Fragments and Front Porches
By Rev. Elizabeth Buffington Nguyen, Leadership Development Associate for Youth and Young Adults of Color.
When I was 24, my father gave me a new name. I was learning Vietnamese in graduate school. The professor required all students who only had an English name to ask their parents to give them a Vietnamese name. My father chose Hien, meaning "gentle."
As a teenager I had yearned to have a Vietnamese name—all of my cousins had one. To me, not having a Vietnamese name was just another way that I was not whole, not authentically Asian, not Vietnamese enough, not worthy of my own family. I was, in theologian Rita Nakashima Brock's words, restless in my longing to belong. Years later, when my father named me as Hien, I didn't feel the simple relief of belonging that I had so craved. Instead I found something more sacred, something expansive, fierce, complex and true: I was born Elizabeth and I am also Hien; I am white and of color, American and Vietnamese.
Anti-oppression and antiracism work for me has always begun with my own identity. It has been the work to excavate my mind from the silt of internalized racism and the oppression of dominant culture. It has also begun with my own spirit, embracing both my yearning for wholeness and my love of this fragmented, multiple identity. In my Unitarian Universalist community faith I find companions, theology, and rituals that honor the fragments of my identities, my halves, my multi, my hyphenation, my two names.
This work is not just about courageously loving myself—it is also about courageously loving my Unitarian Universalist kin as we try to live the Beloved Community of Dr. King's dream. It is about talking with white people about racism, about supporting people of color, Latino and Latina, and multiracial within Unitarian Universalism, about "isms" and power and answering the call of love. It is about having hard conversations with ministers who understand race very differently than I do, creating worship that is multicultural and alive, that resists tokenism and essentializing. It is about shifting resources and facilitating workshops, about sharing experiences of racism and asking questions, about embracing conflict with song and prayer. It is about encountering my own limits, as an ally and an antiracist person of faith. About messing up, and failing, and about asking for forgiveness and beginning again in love.
And it is about celebration—about moments of connection across great difference. Buddhist writer Jack Kornfield writes that in meditation:
Instead of clinging to an inflated, superhuman view of perfection, we learn to allow ourselves the space of kindness. There is a beauty in the ordinary. We invite the heart to sit on the front porch and experience from a place of rest the inevitable comings and goings of emotions and events, the struggles and successes of the world.
I love this image for thinking not just about meditation, but also for talking about race across difference.
When I am in conversation with someone who I think is very different from me, I try to let go of perfection and find that space of kindness. I invite my heart out onto the front porch.