Embodying Sanctuary

Skin.

To learn to be comfortable in one’s skin. To teach our kids—in our families, our youth groups, our churches—to be comfortable in their skin. To teach ourselves how to be comfortable with each others’ skin. Wouldn’t that be an amazing thing?

It took me a while to be comfortable in my skin. I have my moments—hours, days, even weeks and months—when I can’t find the right outfit and wish I could just drape a curtain over my body. Or I am painfully aware of the scars and discoloration all over my legs and arms and the freckles across my nose right below the bags under my eyes. But I am at a point now where I am mostly comfortable with it. I know who I am. I can say I even generally like who I am on the outside and inside. Perhaps it’s maturity and age that has brought me to this acceptance. Likely, it’s exhaustion. I’m too tired to think about it too much.

But when it comes to the young people in my life—my own children as well as the high school and college kids, the young adults and newlyweds and new mothers I encounter in my ministry—I feel a sensitivity towards their fragile psyches and egos. I want them to feel supported. I want them to feel accepted. I want them to feel loved and to love themselves. Every cell and vein and freckle and wrinkle.

Today, I know that such acceptance is achieved, in part, through processes of reflecting upon self—specifically, through exploring how one’s “self” is defined both within an individual framework and also within the context of a community of “others.” By engaging in self-reflection, I have grown to understand how my humanity is expressed and how it is interpreted … not only by the people around me, but also when I look in the mirror. And the truth is that these lessons took a while. I had to learn slowly, over time, that my skin is just one aspect of who I am.

I didn’t come into an awareness of my racialized self until late in college. I didn’t understand that “race” was about more than my skin tone or hair color or eyes until a gay Asian American male friend articulated some of the questions I had begun to struggle with in my mostly-white social groups. I couldn’t figure out what felt so off until he said aloud what I knew to be true: We are outsiders. No matter how much we speak the language, dress in a certain way, assimilate into the culture, succeed or don’t succeed, we don’t belong.

I’ve discovered many other outsiders since then. There are so many outliers who reside on the borders and margins because of their skin or their bodies. In part, their outsider status results from the myriad stories around us that label some bodies acceptable and deem other bodies unworthy, second-class, or expendable.

… outsider status results from the myriad stories around us that label some bodies acceptable and deem other bodies unworthy, second-class, or expendable.

I have listened to stories of picture brides shipped over from the Far East for the sole purpose of offering their lives and bodies to lonely workers from the same countries. I’ve heard the stories about Vincent Chin, who in 1982 was beaten to death by disgruntled autoworkers in Detroit. They saw him as the perfect scapegoat for the loss of their jobs to overseas workers. Vincent wasn’t just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was the wrong skin color and wrong race/ethnicity at the wrong place at the wrong time. And I still remember the profound sadness and anger I felt as a middle schooler during the LA Riots, when Korean businesses were targeted by rioters. These are stories about certain bodies that look like mine. They continue to haunt me.

It’s easy to forget, I guess, that these stories about marginalized, excluded, and violated bodies are profoundly spiritual. Then Easter comes around every year, and we have a whole season to encounter, again and again, stories about the body of the wrongly arrested, tortured, executed, and ultimately risen Lord. Surrounded by so many narratives of physical pain, we tend to to focus on the Resurrection, rather than on a body full of scars and wounds, visible and hidden. We often ignore the strange, miraculous, embodied reality of Jesus’ return, which occurred in skin, in bone and marrow, in the flesh-and-blood.

Bodies matter. Bodies matter so much that Jesus came back in the same body that had been despised, abused and tortured. It’s an incredible picture of solidarity, rather than an embrace of violence. The Easter narrative is a reminder that the exclusion, diminishment, and dehumanization of bodies are still realities in the world, and that “God-With-Us” meant way more than empathy. It was a shared, lived experience.

That embodied, suffering Jesus shapes my continuous reflection about solidarity and hospitality. They go hand-in-hand for me. We express our deep understanding of the reality of suffering through engaging in concrete acts of solidarity and radical hospitality.

In this respect, Mr. Rogers was onto something. In fact, he sounds a lot like Jesus. What does it mean to be a neighbor? It’s deeply and radically embodied—skin and bones, flesh and blood. And it’s about more than simply seeing people as bodies: it’s about us being rooted alongside others (especially those whose lives and bodies are particularly vulnerable) in physical, embodied ways.

Such embodied solidarity is at the heart of the Christian faith. We are called to love the foreigner, the Other, the alien, the stranger, and yes, even those that have been deemed our enemies and hate us. Christianity asks us to not see anyone as a stranger or foreigner or outsider. Every human being is a neighbor.

Lately, I keep going back to the idea of “sanctuary” as an image and space that shapes the work of being neighbor. We live in a time of heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric that fuels bans of people from specific countries and the building of bigger walls. One way to resist is by providing tangible spaces of welcome and refuge.

A friend once told me about being born in a jail cell during the Iranian Revolution in Tehran in 1978, and how his first experience of sanctuary was his mother’s arms. Sanctuary, even its simplest forms, provides warmth and protection. But it is also an active extension of Jesus’ ministry in his earthly life. Guided by love, we move toward a radical hospitality, the kind of hospitality that Jesus embodied and enacted every moment. We are called to offer sanctuary to those whose very bodies are being actively violated. Now, this is not hospitality that involves putting a mint on a guest’s pillow or getting out the special doilies for tea. Rather, it is hospitality that puts our whole life—our flesh-and-blood—on the line.

Certainly, Jesus did this with a compelling zeal and creative brilliance, undoing structures and systems that had stood largely unchallenged for eons. He put his very body on the line and thereby offered the ultimate act of hospitality for all.

Guided by love, we move toward a radical hospitality, the kind of hospitality that Jesus embodied and enacted every moment. We are called to offer sanctuary to those whose very bodies are being actively violated.

When I reflect on this Jesus, I think often of all the ways my immigrant Korean church was a sanctuary for my family, especially to my parents in the early years of our life in the United States. We came in as “traditional” immigrants, taking a pathway to citizenship, but it has taken many years to feel at home; I still struggle with feelings of being displaced and foreign. But I have tender memories of sleeping on the pews early in the mornings as my parents prayed in the sanctuary, of hearing my parents’ easy, sincere laughter in the Fellowship Hall, and of playing hide-and-seek with all the kids in the church—almost as if it were our house. We were able to survive those days because of the strange and wondrous hospitality that offered a radical and generous welcoming of our particular Asian bodies in a new American space.

Certainly, it wasn’t perfect, and how we live out our faith still isn’t perfect. It’s no secret that all of us, and all of our communities, are flawed. Thankfully, we’re not called to be perfect. We’re called to love. More specifically, we’re called to love bodies: to love our own wonderfully-made bodies, and to offer love through them. With these beloved bodies, we can offer sanctuary to the bodies of others.

Image credits:

Cover – Milada Vigerova, No title. November 15, 2015. via Unsplash. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0.

Inside – Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain. Cropped.

Mihee Kim-Kort

Mihee Kim-Kort is a Presbyterian minister, wife to another Presbyterian minister and mother of three. She is the creator of the podcast This Everyday Holy and the author of three books: Making Paper Cranes: Toward an Asian American Feminist TheologyStreams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color, and Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry. Mihee and her family live in Bloomington, IN. Follow her on Twitter @miheekimkort.

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