Me, Black Lives Matter, and Eastern Catholicism: A Conversion Story
Updated: Aug 2, 2020
This post started out as a Facebook photo. It has been reproduced in full on our website.
It's Sunday. It is time for another testimony, this time about my conversion to Eastern Catholicism.
Today is technically my four-year anniversary of being in this church. It has not been possible without the last few weeks of prayer to tell the story of how God got a hold of my life in this church at that time through Black Lives Matter. This conversion was mediated by Ms Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston, and Jennifer Holliday, as well as by the theologians of race Jay Kameron Carter, Brian Bantum, and Willie Jennings. I realize that I have often narrated my reception into the Kyivan Church in relation to the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. All of it is true, but conversions are always complex, multifaceted, and messy. Today, I get to sing to the Lord a new song.
I used to meet regularly with someone you might call a godly Christian man. We were trying to figure out the intersection between my faith and my academic work. I'd send him draft papers I was planning to send into the world, and we would meet about them. It was really personalized that way, tailor-made for my particular intellectual practice, and to this day, I am grateful for it.
There was something in a paper I wrote at one point he didn't like. I had cited Jay Kameron Carter's theological tome on race, where he makes the beautifully original claim that how Christianity got entangled with race was by trying to unlink Jesus' Jewish flesh from his claim to be the universal Christ. This kind of antisemitism, Carter claims, is standard-issue orientalism, framing the Jews as an 'eastern' people while making the early 'western' moves that would elevate erasing all the beautiful bodily things that make a person messy. Where Christian theology orientalizes the Jewish people, Carter finds the roots of whiteness, a fake universality because it is fleshless. Orientalism, of course, is also what Asian American studies is about, so I really tried to explore that claim.
This righteous man, as Toni Morrison would call my interlocutor, didn't like my engagement with Carter. He had long felt that all this talk about whiteness, intersectional structures of oppression, and systemic racism was tantamount to calling all white people racist. This attribution of intention, as he saw it, didn't seem fair to him. He also thought it was needlessly inflammatory, exciting social passions when what our society probably needs more of is civility and level-headed, deliberative conversation. With eyes of disappointment at someone he considered a good son in the faith -- a Paul to his Timothy -- he looked at me and said, with some melancholy in his voice, 'I think you need to pick a side with the critical race theory.'
It was 2015, a messy time to be talking about race. In the aftermath of Ferguson, student protests had developed a 'cancel culture' where deans and university presidents had resigned. At the same time, the Rachel Dolezal thing was tearing through the news cycle, and Suey Park (does anybody remember her?) disappeared. 'To be honest,' I replied, trying to get out of time-out as a bad spiritual son, 'I've grown a bit disillusioned with the Black Lives Matter thing. These cancel culture people really do feel like a bunch of neo-Maoists.'
He liked that, and I was instantly back in a state of grace, justified by faith alone. 'I'll make some enemies, though,' I opined.
'You should make some enemies,' he encouraged me.
That paper never found the ability to make any enemies. After taking out that critical part of the argument, it lost all coherence and fell apart. I hate to be so dramatic, but because that piece was so central to my work at the time, the rest of my publishing pipeline was devastated too. I needed no one to cancel me. I did it myself.
That was a disaster. I was on the academic job market, and each publication is worth its weight in gold. Realizing that I was about to be out of income, we quickly decided to move back to Vancouver, where my wife had gainful employment. I fell back on the place that had given me comfort the year before during the Umbrella Movement, the Eastern Catholic church in Richmond, where I desperately sought spiritual direction. I used to describe to the pastor that it wasn't like I wasn't trying to write. I really did work hard and worked every day. It was just that whenever I'd sit down at my computer, any words I typed would be met with an oncoming barrage of imaginary verbiage coming at my head like a train at blinding light speed.
There is a reason I fell so hard for Eastern Catholicism at that time. It was the one place in the world that seemed like it could possibly be doing worse than me. I remember my first service in Richmond. Here I thought from the Umbrella Movement days that the congregation must be huge and have an established tradition that they readily deployed for social justice. Instead, there were about eight or nine people scattered throughout an otherwise empty sanctuary, all singing out of tune. I loved it. It was so terrible that it might be good. I stayed because they seemed to mean what they sang, and that beat not meaning anything I wrote. Coincidentally, it was around the time I also devoured the writings of Slavoj Žižek, the one philosopher perverse enough to flaunt his own contradictions. What made Žižek productive was what paralyzed me, so I enjoyed him as much as the Eastern Catholic church.
