Embracing my “otherness” in the Evangelical Church
Many international students move to the U.S. to pursue higher education and follow their own American Dreams. I did the same almost 14 years ago to pursue my call into full time ministry. This journey has been multi faceted, as I have not only experienced a culture shock, homesickness and loneliness but also a forced identity as I carried a lot of underrepresented identities in the American Evangelical Church. When I first came at the age of 19, I knew myself as a young girl who was passionately pursuing Christ and on a journey with the Lord, stepping out in faith to follow wherever He lead. The sky was the limit, the world was mine to discover, explore and conquer and America was the best place to do it because I believed it’s where all my dreams would come true. My family sent me with all their hopes, dreams and unconditional love poured into me and with confidence that I was going to change the world. I left hopeful and excited trusting God as I entered the unknown, with full anticipation of what he has in store for me.
What I quickly discovered was I not only would experience regular culture shock but for those interacting with me in the U.S, especially in the church, I represented a group of people they’ve isolated themselves from, maybe see less than and are even angry at or afraid of. I discovered to them I was first Black, second a Female, third an Immigrant, and lastly if we got there a Christian. It was an experience that forced me to view myself as “Other” mainly because of the color of my skin seemed to keep getting in the way of me building community and being protected in the body of Christ and people knowing my story as I told it and not as how they expected it to be.
This “Other” was something I grew to hate, because it felt like the roadblock to being normal and noticed for who I am rather than who people think I am. I couldn’t escape it, I wear my otherness on the outside therefore when people look at me that is the only thing they identified and where all conversations started, it was exhausting and it still is. Because at the time I didn’t know what I was experiencing was a form of racism and prejudice I put all the blame on myself, if only I didn’t look different, have an accent or curly big hair, I would blend in and have friends. I carried the burden of making people feel comfortable around me, when they asked me what my name was I spelled it for them before they asked because I knew they would ask and I just wanted to make this getting to know you stage go a little bit faster and easier. I wanted them to skip the out loud recognition of me being black, female, immigrant part and just get to know me, so I did the hard work of making it easier for them. I came up with a shorter version of my story, the kind that was whitewashed that they’d get so I didn’t have to explain the nuances they couldn’t conceptualize and exhaust myself.
It was tiring and I didn’t have community to support and affirm me because I was immersed in a monolithic body of Christ that was supposed to be my community but fell short of it’s commision to care for me. I was weak, and in a good place for the enemy to take me out of God’s call for my life, no one could bear this burden with me, so I I walked into a season of self hate, worked hard to assimilate as much as possible in the areas I could control, like straightening my hair not because I didn’t love my curls but so I could avoid that awkward unsolicited hair touch from a stranger telling me they couldn’t resist. I made sure I got rid of the little accent I had so I wouldn’t be asked where I'm from, what my country looks like, why I’m here, when I’m going back and be painfully reminded of how unwanted I am in this version of “the body”. In college and right after, I successfully assimilated into the majority culture that I started hearing "you're not really black" a lot, I didn't take that comment as good or bad at the time because I knew very little about the History of America and what that comment implied. And I was happy with my ability to disguise my otherness and build relationships that let me be me right away, we got to skip a lot by me doing all the hard work and exhausting myself so others can see past their prejudices to get to the beautiful story God was writing in my life.
It was such an ugly and soul wrenching reality especially because I grew up affirmed, loved and accepted for all these things I’m now experiencing rejection for, this new found unacceptance and being misunderstood exposed me to self hate, loneliness and feeling rejected. I had to come up with a natural survival strategy which was to just fully assimilate into the monolithic culture I was a part of. At the time I didn’t have a choice, I was alone without any covering of my family because they were thousands of miles away hoping I’d make a life for myself and praying for me and the “church” had denied me of its covering because it didn’t know me, didn’t have a category for me so I decided to fit into the category they created to help themselves feel inclusive so I let them feel good and let them label me as “other”. I didn’t have the energy to fight for justice, I didn’t have the emotional capital to spend, I needed to graduate college and make some money so I can move wherever I wanted to, so I decided to assimilate and survive and I am glad I did because I learned a lot from it.
Through all the confusion and imperfect paths before me God still continued to draw me close to Him, His supernatural provisions continued and I grew in my walk with Him. When I graduated college, I was given the opportunity for a Teaching Assistantship scholarship my Masters BUT because I had spent what was meant to be my precious, young and fun years fighting something I didn’t understand I didn’t have the energy to spend another day in a small town where my otherness was magnified so I sacrificed the opportunity for my sanity and moved to the most diverse city where I could find the largest Ethiopian community, and that was D.C. For someone who left her country to pursue higher education leaving this amazing opportunity to not only further my education but also to gain a teaching experience was very painful and a true sacrifice, I still hurt over that loss but I knew I had to preserve myself and my sanity before I could pursue my dream.
