One gray Sunday in October, I left my husband at home so he could catch up on graduate school homework while I went to church. We hadn’t yet found a faith community to call home so I searched for the closest one I could reach by foot: Second Baptist. Around the corner and down the hill I went. The church was hard to miss with its steeple and stone walls. A friendly welcome sign with the service times was displayed out front, but there was no sign of the holy discomfort I would feel inside the sanctuary.
A few minutes late to the service, I took a seat in the third to the last pew, feeling the butterflies rise in my stomach. I wondered if I had made a mistake in coming here, but it was too late to back out now. A lady halfway down the pew leaned toward me and whispered “Welcome” with a smile dancing in her eyes. I smiled in reply as the organ music started. I glanced around me at the congregation, keenly aware of how my white skin made me stand out in a sea of black.
The last time I’d been reminded so sharply of my whiteness was at a family reunion on my dad’s side. Although my dad is half Chinese, his Polish side is responsible for his height and his long nose, making him look nicely tan year-round. My Chinese grandmother was proud to bring us along to the restaurant she had chosen to celebrate the Lunar New Year. We would be joining her seven brothers and sisters and their families for a big meal. Since we had been living in France during the last several years for my parents’ work, we hadn’t attended many family reunions. I was nervous about my chopstick skills, not wanting to draw attention to myself. Being 16 is hard enough without everyone watching you.
Grandma had rented out the entire restaurant. I spotted Brandon and Harrison, my second cousins—who I only knew because they had visited us during a ski trip in France—and sat at their table. In between dishes of roasted duck and bao, when family members chatted amongst tables, one of my great-aunts by marriage came to where we were seated and asked Harrison to introduce his new girlfriend, smiling my way. I laughed loudly to cover my embarrassment.
“I’m Minnie’s granddaughter,” I said.
“Oh!” she said, her eyes shifting nervously from side to side. “Forgive my mistake!”
I could hardly blame her—one glance around the room made it clear I was the whitest person there other than my mom. Still, I was confident of my place in that restaurant. I may not have looked like I belonged, but I had only to say “I’m with Minnie” should anyone ask.
Sitting in the pew at Second Baptist, I was alone. I stood when it was time to sing. I bowed my head for prayer. I watched and listened in fascination to the preacher up front, animated in a way I had not seen before. People in the congregation called out their approval with hearty “Amens” and “That’s Right!” and “Praise the Lord!” My exposure to Black culture growing up was limited to reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air on French television. Much is lost in translation when Will Smith is dubbed over in French.
My white, evangelical upbringing in France had not prepared me for this service. In college, I stuck to what I knew, finding a church near campus where everyone looked like me. Sundays were a casual, predictable affair when people wore quiet smiles and the pastor could—at best—expect some discreet head nods during the sermon. Before that Sunday at Second Baptist, I had never seen or heard so much audience participation while the preacher was at the pulpit. I didn’t know church walls could contain so much joy and enthusiasm. It was as if I had donned a beautiful, ill-fitting dress: I liked it, but it felt strange. The service was lovely, but different. And that made me feel different.
When it ended, I was immediately surrounded by church ladies in colorful hats. They shook my hand, squeezed my shoulder, asked my name, and introduced themselves. “We are just so glad you came,” said one woman whose hat was the same shade of peach as her dress. I nodded and smiled and said friendly things, anxious to appear totally at ease.
“Hope to see you again!” another lady said as I made my way toward the exit.
I blushed, knowing I wouldn’t be back. Standing out because of your skin color is a common experience for Black Americans and other minority groups, and getting a taste of it was enough to make me want to avoid the feeling. Most people don’t have that choice.
Our sense of belonging is deeply connected to the labels we wear. We are most comfortable surrounded by people we perceive to be just like us and we often look for outward signs of that sameness: race, gender, age, stage of life. We feel an instant connection with others who look like us, dress like us, talk like us. Like a well-worn sweatshirt, it’s comfortable to interact with someone who wears the same labels we do.
It’s as if we are all carrying a lunch tray, walking into the cafeteria of life, scanning the tables for where we fit. I can almost hear Regina George from Mean Girls: “You’ve got your freshmen, preps, JV jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks….” We survey the room—a workplace, a church, a social event—and we make snap judgments based on what we can see.
Many workplace diversity initiatives seek to discourage in-grouping and cliques, wanting everyone to be friends with everyone. We only have so much social energy to invest, however, and meaningful relationships can’t occur with large numbers of people. Polite, pleasant, and casual relationships? Absolutely. But we were wired to need deeper connections. The challenge, then, is for us to go beyond the surface-level labels we wear, to go beyond visible markers of identity. The challenge is for us to see the common humanity within us all, to dig deeper into each others’ stories to find our shared experience.
I wish I had returned to Second Baptist Church. I wish I had gotten to know the ladies in the big hats who gave me such a kind welcome. I wish I had opened myself up to a new type of worship experience and learned another way in which to connect with God. Instead, I returned to the familiar.
In the many years since that day, I’d like to think I’ve grown in my ability to connect with others past their obvious labels, that I’ve developed my capacity for curiosity in finding commonalities with others that go beyond the surface. But the truth is that it will always take intentionality to resist the pull of the familiar, to walk into a room and see the image of God reflected back to me in every face. May I never tire of doing so, for that is the soil in which deep and meaningful relationships grow.