Becoming A Believer Didn’t Take Away My Ethnicity
The following is a part of our series on Ethnic Identity.
I remember several years ago taking a personality test that asked a series of questions connected to worldview in relation to God and humanity. Essentially, each question related to how I viewed others and whether or not I believed the best about their motives and intentions when interacting with them. I can remember each time I came across another question on this theme, I had this internal battle inside of me. While I knew the “right” answer was to assume the best and to believe in people’s good intentions, I knew that I didn’t think or feel that way all the time. I had experience after experience where, given the right stressful circumstances, all human beings, including believers, often responded out of their own broken humanity. People are fallen, I thought, so how could we always assume the best about their motivations?
What I didn’t realize then was that this way of viewing others was influenced by my cultural worldview that I had grown up with as a Latina, and this worldview differed from the white Christian community I was involved with then. Dr. Juan Martinez, professor at Fuller Seminary, jokes that “Latinos are 1 point Calvinists” because the depravity of man informs our view of all our interactions with others and even our view of the whole of human history. Justo Gonzalez calls this a “non-innocent view of history” where Latinos recognize that all history, including that of Christianty, is a story about broken people.
My experience with this test several years ago highlighted to me how tied my understanding of the Christian life was to majority culture. In that season of my life, I had no understanding of how my own Latino culture influenced me at very deep levels. While the white evangelical church I came to faith in was right to emphasize that my new identity in Christ was of ultimate importance, it failed to acknowledge that their own understanding of the Christian life was influenced by majority culture lenses and that this was the Christianity they taught me.
I picked up early on in my time as a believer that my life before Christ was to be forgotten and dismissed which implicitely included my ethnic identity too. I remember reading verses like Philippians 3:13 where Paul said “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” and believing that this meant that I needed to leave the past in the past and get on with my new life in Christ which was infinitely better. Because my life in this new community didn’t include any Hispanics, I associated my ethnicity with the part of my life I was meant to leave behind too. Couple that way of thinking with the fact that my life before coming to faith was painful, and I figured ignoring that past and that part of my identity was the right thing to do.
The problem with only focusing on my new identity in Christ devoid of culture was that it wasn’t really true. Neglecting to acknowledge my own Latino identity as a part of how God made me, didn’t leave me free from cultural influences. It just left me confused. When there were contradictions in cultural values that showed up in my discipleship within this majority culture Christian community, I always assumed the majority was right and I was wrong. It couldn’t possibly be that my own cultural lenses influenced me in my walk with God to see the world differently, and that maybe I had something to offer majority culture in that perspective. There wasn’t room for that kind of thinking so it was squelched in me instead. It left me feeling like I was always immature and in need of growth when my way of seeing God and the world differed from others around me.
Starting to work for Destino, though, sent me on a journey of exploring my own ethnic identity and the valuable ways the culture had shaped me. I began to feel so affirmed in a community that for the first time shared my story and my assumptions. Their view of God was similar to me because of our shared common experiences. It was a beautiful thing.
But within this searching, I couldn’t just embrace the beautiful ways my culture had influenced me, I also had to face the broken parts of my culture and past that had left wounds in my life as well. Orlando Crespo in talking about the bi-cultural journey said, “I can’t let go of the fact that I have both of these worlds in me and both have left their beautiful and painful mark on me.” That was what I felt like God was doing in me as he was pushing me to deal with all of my story. There were beautiful parts to my Latino identity that I was willing to embrace, but I was needing to embrace the painful too. At that point, I began to look honestly at the alcoholism and physical abuse in my past and how those realities were early shapers of my identity. Accepting both the beautiful parts and the broken parts of my ethnic identity was necessary for true depth of understanding of God and myself. There could be no healing without a holding of both.
Recently, I listened to NPR’s Alt.Latino describing how Salsa music is a good reflection of how life contains this exact tension and paradox of the beautiful and the painful. Most of the time salsa music is viewed as happy music that is joyful and danceable, but the lyrics of the music often carry dark themes that deal with sorrow and suffering. These two seemingly inconsistent parts together are what make Salsa music so powerful. I think thats true of my own life too. Like Crespo said, being bicultural means that two different cultural worlds have left their beautiful and painful mark. That’s what makes me who I am and how I understand God to be who he is in my life.
I think another significant piece to this journey for me was when I read the book Honor and Shame by Roland Muller. Again, in wanting to find healing from my own past, I learned that when you come from a shame-based culture like Latino culture, freedom from shame is at the heart of the gospel message. But it wasn’t only the shame I felt about the sins I had committed that I needed freedom from, but also the shame I felt as a result of the sins done to me. As I read through the book, this understanding of the gospel felt almost like a second conversion experience for me. I felt that while I had accepted that Christ took away my guilt through his death when I trusted in him, I had never fully accepted the truth that he had also taken away my shame, including the shame I felt related to my ethnicity. This was revolutionary in my life.
All of these experiences are a part of what God has used and is using to grow me into wholeness in my ethnic identity. So, while there was a time in my life where I would have wanted to deny being Latina, I can now say with confidence that my ethnicity is a part of who God has made me to be. My culture isn’t a liability, but a blessing that wasn’t meant to be erased at my conversion. I am thankful for the whole of the story He has written and is writing over my life.
photo courtesy: craigcloutier