I moved quite a bit growing up. Five moves before high school translated to seven different schools. For a young person, that meant that I wondered a great deal about belonging. Youth tend to do that anyway, but that was complicated in my life not only by the regular moves but also my sense of ethnic identity.
You see, I am Puerto Rican. I lived on that sacred island until I was 9 years old, but even there, I was one of only very few Puerto Ricans in my elementary school. I attended school inside an American military base and so my classmates were the children of soldiers from across the U.S. They spoke English at home, not Spanish. They lived in homes with central air conditioning, a phenomenon I found both fascinating and odd. This sense of being dislocated continued throughout my youth. In our several moves, my sister and I were usually the only Latino/as in the whole school.
In these serial moves, I always wondered if I had a place where I belonged. I knew that my family loved me. I knew I belonged with them, in a warm home where we spoke Spanish and ate plantains and rice and beans. I knew what belonging felt like and what it tasted like. But those markers of belonging evaporated when I walked out my door and went to school. This was my dilemma. I belonged at home but seemingly nowhere else.
My faith had much to say about my dilemma, but my faith also taught me a lie about my identity. The churches where I grew up gave me many gifts, but they also pointed me in one particularly problematic direction. I was taught that in Christ I was just like everyone else, that the ethnic and cultural differences I felt constantly were mere diversions from the true meaning of Christian faith.
And so I was adaptable. I figured out how to blend in so much so that my friends growing up would eventually say, “You know, I don’t even see you as Puerto Rican. You’re just like us. You’re one of us.” As a teenager, I was relieved to finally fit in!
But now I see things differently.
My friends were trying to be generous and welcoming and loving. They wanted me to feel at home, to feel like I had a place where I belonged. But in denying who I was, in denying the language I spoke at home and the food I ate, in denying my culture, they denied a critical part of who God made me to be. In providing me one place to belong, they denied the other places I called home.
Here’s what I wish I would have been taught.
God does not create generic people.
God created me. God created you. God created the languages we speak. God created the cultures where we find meaning. God created our differences. God loves our differences. God does not want us to be the same at all. Your God-given value is in the unique, particular, beautiful way that God created you and you alone. We are not all the same and that’s okay. In fact, God made me and you and everyone else in the world different and beautiful.
Our differences are a gift from God.
God wants us to be different because our differences are reflections of God’s creativity and God’s grace. The Bible teaches us exactly this. During a Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry several years ago, I taught group of youth ministers to turn to Luke-Acts and the letters of Paul to see how the New Testament helps us think theologically about our differences.
But why start with Scripture? It is not because the Bible will provide us a rulebook discerning the importance of our differences or because the Bible can teach us how precisely to grapple with each and every difference we might encounter. Instead, the Bible is a source of imagination for young and not-so-young alike. The Bible helps widen our imaginations about God and neighbor, about others and ourselves.
That is, the Bible will not give us easy answers for the racial and ethnic tensions our communities face today. Nor will Scripture provide a step-by-step guide for multiracial young people struggling with their identities. But what Scripture can do is imagine new possibilities beyond mere tolerance of difference and wholesale denial of the realities of our differences.
It is in that imagination where God makes all things new, even our differences.
The Distillery, Season 1
Eric Barreto is the Frederick and Margaret L. Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. As a Baptist minister, Barreto has pursued scholarship for the sake of the church, and he regularly writes for and teaches in faith communities around the country. He has also been a leader in the Hispanic Theological Initiative Consortium, a national, ecumenical, and inter-constitutional consortium comprised of some of the top seminaries, theological schools, and religion departments in the country. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion.