I’m a Christian, but…

“You’re a Christian?” he asked me. “Are you an evangelical?” Although the dimly lit bar buzzed around us with late-night conversation, I was certain that no other discussion resembled ours.

“I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian,” I replied quickly, hoping to claim my ground before any stereotypes did. He looked relieved, but I felt weird.  

During the weeks that followed, my response lurked in the corners of my mind. When I differentiated between myself and “that kind,” my words created a hierarchy that inherently positioned myself at the top–as better–and I’m not.

I know I’m not the only one who has responded to this question, “I’m a Christian, but…” I’ve talked with friends about this issue. There is so much to be said, but we don’t know how to say it. To offer an understanding of how complicated this question is, let’s look at my own story.

When I was younger, I loved Jesus, but my love was convenient. I only asked Christ to change me for my own gain; I didn’t ask God to challenge my social framework. Because of this, my faith lacked important insight about social justice. I thought that people were poor because they didn’t work hard enough. Working with vulnerable and marginalized patients taught me how wrong I was. Laziness isn’t the problem. Unjust and oppressive social structures and policies are the problem. To understand this, I needed proximity to the poor to change my mindset.

When I returned to the States from Mercy Ships (Benin) 18 months ago, I was shocked at the palpable turbulence and division among Christians. Although there were people on the ship who had vastly different perspectives about the Bible, we set them aside in order to prioritize healing and justice. When I returned to my motherland, the air felt different, tense.

Over the past six months, as my understanding of oppressive policies and systems deepened, I felt my attitude towards Christianity gravitate towards bitterness. I browsed the news in the morning, absorbing stories about Christians who made decisions that perpetuated injustice. In the afternoon, I attended “secular” classes and was filled with passion for change. Focusing only on the negative stories I read in the media, I felt embittered toward Christians in general. Eventually, I stopped reading the Bible. I still identified as a Christian but I needed to maintain a distinction from those I read about in the news, so I added, “I’m a Christian, but….”

In November, a single conversation with a new acquaintance (who I met on a dating app, of all places!) challenged me. Basically, I was called out on my bitterness. I realized that if I truly loved Jesus (like I say I do) then I also need to choose the church, my brothers and sisters. Following Jesus’ example of love for me, I have to love others–even those I would rather not love. I must check myself for my own prejudice towards, well…everyone. And, most importantly, I have to read the Bible again.

Receiving this criticism wasn’t easy for me. Attending Urbana (a Christian conference) at the end of December helped me navigate the process. The opening session blew me away. The leadership team reflected the demographics of the students attending the conference: different colors, sexes, and cultures. Prior to the conference, Intervarsity (the organizing body) had met with the local Native American/First Nations tribe leader. The Osage tribe used to live in the area that later became St. Louis. In the 1800s, after living in the region for over a thousand years, the tribe was forced to surrender their lands to the American government. Recognizing the injustice that prevailed against this group of people, the staff approached the tribe’s leader and asked for his blessing. In front of 13,000 students, the leader offered a blessing over the conference in his native tongue.

I was moved to tears.

From seminars to plenary speakers, the theme of justice prevailed. Speakers discussed mass incarceration, the misuse and abuse of the environment, racism, and oppressive systems. We had the opportunity to reflect and repent from the “Babylon that lives in our hearts,” which refers to the mainstream American culture of excess, comfort, and image. Each day felt heavy, but simultaneously filled with hope. Specifically, living among a generation of Jesus followers who are committed to fighting for justice gives me hope.

When I consider my own struggle, I see myself in two ends of a spectrum. I want to share them because I think they could be helpful for others.

The first pattern I’ve noticed is marked by denial. Sometimes, in our depths, we fear that acknowledging our role in oppression will undermine our past or present way of life. Instead of promoting empathy and advocacy for marginalized groups, we believe that society’s most vulnerable and weak are our greatest threats. I think that people who succumb to denial ultimately fear two things: change and blame. We put up defenses to protect ourselves.

The second pattern I’ve noticed is marked by bitterness. I think that some of us have distanced ourselves from our faith because we don’t know what else to do with bitterness we have towards the church. We have reason to be critical of the church, but fear of association prevents us from spiritual reconciliation and growth. I think that people stuck in this trap are often on the offensive, and quick to blame others without humility or grace.

My participation in both extremes has taught me that remaining too far on one side of the spectrum inhibits the church from its primary role: to be an extension of Jesus. They perpetuate false stereotypes, ignore ignorance, and shunt blame–all of which slow down healing that could otherwise occur.

I want to be a person who is both passionate about social justice and committed to redeeming the church. I will not walk away; instead, I will pray, “God, break my heart for what breaks yours, even if that includes me–when my unkindness and fear and criticism break your heart, open my eyes and help me change.”

Since we understand the “church” to be comprised of imperfect, broken people and not merely buildings, it makes sense that fear, blame, prejudice, and bitterness would be rampant. We all think and say dumb things, some more than others. But that doesn’t mean we should divide ourselves, like I attempted to do. We should identify where we are on the spectrum and move away from the extremes. By God’s grace, I believe that we all can change–not once, but continuously. Even today, at this moment, God is working to restore all things through Christ.

