05/25/16

Where are my Asian American women heroes?

imagesIn the last few years there has consistently been stories about the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Black people only win Oscars for playing slaves and maids, never modern day characters of complexity and agency. Asian American men are never love interests, hence #StarringJohnCho. Lupe Ontiveros, a Latina actress, has been cast as a maid over 150 times. On the other end of the spectrum you can get a movie made about a white man with a dizzying amount of variety- badass scientist on Mars, hilarious sarcastic action hero Deadpool, earnest and sexy lover of the truth Captain America who fights billionaire genius inventor white man Iron Man, emotionally broken white man vigilante that dresses like a bat versus sincere and earth saving alien that always manifests as a white man. I’m just listing the lead characters of some of the top grossing movies of 2016. You can also get a movie made about a white guy who is in love with a blow up doll, who is a serial killer, a mobster, a lonely widow, just about anything. The stories we tell, reflect something of who and what we value. It can be easy to dismiss the deeper reasons for this conversation about representation. It can seem superficial. And as a woman of color, sometimes I have a hard time putting into words the impact it has on me, because I’ve never known anything different.

About a year ago I had the chance to meet an artist at a conference in Memphis. It was Bay Area, Korean American artist Dave Kim. I was intrigued. I come from the generation of Korean Americans where everyone was supposed to play the piano and be a doctor, dentist, or lawyer. So meeting Korean American visual artist was a little bit like seeing a unicorn, I was intrigued. I asked to see some photos of his art and he showed me photos of his paintings and a mural he had painted in the Bay Area.

This is the mural.

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And then he explained. The mural tells the story of Yu Gwan Sun, a Korean freedom fighter. On the left side she is young, with her friends. On the far right she faces death for her cause. She was an organizer of the March 1st Movement, a protest against the occupation of Korea by Japan. She became of symbol of Korea’s fight for freedom through peaceful protest.

Here is a video of Dave putting up the mural.

I was so taken aback by this Korean American brother who, would not only paint the story of a woman, but of a freedom fighter. I had never in my life experienced that. A woman of my ethnicity, from my culture, who lived passionately for justice. I have never heard my own story told back to me. I have never heard it told by someone who thought it was worth their time, and energy, and creativity to tell. I didn’t realize how much this had impacted me until I was talking to someone else the following day. We were all chilling in the lobby after teaching our seminars and I introduced Dave to someone new and I began to talk about his mural.  As I described the mural, I teared up. I was crying in the lobby with strangers. And I had to pause and figure out why I was feeling so stirred. I had never seen someone else say, a woman like you, a Korean woman like you, with the passions you have- that is a story worth telling.

Either woman like me are totally absent from stories, or we are prostitutes, masseuses, or martial artists or the wives of white hipster. Ironically the reality of this was pressed home when I was back in Memphis a few months later.  A young man walked up to me and said “You look like that person in the Rush Hour movie.”

I was confused, I look like Jackie Chan? “Which one?”

“You know, the masseuse.”

The only Asian woman’s story he could draw from when he saw me, was that of a  masseuse/ prostitute.

YURI KOCHIYAMA

A couple days ago my FB feed was filling up as Asian American friends posted Google’s image13220816_10153596005353372_8171781156352047127_n of the day, which depicted Japanese American activist Yuri Kochiyama. It would have been her 95th birthday. Born in Southern California, imprisoned in the Japanese internment camps, she and her husband eventually settled in New York where they raised their six children. She was one of the few non-black people deeply committed to the Black Nationalist movement. She met Malcolm X in 1963 and joined The pan- Africanist Organization of Afro American Unity. And she was present in the Audubon Ballroom when he was assassinated.

pic4I had heard of her a few years ago, but I will be honest, she didn’t really register. As much as I can articulate the way that our history has centered on white men and has dismissed, minimized, and erased the history of people of color, especially women of color, I am still colonized in my mind. And the fact that I had never heard of her, made it hard for me to believe she was really a person of import. Her story surfaced again a couple years ago when she died. And again, I felt like she couldn’t count. If she was really a role model, I would have heard of her before now, right? But then seeing her on google the other day, she finally registered in my conscious. It took hearing about her multiple times.  And there was something validating about seeing her on the google search. As dumb as it may sound, a mainstream voice was telling me she was important and worth knowing impacted me. So I looked up more about her life and I was so inspired.

