BY OPHELIA HU KINNEY
GENESIS 12: 1-3; ROMANS 4:1-14
My mother told me that she came to the United States with only two suitcases. We stood in her closet, and she put her hands on the thin, long dresses she kept for thirty years, better suited for southern China summers than Chicago winters.
She came in the 1980s following my father, who responded like 300,000 other Chinese emigrants to a new politi-cal reality: though the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, few mainland Chinese could immigrate then due to other restrictions placed on non-European immigration. In 1965, the amended U.S. Immigration and Na-tionality Act removed those restrictions, and in the late 1980s, China and the U.S. established formal diplomatic relations, allowing freer mainland Chinese immigration to the U.S.
My parents came with the most basic English skills and no family but one another, trusting in a land they had never seen. Along with two suitcases, my mother also brought to this country the ways she said “I love you” with-out having to speak: feeding us, teaching us, giving generously of her time and resources, even when we had little.
My parents’ journey to the United States was still easier and kinder than that of the 85,000 individuals who sought asylum in the United States in 2016 or the 54,000 who did so in 2017, almost half of which were children — all of them trusting in a land they had never seen. The story of so many immigrants is the story of mobilized faith.
This was the way of Abram, too, who went in the direction of God’s call. God directed Abram: “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you” (Genesis 12:1-3 CEB). And so Abram and his family left Ur for Canaan — a journey of 600 miles to a land that God would show them.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul draws the early Christians’ attention to their spiritual lineage: “Are we going to find that Abraham is our ancestor on the basis of genealogy? Because if Abraham was made righteous because of his actions, he would have had a reason to brag, but not in front of God. What does the scripture say? Abraham had faith in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Workers’ salaries aren’t credited to them on the basis of an employer’s grace but rather on the basis of what they deserve. But faith is credited as righteousness to those who don’t work, because they have faith in God who makes the ungodly righteous” (Romans 4:1-5 CEB).
But Abram did not live a spotless record of piety. He lived 75 years before he made the spectacular journey that cemented his position as a paragon of faithfulness. His record of faith was secured by neither doubtlessness nor the utterance of the right prayer. He did not have a singular moment of conversion, the Scriptures lead us to be-lieve. Whereas we can mistake faithfulness for the substance of our inner lives divorced from our actions, Abram demonstrates that our faith and actions are inextricable: that faithfulness is our reflex toward the irresistible call of God. Abram demonstrated faith by setting out, inclining his heart for 600 miles toward God’s voice.
I followed in my parents’ footsteps of setting into the unknown by coming out to them when I was a teenager. After many years of conflict, my mother learned to say “I love you” without words again, this time by showing up in my life, giving herself to relationship with my wife and with me. And I learned to lean into the direction of God’s voice: a voice that called me out of the closet and into a life of greater authenticity.
Like Abraham’s agreement to leave Ur for Canaan, the queer sacrament of coming out is a co-mingling of faith and action: faith in God’s promises that we will be blessed, that our names will be respected, that we will be a blessing, and that all the families of the earth will be blessed because of us. Because coming out requires us to move into the unknown, it is a materialization of faith in whatever land may follow.
Not long after the start of his public ministry, Jesus demonstrated a sort of coming-out to his disciples. Matthew’s Gospel told us of the Transfiguration, in which the very human Jesus — who ate and laughed and wept with his friends — also revealed to them his divinity. Jesus then underscored his identity through his communion with the spirits of Moses and Elijah, two spiritual forebears who, like Abraham, demonstrated their faith through their actions. Jesus’ coming-out, like theirs, is an active manifestation of faith. His devotion to God’s call was far more than declaratory; it required a life and death of guided devotion.
Abraham demonstrated his relationship with God not through the sterile utterance of the right words or the mere acceptance of God into his heart. “The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith” (Romans 4:13-14 CEB). Abraham proved the mettle of his faith by posturing himself in the direction of the Spirit. His journey was his declaration.
With the growth of nimble, far-reaching efforts for social change, and with increasing ways for justice-minded Christians to find one another, loud voices against progress have attempted to pit social justice advocacy against faithfulness to the Gospel, as though following Christ could not possibly result in our prayerful efforts to dismantle colonialism and its resulting sins.
But what we learn from Jesus’ example, from the demonstration of asylum speakers and other immigrants, and what we claim as our spiritual inheritance reflected in Abraham, is that faith is not a recitation. Nor is it the right prayer. Faith means committing to the journey. It means coming out, setting out, to a land that God will show you.