Emily Smith, on staff with Epic in Texas, recently co-led a summer missions project to Southeast Asia. At the project briefing, she gave a talk on “crossing cultures.” Although she humbly considers herself the “least qualified” person to speak about this, we were so blessed by her sharing that we asked her to write about her personal journey, and how she has been transformed through her cross-cultural experiences in the Asian American community.
Since I started working with Epic Movement, I’ve been asked a hundred times, “Why are you working with an Asian American ministry?” I can’t blame them for wondering.
I am a Caucasian female who grew up in a small southern California beach town. To my knowledge, my town had three Chinese restaurants, one Indian restaurant, and no Asian churches whatsoever. When I turned 20 years old, I still had never tasted Thai food, Korean food, Vietnamese food… you get the picture.
While in college, I would often pray for different nations. When it came time to pray for Asia, I remember thinking, “I don’t know anything about these countries! I don’t know what to pray for, and frankly I don’t really have a desire to pray for these countries.” This was eye-opening to me, as it revealed that maybe my heart wasn’t as ‘for the world’ as I thought it was. So instead I prayed the following, “God, would you give me your heart for Asia? Would you teach me to love them? Would you make me want to learn more?”
I was heavily immersed in majority culture and had little to no experience of anything else. This continued into college. While a student, I remember reading the school paper about a predominately white Greek House that was being investigated for hate crimes. Apparently, they threw a house party and strung up nooses in the trees. I remember turning to my friend and declaring, “I can’t believe this type of racism still exists today!”
I tell this story because I had so many misconceptions and prejudices about other cultures, and aspects of ethnocentrism in my heart, but I would never have admitted it until I starting working for Epic.
How My Eyes Were Opened
One of my first memories with Epic was having dinner at the home of an Asian American couple on staff. As I was chatting away, I suddenly noticed that Joe (my husband) didn’t have his shoes on. As my eyes scanned the floor, I realized that I was the only one in the room with shoes on. As blood ran to my face, I ran to the door and kicked my shoes off as fast as possible!
What still moves me to this day was the couple’s response. They were clearly aware of my shoes, but they never said anything. They choose to value my feelings over their cultural norm. This wasn’t the only time I would experience grace within the Asian American community.
After joining staff with Epic, I met a friend who moved to America not that long ago. A bunch of friends and I were going to play a game called “Catch-phrase.” She politely turned down the invite, and went back to her room.
Later on I saw her and said, “You should have stayed to play! It was so much fun… you missed out!” She responded with, “I don’t really like to play word games.” I refuted, “No! You should have come, you would have done great.” Then she said, “English is hard for me, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it and I would rather not people watch me struggle.”
Reflecting later, I realized the awkward position I put her in. I was unaware that an English word game would be frustrating to a person whose first language was not English, and I poured guilt on her for not playing!
It made me wonder how many other similar events had happened where my friend may have felt left out or ashamed. That day I also learned that even if my intentions are good, that I must learn to love in a way that understands and honors others.
I am shy to the point where I become debilitated in certain situations. For most of my life, I have not been seen as a leader; I’ve never heard anyone (other than my mother) say, “I believe in you.”
Since being a part of Epic, I have felt more accepted, loved, and pursued than I ever have in my life. I have felt more valued, heard, and empowered than ever before. There is something about the Asian American community that breaks through my self-consciousness, and allows me to be myself… and to grow into the person God created me to be.
My view of God has changed as well. A. W. Tozer wrote, “What comes into our minds as we think about God is the most important thing about us.” My view of God was so limited that I was missing out on the wholeness of God! Epic has taught me that there is value in diversity and uniqueness — that there are many ways to worship, pray, or express His love and the gospel. God created and intended for the world to have cultures, and for people to experience God through diverse cultures. I now see how limited my view of God was!
As my eyes have opened in these ways, and I have developed relationships in the Asian American community, my heart is torn when I see the stereotyping, bullying, and racism that many of my friends still experience.
On the one hand, I am angry… so angry! I want to reprimand, point fingers, and scold.
And yet, I am also sad, because I now see that I too am the bully… or at least I have been. Still, I’ve experienced so much patience, forgiveness, and grace from Asian Americans who have been so hurt. They’ve empowered me when I deserved to be reprimanded. Epic has seen and trusted me as a leader, and given me a voice.
As a Caucasian, I now see my place in the Asian American community. I am a learner, first and foremost. But I also get to be an advocate, partner, and lover of Asian American cultures and people.
Another Caucasian woman on staff once told me, “When I joined staff, I thought Epic needed me, but I learned that I needed Epic.” How true this is for me. I thought God called me to serve in Epic Movement because He had some great work for me to do… but all along, He intended for Epic to do a great work inside me.
For Reflection or Discussion:
- What traces of ethnocentrism might be in your heart, as I found in mine? What are some practical steps you can take to start being a “learner” of another culture?
- When have you spent time immersed in another culture? How did that time shape your view of who God is?