Faithfully Podcast 6: Latina Preacher Says ‘Pain’ of Assimilation Influenced Reconciliation Work

Sandra Maria Van Opstal describes herself as “a liturgist and activist who is passionate about mobilizing Christians for reconciliation and justice.”

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Van Opstal recently held a workshop based on principles found in her latest book, The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World, aimed at fostering Christian unity “in a time of unprecedented intercultural exchange.”

“Multicultural worship is an act of solidarity,” Van Opstal told the three dozen or so people in attendance at “The Next Worship Workshop,” organized by the Christian Reformed Church in North America and hosted Saturday, April 30 by Calvary Baptist Church in New York City.

“You don’t need a white theologian and a commentary to understand the book of Ruth. Just ask a Syrian refugee,” she said at another point.

During the three-hour workshop, Van Opstal often referenced the need for churches to be hospitable and for its leaders to be intentional in implementing practices that embrace those who may be on the margins.

Van Opstal, a preacher and pastor at Grace and Peace Community church on Chicago’s West Side, knows what it is like to feel marginalized. She told Faithfully Magazine that certain experiences after moving to a more affluent area of the city as a child of South American immigrants partly influenced the reconciliation work she has been doing for the past 20 years.

In the Q&A that follows, Van Opstal reveals some of those childhood experiences that helped shape her perspectives on reaching out to and embracing the other, and why she believes it is ultimately vital for the Christian church to model genuine unity in diversity.

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FM: One of the things that I stand out to me, you have (on the workshop outline) that “we’re all ethnic” and “there is no ‘normal’” and that “a journey of self-awareness is critical.” Can you briefly describe what you mean by “we’re all ethnic” and “there is no normal”?

Van Opstal: I write in the book it being very important that you understand your own values and your own culture and understanding where you stand. So it’s like if you understand your location, you know how to relate with people that are in a different location. Every single person has a culture, so when I ask the question, I said, ‘Raise your hand if you can see and experience the culture, your own culture in your churches’ and everybody should be raising their hand because everything that we do in worship is located in a particular cultural value.

I think that because white folks have been the dominant group for such a long time in the U.S., they have been the core, kind of…it’s the central and everything else is hyphenated, right? So we have theology and then we have Black theology. We have food, and then we have ethnic food, you know. We have kind of the normal, and then everybody else’s. That could be generational as well as ethnic, but I think now even…I should say especially now, because the demographics are gonna switch in the nation if they haven’t already in your city, if you assume that who you are is normal and everybody else is hyphenated, then you’re gonna start to feel stretched in your experience as a white American. So I think knowing that you have a culture helps you adapt and flex and change for other people. I think that’s why it’s important.

I mean, when my husband and I first got married — he’s a Midwestern white guy, half of his family’s from Poland, but it was like each of us came to marriage with a cooking utensil. He came with a crockpot and I came with a cast iron skillet. So he’s like, ‘Well what’s that for?’ I’m like, ‘For cooking.’ And I said, ‘What’s that for?’ And he’s like, ‘For cooking.’ And I said, ‘That’s for heating natural cheese.’ Because a crockpot is for heating natural cheese and those tiny little hot dogs that you have for the Super Bowl. It’s not for cooking. You cook on the skillet or kind of on a frying pan, because that’s what I saw in my home. So then we realized, well, OK actually you can cook in a crockpot. And he’s like, ‘I’ve never cooked on a cast iron skillet before, so what do you make there?’ I was like, ‘Fajitas, you know beef…’ So we began to understand hat we each thought our reference point was normal. And he began to understand that crockpots are American, peanut butter and jelly is American, the fact that you apologize when you’re late is American, that you plan your vacations ahead of time… So there are things that are cultural and we have those in worship.

FM: So how do you describe the work that you do?

Van Opstal: I tell people that my goal is to help leaders create spaces and atmospheres where people of different ethnicities and cultures and races can come together in unity. And as I described earlier, in acknowledgment and honor of other cultures. So whether it’s in the church or in a small group or even…I do a lot of consulting with Christian universities, it’s like how can you make this a space where especially Latino and black students can come and feel welcome. Like, what would that look like in the classroom? So I think creating spaces and places and atmospheres where people can come with all of themselves and accept people who are different from them, in all of themselves.

FM: What is your particular background, culturally and ethnically? And did it have a hand in how you found yourself in the ministry that you work in?

