I’ve been a member of YAR since its early days (a year ago already!), but have, for various reasons, remained a silent observer until today. I figured it was about time I offered some thoughts, especially as I’ve been so nourished and challenged by so many of your stories, words, thoughts, experiences. This is such a valuable space.
For a bit of an introduction… I find myself at Goshen College, after growing up in another Mennonite hub in Southern Ontario… and I’m the AMIGOS (Mennonite World Conference’s global community of young Anabaptists) representative for Mennonite Church Canada… and I like to think there are some other important things about me, too, but I’ll finish with this: I really like biking. And so this past summer, I was a part of BikeMovement Asia (which has also been mentioned in various earlier posts, and is also fairly well explained at www.bikemovement.org); the reflection below was penned during these days of cycling in late May, 2007.
So I apologise for beginning my posting career with a recycled post, but also hope that these words which grew out of my time in Southeast Asia continue to hold some relevance…
A CONFESSION: BRINGING THE GLOBAL CHURCH CLOSER TO HOME
I just finished reading “Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam” by Vietnamese-American author Andrew X. Pham. This autobiographical novel weaves together tales from his childhood, spent first in Vietnam, then in the United States after his family (affiliated with the Southern government) were forced to flee as refugees when Saigon fell to the Northern Communist forces, with experiences from his recent return to Vietnam. Pham was also travelling by bicycle, from Saigon to Hanoi, on a solitary journey, a quest to rediscover his past in the hopes of finding answers, finding insight into his current struggles, into the dysfunction and pain in which his immigrant family has been so continuously wrapped.
Beautifully written, and an appealing read as we take part in a similar cyclist’s journey, what was perhaps most striking was Pham’s own narrative – the light he shed onto his own struggles to discover self, home, culture, etc., as a Vietnamese-American thrashing about in a sea of not-belonging. To over-generalise (and from an outsider’s position to boot), Pham’s story is apparently one shared by many who arrive in a new hemisphere, new cultural context, new language-region and despite incredible dedication, never feel fully landed, could never “pass” as “American” nor feel comfortable labeling themselves as such. This fragmented existence (and again, I’m not attempting to make any broad claims about the experience of those who immigrate, only trying to share Pham’s story, and some of what it evoked for me…) is then coupled with the reality of not ever being able to go back. As Pham tours through Vietnam, searching out long-lost family members and forgotten friends, he is constantly reminded of his set-apartness, of the ocean, the wealth, the experience, what have you, that separate him at many levels from his Vietnamese National neighbour-relatives. And so “going home” is not in fact going home, either. He is neither “Vietnamese” nor “American” and the label of “Vietnamese-American” leaves him in a hazy place of in-between that is unacknowledged or assumed unnecessary by his peers in both of his semi-communities.
So there it is: Pham’s story in brief. And it’s left me thinking about the lives of these very Vietnamese-Americans whose congregations (along with various other Southeast Asian groups, and various other minority groups) are part of the North American Mennonite church. And I wonder about how this sub-group of churches plays into our understandings about global Anabaptist community. I admit to knowing very little of these churches, having few connections with them (so please, feel free to respond with more information, corrections, your own experiences or reflections). I wonder though if perhaps interactions, community building with these congregations is more difficult in some ways than with churches halfway around the globe; if we expect these congregations to be more “Canadian/American” instead of recognising this in-between, 3rd culture space that Pham illustrates. What is it like to speak from a place like this, trying to function and thrive in a North American setting that does not fully reflect nor make room for you? In a “global church” conversation are we perhaps each speaking from a position or culture more fully our own, more comfortably home? And are we perhaps more prepared to recognise diversity when it is all the way around the world, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, distinctly particular and in concrete, physical ways separate from us? How do we need to think about difference, about being the “global church” within our own conferences and local communities, with those who are our more immediate neighbours, with whom in many ways we have a much more intimate family relationship connection, despite not always knowing how to name and understand these cultural differences closer to home?
…But again, these are only my untested assumptions, perhaps reading too deeply into things, presuming too much about the experience of others… so I’d appreciate your insight… This reflection is largely a confession, too: I’ve recognised how little I know about churches in my own local conference, and regret not knowing more of their stories, more of their names, especially before coming all the way to Asia to “be the global church.”