It was one of those days while sitting paralyzed in my home office, jobless with no prospects, that I was mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook news feed. I saw an article commemorating that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had been out for seventeen years. If I am not mistaken, it was Brian Bantum who posted it. Everyone in high school except for me loved this album. I listened to classical music almost exclusively, and not even to Alicia Keys. I remember coming home from senior ball when the radio in the limo started playing what I thought was gospel music. I said to my date that I liked black gospel. She said it was Lauryn Hill. I didn't know who that was.
I figured I might as well give the Miseducation a shot then, even though I am really not a hip-hop kind of guy. The album, as everybody but me knows, opens with a school bell. I remember thinking that I did not think that this album would literally be about education. But it was, and by the time 'we were marchin marchin marchin marchin to Zion Zion marchin marchin,' I had gone from school to church. I sat in stunned silence after Lauryn sings at the piano that she wasn't going to be 'what someone else thought of me' and that 'the answer, it was in me / and I made up my mind to define my own destiny,' and immediately I played the whole thing again. I had dinner afterward, and then returned to my office to 'work.' I had no work to do -- I was intellectually paralyzed -- so I played it again.
That entire month, I tore through the music of Black women who could be considered womanists. The song I kept coming back to was that abysmal scream from the musical Dreamgirls. 'And I am telling you,' Jennifer Holliday belts, 'I'm not going! You're the best man I'll ever know! There's no way I can ever go! Darling, there's no way! No, no, no, no way I'm living without you! I'm not living with you! I don't wanna be free! I'm stayin'! I'm stayin! And you! And you! And you! You're gonna love me!' Oh my god, that was how I felt about the job market, and I went from that original version to JHud to Whitney in a day, with Lauryn in between. I'd sit in my office day after day, pretending to work with this musical routine in the background. Some days this song would even trick me into applying for jobs before the deadline. One application made its way to Northwestern.
It was then that I developed a reflection that I felt about this music the same way I did about Eastern Catholicism. These were sounds that came from the funk. They were the blues, and as both James Cone and Angela Davis point out, blues women like Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith sing from a melancholic place to be attuned with their bodies. I did not know the history of how colonized the Kyivan Church was at the time, but I could feel it in the chants. There is a story to why the church had been so devastated, and I identified with it intuitively. It is the same blues as the 'Plyve kacha' and the 'Sorrowful Mother' that played at the funeral of the Heavenly Hundred, who were killed by sniper fire on the Maidan.
I went to see a talk from Willie Jennings around that time, and he spoke of gentrification as this kind of ecological disaster too. I sat in the front row drinking in every word and raised my hand to ask a question. He knew me as a geographer and thought I would ask something intelligent. 'Ask your question, Doctor,' he said, and that is exactly what I needed to be called. 'Doctor,' this dignified Black man called me, when I had no words of my own because I had betrayed the theologians of race to please a righteous man. I do not remember what I asked him -- it was probably incoherent -- but that man inclined his ear to me, listened while intoning 'mm' and 'mm mm mm' and 'yes' and 'preach,' and answered it beautifully.
I'd like to say that that was the end of my wavering on picking a side, but that would not be the truth. I came away from Jennings's talk confused. A white man asked me what I thought of it, and instantly I was back in my assimilative mode. 'I think it was good,' I answered, 'but I don't really do theology. I only look at how theology is done, and so I don't know how this would work for my scholarship.' I, the lead editor of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, even wondered if theological reflection was useful as scholarly work. It seemed too invested, I felt as the traditional academic I have been formed to be, in doing things in the world than simply describing it, which is the only thing that I have been educated to believe a scholar should do.
There is some irony that soon afterward I was hired to teach the activist-academic discipline of Asian American studies at Northwestern. Because of that, my chrismation date was sped up. I had decided that if at least Eastern Catholicism had some words that could articulate the funk of my experience, it was better than being left to my own devices.
It wasn't a week after my chrismation that Philando Castile was killed in Minneapolis. I quickly messaged my pastor to see if we could pray about it, just like we had done for the Umbrella Movement. I was quick to add, 'But if Black Lives Matter is too political, I guess we don't have to do it.' He looked at me with some confusion, and I rambled about my disillusionment with cancel culture and its iconoclasm.
It was then that my spiritual father, the one who brought me into Eastern Catholicism, delivered the first lesson of my mystagogy. He gave me the benefit of the doubt as a Canadian, even though I grew up in the Bay Area, that perhaps I did not understand the severity of the situation in the United States. He has a priest friend in New Orleans, he said, who has an Eastern Catholic congregation with many Black people. This priest regularly has to go to the police station at 3 AM to bail out his people from being detained at traffic stops. It was a form of state violence, he said, and such injustice was not unlike the brutality we witnessed on the Maidan and in the Umbrella Movement. Perhaps, he suggested, we could pray for all victims of state violence, but Black Lives Matter also had to be said, because the only question was whether Black lives actually matter.
