(Racial) Diversity and Reformed Identity

crayons-crownsI have three nieces, six-year-old twins and a five-year-old, who live in Long Island, NY. Last week, my sister and her husband brought them down to Philadelphia to visit me.

We took them to a local Chinese restaurant where I began to get silly and messed around with them. After all, what good is an uncle who won’t playfully antagonize (..err..terrorize?!) his nieces so as to cause all the people around us to give us dirty looks for making them giggle so loudly?

This particular time, I chose to play with their language sensibilities by teasing them with a Philadelphian accent.

     “Hey Haley, jeet yet?” (in english: did you EAT yet?)

     “Hey Alex, can you pour me a glass of wooder?” (..water)

Ohh…how they howled in consternation!

     “NO UNCLE JOE…it’s WAH-TER…with a T!!”

But then it got interesting. I asked them if they liked to color and which color crayon they liked the best. Of course I pronounced ‘crayon’ by saying “crown”, which everyone local knows is proper Philadelphian.

Haley got so mad that she immediately corrected me and grabbed the crayons from my hands. She then said to me, “I’m going to take those crayons and throw them away in the Bok!”

I looked at my sister in confusion and asked her, “What did she say?”

My sister rolled her eyes, stifled a laugh and explained, “She said ‘park.’”

Now, I suppose that I could address so many different questions here. For example, isn’t it a little hilarious that Korean-American kids from Long Island are using a thick New York accent to challenge my “Philadelphian accent” as wrong?

But I’m more interested in how often people don’t notice that they have a language peculiarity like an accent until someone points it out and contrasts it with another accent.

This is one of the reasons why I think a blog like Reformed Margins is so important. Many people don’t really understand the profound effect race can have on any discussion, whether it be about ideological perspectives, traditions or even theology.

Just as the Dutch have a particular slant on Reformed Theology that distinguishes them from Scottish Presbyterians, so do particularities exist in Chinese, Korean or (I imagine) Black expressions of that same tradition. Pointing out those differences actually strengthens those expressions.


If you ask any Psychologist or Therapist, they will tell you that a person’s identity is always discerned via Individuation and Differentiation. In grossly simplistic terms, that just means you figure out who you are by interacting in community with different types of people. In this sense, figuring out who you are NOT (differentiation) is often instrumental in figuring out who you ARE.  Thus being in community with others who are not like you helps you to build a stronger identity/sense of self.

That’s how identity works in people. It’s also how it works with Theological traditions, especially when race is involved.

As I pointed out above, the Reformed Tradition is variegated.  In that sense, no one is ever simply “Reformed.” There is always an adjective before that term (e.g., Dutch Reformed or Feminist Reformed)*. And like my niece in the story above, you won’t really realize it or understand how powerfully that adjective shapes your “Reformed” self until you interact with those not like you.

Finally, let me make one last plea for prioritizing a variegated community when trying to do theology.

Not too long ago, a PhD from Princeton seminary visited our church to do a seminar on Christian education. He said that most churches focus on one of four ways to teach their kids Christianity. In no particular order, churches typically try indoctrinating them through the mind (eg. memorizing Bible verses), connecting with them through Stage sensitive experiences (eg. fun events in children’s ministry), transformational ministries (eg. revivals) and social enculturation (eg. small groups or missions trips). His basic point was that when teaching youth, we should not put our eggs in one basket but instead should use various approaches.

Now this all sounds good. But I think he’s missing a crucial point.

While I agree that we must consider multiple approaches so as to address different concerns, I have found that prioritizing social enculturation (ie. community) consistently puts our ministries in a better position to address them. When people pursue Christianity in community, they learn quicker and more efficiently.

Why is this?

It’s because you do not learn Christianity from sermons or theology books as much you do from being in community with other Christians.  Now admittedly, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. You learn theology from books and/or lectures. You learn life by interacting in this world with persons. Furthermore, the Reformed tradition is not just a theology. It’s also a life and worldview.  And such theological life is always transmitted via Community, a community that the tradition itself tells us is (and should remain) diverse.

As dinner was winding down, I had myself a cup of coffee.

     “What are you drinking Uncle Joe?”

     “I’m drinking a cup of Cwauffee…hehe.”

     “NO UNCLE JOE…it’s COFFEE!!!”

Indeed Haley. It really is ‘coffee.’



*special thanks to Jared Byas

Joe Kim

Joe Kim is the English Ministry pastor at Emmaus Ministries in Bayside, NY. He was born and raised in Levittown, Pa. He has a BA in Music from Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa, Georgia and an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is married to Emii and has a daughter Norah. Joe has been in ministry to various age groups since 2001. He enjoys reading, playing the guitar, eating, sleeping and breathing…in that order.

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