God Sees the Color of Our Skin - A Letter from Julie Lai

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My sweet friend, 

What’s your name? My name is Julie B. Lai. 

If you asked me in person what the little “B” squished between my first and last name is I might try to change the subject.

It’s Bao Yen. My full name is Julie Bao Yen Lai.

When I was a kid, I lied and told everyone my middle name was Beth. Something more easy to pronounce, something less Asian. 

"For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be less Asian. Less foreign. Less other. So, I hid. I hid any trace of culture."

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be less Asian. Less foreign. Less other. So, I hid.  I hid any trace of culture. My senior year of high school, I realized that I hid and ignored my ethnicity so well, that I forgot I was even intentionally hiding it.  It became a way of life.  

My teacher asked me to write a speech on how my race has impacted my life. And as I reflected on that question, all of the subconscious suppression of my ethnicity came to the light. Every experience of discrimination ceased to be isolated incidents and started to collectively come together. I realized how immensely my insecurity dictated my life and my self-concept.  

With this reflection, it felt like I truly looked at myself in the mirror for the first time. 

There is not one cause to blame for my insecurity. It wasn’t just the boy on the playground who stretched out his eyes and pretended to speak Chinese. 

It wasn’t just the standard of beauty that only included white women. It wasn’t just the professors that continuously called me the names of the only other Asians students in the class.

 It was all of it. It was every experience that reaffirmed my belief that there was something wrong with me because I was Asian. 

This lie continued to reaffirm itself as I started to dive into my faith. I learned discrimination lived both in and out of church walls. However, this time around it was more painful because our Church upholds words like “Universal” “One Body” and “Dignity” whereas the world has no written ideals or values. 

A couple summers ago, the tension between my love for the church and feeling foreign in it began to intensify. I lived in an intentional Catholic Community with 30 other Catholics pursuing holiness together. We loved each other so fiercely and selflessly in every way. Yet when it came to me and a particular part of my identity, I felt like there wasn’t room for me wholly in some of their hearts. They were comfortable loving some parts of me, but not me entirely. 

I recognize it’s ignorance. But the reality is that, even without their knowledge, I felt reduced to my race. I’ve tried ignoring it. I’ve tried to not be “offended.” I’ve tried to always give them the benefit of the doubt. But I realized by doing this I was not calling these people, whom I loved, higher. 

"I’ve tried ignoring it. I’ve tried to not be 'offended.' I’ve tried to always give them the benefit of the doubt. But I realized by doing this I was not calling these people, whom I loved, higher."

During one incident, a girl made a joke about my Asian eyes. At the moment, I think I laughed out of discomfort. But for the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Replaying it. I felt so unseen, ugly, and objectified. I wanted to tell her, “I’m sorry! I didn’t choose to be in this body and if I could change it I would!” I went to the chapel, trying to suppress my hurt. Trying not to stop my tears. Trying to invalidate my experience. 

But in my rambling and chaotic thoughts, I felt His loving gaze pierce me, reminding me of who I am. I realized that the way other people see me is not how the Lord sees me. I am not His second thought. He did not choose a lesser skin color for me. He did not want me to be less Asian. He did not think I was foreign. He did not think I was lesser than anyone else. 

The Lord when He looks at me does not see just see my soul. He sees the little girl who I see when I look in the mirror. He sees me wholly and entirely and is in awe of my beauty.

"The Lord when He looks at me does not see just see my soul. He sees the little girl who I see when I look in the mirror. He sees me wholly and entirely and is in awe of my beauty."

Friend, if you can relate to my story in some way, I am deeply sorry. I’m sorry you’ve been lied to. The truth is that there is always room for you at the table of the Lord. There’s a seat with your name written on it, a seat in which the Father looks at lovingly and achingly when you’re not there. 

I’m endlessly thankful to belong to the Universal Church. I hope you are too. Because when you are in the Church, the Church looks more like Heaven. 

You belong here. You’re needed here. You’re wanted here. There is a place for you. I promise. 

