In the aftermath of an election year that divided the American church along racial lines, Christian and Christina Gonzalez Ho launched a program held at Youth With A Mission in Kona (YWAM) that gathers theologically, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse believers to dialogue with each other about the relationship between culture and faith. Their program, Estuaries, brings participants to grapple with complex topics ranging from racial reconciliation to gifts of the Spirit.
RELEVANT talked to the Gonzalez Hos about Estuaries and their desire to encourage faith-filled, intellectual conversations that help members of the American church envision a thriving and diverse body of believers.
The two of you launched Estuaries following the 2016 presidential election. Was your program intended to address the divisions that emerged in the church during that election year, or did you see the need for Estuaries beforehand?
Christina: The first time I started thinking about the program that would become Estuaries was when I was a third-year law student at Harvard. Christian and I had started dating that year, and he’d gotten invited to speak at Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Kona, and I decided to tag along. It was like landing on another planet.
I was coming from this really intellectual environment, where even the Christian fellowship I was a part of had a hard time getting out of an exclusively intellectual way of knowing God. Our conversations would be about theology, or how to maintain your faith at Harvard, or how your faith could fit into your career.
Then I went to YWAM, and was hearing story after story of people who’d seen miracles, been miraculously healed of drug addiction, heard God’s audible voice. Just crazy stories, outside the paradigm of an average Christian at a place like Harvard. I didn’t even realize how much I needed that until I got there. In some ways, I’d forgotten how powerful and how real God was, and how tangible his presence could be. The “normal” of being in an environment like YWAM was so different from the “normal” of being a Christian at Harvard. That’s when the idea for Estuaries began germinating in my mind, though I think Christian had been thinking about it for longer. But that’s when we began talking about it together. The idea of: what if we could bring students from a place like Harvard, which is very strong intellectually but can skew spiritually-anemic, to a place like YWAM, and create a space for God to blow their minds? But of course, it wouldn’t be a one-way transfer of culture, because we also saw a lot of ways that YWAM Kona could benefit from an Ivy League university’s emphasis on critical thinking and intellectual pursuit.
Can you speak more to that? Why did you place such a strong emphasis on bringing together Christians from different theological backgrounds?
Christina: I joined a church under the Anglican Church of North America when I lived in D.C. I think one thing that churches in that more traditional, liturgical vein are good at is encouraging a slow and steady life of faith. The concern is longevity, not impressive immediate results. The downside of that strength is that it can hinder people from pursuing what charismatics often refer to as “the more of the Lord.” The desire for more than life as usual, business as usual, for God to do something huge and unexpected, like make someone’s cancerous tumor to disappear, or raise someone from the dead.
Many charismatic churches I served at before joining my church in D.C. were so strong in terms of believing that miracles happen, and that we should pray for God to do big, crazy things, or speak to us directly about specific situations. I loved that. But those churches could also skew unintellectual or anti-intellectual. There wasn’t much of a value for critical thinking or intellectual exploration, partly because we were reaching for such ambitious things with God. We couldn’t sit around questioning forever. We had to “go for it,” even if we didn’t understand everything. I saw this expression of charismatic Christianity prove harmful in the long run. I saw people leave ministries like the one I was a part of, take one philosophy course, and have their faith come crashing down because they didn’t have the space to think critically or question in ways they needed to. They didn’t build the capacity to do that. Whereas my church in D.C. wasn’t afraid to acknowledge when an issue was complicated and necessitated more study and dialogue. For example, we often had some very nuanced and rigorous discussions on sexuality as outlined in the Bible versus in queer theory. I remember once we had a pastor who’d spent years studying gender dysphoria come and share about his research. It was really cool to have those conversations in church.
All of that to say, I think the various expressions of Christianity need each other in order to balance each other out. The more isolated we become, the less resilient we are in the midst of challenging cultural conditions.
Christian: This is a problem in our culture at large, though, and that’s how we want to look at the church: It’s not outside of culture. It’s imbricated within culture. American culture is very big on specialization, this feeds the logic behind the formation of denominations that specialize in different kinds of theology, and they’re fine with their separation from one another.
I think that’s dangerous, because then in a moment of crisis, you have different denominations hunkering down and diving deeper into how they developed their own theology and becoming isolated.
Christina: And we stop trusting each other when denominations or different expressions of Christianity become that specialized. When another denomination or church has something good to say, we can’t hear it.
What ultimately led you to launch your program?
Christina: A few years after my first visit to Kona, the Black Lives Matter movement began, and then the 2016 election happened, and suddenly the fault lines in the Church became very evident.
We were seeing the fruit of our isolation from each other in the Body of Christ, we were seeing the fruit of a very un-holistic expression of Christianity. I saw a lot of my peers who had been raised Christian, just like me, feel like they needed to leave the church, or at least stop believing in orthodoxy, in order to stay sane.
