may 24, 1998.
it is a cloudy sunday morning, the sunday of memorial day weekend, near the end of my sophomore year of high school. i am walking across a parking lot with yt. we reach the back entrance of the church and walk through into the dark foyer. i am filled with nervous energy.
it is my first time at detroit chinese alliance church. i’m not really sure what this day will bring, but it feels like a new step in the bizarre journey that i’ve been on for the last 6+ years to try to understand God — one that started, incidentally, when yt first brought me to her previous church. starting then, something monumental has happened every two years — my grandfather passing away, receiving a fire-and-brimstone tract from an acupuncturist in brighton — that has brought me one step closer. first, at the old church, i got the very very very basics and a precious moments bible (a white one, filled with drawings of children with huge teardrop-shaped eyes); then there was prayer, which freaked my mother out; and then i was scared into reading the bible. it seems like every two years, something big happens and i add something else to my repertoire of how i’m supposed to relate to God, until the next big happens and i acquire something else.
the only thing is that even after all this, i still don’t feel like i understand. ever since the acupuncturist incident 2 years ago, i’ve been reading the bible (the aforementioned white one with the big-eyed children) every sunday for half an hour, like my own little makeshift church service. i started it because i was scared to death of hell, after receiving that horrifying tract, and i fervently hoped that God would look favorably on my weekly bible reading and spare me. yet somehow, over the course of these 2 years, my perspective on reading the bible has changed. it has become less about trying to avoid hell and more about how to make sense of it all, how to really know the God that this bible described.
the problem is that without any direction, this bible doesn’t really make sense. one week, i read in the old testament that anyone who touches an insect is impure and unclean until evening; what did that mean for me and ant i squashed that morning? many months later, in the book of matthew, i read Jesus’ command to be perfect; for hours afterwards i laid immobilized on my bed, paralyzed by the weight of the knowledge that i was anything but perfect and the ramifications that were implied for me. i felt like there was something i should be doing to get this thing right, but i didn’t know what it was. i had questions and no one to ask, so i opened the yellow pages and cold-called churches (thank you, pastor norman pritchard from kirk in the hills, for your patience with a stranger). i figured that when i turned 16 and got my driver’s license, i could drive myself to church and have someone explain everything to me — only which church would i go to? there are so freaking many — presbyterian, baptist, methodist, lutheran — how would i know which one was the right one? i broke out my webster’s dictionary, looked up all the denominations, and got frustrated by all of the minute differences. i couldn’t tell which one was the right one. i wished that there was just one church so i didn’t have to figure it out myself.
i was almost at the end of the bible — the book of revelation — and i was trying to figure out what to do next. should i just start the bible over again? i was still 9 months short of 16 and didn’t really have any other options. but lo and behold, one morning on the way to the bus stop, yt invited me to her new church. i gladly accepted. i needed some stinking answers.
in the foyer, i am apprehensive. first, i’m 15, which means that i’m freaking awkward and not quite comfortable in my own skin. i’m also exceedingly cynical and angsty. i listen to a lot of alanis morissette and fiona apple and i feel generally misunderstood much of the time. i want to appear cool, especially to these people that i’ve never met before, but really i’m just insecure.
second, i hate being asian. i’ve spent the last 10 years of my life distancing myself from this reality in every way possible, and one of the ways i’ve done this is to avoid other asians like the plague. this isn’t terribly hard, since the only time i ever see them is at chinese school on friday nights and mys on saturday mornings. however, many of the asians i saw in those places — whom i’ve dubbed “the asian mafia” and written off as one-dimensional and isolationist — are now milling around this foyer with me. i’m in a tornado of emotions, simultaneously writing them off and hoping desperately that they like me.
we meet steffi, one of yt’s friends, who seems nice. yt introduces me to the pastor, gideon. i’ve never met anyone named gideon before. and this pastor is a sharp contrast to the pastor at the last church — that one, pastor burke, was an old white man with an irish accent and a long white beard who wore black robes every sunday. this pastor, this gideon, is young. chinese american (or chinese canadian, i will soon learn). he wears glasses and business casual and is very friendly. i get the sense that church might be different this time around.
we’re corralled into a small room, painted blue. the room is packed out with rows of folding chairs and lots of people, and at the front is a couch that is inhabited by several people playing instruments. one is a guy playing an electric guitar. he doesn’t smile at all, and he seems a little bit angry to me. i later learn that his name is ben. the guitar brightly painted with all kinds of crazy things, and one of them is a big eyeball that freaks me out a little. there’s a projector screen to the left of the couch, in the corner of the room, and a small overhead projector in front of it. the screen reads something like “generation next” and says something about quieting our hearts for worship. to the left of the screen, along the perpendicular wall, is a drum set.
