As a Vietnamese American Muslim engaged in the work of constructive Muslim theology, religion and race are a throughline of my critical inquiry. The present exploration, however, does not take as its starting point a focused exposition on either. Rather, I am approaching religion and race from another vantage: story. I am interested in what stories can disclose and animate. Moreover, the disciplinary lens I employ is that of theology. I understand theology as intimately bound to story, specifically the stories of our lives. If revelation is God’s disclosure to humankind, then theology can be imagined as a reading of our lives lived in response to that divine disclosure. The theologies of response that we develop not only draw upon scriptural narratives, prophetic tales, and storied traditions. They also rely upon our lived experiences and contemporary realities for relevance and resonance. The story of the person is always woven within these realities. To do theology, then, is to bring the stories of our lives to bear, wittingly or not, on how we engage God, the world, and the systemic evils and structural tribulations that confront us.
It is difficult for me to imagine doing theology, then, without also considering who I am—my being Vietnamese, Asian, American, once Catholic, and now Muslim. Race and religion are entangled in the narrative of my life. They direct my scholarship while I work at a Jesuit university in the Euro-American academy. They inflect the commitments I make to communities and relationships. They even shape my childhood memories as a son of Vietnamese Catholic refugees, born and raised in Virginia. With these orienting coordinates in mind, I share the following story from the early years of my life.
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On September 4, 1988, when I was nine years old, my bà ngoại, my mother’s mother, passed away in Massachusetts far from my home in Virginia and far from her home in Vietnam. In 1975, she had fled Saigon with some of her grown children and many of her grandchildren as the world they knew fell apart. They left behind the smoldering remnants of all that was familiar for the United States, where I was later born. Now, thirteen years later, my grandmother was to be laid to rest, still a stranger in a strange land. The span of years had done little to undo the feelings of estrangement that had enveloped her and her surviving family.
Islam began as a stranger and it shall return to being a stranger just as it began; blessedness is for the strangers.the Prophet Muhammad, Saḥīḥ Muslim
With the news of her passing, my family hurried north to unfamiliar New England to join my many aunts, uncles, and cousins. I did not know what to expect; this was my first funeral. What we saw was a maelstrom of grief. Activity blustered all around. Confronted by a continual flurry of Vietnamese that I could not catch nor comprehend, I clung uselessly to one place completely confounded. My mind was roiling with questions. What was I supposed to do? What does that mean? What’s happening now? What’s next? My family was an impassioned blur reaching for the right ways, while I stood bewildered half out of frame. The elders around me, freighted with grief, scrambled and struggled to find the best way to lay the family matriarch to rest in a country that did not understand how these strangers wanted to mourn.
They planned and God planned. And God is the best of planners.(Q. 8:30)
However I had imagined it would all play out, the days that followed proved unpredictable. Decisions had to be made in the moment. Eventually, a viewing, a mass, a vigil, a burial, and many visitations afterwards were arranged, but it was still a funeral of uncertain transitions and unsure translations. The Catholic rite would be honored, but how we did that was negotiated constantly. There was not only the cultural gulf to bridge (should we do it our way, the American way, or not at all?) but also a newness to navigate since my mother’s family had only converted to Christianity in the wake of their dislocation. It was a decision they had made in gratitude, or indebtedness, to the salvific sanctuary that they received from their sponsoring church families in Western Massachusetts. In the end, the negotiated rituals were vibrantly Vietnamese. Incense sticks were set alongside more conventional wreaths and bouquets. Herbaceous dishes were prepared and shared. A framed iconic photograph of my bà ngoại was handed out so it could grace mantles and shrines back home. All the while mesmerizing Vietnamese litanies of Hail Marys filled the air around us. With each tentative step, it was as if I was entering the world that my grandmother had to leave behind those many years ago—a world I had never truly known.
