Finding Authenticity and Belonging in an Asian Church

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

When people discover that I attend a predominantly Korean church, they often respond with an abrupt conversation change or a direct interrogation. Why would a Black woman attend an Asian church?

The simple answer is that just before the pandemic, a pastor I follow on Instagram posted an invitation to attend his cousin’s church plant in Mississauga, Ont. Upon my first visit, I was greeted with such warmth and kindness that I decided to stay. But with space for deeper reflection, there is a more nuanced explanation behind my decision to make a Korean church my home.

I am familiar with the experience of being the only Black person in the room. In my undergraduate psychology program of 150 students, I was one of two Black students. During my first job out of school I was the only Black counsellor in the office. Being the only Black girl came with moments of discomfort, awkwardness, and loneliness. I was more conscious of how I dressed, the way I styled my hair, and how I spoke, fearful of validating negative stereotypes or garnering unwanted attention.

But I could always return to a Black home, church, and friend group where the cultural nuances of my identity were understood and accepted. My Black family and peers became a safe base where I could retreat to process my “only Black person” experiences. They empowered me to pursue my interests and passions, regardless of what rooms they would lead me to.

When the time came for me to leave my family’s church, I did so with the assurance that the Black community that had shaped and nurtured my faith would always be there to support and encourage me. My desire was not to leave the Black church, a community that has shown me the beauty of a vibrant prayer life and unwavering faith, but to find a community that best aligned with my God-given vision for ministry and service. In His wisdom, and perhaps humour, God saw it fit to place me in a community with Asian-Canadian brothers and sisters. Their perspectives have challenged and comforted me in the exact ways I have needed in this season of my life.

A friend from church recently remarked that our congregation is an odd mix of people who have no reason to be friends outside of our common commitment to knowing God more deeply. The gospel has the power to bring about intimate connections and friendships between unlikely people. I love hearing conversations in Korean before and after the worship service. It is a gift when my church family feels safe enough to share about the aspects of their culture that they struggle with, the generational wounds and trauma that bear a culturally specific hue.

My heart is especially moved when I am referred to as eonni, the Korean word women and girls use to refer to an older sister. My brothers and sisters in Christ are more than their ethnicity. They carry unique experiences, opinions, burdens, and stories that defy stereotypes and labels. And yet, it is a sign of a God-ordained intimacy and trust when they choose to share the gifts and burdens of their Korean-ness with me in the ways that feel most authentic to them.

But for all of the good, there are limits to authenticity when I am the only Black girl at a predominantly Asian church. While my peers at church can express themselves in the fullness of their ethnic identity, I sometimes run against a wall that prevents me from doing the same. I miss gospel music and the call and response of the congregation that is a given in most Black churches. I struggle to immerse myself in worship without the sound of hands clapping and tambourines ringing.

When I meet with one of my Nigerian friends for discipleship every few weeks, I freely show up with a headscarf or satin bonnet, knowing that my appearance requires no explanation. The scarf or bonnet is mutually understood as a sign that my hair is protected and ready for bed or that I simply didn’t have the energy to do anything with it. I could attend life group or church meetings with a bonnet and headscarf without fear of judgment or scrutiny. But I would likely be greeted with a comment or question, drawing attention I would rather not receive. I would have to explain something that would automatically be understood with other Black people.

The gospel creates a multi-ethnic family, but it does not erase the messiness of human family dynamics.

I feel loved and cared for by my church community. I feel free to share openly with my church brothers and sisters about my struggles and triumphs, knowing that they will grieve and celebrate with me as one of their own. I also feel that there are parts of myself that cannot be fully known or understood in this community because we have different languages, experiences, and cultures.

These tensions are not created out of intentional acts of exclusion or othering, rather they are a natural result of people from different perspectives trying to do life together. We cannot erase these tensions. Instead, we live with and through them, knowing that God is at work in the process.

Andrea Nwabuike is a Nigerian-Canadian mental health counsellor and writer living in Toronto, Ont. Read more from “Church of many cultures.”