A letter to our church about the murders in Atlanta

Dear Living Stones,

By now, I assume you’ve read about the people—mostly Asian women—who were gunned down in Atlanta. Once again, on top of a rising trend of anti-Asian hate, including violence against the elderly.

For some of us these stories have hit close to home. For others of us it hurts just knowing our friends are hurting.

But the recent massacre in Atlanta cuts deeper for some of us. While the authorities search for some tell-tale sign of racial animosity, the fact that Asian spas were targeted because the women inside were considered too much of a “temptation” for him—that’s a story some of us know all too well. While the murders are senseless, they also fit far too sensibly in an age-old American story that has sexualized Asian women and then discarded them.

What hurts even more was that this man was a Christian.

Turn, Lord, and deliver us;
save us because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?
– Psalm 6

I know some of us are feeling a strong mix of emotions: anger, hurt, fear, invisible. I want you to know that it’s okay to not have all your feelings sorted out yet. It’s okay to even have some ‘spiritually incorrect’ thoughts. Bring them to Jesus, who hurts with us. Bring them to your small group. Please don’t sit in your feelings alone. And for your own health, take some breaks away from your phone!

For those of you further from this pain, the gift you get to give right now is solidarity. Reaching out in compassion. Mourning with those who mourn. Affirming the dignity of the downtrodden. Don’t underestimate the power of this Christ-shaped gift.

Who knows? One day, God may redeem our pain and use our solidarity for his kingdom.

Over the past few days, I have been encouraged by how many fellow believers are finally speaking up. But I have also been dismayed at how many are still so callous, sometimes even doubling down on hurt in a time of so much pain.

But to all who are hurting and angry right now, I hope you take comfort in this unbending truth: Our worth is not based on how the world treats us.

And while we strive for a more just and loving world—and Church—let us thank God that our hope is not in what others, or even we do (or fail to do), but in what God alone has done and will do.

Until then, let us bring our ‘broken hallelujahs’ to the Lord.

Yours,
Pastor Brian

Violence Against Our Elders: Unfinished Thoughts

About a week and half ago, while a 91 year old Chinese elder was walking in Oakland Chinatown, a young man came charging at him from behind, violently knocking him face down onto the concrete in broad daylight. That very day, the same was done to an 84 year old Thai elder in SF. He eventually died of his injuries. Both incidents just happened to be captured on video.

When I try to explain why these incidents hit people like me so hard, I say: It’s not just because our elders are so vulnerable, but because they are our most honorable. They are the best of us. They are the ones we bow to. Even after they die, we bow to them and offer them food before we even take our first bites.

And at least for me, when I think of Chinatown, I literally associate Chinatown with my grandparents. Back in the day before there was Ranch 99, we’d all drive up to Chinatown for dim sum and to buy Asian vegetables. I honestly didn’t like Chinatown as a kid. Great food, but it was loud and stinky. There were pigeons everywhere. But it was the only place my grandparents could be their happy and loud selves other than at home.

And so to see our venerable elders, people who are our grandparents, having their honorable faces knocked down onto the very streets where they’re supposed to feel most free to be themselves, that really hurt.

All that on top of the recent rise in anti-Asian hate, in the wake of COVID and Trump’s rhetoric.

But none of this is new. Violence and racism against our elders is not new. Dare I say it is endemic to their neighborhoods.

But at least for me, what made it hurt more this time around, to be bashfully honest, was the silence of the very BIPOC brothers and sisters whom we’d worked so hard to cultivate solidarity with over this past year. The only BIPOC person I saw speaking up was Oakland’s own, rapper Mistah F.A.B. (Gratefully, more are speaking up now.)

And even within my own Asian community, I’ve felt trapped. Caught on one hand, between the Asians who are responding with racist resentment and rage—feelings I’ve been trying to disciple people out of. But on the other hand, Asians who speak 10,000 words about Let’s not respond with white supremacy! Let’s look at root issues! We still have it so good—we’re Asian! All true. But almost no words about simply saying this was wrong. That our elders are legitimately scared. 

It just felt like a lot of pressure to center other people’s concerns in the midst of our own family’s fear and pain. It felt like pressure to just stay silent—like a good Asian should.

Now of course, when I finally mustered the courage to talk to my BIPOC family they immediately responded with solidarity! With sorrow and disgust. I never knew! Let me know what I can do! We’re with you! Everything you’d hope for, they said and did! Thank God! It’d simply never reached their radar.

And while I was relieved that it wasn’t that they didn’t care. I’m not sure what hurt more. Feeling that people don’t care. Or knowing that the lives of our elders don’t matter enough to make it on people’s news feeds in the first place.

I think Steven Yuen said it best: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

I’m gratefully in a much better place now. The solidarity of brothers and sisters. But above all, knowing that our worth isn’t defined by how the world treats our elders, but simply because we’re made in the image of God.

But I know there’s certainly a lot of work still to do. A lot.

Above is a picture of two store windows in Oakland Chinatown. And it’s a symbol of where I feel things are.

On one hand, these are pictures of beautiful solidarity; a community coming together. On the other hand, these windows weren’t boarded up for art, but for fear of violence and looting.

But we could also say it the other way too. On one hand, these windows are boarded up out of fear. But on the other hand, they are showing signs of a community trying to heal and come together.

Correction: I originally said both men died of the injuries. Fortunately, the 91 year old man, while seriously injured, survived.

