Intertwined Identities, Hospitality, and Belonging

Intertwined Identities, Hospitality, and Belonging

Something I’ve been wrestling with in the last few years is the complexity of being a perpetual stranger in the country that has been my home away from home. I have lived in the United States for 17 years! Yet I still feel like a stranger in the place where I have forged most of my adult life. I have attended graduate school here, I work, pay taxes, and vote here, I serve the church here. But somehow, that feeling of otherness, of never belonging, does not go away. Why is that? 


The perils of navigating intertwined identities in a culture that loves labels

I am Puerto Rican. That means that my body tells the story of colonization and slavery, that through my veins runs the blood of our native Taínos, Spaniards, and African slaves. It also tells the story of a resilient people who have lived through hurricanes, earthquakes, neglect, and disenfranchisement, but are still standing and working for a better future. My body narrates the story of the Puerto Rican diaspora scattered throughout the U.S.A. while fiercely fighting to hold on to our roots. My body speaks of teachers, engineers, nurses, doctors, and many other professionals who train in Puerto Rico, but feel the need to move to the U.S.A. to find employment opportunities. My body speaks of people en la lucha (in the fight) who would rather die than give up.

Somehow, all of that has to fit in neat categories and boxes upon arrival to the U.S.A. How does one box a story? I loath filling out government forms that ask me to identify as Native American, Alaska Native, Hawaiian, Asian, African American or White. Since I don’t fit any boxes, I often leave it blank. Whenever I find a box that says Puerto Rican, I often breathe a sigh of relief albeit tainted by the sadness that comes with the realization that someone finally managed to make me check a box. With every box I check (whenever I do check them) that feeling of otherness, of not belonging, floods my soul.

Navigating through the labels people assign to us is a confusing and exhausting endeavor. Those of us who walk through that on a daily basis, often feel the need to add many footnotes to each label in order to capture the nuance of who we are. How do we navigate this constant sense of otherness? How do we figure out how to be in spaces where we are perpetual strangers? How do we manage this tension? 


The solidarity of Jesus with those who do not belong

The Four Chapter Gallery hosted an exhibit titled, Altars of Reconciliation. In these works of art, indigenous Christian artists wrestle through the tensions of being Native American while professing the faith of the people who invaded their land. One day while on a break, I decided to spend a few minutes studying the art. One work titled Protect Us From Ruin by artist Erin Shaw (Chickasaw-Choctaw) caught my attention. Erin pasted the pictures of three family matriarchs on three individual wooden frames. On each frame there were also other pictures and prints of family documents that spoke of their identity as Native American Christians. Each frame was wrapped in colorful rope, which I interpreted to symbolize the family’s intertwined identities. As I looked through the rope, I noticed that among the documents on the wooden frame Erin had included the words of Jesus, specifically his question to the disciples, “But you, who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)

People were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, this prophet or that prophet, the Nazarene, the Galilean, a blasphemer. Boxes, labels, desperate but failed attempts at explaining the unexplainable. But Jesus wanted to be known for who he truly was by those who walked closely with him. He was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). He was and still is both man and God. The church fought fierce battles in the fourth century against false teachers who questioned either Jesus’ divinity or his humanity. Both are true and essential for God’s salvation plan for humankind. The very salvation of the world rested on the true nature and identity of Jesus Christ! Hence, throughout the centuries, believers around the world have affirmed and recited what the Nicene Creed (A.D. 381) declared about Jesus’ identity. We believe in “…one Lord, Jesus Christ the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made…” Jesus cannot be put in boxes or Enneagram numbers; he cannot be explained away. Likewise, humans who are fashioned in his image cannot be easily boxed or explained away. 

Contemplating Erin’s artwork I realized that the God-Man, Jesus, who lived among us and navigated the liminal spaces of intertwined identities, stands in solidarity with those of us who are far away from home, striving to belong and seeking to be known in the complexity of who we are. No labels, no boxes!  


Toward hospitality and belonging 

What can the church do to welcome those who look and sound different from the majority culture? How can we practice hospitality toward people from different nationalities and ethnicities that walk through our doors? 

Hospitality is an ancient spiritual discipline and Christian practice that may be summarized as welcoming others in the name of Jesus. Since Jesus came to die for people of “every nation, tribe, and tongue,” differences are implicit in the practice of genuine hospitality. Therefore, expecting others to assimilate to our way of doing things for the sake of our own comfort and uniformity is not hospitality. Hospitality is not comfortable! It demands mutual sharing and vulnerability in both good and hard times, joy and suffering, the extraordinary and the mundane, parties and funerals. What does this practically look like?

 I offer some examples of acts of hospitality to foster belonging in our church communities:


1. Learn to spell and pronounce given names correctly 

Names are a key part of someone’s identity. Parents name their children with purpose. Thus, we should make every effort to know someone’s name and address them as such. Whenever we hear someone’s name and immediately ask them if they have a nickname, we are communicating that we have no intention of learning to address them by their proper, given name. If someone doesn’t want to learn your name, do you think they will truly want to know you? Do you think you will truly belong?

At Christ Community we strive to live into our cultural habit, “We remember names.” That includes learning to spell and pronounce people’s names correctly regardless of how unfamiliar and complicated they may sound to us.  