Malcom-X-Yuri-Kochiyama-time-magazine It hurts me to see the way that misogyny and white supremacy have seeped into my own thinking. It hurts me that I would devalue someone that I should identity with deeply. Malcolm X has been one of my heroes since I read his autobiography in high school. To realize that an Asian American woman had been there, doing the work with him, it stengthened me. This last December, at a conference where I was leading worship,  I had a chance to stand with my African American brothers and sisters and add my voice and heart to the cry that Black Lives Matter.

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And it changes me to know that I follow in the footsteps of an activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Yu Gwan Sun.  So I thank you Dave, you introduced me to Yu Gwan Sun. And I thank you Google, cause you validated an important story. And thank you Yuri- for being a pioneer. Its not lost on me that it was two pieces of visual art that moved me forward in my process. Artists- keep using your art to be prophetic, to affirm, validate and expand the stories we are telling. We need you. Our country needs you. That kid in Memphis needs you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

03/12/16

How a Trump Rally Restored my Faith in Humanity

Caveat- This post is not trying to explain or justify my POV as a WOC Christian activist. I’m not doing an apologetic about why Trump is bad news  (others have written plenty on that). Usually I try to define terms and explain my POV more. This is not that post. This is for those who already understand why I would go to a Trump rally to protest, specifically as an expression of my love for Jesus and my commitment to justice. And for those who understand my passion for multi-ethnic community.

When I arrived in Chicago three days ago I didn’t even know Trump was coming to town. Mostly out of curiosity and a bit on a whim I registered myself and my friend Terrance for the rally. Tickets were free.

Word spread among the crew I was with and more tickets were reserved.

The night before the rally I turned to Terrance. I had spent a portion of the day watching videos of black men getting punched at Trump rallies, the other portion of my day I spent reading a ricoh theta s review which I found very interesting.

Terrance is a friend, pastor, worship leader, active in Christian community development, and a spazz that makes jokes in the most serious of conversations. He is also an African American man.

“So Terrance- are we going to this thing to observe or to protest?”

“Erna- my body is a protest.”

I went to sleep meditating on that answer.

By two in the afternoon, the day of the rally, I was in a room with my fellow protesters.

I hadn’t realized that my friend Bethany had decided to attend. Bethany is a passionate social justice leader. She runs a program for youth, she’s a grant writer, Latina, and oh yeah- she’s 7 months pregnant.

The thought of going to a Trump protest with a Latina woman that is 7 months pregnant scared the crap out of me. I have been watching video after video of the hateful treatment of protesters. And have watched the shocking video of a man sucker punching a protester leaving a rally.

“Bethany- are you sure you want to go? Is it wise?”

Instantly- with tears in her eyes, total confidence in her voice “I..AM..GOING. I am second generation Mexican American. My great grandmother was Indigenous Mexican. My kids are scared. ( She was referring to the Latino youth she works with.) I want to be able to look them in the eye and say that I made them see our humanity.”

So that was the end of that conversation.

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Praying before we leave for the rally

We discussed different possible disruptions. We had no idea what to expect in terms of other protesters. We knew there would be some outside of the event, but not sure how many would be in the rally itself. We prepared for the worst.

We assigned three people to Bethany and two of us to Terrance. We practiced blocking Bethany from people that might push her or shove her. We chose a song that we would sing. We prayed.

We were dropped off several blocks from the event and within an hour we were seated in the auditorium. There were far more people of color than I expected. I assumed most were not Trump supporters, but you never know. There were several yelling matches that broke out, and the atmosphere felt like a bar at 1am on a Saturday. People were gunning for a fight- just for entertainment.

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Terrance and me at the rally

Soon two people were yelling at each other and it became clear that an entire section was college students from the school- there to protest. We all sighed with much relief. There were other protesters in the room.

As we waited, several snapshots that locked into my brain.

A group of 5 young Latino college students were walking around our area. And one young woman was carrying a sign that said- UNDOCUMENTED UNAFRAID

I teared up immediately.

There is no way, as an 18 or 19 year old, I would have had the courage to walk into a room of Trump supporters and hold up that sign. Shoot- I was afraid. Afraid for me, for Terrance, for Bethany. I was afraid for her.

