By the time I was 12 years old, I:
The leaders of the White evangelical church that I attended were delighted by this. My peers elected me as the church youth group president. But most important to the church was that I had a “personal relationship with Christ”. A personal relationship with Christ guaranteed that when I died I would be going to Heaven to join other Christians. And going to Heaven also meant avoiding Hell.
A personal relationship with Christ involved a strict moral code that included praying and reading the Bible daily. I did this “religiously”, partly out of a fear of going to Hell. The religion I learned was a solitary experience. Research indicates that solitary religious experience is common in White Christian churches.
Despite doing everything the church expected, I never felt fully accepted there. It is possible that my isolation in the church was because of discrimination. My Japanese American mother, sister, and I were the only people of color in the church. A large national study indicates that Asian American Christians experience more race-based discrimination than Asian American non-Christians. It is possible that many of the Asian American Christians in the study were in White churches like the one I was in.
As I entered high school, my family gravitated to a mainline Protestant Asian American church. My parents were members of this church before I was born. The emphasis there was on being a part of the church community, which is common in Asian ethnic churches. I immediately felt accepted. I developed lasting friendships in this church.
I suppose some of the people at the evangelical church I left thought I was going to Hell for joining a more liberal church than theirs. And they probably thought my Asian American church friends were going there, too. But my interpersonal relationships became as important as my personal relationship with Christ. Compared to the acceptance I felt at my Asian American church, the lack of acceptance at the White church was a kind of hell.
My uncle, the Rev. Dr. Dickson Kazuo Yagi, captured how relationships are more important than religion. His response to White evangelicals condemning his Buddhist relatives to Hell was: “…why would I want to spend eternity with a bunch of White people that I don’t even know or care about? I’d rather go suffer in Hell with someone I love.”
I didn’t find acceptance in a White church during a critical time of my life. Had I found acceptance there, perhaps my life would have been different. I still might be headed for Heaven. But I’m happy to have exchanged someone else’s definition of a future heaven for the moments of heaven on earth I have experienced in community with people of color.
Ai, A. L., Huang, B., Bjorck, J., & Appel, H. B. (2013). Religious attendance and major depression among Asian Americans from a national database: The mediation of social support. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 5, 78-89. doi: 10.1037/a0030625
Sasaki, J. Y., & Kim, H. S. (2011). At the intersection of culture and religion: A cultural analysis of religion's implications for secondary control and social affiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 401-414. doi: 10.1037/a0021849