All my love and prayers, 

Julie Bao Yen Lai

"I’m endlessly thankful to belong to the Universal Church. I hope you are too. Because when you are in the Church, the Church looks more like Heaven."

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Photos by Madi Myers-Cook

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

I am a 22-year-old grad learning how to be an adult. I’m studying marriage and family therapy and dream of allowing my love and relationship with Jesus help others love and be in relationship with each other.

I currently live 3 blocks away from the beach in Southern California. And at one point in my life, lived 1 mile away from the Vatican. I dig writing and pretending I know what I’m doing behind a camera. And I am a big advocate for intentional conversations, big open grassy fields, iced coffee, and dancing badly.

As millennial Catholic women in America, how do you think we can we be more compassionate and welcoming to those in our communities who are of a minority race? 

I think the answer is found in the words “radical hospitality” and “dignity.” I think minorities can often feel unseen and foreign in certain spaces, so reminding them that you see them and they belong by our actions go a long way. In St. Benedict's religious order, their rule of Life states, “Greet guests with all humility, with the head bowed down or the whole body prostrate on the ground, adoring Christ in them.” We have to treat every person that walks in our church with the understanding that Christ is in them. We have to mentally genuflect at each person’s sacredness and welcome everyone in generously, openly, and with joy. 

 

"I think minorities can often feel unseen and foreign in certain spaces, so reminding them that you see them and they belong by our actions go a long way."

 

Why is recognizing the diversity of our Church important? 

The short answer is because God recognizes diversity in our church! I think as Catholics we can sometimes fall under the false notion that God doesn’t see color and we should be colorblind towards each other. I think that’s false. God created us and sees us wholly and entirely— body and soul. If we ignore diversity in our church were ignoring the beauty God created. If we ignore diversity, we’re refusing our hearts the opportunity to expand universally. A good example of God’s heart for this is how in Marian apparitions, Mary racially looks like the people of the community she’s in. She wears their cultural outfits. She speaks their language. She recognizes the beauty of diversity and unafraid to come close to the people she encounters.

 

"I think as Catholics we can sometimes fall under the false notion that God doesn’t see color and we should be colorblind towards each other. I think that’s false. God created us and sees us wholly and entirely— body and soul. If we ignore diversity in our church were ignoring the beauty God created."

 

To the woman who feels like there isn’t a place in the Church for her because of her race — what advice would you lend her?

First of all, I’m sorry. I can’t say sorry enough. Even if I did not directly contribute to it, I am at fault because I am a part of this family. I want to reiterate that you belong in the Church and are needed in the Church. Your presence plays an irreplaceable part in this One Body. With that being said, as your sister in Christ, please do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to be fully alive in Christ.  Do not hide any part of your ethnicity to make others more comfortable. Do not be afraid to call people in the church to higher holiness. Do not be afraid to tell people how they can love you better.

Seek out other women who look like you or might have the same experience in the Church as you. You are not alone. Root yourself in truth and be quick to counter any lie about yourself. You belong in the church. 

 

"Do not hide any part of your ethnicity to make others more comfortable. Do not be afraid to call people in the church to higher holiness. Do not be afraid to tell people how they can love you better."

 

Fill in the blank

My favorite liturgical holiday is…

Divine Mercy Sunday. It’s such an underrated holiday! I love preparing for it by reading “33 Days to Merciful Love” and spending the day rejoicing (possibly sobbing) at reality of God’s infinite mercy. 

The saint I identify with the most is…

Mother Teresa. I love her devotion to seeing Christ in the sacraments and seeing Christ in the poor. 

A favorite quote of mine is…

The entire Litany of Trust. Look it up. Pray it. 

I feel at peace when…

I’m sitting criss-cross the floor of an adoration chapel. 

A current obsession of mine is…

TJ Maxx and Marshall’s. Growing up, I went here all the time with my mom and hated it. And now I buy all my clothes from here. As always, you were right mom. 

 

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