There was something beautiful about her courage- saying I am here. I am a person. I won’t hide.

A few rows in front of me were a group of Middle Eastern college students. All of the women were wearing hijabs. One young woman had an hijab that was a US flag. Ever so often she would turn around and look back at the rows behind her. She was quite beautiful. Not only in the superficial sense, but the beauty of being herself. Bringing her body into a space where people have been encouraged to reduce her to a caricature. Courage and beauty everywhere.

I can’t recount every detail.

There were a few yelling matches. One black man in a muscle shirt ardently supporting Trump. One old grandma with a cowboy hat and head to toe flag outfit walking around yelling at the crowd.

It was already 40 minutes after things were supposed to start when it was announced that the rally was cancelled.

It’s hard to explain what happened in the next 30 seconds, but my favorite thing was watching half the crowd go through some sort of transformation. I unzipped my jacket to reveal my protest shirt-the name of a dozen black men that have been shot by police. Like Clark Kent, white people who had been down on the floor, pulled opened their button up dress shirts to reveal “White supremacy is the enemy” written with puffy paint on t-shirts. Signs were pulled out of backpacks, coats, and pockets. A giant rainbow flag was unfurled and several young women waved it together. Everything people had been waiting to do once Trump was on stage exploded, as well as delight and triumph.

I’m clearly a sucker for college students. I’ve been in campus ministry since 1997. But I fell in love with college students all over again. Their passion. Their incredible courage to be themselves. Their willingness to bring their full identities into a space of hostility. To say “I will not be turned into the enemy or into a caricature.”

Ironically it may be the most diverse crowd I have ever been in. The spaces where I usually experience racial diversity, marginalize the queer community. The spaces where queer folks are centered, I don’t usually see Muslim people.

Everyone was chanting together together. First “Shut It Down!” But then “Education not Deportation” and “Si se Puede!”

It was a good night.

The size of the protest reflects the fact that organizers have been on the ground for a while in Chicago, especially in response to Laquan McDonald. I have to give the city credit for showing up. I was honored to add my voice to theirs for this one day.

We were bracing for hostility and to see the worst. Instead I saw something beautiful. Thank you Chicago. And special shout out to the students of University of Illinois- Chicago. You did it.

 

 

Addendum- Since I have seen a lot of news reports and FB comments describing the event as very violent. I will speak to what I saw. I was inside the Pavillion. So I can’t speak to the dynamics outside between 5pm and 7pm. Inside, I witnessed 4 to 5 scuffles as people waited for the event, a few very angry Trump supporters and a few angry protesters. Some people were just gunning for a fight. But overall I found the energy less tense than I expected. There were several scuffles after it was announced that the rally was cancelled. There was a very jubilant celebration by protesters in the pavilion after the cancellation. I thought the police were appropriate in their use of force, for the most part. I would not have described the night as violent. I would describe it as tense at multiple occasions.

01/14/16

The Power of Silence and the Power of a Yell

In August, I was in Ferguson Missouri to mark one year since the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown Jr. I was attending Rev. Traci Blackmon’s church and they were honoring some of the parishioners who had been serving faithfully behind the scenes for the last year. It was really beautiful. At the end of it one of the women came and stood at the front of the church.

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

 It is our duty to win.

 We must love and support each other.

 We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

 She would call out one line and the congregation would echo it back. As each line progressed her voice grew louder. She finished the chant once and began again. Her voice was loud- yelling, which I rarely hear in church. And as she repeated the chant a second time- tears were pouring down her face.

By the time we got to the end of a second time we were yelling back at the top of our lungs. WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS.

This was the first time I had heard this chant and came to learn that it is commonly used among activists at protests.

What moved me, and has stuck with me, was all the history and emotion and courage that was held in that chant and in that women’s passionate outcry.