Van Opstal: My parents both emigrated from South America, so my mother came from Colombia and my father came from Argentina. They came to learn English, to get jobs and to pursue the American dream. I grew up in a home where I only spoke Spanish, I ate beans and rice and steak, because of my dad. When I was about 6, we moved to the suburbs of Chicago and it was an extremely white suburb, socioeconomically more upper class than ourselves. So I think socioeconomically and culturally I experienced dissonance. I experienced overt racism. I experienced kind of hidden, indirect racism. I experienced implicit bias and I kind of knew that if I wanted to be successful in that environment, I needed to fit in and I needed to assimilate and I needed to talk a certain way.

I remember at a very young age my mother telling me, ‘You know, Sandrita, you don’t have to tell anybody that you’re Latino, because your last name is Van Opstal (my father is Dutch-Argentine). Your last name is Van Opstal and nobody will know. And so, you just fit in. I know that a lot of ethnic minority children have that same experience. We were told by our parents to downplay difference, to pay attention, to learn the language. That’s why many Latinos within our generation didn’t learn to speak Spanish because their parents didn’t want them to speak English with an accent so they basically took language away from them so that they would be fully American. I have Asian-American friends whose parents to dress a certain way or be a certain way, who had plastic surgery on their eyes so that they would look a certain way. So that we could fit in because that was the goal. Fitting in, being just like everybody else and assimilating.

So that’s why when I’m in conversation with someone, even if I’m doing something in a corporate environment and someone uses the word ‘assimilation,’ I have a very strong reaction to it because it means I erase all of who I am to make you comfortable, and it creates a lot of pain for me. I think that’s primarily how I got here to this kind of work because I know what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong and try to be like somebody else. And the church should never be like that. God’s people should never be like that because Christianity is a multi-racial, multi-national, multi-lingual, global community. I think that’s why I’m in that.

I became friends basically (with) the one Chinese girl, the one Korean girl, the one black girl, the one Indian girl, and me in this white suburb. I think that’s where I began to not only understand that there’s racism and exclusion, but also enjoy people who are different than me. Because while we all had very different cultures and very different homes, we all had the similar experience of feeling alienated. So I got to have dinner with Indian families and learn what Kimchi was by the time I was 10. I’m a person that really enjoys being with people who are different than me, eating their food, learning from their families, watching people at the grocery store and how they do their shopping and who’s there, and I really enjoy being around other cultures because I think I was kind of propelled into that experience because of the alienation that I had as a young kid. Any chance I get to learn from someone else, I want to know. What’s your experience?

FM: How long have you been doing this work?

Van Opstal: Cross-cultural types of ministry and mission, since 1996. And specifically in the area of worship, for about 15 years.

FM: I noticed that you seemed very knowledgeable (during the workshop)… You were dropping words in other languages and referencing other foods. Is that just a part of your natural curiosity coming up from the experiences you had, or do you make it your priority, because of the work you’re in, to engage other cultures and learn deeply about the foods they enjoy, the music they like?

Van Opstal: I think it’s relational. It’s like you’re hanging out with people and you’re gonna know about the things they about. So you’re gonna ask them what they watch and what they read and they’re gonna share stories with you, and instead of just like nodding my head and pretending I understand, I ask like, ‘What is that exactly? I don’t know what you mean by that.’ ‘Why do you call lunch Sunday dinner,’ you know. So I just learn by asking questions and saying I don’t know but I want to understand. I think it’s a calling. I enjoy it, I like it. I don’t do it because I have to. I do it because I want to. And I think it helps me not only understand and love people more but it helps me love God more.

I don’t understand how people that live in the kind of suffering and brokenness and poverty in the places that I’ve lived for short periods of time, I don’t understand how they can be more patient than I can with the way the world is. They’re calling me to patience. ‘Sandra, don’t hate other Christians because they don’t understand what we’re going through. You need to be patient. God will teach them.’ And I’m like, ‘No! It’s injustice!’ So they are teaching you what it looks like to practice longsuffering and patience in my faith. And I ask how can they be so loving to a broader church community that has ignored them for so long? So I need them. I think the principles come out of my own experience. Reconciliation practice and worship has to have a(n) embodiment of hospitality, like, ‘Man, come here, I want to learn.’ And then of solidarity, like, ‘I’m with you. Your problem is my problem. Your suffering is mine.’

