After more than 12 years of service overseas as a pioneer missionary, I made the transition back to North America. In the midst of that transition, I had an important conversation with one of my leaders in Multiply (formerly MB Mission). He said to me, “For more than a decade you’ve enjoyed a lot of freedom as a missionary. But being back here in North America is to be about restraint.”
Restraint. Limitation. Self-control. Moderation.
After letting it sink in, I replied, “Being a minority person in a white majority world, I have had to practice restraint every day of my life.”
That conversation opened a door in my heart. It was an invitation to explore a difficult reality in my life and to grow in my understanding of who I am as a person of color, especially in the North American context. I’d like to share some of that journey with you now.
My parents are from India, and I grew up in a cultural melting pot in southern California in the 70s and 80s. I had white friends, Hispanic friends, African American friends and Armenian friends. Yet I heard some of the typical comments about being Indian: towel head, camel jockey, raisin, etc.
Indians are all over the world—in Africa, the Middle East and the West. In general, we have always been able to blend in, keep to ourselves, study hard and be successful. Maybe it has to do with being conquered as a country and being under British rule, but we have learned to conform, to posture ourselves to survive. In that capacity, we have become excellent middle people, middle managers and peacekeepers.
As an Indian, I am prone to circular reasoning rather than linear thought. This means that I can talk around and around about a subject and then find my point. To some, it sounds like I am going around in circles (and I am), but in the midst of disparate threads, I see a pattern that I am able to bring together into a conclusion.
However, in the western world, I have learned how to become more linear, to model myself after Pythagorean thought, i.e., A + B = C. I’ve been challenged to bring definition to how I speak, to build a case to my argument, to create a rationale. In some respects, it has made me more persuasive in my speech, but in other ways I have lost story.
I have had to restrain myself, to conform to another way of thinking, because my way seemed to leave certain people lost and disengaged as I tried to bring the various threads of my point together. And so, I mute myself, I stifle myself, until what I feel what I can bring to the table is worth hearing.
Learning from Cleo
There is another aspect to the definition of restraint: a measure or condition that keeps someone or something under control or within limits. As I reflect on my journey, I realize that subconsciously I have allowed myself to be restrained, even chained.
Our family recently got a dog. Her name is Cleo. I’ve had a hard time with training Cleo. We even took her for a dog-training course where they told us that we needed to be trained in order to train our dogs! Apparently, dogs are willing to submit to hierarchy and power, but we need to be ready to show that power.
In his book, The Minority Experience, Adrian Pei writes, “Domestication typically refers to the process by which a person tames an animal.” Pei describes domestication in reference to abuses of power that have been perpetrated against minority people by majority culture to make them fit in. As I read the word “domestication” it hit me like a ton of bricks: Have I been domesticated?
Pei writes about systems that use power and authority to train and subjugate so that people will fit in. The process of domestication is external, but it also has internal effects. Each person can choose whether or not to submit to the process, in order to become a part of a group, to belong.
I’ve struggled with training my dog because in some ways I’ve felt like her. I’ve been wearing a leash. I’ve been told where to go and what to do and how to do it. For Cleo to live with our family, she needs to follow the rules. For things to work out in society, people like me have to exercise some restraint.
However, it is the spiritual implications of the language of power that bother me more. We use words like authority and submission to have people do what we say. We create an atmosphere where following God means to follow that person’s leadership.
Words have power
In the recent conversation with my co-worker, I shared how I have had to restrain myself as a minority in a white majority world. He responded to my comments by saying, “Yes, in a lot of things, marriage being one of them, we have to learn restraint.”
In my mind, my co-worker’s response is what would be termed as a micro-aggression— when something is said to minimize or deflect the point of something that has been said.
Johnny Harris of Vox Media offers another definition of a micro-aggression: “The kinds of remarks, questions or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person’s membership in a group that’s discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently and often without any harm intended, in everyday life.”
I have dealt with micro-aggression my whole life. I have heard comments like these so many times: “Wow, you speak great English,” or “I never even saw your color…” or “You are the whitest Indian I know.”
People need to understand their words have power. Their words can make people of color feel alienated, like strangers, like something “other.”
Adrian Pei writes, “As I read biographies of ethnic minorities and studied history books, the scope of my thinking began to broaden. I discovered certain themes. Self-doubt. Domestication. Weariness. Invisibility.”
Whether Black, indigenous or people of color, we carry the weight of these comments because we carry the weight of representing our culture, our people, our tribe, our race to a majority world.
In the Book of Proverbs, it says, “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint” (28:19). Other versions say, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint.”
Friends, as the people of God, we need a new revelation, a new vision for how we walk with each other and love each other.
My experience as a non-white in North America, even within the church, has been difficult. The color of my skin has often left me feeling far off. Yet I put my hope in the same gospel that is preached by Paul, who writes in Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (2:13-17).
Many sermons have been preached about this, but we need that kind of peace more than ever. We need a vision of a new humanity that breaks down walls, that carries each other’s burdens, that blesses our diversity and brings a true and lasting reconciliation. That doesn’t happen in our power but in the name of Jesus Christ. And it is this same Jesus who comes to us saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my [restraint] upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my [restraint] is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).As I reflect on my journey, I realize that subconsciously I have allowed myself to be restrained, even chained.
Saji Oommen was born in Dallas, grew up in California and moved to Philadelphia to complete his MBA at Eastern University. He worked in inner-city Philly for three years, where he met his wife, Bindu. They relocated to California in 1997 to work with Southeast Asian refugees and attended Butler MB Church. They were called to New Delhi, India, with MB Mission (now Multiply) in 2005 where they started Red Moon Bakery. In 2010, Multiply invited them to Turkey where they worked for seven years and started Building Leaders 4 Peace (www.bl4p.com). He is currently on the leadership team with Multiply as the director of Global Catalysts. The Oommens live in Lynden, Washington, where they host a house church and are involved in Good News Fellowship in Ferndale. The couple has four children and a golden retriever named Cleo.