The eyes weep and the heart is grieved and we will only say what pleases our Lord.the Prophet Muhammad, Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī
My most vivid recollection, however, strikes a different tone, a discordant one. We are gathered in a house trying to arrange a procession of the family. I am dressed in a black suit and choked by a clip-on tie. To my immature mind, the dark-colored clothes seem right if American television is an any sort of guide for how to mourn. I am puzzled, then, to see flowing white sheets being passed around next. With my own linen in hand, I am told we are to wear these over our clothes. This is our custom, this is the Vietnamese way of mourning the dead. White, a color I associated with weddings and celebrations, now took on an unexpected meaning. My surprise becomes utter horror, when the white sheets are suddenly followed by white hoods. For a child raised in the long shadow of Richmond—the capital of the Confederacy—these garments signal something hateful and dire. Why are the clothes of the Ku Klux Klan here? Where did these garments even come from? Must we really wear them for everybody to see?
There is a quick correction. The hoods are not for everyone. I hand mine back. They are only for the women. The men receive white bandanas instead. Still, the whiteness of these garments is seared into my impressionable mind. Will we, dressed in this way, be mistaken for white supremacists as we somberly march to our destination? Will chance passerbys have the wherewithal to discern our Asian features or hear the accented English? Will more righteous onlookers confront us instead? Caught in the sensory churn of my grandmother’s funeral, my sense of otherness began to crystalize. I may have been born in this country, but my life was not cut from it. With this experience of mourning my first death, my departed bà ngoại, I began to realize finer social complexities and other religious realities.
People are asleep, and when they die they awake.ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyā ʿulūm al-dīn
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In that past, I was neither Black nor white, but otherwise. In between those lines I began to tease out what it meant to be Vietnamese, Asian, Catholic, and American. Decades later as a Muslim, I am sifting through this story again to make sense of the layers and intersections therein. My anxieties about the white robes and headwear, for instance, speak to how incisively race had come to distort my thinking. Rather than a moment of cultural or religious discovery, my mind was fixated on what those garments would mean to others and what ill effects that might have on my family. Living in the American South, I had learned the boundaries between Black and white early on and that we occupied an ambiguous place as “Asians.” In that disorienting moment, my fears about the consequences of not conforming, or, worse, being misidentified, came to occupy an outsized space in my mind. I was consumed with what others would think—had we kept to our racially designated space? That particular experience had thus become for me ensnared in the trappings of white supremacy.
I see as well the manifold ways that cultural differences can inflect worship, devotional habits, and theological sensibilities. My family’s Vietnamese practice of Catholicism stood in sharp contrast to the white expectations of that small New England community as well as the overbearing white Christian hegemony that surrounded us. Despite my family’s physical and religious displacement, it was important for us to negotiate a funeral that honored and carried on the Vietnamese character of our faith. To respond to God in that moment of death required reconnecting with traditions from a remembered home that lay more than a continent and an ocean away.
Finally, I returned to this memory in order to share it with you. Storytelling is never a solitary act. Rather, it is a communal act of disclosure with an invitational valence. To tell a story is to invite listeners to join an unfolding. In the telling is the hope of sparking connection, opening avenues for empathy and collective inquiry, and stirring others to share their stories for the sake of solidarity and action. Might not my story converge with other experiences of loss and distress? Might not the refugee dimensions of that tale find resonance with other displaced communities? In fact, my desire to share this story from my childhood was born from hearing and holding the stories of others. I am drawn to the stories of the displaced and racially marginalized precisely because in storytelling there is an implicit and powerful call to build community beyond conventional boundaries.
Similarly, storytelling can also assume a prophetic quality. We can tell our stories in order to counter dominant narratives, whether spun out of the political economy of racial capitalism, white Christian supremacy, or other systems of subjugation. Storytelling in our various communities—Asian American, Muslim, and otherwise—can help to undo such dominance. In this context, storytelling allows us to lay our narratives next to one another in order to witness how our experiences are both interconnected and distinct. It is precisely in such exchanges that bonds are built and affirmed and how our communities can strive and dream alongside one another. When shared in the frame of solidarity, our stories reveal the matrices of power that require unmaking; they also provide space for us to imagine collaboratively how we might best respond. In the story of my bà ngoại’s death, I see other stories, communities, and visions of a more righteous future.