This reflection was originally shared at PROCESS + RESPOND: ANTI-ASIAN HATE CRIMES, hosted by the Covenant Asian Pastors Association.

Thank God for Critical Race Theory (Part 2)

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, SNL featured a skit entitled ‘Election Night.’

In this skit, all the white progressive friends in the apartment are shell-shocked that America has elected Donald Trump. “Oh my God, I think America is…racist!” a white friend exclaims. The two Black friends (Dave Chapelle & Chris Rock) look at each other, unable to contain their laughter, “Oh my God!” they reply with smirky sarcasm. Implication: And what else is new? This is lack of surprise at the enduring reality of racism is the perspective that CRT comes from.

In my previous post, I said I thank God for CRT because it’s given me “eyes to see” the less obvious, but no less insidious incarnations of racial injustice, which has helped me better live out my vocation to love God and my neighbor. In this post, I will share the second insight I thank God for, something that is not so ‘insightful’ to most Black people: that racism is permanent.

CRT founder Derrick Bell—who looked back, after years working for desegregation as a litigator, and saw racial inequality get worse—came to this sobering conclusion about America:

“Racism is permanent. It is an essential. It is not an aberration. It is not what most of us believed it was 30-40 years ago: a pimple on an otherwise beautiful complexion of America as a place of freedom and equality for all.”

Bell is clear to say that America is not unique in being oppressive, but it is unique in that systemic racism (of Blacks, in particular) is in the very foundation of our nation. Just read our Constitution, racism is part of our institutional and cultural DNA. Imagining America without racism is like imagining Las Vegas without Sin. Racism is permanent. We should not be surprised that racism hasn’t been defeated yet.

This stands in stark contrast to the story I grew up with—that with the Emancipation of slaves, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of our nation’s first Black president—that we are on the path of inevitable progress towards racial equality. It also stands in stark contrast to our current racial justice movement that suggests that with more cell phone videos, with more protests, with more representation, with more reform, with more justice, then we can end racism; something that is palpable in our current moment is an impatience with racism. But Bell counters with this warning: “Yearning for racial equality is a fantasy.” CRT is a form of ‘Racial Realism.’

How depressing! Doesn’t this pessimism about racism just lead to despair? It can. But Bell says, facing the enduring reality of racism is like facing our inevitable death. If you learn you’re going to die, you can respond with despair and suicide—how can you possibly beat death? Or, in accepting your death, you can resolve to overcome in a different way: by determining to still live a meaningful life.

Some people believe CRT is anti-Christian. But Bell was actually inspired by the Christian spirituality of slaves and those living in the Deep South. Did the slaves of old have any real hope of escaping slavery in this life? No. But listen to their negro spirituals. Did they resist the power that slavery had over them? Yes. Did they give into despair? No. Did they still fight against the realities of racial oppression? Yes. Did they find other ways to overcome within the brutal reality of racism? Absolutely. The resilient, life-giving, hope-filled faith of the Black slaves reminds me of the saints of the Old Testament: All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised (Hebrews 11:13, 39). While they believed that racial equality would not be achieved until the next life, their faith still taught them how to live in this one.

Does this mean Bell sought to merely ‘spiritualize’ victory in the face of physical oppression? No. He tells the story of an old Black woman in rural Mississippi who fought relentlessly against systemic and cultural racism in her town. In response, racist Whites would drive by in the night shooting through her house, trying to take her farm away. There was no indication that she was making significant progress against racism in her town. Whites had more money, more power, more everything. “Why do you keep fighting?” Bell asked. The old woman replied, “Derrick, I’m an old lady and I lives to harass White folks.” Now, before you misinterpret ‘harass White folks’ as hateful, remember this is like a mouse who lives to harass cats, not the other mice. It’s not hate; it’s a refusal to give up, it’s resistance against dehumanization, it’s a smiling middle finger in the face of Death—what Bell calls a kind of existential triumph.

Racism is permanent, but that didn’t stop her from holding her head up high, it didn’t stop her from fighting for her community, it didn’t stop her from living a truly meaningful life. If she believed that she could defeat racism, then perhaps she would live in greater frustration and bitterness. But since she knew racism was bigger than her, that sobering reality freed her from having to wait for racism to end before living a meaningful life.

And aren’t the parallels to the Christianity plain? On this side of the resurrection, aren’t sin and death enduring realities? Even Lazarus would eventually die again. One of the great conceits of our times is that, by our own knowledge, we can actually solve the problem of sin and death. Most of us actually believe we are less sinful than previous generations. Most of us are willing to throw the kitchen sink and more to stave off age and death. Yet Christianity, one of the original critical theories, says that we are just as wicked and perverse as the generations that have come before us. But far from plunging us into despair, the Gospel tells us two things:

  1. Christ will defeat sin and death once and for all. While we are called to fight against sin, to resist the wiles of the Evil One, to speak truth to power, the Bible never says that we will defeat sin and death. For people with power, this is news. But for people without power, it’s Good News. As a Black sister in Christ recently told me, “We don’t expect you to solve 400 years of racism.” Or a Black pastor, “We aren’t going to end racism, only Jesus can do that when he returns.” The burden isn’t on us. And thank God! But because the burden is on Christ, we have a real hope to the end of racism—and all expressions of sin and death.
  2. In Christ, the fight against sin and death is still meaningful, even when we don’t see victory. The meaning of our lives will not be measured by our success over sin and death any more than that old lady in Mississippi will be judged by how much she prevailed over White supremacy. Rather, meaning is found in choosing to love our neighbors, even in the midst of so much indifference; choosing to forgive, even when there’s so much hurt; choosing to strive for justice, even when injustice seems so entrenched; speaking truth to power, even when they are so immensely powerful; choosing to thank God, even when it looks so dark; choosing to hold our heads high, even if Death will inevitably bring our heads down to the ground. Because in the end, we won’t be judged by our fruitfulness—that was never in our control; instead, the word we will wait to hear is whether or not we were faithful.

