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.