Growing up as Asian American in a predominantly white neighborhood, I felt like Superman and an ugly duckling rolled into one. On some days, even if I was as good as Superman, I was still an alien. On other days, I felt like an ugly duckling who just wanted to feel at home—that is, home in my own skin. Especially growing up as an undocumented immigrant, I always had to live with this feeling that I wasn’t entirely “legal,” as if my very existence itself was a terrible offense or a crime, punishable by expulsion from the only society that I had come to claim as mine. Constantly living in fear of deportation, my future looked bleak; doused with hopelessness, it was always threatening to explode into a million pieces of oblivion. I felt like no one understood our struggles of being undocumented partly because we couldn’t tell anyone. I was forbidden to tell my story because it wasn’t safe. The only ones safe enough to tell would have been others in a similar situation, but I didn’t know anyone else who was “illegal” because they couldn’t tell their stories either!
Then, in my first year of seminary, I encountered Hagar: an Egyptian slave woman living in a foreign land, running away to go home to Egypt. In that bitter wilderness of neither here nor there, God prompts her to tell her story and when she does, she becomes the subject of her own narrative as God “legitimizes” her. Hagar becomes an authentic person with a clear purpose and future when she discovers who God is and what God has in store for her. Inspired by her, I, too, wanted to tell my own story from this liminal space, and become “legal.” I wanted to claim my own identity and have the privilege of naming God. However, I quickly realized that this wasn’t just about telling my story but the story of my Asian American community. Asian American Christians not only struggle to find their authentic identity apart from their parents but also from the dominant western culture. The story of Hagar revealed to me a God who was interested in seeing, hearing, and blessing those who are denizens of in-between places. I dream of Asian American Christians as intriguing storytellers who, empowered by their own stories, ultimately find their unique identity in God who sees them in the wilderness.
My time at the Korean American Presbyterian Clergywomen’s Conference a couple years ago really drove home this point. Participating in the KAPCW conference, I found myself bathing in tears of joy at finally coming home—a home that I never knew existed or was available to me in all twelve years of my often lonely and tension-filled ministry. Unable to find a suitable habitation for my paradoxical existence as an unordained Korean American woman pastor in an immigrant church context, I felt like a fish out of water—barely breathing, hardly surviving, definitely floundering in the patronizing sneers of male counterparts. However, as I listened to the theological reflections of my sisters and stories of the original members of KAPCW who had paved the way so I could be where I am today, I came alive as their stories became my story. I found home in their stories, in the liminal dwelling place of my clergy sisters, in the four-way intersection of faithfulness, justice, creativity, and of course, the movement of the Holy Spirit. I was finally home—a place of my calling, a place for my changed paradigm, a place where I could freely bathe and swim in the life-force of love, vision, and mission.
However, my story does not end there. Rather, it is only the end of a beginning. My path to self-understanding continues as I venture with God into places that are foreign to me. I look forward to various ways in which God will lead, guide, and stretch me to continue to write and validate my story as I grow into the person God has created and called me to be.
Eun Joo Angela Ryo immigrated to America from Korea when she was 9. She is a full-time third year MDiv student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and a part-time interim coordinator of the Center for Asian American Ministries (CAAM). Angela is also undergoing the process of pastoral ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).