2. Avoid commenting on how well someone speaks English

Whenever we hear a non-native speaker eloquently expressing himself or herself in English and comment, “You speak English so well!” We are communicating our surprise that that person can properly express himself or herself in English and reinforcing the sense of otherness and outsiderness that our sibling in Christ may already be experiencing when walking into a new space.


3. Know that you are not entitled to another person’s story

People that walk into a new space, particularly those of a different ethnicity and background, are often asked to share their stories, all the time, as if we were entitled to them. The constant explaining of oneself is exhausting and repeatedly reinforces the notion that “I am not from here. I do not belong.” Curiosity and inquisitiveness about a new person is understandable, but we must realize that entering into a person’s story is a privilege, not a right. Thus, instead of asking a person, “What’s your story?” or “Where are you from?” say something like this, “I’d love to get to know you better and share my story with you. Would you be able to join me and my family for coffee or dinner?” Vulnerability ought to be a two-way street!     


4. Learn to receive hospitality    

Embrace the truth that we have much to learn from people who are different from us. This includes us entering into their space, sitting at their table, and eating their food. Of course, this will take time and effort to build the relationship to the point you are invited to their home. You will likely need to take the first step in welcoming people into your home. But when they extend the invitation for you and your family to sit at their table, do not reject it, make space for it, and assume a posture of learning. You will be blessed! 

When we learn to welcome people in the name of Jesus, especially those who are wrestling through intertwined identities and a sense of otherness, we grow more and more into what Jesus intended his church to be, namely his family, a place where his children belong.

Serving the Church

Guest Author: Clay Nickel

I was a bit intimidated when approached by our Pastor of Children’s Ministries to contribute an article on serving—I fail a lot in serving and in modeling service. Still, we are fortunate that our whole family has generally embraced service. Enough so, that we have been asked, “How do you get your kids to serve?” Simply, if you want kids who serve, you must serve. If principles are caught and not taught, it must be modeled. So what is the model? The ideas below are not comprehensive, but I hope they serve as launching points.

Do Something

Ever since American churches embraced Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, there has been a widespread movement to find individual purpose, in relationship with God, but also specifically in regard to service. I wholeheartedly agree with the concepts of identifying our spiritual giftedness, personality types, passions, and strengths.

I also wonder if the American church has been inculcated with the concept that unless you find your own true calling, any efforts are wasted or unnecessary. Past experience in service and leadership positions leads me to believe this leaves necessary work undone and even a lack of joy among believers.

Instead, if there is a need, fill it, even if it’s not perceptible as a “true calling.”  Again, my experience is that when I’ve set aside my desires and sacrificially served in areas I don’t particularly care for or feel ill-equipped for, God has honored it, ultimately providing both growth and fulfillment.

As an example, my hope for my own kids is that they achieve their highest and best calling, fully utilizing their unique gifts and abilities. There are also times I just want them to take out the trash, do the dishes, scoop dog doo, or any number of everyday tasks. How is it any different as God’s children? Yes, we should seek to fully utilize our gifts, but sometimes there are less self-actualizing things that need doing. I wonder if God also expects His children to pitch in, with good attitudes. When my kids serve well and without complaining, I want to lavish them with praise and good things, including helping them eventually fulfill interests and unique abilities.

Don’t Forget Hospitality

I value my privacy and the feeling that my home is a sanctum—yes, I’m an introvert. Conversely, my wife loves to be with people. She intentionally makes our home a place where everyone feels welcome, from simple things like always having popsicles in the garage freezer for our kids’ neighborhood friends, to more complex issues like happily accommodating dietary restrictions when others come for a meal or sensitivity to vastly different backgrounds or ideologies of our guests.

I’m grateful for a spouse who stretches me to graciously welcome neighbors, our kids’ friends, and fellow church-goers into our home. Doing so is key to the relational connections that are a bedrock of sharing the gospel and encouraging believers. What’s more, it’s been a blessing, even for an introverted curmudgeon like me.

Embrace a Wider Scope of Service

Our daughter, now 17, is in the midst of selecting a college and, as a byproduct, setting a direction for a career path. More immediately, she is searching for a part time job, which she desires in order to have “fun money” but also for additional savings for upcoming college expenses. It will be imperative to impress upon her that such work is not just about the compensation she’ll receive, but more importantly, it is about the contribution she’ll make to glorify God and in service to her fellow man.

Genesis 1-2 shows we are created in the likeness of God and are commanded to be creative and productive (fruitful), just like our Heavenly Father. He created us for work, not as a means of economic remuneration or status, but as an extension of who we are and how we are made to glorify Him, while also providing value for others.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “cultivate,” aboda, in Gen. 2:15 is translated contextually three different ways throughout the Old Testament: work, service, or worship. Even as members of the workforce, we are called to service and worship in our work. Called to faithfully serve God and our neighbors with our abilities, creativity, and fruitfulness, regardless of the role.

How would the church and our communities look if we all served when needed and where needed, regardless of our personal preferences, as an act of love?

How would society and the workplace change if we all viewed our daily work, whether paid or unpaid, through the lens of contribution instead of compensation, as an act of loving service to others and God-honoring worship?

How could we have impact for generations to come if we modeled this attitude of work/service/worship to our children?


Clay Nickel serves on Christ Community’s Elder Leadership Team. He attends the Olathe Campus with his wife, Sarah, and their three children. This article was previously published in HomeFront magazine, September 2018 edition.