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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

Passing in the Church: Finding Hope for our Future

(published in The Presbyterian Outlook in February of 2024)


“You know, he supports Hamas.”


The conversation was overheard by our church’s administrator in the hallway. It was patently false — a hurtful accusation after I led a program about the Israel/Palestine conflict following the Oct. 7 Hamas — at the request of church program leaders. As an Arab American, this wasn’t the first time I experienced racism in the church.

Like most pastors who encounter discrimination, I do my best to genially accept it, express boundaries, and use it as an opportunity for gently guided growth as an act of service and love. While universal anti-racism work was recommended by the 224th General Assembly, we all know the work mandates our denomination’s ongoing commitment.

As an Arab American, this wasn’t the first time I experienced racism in the church.

Many Arab Americans – especially people with parents from Lebanon like me – fit into a strange little pocket of America. We can pass as White but are reminded that our heritage is “other:” “Your dad/mom can’t be from Lebanon, you’re as White as I am!” Since 2001, well-meaning folks have told me that the world would be better off without the “dogs” or “degenerates” of those terrorist countries, not knowing my family was from one of them.

The story of the Lebanese American citizens started as an act of courtroom drama. It begins in 1915 with George Dow, who was from Batroun, a coastal town in what is today Lebanon, though at the time it was called “Syria” as part of the French colonial territory. Dow wanted to be an American citizen but was rejected several times. The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that only “Whites” born in the U.S. could be citizens. An appendix in 1870 allowed for African Americans, but no one else – leaving millions without a pathway to naturalize.


“We call him Robert Downey Jesus” posted by ivanparas on Reddit. Artwork: “Portrait of Jesus” by Jacob Barosin.


Dow ultimately won his case against the state of South Carolina by questioning the courts on Jesus’ race. They said that Jesus was White. Since Dow was from the same place as Jesus, he argued he must also be White. He won the case. Subsequently, “Syrians” (this includes present-day Lebanon, Syria, and parts of Jordan, Iraq, etc.) would be White for the rest of American history.

Thus, the case for my supposed Whiteness was settled before I was born because American courts couldn’t conceive of a Brown-skinned Christ. In the 2020 census, Arab Americans are still considered “White.” And we wonder why so many of our churches display pictures of Caucasian ‘Robert Downey Jesus’!

I know my story isn’t unique. But like others who can pass, I have the privilege of not only closeting my heritage but also of being privy to the sometimes-callous mistakes of beloved congregants and staff.

The case for my supposed Whiteness was settled before I was born because American courts couldn’t conceive of a Brown-skinned Christ.

Kelly Brown Douglas writes in Stand your ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God that American religious racism is a struggle against an insidious formula of thought brokered when Puritans aligned their faith to their Anglo-Saxon “roots,” their Whiteness. As a country, as a religion, we’re still fighting against this entrenched association.

I acknowledge there is work to do. Yet I do not lose heart. The church gives me reason to hope. Alongside inevitable prejudices, I also experience people’s loving willingness to change, learn and grow. There are more allies than bigots. The church where I work has celebrated my family’s history, delighting in our foods especially! I hear stories from peers about how their congregants are committed to hearing narratives that the church previously buried. Now, when I brush up against comments about “the Arabs” or the “violence of ‘those’ people,” I know that it is an opportunity to invite someone to walk into a better way of life.

I am grateful that the story of the overheard comment in the church hallway has a caring resolution. Many similar narratives do not. In this story, the comment in the hallway was disavowed by church leadership. They recognized my Israel/Palestine program was not a personal agenda but a response to a request that came from church members because they believe the church is a place to offer reliable and loving truth. The session and I continue to make open paths for apology and reconciliation. That’s the real desire. Not to punish or ostracize.

If Christians cannot come to recognize and value the diversity that Christ brazenly embraced in the face of division, then our White-washed history and perspective on the world will continue to harm. It is a hard path.

If Christians cannot come to recognize and value the diversity that Christ brazenly embraced in the face of division, then our White-washed history and perspective on the world will continue to harm.

When I experience a bigoted attack, it would be easier to say nothing. To shrug it off. For our sessions, it would be simpler to not get involved. To not make trouble. I am grateful that we chose to confront the comment. To reveal the hurt. To recommit ourselves to working for God’s justice. If we, all of us, can continue to choose the harder path together, then the beauty that God places in us is unlimited.

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