I’m honoured to welcome my friend, Mihee Kim-Kort to this little corner of the Internet today. You’ll see why I love Mihee as you read her important essay below – she’s brave, she’s honest, she’s smart and so on – but beyond all of that, there is a realness and authenticity to her that is so needed in the Church. I love to listen to her, to learn from her, to walk alongside of her even from far away.
And as a sidenote, this book project of hers below is a must-read. Mihee is a pilgrim pastor for many reasons – race, age, gender, politics, stage of life, among other reasons – and she is forging a path for many other women to follow.
la vida es la lucha
Coined by our mujerista theologians it literally means, “life is struggle,” or even more simply “to live is to struggle.” Conversely, the flip is true, too – to struggle is to live. The book Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color was first inspired by an African proverb that echoes the sentiment above.
Where streams run uphill, there a woman rules.
The original subtitle was “The Pastoral Identity and Ministry of the Other Clergywomen.” The word other is significant. It conjures up orientalism, exoticism, colonialism, and those felt effects still present today even in the more liberal disciplines and vocations. The history of feminism especially in North America has mostly been narrow and has excluded women of color until fairly recently. But, this isn’t unusual. Much of majority culture has often marginalized groups based on gender, race, economics, orientation, and ability. Still, especially in the church, there continues to be an urgency in working towards reconciliation at all levels, and at the vey least it means making sure there is a space for all voices and experiences.
It is the dynamic but unexpected harmony of streams that “run uphill” that compels me the most. There is struggle in an uphill endeavor, but miracle in its very existence. There is an irrationality about it, as well as a subversive, kingdom-shaking quality. There is something off-putting and hard to swallow but undeniably compelling about it. So, too, it is with the “other” clergywomen and our work and ministry, their calling and community relationships, their voices and their perspectives.
I find myself often being the only one. On most committees or organizations, I am usually the only one. The only woman. The only young person. The only racial “minority.” The only liberal. And most recently, the only mother with young children. It was something I grew accustomed to rather quickly, this being the token fill-in-the-blank.
One of my favorite novels, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, speaks of the struggle of this phenomenon. There’s a telling scene between Samuel and Lee, the Chinese servant who is with the family, about Lee’s (exaggerated) Chinese accent:
Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to
open and deepen until they weren’t foreign any more, but man’s eyes, warm with understanding. Lee chuckled. “It’s more than a convenience,” he said. “It’s even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.”
Samuel showed no sign of having observed any change. “I can understand the first two,” he said thoughtfully, “but the third escapes me.”
Lee said, “I know it’s hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn’t be understood.”
“Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”
“Can that be possible? How do I understand you?”
“That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
Before reading this Steinbeck piece, I could never put my finger on that slow chipping away at my dignity and humanity I often felt each time someone introduced him or herself, and met my response with surprise. “You’re English is so good!” or “How long have you been in this country? You have no accent!” Even the most educated would ask, “Is English your first or second language?” I still struggle with simply glossing over those comments with a smile and nod as if I just received a complimented somehow.
Not everyone has these experiences. And thankfully, I didn’t have only these experiences. But they’re out there and real.
I let myself savor the stories in these pages like a glass of fine water turned into wine from that wedding at Cana. I celebrate, I give thanks, and I am deeply humbled by all the sacrifices and risks made by these writers. These clergywomen were vulnerable. They were transparent. They were genuine. And they were and are trustworthy. These are only glimpses into much more complicated histories and larger narratives. Yet, even these small windows allow us to see the possibilities for real connection and community, a little taste of the kingdom of God and how we experience that in the midst of struggle and surrender, in those places where reconciliation with God, neighbor, and self is rooted in embracing the other.
Being the other is not only a philosophical, social, political, or literary concept. It is a theological image. It speaks of a God of the margins, a God for the oppressed, a God who loves and pursues the stranger. And despite the history behind it and how it traditionally is a negative phenomenon, being the other does not have to be associated with colonial and imperialistic movements or a tool of oppressors or a burden of those who internalize what it means for the oppressed. The language of the other is redeemable but also an instrument for redemption. It speaks of the extreme and miraculous routes God forges to connect to us. It is the other that helps us to see God’s love for us even more. It is when we see and recognize the other in ourselves that we begin to fathom the depths of God’s love for us.
Join us in the struggle not only for voice and validation but for the sake of all lives that are created with dignity and love.
Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort is an ordained Presbyterian minister and mom to 3 under 3 (twins Desmond and Anna, and Oswald now 13 months old). Her current ministry is UKIRK (www.iukirk.com) to college students at Indiana University through the two PCUSA churches in town and collaborating with others on ecumenical community at Fringe Christianity (www.btownfringe.org). She graduated from the University of Colorado-Boulder with a BA in English and Religion, Princeton Theological Seminary with her MDiv and ThM (Religion and Society). She is author of Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology and blogs at Deeper Story, 8asians, Fidelia’s Sisters, and First Day Walking (www.miheekimkort.com)