I’m sure that many of those who are reading this article now attend Singaporean churches, where everyone speaks Singlish or some variant of Standard Singaporean English.
But where I worship, language barriers often feel like the strongest obstacle against serving with a joyful heart. In my church, I’m the only Singaporean-Chinese. Everyone else is Korean.
The church was set up for Koreans in Singapore looking for a close-knit community where language wasn’t a barrier for them. Naturally, most of them slip in and out of their mother tongue during worship rehearsals, in our private group chats or even face-to-face.
But though I now understand a decent level of conversational Korean, many forget that as much as I want to assimilate, I’m not Korean.
Many of my friends ask me why I choose to serve where I often feel like a foreigner in my own country. After all, they say, this church wasn’t exactly meant to serve Singaporeans.
I didn’t choose this ministry – God chose it for me, and me for it. He placed a burden in my heart to minister to the people around me. They just happened to be Korean.
Still, the first few months here were incredibly difficult. As much as I tried to focus on the ministry at hand, it was stressful to pretend that I wasn’t bothered by everyone else speaking Korean around me. Church is often seen as a place of refuge and comfort, but mine was an isolating experience. I felt excluded in everything.
I interpreted my struggles as testing phase. Maybe God was teaching me something.
Then it dawned upon me, how I felt I was being treated by the Koreans held a mirror up to my own life. I realised that I’d been committing the same crimes of exclusion.
I speak English, Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese fluently, and sometimes interject my conversations with Chinese phrases. It was simply what I was used to: Effectiveness and familiarity. But I was completely unaware doing so automatically excluded the non-Chinese speakers around me.
I took majority privilege for granted, assuming this is everyone’s default mode of communication.
Having to serve as a minority – a rarity for a Singaporean Chinese in Singapore – taught me how “majority privilege” is viewed by those on the receiving end.
It wasn’t just walking in the shoes of a minority group for a day that opened my eyes. It was living, feeling, breathing and understanding the effects of exclusion first-hand, in the place of inclusion. Where I was excluded, I couldn’t experience healing, restoration and support.
One day we will literally worship Him in one tongue, one voice. Meanwhile, we are still One in Christ.
But in the turmoil of cognitive dissonance, Jesus drew my eyes to Him. In my loneliness, He revealed to me my insecurity and need for approval from people. He reminded me that instead of seeking a “home” on earth, my citizenship is in Heaven, and that should be my only focus.
The Apostle Paul had written to the church of Galatia, saying: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
In God’s eyes I’m sure there is no such thing as a Korean church, or an Indian church or an English church or a Chinese church – there is only His church, not bound by the tongue, cultural norms, socio-economical status or denomination.
One day we will literally worship Him in one tongue, one voice. Meanwhile we are still One in Christ: Our common denominator being our unity in our diversity. Unique and different as we are, in Him we all live, move and have our being.
It’s the difference between the Pentecostal tongues of Acts 2:6-7 and the babble of Babel in Genesis 11:6-9. Language and culture were made to reveal the beauty and glory of Jesus in diversity, not to a tool of manipulation, oppression or imperialism.
The differences are not cause for division, but reminders to be sensitive and compassionate in dealing with people different from us.