 

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Harvard love @ Urbana
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I’m so thankful for these people.
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Happy New Year from me and Veronique!
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The Beginning and End of Harvard

Yesterday evening was a historic night for students at the School of Public Health. You wouldn’t have ever guessed though, because if you peered into the Countway Library of Medicine at 4 pm you would have seen me dozing off in a chair. My professor didn’t warn me that our reading assignment entitled “Health Systems” is basically a written lullaby. Its enchantment caught me by surprise at a vulnerable moment. Fortunately, I wasn’t representative of the student sample. There were plenty of other students in the library who were more disciplined than I was.

Five hours later we quarantined ourselves in the upper room of a local bar to unwind through dancing and libations. We had much to celebrate, from surviving our first week of graduate classes to successfully (but inefficiently) navigating Boston streets. Truthfully, there is no efficient way to navigate Boston unless you use your bike. If you do choose to cycle, remember to leave a signed will at your residence before you depart.

Another tip for outsiders: if you visit Boston and you would like to take the train around the city, call it the T. If you refer to this train as the metro or the subway or the underground or the tube or ANY word other than the letter T, worry not. You will only make this mistake once. A local will correct you before you can finish the second syllable of me-tro with a tone of voice that I’ve only ever heard from a parent correcting the derogatory language of a middle-schooler. “It’s the T. We don’t call it the metro.” We, of course, includes not only the locals, but also you, even if you haven’t yet conceded. They are conceding on your behalf. Any person who demonstrates defiance will be drawn and quartered on the Boston Commons.*

I haven’t encountered many locals in my program at Harvard. There are a couple from the state of Massachusetts, but none that I can think of from the city of Boston. There are people from over fifty countries in my program. At any given moment I am surrounded by friends from far and wide. In this way, the environment reminds me of Mercy Ships.

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Beautiful, joy-filled friends: Monica (Indonesia), Mariam (Egypt), and Isaac (Ghana)

In no way does the environment remind me of western Michigan. Yesterday in a class of eighty students I counted only four people with blond hair. Todo, I turned to my imaginary dog, we’re not in Grand Rapids/Calvin/Holland anymore! HallelujahI love the rich diversity at this school and the perspectives and experiences each student shares. (I also love the aforementioned communities. The love is not mutually exclusive).

Speaking of Grand Rapids, yesterday a peer told me that it’s obvious that I am from the Midwest.

“Really? How?” I pressed.

“Unabashed friendliness.”

Apparently common courtesy is called “unabashed friendliness” everywhere else. Because there are worse reputations for which one could be remembered, you won’t hear me complaining about this.

The only complaint I have is that my program is only nine months long. The program is just beginning and yet we are already preparing for the end. Each decision we make now is impacting our education and careers in some way.

An overwhelming amount of opportunities exists at this school. A professor worded the situation perfectly. He said, “It’s as if you were invited to a lavish banquet and were told you can only eat two items.” We are limited to 27.5 credits each semester; a portion of those can be audited or taken pass/fail instead of a letter grade. We are juggling work applications, practicum ideas, classes, career workshops, social engagements, and professional talks from renowned writers and speakers. I feel as if I have been making decisions constantly since I stepped foot onto campus. If you know me at all, you know that I tend to change my mind.

A change that I’ve made in the past week is that I have added a concentration in Humanitarian Studies, Ethics, and Human Rights (HuSEHR). The focus on Disaster Response and Emergency Preparedness falls under this umbrella. Originally, I wasn’t thinking of pursuing my MPH for this career path, but let’s be real: I gravitate towards crises and emergencies. Adrenaline should have been my middle name.

One of my required courses this autumn is Societal Response to Disaster. I am also taking classes in Economics, Critical Thinking for Public Health Professionals, Ethics, Fundamentals of Global Health, and Biostats/Epidemiology. Economics was a bit of a melter until I remembered that I have a Canadian relative who was a renowned Economist in the mid-twentieth century. Innis College at the University of Toronto was named after Harold Adams Innis. I encourage my befuddled mind by repeating to myself, you can do this! It’s in your genes!

I know that I am not the only one befuddled and surprised  by all that Harvard has to offer. One of my friends is a dentist from Indonesia. She has spent some time in the USA but this is her first time living here. She told me that she noticed a plastic case in the bathroom labeled “Dental Dam.” Curiosity got the best of her. What kind of dental products are in the bathrooms at the school?  she wondered. One glance taught her everything–and more than–she wanted to know.

Needless to say, Harvard is more than I could have imagined. I will struggle as I transition again to a new place, new home, and new role as a student. I appreciate the loving and encouraging phone calls and texts from each one of you. Thank you for your support!

*I may have exaggerated about the punishment.

Addendum: My parents visited Boston in August. We completed the tourist checklist: freedom walking trail, Paul Revere’s house, Boston Commons, Boston Public Garden, Cape Cod, Harvard Walking Tour, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Tea Party Museum and the Boston Duck Tour. They were CHAMPS. Leighanne Sturgis (a Boston native) met us in the Public Gardens and snapped some family photos. Her magic is below:

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(featured image and family photos taken by Leighanne Sturgis)