Tapping into the ‘genealogies of the tangible’

Keynoter Dr. Christine Hong urges NEXT Church gathering to look to ‘our great cloud of witnesses who co-conspire with us’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Christine Hong

LOUISVILLE — Picking up on the NEXT Church national gathering theme, “Breaking, Blessing, Building,” Dr. Christine Hong wondered how people will come out of “survival mode” inflicted by the pandemics of coronavirus and racial injustice to rally for a future of blessing and building.

“We are meant for more than just survival,” said Hong, Assistant Professor of Educational Ministry at Columbia Theological Seminary, during her keynote address Saturday morning. “We are meant to flourish, to flourish together … We build and bless by remembering we are not alone. We have one another and we have those who struggled and survived before we took our first breath — our ancestors, our spiritual teachers, our great cloud of witnesses who co-conspire with us.”

That great cloud of witnesses “expects us to remember them and call on them” so they can continue to “witness to us about liberation and freedom. They make it possible for us to be here now.”

Hong called that genealogies of the tangible, and for an illustration she turned to her own arduous efforts to replicate her mother’s traditional Korean cooking while Hong was in seminary.

“I craved my mother’s food,” Hong said, and so she tried to make a Korean stew by following a YouTube tutorial. Her first effort didn’t taste right. “I kept searching for the deep flavors,” Hong said. “Finally, after trial and error, I found it.”

It was flavor, she said, that had been shared through the hands of her mother and grandmother. “It is the ancestors’ pedagogy of love,” she said.

Hong said she and her brother grew up speaking principally Korean. He did not maintain his proficiency, but she became fluent, in part because Korean culture often expects girls to carry on culture and language, she said. Her brother retained some words, including the Korean words for mother and father — and for his favorite foods.

“The relational words are the words he retained, nourishing and nurturing words,” Hong said. Likewise, the “lexicon of liberation and freedom are the relationship tools with which we must build.”

During the twin pandemics, “we have heard the good news of Jesus anew. We have witnessed the ways white supremacy will always, always exonerate itself and deny humanity” to God’s children who are Black, Indigenous, people of color, queer or disabled.

“We have also tasted and seen that God is good,” Hong said. No matter how weary or hopeless we are, we “have inherited what cannot be stolen by empire. It is meant to be passed on so it can be tasted and claimed by all.” It “can only be erased if you choose not to pass it on.”

We are all meant to “co-create and inherit a just world for all, to know the freedom for which our ancestors fought,” Hong said. “You cannot inherit something if you don’t know and don’t believe you are the heir, or if you choose not to claim that inheritance. Strive to believe and know and trust that God will help us with our unbelief.”

“We don’t sweep grief, pain and trauma under the rug. We hold them as we weep,” Hong said as the twin pandemics reach their first anniversary. Some people in the chat section indicated they were weeping even as she spoke. But indeed we are heirs: “The foundation of liberation and freedom has been laid before our time.”

“If you are weary, rest,” Hong advised. “If you are grieving, cry out. If you are wounded, mend. There are those of us who will carry you even from the great beyond, and in the here and now. There are ancestral flavors of peace, liberation and freedom that are meant for you, and you will find them again. They were always meant for you, and for us.”

During a question-and-answer session that followed her address, Hong told another food story, this time from her childhood. As her family was driving through a national forest in Washington state, her grandmother ordered the car be pulled over so the family could pick some roadside weeds. When the children asked why, the grandmother — who’d grown up in a time of scarcity — said the plants were more vegetable than weed. “They nourished and sustained me,” she said, “and I’m going to make something from them.”

That,” Hong said, “is what the genealogies of the intangible are to me.”

While many of our ancestors are our guides, some are not, Hong said. “Some need to be spoken back to,” Hong said. “Live your life in anticolonial, antiracist ways to speak back to those ancestors who lived badly.” In indigenous Korean religion, the shaman speaks back to the dead. “The dead need the living to understand what went wrong in their life so they can be transformed in the new life. I embrace in a lot of ways how that still speaks to me. We also have spiritual ancestors who can guide us into justice.”

Asked about the return to in-person worship, Hong said she believes things will never be the same. “In white supremacist spaces, they pretend we are rubber band people,” Hong said. “If that nostalgia is what we are yearning for, something is wrong. If your eyes have been opened [during the twin pandemics] you can’t return to unsee what you’ve already seen.”

“It’s a supremacist ideology that says you have to move along from grief very quickly,” Hong said. “People will be glad to be together, but I am holding a lot of sorrow and anger. I need to be with my people to express and share that communal urgency … I’m wary of anybody who says it’s time for celebration. We need to make space for both joy and sorrow.”

She said she often tells her students she thinks they can’t get to freedom by themselves. She quotes Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” And Hong has this standard for safety: “When a Black trans woman can be safe, everybody can be safe.”

“People want to be in the room with people who look like them and think like them. That’s not how change is instigated,” Hong said. “We have to bring people we don’t agree with along.”

“If we desire to return to [our church building] the way we left it, we are going to miss out on what God really wants to celebrate about the things we have learned,” Hong said, “about the wideness of the mercy and love we are about to experience.”

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