“I am the only one.
On most committees or organizations, I am usually the only one. The only woman. The only young person. The only racial “minority.” The only liberal. And most recently, the only mother with young children. It was something I grew accustomed to rather quickly, this being the token fill-in-the-blank.”
This was the opening to the chapter I wrote in Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Clergywomen of Color. A book full of theological, sociological, cultural reflections on the experience of clergywomen of color I had the privilege of editing turned into continuous fodder for my own reflection on the complicated intersections of race, gender, economics, and more.
Being a Presbyterian minister now for over ten years I’ve spent much time struggling to articulate what it means to be the token, a standout and a novelty – a Korean American clergywoman. Though I’ve come to feel comfortable in my clergy-skin teaching, leading worship, administering sacraments, and preaching from the pulpit, I still wrestle with the gaze of the wider public when I am out and about with my collar on. The white tab in the center of my neck surrounded by the somber black seems to cause a double-take by those who walk by me. It’s the clash of the traditional images of the office with the (relative) youthfulness of my face, my being a woman, and my East Asian heritage that perhaps elicits this response.
But, I haven’t always worn a collar – it’s not terribly common attire for Presbyterian clergy. Generally, Presbyterians like to blend in a little more.
I chose to wear one because I wanted to stand out. Let me explain: This past year I spent much time being a part of organizing demonstrations and vigils in response to the deaths of black lives by police around the country – Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, and I can’t in good conscience leave out transwomen of color like Mya Hall and Jessie Hernandez. #FergusonAction and #blacklivesmatter have powerfully inspired community gatherings as a response to the continuous violence against black lives, and I felt a strong call to participate in these movements not only as a concerned citizen but as a minister of the church. Below is a snippet of a reflection I wrote after a #reclaimmlk protest:
Before we left to go home for dinner and baths, we stood with the group for 4.5 minutes in silence to remember Mike Brown and how he laid dead on the ground for 4.5 hours. The red and blue lights of police cars in my eyes and cars rushing by on the other side of the street – I wept a little and breathed out, “Lord Jesus, hear our prayer.”
Anna was on my back in the carrier. She had switched with Desmond who had been riding in it earlier. But, she had fallen asleep at some point and began to wake up softly crying over and over, “Mommy, mommy, mommy…” And I couldn’t help but think about the cries of these men and women – someone’s babies – and how they went unheard and were silenced by violence and death. I thought about the strangled noises of life leaving bodies that were brutally shot or killed with bare hands. I thought about mothers and fathers crumpling to the ground wailing for lost children. I thought about suicide bombers and school shootings and massacres and buildings falling.
And I thought about how we need a revolution.
Often, on the days of the protests I would wear either my robe or collar, and since I was part of the organizing team I would often need to pick up supplies at the store – posterboard, markers and water bottles. Since I am also the primary caregiver of our three children they would come along to these gatherings. I’m sure I was quite the sight with twin four-year-olds in tow and a two-year-old riding in an Ergo baby carrier on my back over my robe or collar through the grocery store or marching on a street.
Yet, I wear my collar intentionally. I believe I do have a certain amount of control over my image, and the way I represent myself, and how people read me. So, whenever I showed up at social justice events I felt it important to tie my racial/ethnic identity to my faith and to my vocation. As a Korean American woman I continue to acknowledge and confess that I am complicit in these structures that allow for the regular violence against black lives. And I confess it as a woman of Christian faith, and as a minister of a church that is failing to consistently stand for justice – for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for those whose voices are being stripped away. But, more than that one way to resist tokenism is to embrace and embody the conflict of images through expression and integrating it wholistically. I am a pastor, a mother, a Korean, a woman, a sinner, God’s beloved, and a seeker of justice and peace.
Ultimately, who I am as Korean American clergywoman is rooted in my relationships and the pursuit of equity and justice, and I do this through who I am and how I love others. I will always struggle with the expectations of others of who I am based on my race and gender. But it isn’t the gaze of the dominant majority culture that will dictate what I do and pursue. I will always use it as an opportunity to shake the foundations, and represent and speak a broader truth about the dignity and value of all human beings.