Interviewed & Written By: Caela Collins
What if I told you belonging was singular? Often times, we package belonging as a way to be accepted and folded into communal spaces outside of ourselves. But what’s community when you aren’t even home within the confines of your own body? Who is the representative that stands in the place of your true reflection? What masquerade ball has your soul spinning around eggshells, dizzying your identity in the process?
When you come to the realization that belonging doesn’t require any external deliberation and it is only you who has that voting right, you step into your power of belonging to self. I won’t sugarcoat this journey; belonging is a consistent act that takes courage. It requires you to stand alone and belong to yourself above all else. Being a person of color requires a daily practice of choice: choosing to unapologetically stand firm in who the Divine has beautifully and intentionally created you to be, even if you are cast against a stark background.
May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPI for short), a time where we highlight communities with connections to Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Hawaiian, and other Asian and Pacific Islander ancestries, consisting of approximately 50 distinct ethnic groups and speaking over 100 languages. I had a powerful conversation about cultural identity and the notion of belonging by coming home to oneself with Ranjit K. Matthews, our Canon for Mission Advocacy, Racial Justice & Reconciliation who is Indian-American.
Ranjit’s Cultural Roots:
My parents came here from South India, in the early 1970s. And they came separately. And they met here through mutual acquaintances, and they got married in around the Boston area. And you know, we’re from a part of India that’s called Kerala, which is in the southern part of India, which is a state where the Apostle Thomas traversed from the Middle East down to Kerala and evangelized. My spouse, Johanna and I, and my family, all of us are sort of a part of that Marthoma lineage and Mar Thoma means Church of Thomas. So, that’s where we’re from, we trace our lineage from Thomas.
Intergenerational Journey and ties to Priesthood:
My great grandfather was a Mar Thoma priest, and people from all over Kerala and I think South India would actually travel to go see my Veliappacha and my Veliammachi, that’s what we call them, to have my great, great grandfather pray over them, because he was known for his gift of healing. People would come and stay with them for a couple of days while he would offer prayers often times coming with tears. So that’s sort of the lineage. When my great grandfather died, my father wanted to be a Priest and follow my grandfather into ministry. That’s why he came to the United States. My dad would do lots of other jobs in the broader Boston community, like, working as a Therapist at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Massachusetts. He was an executive director of the Asian American Resource workshop. He was a banker and an insurance agent. My mom held a steady job as a hematologist at Mass General Hospital.
Finding a Church Community in the U.S.
My dad had a yearning to follow God. He came to this country to go into ministry, and he completed his master’s in divinity at Princeton, but didn’t have a community around him. And so because of that, we went to a lot of different churches in and around Massachustte, because he was responding to his call, and then found a home in the Episcopal ChurchAnd at that point, I was 11 years old. I guess, felt home at a church and outside of Boston in Milton, where we were going, I felt really moved there by a sense of embrace that I found from, a Priest there now a colleague, and a dear friend of mine.
I went to college in, Washington, DC, and there, I was looking for an Episcopal presence. And I remember going because I wanted to replicate that same experience that I had at St. Michael’s in Milton, and find an equally embracing community. I found a community that a first was community oriented; but the theology they were preaching and espousing was rigidly fundamentalist, and conservative. I was instructed to not hang out with people who were from different religions, this is what we call Purity Culture, and those are my friends. I had friends who were Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Jewish, really from all over. I had to really give up part of myself to be part of the space and that was really awful. I gave up going dancing and even gave away my Hip Hop CD’s, which I was told, were not of God.
The Turning Point
But, it really came to the fore, in my sophomore year, when my family, and I, my dad, my mom, and my sister, we traveled to India. We did that every four years, and my parents hope was for my sister and I to be connected to our family’s heritage and keep my sister and also on a cultural level. I remember my father, who was now deeply within the ordination process within the Episcopal diocese of Massachusetts. He was very open and I was this guy that had these blinders on. I remember sitting with my father on my grandparents, veranda, one afternoon. I remember I was going through theological questions, of who was saved, who was not saved. My father, in his wisdom, said, you know, Ranjit, “Do you believe that everybody here in India, who are not Christian, do you believe they’re going to Hell? And then after a pause, he said, “Because that’s not the type of God that I believe in.” That questioned was a seed in my heart and it opened up my theological and spiritual imagination.