“For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭37:28‬ ‭

RIP Anthony Bourdain: A personal tribute

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this news and the significance Bourdain has had on me — a guy I never knew.

First, if you are in what feels like hopeless pain, deep despair — you’re not alone. I personally know what it’s like to have lived there. A couple Sundays ago, a member of our church shared about how God saved him from suicide through faith and his community. I beg of you to reach out.

About Anthony Bourdain: I remember coming upon him as I was becoming fascinated with restaurant cooking. I was becoming a “foodie” (I term I now regret). I cooked daily for my family, regularly for friends. And during my darker moments, I dreamed of quitting it all to become a chef. Sometimes I still do. Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” was my first tour book into the underbelly of the restaurant world: a world that wasn’t glamorous, where chefs were more like pirates than captains, where the best chefs were actually Latin American & N. African. And where we cooks knew how to switch between serving BS to the elites or demanding customer — while enjoying the truly good (often comfort) food himself and with his fellow shipmates. A favorite story is how he blew his culinary school teachers away with his “model consomme” — when in fact he just slipped in bunch of beef powder.

Along came his seminal show, “A Cook’s Tour”, the first cooking/travel show I know of that began with a parental warning about explicit content. He showed us not only the best food in the world, but food that I WOULD EAT. But he also resisted reducing people down merely to their food, something TV personalities often do, as if these foreign peoples were exotic animals, and their food alone was some tiny token of their true essence. Later when he moved on to “No Reservations”, I remember vividly his episode in Beirut that was interrupted by, well, armed conflict. He did not spare us the beauty of Lebanon nor the frightful reality of living underneath hellfire. Bourdain cared about food, but he was a lover of the world and the people who inhabited it. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy his more recent stuff. Sometimes it felt like even he knew he was playing into a caricature of himself, satisfying the very foodies he’s always despised. Except when he would mess with Eric Ripert. He delighted in taking his 3 Michelin star friend into the ghettos of the world forcing him eat weird stuff. I ate that stuff up.

Bourdain was no saint. He had a biting words for celebrity chefs. Sometimes I think he veered toward the unkind, esp for the Rachel Rays, Tyler Florences & Guy Fieris of the world. He also had personal life stuff that simply raised eyebrows. But he’s a distant celebrity, not some close friend. I only knew 1% of the story.

But perhaps the greatest impact he had, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, but he was the first universally respected white chef/foodie to unapologetically say that the best food in the world is in Asia. I know that as a Chinese guy, I should not need the white validation. But growing up in a food culture where even most of my Asian American friends were climbing over themselves for the next culinary peak — which were almost always French, Continental, or “fusion” — here was a respected white guy, hovering over a bowl of noodles in China or Vietnam and simply saying THIS is the best food that can be found on the planet. Not trying to make that bowl of noodles into some commentary on Asian culture, not comparing it to some European equivalent, but saying: Damn, it just doesn’t get better than this. Asian food doesn’t have to become “fusion” to be good. It’s already good. You just have to eat the real stuff. I’ve always believed that. My family & friends have always believed that. But it felt so good to hear him say it, not only with his words, but with his joy.

🍜 RIP.

Image result for anthony bourdain noodles

Review: At Home in Exile by Russell Jeung

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This is a truly unique book. And the best book I’ve read this year. Part memoir / sociology / theology / Asian corny hilariousness. It’s funny, it’s educational, it’s deeply moving.

Russell moves into and ultimately finds home in the Murder Dubs of Oakland. But it’s not a triumphant American superhero story. Nor is it a sappy romance about ‘the poor.’ It’s a complex, humble story about how he found community, identity, and ultimately Jesus in his mostly Cambodia refugee & Latino neighborhood.

It’s a story that asks: What if Jesus wasn’t as much an American superhero, but more like a Chinese Hakka exile (his ancestors)? What if Jesus was more like my Chinatown grandma than that powerful hipster pastor I’m always jealous of? He re-explores things like MISSION, JUSTICE, COMMUNITY, FAMILY & CALLING through this lens.

I finished this book richly proud of my Chinese ancestry, broken over the plight of disenfranchised non-model-minority Asians in the Bay Area, hopeful about what God is still doing through amazing yet mostly “invisible” people, but challenged to live my faith in a way that may run counter to the power and reward structures of our world.

Reflection: Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Dear Sons,

I recently finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me. I expected to come into a deeper encounter with the experience of being black in America—and I did. But what I did not expect was to come into a deeper awareness of my love and responsibility for you.