I attended an Ethiopian Church in DC for 2 years before the Lord called me into full time ministry in the American Church. I remember wrestling this decision and asking God to change his mind, but he specifically spoke to me through the book of Job and made it clear I needed to stop running so, I chose to listen and obey. I joined a fairly diverse church in the area and got accepted into their ministry internship program where I studied systematic theology, fell involve with reformed thoughts and pursued vocational ministry with like minded and dynamic young leaders. This was where the Lord strategically placed me under amazing leaders who saw me as Mekdes first and allowed me to flourish in ministry. I got to serve the most diverse congregation and started embracing my otherness of being black as a gift, because now I could breath a little and I had role models that looked like me leading the body of Christ and I got to sit under them and learn how to excel for the kingdom and the best part of it being a trailblazer.
As wonderful as this season was my second otherness which is being a female in vocational ministry was a road block which prevented me from fully being my outspoken, achiever and challenge loving self at church because there was a part of me that was misunderstood as being rebellious or angry rather than a critical thinker. I grew up debating my dad and uncles because that’s how our oral culture teaches critical thinking and this gift my family and culture gave me became a stumbling block for my brothers and sisters in Christ who unfortunately defaulted to label me as an “angry black woman”. I was yet to meet an angry black woman in the sense they understood it, so I wondered why that was the stereotype was all about, part of my assimilation story is learning to reign it in a bit so I don’t cause confusion but I have found ways to preserve the greatest gift I have of being an outspoken woman and I intend to keep it and pass it on to my daughter. One thing I know is that God is big enough for my strong opinions and has room for me to debate.
I still wrestle through the lack of a dignifying missional work towards my people. As an African when I see the typical pictures of a white teen girl holding a snotty black child hung on the walls of outreach ministries of many churches,my heart hurts. My people who are warriors and hold the history of early human civilization seen as less than because their financial situation is looked down on as "impoverished" where in reality true poverty exist in the hearts of all of us who would dare to consider God's image bearers as our projects and don’t take the time to listen to or learn from them and those who represent them in our midst. My heart aches when I see immigrants being labeled as lazy, poor, beggars, thieves and criminals when in reality we’re the hardest working, family oriented and peaceful citizens. But no one tells our story because those with the pens to write it dont have the proximity to us, to hear our stories, to love us as a brother and a sister, to be pastored by us, to be challenged. It’s easier for them to observe us, hypothesize and diagnose a solution for us as if we are lab rats that are there for their experiments, spinning in their wheels and being examined, we can speak, we can lead, we can teach and we can tell our stories. I wish believers would just let God inform their worldviews, I wish they would do as his word says and welcome strangers into their homes and neighborhoods and get to know them, if only we could hear each other's stories, how robust would our faith be, how beautiful our outlook in life and how whole would our picture of God become.
God's goodness and his redemptive work in my life, has allowed me to discover what it means to be a godly black woman in ministry, He’s allowed me the blessing of owning my call to living in the U.S. as my mission field, He’s using my otherness to speak for the marginalized that’s not given the pen to write their story themselves. Understanding that in America because of how systemic racism has allowed walls to exist between different skin colors note* not necessarily different cultures, I walk on uncharted waters when I say I’m first a Christian, but I’m also my otherness and my God is big enough the make all of that work beautifully for His glory and it’s ok if you can’t put me in your category because I worship a God who has no bounds and He’s not interested in putting me in one.. To those that see me outside of the U.S. I'm an Ethiopian living in America because they see culture first, but to Americans I’ve found I’m first black, an immigrant and a woman because unfortunately it’s normal to see otherness first because people are used to seeing only people that look like them everywhere, at work, in their neighborhoods, their schools and churches. That’s why I embrace being a bridge builder for the kingdom, working towards racial reconciliation in the church so that the body of christ reflects the whole world he created and not just one part of the body. My father's word says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” Matthew 5:9 My greatest calling is to be called a daughter of the king and that trumps everything else.
God uses my husband as a constant and gentle reminder of loving, honoring and appreciating my culture, and trusting that God has a grand purpose in creating me to be his image bearer who carries all of these nuances. I’m a student of American culture because I’m raising a daughter who I want to protect from experiencing what I went through because of my naivety. I want her to be a proud, strong, God loving and fearing beautiful black girl raised by a Black African Christian Woman in America who understands and accepts the cross she bears for simply being who God created her to be living within a broken history. I don’t want my daughter to have to figure it out herself, I want to think through, lament, pray, read, and confront all the issues I face so she doesn’t have to.
God is a restorer of all things broken, and I pray and seek his wisdom as I have given myself to the work of bridge building to allow both sides to walk all over me, so me putting my story out there is in hopes that someone can walk on it and find their way back home, to the Lord of Lords and king of kings who will leave the ninety nine in order to save the one. If that’s you, Jesus loves you and will make every wrong right if you let him.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being” Acts 17:24-28