I went to the Christian club at my high school once. Seven a.m., the desks in a chemistry classroom rearranged in a ring. I walked in fifteen minutes late and surveyed the room full of popular kids, including the girl who’d later become our class president. All white.
Almost immediately, the guy leading the Bible study called on me to read the verse of the day– an effort to include, no doubt. I cleared my throat and read in a scratchy, wavering pressed-duck voice, my face heating up with embarrassment. There was a bit of sleepy discussion, then closing prayer. As I walked out, one girl might have tried to talk to me, but my shyness and fear of strangers quickly drove me out the door.
Most of high school went like that. The feeling of taking up too much space at a desk, of people’s eyes glossing over me when I spoke, seeing only vast cheeks or a blank yellow face. I tried eyeliner a few times and it seemed on those days people would look, really look – even though my eyes were small, even though probability-wise there was less of a chance their gaze would land on mine. An optical illusion.
I tried counting calories, heat-sauna yoga, so the bones of my wrist would be bird bones like theirs and my nose would stand tall and cheeks would fade into high regal cheekbones. But inside, I was still the same size– the gap between two Real American Kids who’d grown up knowing the rules, who knew how to banter and spilled their deepest secrets on weekend sleepovers and got drunk the weekend before graduation because they were Growing Up while I lingered on the periphery. At the Chinese church my parents dragged me to, I only got suspicious glances, murmurs in my parents’ ears– is she okay? She looks kind of pale. I’ll pray for her. But I didn’t want anyone’s prayers. I became proud of being set apart, proud of my own self-discipline. Proud of making my own place of belonging, even if it was just the little green bar on a calorie-counting app.
So when I came to Penn, I was fine staying an outsider. Even after my self-control began to unravel, even after I struck up a relationship with Jesus, there were many times I wanted to say, screw the institution and the social norms it enforces. Screw all the events hosted by Christian organizations for “group bonding” and “mutual encouragement.” I didn’t want to be bonded. I didn’t want to lose the right to stand outside the herd, those who “belonged” to the culture of the community, and mock their easy compliance. Even when I was asked to lead, I cringed at the thought of hyping up the Big Activities I’d dreaded attending in previous years. I didn’t want to be “one of them.”
By some bizarre twist of fate, I did end up making friends within a predominantly Asian-American church community. I found people who didn’t gloss over my face as we pass each other on Locust Walk. Who tried to understand my rambling. Who actually wanted to spend time with me. There are moments now when I find myself letting go and laughing hysterically without wondering how stupid my face looks. There are glimpses of things to come.
These friends are slowly teaching me what it’s like to be part of a family. They’re chipping away at the lie that I’m fundamentally unacceptable, that people will dislike me the moment they set eyes on me. They are showing me the Father’s love-- not just for the nations, but for petty, prickly, awkward me.
And that is so necessary. Even if our communities are bubbles– even if their dominant race or socioeconomic status is less varied than that of the the local population, even if our friends had similar family backgrounds and upbringings-- we need to know what love is. We need someone to smile at us and say, I was looking for you. Yeah, you! Jesus commands us to spread the good news to all nations. But how can we describe God’s love to someone else if we haven’t experienced it ourselves?
So I’d like to emphasize a preliminary step to Summer’s suggestion that Christian communities stop being so insular. Of course, reaching out, making disciples of all nations, should be our ultimate goal. But even as we focus on befriending and witnessing to strangers, we need to learn what friendship is. Before we get gung-ho about building up communities for God, we need to learn about loving people deeply– even if those people happen to be of the same race or creed or school. Because for some of us, that has never happened before.
Phoebe Low is a senior majoring in architecture and English. In her free time she enjoys walking by the river and occasionally catching Magikarp.