See, Coates is a journalist and a brilliant writer. He recently won a Macarthur Genius Award. But this book, although a memoir, is written to not only to convey his story, but also his love for his one and only son. By birth, Coates was thrust into the chaotic streets of Baltimore, where even his loving, unreligious, but strict home were living legacies, the ongoing fall out of the subjugation of “black bodies.” He went to Howard University, a historically black college, and found a safe place to explore the full spectrum of blackness. Yet even there, was reminded ‘safe’ is a relative word when one of his friends—a young man who turned down Harvard for Howard, whose mother was Chief of Surgery, a man who was bound for success—was shot by a police officer. Coates met his wife at Howard too—another black person, similar but different from him. They travelled to Paris and experienced not only a sense of foreignness by geography, but also because of they were no longer viewed as especially dangerous or suspicious, i.e., black; he felt like a fish out of its water; and even if that water was poisonous, it was familiar. But then he had his son. Not born into the same chaos Coates knew when he was young. Yet he saw how his boy, born into a new era, could so easily be pushed aside. He saw how his son ran into his room to weep when he saw Michael Brown lying in the middle of the street on the TV. And Coates realized that as far as he’d tried to struggle and live well into being a black man in America, that he would not ultimately succeed if he did not pass the baton to this son whom he loved.

I have not been the worst father, but I have not been the best either. It’s not fair to you guys that the person who is responsible for fathering you is still working out his own identity, his own insecurities, his own imperfections, his own demons. It’s not fair to you guys that Daddy isn’t perfectly selfless, that Daddy is still learning to be Daddy. I didn’t grow up on the chaotic streets of Baltimore, but I did grow up in confusion. I grew up in a loving Toisanese family, but felt embarrassed by them at school. I grew up in a world, that still makes me feel unwelcome. I look back with shame at how, in struggling to be an American teenager, I disrespected my hard-working immigrant parents and made them feel hurt and rejected. But, also unlike Coates, I found God, or better put, Jesus found me. And things have been changing. And the world continues to change too. But not that much. Even as an adult, even as someone who’s been following Jesus for over 20 years now, I am still someone who is just beginning to grasp the edges of self-knowledge, and far from self-mastery, and even further from Christ-likeness. Yet this is the Daddy you have.

There’s a part of me that wants to apologize. And I do. But what all of me wants to do is love you. And by love you, I do mean hug and play with you. I do mean teaching you ride a bike and run a route. But I also mean teaching you what I’ve learned about life, about being a Chinese-American Christian man. And ultimately to be better than Daddy. Because by default, you will be no better than me.

One day, you will read the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and you will at first think they are wise pithy sayings. But eventually you will learn that these are hard wrought lessons of a king to his sons, the future kings of Israel. And that’s what you are. You are my princes, you are the future kings of this world—even if the world will not have you. And I promise to not only father your strength, but also your mind, heart, and soul.

Coates with his son Samori.
Coates with his son Samori.

“I Can’t Breathe”

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I can’t breathe
The unbearable weight of history
Of subjugation, segregation, stop-and-frisk-ation
Boring down into my back
Crushing my chest
Strangling our souls
Let me tap Uncle
I will let you win
I will surrender my cig
If you will just let me breathe
Now beneath the weight of dirt
I’m waiting for justice

I can’t breathe
The loss of another
Son of a mother, a father, a brother
This shitty record is broken
Injustice rolls like a motherfuckin waterfall
Away with the noise of your songs
I can’t listen to the music of you harping on
Why won’t you just stop and frickin listen?
Now beneath the weight of your laws
We’re waiting for justice

I can’t breathe
I’m choking on these fallen tears
I can’t breathe
I’m exhausted from the fight
I can’t breathe
I’m holding my breath
Because if there is no Advent
There can be no justice
If there is no rising again
There can be no peace
Just the status quo
Holding up the weight of the world as we know
And we will be waiting for nothing

But as for me
I will walk
A prisoner of hope
Waiting for that sigh of relief
Waiting for justice

Ferguson: Speaking as an Asian American + Christian

This has been a pensive week for me. Ferguson, MO has been on my mind. But more specifically, the ringing challenge of certain Asian American friends who have called the relative silence of their fellow Asian Americans unacceptable, saying we owe a debt to the Black community because of the freedoms we’ve all gained in their fight for civil rights. And while these calls have unsettled me, I have been mulling on their challenge. After all, wounds from a friend can be trusted, right?

At the same time, as a (recovering) news and political junkie, I’m keenly aware that not only are there many sides to a story, but stories are often used to persuade and politicize. This is not new. This is, in fact, the power of story. In fact, I daresay, there is no such thing as a truly objective story.

But thirdly, as I mentioned in my previous post, I am still testing out my voice in the public conversation on race. This is scary for me because I’m prone to not only be misunderstood, but also maligned. As a learner, my beliefs are still fluid. But not all will read my words this way. But in this spirit, here are some continuing thoughts:

