Saturday, March 2, 2013


The New York Times did a moving article about the Catholic mission in Nigeria some weeks ago. It's just the kind of thing that fuels my longstanding Catholic-envy. Why is it that the Catholic church doesn't worry about racial and ethnic diversity? (There are more Catholics now in the southern hemisphere than in the northern.) Why is it that the Catholic church can pack working-class people and intellectuals into the same room? What are the mechanisms that ensure that David Tracy and Jean-Luc Marion speak the same spiritual language as the abjectly poor Nigerians who sleep on the church floor (see image)?

Yesterday my Episcopal parish held a very nice dinner for newcomers in one of the parishioner's house. The house was filled with books, American Indian pottery, Victorian photographs, Oriental rugs, handmade ceramic dishes and cups. The guests were friendly and welcoming, many of them were professors from the University of Oregon and many could be overheard talking about their dissertation topics. Ten years ago, I would have found this environment foreign and "other": they would have represented to me the habitat of educated upper middle-class white people. Today, I find this environment familiar. Since my involvement with the Episcopal church in college, I have become as "waspified" as one could as a Taiwanese-American immigrant. Even though I was still the only non-white person at the dinner, this environment is no longer "other" to me; it is a part of me. By participating in it, I feel that my place is ever more secured among educated white people who are also my natural work colleagues (I was one of those university professors at the dinner last night). It also means that my distance from the abjectly poor Nigerians is increasing.

During one of the conversations last night with various people, I briefly mentioned the Anglican church in Nigeria. My interlocutor immediately commented on a well-known fact: "The Nigerian churches are extremely homophobic." Indeed, I wouldn't deny it. But this comment also suggests that the Anglicans and Episcopalians of North America have very different values and priorities than their African brothers and sisters. (Do they consider the Africans brothers and sisters? The Catholics would.) Is the ordination of gays and lesbians the most important issue in a country where, according to the Catholic leaders in Nigeria, the church is only functioning institution, where people have no place to sleep and no access to adequate medical care? While the social advancement of gays and lesbians is a worthwhile cause for middle-class persons living in the northern hemisphere, is "homophobia" enough of a reason to break with the African churches? Should we consent to choose between LGBT brothers and sisters, who resemble us in class and education, and African brothers and sisters who may be homophobic but do not shop for organic vegetables?

The Roman Catholic church is said to be homophobic, misogynist, anti-modern, anti-democratic, patriarchal, etc. In fact, I can even add more adjectives if I wish: corrupt, crypto-pagan, mafia-like, sadomasochistic, perverse. The truth remains that this institution has survived for 2,000 years because, despite all its failings, it is concretely and not simply rhetorically committed to the universal brother- and sister-hood of human beings across race, ethnic and class divides. It has held on to the notion of "We are all one body," excruciatingly as it may be at times. The idea seems to be that it's better to go to hell all together as one big family than to be in heaven as separately saved individuals.

Recently, a completely irreligious young man asked me gleefully, "Hey, I heard that the Episcopal church is not religious at all, it's all about people making social connections with the high powers. That's the way it should be! Maybe I should join!" Needlessly to say, my Catholic-envy only increased.