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Since arriving from the Philippines, my parents raised me to be a devout Roman Catholic. I was an altar server through grade school, diligently attended Sunday classes, and partook in the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation. My family even prayed the rosary daily. During college, however, I no longer considered myself a Catholic. Surprised by my confession, my parents asked, “Do you hate being Filipino?” At the time, it seemed to me an absurd question. What does my conversion from Catholicism have to do with abandoning my Filipino identity? I can understand if disavowing my childhood faith implied a fundamental disagreement with the ways they raised me, but it was a leap to say I hated an integral part of my identity.

In college, I attended an Asian American Christian fellowship and a multigenerational Chinese church. I listened to sermons that preached how the gospel transcends any kind of human difference and promised a new identity in Christ among believers. This new universalizing framework shaped how I viewed racial or ethnic identities: as distractions from the great commission to convert everyone to evangelical Protestantism. Indeed, I believed wholeheartedly that earthly identities would not and should not matter, even as I inhabited spaces created specifically for Asian American Christians. It was on this initial promise of an identity-neutral community that I felt included. Specifically, my peers and I believed that our shared Christian identity would triumph over any cultural differences that there might be among us. So when my parents asked me, “Do you hate being Filipino” I outrightly denied it. Christianity had nothing to do with my Filipino identity.

I still think about my parents’ question to this day, though not because I still find it absurd. Rather, I believe there was some wisdom behind it. Perhaps I was too naïve, or there was something about my religious community that I did not want to accept: that being Filipino would matter to my sense of Christian belonging, whether I wanted it to or not. 

Over time, I began to feel estranged from Asian American Christian spaces. While Chinese and Korean American attendees of the campus fellowship grew their friendships over shared upbringing, food, language, television shows, music, and struggles with identity, I increasingly found myself on the outside of those circles. First-year students sought mentorship from upper-level students who were also either Chinese American or Korean American because it was simply easier for them. Indeed, many of them were raised in evangelical households and found my experiences in a Roman Catholic upbringing all too unrelatable. While some of my friends and roommates tried their best to include me within the community, I struggled to see myself fully belonging in these Christian spaces. I began to wonder if being Filipino could even be compatible with any expression of evangelical Protestantism.  

Similarly, the realities of multigenerational Chinese churches began to conflict with my expectation of a Christian community that transcends cultural differences. I was active in church through various capacities: as a greeter for the welcome team, as a college small group leader, and eventually as a Sunday school teacher for young adults in the English congregation. Despite how integrated I was in these leadership positions, I felt constrained and limited in how I belonged in the broader congregation whenever my peers would talk about their friends and families in the Cantonese or Mandarin services. There were also moments when I taught adult Sunday school and regularly heard about leaders who were skeptical about my seminary qualifications which fed my growing alienation from these spaces. While on an administrative level, there were issues surrounding my own reluctance to disavow my Roman Catholic baptism (since the church I attended was of Baptist heritage), I doubt ceding to church requirements would have resolved older generations’ concerns about my teaching abilities and alleviated the sense that I was somehow less integrated into the church because I was not Chinese. 

Furthermore, I could not readily dismiss how this was all tied to my Filipino upbringing. Unlike most of my peers, my Filipino family was not part of the church, I was raised in a Catholic household, and I did not speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Whether I wanted it to or not, being Filipino shaped the extent to which I could belong in Asian American on-campus fellowships and multigenerational Chinese churches.

“Do you hate being Filipino?”

There were certainly moments when I did.

Looking back, I do not fault these communities for my experience. Indeed, it is important for immigrant Christians to practice and express their faith in ways most proximate and familiar to them. What I fault, however, was my naïve optimism. I believed wholeheartedly that my identity in Christ could transcend cultural differences. I expected that Christian community could genuinely be universally welcoming for peoples of all backgrounds and that earthly markers that construct my identity as Filipino would not matter. Instead, I only came to realize that being Filipino mattered in more ways than I could imagine, whether I wanted it to or not. 

The less I belonged, the more messages that imagined true Christianity transcending earthly differences rang hollow. Sermons about unity and new identities in Christ felt out of touch with lived realities and everyday dynamics of Christian community for those who continually saw themselves in the margins despite fully embracing all that Christianity offered. Worship services conducted in different languages would only remind me of the tragic impossibility of realizing heaven on this side of eternity. I continued to be haunted by questions about belonging as a Filipino American, losing my ability to speak Tagalog, feeling alienated from Asian American Christian spaces, and competing feelings around the compatibility of evangelical Christianity with my Filipino identity. These moments made me realize just how little regard there was for those who struggled to feel included within the rhetoric of one’s new “identity in Christ.”

If this “identity in Christ” were merely a hopeful vision of the next life for the church to aspire towards or a self-reflective encouragement in times of division in the church, then these invocations would be admirable. But when reiterated as a transcendent reality or a signifier of what’s truer than the material or political, new identity rhetoric willfully neglects how the church fails to live up to its own self-description. This omission also creates the effect of categorizing questions, struggles, and conflicts around identity as ultimately non-Christian issues. Indeed, I have heard too many sermons leveraging “new identity in Christ” to downplay how gender, race, and sexuality shape Christian expressions of faith and believers’ sense of belonging in the church. It has become a non-alternative for ministers who might deem proper social justice conversations and efforts too politically radical or distant from their version of Christian social action. 