Black women, who have led on the ground in BLM,  have been pushed to the margins of our culture in so many ways. By race. By gender. Often by class. Their voices were marginalized in the feminist and suffrage movements. Their voices have often marginalized in their own communities. Their sexuality has been fetishized and distorted. Their beauty disregarded. Their point of view repeatedly pushed to the side. I can not do it justice in a few sentences. But knowing that history, I was moved to see this woman cry out. To yell out. To demand to be both seen and heard in the midst of all that mariginalization- that was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

In the face of violence, systemic oppression, harassment and fiscal exploitation at the hands of the police and the justice system in Ferguson- to cry out, to not lose hope, to fight tirelessly on the streets for a year. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

To put her heart out there, to reveal the pain, the tenderness, the fatigue, and to renew a vow to continue in the work. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

The moment encapsulates some of what I find profound, beautiful, powerful, and courageous about the women leading on the ground in Ferguson and in other parts of the BLM movement across the country.

In my culture, and in much of East Asian culture there is another tool. And it is silence.

This is captured by a look that I see on the face of older Asian women. A pause, a moment with eyes closed, clenched fist, a breath in, and then steady onward movement.

I see this in the face of Japanese American women who were sent to the internment camps. Stripped of dignity, humiliated, caged. When they walked out of those camps, to rebuild lives, holding the pain of that experience- they walked in silence. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

In the face of my own mother, who spent many years as a caretaker to my aging father. Staying with him, when many said she should divorce him because he was too old. She spent much of her youth caring for an old man, in silent suffering. Keeping our family together for my sake. That was a powerful act of dignity and courage.

In the face of immigrant women like my aunt, who had respect and place in her home country, but day in and day out is treated like she is stupid and less than because she can’t speak English very well. The way she carries on- bearing and carrying countless indignities to give her children a better life. That is a powerful act of dignity and courage.

I share this reflection because I think that there is so much misunderstanding between the Asian American and African American communities- the two communities in which I am most vested. One thing we share is women of great dignity and courage who sacrifice profoundly for the next generation. And yet when Asian Americans hear the yell- sometimes they miss the beauty and sacrifice and courage behind it. And sometimes when African American women see the silence, they miss the beauty and sacrifice and courage behind it.

Someday I hope we will realize we could be sources of each other’s healing.

We will realize that neither group of woman is comfortable talking about their pain.

That we have let the heavy fog of white supremacy lay like a blanket over us and our interpretations of each other. That we have believed lies about each other.

Maybe as we choose to see each other as we really are and hear each others stories, the fog will lift.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

01/11/16

Asian Immigrants and Black Lives Matter

Last week I had the pleasure of leading worship for Urbana- InterVarsity’s triennial missions conference. It was a fantastic experience. One of the highlights was a session where we led gospel worship and heard from local leader and activist Michelle Higgins. You can read a bunch of other posts about the ripples of that night. But at one point in the night, I asked people to respond to Michelle’s talk by being more open to listening to what people are saying through Black Lives Matter.

A few days later I was texting with my friend Christine, who is Chinese American. Here is the exchange.

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This texting exchange felt significant, it put something to words that I had felt below the surface. In my last post I talked some about why Asian Americans are uncomfortable with disruption and protest. For those of us who had parents that came over after The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965,  there is a shared experience. Many of our parents generation experienced great suffering in their homelands. My mother grew up on the tail end of the Korean war and ever so often I get small glimpses into the poverty and the pain. She’ll say things like

  • Your uncle doesn’t eat bean sprouts, because that’s all we ate when we were poor.
  • I had a teacher who paid for me to go to school. But then he could not help me anymore and I had to drop out of middle school and work in a factory.
  • I went to my brother to ask for a blanket, during the winter. Because winter is very cold in Korea. But he said he could not help me. And it hurt him so much.
  • When I came to this country people yelled at me to go back to Vietnam.

These moments are dropped in passing in the midst of other conversations. Sometimes with tears. But it seems like the pain is never really processed. And because so many others have a similar pain, it is dismissed.

And then the next generation has its own dance with stories of pain. I remember about 12 years ago, InterVarsity Los Angeles was focusing on issues of racial reconciliation. And there were some painful moments. But my friend Yii-Shyun and I had a hilarious and bizarre conversation comparing our suffering to that of our parents and grandparents. Statements like- “Grandma I know it was hard when you had to hide in a cave during the winter during the Cultural Revolution but.. I’ve suffered too… sometimes my staff partner doesn’t understand my culture.”

“Oh mom- I know it was hard when you barely had food and had to eat grass pounded with old rice and had no blanket for winter- but sometimes my organization doesn’t understand my biracial identity.”