Right now, for example, all of my female African-American friends are blogging about “Lemonade,” and I’m paying attention, right? I don’t fully understand. There’s some connection, but I’m paying attention. I’m saying, ‘Talk to me, tell me your story.’ And then I’m passing their story on to other people like, ‘Oh, you should read this.’ Because their voice needs to be heard. So I just think it’s just a part of being a friend. And it enriches my understanding of who God is and what it means to walk with Him.

FM: I’ve spoken to other reconciliation experts who work specifically in church contexts and they speak about the tension and the difficulties they sometimes face where they have to belabor and belabor the points they want to get across, and there’s this fierce resistance. So what kinds of difficulties or challenges do you have doing the work you do?

Van Opstal: I think the hardest thing is that Christians are so busy being nice that they’re not honest with themselves or with others. I think that’s the number one difficulty. It’s like this kind of… ‘We are all one body. Isn’t that great?’ And I think the reality is… What I try to say is, ‘The reality is that we’re all one body, that is a spiritual reality. But it is not an experienced reality. So yes, I believe you and I are brother and sister but I’m not really feeling the love for you right now the way that you’re acting in your privilege’ or whatever it is, ‘in your ignorance.’ So I think we have to call those things out.

I think that’s what’s hard, is getting people to admit after so many decades of preaching color-blindness and believing that we live in a post-racial society that actually we have issues. Any two people who are different that get together are gonna have problems. Any marriage counselor will tell you that. So why would it be any different with cultures that get together. We just aren’t gonna get along. We just aren’t gonna agree. We should always anticipate differences, which lead to conflict, and conflict isn’t bad. It’s just how you deal with that conflict.

The church is so scared of conflict, it’s so scared of differences that the only thing they can do is continually highlight how awesome it is that all of us are in this room together, even though maybe some of us feel very marginalized in our church experience. I’ve even heard that in the last couple of months as I’ve taught specifically out of the principles of the book (The Next Worship). People are like, ‘Our congregation is really international but we don’t do diverse worship.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, well that’s sad because you’re missing out on the gifts of your congregation. And the hand can’t tell the foot I don’t need you… But you’re basically telling your congregation you don’t need it.’

I think the second thing for me as a woman of color is that I have a hard time knowing how to approach things sometimes because I’m like, ‘I want to reach you. I want you to hear me. I want to make an onramp that is like, honorable to you. So I’m not trying to scare you. But at the same time even in teaching the material and even having the conversations, the manner in which we have the conversation is almost always to serve people of privilege, whether it’s males or white folks or white males. So I’m trying to like, ‘How can I love my brother? How can I make him feel comfortable? How can I make him not feel guilty about who is? Like ‘Who God made you is good. You’re white and male on purpose.’ But I’m constantly like, what kind of tone am I supposed to have. … And I don’t think the answer is a right one all the time, so I even struggle with this even as I talk to other women of color. It’s like, ‘Well, you gotta be true to yourself.’ I’m like, ‘I understand that but there is many parts of who I am so I can also talk softly.’ That doesn’t kill me to do it, if it helps my brother not freak out. I can use big words if he needs me to or I can tone it down. And again, not because I don’t love myself, but because I ultimately want them to be able to hear. So I think that’s hard for me.

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Then sometimes I’m like, ‘No, you have a problem because you have a problem, so I think the Lord is inviting me to just get in your face and tell you exactly that it’s not about you. It’s actually about me. Not me Sandra, but people like me. It’s not about you feeling comfortable. It’s about people who are already on the margins feeling welcomed so get over yourself.’ So I think that’s the hardest thing for me. I mean I’ve had probably even this week four conversations with women of color in their 20s and 30s who are doing this kind of work and saying to them… Them coming to me with like, ‘What should I do in this specific situation?’ I’m like, ‘Well, that’s hard to say, you know. Do you want to be heard?’ And are always just adjusting and assimilating to everyone? I’m pretty much over that. So how do we do it…?

I think those are the hardest things about it. We are always thinking and preparing and intentional about everything we do, and it’s exhausting, you know. I don’t ever walk into a room without thinking ‘Who’s gonna be there? Will they listen to me? Am I going to be heard? Will they respect me? Will they take me seriously? Will I feel alone?’ Especially in the church. As a woman and as a woman of color.

FM: Why especially in the church?

