Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Fit? Tellign my family's disruptive story of faith

Micah Bales Letter to Post-Evangelicals struck a chord with me, though I don't quite feel the need to address post-Evangelicals.  What I connect with is having a family and personal faith story that doesn't quite fit neatly into the categories of American Christianity.

The source of this difference as I read Bales blog post is around decisions his parents made around class, race and homosexuality.  These decisions set themselves off from both Modernist and Fundamentlist understanding of Christian faith.  My parents also made similar choices and decisions around these questions (this post will mostly deal with class and race, how my parents navigated homosexuality and human sexuality will be addressed in a separate post), though in a less dramatic fashion and with less decisive conflict, yet the choices and decisions my parents made and where they allowed themselves to go and be taken in the course of my childhood and youth, meant the faith I received had a radical tinge.

The first decision my parents made that set this other path for myself, was their decision to get married.  My mother and father met only shortly after he and his first wife had been divorced.  In the late 60's in the Christian circles my parents existed in divorce and remarriage was viewed as sin. The plain meaning of Jesus's own statements on this are quite clear. My mother tells the story of having returned home for Christmas and discussing possibly marrying my father with her mother. My grandmother was opposed to the possibility, as I recall my grandfather wasn't excited but was willing to leave it to his daughter to decide what was right.  The night before my mom was to return to Chicago my grandmother told her that if she went ahead with the relationship and married my father she would be in sin and that my grandmother could not condone the marriage to a divorced man, it was adultery (after all Jesus says so.)  My mom prepared to return to Chicago to tell my dad she would not marry him and call of their relationship.  The next morning my grandmother told my mom she had been praying the night before and God spoke to her and said that she should not oppose the marriage.  As I understand it that didn't settle it for my parents but through wrestling with Scripture their hearts and consulting Evangelical Covenant pastors whom they respected, they decided it was good for them to be married (Their struggles and the mixed ramifications of divorce and remarriage are another story and not all for me to tell.)  So began the adventure of my childhood.

As I came around and for the first two years of my life, ours was a suburban and solidly middle class life.  We went to church and were involved in a Covenant Church, my father owned his own Tool and Die business that was relatively successful, and my mother quit teaching when I was born.  My parents felt a call to something more and specifically my father felt called to return to school, and to go to seminary (feeling called to work in churches as a director of Christian Education).  My father sold his business, and they sold our house and went to a Mennonite Brethren college and seminary (Fresno Pacific College and Seminary) in California near where my grandparents had a farm, and we went and lived with my mother parents while Dad went to school full time and helped out on the farm.

As he completed his degree and began to apply for positions of Director of Christian education, few churches would consider him as a divorce, and even those who would offer an interview, the divorce stood in the way except for churches where he wasn't interested in serving.  So he returned to tool and die and manufacturing. Which lead us to France.

In France we chose to attend a international (many who were international students at the university) and multicultural congregation that was a missionary congregation lead by a Baptist missionary couple, in Bordeaux.  Our worship was in French but we worshiped not only with French but expats like ourselves from other countries, mainly African is my recollection. This, like so many of my parents choices weren't presented to us as choices. Even as I write this I have difficulty crediting anything special about this. However, because of this congregation we joined, France for me wasn't simply being acculturated in French culture (my sister and I went to French schools, and it wasn't long before my mother would sometimes overhear passer's by wonder what that American woman was doing with those French children), but in a different culture I encountered as equals those who weren't European or White.  I met and they were friends of my parents people from India Africa and the Middle East who back in the states were people to whom we sent missionaries.  In this congregation they were leaders and even from families who had been Christian for several generations, like my own family.

Returning from France my family chose to live in a house that was near the wrong part of the country, an unincorporated town called new London where many poor, White,and Latino (mostly Mexicans) lived.   Again my parents made little of this decision, and even down played it, the house was what we could afford and we new the landlord and his extended family.  I was never told to avoid certain people, and made friends with the children whom I went to school and  wholived in new London, I had them over to our place, and even brought some of my friends who didn't go to church to our Covenant church. Unfortunately , a significant minority of that congregation made it clear that those people (poor Whites) weren't welcome and were even possibly a bad influence upon me (so I learned from my parents later) but it was clear to me that my friends weren't entirely welcome and they felt it too.

When I was Twelve in the middle of the year, we moved to Los Angeles (Carson, a city neighboring on Compton, in Los Angeles county).  Again my parents gave rational for their choice as being largely economic and pragmatic, a house in a Whiter and more middle class part of L.A. county wouldn't have been as nice or as large.  I went to a large school (from a country school made up of White and Hispanic) to a school with variety of ethnicities.  I was befriended by Samoans. As White, I was in the minority.  We went the closest Covenant church that was in a Wealthy part of the South Bay, but because after we visited the church my sister and I wanted to be part of that church.  So, our church experience was majority white still, though, significantly my parents were friends with the few people of color that did attend the church.

Just before my sophomore year of high school we needed to move and we were in a better financial place, and could have moved into predominantly White parts of the South Bay, but we ended up renting a house in one of the first deliberately integrated housing developments to be built in L.A. county (by the 1980's that had been many years ago), so by my parents choice, we continued to live in racially and ethnically diverse context. When my parents were able to buy a place during my Jr year of high school they bought a house in that same neighborhood.  Our next door neighbors were African American and we got to know them fairly well, but on Sunday we'd drive to our predominantly White church and they'd drive to their African American church.  One of my best friends in in High School was Black, we didn't live near each other he rode a bus to school, I walked. We never went to each other's churches, but distance wasn't the only reason. Because of the choices my parents made, I experienced the divisions within American Christianity through being socially and economically close to people of color, but experiencing the divide on Sunday morning. My parents never questioned this, after all it was how they knew American Christianity to be. My Grandfather pastored a German congregation in Chicago, other Europeans weren't even members.  In the 1970's and 1980's the Covenant was becoming more ethically diverse, but my mother's experience wasn't of worshiping with other white people but other Swedes in the Covenant Church, but due to my parents choices this way things were was dissonant, and remains so.

Because of my parent's choices and sense of calling and following Christ, Church and Christian faith had little if anything with enclave of sameness and safety.  Thanks to their decisions and lack of fear, thanks to their faith and willingness to follow God in even the mundane and practical, I have long been with and known personally those others fear, or have kept at arms length.  I have also seen how Christians can reject and exclude, and my parents allowed me to experience the pain and helplessness surrounding that exclusion.  Thanks to their decisions and choices while White, my formative experiences weren't only of a White and privileged world.  My faith was able to form in a much more diverse and complex and multicultural environment than many a White evangelical, where the experience of the other is on mission trips. But it was all so very normal, that even to this day I have difficulty seeing just how those choices make a difference, except when I seem not to fit into the categories of White American Christianity.