Through humor and tears we were acknowledging that we carry the last generations pain with us- and it is not resolved. And it dwarfs our suffering. But we feel dissonance in our own life experience as well.Working on those organizational dynamics are important, but I want to focus on the unresolved suffering in our history.

There is a cultural value for absorbing and swallowing pain.

There is shame in revealing suffering or poverty.

There are very few acceptable cultural ways to ask about these past experiences. And even fewer ways to show compassion. ( Aziz Anzari actually does a pretty sweet job of tackling some of this in his show Master of None- episode 2)

Many first generation immigrants have painful stories locked inside. But some of the limits of our own culture lock those stories away and the pain is never healed. I truly believe that there is healing in telling your story and being heard with compassion, empathy, and kindness.

It’s not just stories from the motherland that are locked away. Many have misunderstood how painful the Japanese internment camps were to our Japanese American brothers and sisters, because so little of that pain was put to words.

But it was painful. It was humiliating and awful.

So we have very strong cultural factors that lock stories of pain inside. And the broader culture has interpreted this as meaning that we don’t feel pain and suffering as deeply as other people. I would suggest that part of why Asian Americans have a hard time hearing and showing compassion towards the story of black people in the US- is because they have shown very little compassion to their own stories. We have unaddressed pain and it makes it difficult to engage with another community’s pain.

This is where we need cross cultural community. Because an all Asian community will reinforce this cultural approach to narrative and pain. But sometimes another context, an outside voice, a different way can be introduced by an outsider.

As Asian Americans we need to find a way to present our pain and our stories to Jesus and to each other. I think our parents need room to share, lament, cry ( that really awkward painful cry of older Asian folks) and then actually process and receive healing.

And the grace we have received could become be the grace we extend.

Perhaps as we watch the black community seek compassion, dignity, and justice for its community. We can begin to do that for ourselves as well. And we can stand together with them. And hopefully they will stand with us. Since this is what is means to be Christian community.

10/22/15

Women Of Color in Justice Work- We need this!

Recently I was invited into a very special opportunity, the chance to help plan a gathering for women of color (WOC) in social justice work. I was very excited. I have had serious fan girl status toward Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes since I saw her facilitate a panel at CCDA’s national conference last year. And then I got her book, Too Heavy a Yoke- Black Women and the Burden of Strength and my respect kicked up to the next level. She was heading up this planning committee and I was pumped. The whole planning team is amazing women doing amazing work.

But as I started to think about the gathering, I got stuck. It was hard for me to put into words the need for this gathering. And my job is putting things into words!

I knew I was excited to be with other WOC.

I knew it was needed.

But I couldn’t explain why.

I’m used to talking about issues of race, but rarely the intersection of race and gender. I’m constantly talking about social justice, but rarely my experience as a women leading out in social justice work. I’m used to talking about class issues, racial conflict, and leading groups into conversations around race- but never in a context where my experience as a WOC leading into these things is centered.

Even though I talk about intersectionality all the time, I realize I’m not very fluent in the intersection of race, gender, and social justice work in my own life. Dr. Barnes summed it up perfectly. This is what is on the website regarding the gathering this November 14th and 15th.

 To be a woman of color committed to racial reconciliation and social justice in the Christian church––whether evangelical or mainline––is to be a perpetual outsider. Many of us are culturally and theologically isolated in the spaces where we live, work, and minister. Our existence at the intersection of race and gender invites unique experiences, different from those of our White sisters and our brothers of all races. Sometimes those experiences include struggling to be heard and valued by the very communities and organizations that we serve. When the burden of isolation becomes too much, we are tempted to walk away from CCD ministry and give up on the vision of beloved community.

I do often feel isolated. People label me as liberal, but I think of myself as evangelical and trying to be Biblical.  I’m fighting to be taken seriously as a women leader in the church. But when I am in the pulpit, I have to be careful not to get “too racial”, or share my own racialized experience of the world because it makes white people uncomfortable. When I lead out in social justice contexts, I have many wonderful partnerships with men, but we rarely bring gender into the conversation. And I watch as women, who work in the hood, are undervalued because people want men to step up and lead.

