Many international students move to the U.S. to pursue higher education and follow their own American Dreams. I did the same almost 14 years ago to pursue my call into full time ministry. This journey has been multi faceted, as I have not only experienced a culture shock, homesickness and loneliness but also a forced identity as I carried a lot of underrepresented identities in the American Evangelical Church. When I first came at the age of 19, I knew myself as a young girl who was passionately pursuing Christ and on a journey with the Lord, stepping out in faith to follow wherever He lead. The sky was the limit, the world was mine to discover, explore and conquer and America was the best place to do it because I believed it’s where all my dreams would come true. My family sent me with all their hopes, dreams and unconditional love poured into me and with confidence that I was going to change the world. I left hopeful and excited trusting God as I entered the unknown, with full anticipation of what he has in store for me.
What I quickly discovered was that, I not only would experience regular culture shock but for those interacting with me in the U.S, especially in the church, I represented a group of people they’ve isolated themselves from, maybe see less than and are even angry at or afraid of. I discovered to them I was first Black, second a Female, third an Immigrant, and lastly if we got there a Christian. It was an experience that forced me to view myself as “Other” mainly because of the color of my skin seemed to keep getting in the way of me building community and being protected in the body of Christ. It also seemed to prevent people from hearing my story as I told it and not as how they expected it to be.
This “Other” was something I grew to hate, because it felt like the roadblock to being normal and noticed for who I am rather than who people think I should be. I couldn’t escape it, I wore my otherness on the outside therefore when people looked at me that was the only thing they identify with first, whether that was a good thing or bad that’s where most conversations started, it was exhausting and it still is. At the time I didn’t know what I was experiencing was a form of racism and prejudice, and in my naivity I put all the blame on myself. I thought if only I didn’t look different, have an accent or a curly big hair, I would blend in and have friends. I carried the burden of making people feel comfortable around me, when they asked me what my name was I spelled it for them before they asked me to because I knew they would ask and I just wanted to make this getting to know you stage go a little bit faster and easier. I wanted them to skip the out loud recognition of me being black, female, immigrant part and just get to know me, so I did the hard work of making it easier for them. I came up with a shorter version of my story, the kind that was whitewashed that they’d get easily. That way, I didn’t have to explain the nuances they couldn’t conceptualize and exhaust myself.
It was tiring and I didn’t have community to support and affirm me because I was immersed in a monolithic body of Christ that was supposed to be my community but fell short of it’s commision to care for me. I was weak, and in a good place for the enemy to take me out of God’s call for my life, so it’s only by God’s grace I’m here to tell my story. No one could bear this burden with me, so I walked into a season of self hate. I worked hard to assimilate in the areas I could control, like straightening my hair not because I didn’t love my curls but so I could avoid that awkward unsolicited hair touch from a stranger telling me they couldn’t resist. I made sure I got rid of the little accent I had so I wouldn’t be asked where I’m from, what my country looks like, do we have cars, why I’m here, when I’m going back and be painfully reminded of how unwanted I was in this version of “the body”. In college and right after, I successfully assimilated into the majority culture that I started hearing “you’re not really black” a lot, I didn’t take that comment as good or bad at the time because I knew very little about the History of America and what that comment implied. Honestly, I was happy with my ability to disguise my otherness and build relationships that let me be ME right away (an assimilated version of me). We got to skip a lot by me doing all the hard work and making myself “acceptable” so others can see past their prejudices to get to the beautiful story God was writing in my life.
It was such a difficult and soul wrenching reality especially because I grew up affirmed, loved and accepted for all these things I’m now experiencing rejection for, this new found rejection was something I had to bring to the throne of Grace and try to figure out how all of it could bring glory to the one who created me, ordered my steps and positioned me to be where I was. My pastor’s wife at the time used to say “God doesn’t waste our Pain” and I held onto that…I didn’t want this pain to be wasted and trusted that God would give me an answer. In that season, I didn’t have the energy to fight for justice, nor the emotional capital to spend, mainly because my identity was taken from me, now that I look back God allowed it so He could burn up all the false identities I carried with me and rebuild my identity in Christ alone! And to know Him so sweetly, to be comforted by Him, to know my rightful place in His Kingdom, I’d do it allover again. Back then though, I decided to assimilate to what was around me and ask the questions only God could answer. Why do you let me suffer in the hands of my own siblings?
Through all the confusion and imperfect paths before me God still continued to draw me close to Him, His supernatural provisions continued and I grew in my walk with Him. When I graduated college, I was given the opportunity for a Teaching Assistantship scholarship to do my Masters BUT because I had spent what was meant to be my precious, young and fun years fighting something I didn’t understand I didn’t have the energy to spend another day in a small town where my otherness was magnified so I sacrificed the opportunity for my sanity and moved to the most diverse city where I would find the largest Ethiopian community, and that was D.C. For someone who left her country to pursue higher education leaving this amazing opportunity to not only further my education but also to gain a teaching experience was very painful and a true sacrifice. I still hurt over that loss but I knew I had to preserve myself and my sanity before I could pursue my dream. When People of color talk about their experience in the Church there are real wounds that are attached to their emotions. It’s not theoretical for us, it’s personal, it’s shaped our lives, made us choose what we don’t want for the sake of our survival.
