Featured Artwork: Boyoun Kim
In the Fall of 2010, I found myself giddy beyond belief. My family was getting ready to relocate to Northwest Arkansas, home to Walmart, Tyson, Dillard’s, and the infamous Razorbacks, the flagship university’s mascot. Their football team was electric that year, climbing up in the national rankings to take a top 3 spot. All they had to do was beat LSU at home to have a shot at a national title. Sadly, they lost due to a last-second interception thrown by their star QB, a star whose light would eventually fizzle out in the NFL. I remember watching the game, enveloped with sadness when they lost, but full of glee knowing that my future home state — and university — had a prolific athletics program. Had I known what was to come, I probably would’ve stayed in my home city of Philadelphia.
The move was inspired by my father’s new job. He’d been blessed with the opportunity to work for Walmart as a Program Manager. At the time, I’d already enrolled at Temple University in Philly, where I was pursuing a degree in Criminal Justice. Rather than deal with being reclassified as an out-of-state student as a result of my dad’s work, I decided to make the venture to Arkansas with my entire family. So, in the summer of 2013, we made the twenty-four-hour drive to our new home in Bentonville, AR, loading up a twenty-foot U-Haul instead of flying. The drive was unbearable, partially because of the twenty-four-hour commute, but mostly because I knew I’d miss the place I called home for twenty years.
The very first thing I noticed when we arrived to our new home state was the humidity. Arkansas in the summertime is hot, with air that seems determined to suffocate you, making the heat all the more unbearable. In spite of this, I was impressed with the overabundance of scenic nature; it really is the Natural State. Trees lined the sidewalks in front of our home, the grass was a lush green virtually everywhere I looked, and the air was free from excessive pollution. Plus, the roads were much cleaner than any I’d ever seen in Philadelphia, where, in 2008, close to six billion pounds of trash were collected off of the city streets. You’d be hard-pressed to find six pieces of trash in Northwest Arkansas, or NWA as its commonly referred to. Though different from Philly, I found myself ready and willing to adopt a Southern lifestyle that summer, one chock-full of good vibes, laughter, and hospitality unlike anything I’d seen above the Mason-Dixon line. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
Upon enrolling at the University of Arkansas that Fall, my entire perception of the South was radically transformed for the worst, and it all started at a quaint place called Chi Alpha. Sounds like a sorority, which is why I initially ventured there, but it’s actually a ministry. The building was grand, bigger than most fraternities on the University of Arkansas’ campus. In Arkansas, Greek life comes after God, so this was no feat to laugh at. My first few visits were enough to draw me in; the food, the fellowship, the vast array of beautiful Southern belles, it all appealed to me. Plus, I actually cared about my faith and sought out institutions that would help me build upon what I already knew. What I didn’t know was what would come next.
I was condemned for my interest in interracial dating, specifically with Caucasian women. As an African-American man, I knew that might be problematic, but I never expected the level of scrutiny I experienced from my fellow Chi Alpha members, especially in the 21st century. Things got so intense, the ministry’s leader inserted himself into a relationship I was in, one that lasted for eighteen months, determined to see it fail. Lies were told, gossip was spread, and my self-image took a major hit in the worst way possible. In the end, I found myself bitter, broken, and highly volatile, things that don’t bode well for any ethnic minority who has already experienced their fair share of prejudice mixed with negative and invalidated preconceived notions. It only further drove home the ignorance I experienced and ushered in new stereotypes about my character.
I’ve come to realize that not everyone who calls themselves a man or woman of faith takes it to heart. Some attend religious gatherings more so for the camaraderie than for nearness to a supreme entity, reveling in their interactions with their fellow believers more than with a supreme entity. In Arkansas, the ministries I frequented subscribed to that ideology. My complexion was seen as a hindrance in the eyes of the “majority.” Mistakes I made were more widely criticized than those of my Caucasian counterparts. My passion and zest were misconstrued as aggression and hostility. And my second relationship of fourteen months with another Caucasian female in a different ministry saw its untimely demise due to increased scrutiny from my fellow congregation members. Leaders in the church I attended uttered things to me I never expected to hear, things such as “she’s out of your league” and saw fit to drive a wedge between us. In the end, our relationship failed, not because I didn’t love her. I wanted to marry her. Our relationship failed due to the increased scrutiny that came with her interest in dating an African-American man in the South.
Maybe this is why Christianity has seen a decline as of late. Maybe people are sick of subscribing to a doctrine that fails to account for everyone. Or maybe some of the individuals that call themselves “believers” need to broaden their racial horizons. The irony of believing in a God that cares for all without living that out is beside me, something I’ll never understand. It takes away from the power and influence that a religion like Christianity can have. When Christians don’t act like Christians, it does more harm than good. I personally haven’t lost touch with my faith, just with people who claim to live theirs out while condemning me simply because of the color of my skin. Being a Christian means to be Christ-like. There’s nothing Christ-like about racism.