(Re)visiting my multiple Christian legacies

Welcome to my blog! Ever since starting my first day of my MDiv program at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) last week, I’ve been processing a world of new input and felt the need to publicly document to invite my communities to come along with me on the journey. So, please consider yourself invited to an ongoing conversation with me!

As you can glean from the title, Christianity and many of its expressions and impacts have been top of mind and heart for me. Some of the thrust for going to divinity school was to attempt to reclaim what I feel are the “good” parts of Christianity theology to help me begin to mend spiritually. And whether I like it or not, that means coming face to face with how I come from a legacy of Christianity, both in blood and in my American identity.

I want to bring attention to specific written historical artifacts that I handled recently, which have imprinted me with their significance.

Mamusse wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God naneeswe Nukkone Testament kah wonk Wusku Testament, also referred to as the Eliot Bible, from the archive of Houghton Library at Harvard

This week, in my Intro to Ministry Studies class, we were assigned to small sections to go check out The Eliot Bible, the first Bible ever printed in the US (1663). Our small group descended into the basement level of Houghton Library into a small room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves full of leather-bound books. There were four square tables, with various very old paper documents from the colonial time period spread around. My classmates and I rotated around, poring over them, referencing translations, scribbling notes, gingerly flipping through the pages of cracked tomes propped on supportive foam wedges (yes, we were encouraged to do so!). What is tremendous is that the Eliot Bible is not in English, but in Algonquian, the language of the first peoples of this area whom the colonialists first encountered and then began to convert, dehumanize and exploit. My fingertips lightly passed over typeset text like “ken” “nootamüük” and “wutohtuot,” and also “Jakob” “Genefis” and “Jesus Christ.”

Another document was a handwritten contract on a large sheet of animal skin, whose faded ink was barely legible. From the archives librarian, we learned that it outlined a certain plot of geography that was sold (?) by the Massachusett tribe to the colonial settlement in Boston. At the bottom of it were the signatures of all those involved and their paper seals. As my white classmate next to me tried to decipher the writing, she reeled when she recognized a few names of her ancestors on the paper.

While I do not consider myself completely ignorant about the genocidal rampage of European colonization on the people and geography of Turtle Island and its continued effects on Native communities today, physically handling these original documents collapsed time and space in a way I’ve never experienced before. I felt and feel completely undone and profoundly wracked with grief and anguish for the Algonquin communities decimated by these texts. The written word is a force of utter destruction and violence, as is evidenced here. There were also some things pointing the wrongness of this visit, like why does Harvard get to “own” these documents? Why are there no Native people in the room? Why are all the historians and librarians white? What is my responsibility as a Chinese American trespasser in relation to these documents and what they signify?

What was also difficult for me to face was that (European conceptions of) Christianity played a key role in justifying colonization. What does it mean for me to hold some Christian values and perhaps be ordained in a Christian-adjacent tradition, knowing that colonial, weaponized expressions of this faith have created the unjust society we live in today? And that Native communities are still resisting colonization today and have not as an entire group of peoples received justice and repair? I have never heard it said so succinct before, in Intro to Ministry Studies, that the aim of missionary action is to destroy culture. The leaden weightiness of all of this continues to sink into me.

Last weekend, I returned to my childhood home for the first time since 2019. I was visiting to pay respects to my aunt, who just passed from a four-year battle with cancer. Just a few hours before I had to leave for my flight back to Boston, my dad pulled out two dusty navy-colored slim hardcover books, which he had found while cleaning out my nonagenarian 奶奶’s (paternal grandmother) apartment after she also passed in March. They were the master’s theses of both of my grandparents when they studied at 基督教台湾浸会神学院 (Taiwan Baptist Theological Seminary) in the late 1950s (which is also where my dad grew up).

The title page of my 奶奶’s master thesis. Her name is printed here: 李文忠.

First off, so cool to come into possession of these Lee family artifacts! As an immigrant family with refugee grandparents, very few objects have been passed down to future generations and our stories live on orally. While I am taking a Beginning Chinese for Heritage Speakers class, I haven’t yet begun to relearn how to read Chinese, so I can’t read these theses yet. But I got a clue from the first page that my 奶奶’s thesis is titled “The Pastor’s Wife.” I immediately noticed that she is situating herself in relation to her husband, and not on her own, whether she really believed that or needed to comply with the sexism of the Baptist seminary she attended and taught at. I am filled with curiosity about my 奶奶, because I only knew her in her older years as my quiet grandma who gave us Chinese lessons, knit blankets, folded dumplings. I want to know who she was the sixty years before she became my 奶奶 – how did her faith form and become so unshakable? What was her lived theology? How was she known among the beloved communities she ministered to?

During my process of applying to HDS, I kept stressing to myself and others that I am not Christian, nor am I wanting to further the project of western Christianity, which has irrevocably shaped our world. My partner Bunny has lovingly reminded me that studying a belief system, wanting to know more, is not the same as believing or endorsing it. I hold onto that guidepost and wade in, knowing that self-knowledge can only help me be a better minister to those around me. Here’s to letting that journey begin.

First page of the master’s thesis of my late 奶奶 (paternal grandmother)