I remember the day when I fought with God. It was a simple Sunday morning, the day I visited a church in rural Pennsylvania. Being a short brown boy, I walked into the building where bewildered white faces and tall white bodies welcomed me in monotony. I kept walking and sat in the pews under the canopy of a large American flag, its shadows draping over my shoulders like a robe.
There, I listened to their white pastor preach. His voice had the excitement of waterfalls as his words flowed with preciseness and poetic clarity. The pastor was a phenomenal orator who told stories that enthralled the hearts and imaginations of his congregants. But to my shock and horror, he made a confounding statement. Referring to the church and its congregants, he used two words to describe their collective ecclesial identity – two words that I will never forget: “White church.”
My jaw dropped at the sound of the declaration. I looked around and noticed the nodding heads and large smiles of the white congregants that surrounded me. I quickly realized that among the white faces, there stood black and brown bodies. Though there were only a few of them scattered across the sanctuary, they stood out like parrots among ravens. It was hard not to miss or overlook them. But for some reason, despite their prominence, they were doomed to be forgotten due to the dominance of white bodies and the colorblind narrative of this so-called “white church.”
As an immigrant from the Philippines, I often walk into church sanctuaries as one of the very few people of color present and sitting in the pews. Sadly, this is not an isolated experience, but a common one that many sisters and brothers of color share with me. In many ways, this colorblind narrative has been intensified in our parishes through a misuse of the Eucharist, reimagined to erase difference and impose homogeneity at the expense of black and brown bodies.
As Anglicans, we uniquely celebrate and exalt the centrality of the Eucharist in our liturgies. Whenever we do so, we are reminded of the words Christ prayed over us thousands of years ago, “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you” (John 17:21, NLT). Called the unifying sacrament, the Eucharist is a symbol of our at-one-ment with God and with each other. It is our participation in Christ’s prayer and activity to unify his Church, which he accomplishes through his Body and Blood.
However, we know that the contemporary challenges against our Christian desire to unify the Church are only becoming more difficult, particularly during our time of political polarization, Christian nationalism, and racism. But I do believe that God is giving us a new opportunity to heal what is broken, find what is lost, and dismantle all systems of segregation in our churches. Such a rediscovery of true Christian unity all begins at the Eucharistic altar and our re-imagination of what it means to be unified in our diversity as we approach the altar to commune with Christ’s flesh.
A Divided Table?
Indeed, the Eucharist has not always been used to unify the people of God. Throughout history, it has been misused and abused to maintain segregation in our churches and Christian communities. Such schismatic practices even go all the way back to the early church in Corinth, whom St. Paul addressed in his letters. Realizing how the Corinthians neglected the socially and economically marginalized among them, Paul condemned them, saying, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” (1 Cor. 11:20-22). Thus, the segregated conditions and social blindness of our ecclesial spaces are realities many Christians need to reckon with today.
In their book A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed, theologians Mary Fulkerson and Marcia Shoop write that many predominantly white churches in the United States, when celebrating the sacrament, tend to promote a color blindness that dismisses difference as peripheral or invisible to God’s unifying activity in the Eucharist. They write, “Like most white Americans, predominantly white churches claim to be ‘colorblind.’ That is, many predominantly white churches aspire to see all persons, regardless of color, as God’s children” (3). Though the sentiment seems well-meaning, Fulkerson and Shoop argue that a colorblind understanding of Eucharistic union is inadequate to heal the traumas of racialization in our churches and communities. Instead, we must interrogate and critique the colorblind narrative in order to see beyond it, that we may truly celebrate the many, colorful faces that join us in receiving Christ’s flesh from the Table.
In reality, the Eucharist does not erase particularity. It does not impose sameness or uniformity, but cultivates oneness and unity. Oneness at the altar requires us to open our eyes and recognize each other’s ethnic and racial particularities, the differences among us which Christ unifies into the vibrant and colorful community of God’s family. We also ought to recognize the pains we bring with us to the table. In many congregations, parishioners of color suffer due to segregation, racism, gentrification, and whiteness, hoping to be healed, soothed, and comforted by God’s real presence at Christ’s table.
But the question remains: do we truly see them? Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear? Or are we remaining blind to the particularities of the sisters and brothers who surround us at the Table?
Jesus was a local woodworker from Nazareth. Carrying planks of wood to his workbench, he would nail them together and sculpt chairs and tables with his hands. The very breath that gave creation her life became the same breath that dusted furniture and greeted customers. The tables Jesus made became the places where communities formed, where families shared stories and communed with each other.
Even today, Jesus continues to make tables. Every Sunday, the priest raises food and drink, daily bread and wine, for the sustenance of God’s children. But even more than a memory of Christ’s sacrifice, the Eucharist is the welcoming presence of the risen Jesus, who invites the forgotten, the overlooked, and the marginalized of our communities to share stories with him around the dinner table. This table is known as the Eucharistic altar, where the Father meets his children in Christ’s Body and Blood to fill them with his Spirit. The Eucharist is the place where God calls all who are lost to be home with him, that they may be seen and known in the Divine act of healing and restoration.
A Glimpse of Eden
After my lamentable experience at the “white church” in Pennsylvania, I thought all was lost for American parishes. I thought true Christian unity could no longer be attained or grasped amid the racialized structures established upon American soil, which have seemingly found their way into our sanctuaries and Eucharistic liturgies. But one day, I encountered a parish that shifted and transformed my expectations. It was a church which sought to dismantle boundaries, any and every wall of hostility that resulted from race or class, to recover a Eucharistic imagination where everyone belonged. It was an encounter that sought to know, hear, and embrace, not one that desired to overlook, dismiss, or erase. At that altar, I saw the Bride of Christ communing with her Bridegroom with the many colorful faces and bodies that were unified through their one Baptism in the Spirit. Sisters and brothers, these are the kinds of welcoming communities we need to shape, form, and build upon a land that has been cursed historically by segregation and division.
In many ways, the table that Christ sets is a glimpse of the Eden that we all long for. It is a garden where communion with God and neighbor can no longer be devastated by sin or death; a place where life can truly be fruitful and multiply. In our time today, an era ravaged by a pandemic, police brutality against black bodies, and the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, the need to see and hear one another has become all the more vital. More people are becoming lonely and isolated from their communities. These are the very people, the outcasts and marginalized, whom Christ calls us to welcome at the altar – a table that Jesus has already set for us. May we heed that call and participate in the redemptive, unifying work which Christ enacted for all creation to be finally redeemed and restored. May we work towards such unity, a unity that does not erase difference, but celebrates it for the sake of God’s Kingdom to be made manifest in this world – that all may truly belong in the welcome of Christ’s loving embrace.