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Dr. Julia Zhao theologically reflects on her hybrid identity particularly as it relates to her call to ministry.

In so many ways, my life, as an immigrant and as a Christian, has been lived in in-between spaces. I immigrated to Canada as a child, retaining memories of China while also “half” growing up in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Although I attempted to identify as “just Canadian” while growing up, my hybrid identity asserted itself again and again, in the food I ate, the languages I spoke, my appearance…… It took years to finally accept that I occupied this in-between space. It also took years to realize that in my Christian life, and call to ministry, I have also been occupying in-between spaces.

I converted to Christianity as a child, about a year after my arrival in Canada. After an early childhood in which I knew almost nothing about God, or the Bible and had never been inside a church, I accepted Christ and was baptized at the age of eleven after attending church with my aunt. After this I went to Sunday School, and then youth group and worship services on my own initiative. It was only a few years ago that I realized that I occupied the confusing in-between space of having grown up in the church (sort of) without having grown up in a Christian family.

It was not surprising therefore, that my journey to Princeton Theological Seminary and ministry also occupied many in-between spaces. As a Canadian at an American seminary, I am an international student. However, as a woman of Chinese descent who grew up in North America, I often have more in common culturally with Asian Americans than with international students living in the US for the first time. However, my experience with immigration and learning a new language has enabled me to offer academic support to the incoming international students as they adjust to seminary. My journey toward ministry traversed through in-between spaces. I engaged actively in church and with InterVarsity’s International Student Ministry as an undergrad, was asked to join the staff of InterVarsity upon graduation but felt instead called to grad school and academia. While completing a PhD at the University of Notre Dame, I engaged actively with Catholic, Evangelical and Anabaptist communities before finally settling at Sunnyside Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the PCUSA in South Bend, Indiana. My academic journey at Notre Dame coincided with my spiritual journey as I felt the persistent pull toward ordained ministry. In fall of 2020, after I completed a PhD at Notre Dame and in the midst of a pandemic, I began an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary and the ordination process in the PCUSA.

My personal, spiritual and vocational journeys intersect and traverse through many in-between spaces and I have often wondered if I really fit anywhere. Am I Chinese or Canadian? Am I a convert or did I grow up in the church? Am I Presbyterian enough? Am I a pastor or an academic? The past few years in seminary and through the ordination process have highlighted many of these issues and brought to the center aspects of my identity that had been peripheral. For the first time since I left China, most of my friends are Asian or international students. I have also studied Asian American theology and history in ways that I never did before. Whereas during my childhood conversion, I thought that becoming Christian coincided with being Canadian, now I discover new depth and affinity with where I was born and see God reflected there.

At the same time, my spiritual and vocational identity continues to exist in in-between spaces. I am being trained in a predominately white seminary and pursuing ordination in a predominately white denomination. The communities with which I worshiped and served in ministry have also been predominately white. Leaning into my identity as Chinese Canadian and finding God’s handprint there has also led to ask once again: “Where do I really belong, as a Christian and as a pastor?” From the moment of my conversion and baptism, I have desired to serve Jesus Christ. It is a desire that has led me to ministry and continues to animate my desire to see the people and communities I serve fall in love with the God who is already in love with them. In light of that, what does it mean to minister in the in-between spaces?

To me, the answer to this question lies exactly with a ministry and life that centers Jesus Christ. In his incarnation, Jesus himself lived and ministered in the in-between spaces. John Calvin spoke of the incarnation as a kind of divine “baby talk”, the ultimate accommodation by a powerful God for a humanity too weak and limited to understand and relate to God in any other way.[1] Calvin’s predecessor, St. Francis of Assisi, however, speaks of the incarnation as the necessary act of love for a God who desires intimate relationship with humanity. It is only in being one of us, that God’s love for us could be realized in its fullness. Only by becoming a finite human being: the Baby in the manger, the Man on the cross, can the infinite love of God for the ones created in the divine image be realized.[2] The culminated wisdom of both of these theologians is that it is both necessary and the ultimate act of love, for the Lord God of the universe to live and minister in the in-between spaces in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is as both God and human that Jesus has been able to save, justify, sanctify, and reconcile us to God. It is as both God and human that Jesus has been able to relate to us, love us and make God known to us.

Perhaps then it is in living and ministering from the in-between spaces that I can imitate Christ. In the time since I entered seminary, it is my hybrid identity, as Chinese and Canadian, childhood immigrant and international student that has enabled me to relate to and minister to international students at Princeton. It is the combination of my academic and pastoral vocation that directs my preaching and pastoral care. My internship at a local church has shown me the value of familiarity with multiple Christian traditions and having both the freshness and excitement of conversion and the experience of growing up in the church. I was able to help lead and be present to a congregation navigating a return to in-person worship while speaking about issues of race and privilege in an affluent, mostly white congregation. In Clinical Pastoral Education, I was able to connect with patients and staff in a multi-ethnic, multi-faith environment. My knowledge of Mandarin and the experience of immigrants was helpful for patients who struggled with English while my experience with multiple religious perspectives helped me to minister to patients with a variety of religious beliefs while maintaining my identity as emerging Presbyterian pastor. As I finish training as a spiritual director, I am discovering a vocation for working with Asian American and immigrant women in a field that remains largely white. The opportunity to engage in and expand this ancient ministry into an underserved population in the modern world reflects once again, the blessings of living and ministering in an in-between space.

At the center of our faith is a Lord who lived, preached, ministered, died and rose again in the in-between spaces. The incarnation of Christ, in which the Creator became the created one is the ultimate act of love in which our God sought to know us. Perhaps in so doing, God enabled the in-between spaces to become places of God’s presence and love in which those who occupy them can know and make known the love of Creator who became the Baby in Bethlehem’s manger, the Man on Calvary’s cross and the risen Lord in whose resurrection life we live forever.


[1] The Institutes of Christian Religion 1.13.1.

[2] https://fslf.org/blog/2014/12/15/the-incredible-mystery-of-the-incarnation

Julia Zhao was born in China, grew up in Toronto and completed a PhD at the University of Notre Dame. In 2020 she followed God’s call into ministry by beginning a MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is currently completing her MDiv, training in spiritual direction and engaged in the ordination process in the PCUSA. A childhood convert to Christianity, Julia is fascinated by the Holy Spirit’s movement in the lives of individuals and communities, especially through the ministries of preaching, hospital chaplaincy and spiritual direction. When not engaged in seminary or ministry, she enjoys long walks, cooking, audiobooks, spending time with friends and family and exploring new places around Princeton.

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