Two weeks later, my family and I were in a cathedral in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. We visited a city called Mysore, and the Cathedral which had trappings of British colonialism. But we walked down, we took off our shoes, and were wowed by the beauty of this spiritual place. When we were heading back up, at the top of the stairs were two girls who had leprosy. And leprosy at that time was, I don’t know, was maybe a little bit more common. But they didn’t have any legs and they were pushing themselves around on like make shift skateboards and one of them very powerfully looked down at me while I was on the stairs, and, you know, she touched My Feet, which in India, within different cultures that are in India, it’s a sign of respect. You touch their feet, and you bring it to their mouth, or to the chest. And she did that to me. And I felt on a spiritual level, I felt like she was saying to me, Ranjit just be who you are, don’t judge anybody just being who you are. And I was seeing God in her and she was saying to me, you know, come and be here with me and India and fight for justice. And so that moment with her, that really opened my eyes. I think, that was my is a my most spiritual mystical moment was that moment, that was my awakening. And that moment led me into ministry, you know, in different work in South Africa, and Tanzania, and different places across the United States.
How do you Honor the Belonging with Self?
I try to challenge the norms of White Supremacy by what I wear, my kurta’s, and things that I wear, even the foods that I eat, you know, even how I eat, it’s not just something that’s performative, it’s something that is who I am, right.
And so I have a lot of joy, and even what, you know traveling to India a month ago, people might consider going to be a vacation, but for me, it was, you know, it wasn’t really a vacation, but an real opportunity to deepen my connection, reconnect with my roots, and then help our boys, who are American through and through really connect to their foremothers, their extended family. It’s so deeply critical that we went on that trip, so that they can experience the beauty of our culture, of our food, of our clothing, of our language, of the noise, the color, just all of that beauty that I’m so proud of now. I didn’t have much appreciation of my culture growing up, from my name that teacher’s and others would struggle to pronounce, the aroma of mom’s delicious Indian cooking in my house when friends would come over, but it’s something that I’ve come to really embrace as part of me, so deeply a part of me.
What does your Absolute Unapologetic Full Self look like?
Just someone that is free. That doesn’t cater to the norms of society, that would allow me to be unapologetically me and not, not diminish myself. My great uncle Alex, who had many vocations as a physicist, a psychotherapist, like meditation guru who. I remember one time on the T in Boston, as we were heading for my father’s ordination. I remember seeing him dancing, without any inhibitions. All of us, his relatives are sitting on the train, a little embarrassed but our great uncles, he dancing because he’s free. He’s was unencumbered by the fact that people were staring at him how other people are looking at him that he’s free. And so remembering that and bringing him into my, into my mind space into my heart space, and realizing that he is part of my ancestry.
What Antidote can you give to those Seeking to Belong to themselves?
My real medicine is silence you know, and the quiet. That’s my prayer time when I can go so fully internally with God and that is such a real important gift to me to be able to do that. It allows me to space my to be authentic self. Reminding myself of my food, or language and culture, those nourishing spaces that that again, remind me of who I am. But we do have a thing, create our own space, and God has given us agency. So what has been important for me, is in whether they are groups of Beloved’s in my life, have friends in my life, that have nurtured me and connected with me. Sending me affirmations of love, irrespective of the institution or place, it’s just a space to be me, a space to be free and to take down your mask. Rest, being in touch with your body, if my mind, if my body, if my soul is rested, then it might be a space to dream and think with some theological imagination.
When you enter into a place that doesn’t necessarily look like you, those are the things that give me spiritual and mystical strength from God, you know, to, to show up unabashedly to show but some boldness, and with some strength.