To criticize is to assume that one could do better, and by nature the critic must stand apart, from the sidelines, so to speak. Sometimes that is welcome, as with a coach. Sometimes it is unwelcome, as with your mother telling you to come back and put on your coat. It is cold outside. Reading the defense and the hurt feelings generated from all sides by Soong-Chan Rah’s recent essay on the whiteness of the Emergent Church, to add my voice would be as welcomed as the big brother adding, “Yeah, what mom said.”
Yet, I add. I add not out of sense of being better, or knowing how best to do church, but I add from my own experiences with the Emergent Church movement. I have known, from my times at Fuller in the earlier part of our shared millennium, many people involved in the Emergent Church movement. The love of postmodern philosophy was thick in the air. Choking on some Derrida distinction was common. Many of the students were gathering in new communities that were called by various names. One — the tribe — comes to mind. They were cool, and gathered in large drum circles during worship time. For the most part, they drew their numbers from middle class American students that could be called white. Throughout this movement was a strong streak of wanting to be seen as different than from what came before. They were not like their parents, and there was a touch of running away from their history. I remember there was also a strong dislike for old white dudes. It also left the large population of international students untouched. Why? I am not too sure.
I don’t think it had to do with being exclusive. Most of the students wanted to identify with the oppressed and the downtrodden. I liked them, even as they tried to place me within their narrative like a red octagon peg in a square hole: Sometimes I fit and other times I didn’t. Being a Mexican-American that looked different from what they thought Mexican-Americans should look like, I had to defend more than once the fact of being born in Mexico to Mexican parents. “You don’t look Mexican. Are you sure you’re not Italian?”
I introduced many of them to the beauty of Pablo Neruda’s poems, to the grand puzzles of Jorge Borges, and the spice of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels. I remember one young woman, reading some of Neruda’s one hundred love sonnets, slamming the book closed and declaring she wanted a man to love her that way. From some of them, I learned the pain of being the losers in Civil War, and how it still shaped them. We shared our lives through the bridge Jesus gave us. Then a stereotype, mine or theirs, would slam us back to “me and them.” Stories can close humans as much as open them.
I do wish I had a chance to say to my friends in the Emergent Church that my people were more than just an oppressed people. We are a people of music, art, and joy. We are a people of villains, heroes, of strong women, and stories of power, greed and redemption. To move forward, like in any relationship, leads through the cross. We were not victims, even if we had been victimized before. We all need to know and acknowledge our history. We all need Jesus to love us in that deep way.