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Photo by Eleazar

By Sarah D. Park

My definition of work in the church has been overturned ever since I committed to a church with a majority black congregation. My upbringing in largely Asian American contexts taught me that positions of church leadership were places of honor and influence, that one should strive to earn such a position as soon as possible. It also doubled as a clear indication that you were “in” – trusted, a part of the church core, and that you belonged. The work that came with these positions handily contributed to viewing ministry as suffering for and with Christ for the sake of others and a privilege at that.

In my current church, my usual understanding of hierarchy and power dynamics of the church suddenly did not apply, and I had to learn an entirely new way of discerning and navigating expectations that weren’t being communicated directly to me.

In the beginning, I tried my best to take a back seat and absorb the new church culture. It was a thrilling new experience of how to commune with God via joyful gospel music and sermons that interwove the languages of justice and the Gospel as if they were one and the same. I wanted to respect the way this church conducted itself by not immediately offering how I might contribute or even change things.

About three months in, one of the pastors approached me to join a leadership training institute and I was confused. No one really knew who I was, or even remembered my name most of the time, and I was being asked to get trained as a leader and facilitate a small group as soon as possible.

I’ve also historically served in worship teams and wanted to check out what the commitment was. I showed up to a worship practice on a Thursday night, was immediately recruited without any assessment of my ability (or background check of my faith journey?!) and was expected to start singing the following Sunday.

As it turns out, a consistent small group met at my house and I loved the intimate times we shared, truly striving alongside each other in prayer. Worshipping with the choir allowed me to connect with more members of the church and have fun singing songs I loved but never got to sing often in Asian American churches.

I must have been spoiled by the well-oiled machine that was my home church in the OC, because I learned that the workers were scarce in this new church. People were going through more than enough in their lives, and the church space functioned as a brief rest in the eye of the storm as people passed through and on their way back into the fray. A notable majority of our congregants are actually doing the work of the church in their jobs, outside the church walls in schools, shelters, and county offices.

If my brothers and sisters were working so hard Monday through Saturday, perhaps I could work hard to love them on Sunday, erring on the side of doing work rather than not. Even though only two people came out to my small group, one of whom was my co-lead. Even though my non-black body on the church’s stage and Facebook feed for worship feels like a very visible sign of contention (not everyone in our congregation seems to be on board with our church becoming more multi-ethnic).

What cemented my resolve to work was learning that black women have historically been the unseen, unappreciated, and tireless hands and feet of the work of the church within its walls and I was reminded of the ahjummas of my upbringing, cooking gook bap for the hundreds and then cleaning the subsequent piles of dishes. For non-black people to continue to attend and benefit off of their labor without contributing something to the space begs a deeper conversation about how cultural differences affect what is loving.

Sarah D. Park is a freelance writer and editor, currently working in the Bay Area with a nod to her LA and OC roots. For more on how the protest turned out, see bysarahpark.wordpress.com.

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