In D.C. I attended an Ethiopian Church for 2 years before the Lord called me into full time ministry in the American Church. I remember wrestling this decision and asking God to change His mind, but He specifically spoke to me through the book of Jonah and made it clear I needed to stop running so, I chose to listen and obey. I joined a fairly diverse church in the area and got accepted into their ministry internship program where I studied systematic theology, fell involve with reformed thoughts and pursued vocational ministry with like minded and dynamic young leaders. This was where the Lord strategically placed me under amazing leaders who saw me as a daughter of the King first and allowed me to flourish in ministry. I got to serve the most diverse congregation and started embracing my otherness of being black as a gift. Now I could breath a little, and I had role models that looked like me leading the body of Christ and I could see myself in the. I got to sit under them and learn how to excel for the kingdom and the best part of it, not dreading being a trailblazer but seeing it as a unique calling and blessing.
As wonderful as this season was, my second otherness that is being a female in vocational ministry was a road block which prevented me from fully being my outspoken, achiever and challenge loving self at church because there was a part of me that was misunderstood as being rebellious or angry rather than a critical thinker. I grew up debating my dad and uncles because that’s how our oral culture teaches critical thinking and this gift my family and culture gave me became a stumbling block for my American brothers and sisters in Christ who unfortunately defaulted to label me as an “angry black woman”. I was yet to meet an angry black woman in the sense they understood it, so I wondered what that stereotype was all about, and started studying American History. Part of my assimilation story is learning to reign it in a bit so I don’t cause confusion and discomfort for my evangelical brothers. Yet, I have found ways to preserve the greatest gift I have of being an outspoken woman and I intend to keep it and pass it on to my daughter. One thing I know is that God is big enough for my strong opinions and has room for me to debate and He is all knowing, there fore I can ask all the questions I want and He’ll have all the answers to them.
One of my biggest struggles still is being part of a christian culture that lacks a dignifying missional work towards Africans. When I see the typical pictures of a white teen girl holding a snotty black child hung on the walls of many of our outreach ministries, my heart hurts. My people who are warriors and hold the history of early human civilization seen as less than because their financial situation is looked down on as “impoverished” where in reality true poverty exist in the hearts of us who would dare to consider God’s image bearers as our projects and don’t take the time to listen to or learn from them, and we minimize the voices of those who represent them in our midst. My heart aches when I see immigrants being labeled as lazy, poor, beggars, thieves and criminals when in reality we’re the hardest working, family oriented and peaceful citizens. Yet no one tells our story because those with the pens to write it dont have the proximity to us, to hear our stories, to love us as a brother and a sister, to be pastored by us, to be challenged and lead. It’s easier for them to observe us, hypothesize and diagnose a solution for us as if we are lab rats that are there for their experiments, spinning in their wheels and being examined. If they were to ask, they would know that: we can speak, we can lead, we can teach and we can tell our stories. I wish believers would just let God inform their worldview, I wish they would do as His word says and welcome strangers into their homes and neighborhoods and get to know them, if only we could hear each other’s stories, how robust would our faith be, how beautiful our outlook in life and how whole would our picture of God become.
God’s goodness and his redemptive work in my life, has allowed me to discover what it means to be a godly black woman in ministry, He has allowed me the blessing of owning my call to living in the U.S. as my mission field. He is using my otherness to speak for the marginalized that’s not given the pen to write their story themselves. Understanding that in America because of how systemic racism has allowed walls to exist between different skin colors note* not necessarily different cultures, I walk on uncharted waters when I fully and proudly proclaim I’m first a Christian, but I’m also my otherness which is highly misunderstood.
My God is big enough for my otherness and He has made all of my circumstances work beautifully for His glory and it’s ok if you can’t put me in your category because I worship a God who has no bounds and He’s not interested in putting me in one. To Him I am not other, I am exactly who He created me to be, the right skin tone, the right hair, born in the right continent, speaking the right languages, walking the right journey of faith, having the right gender and most importantly carrying the great commission to the right group of people He’s called me to. My otherness informs my views and gives weight to the message of the Gospel I get to share with my neighbors. Most importantly, I get to have the honor of experiencing a fraction of the suffering that makes one cry “come oh Lord, Maranatha”
To those that I meet outside of the U.S. I’m an Ethiopian living in America because they see culture first, but to Americans I’ve found I’m first black, then an immigrant and a woman because unfortunately it’s normal to see otherness first. In this culture where most people are used to seeing only people that look like them everyday at work, in their neighborhoods, their schools and churches, sticking out like a sore thumb is something I’ve gotten semi comfortable with. That’s why I embrace being a bridge builder for the kingdom, working towards racial reconciliation in the church by dismantling white supermacy and how it’s crept into how we carry out the great commission locally and globally. My dream is that the body of christ reflects the whole world he created and not just one part of the body. My father’s word says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” Matthew 5:9 My greatest calling is to be called a daughter of the king and that trumps every nuance. I pray for the church to be filled with peacemakers who are together called sons and daughters of God from every tribe, tongue and nation.