I want to invite you to join me in Memphis Tennessee for a gathering of Women of Color in social justice work. Come for the entire Christian Community Development Conference or come for the 24 hour gathering for Women of Color. You can get all the info you need at www.ccda.org

I think it will be good for our souls and our spirits.

08/12/15

24 Hours 365 Days Later in Ferguson

This post is to let you walk through Sunday August 9th, 2015 with me. It is not a reflection on what I learned about about the BLM movement. That is still coming. But since I had the privilege and opportunity to be in Ferguson on the one year mark of Michael Brown’s death, I wanted to let you experience it with me, since what I saw changed me and it will help you get closer to the people that are leading this movement on the ground.

6:30 AM

It’s already warm, and very humid as I and several friends/co-workers arrive at the Canfield apartments. Pastor Blackmon, a local pastor who has worked closely with the local activists has invited clergy to pray at the Michael Brown Jr.  Memorial. There are stuffed animals in the middle of the streets, but otherwise it is a very ordinary street running between two apartment complexes. But it is also sacred, because the activists in this suburb ignited a national movement. It is a picture that the sacred and the ordinary often look exactly the same. The profound and mundane are intertwined.

As I look around the circle of about 90 people that are gathered. Half are Black clergy. The next IMG_2392largest group is white women clergy, many wearing collars and stoles representing mainline denominations. There is a small group of Jewish clergy. And then a mix of white men, a few local activists, a few people like myself who are visiting. There are queer leaders and activists.

I am painfully aware that I and my friend Amy are the only Asian Americans in the circle. There are no Asian American clergy or pastors here.

I am aware that there are very few evangelicals present.

IMG_2375We spend 20 minutes praying.

When we are done most people linger for a while looking at the memorial, greeting each other.

I hear someone say this in passing “Everyone here is on the margins. On the margins of the margins.” And that rings true. Women clergy are on the margins of the church. Black people are on the margins of our society. Even more, trans and queer black people are further on the margins. And this feels like church. A version of the Kingdom that isn’t full of fear, always drawing lines and pushing people out.

Rather dramatically and fittingly, thunder starts rolling over us, and giant drops of rain drench us as we walk back to the car.

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11am

Half our group is participating in a silent march in Ferguson, with members of Michael Brown Jr.’s family and the family members of other shooting victims from around the country.  You can read Sean’s reflections on the experience here. We arrive at Christ the King church which is pastored by Pastor Traci Blackmon. Out front there are 179 crosses, one for each person who has died in a shooting death in St. Louis in the last year. I heard her preach yesterday at the Black Scholars event, and she was amazing. I was looking forward to hearing her preach again and must confess I was disappointed when I saw another name on the church sign.

The choir began singing and everyone was wearing a shirt that read

Black lives matterIMG_2381

Black love matters

Black votes matter

Black church matters

This encouraged me. Beginning with the week that Trayvon Martin was shot, I do not attend church, or only attend black churches after a shooting. I can not bear to be in a house of worship that does not even address the grief and pain that is happening in our country.

A place that claims to worship Jesus, who was a victim of police brutality, but does not talk about police bruitality today. A place that claims to worship Jesus, who died with a racial slur hanging over his head, but does not talk about the value of black lives. I can not sit in fellowship there. To claim to worship Jesus, but ignore the systemic oppression and violence against His people. It is a sin. I can not sing songs in that place.

So to enter a sanctuary, where every member of the choir is wearing a shirt that affirms Black lives. I am already ushered into the Lords presence.

Then the sermon by Dr. John Dorhauer.  What can I say about a white man who absolutely shocked me by preaching on white privilege in the deepest, most radical, and relevant way I have ever heard. Who exegeted and expounded on the image of the lion laying down with the lamb in ways I had never considered or imagined. He did so without guilt, apology, or centering himself in the narrative. It is the sermon I have longed to hear, and frankly hoped to hear in my own organization, but never have. Brother John, as we started calling him, spoke to my heart, soul, and mind in a profound way.

Here are some quotes.

  • There is only one pathway forward according Isaiah 11, and it is the one chosen by the lamb
  • The lion’s only task- to ask the lamb what it wants and what it requires so that it will willingly choose to lay down with the lion.
  • White privilege must be laid down at the feet of the lamb.
  • The lion must give up its memory. Its nostalgia for its own power.