We prayed the Akathist to Jesus Light to Those in Darkness that week. My pastor opened it by thanking me for the idea, and it was then that I realized to my horror that I had in fact picked a side on the critical race theory. It was the first akathist (a Byzantine 'no-sitting' hymn, usually to the Mother of God, but in this case, to Jesus Light to Those in Darkness) that I ever prayed, and it sealed my conversion. Soon afterward, I was involved in an email exchange with a Chinese Christian conservative man who felt that Black Lives Matter was a tool of social mayhem. I replied as gently as I could that if the police could just kill Philando Castile like that, then none of us are free until we are all free. By the power of the Holy Spirit who had descended on me in the rite of chrismation, I had picked a side, and it was not the side that I had been conditioned by either my previous churches or academic training to pick.
It has been interesting over the past few weeks to see those in my own church, and the churches adjacent to mine, struggle with exactly my kind of 'both sides' conundrum five years ago. They seem to waver between saying that Black lives matter and that systemic racism does not exist because they want to attend to the weak and the fragile among them who do not deserve, as they might think, to be called racists. Some are deeply concerned about the deposition of statues and the defacing of icons, mostly because they fear the fire of cancel culture burning at their doors.
But Orthodox and Catholic Christians do not worship a God of fear. Christ is our Pascha, and as Jesus rose from the dead, he will make the bodies of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Elijah McClain, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and countless others to rise from this earth. Abel's blood cries out from the ground for justice, and these washed in the blood of the Lamb will testify at the judgment seat of Christ to the systems of oppression that murdered them. He who hung the earth upon the waters was lynched on the same lynching tree, and the resurrection bears witness to the ecological horizon where the recapitulation of heaven and earth is glimpsed in our midst every time the presider at the Divine Liturgy announces that the kingdom of God is blessed.
Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. This has been a story of my fears, my propensity to please those in power, and my tendency toward betrayal and mendacity. God did not give up on me. The Father, whose existence is mystery beyond any name-of-the-father that lays earthly claim to my psyche, sends people into my life time and time again to rescue me from my depravity and to draw me into his resurrectional life. These people include the theologians of race -- Carter, Bantum, and Jennings, through whom I have once again found my intellectual voice, for it was in abandoning them them that I first lost it -- as well as the womanism that I have found to be consonant with the practice of the Kyivan Church, my church home. When I moved to Chicago, the Lord brought into my life the sisters and brothers who compose St. Mary of Egypt Social Justice Fellowship to further the mystagogy that is undoing my desire to assimilate into whiteness and the anti-blackness that is wound up in my body as a sinful passion that must be confessed and repented of over and over again. We are a mission group in a parish located in a Chicago neighbourhood that has been devastated by white flight and economic divestment, and I am proud to call them family. There are people in this congregation who know that I am hardwired by my racial formation and educational conditioning to turn my back on them by the sound of a dogwhistle, and yet they at their own risk dare to call me 'brother.' 'Amazing grace,' my heart sings, 'how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!'
On this anniversary of my chrismation -- the anointing of the Holy Spirit by which I was received into the church -- I give thanks to the God to whom all Black lives matter for delivering me and not canceling me, for forgiving my sins, which are many and great, and for declaring over me that what really is canceled is the power of hades on my life. This is the God who unbinds my miseducation and sets me on the educational path of mystagogy. This is the God who delivers me from paralysis and makes my feet to dance like hinds' feet and to walk upon the high places. This is the God who rescued my soul from bondage and has set me in the midst of a desegregated people to testify of his goodness. As the theologians of race testify, this is the God of Irenaeus of Lyons, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, the God of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, the God of Zurara and Bartolomé de las Casas and Olaudah Equiano, the God of James Cone and Delores Williams, the God of Hagar and Mary of Egypt, the God who found me parched in the desert and sees me so hard that my whole body bursts with living water. This God opens the mouth of the mute, creates new eyes for the blind, and offers wisdom to simple children, so that every word out of our mouths, as the Chinese Christian hymn declares, may be transfigured into a stream of praise.
If God can get a hold of even model minority me, then anyone and everyone can be drawn into this great and rich mercy. Come, let us climb the mountain of the Lord. We are marchin marchin marchin marchin, to Zion Zion, marchin marchin. Jesus, light to those in darkness, save us!