we grab seats a few rows in front of the door where we entered. i look warily around the room — there are lots of asian people here, many of whom i recognize from our mutual litany of weekend extracurricular activities. yt leans over and points to a pretty girl in the front row. “that’s karen,” she whispers. “she and gideon are engaged. isn’t that cute?” it is.
the music begins. it is nothing like the previous church. there are guitars, there are drums, there is clapping, the songs actually sound kind of like they were written in the current decade. shout to the lord, i could sing of your love forever, not shaken… none of which i’m familiar with, but they sound pretty decent to me.
gideon speaks. his sermon is surprisingly funny and personal — he talks about moving to a new place and going to a ymca or community center and learning about their basketball leagues. there were 3 leagues — a, b, and c — and gid was pretty sure that he could play in the a league. then someone in the c league, maybe the 5th seed, whupped him pretty badly. i think the story has to do with not viewing yourself as better than you actually are, about coming to terms with reality.
afterwards, he prays, and we sing a little more, and then there’s lunch. after lunch we carpool to camp tamarack, a local jewish camp, to do team-building games. this is an outreach event and the occasion for which i was invited. i ride in a car driven by mr. chang (the dad of two people named haoming and eileen, who i will meet later). jenny chang is in the passenger seat. she’s back from college for the summer and she’s really nice. she invites me to karen’s bridal shower, which surprises me since i met her about 5 minutes before, and i’m not even sure that i met karen at all. yt and i sit in the back with mikey yang. i recognize mikey as the guy who is always the first chair cello in mys, and he is certainly part of the asian mafia. he’s nice too, though, and he laughs at my jokes, which is a surefire way to get me to warm up to you.
our caravan arrives at the camp, and we congregate near a giant sculpture that reads “SHALOM”. we split up into groups for the afternoon’s activities. i’m in a group with gideon, tim lee, a white guy named paul, terry (who i recognize from my old chinese school days and mys), sara and melissa yee. this is a good group to be in, i think. we introduce ourselves along with something like a book that starts with the first letter of our name. paul’s is proverbs. i’m pretty sure that mine is less christian.
the team-building activities are the kind where you arrive at a clearing with tires thrown in random places and a leader gives you a scenario: you’re on an island surrounded by molten lava. you need to get everyone off of the island without touching anything but the tires, and you have to work together and communicate in order to get it to work. the games are quite perfect for this crowd, actually, because they’re pretty much giant logic puzzles, and this crowd is quite good at giant logic puzzles. my group is pretty sweet at them.
at some point in the afternoon it starts to rain. i’m wearing my spirit week t-shirt from freshman year, the one that has peter pan on the back — “second star to the right and straight on to victory” — and carpenter jeans. melissa, noticing that i am unprepared for the weather, pulls off the sweatshirt she has on over her clothes and offers it to me. i accept it slowly, completely befuddled. she needs this just as much as i do, i think to myself; why is she giving this to me? it is a small gesture, but it is the first time i’ve ever seen the love of Jesus in action, and it is so revolutionary to me and my cynical worldview that i can’t wrap my mind around it.
at the end of the afternoon, after all the games are done and i have returned the sweatshirt to melissa, everyone is hanging out around the cars. the dirt roads are muddy from the rain. i am a little more comfortable than i was in the morning, but not a whole lot. terry and jimmy, another chinese school/mys face, have a conversation about 89X. i have opinions but am too shy to voice them, or maybe i do and then worry that i’ve butted in. someone thinks that cindy is a year younger than us, but actually she is the same year, and she makes a pseudo-irritated comment about looking so young. these people are not so weird, i realize.
we drive back to the church, i sit on the curb and wait for my ride and chat with a few people, and i go home. it’s been a good day, much better than i expected.
a few weeks later, yt will ask me if i want to come back again. i will thankfully accept, because i really want to but don’t have the courage to ask. the week i return, everyone will remember my name. the sermon will again be funny and personal and substantial and relevant, all at the same time. i will go to wendy’s for lunch after the service. i will return for a small group that meets in a little room in the back of the sanctuary — gideon’s office, it turns out. the group will be called she-rahs, and vicky will be the leader, and dorothy and cindy will be the two girls there in addition to me and yt. they will be really nice and very sympathetic to the band-aids i have on my elbows from blood that was drawn during the previous week. they will treat me like they’ve known me for years, and i will really, really like them.
because everyone is so friendly, i will keep returning week after week. for several months, every sermon will make me cry. that summer, the pieces will finally come together for me. i will finally understand that i am unable to reach God myself through praying and reading the bible; only he can reach me, and he did that in Jesus and his work on the cross. that missing piece, that Jesus piece, will make everything else make sense to me.
but that day — that day is the pivotal day, the day where everything — my identity, the course of my life and my eternity — shifts.
so to yt, for asking not once but twice: thank you.
to the community who welcomed me in: thank you.
to the God who knew exactly what he was doing for 6 years and infinitely longer: thank you. i am still amazed by your grace.