We end with a chant that I hear again that evening. A rally cry. A woman stands in front of the group and says- repeat after me. She yells-

It is our duty to  fight for our freedom

It is our duty to win

We must love each other and support each other

We have nothing to lose but out chains

And she yells it a second time, at the tope of her voice, with tears coming down her cheeks.

IT IS OUR DUTY TO FIGHT FOR OUR FREEDOM!

IT IS OUR DUTY TO WIN!

WE MUST LOVE AND SUPPORT EACH OTHER!

WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS!

I am breathless by the time she is done. There is so much passion and commitment in the room. I am humbled. My heart is laid out before these everyday people that are on the streets daily, laboring for a new civil rights movement. And their complete commitment and devotion is inspiring and humbling. I really had no idea, the depth of commitment of the local activists.

7:00pm

We arrive at Greater St. Marks to hear Cornel West. The evening is opened by Rev. Osagyefo Sekou. (photo below) He is one of the clergy that has been leading on the ground in Ferguson.  He begins with a song

I hear my neighbor crying, I can’t breathe….   Sekou Boston keffiyeh

We’re calling out the violence of the racist police

We ain’t gonna stop until our people are free

Its a powerful opening.  He then gives an opening word and  introduces Dr. Cornel West.

Cornel West gets up and it is electric. He is passionate. He opens with,  “I’m not gonna take much time, cause the focus has to be on what’s happening on the streets. I’m not here to talk. I’m here to go to jail. ” He ends by calling the church out of hypocrisy and mediocrity and back to the prophetic.

When he is done I am breathless. It was a very short speech.  I’ve never wanted to chant someone 11873411_701936519933724_668913951796881565_nback on stage to make them keep talking. And he was true to his word. This is Rev. Sekou and Dr. Cornel West about to be arrested the following morning. They were at the St. Louis DOJ calling for expanded police reform.

After Dr. West a panel of amazing activists was sitting on the stage

  •  Rahiel Tesgamariam- follow her on Urban Cusp @urbancusp
  • Rev. Starsky Wilson  from St. Johns Church
  • Bree Newson- who removed the confederate flag from the South Carolina State house @breenewsome
  • Michael McBride- a Bay Area pastor that has been leading out on the west coast @pastormycmac
  • Rev. Leah
  • Pastor Blackmon- local clergy that is leading on the ground @pastortraci

Here they are after the event.

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Please look up these leaders and learn about them and follow them on twitter. They are critical voices to this movement and the ones you should be learning from. If you say you care about this movement, then you must take initiative to self educate. You can watch the entire event here.

More than what they said- which was insightful. There was something powerful about seeing this group of Black leaders, women and men, queer and straight, clergy and artists- leading and speaking unapoligetically as Black people. It made me realize that in the majority of contexts I am in, Black voices and leadership are not centered. But more than that, Black people are not thriving, they are not in a healthy environment.

Even in my own organization, which claims to hold a value for multi-ethnicity, Black leader must always cater to the feelings of the dominant culture. Their voices and perspectives are never centered. Even when black staff gather on their own, it is to respond to something the organization has or hasn’t done, or to figure out how to survive an organization that is not about their flourishing.  I have an entire post dedicated to this topic coming, so I won’t expound on this. But the contrast was marked.

The room was an electrifying contrast to almost any other space I have been in. It was unapologetic and it was church in the truest sense. Unafraid. Not trying to push people out. Fighting for justice.

I and my friends turned to each other when it was over. “I’m ruined for normal life.” “How am I going to go back?” We just kept repeating these questions to each other.

We left to grab dinner, but the restaurant we stopped in on had already closed its kitchen. Word that things were getting rowdy on the streets had spread, and they were getting ready to close. Unfortunately, things took a turn and shots were fired between two groups of people who appear unconnected to the protests. There was an officer involved shooting of an armed man later in the evening.

We ended up at the Waffle House across the streets from the hotel, emotionally hung over from all we had seen and experienced in one short day. Beyond words. Feeling changed forever.

