Memories of Racism, Memories of Grace – Princeton Seminary Dining Hall

Very few seminary campuses compare to Princeton Theological Seminary in terms of sheer beauty. Anybody who’s visited the historic institution knows this. In fact, I heard through the grapevine that Miller Chapel was mentioned in Martha Stewart’s list of most beautiful places to get married. I haven’t been able to verify this, but I can easily see how it could very well be true. (The wife and I got hitched there.) Not enough can be said about the architecture, the greens and the surrounding area. The place looks absolutely gorgeous year-round. (Click on pics to see more photos.)

One place that typically gets overlooked in terms of aesthetic appeal is the Mackay Campus Center, especially the dining hall. The picture doesn’t do it justice. The tall, wide windows at the end of the hall let in copious amounts of sunlight and give students excellent views of the changing seasons as they eat, chat and study throughout the year. It also has two levels and massive chandeliers noticeably held up by only three or four large screws. We used to comment that if those things fell, they would kill half of the student population. I have many fond memories of that dining hall.

Unfortunately, it is also in this setting that I had one of my more memorable racist encounters. We don’t normally associate the modern seminary with racism, especially fairly liberal ones like Princeton (though certainly a spectrum of conservatives, moderates, and liberals are represented); however, racism is alive and well even there.

I believe it happened sometime during my first year in seminary. I don’t recall if it was during lunch or dinner, but I remember noticing that one of my good friends was sitting by herself. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but it’s just an observation I remember probably because of the association to the racist encounter. Anyway, she was sitting on the outer fringe of the section where the Korean seminary students always sat—at the tables near the windows, to the right, next to the divider. If you have Korean friends, you know this—wherever there are Korean people, they will congregate. (This is actually typical of most ethnic minorities.) Literally, we sat together at every single meal. We might as well have put up a sign reserving the spot for us. In fact, we used to joke often that this section of the dining hall probably had lower property value because of our presence; actually, I think we were only half-joking as the value of space doesn’t necessarily have to be measured on a monetary scale.

So my friend Sara* was sitting there eating and probably thinking, as seminarians tend to do. (I think the thoughts that most often consume their minds are, “What the heck am I doing in seminary and what am I thinking becoming a pastor!?”) Anyway, I was comfortably settled in the Korean section and was just about to start eating when I noticed a group of about five white students approaching her table. The group had this look of determination that bothered me. They were almost marching to where Sara was sitting. The image that came to mind was that of a pack of wolves descending on its unsuspecting prey. I’m probably not giving my friend enough credit as she’s wholly capable of handling herself, but that’s the image that came to mind as I watched the scene unfold.

I don’t remember if they sat down or if they were standing, but I do remember they looked like they were saying something and Sara looking uncomfortable and shifting in her seat. Immediately, I left my chair, went over to where she was, and sat down next to her. I said, “Hey, Sara.” She replied, “Hey, Kee,” with a look that showed she clearly was not happy about the situation. I then looked at the group of students, and asked firmly, “What’s going on?” A girl in the group stared at me with this look of righteous indignation, condescension and pride. Visibly red (I think steam was coming out of her ears), she piped up, “We’re here to reach out!” She was clearly the leader of this student gang.

When I heard her say this, I almost laughed out loud because at that moment I knew exactly what was going on. This group of supposedly progressive, white students noticed that during every meal, the racist Koreans isolated themselves excluding all the other students from fellowship (which, of course, was untrue). So they wanted to do the noble, sacrificial thing by putting their necks out to integrate with us. Of course, their strategy was to find the most vulnerable looking Korean sitting on the fringe of the “Korean-only” property and let this person know they would not stand for racism in the seminary cafeteria. The thought that crossed my mind was, “Why don’t you come on over a few tables into the heart of the Korean ghetto, and then we’ll see what happens?”

To be fair, the other people in this girl’s group looked very uncomfortable themselves, sheepish even. Most likely they were either forced into thinking this was a good idea only to realize at that moment that it clearly wasn’t or they were afraid of how the Korean community might react seeing that they were only a few tables away (or both). Also, it did look like there was some history between Sara and the students. So, I looked at Sara and asked loud enough so the group could hear, “You gonna be okay?” She replied, “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you later.” With that, I looked at the flushed leader, making sure I communicated she better not do anything stupid (though, it was a little late for that), and went back to my table. I watched carefully until they left.

I know the last two paragraphs were brimming with sarcasm. When I first wrote them, they were actually much worse, but my sensible wife told me to tone it down. I apologize if it was offensive, but I wanted to be true to the thoughts that occurred to me at the time. I have long since forgiven these people. (And I don’t mean that condescendingly, but genuinely.) But this experience did serve to reinforce observations I had made throughout most of my life. Oftentimes, when minorities congregate in the presence of mostly Caucasians, many white folks wonder to themselves, “Why do these people only sit with their own kind?” What gets me is that they fail to realize that they’ve been sitting in their own little, white groups all their lives.

Indeed, psychologically, it’s a fairly difficult thing to notice and to examine the water in which we’ve swum all our lives. Habitual living habits and social constructs that we consider normative do not get scrutinized with the level of rigor we muster when we piece apart the actions of others. Self-awareness is a damn hard thing. We all know this. We’ve seen it in others, we’ve seen it in our selves, and we see it in racism. Part of what it takes to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” is having the ability to recognize what we ourselves are and what we want and extrapolating that into the persons with whom we interact. “Could it be I do the same thing? Could it be they feel the same pain that I do? Could it be that they have hopes and dreams like I do? Could it be they are loved and cherished like I am? Could it be the reason the Koreans didn’t sit in the center of the dining hall is because they didn’t feel comfortable there?”

What’s so powerful about Jesus’ message and life is that they compel us to humanize others. But his message also does far more. It reminds us that the persons with whom we interact are in fact meticulously crafted “souls” made in the very image of the One who lost all things for us. I think humanization and the recovery of the importance of the imago dei as well as understanding the gospel are needed for us to imagine what society on the new earth is really going to be like. And it’s a society that God calls us to start building now. Racism, demonization, dehumanization, tribalism and so on have been sources of horrific suffering throughout human history. And, believe it or not, in the right context, even our “little” racist biases and beliefs can explode into unbridled venom and destruction. I hope we Christians will put in the blood, sweat and tearful prayers to nip the malicious buds wherever we seem them.

Racism, unfortunately, is still systemic and structurally ingrained, even in our institutions of faith, sometimes more so. I’m a bit too tired to write more commentary on this experience, but I think the story pretty much speaks for itself on many different levels.

Though I am probably overestimating the effect this post (and the other racism posts) will have, I do hope it serves to open some of our eyes and hearts just a little bit wider. While people are broken and selfish and gross, they are also, in my opinion, the most beautiful creatures on the planet when we take the time to really “see” them.

Of course, not all the white/Caucasian seminarians were like that group—not by a long shot. In fact, the ones who ate with us regularly and were our closest friends helped me see that in Christ there can truly be “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” (That’s the “memory of grace” portion of the post, by the way. ;p)

*Name has been changed.

[Note: I have decided to do my analysis of the stereotyping phenomenon in the final post of this series. Gives me some more time to read and to process. I hope you guys enjoy the intervening posts in the meantime. There will probably be about three to five more in this series.]

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