A Tale of Two Family Reunions

Two weekends in a row, two gatherings, two different experiences of family = a lot of reflection.

The first, our fourth annual Generous Space Retreat with my LGBTQ+ family.  The second, the national gathering of the Canadian CRC, my denominational family.

Way back in the planning for the retreat, I suggested to our team that we should look at intersectionality and invite Michael Blair, a black, gay former Baptist and now United Church minister and Jordan Sullivan, a white transgender man formerly part of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and now working for the United Church, to be keynote speakers. Beth and Danice had encountered Jenna Tenn-Yuk, a spoken word poet, and invited her to be our artist-in-residence.  All three offered vulnerability, challenge, and grace to our community with stories of how power and privilege impact our shared humanity. A lot of gaps were bridged as we experienced unity across so many differences.

The CRC Gathering had invited Sylvia Keesmaat, Glen Smith, and Michelle Visser-Wikkerink to present.  Sylvia reminded us of the pervasive biblical stories that afforded people lacking privilege a role of influence. Glen re-ignited a vision of wholistic transformation that increases shalom for all.  And Michelle was delightfully subversive in her stories of how serving with First Nations people had changed her.

Both families gathered around worship and prayer – with exuberance, passion, and deep faith.  Both families ate together and laughed together.  There was the warmth of connection and a sense of embrace.

And yet ……

Learning to live into rhythms of relinquishing privilege and shifting the imbalances of power and influence is hard work.  It is bound to be fraught with mis-steps, pain, and the humiliation of failure.  Such learning cannot happen without facing, and even embracing, our shadow self.  And who wants to do that?  Especially at a family reunion where we inevitably want to put on our best face and, even more, live our best self.

It seems that God honours our tentative forays into new depths – but such honour comes with exposure – for God knows that is the only way we will truly see and hear and learn and grow.

My exposure came with an extemporaneous attempt at a clever identification that inadvertently, yet blatantly, contributed to the erasure of another.  In introducing Michael, I made this off-hand comment, “Jenna may be Jam-Asian (she had revealed her mixed-race reality in a poem chronicling the confusion and pain this can cause), but Michael is the ‘real McCoy’.”  In the moment, I just wanted to indicate that Michael was Jamaican – but somehow as soon as it left my mouth I felt something in the pit of my stomach and knew that I had messed up. I went to apologize to Jenna at lunch – and in our evening session shared with the community my sorrow that in a moment of thoughtlessness I had dishonoured one of our guests and contributed to the erasure of our mixed-race siblings.  Talking about being a learning community, one that embraces failure as an opportunity to grow, is one thing, actually living it is another.  One wants to just never screw up, never hurt another – that would be so much easier – and so much less humiliating.

In the days after the retreat, while painting my stairs, I reflected on this experience. I had to ask myself, “Why would such a statement come up and out of my subconscious? It must have come from somewhere.” And I realized the ways that I had deeply internalized that I was not the ‘real McCoy’.  My mixed-race-ness is invisible – and does not cost me privilege in most contexts. But it has cost me internally, leading to my own sense of not really belonging, not really being good enough.  Growing up in the Canadian CRC, largely launched by people with last names starting with “Van or De” or ending in “sma or stra”, I was actually only half Dutch. My mother was Canadian and I didn’t really know her lineage. Phrases like “Heinz 57” were used.

And then just a few days later, I found myself among my CRC family.  And so began the Dutch jokes. Speakers, even those from other denominations and backgrounds, used Dutch connections in their introductions to build rapport with the audience.  In the little care packets given to delegates, was a roll of King peppermints.  I’m sure to many this was a little piece of whimsy – reminiscent of generations of CRC folks simultaneously handing these candies out down the church row the moment the sermon began. But to me, this was a glaring and accusing voice of colonization and the paradox of the CRC on one hand trying to deconstruct systemic racism and the spirit of Apartheid that comes with a sense of Dutch supremacy, and on the other reinforcing the very thing we seek to eradicate.  Some would say I’m reading way too much into a roll of mints.  But other voices also articulated this strange tension, the legacy of ethnic and cultural identity being enmeshed into the identify of “Belonging, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1). There is a place for treasuring your ethnic heritage – but is the church that place?

I have learned and grown so very much from the gift of journeying with my LGBTQ+ siblings in Christ through our generous space community. I am not ashamed to say that this opportunity has, in many ways, saved my own faith. I have also oft-lamented that our community is so ‘vanilla’ and there is a very deep longing that we would become truly rainbow and have the opportunity to embrace even more people of colour, particularly those from ethnic families and churches where this topic is so taboo, surrounded by so much fear and shame, and where it is so extraordinarily isolating to be LGBTQ+.  But talking about this longing, and living it, are two different things.

Are we willing to face some of the exposure, the pain, the humiliation that will accompany our learning journey?  Will we embrace the hard work of wrestling with the tensions that arise? Letting go of privilege you’ve never even noticed is hard. Facing your own shadow self, the deep insecurities about your own belonging, is painful. And quieting your own voice, giving up your own platform, and muting your own influence is a lot easier to talk about than to actually do.

Whiteness and straightness energize systems of power that exclude and oppress.  And if you’re white and if you’re straight, that’s a hard pill to swallow.  Everything in you wants to say, “But that’s not my heart!”  And while that may be true, will we demonstrate that by not complaining the moment we feel silenced? By living with the discomfort of shifting dynamics? By rejoicing in the painful opportunity to grow?

Family reunions, at their best, bring us the joy of connection. They remind us who we are and where we come from. But family reunions are also inevitably messy. The gospel story tells us that God let go of all privilege of divinity to show up at the family reunion. And Jesus, fully human, taught us a new way – where the last are first, where the outcast are esteemed, where the unclean and second-class and scorned become witnesses and evangelists and apostles. Jesus taught and lived the reality that there is unconditional belonging because ALL are already family.  No black sheep. No bastards. No mud-bloods.

Truth is …… we are ALL the ‘real McCoy’!