I stand by my belief that the race conversation in America, continues to be irrelevant to Asian Americans. Again, I am not saying that racial reconciliation or racial righteousness is irrelevant to us, but the conversation, as it stands, continues as if we don’t exist or belong. We are, predictably, perpetual foreigners to the conversation. E.g., this great article: 10 Ways White Christians Can Respond to Ferguson is addressed to whom? White Christians, not non-Black Christians, but White Christians (I do understand the sentiment though, because White Christians have a unique responsibility in America because of their privileged race). But I think it goes deeper than that, because as Asian Americans, we don’t quite identify with the Black experience or the White experience. Our experience is Other. I think this is why I took such umbrage to the headline: The Unacceptable Silence of Asian American Christians in Response to Ferguson (I realize now that the title didn’t really reflect the actual blog post). Because I felt like I was being co-opted into a story, on the basis of my race – that never truly included me. And this is why, predictably, you see Asian Americans who sympathize more with Brown, others with Wilson, and many others who are Other: they got other things to do. And lastly, at least for me, when I think of race relations, I almost never think of Blacks or Whites – because both have been among the fastest shrinking populations in the Bay Area, my home base. E.g., I have a Black neighbor now, but before he moved in, the family living there was Ghanaian. The two White neighbors I had: a Lithuanian and a Brit. The rest are Afghan, Indian, Filipino, Guatemalan, Mexican, Japanese, and Chinese. The race conversation, re-ignited by Ferguson, isn’t really about this kind of world. The race conversation that is relevant to me is multi-cultural among equally powered peoples, not bi-cultural between unequally powered ones.

As Asians, we’re slower to speak up in general. You might think that is a stereotype – which of course, it is. But I challenge you to have a Bible Study with a equally mixed group of Whites, Blacks, and Asians. You might have one Asian who is always willing to speak up, but more likely than not, you’ll find that Asians wait longer before speaking, prefer to speak in turn or when they are called on, and may go through the whole study without saying much at all. We are less likely to be external processors, more likely to fear saying something that is wrong. And by the time we’ve figured out something worth saying, the group’s already moved on to the next question! We need time, we need space, we need to be asked for our opinion.

Tensions exist between Asians and Blacks too. Wouldn’t it be great if in times of pain, we could just forget the past and just rally around one another? Yes, but that’s not how things always work out. Reconciliation is a prerequisite to community, and right now, there is still too much crap between Asians and Blacks. For example – and I don’t mean to throw my family under the bus here – but I grew up with a fearful and disparaging view of Blacks. It was rarely taught that explicitly, but when you see your parents lock the car doors enough times, pull you in closer enough times when a Black man walks down the street; you hear enough stories about criminal activity or lazy people – and they tend to always feature someone who is African American; you get told enough times that certain neighborhoods are “bad” because of crime, poverty, schools, and oh, there are a lot of Black people living there — eventually, you get the picture (thankfully, my parents no longer share these views — one of the benefits of actually having Black friends). It’s no secret among Asians that our community harbors deep racist attitudes towards Blacks. On the other hand, as some of my readers have pointed out, the experience Asians have had with Blacks has been disproportionately bad. In 2008, the city of SF found that a stunning 85% of physical assaults were Black-on-Asian. In 1992, Korean-owned stores were disproportionately hit by African-Americans in the LA riots — 45%. And in Ferguson, Asian-owned stores were also disproportionately hit. I pray for White-Black reconciliation. But I also pray for Black-Asian reconciliation.

We do owe a debt. Scott Nakagawa outlines “Three Things Asian Americans Owe to the Civil Rights Movement.” (1) The freedom to marry interracially, which Asian Americans are more likely to do than any other ethnic group. (2) The right to vote, which was won for all races. (3) The Immigration and Nationality Act which ended racist discriminatory laws against Asians. Many of us would literally not be here if it weren’t for the sacrifices made by Black Civil Rights leaders. At the same time, many of us have also benefited from White privilege as well (which again, is why we don’t fit neatly on one side or the other). In fact, those of us who’ve achieved any measure of success have often done so through paths well-worn by our White neighbors.

I still believe the Good Samaritan is the best paradigm for Christian response. Another thing that bothered me about Erna’s post was that, in the end, she appealed to our common humanity: “It’s not a Black problem- It’s a mothers and fathers losing their babies problem…a human problem.” That sounds compelling. But I do think it glosses over a crucial truth, namely that Ferguson is about race. And attempting to de-racialize Ferguson in order to appeal to our common humanity does violence to the reason people are marching on the streets (see more below). Moreover, as I mentioned in my previous post, while I can imagine losing my son and the grief I’d suffer – it’s a whole other thing to see my son in Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. That is a story and history my family and I have not lived.

But Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan doesn’t try to extinguish difference. It is based on the truth that our experiences and our previous animosities exist. God always begins with the world as it is, not as we wish it were. Jew v. Samaritan, Black v. White, Asian v. Black – it’s all there, it all sucks, but it’s all real. But Jesus teaches that in spite of these differences and past animosities, it’s not about who your neighbor is, but whether or not you are a loving neighbor. If you see your enemy beaten down on the side of the road, you don’t stop to check first who the guy is before you help; you just help! And then, of course, Jesus ate his own medicine on the Cross. Different histories and past animosities do not present a chasm too wide for Jesus’ cruciform love and the new kind of community he died to give birth to. If this is not true, the whole Christian story is not true.

To distinguish my conflicting feelings, I’ve found it helpful to parse Ferguson into three overlapping narratives: the legal narrative, the historical narrative, and the personal narrative.

The legal narrative is about the “facts” of the discrete event between Brown and Wilson, and specifically who was at fault: Why was Brown stopped? What words were exchanged? Did Brown assault Wilson? Why did Wilson shoot, and why six times? And with respect to the legal narrative, there are still too many unanswered questions. I also fear the politicization of this case might make facts harder to come by. This is also why many of my Asian American friends have had little to say. The grand jury investigation is just beginning, and I pray that the facts of the case will make things clear.