That’s what pushed us to stop thinking about Estuaries and just do it. We saw the need for a place where people could ask their crazy, complicated questions about faith and politics and racism and sexuality, within a community of they could respect intellectually, and in a context that was Spirit-led.
As those fault lines within the Church emerged, what caused you to lean into areas of friction and disagreement? What did you want your program to achieve?
Christian: My feeling has always been that you cannot be afraid to question God.
Becoming a Christian means being grafted into Israel, and that name is a reference to wrestling with God. I think that is the very nature of being a Christian—it is the honor and privilege of wrestling with God. It is the invitation and the aperture into mystery.
We could have debates about all kinds of stuff, but my goal isn’t to prove what’s right. I want to provide a framework to journey with God. Questions emerge from deeper, subjective experiences that I can’t respond to outside the leading of the Holy Spirit, so I don’t want to just answer questions. I want to explore both how to engage with God and how to think critically within the discourses of our contemporary age.
Christina: And Estuaries had to be both. It couldn’t be only the prophetic or only critical thinking. We wanted to bring those two things into the same place and give people a chance to lay all their questions and struggles before the Lord and allow Him to speak.
How did you set up Estuaries to facilitate these outcomes?
Christian: We really pushed to make sure the participant body was racially diverse. Being part Black and Latino, I think being from a different culture means you will think differently, and you can’t get another person’s perspective by imitating their ideas. You need everyone’s voices in the conversation.
Christina: Our staff was also very diverse in terms of our expertise. Between the eight of us, we have expertise in everything from architecture, philosophy, chemical engineering, law, African Studies, Women’s Studies, international missions, full-time ministry, farming, food, counseling, inner healing—
Christian: And people very well-versed in in the history of the church and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Christina: We’re also racially and politically diverse.
Christian: Yeah. So we conducted the dialogues amongst ourselves first. We don’t see eye to eye on every issue, so we went on a staff retreat where we shared our stories and talked about things like politics and Christianity—should Christians even be involved in politics? What dimensions of culture should Christianity be engaged with? What has that looked like historically?
I think dialoguing as a staff was key. It was tense at times, but we had all committed to each other. There was an understanding that nobody’s going to walk away from one another. That’s not an option. There’s no option to divorce one another.
What drives you to continue engaging the Church in conversation around complex topics, especially in a cultural climate that can lead us to alienate those we disagree with?
Christina: I was in Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship when I was at Stanford. We had an amazing pastor, Glen Davis. He had students who regularly saw open visions and angels, as well as students who were totally weirded out and skeptical about those kinds of experiences. The way he led that group of students was a huge inspiration for Estuaries. It showed me you could have a body of believers who were really diverse. Our group was ethnically, socioeconomically, culturally, theologically, and politically diverse, and it’s not like we then became really wishy-washy and didn’t believe anything—Glen was able to lead in such a way that we knew what we believed and what we held to, but we could all provoke and enrich and sharpen each other. It wasn’t always comfortable, but it was really good.
I’ve been a part of many different types of churches over the years, and I’ve seen glorious and ugly things in almost all of them. But I’ve decided that no matter how much I may disagree with certain aspects of the Church, or how clearly I think I see its issues and flaws, divorce is not an option. I’m not going to leave. I’m not ever going to be someone who says, ‘I love Jesus, but not the Church.’
Christian: Right. Jesus was essentially crucified by the Church. It does show you the extent to which the Church can be blind, and yet God will still pursue us. In this way, I think Scripture itself outlines the kind of commitment we are to have to one another. The Church is super diverse, it is super complicated, and it is not going to be without its vicissitudes, but in the end, it will look like Christ.
To pull myself out of the Church because of its brokenness is too easy, and too American in my mind, as I look at the arc of history and think of how American mindsets have inflected the way contemporary Christianity is expressing itself right now—everybody is ready to abandon community. Obviously, I’m not saying that if you’re being abused, you should remain in an abusive church. But I am saying that we are meant to link ourselves to a community that is healthily pursuing Christ.
Christina: Exactly. I really, truly believe that everything that any church has ever done wrong, any hurt they’ve ever perpetrated, has been done to Jesus. He’s felt the pain more than anyone, yet he is the most committed to the Church, out of anyone. If he’s not leaving, I’m not leaving. We are doing Estuaries and having these conversations because we love the Church and we want to see it thrive.
Christina Gonzalez Ho is a writer, researcher, and attorney. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Christian Gonzalez Ho is a writer, designer, and cultural theorist. He holds a B.A. in American Studies from Fordham University and a Masters of Architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design.