Opinion

A Glimpse of Minority Experiences Through Attending a Religious Service

story | Ryan Ma | Staff Writer 

Photo | Google Maps Street View

As a non-religious person, I’ve never been a fan of churches. Don’t get me wrong — I love visiting church buildings, especially when they are historically or architecturally significant. But it’s one thing to amble awestruck through St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City amongst a throng of tourists when mass is not in session. It’s quite another, however, to be sitting in a religious service. As a child, being stuck in the middle of a devotional session had always evoked in me a deep-seated discomfort, a primal feeling that I’m somewhere I’m not supposed to be.

This feeling is clearly illogical. Religious people at services are often incredibly welcoming to outsiders. Plus, many world religions espouse the values of hospitality and non-judgment and view religious buildings as places of refuge for all. So where does my anxiety come from? During the winter break, I had the opportunity to revisit this feeling by attending a church service, and my experience has inspired some hypotheses about what minorities experience in majority-dominated social groups.

Before I go on, I should first make clear that this isn’t one of those condescending articles that go “Living abroad as a Chinese Singaporean taught me what racism felt like”. As a Chinese person, I can’t say for sure whether my experience matches the actual experiences of ethnic or gender minorities. Nor can a single voluntary event compare to what minorities have to go through on a daily basis. What I hope, however, is to offer a useful analogy that might encourage others to imagine themselves in minorities’ shoes.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas last year, a friend invited me to a special Christmas service at her church. I hesitated, but I figured that it’d be fine since I was with a friend. Plus, what’s the point of being a liberal arts student if I can’t even step out of my comfort zone? So I agreed, promising myself to keep an open mind.

The first jolt of alarm hit me shortly after we got off the MRT at Lavender station, when almost everyone on the street said hi to my friend. It turned out that they were all from the church I was about to visit. Later on, when we headed to a nearby mall for lunch, almost half the food court was filled with this church’s members who all seemed to know each other by name. “It’s just today,” my friend reassured me. “There’re a lot of us out here because of the service.” That made sense, but it still felt surreal to realize that everyone on the street was part of a social group that I had never heard about.

As an outsider, I was treated with incredible hospitality, as many of the church’s members surrounded me, eager to answer my questions. Yet, I found it hard to bring up sensitive issues, such as the church’s views on LGBT individuals and the secular world. Critical discussions like this would be easy to hold in secular spaces like Yale-NUS College, but in that religious community, I found myself holding my tongue for fear of offending my hosts.

The church was modern and youth-centric, so the service was conducted like a musical performance. That was bad news for me, as singing and dancing are some of my greatest insecurities. But it was amidst the collective chanting and arm-waving that I noticed what exactly it was about religious services that irked me — the uniformity displayed by a crowd, and the feeling of being out-of-place among people who knew precisely what to do and when to do it.

Yet, as part of Singapore’s Chinese majority, aren’t many of my own behaviors socially shared amongst my demographic? One can imagine that a minority in a group of cisgender Chinese people might find themselves in a similar position, struggling to dance along to unfamiliar cultural memes, social symbols, gestures, and inside jokes. These include seemingly inconsequential habits — like switching to Chinese slang, obsessing over bubble tea, and sharing content from the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group — that bind East Asian communities but may not be relatable to other groups. And we would be completely blind to that, because we are comfortably part of the chanting, arm-waving congregation.

To be fair, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with uniformity; in fact, I think social groups can only form when there is some underlying commonality. While the church was uniform in race and ideology, it was remarkably diverse in class, as its members comprised people of various educational and socio-economic backgrounds. In contrast, while Yale-NUS is an ethnically diverse community, its students are largely uniform in terms of class and educational background. Indeed, we almost take for granted that most of our classmates speak English and studied at an international school.

My point, however, is that minorities will always feel excluded in spaces where they are not privy to socially shared knowledge, even when deliberate effort is made to include them. Can this phenomenon be classified as microaggression? I doubt so. Unlike microaggressions, the effect of this phenomenon isn’t really demeaning or hostile per se; it just constantly reminds the outsider that they do not belong, and that the environment does not accommodate them by default.

This experience brings to mind an earlier encounter with religion, where this effect was even more pronounced. Years ago, my high school classmate invited me to break fast with him at a mosque during Ramadan. As an English-speaking Chinese, I could easily blend into a typical church congregation. But in a mosque, my appearance and inability to speak Malay made me stand out immediately.

Furthermore, the practice of walking barefoot in the compound, praying before the meal, and eating with my hands cut me off from many habits I took for granted. My awkwardness clearly did not go unnoticed, as a man sitting next to us leaned over to my classmate and asked, in Malay, whether I was a “new relative”. But my biggest giveaway, said my friend after the meal, was when I received an offer of food using my left hand — something I didn’t even notice — which is usually considered rude.

Again, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the mosque’s community was extremely welcoming towards me. Yet, if I felt so alienated in such a situation, one can imagine what minorities go through everyday among groups that are much less hospitable, and much harder to escape from. The historian Yuval Noah Harari once wrote that there are more religions in society than just theistic ones. Things like pop culture and secular values can form groups segregated by socially shared knowledge the same way that holy texts do.

Of course, my reflections at best capture only a small dimension of minority experiences. In fact, it is probably more common for minorities to feel ignored rather than excessively attended to. I have also glossed over uglier aspects of minority experience such as overt bigotry and discrimination, which are outside the scope of this article. On a broader level, I hope these insights can help Singapore rethink its sensitivity towards racial, religious, and gender issues. If exclusion and alienation can happen even without any tangible act of hostility, then pointing out the existence of exclusion shouldn’t be perceived as assigning blame to the majority group. This is especially important in Singapore, where frank discussions of ethnic relations seem to have only emerged quite recently. By removing shame and defensiveness from the equation, I hope to enable more vulnerable conversations about group dynamics.

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Ryan Ma

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