The historical narrative is the story of the Black community crying out: AGAIN? In the historical narrative, whether Brown assaulted Wilson isn’t the point. Because his death – as an unarmed young black man – is yet more proof that America is still not a safe place to be Black. And the fact that Brown’s body was left there in the blazing sun in public view for hours on the street, the fact that the local Ferguson police responded with such military-style force to protestors, the fact that facts have been so slow in coming, the fact that a number of voices have been so critical instead of supportive of the Black community’s response of pain – seems to confirm this suspicion. The historical narrative is bigger than the legal narrative. The historical narrative is why Ferguson has become iconic.

And lastly, there is the personal narrative. This is the story most of us overlook (but to which Erna rightful directs us) – which is that beneath the political and social narratives, there is quite simply, a mother who has lost her son; a community has lost one of their own. And the legal facts are completely irrelevant. I have boys of my own, and I can’t imagine how losing a guilty son is any better than losing an innocent one. Loss is loss. Death is death. There is also the story of Officer Wilson. Journalist are trying to dig into his background, but we really have no idea what is going on in his heart and his mind:  fear, anger, guilt, confusion, regret, peace? In any case, I can’t imagine life being very easy for him anytime in the near future. And I hope against revenge.

So how do I think we should respond as Asian American Christians?

  1. Learn. Some other places have suggested books. That’s a steep first step for something that might be new to us. Begin by just reading quality news and blogs.
     .
  2. Check your latent racism. I’m not suggesting that we haven’t been recipients of racism too in the Black-Asian dynamic. But as Christians who live under the Cross, which is purported to have dismantled the dividing wall of hostility between racial/ethnic enemies, it’s not about what the other community has done, it’s about what Christ has done. That’s not enough for reconciliation, obviously – but it begins there. Otherwise we just perpetuate it.
     .
  3. Mourn with those who mourn. I have a few Asian-American friends who can truly empathize with the Black community. For the rest of us, let’s not be disingenuous and pretend we do. Facebook is full of enough posers. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand. Most of my Black brothers and sisters, when it comes down to it, are asking not for more analysis but compassion. Two sources that have helped me:
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    This official statement from the African American leadership of our denomination, The Evangelical Covenant Church. It’s not just PR mumbo-jumbo. It’s real-talk with a glimmer of real hope.
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    This video from the Washington Post & The Maynard Institute. Probably the most eye-opening thing I’ve seen that connects Ferguson to the historical narrative.

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    Pray: “Though I cry, ‘Violence!’ I get no response;
        though I call for help, there is no justice. ~Job.
     .

  4. Talk. One reason that I’ve been relatively silent is that no one ever bothered to ask me what I thought. This is one reason why I’m blogging out loud. And one reason we spent a huge chunk of time learning and praying about this at our church this past Sunday. And while the fruit has been varied, it’s been good. The most common response is that most people have “heard of” what’s going on, they haven’t had time to really look into it – and now they will. Others have responded with tears. The most meaningful response was from one of our church kid’s ministry workers, who is Ghanaian-American teen; she has two older brothers and came up to thank me for sharing about Ferguson and leading us to pray. Seriously, that made my week.
     .
  5. Advocate with God & Man regarding Ferguson.
     .
    So much is yet to come, and most of it is beyond our control. A 2-month long grand jury investigation has begun. Let’s pray for truth.
     .
    While protests are dying down, we should all be distressed by the violence shown by both sides. Many younger demonstrators, in particular – and many outside groups don’t share the enemy- and peace-loving ways of their forefathers. Even the Ferguson authorities have acknowledged that much of the violence is coming from non-Ferguson residents. I’m so thankful for experienced civil rights leaders and the churches in Ferguson who have been doing their best to advocate for peace. Let’s pray for peaceful protest.
     .
    Most – on both sides of the political aisle – believe that the various police authorities have much to repent for in response to this situation. Many are alarmed that local police forces now have hand-me downs from our Afghan military units. But imagine trying to maintain peace and order while fearing for your life. Let’s pray for the policing authorities.
     .
  6. Advocate with God & Man regarding all expressions of injustice. As news cycles work, before long, Ferguson will fade into the past. While I do not share as grim of a view of our nation as some do–e.g., I think most minorities are happier to live in the America of today than the America of 50 years ago–I do believe that sin and injustice are stubborn weeds. God hates sin in all its forms. So with the energy and influence we’ve been given, let’s do what we can to pray, vote, advocate, and rally for a more just and peaceful society. And let’s always remember: our means must always reflect our ends.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world
as your love would have it:
a world where the weak are protected,
and none go hungry or poor;
a world where the riches of creation are shared,
and everyone can enjoy them;
a world where different races and cultures
live in harmony and mutual respect;
a world where peace is built with justice,
and justice is guided by love.
Give us the inspiration and courage to build it,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Calling all Asian Americans to speak up about Ferguson?

This has been a disturbing week for America in the news as we’ve seen the unfolding events in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.

My reading of the events is that his death was wholly unnecessary (as I do nearly all gun-related deaths) and a deadly expression of a jacked up system that has been sinfully embedded in our national DNA for much too long. Since then, I’ve seen protest break out into the streets, calls for more transparency from the police, calls for the intervention by the UN, and calls for White pop stars to speak up. And then, I got “interrupted”…

First by this by a friend and fellow pastor whom I love I respect:

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And then this, by one of our denomination’s superintendent’s, whom I also love and respect. The blog post Greg shares is written by a Korean American, on The Unacceptable Silence of Asian American Christians in Response to Ferguson:

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The first post was jarring and convicting. It led me to allude to Michael Brown in my most recent sermon on Politics, although admittedly not by name. But the blog post really stopped me – especially the title. But this time, in a negative way.

