Here I Am:Faith Stories of Korean American Clergywomen
Grace Ji-Sun Kim
Paperback: Judson Press, 2015
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Reviewed by Pam Kittredge
Whenever stories are told and collected, it is important to ask who is doing the speaking and the collecting. Is it the loudest, most dominant voice–the voice of power–that is heard and accepted as representative of the collective story? What about the voices of the not so powerful? The voices not often heard outside their own community? How are those voices to reach us? Who will listen to and collect those stories?
In Here I Am:Faith Stories of Korean American Clergywomen, editor Grace Ji-Sun Kim does both. As editor, Kim listens. She draws into conversation a rich blend of cultural and theological and strands, then braids them skillfully together and collects them for us.
Kim creates in her collection an accepting space for these women’s stories to be told, heard, and remembered. And while at first glance it may seem that the stories of Korean American clergywomen would find only a tenuous connection to the lives of women of other ethnicities, or to the lives of men, delving into their writings brings instead an almost startling sense of familiarity. Any reader who has ever been an outsider based upon their race, gender, sexual orientation or other identifying characteristic–age or cultural heritage come to mind–will find themselves recognized and ably represented by these writers.
As Neal Presa writes in the “Foreword”,”Christianity is a faith tradition of many stories.”
Christian stories both create the Christian faith, and bind us together in it. But what happens when we don’t find ourselves reflected by the stories of our faith? Not finding ourselves and/or our experience acknowledged and represented in the Christian story, we may feel as if something’s not quite right with us. Perhaps we are less than whole? Not fully accepted by our church? It’s as if a line has been drawn and we are on the wrong side of it!
The stories collected here chronicle this feeling of being on outsider in one’s own faith community, but avoid any stridency in the telling. The writing is thoughtful and provocative, well-crafted and engaging. The essays call us to attention without demanding it. The tone taken by these writers–of exploring together with the reader–allow the words to be read like a conversation between inquiring friends. Each is careful to hear and respond, without overpowering or silencing the other.
In Part 1, “Theological Reflection”, the writers offer us Godly encounters in unexpected places: a child’s nursery, a hospital during conversation about about language preference, an ordination ceremony. Kim’s own essay, “Do you speak English?”is included here. She recounts the ways in which “white European Americans” make assumptions about her based on her appearance. Describing her status as a “foreigner” in her own country leads her to a discussion of the Biblical book of Ezra and the foreign women, driven apart from community in spite of their faithfulness. Kim concludes that her appearance is directly related to the suspicion she often feels from others and results in her own separation.
While I agree that cultural definitions of what is acceptable cause Korean American women to become particularly separate because they look or behave differently, this experience is not exclusive. Women in general are judged on appearance and behavior more often than men are. In addition to appearance and behavior, religion, economic status, class, sexual orientation or age are exclusionary devices impacting both genders.
This book raises the question of why we allow the rules and expectations of others to define us. These clergy women are answering that question by claiming for themselves their rightful place as created in the diversity of God’s image. It is our role, they tell us, to offer grace and mercy–not punishment and exclusion. In the face of difference, we are compelled by our faith to offer acceptance.
The shared pain of being the other is what makes these essays so compelling. Every one of us, at some point in time, has been labeled “not acceptable”–an outsider–by the dominant power structure. Maybe even by our church. It is the universality of this event that calls to the heart of the reader and deeply connects us to these Korean American authors.
The other two sections of the book, “Korean American Theology”and “Korean American Sermons” offer further conversation around identity, faith and belonging. Particularly interesting is the selection by Yena K. Hwang, “words, words, words…and the Word.” A poem based on John 1:1-16, it is compelling both in its unexpected form, and in its insistence that words–what we say about our faith–is a creative act.
Here I Am reminds us that as faithful people, we are bound to one another. All together, we are more common than separate, even in the face of our distinctives.
Finding our way beyond easy tolerance, to a deep level of acceptance of difference, requires our willingness to listen to, and learn from, others. It requires us to have conversations. It takes work, but it is work well worth doing.
This year, as we observe an election cycle filled with hate speech, and mourn a world filled with violence against the “other”, this book is a timely and important resource. These writings remind us what lies beneath observable difference–the desire to be heard and understood that is an integral part of every human person–calls us to a life of care, faith, and love.
While this book will likely not find a wide audience in public libraries, academic libraries, seminaries and women’s studies sections will find this a timely and useful resource.