Van Opstal: Because the church doesn’t make it easy for women to be held in places of respect or honor. I mean, I’m a 42-year-old woman who has been doing ministry for over 20 years and I’m treated like ‘that girl that sings.’ Like, ‘Isn’t it that cute girl that sings? Oh, she’s so nice.’ You know, ‘Hi, dear.’ And I mean I know I look young, but, um, I’m like, ‘No, I have an M.Div., you know. I’m a pastor. You can call me Pastor Sandra, that’s what you can call me.’ I don’t really care frankly. The youth in my church call me ‘hey you.’ But I care if the 23-year-old male in the room is being called ‘Pastor Phil’ and I’m being called ‘Sandra.’ As someone who’s credentialed, as someone who’s experienced, as someone who’s older, which in my culture matters. So why is the 23-year-old youth pastor who doesn’t have a degree, who doesn’t have experience, hasn’t had to go through all the mistakes that I’ve already made, why is he being given that title but people are calling me ‘Sandra.’

So in those kinds of cases, it’s very clear that men are awarded more respect in the church. Even churches that theologically believe women should be in places of leadership, in egalitarian spaces that actually I’ve experienced the same level of disrespect, more indirectly but it’s definitely there. I’m not preferred when that trip needs to be taken because God forbid that a male pastor would take a female pastor to aid him on a trip that he’s taking. That would be inappropriate. So who gets chosen? The younger male gets chosen every time.

FM: One thing I’ve noticed, especially as I have been focusing on race and social justice, that in this space there are a lot of Christians of color trying to speak into these issues. I don’t see a lot of white Christians as active or as forceful or as consistent, and the more I look at things and I experience things and have these conversations, it just dawns on me that actually the burden should be on white folks, white Americans, white Christians. Not to say it’s their problem, but it came out of a white privilege, white supremacist ideology. But when I look around, I don’t see a lot of white Christians pushing as hard. They express genuine remorse, they want to know more, learn more and be active, yet when you look around sometimes, you don’t see them in the forefront.

Van Opsal: It could be a variety of things. It could be if they speak up, it’s at a cost to their own reputation as well as to their own place at the table. Because if they keep saying, ‘Hey, we need to have a diverse team, we need to have diverse speakers, we need to have a diverse leadership, we need to make room at the table for women and ethnic minorities, then that somebody’s gotta give up their seat. And so my experience has been that some of my brothers have literally told me, ‘I’m not ready to give up my chair yet.’ In confession, you know. And I tell that story in the book (The Next Worship) actually as well. It was profound for me because…and I asked, you know, ‘If there’s no more room at the table if there’s only 8 on that committee. Let’s say it’s scarcity, you know, would you be willing to give up your chair for someone else?’ So I think… Make no mistake about it. To bring equality to the kind of inequality that we live in would mean that people would lose. And you’d have to be willing to lose something. So I think that’s one aspect.

Another one I think is, and I know because I have through my friendships and even with my husband in conversation, it’s like sometimes they don’t know when they’re supposed to speak and when they’re not supposed to speak. So it’s like, ‘I want to advocate but I don’t want to replace your voice.’ Because if they do start speaking about ethnic diversity and racial righteousness, and all of a sudden the publisher comes to them and says, ‘Would you write a book on racial privilege and reconciliation and all these things.’ And then, it’s like, ‘OK. So I went through the pain. You and I were friends for five years. You made it so difficult for me to be me and now you’re the expert and you’re writing the book.’ So I think in those experiences they’ve realized maybe they’d even made some mistakes where they’ve become the center. Sometimes they feel a little confused about what are they supposed to do, and so they do nothing, you know.

But there are people. I mean there are folks that are what we would call allies. They’re allies, men of color as well as white men, who have said, ‘I won’t speak at that conference. I know you want my big name and my platform but I won’t speak at that conference if there are not more people of color or women of color at that conference, or women.’ So it’s in their contracts that way. Or, ‘I’m giving…anytime I go to a leadership meeting or a board of some kind, I want to make sure that I’m allowed to have a space to bring the voice of a female friend with me.’ And then maybe even, ‘They should be on your board and not me.’ So I know guys that are doing that. There are folks even in my community that I know who do a lot of blogging and writing and kind of just advocating. Folks like Daniel Hill at River City (Community Church) in Chicago, folks like David Swanson, also in Chicago, at New Community (Covenant Church) Bronzeville, who have said like, ‘We’re gonna make in our thing, to make sure that even when we’re living in our privilege we’re calling it out.’ So you’ll see it in their posts and their tweets trying to make…keep it at the forefront of their cause.

