission,” churches and their leadership will use Christians of color. In one denomination, I was encouraged to go on the missions field to Korean-speaking individuals in East Asia, and when I repeated the fact that I did not speak Korean and actually grew up with parents who spent more of their lives in South America than in any predominantly Korean cultural space, I was told that I would be successful “because of the way that you look” (i.e. I look like them more than a White missionary looks like them). Again, I was seen as a tool to be used for their “evangelistic” purposes and was only useful to those ends.
“Your services are no longer necessary…”
The fact of the matter is that this is not only statistically documented as being prevalent in White Evangelicalism in works like Bracey and Moore’s, but it is often even seen as “normal” in these spaces and “just the way things are.” Even In White Evangelical churches who have jumped on the multiethnic church bandwagon, they still are operating with these “Utility-Based Race Tests” in their treatment of Christians of color. “Diversity” and “reconciliation” are only approached on White racial terms that ultimately do not disrupt the order of White normalcy and privilege. For instance, just take a look at how many “multiethnic” churches have few if any Christians of color in leadership. Studies even show that when Christians of color take positions of leadership in these types of churches, many of them find that these churches are entirely unwilling to address the underlying structures of whiteness. Very quickly, they may even find out that they are no longer “useful” for the cause of “racial reconciliation” once they began to advocate for racial justice and equity.