By Guest Contributor Atinke Diver, cross-posted from Yes, We’re Together
In May 2004, I met my husband right before I left town for Memorial Day weekend. I’d just barely survived my first year of law school and planned to spend the holiday weekend in Maryland to detox my soul. But over a three week period, every Sunday at church a different person would come up to me, insisting that I meet this guy from church who was starting law school in the Fall. I knew it was really serious when a friend visiting from Nashville even insisted that I meet this guy. So one fateful Sunday, a friend finally introduced us after church. There was no love at first sight; no fireworks. But that meeting sparked the beginning of a friendship that evolved into a romance, engagement and marriage over the next three years.
Most people wrongly assume that my husband and I met in law school because we’re both lawyers. It’s understandable–we did attend the same law school and overlapped by one year. In fact, most of the lawyer couples I know connected over Torts or spent long nights “studying” Constitutional Law outlines together, but alas, we don’t share the typical “Barack and Michelle Obama love story.” When I tell people that we actually met at church, I find it amusing how often people are taken aback. I’m not sure why, but I have some theories: A) They assume lawyers are angry at God for law school and conclude that “Christian lawyer” is an oxymoron and our profession is full of soul-less, religion-averse, God-haters; or B) They think that God fits so snugly under the notches of the Bible Belt that He ceases to exist North of Maryland. And if so, then surely Massachusetts is at the cusp of eternal damnation.
Moving to Boston after our first year of marriage entailed lots of searching: a job for me, a place to live, somewhere to park our car, the closest L.L. Bean for winter outfitting, etc. But searching for a church proved to be an adventure far more hilarious than we expected. First there was the church that packed us in like sardines, featured impromptu solos from the pastors in the middle of sermons, and took time to recognize “100% tithers” (I still haven’t quite figured out the math on that one–how can anything less than 10% can still be called a tithe?). Then there was the so-seeker-friendly-that-we-don’t-make-any-definitive-statements church, where the sermon began with “Well, I think maybe what Paul might probably be trying to say here could possibly be perhaps…” but we really enjoyed the free bagels and the Starbucks gift cards! And then the suburban churches we visited left us feeling literally and figuratively out of place at their disbelief that we drove in “all the way” from the city (a mere thirty minutes).
You see, neither of us really had to “look” for a church before. Growing up, we attended the same church that our respective parents attended, and in North Carolina I attended the same church for eight years. So we came to Boston having done very little church research, with a few half-hearted recommendations from family and friends, and a resigned “I wish I had a church I could recommend to you in Boston, but I don’t,” from one of our North Carolina pastors. As we began church shopping, we talked about what we were looking for–how we would know when it was time to stop browsing the aisles and settle into a particular congregation. Chief among our concerns was worshipping in a place where we felt accepted and affirmed as an interracial, married couple. And very early into our relationship, I learned that nothing to do with the demographic make-up of a church’s pastoral staff or congregation.
When my husband and I were dating, I expected some less-than-ideal reactions from family members, but was completed blind sided by the comments I heard from members of my church (many of whom had no idea I was dating anyone, much less, a White guy). In one instance, a friend relayed a story about a disagreement with another church leader. To drive home his point that the other person involved was everything but a child of God, he concluded: “AND he’s married to a white woman!” (Trust me, he didn’t intend it as a compliment.) In another instance, while chatting with a fellow graduate student, I learned about some church leaders who, when talking to their child about dating, ended the conversation with, “You want to marry someone who looks like mommy don’t you?”
After we got engaged and entered the realm of church-based, pre-marital counseling, I noticed that none of our assigned reading acknowledged that two people who don’t look like each other might actually meet at church and consider spending the rest of their lives together. So I asked another classmate who was also engaged and in an interracial relationship if she knew of any books that churches or pastors used in pre-marital counseling with interracial couples. Her response: “No, because there aren’t any. And I think that silence speaks volumes about how most churches really feel about interracial marriage.”
Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and I realize that my shock had more to do with my overly idealistic and unrealistic view of church that was, quite frankly, unbiblical. There is no perfect church because at its core is a community of broken people. So even in a faith community that holds diversity and multi-culturalism in high regard as a core value, and boasts a congregation made up from every tribe, race, nation, and tongue, Jesus does not simply become a panacea for the racist thoughts and behavior to which we are all susceptible. It’s not enough to simply be comfortable with having lots of different people in the room (but it can be a great start). In fact, if I hear a church harping on “racial reconciliation” for more than five minutes, I start to get a little nervous.
Our search for a faith community in Boston included many twists and turns, but eventually led us to settle in a Presbyterian congregation where the dominant culture is Pan-Asian. And on the one hand, I’d like to think that I could find out what our church leaders really think about racial issues by asking: “How would you react if your son or daughter married someone that doesn’t look like you?” But the truth is, racism is too pervasive to have a litmus test. It doesn’t matter how many flags from different nations are displayed around our sanctuary; how many worship songs and hymns we sing in other languages; how many AIDS orphanages we support; how many East Africans or Koreans we adopt; how many Historically Black Colleges and Universities we reach out to; how many hours we tutor and mentor children from the local housing project; how many care packets we prepare for the homeless; how many outreaches we hold for the Spanish-speaking community; how often our sermons reference Martin Luther King, Jr.; or how often our bulletins and announcements include imagery with different colored hands, rainbows, or kaleidoscopes. But rather, our willingness to embrace and display grace in the midst of messy lives, full of misconceptions, mistakes, misunderstandings, and missteps around race (among other things).