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Pursuing Grace

15 YEARS AND COUNTING: The Burkey family. (Handout)

Brent Stirton/Getty Images

BUILDING A LIFE: Marci and Chris Johnson in Jena, La.


Pursuing Grace

Brian Burkey and Grace Cho say cross-cultural marriage has its challenges, but also its beauty

If trends continue, June will bring another spurt in interracial marriage. Here’s the story of one, Brian Burkey and Grace Cho, who met when a Korean friend invited Burkey to youth group at the Korean church that was also home to Cho’s family. 

Burkey became a Christian and started attending the church regularly as one of two non-Korean congregants. Cho and Burkey became good friends even though, “Brian was very, very shy, he didn’t talk a lot, and I remember he had a hard time just looking at me straight in the eye.” Once Cho asked Burkey on a date to watch Driving Miss Daisy, but he fell asleep during the movie. Afterward, they decided dating might ruin their friendship. 

A year later, they decided to try again. Cho was heading off to Purdue University in Indiana while Burkey was staying in St. Louis to finish high school. They kept in touch through phone calls, letters, and four-hour drives to visit each other.

At first Cho’s parents didn’t think the two were serious, but after a few years they started speaking out against the relationship. When Cho returned home for breaks, her mom would ask if she had found any Korean boys in college, and say she didn’t want her to date a white American. 

Like many Asian immigrant families, Cho’s parents wanted a Korean son-in-law who could speak Korean and understood the culture. But Cho felt frustrated because she didn’t think her parents had valid reasons to keep her and Burkey apart. She remembers thinking, “If they got to know him as a person beyond the color of his skin, they would truly understand why I care so much about him.”

Over the next five years, Burkey went to seminary and Cho graduated from college—but the relationship dilemma remained. Several times they almost broke up because Burkey didn’t want to come between Cho and her parents. After praying and seeking counsel, they could see no biblical reason to break up, yet Burkey did not want to marry without her parents’ blessing. 

“I was very torn,” Cho, now 40, said about the dating process. “I wanted to know that it wasn’t just my will that I wanted to marry this guy, but that it was the Lord’s will.” She wanted her parents’ blessing.

Cho’s non-English-speaking grandmother was the first to give the couple her blessing. She saw Burkey as a good man who loves God and tried to convince Cho’s parents—but they resisted. The youth pastor and church members also spoke positively about Burkey to her father, a church elder.

One day, after Cho and Burkey had been together for six years, Cho had yet another tearful phone call with Burkey about their relationship. This time Cho’s mother asked, “Do you really care about him?” When Cho answered yes, mother and daughter went to her father. He asked the same question. When she answered yes, he gave his assent: “OK, well, you can date him.” 

A year and a half later the two married. Now, 15 years later, Cho’s parents love Burkey, and her dad views him as a son. Burkey acknowledges a benefit of their long courtship: He was already familiar with Korean culture since he spent so much time at the Korean church. 

Still, cultural challenges remain. The two view the education of their three children, ages 11, 10, and 8, differently: Cho is more demanding, while Burkey has a more relaxed attitude. Burkey also had to learn about Korean family hierarchy. When Cho’s parents were struggling financially, the Burkeys moved in to help out. Even though the Burkeys were in their 30s with children, they had to respect her parents. “We weren’t on equal footing,” Burkey remembers.

Burkey says cultural differences add a layer of difficulty to marriage, but also enlarge their perspective: “You realize my culture doesn’t have all the answers. You learn to respect and appreciate. You see beauty.”

Growing trend

The number of interracial couples like the Burkeys is growing in the United States. About 15 percent of new marriages in 2010 were between people of different races or ethnicities, compared to 6.7 percent in 1980.

Asians, including Hawaiian natives and Pacific Islanders, are most likely—28 percent—to marry someone outside their race. Some 26 percent of Hispanics, 17 percent of African-Americans, and 9 percent of all whites marry someone of a different race.  

Public opinion about interracial marriage also has shifted dramatically in the last 60 years. In 1958, about 94 percent disapproved of marrying “colored people.” In 2011, 86 percent of respondents said they approve, while 11 percent said they disapproved. —A.L.

Changing attitudes

Some conservative Protestants have long opposed interracial marriage: Bob Jones University removed its rule against interracial dating in 2000, and one rural Kentucky church lifted its ban on interracial couples only in 2011. A Pew poll that year found only 16 percent of white evangelicals saying “more people of different races marrying each other” was bad for society. (The figure for the country as a whole was 9 percent; the wording of the poll was different from the poll cited above.)

More evangelical leaders are speaking up about the issue. Minnesota pastor John Piper wrote in Bloodlines about his own racism growing up in the segregated South. Piper learned from studying the Bible and from experience that God’s sovereign grace levels all ethnicities. In a recent message at Wheaton College, Piper said, “Few things, I think, are more beautiful than when a Christian couple crosses racial lines, overcomes every racial prejudice, every ethnic slur, every gospel-contradicting fear, and then displays in a marriage the covenant-keeping commitment and love of Christ for his church.” —A.L.