Culture

Race and the Church: Reflections from an Indian pastor

From Good News for Bruised Reeds – Colours of the Kingdom

Pastor Dev Menon, Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church // April 23, 2021, 2:06 pm

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All photos courtesy of Pastor Dev Menon unless otherwise stated.

“I don’t think our church is ready for an Indian senior pastor.”

That was an unsolicited comment made to me one Sunday in church. I assumed that the person who was addressing me was thinking of what had been going on in the political world and decided to extrapolate it to our local church context.

Whatever the reason, it certainly caught me off guard. I laughed it off, but afterwards I could not help feeling rather disturbed…

I remember another occasion – again in church – when I was a teenager. A friend made a racist joke (which I did not register as racist at the time), then looked at me and said: “It’s okay – Dev is basically Chinese right?”

Again, nervous laughter from me…

Regardless of race: Which side of offence are you on?

Growing up ethnically Singaporean, I had no reason to think that I did not belong – this is my country is it not?

Yet at every stage of life, there have been occasions like the ones above. These were moments that made me feel as if I am not the same – moments that highlighted my difference and made me feel that as an other I was merely tolerated rather than embraced.

The nail in the coffin, so to speak, was when I saw the violent reactions that Christian parents (including respected church leaders) had, when their Chinese daughters married Indian men (don’t ask me why that was often the pairing) – godly Christian Singaporean-Indian men, mind you!

The contempt, insults, abuse and anger that arose from those relationships were so visceral that it made me realise that we Indians were not really welcome in this Chinese family of God – not when it mattered anyway.

Years later, I had my own taste of this with some closer friendships and ultimately in my own marriage*.

Pastor Dev with his wife and children.

Strangely, when I lived in London for 10 years, I felt no such rejection. Perhaps it was because London was truly cosmopolitan, with no dominant race or ethnicity (you can hardly find an English person!).

When we are all different, could it be that we all try harder? People were more sensitive to the diversity of backgrounds, cultures, races, languages and Christian traditions.

You had to be, in a church like All Souls Langham Place, because there were 70 nationalities present at any one point of time!

Just to be clear, it was not that every ethnicity had equal influence in shaping the direction of the church. However, when decisions were made, it felt like people were more conscious of “who is in the room”.

The international student ministry was especially primed for this and took effort to explain why we did anything and everything, all the time. It felt a bit exhausting to be honest (and not everyone agreed with the outcome), but one can see why it was important.

When we are all different, could it be that we all try harder?

When I returned to Singapore, it felt both comfortable and familiar – great to be talking in Singlish and acronyms once again! Yet once again there were more of those “you are different” moments.

An example of this was when my church decided to cancel most of the services and ministries during Chinese New Year.

I could understand the logic behind this (most of the congregation would be out visiting), yet what would us non-Chinese do instead? I wondered whether that was a selfish thought.

“But why are we not considered?” I counter-wondered. “It is not like you make any such decisions for any other racial group!”

Pastor Dev preaching a sermon on the compassionate ministry of Jesus. Screenshot taken from a video on Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church’s YouTube page.

One Chinese New Year, surprise, surprise, I was rostered to do the preaching yet again (being the token non-Chinese pastor)! So, this time I took it upon myself to preach about race.

The Scripture text was from Ephesians 2 – with the angle of the sermon going along the lines that Christ has torn down every dividing wall in the church.

Just as there should not be any Jew or Gentile, I remember my first draft concluded that we should be “race-blind” in church. We should all treat each other in the same way, as we are one in Christ.

However, upon further study, I wondered if that was really what the Bible was teaching? Are we all made to be same? That would not fit with my understanding of the Trinitarian God who made the world in all its beautiful diversity.

I changed the conclusion.

In a plate of rojak, every ingredient matters: Thoughts on race and religion

It was not about feeling that you are no different from the crowd. It was about accepting that God has made each of us other – with different races and genders – different backgrounds, abilities and roles to play.

The church is not a place to go greyscale, but the kingdom of God, even to eternity, was destined to be in brilliant colour. How this works out in practice… that I am still trying to discern.

Reflecting personally, I wondered: “Is it okay for me to accept that I am Indian?”

Wow… that was hard to say. It’s still hard to write down.

I am Indian. Why is it hard? Because it highlights my difference – a difference that was (and still is) programmed to be an embarrassment rather than a privilege.

Why did I not like my church’s Chinese New Year plans? Because no one invited me to any celebrations. Shutting down the church implied that I was not part of the family. Not really.

I decided to change that.

Pastor Dev speaking at the book launch of Good News for Bruised Reeds – Colours of the Kingdom. Photo courtesy of Micah Singapore and Graceworks.

Chinese New Year, for my wife and me, has now become a time for us to invite people of other races and church members with no family (or difficult family) to come to our house for what we called Jesus-style reunion dinner – a prelude to that final great reunion dinner hosted by God our Father for all nations at the end of the age. It has become a precious season for us.

When I boiled it down, the race thing to me seems not really about the differences in my skin colour or geographical origins, but about whether I feel like I am part of the family.

Jesus promised us, through baptism, that we are born into a divine household. He has welcomed us wholeheartedly despite our sins.

The more I understood that, the more it hurt when the body of Christ seems to put up a dividing wall and inadvertently withhold certain levels of fellowship and intimacy. It hurts especially to those of us who have always felt like a minority in society.

One Church, many colours: What do we need for true unity?

I am by no means ignorant of how hard it is to integrate people from different backgrounds, but I think it is paramount that every local church makes some effort. I do not mean purposely including people from different races at all leadership levels – that sounds merely like political correctness.

I think it is rather about seeing whom God brings to your church’s door. If they are there, it means Christ has welcomed them, and now He wants you to learn how to do it too.

How do we welcome this person, to feel like he or she is part of the family, while retaining his or her difference? How do we encourage this person to use his or her unique gifts to add a new colour to our current experience of the gospel story?

So… do I feel welcome in my own church? After 40 years? Especially when I am the pastor?

The church is not a place to go greyscale, but the kingdom of God, even to eternity, was destined to be in brilliant colour.

The truth is, I do not really know. I am not sure if it is the church’s fault or my own skewed interpretation of events.

Perhaps that is one of the most dangerous things about this race issue – no matter what others do – you will never feel truly welcome. God help us!

*If you are reading this and going through a similar stressful situation, my wife and I would be happy to meet up with you and walk alongside you as best we can.

Pastor Dev is currently serving as the pastor in charge of discipleship at Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church. He is married to Chene, and they have four young children, Josiah, Jerusha, Tirzah and Jeremiah. 

This story was first published in Good News for Bruised Reeds – Colours of the Kingdom and has been republished by permission. The book is the third volume in the Good News for Bruised Reeds Series by Micah Singapore and Graceworks

THINK + TALK

  1. Think about the people of other races and nationalities that God has brought to your church. What unique gifts and talents do they have?
  2. When making decisions that might affect your ministry/church, how conscious are you of “who is in the room”?
  3. How can you learn to better appreciate and welcome people who are different from you?