I’ll be honest, I am pretty new to the public conversation about race. Just check out my previous posts; more people care about my thoughts on being a father of three than on my musings on race and identity. I’m also pretty new to a deeper understanding of the disturbingly unique experience of being Black in America. So rather than keep my thoughts to myself out of fear and shame, I thought I’d put them out there in hopes that the collective wisdom of the internet can teach me something (don’t laugh).

The short of it is I was very uncomfortable with the “The Unacceptable Silence…” blog. I know, boo-hoo, I was made to be uncomfortable. But let me share why:

  1. As an Asian American, the public conversation about race feels irrelevant to me. There I said it. I’m not saying it is irrelevant, but the dominant language, categories, and history don’t really include people like me. When I think “race conversation”, I think Blacks and Whites. And by most accounts, so do those who write about race in America (or at least those who get posted on Facebook). Don’t get me wrong, I am not insensitive to the pain Blacks feel. Last year, a young black man was shot across the street from our church by a police officer. I went to the vigil, on behalf of our church, to hear their stories and to stand with our neighbors as they grieved without answers; it opened my heart and my eyes. But I also left more convinced that the Black experience in America is unique. Even with the plethora of racism that my family and my kin have faced here in America, it stands in a category that is quite separate from being kidnapped, beaten, trafficked, sold, families rendered, and then systematically discriminated against to boot. Understandably, the Black-White relationship has been the dominant narrative. But that narrative has left me feeling somewhat outside of the conversation. Every time I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, I get it, but at the same time, I don’t get it. Get it?
  2. My experience of being Chinese American was less about violence and more about deep psychological insecurity. Just read American Born Chinese. It is the funniest and most sympathetic telling of my racial and ethnic story here in America (is it unacceptable that Blacks have yet to pick this book up in droves?). The short version is that I didn’t grow up fearing White people, I grew up wanting to be like them. Meanwhile, my parents implicitly taught us that we must work hard to be better than them. There were two racial boogie men in our family: the stereotypical dangerous black man, and the stereotypical lazy white teen. We feared the former, but feared becoming the latter.
  3. To hear that our “silence” as Asian Americans is “unacceptable” feels not only forced, but makes me feel disrespected as an Asian American. Why is our silence unacceptable? This is probably not the intent of the author, but the impression I get is that, of course we should join in the collective suspicion on White authority.  Of course we should stand in solidarity over our collective experience of racism. But see, that is not my story. That is not even the shape of my story. And to suggest that I have any reason to feel the same way that Blacks do when their Trayvon Martins and Michael Browns get shot feels offensive – not just to me, but I can’t imagine how that is not weird to Blacks. I do not teach my three boys to be suspicious of the police, when we see police officers we stop to ask if they have any stickers for my boys, and I do not see my sons when I see Trayvon or Michael. The relationship that young Black men have with the police or dominant society is categorically different than the relationship that my boys have with them. Now, would I grieve if Michael was my son? Of course. But the rallying cry in the blog is not based on parenthood, but based on being a racial minority.
  4. What I appreciate most about my friend Gail’s post is that what moves, angers, and disturbs me about Michael Brown’s death – it doesn’t come primarily from being Asian American (although, I’m sure there is some of that). It comes from the compassion of being a fellow human being who has felt helpless before. It comes from the ability to colorfully imagine Michael Brown being one my son. But most importantly, it comes from being a Christian – who in the pattern of Jesus, is called to not only care about injustice, but to care about the injustices suffered by people who have very little in common with me. Just read the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a subversive racial story that ends with Jesus telling people like me: Go and do likewise. I am in no way saying that race has nothing to do with Michael Brown’s death. I’m just saying it’s hard for me to see what my race has to do with it. But I’m not so sure how much that really matters in light of the teachings of Jesus.
  5. I feel pretty convicted about what’s happening in Ferguson. I guess I could re-post stories and thoughtful commentary. I just haven’t come across too much that doesn’t just feed into the overly simplistic racial picture that we already know exists. Honestly, posting about injustice on Facebook – it’s tired and tiring. Give me a better way, and I’ll do it.

These are my honest thoughts. I’d love to hear yours. If you think I’m off-base, let me know. I want to learn.

“Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?” (Ch. 3 Reflections: The Early Years)

This post is long overdue – life got busy.

I love the question which opens this chapter, a question Tatum’s daughter once asked her:  “Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?”  Hearing kids talk about race is fun and sometimes even subversive.  My kids have never referred to their friends as White, Black, Yellow, or Red – because, it turns out, none of us are actually those colors (except Brown).  Race, I’m reminded, is a social construct.  Another example:  I just polled my three boys; oldest says he’s Chinese, middle says he’s English, and youngest says he’s Spanish (I asked him why, Because I look Spanish.)  But these humorous conversations with kids about race remind me that while kids certainly have some wrong-headed ideas about race, so do we as adults.