At its worst, however,  “new identity in Christ” rhetoric has an even more dangerous effect through the ways it renders other identities as lesser, broken, or irredeemable. This produces a kind of self-loathing, or in other words, “why do you hate being Filipino?” If the true basis for being part of a Christian community is Christianity, but someone struggles to participate in Christian communities because of other facets of their identity, then in a lot of ways, that identity becomes the impediment to truly experiencing all that the Christian community offers. To put it another way, the “non-Christian” identity becomes the problem. 

This works in an even more pernicious manner through purportedly multi-ethnic spaces. In communities where true Christian expression becomes mapped onto “American” cultural practices, the rhetoric of “new identity in Christ” becomes a vehicle for enforced assimilation. In practice, the politics of “new identity” rhetoric strives for shallow representation and for the believer’s assent to arbitrate whatever is non-American or non-white as ultimately un-Christian. Historically, non-white Christians have not been given the agency to decide this for themselves and their community. Within this frame, the sufficiency of congregational racial or ethnic diversity masks the persistent whiteness of acceptable theological discourses within sermons, small groups, and other spaces of conversation. Such phenomena actively constrain how churches should be engaging in an increasingly complex world where identity shapes people’s way of being and belonging in more ways than they can imagine.

Indeed, there have been numerous examples of Christians throughout the history of the church who have been disappointed by the empty promises of a community that transcends earthly identities. Some have written powerful critiques with the hopes of helping the church live up to its own universalizing ideals.

Eighteenth-century Mohegan minister Samson Occom comes to mind. According to his unpublished autobiography, which was itself a defense against those attacking his credentials as authentically Mohegan and a proper convert to Christianity, Occom was unfairly treated compared to fellow clergymen. He was adept at the English language, had been training Native American Christians for missionary work, and adopted colonizers’ cultural and agricultural practices. Yet despite his best efforts, his work was almost always unfairly financed, and he was evaluated to be much less effective at converting others compared to his Anglo-Protestant peers. Even after a successful fundraising effort in London to build a new school for the Christianization of New England Native Americans (which was funneled towards the founding of Dartmouth College for educating white Protestant children), he continued to be viewed by fellow Christians as simply the success story of British American missions and the object which evidenced the power of the gospel to civilize non-white Christians. At the conclusion of his defense, after having defended his ministry, he identified the root cause of his ills to being Mohegan:

“they have used [me] thus, because I Cant Instruct the Indians So well as other Missionaries, but I Can assure them I have endeavoured to teach them as well as I [kn]ow – but I must Say, I believe, it is, because I am a poor Indian, I Cant help that God has made me So; I did not make my Self so.”

Occom’s words spoke to the conflict between Christianity and my own earthly identities: I cannot help nor hate my sense of being Filipino. Even as I lose my ability to speak Tagalog, forget cultural practices, and fail to maintain ties with relatives back home, I am still Filipino – “God has made me so, I did not make my Self so.” 

Whether I want it to or not, being Filipino will continue to shape my sense of belonging in any community I seek to join in the future. As with many marginalized Christians of the past, I have learned that exclusions are not a product of my identity, but rather a consequence of the disconnect between rhetoric that promised community and the institutions that fail to execute those ideals.

Such histories make me wonder what it might look like for Christians today to resist falling back on the universalizing or identity-neutral rhetoric that justified Christianity for colonialism and empire, and instead embrace the very locality of religious practice itself. Rather than preaching a “new identity in Christ” to replace or move people away from their lived experiences, we could ground it in the very material conditions of our communities and the shared spiritual formation in these ultimately created spaces. Doing so might allow “new identity in Christ” rhetoric to actually open room for Christians to ask questions, engage in conversations, and reflect on the complexities around identity in the present day instead of foreclosing them. Perhaps this shift in rhetoric and approach might have allowed me to move past the assumption that what was my “new identity in Christ” could not be Filipino. 

Michael Baysa is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Princeton University in the Religion in America subfield. His current research project explores the material and cultural constraints of Anglo-Protestant publishing and the ways it shaped what would constitute public religion in early America. He earned his B.S. and S.T.M. from Boston University and his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

One Comment

  • Samuel Son says:

    Michael Baysa, thank you for sharing your (& Samson Occam’s) story & theological critique. With my wife, an artist, we’ve been exploring the idea of hybridity against the common Western concept of identity, which is binary, i.e. who we are is defined by who we are not. It’s sad to see that our Christology (Christ as both God and both man) which grounds us in a reality of hybridity (identities don’t have to cancel each other) is used to do the opposite. Here’s an article about a Korean fashion designer whose challenges came from categories/identities that limited her by first saying she can’t do fashion because she’s Korean, and then when she began to get recognized, her works got tagged as Korean fashion (while Paris fashion was, of course, universal). It’s a tragic irony that when minoritized people explore/live into their identities, whatever comes from it is not for all. Asian-Americans need Asian-American theology, but it’s not a theology just for Asian-Americans.

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