And I think it comes out of relationships. Because they have a mentor, they have a friend, because they’re maybe married. So it’s like for my husband he can’t, it’s not like he can choose if he wants to advocate for women of color. If he wants his wife to live into her calling, he has to do it. And so, he’s for me. My husband once said, he actually asked that question: ‘I don’t really see a lot of people really just sticking it out, even your friends that love you, some of them that have been like ministering to you for a decade, they’re kind of like absent right now. I don’t see them supporting you or advocating you in the ways that they were. It’s kinda like they checked out for a season.’ And he’s like, ‘Do you think that the only way you stay in it is if you’re married? Cause it’s like always there for you. You know, it’s always going to be an issue. And then all of a sudden your children, it resonates with you because your children have to go through things.’ And I just said, ‘I don’t know, you know. That’s a good question.’

But I think it’s those kinds of covenant relationships, whether it be marriage or friendship. It’s like, ‘Why am I always in urban spaces where it’s almost always black and white and Latino advocating for the Asian-American voice?’ Because I spent 15 years loving and serving and leading with Asian Americans. So when someone says Asian Americans don’t have a role in pursuing justice with the rest of us, I’m like, ‘Let me not snap at your right now.’ Because that’s not true. I remember countless car rides with Latino and black brothers and sisters where I’m like, ‘You guys are so foul. I can’t even believe this. You’re doing this to another group of people.’ So it’s because of the love and the covenant that that’s there.

Yeah, I think they’re out there. I think they’re confused. And I think they’re counting the cost right now.

FM: Just two final questions. I think you mentioned in the (workshop) presentation something about also incorporating diversity in the sense of socioeconomic aspects. And you were speaking about worship. When diversifying worship and being welcoming to everyone, how do you incorporate the socioeconomic element?

Van Opstal: One would be, especially for more traditional churches that use hymnals, you’re assuming people read and that they read music. I can’t remember the last time I met someone who reads music. I think at that level, as a preacher, I think…because preaching is a part of the worship experience. Are you quoting C.S. Lewis and even kind of black intellectuals in your preaching? Or are you giving examples and explanations that make sense to the 12-year-old kid who happens to be sitting in the third row, you know? It’s hard. Even for myself. I don’t feel myself to be a very smart person. I’m kind of an average person, you know. I’m not like the big word guys at my seminary, you know. But I find myself needing to work really hard to make it plain. Not to dumb it down, but to make it plain. I think certain forms of preaching and certain kinds of practices are assuming a particular level of education that not everybody will have, and we have to work on.

Sometimes I’m like, ‘I think I did a good job with that.’ And there’s an older gentleman at our church. One time he was talking to me. He was like, ‘Yes, Sandra, I love your preaching! I love your preaching. Every week I learn something. I just love it when you’re up there. I mean, I know sometimes it goes over our heads and blah blah blah.’ I was like [to herself], ‘Oh my gosh. I thought I was good at that, you know.’ Then on Tuesday during food pantry, he came up to me like…he serves in our food pantry, and he said, ‘I told my wife what I said to you and she said I was wrong, I shouldn’t have said that.’ And I told him, ‘No, I needed to hear that. Because here I thought I was doing such a fantastic job you know.’ So I think those kinds of things matter.

How much of your church experience is about instructing and how much of it is about kind of creating a space where people can respond? It would depend on the setting. But I think we assume a certain socioeconomic location when we… Let’s say every time you guys get up for prayer, you lead the whole congregation in prayer like, ‘God, help us because we’re trying to pick the cities that we’re gonna live in after we graduate from college…’ I mean that’s the kind of… I was a part of lots of the kind of younger, very ethnically diverse, very socioeconomically homogeneous churches. So it’s not always about who you’re gonna marry and what job you’re gonna take and what city you’re gonna move in because most of us don’t have a choice. Most of us are gonna go and do security all night at a building and that’s our job.”

FM: Is there anything you want to share, maybe from your book or a message to Christians considering being more hospitable to the context they’re in?

Van Opstal: Ultimately, I do what I do because I believe that the witness of the church is wrapped up in our ability to practice love and unity with one another. It’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake or justice for justice’s sake. It’s about living in the reality of a diverse yet united community that loves one another and serves one another, cares for one another, suffers with one another and rejoices with one another, for the purpose of being a witness in the world around. So if the book of John is true, then it says the main call for the church is to love one another and that the world will know that we are the people of God by the way that we care for one another. And in as much as we don’t care for one another and we work against each other and we benefit from systems that oppress particular groups, we basically tell the world we are not one body.

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