Talking to our kids about race isn’t easy.  Some parents fear that by introducing the conversation so early, they are raising questions and concerns that before didn’t exist.  Even for patently racist parents, they know that they must speak about race in hushed tones, or at least behind closed doors.  And yet passing on values about racial & ethnic identity and relationships to our children is vital, even if it happens non-verbally.  I am convinced that there are a few places where we can see where our real values are.  One is how we use money.  The second is how we raise our kids.  As a Christian, it’s almost cliche to talk about people who are Christians – until it comes to their money and their children.  But this an untenable position before a Jesus who told his disciples:  “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt 19:14).

There are some stark differences though between Tatum’s world and my world.  First, I am not Black; while I am a racial minority, there is something categorically unique to the stigma associated with being Black in America and something unique to the relationship between Blacks and Whites.  Second, it seems like I live in a much more diverse neighborhood than Tatum does; where I live, Whites are as populous as Latinos, Filipinos, Chinese, and Indians; White normalcy seems to be more prevalent in her neighborhood, or at least at her children’s schools.  Third, my kids already come home with messages about racial inclusion and equality–unsurprising given the racial diversity among their teachers.  And for these reasons, I don’t naturally feel as nervous about my kids growing up as Chinese-Americans as Tatum does with her kids.  This doesn’t mean that there is no racism in our neighborhood–there is, but not of the character Tatum writes about.  At this stage, they don’t perceive that they are worse off or that they are weird because of their looks or their Chineseness.  They don’t think they are yellow because they drank “too much” (insert yellow colored drink).  In fact, they would be happy to bring their Chinese soy milk or yogurt drinks to school with a level of confidence that would have put my 3rd grade self to shame.  As far as they are concerned they are as different and as similar as their friends who are Armenian, Filipino, Caucasian, etc.  At least for now (or more accurately, as far as I know.)

Tatum advocates that FIRST, we should be happy to accept children for where they are at developmentally (often making broad generalizations, e.g., about one’s consumption of chocolate milk).  SECOND, we as adults need to watch how we unconsciously transmit messages about race to and around our kids (do we mention someone’s race unnecessarily?  especially in a pejorative way, or to express surprise?).  And THIRD, we should help them develop a critical consciousness (e.g., using racial stereotypes in media as simple entry points to teach them).

At this point, as a parent, I find myself emphasizing three things with my children which overlap, but slightly differ from Tatum:

  1. ACCEPTANCE:  Like Tatum, I accept where my kids are with respect to their understanding of race and ethnicity.  After that one conversation, I have never asked my kids what race their friends are.  When they describe what’s unique about their friends, only once or twice have they ever referred to skin color; all other times they’ve referred to their hair color or curliness, their height or size, their raspy voice, and (when pressed) if it is a girl.  I want to learn about their world as they see it.  And even when my youngest insisted that he was Spanish because he looks Spanish (what does that even mean?), at this point, I see no reason to correct him.  Because at this point, self-discovery is just too fun and fluid.  The stuff my youngest says is wrong almost half the time.  And rather than spending all my time correcting him and stifling the joy of discovery, I delight in seeing how he discovers things about himself.  But with my older son, I do find myself correcting him because he’s old enough – but I always do it in a way that steers his understanding of the truth rather than making him feel embarrassed for being so “ignorant.”  We laugh a lot when we talk about race, ethnicity, gender, or outer space aliens — and I hope, learn a lot too.
  2. IDENTITY:  Clearly, two of my boys have identity issues (but who doesn’t?).  But that’s the freedom they have at this age.  But what does it mean to be Chinese-American?  I resonate with this question, because I am Chinese, and yet I’m not.  I look Chinese, yet I don’t speak Chinese.  I have Chinese family values, and yet I am also a Western individualist.  I cook and eat Chinese food, but pretty much every other cuisine as well.  My kids are the same.  Unlike my grandparents, I don’t feel the need to preserve their Chinese-ness, and yet I want them to have a sense of what it means to be Chinese-American, especially in the diverse environment that they are growing up in.  Recently, I’ve been reading through with my boys Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a marvelous graphic novel that approaches the Boxer rebellion from the Traditional Chinese perspective and the Catholic Chinese perspective.  There’s also lots of gods, and magic, and knives, so my boys love it.  I also read Yang’s American Born Chinese with my oldest – and to my surprise, he understood it’s meaning, despite not growing up wanting to be like the cool White kids.  What I love about these stories is that they are both Chinese and Western.  Yang offers a narrative that not only bridges those two worlds and their histories, but also brings the tensions to surface.  I am resistant to the idea of imposing what it means to be Chinese-American on my boys, and story provides the freedom for them to discover that for themselves with some narrative anchors.
  3. JUSTICE:  Particularly out of my Christian convictions, I want my children to grow up being sensitive to anyone or any group that is being ignored, bullied, or singled out in a pejorative fashion–regardless of the social marker.  I regularly ask them if there are people who no one wants to play with, that everyone laughs at because I want them to be the first to be their friend, to include them.  Race has generally not been something I have specified as a reason to rile them to action, again, because they have not brought it up as a reason.  More often, it will be because someone is smelly, or weird, or dumb, or mean (do these labels track with race, gender, or socioeconomic status?  maybe/maybe not).  A good friend of ours has a son who is autistic, so that is also on my radar.  As they become more race-aware, you bet it will be a more intentional conversation.

If you’re parent, it’d be great to hear what’s on your mind when it comes to conveying messages and values about race to your children.