If you want to hear more voices, check out the hashtags #FaithInFerguson and #FergusonTaughtMe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

08/3/15

The Parable of the Merciful Muslims

This is a guest post by my friend and co-worker Andrea Emerson. She shared it as a devotional reflectional to open a training I was leading a couple weeks ago for InterVarsity staff. InterVarsity is a Christian ministry to college students. We raise financial support to do our work, which we call ministry partnership development. These terms will be helpful in understanding her interpretation of the parable.  I deeply appreciated her contemporary take on the story of the Good Samaritan. Have a read and let us know your thoughts.

The Parable of the Merciful Muslims

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

He said to him, “What is written in the law?”

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied:

America has always been a deadly and dangerous place for our Black brothers and sisters. Publicized police killings of unarmed Black men and women in the past year have made this more obvious to those of us who have not lived their reality.

Last month after the slaughter of nine precious Black saints in Charleston the danger took a new, but familiar shape: Black churches began to burn.

In the ten days after the massacre, first one, then two…no three…four, five, six….seven, eight.

Eight Black churches burned –  a deeply painful reminder that to be a Black American is to find no mercy. Both the Charleston massacre and the subsequent church burnings cry out to us that not even the buildings of the Black church, a pillar and sanctuary of the community since slavery, are safe.

Our country is a deadly and dangerous place for our Black brothers and sisters.

In the wake of these church burnings most prominent White and Asian-American pastors behaved as if they did not know it had happened. Therefore, it did not occur to them to include the stories of these churches, let alone an entire year of #blacklivesmatter stories, in their sermons or invite their congregations to give toward rebuilding efforts. They just kept going with their church’s business as usual, unaware of this gaping wound in the capital “C” church in America.

Then there were the InterVarsity staff workers diligently spending their summers working on ministry partnership development. They were aware of what was happening, so they posted Facebook statuses filled with the language of mourning and outrage. “Black churches are burning and Christians who aren’t Black don’t know or care! We can change that!” they thought as they hit ‘share’. But they never asked their ministry partners and supporting churches to make generous gifts toward the rebuilding efforts of the burned Black churches, let alone make a gift of their own. They were too busy finding partners for themselves.

But then another story began to circulate: Muslim charities were collecting money to rebuild burned Black churches. They decided to use Ramadan, a holy month in Islam marked by self sacrifice and giving to launch their special campaign. Their “Respond with Love” campaign website states:

“ALL houses of worship are sanctuaries, a place where all should feel safe, a place we can seek refuge when the world is too much to bear. We want for others what we want for ourselves: the right to worship without intimidation, the right to safety, and the right to property.” *

But maybe not every church burned because of a hate crime, some pointed out. Do they deserve all of this money. All of this attention?

The Muslims were undeterred. The director for one of the charities spearheading the campaign said, “It doesn’t matter to us how or why these churches burned down, we want to help our Black sisters and brothers get back into their houses of worship as soon as they can. Ramadan is a time of giving and what better cause to give to than one that rebuilds houses of worship where God’s name is constantly called, remembered and loved.” *

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the Black Christians and Black Churches?

Jesus says to us, “Go and do likewise.”

I (Andrea) wanted to let myself off the hook. I was one of those irate InterVarsity staff who posted a link to an initial article about the Muslim charities. I wrote that I was almost certain the church where I’m a member would not take up an offering for this cause and how I felt a healthy sense of shame about it.

I was content to leave it at that.

But then a friend was curious if I planned to ask my church to take an offering. When I read his words I felt conviction: I am a supported missionary of my congregation, with the ear of the outreach pastor, and rather than use my position of power and privilege to bring awareness of injustice in the Church, I was content to let my position serve myself. I hadn’t thought to speak up. That is the real shame!

My friend invited me to choose the Jesus way and love with my actions. My outreach pastor is in Zambia right now, there will be an email in his inbox with an invitation to grab a cup of coffee and talk about what our church can do.


*quoted from:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/07/muslims-rebuild-black-churches_n_7747794.html

04/22/15

Is He Just Rude or Oppressing Me?

Here’s the Facebook post that started all this.

 Ok I need my FB community to weigh in on this. Tonight I had the privilege of attending a performance by the Dance Theater of Harlem. Amazing! By far the most diverse crowd I’ve seen in Portland. Almost a third African American. As I sat waiting for the show to start, an older white man asked me to take my hair out of the bun that it was in because it was high and blocking his view. Before I share my response I’m curious how others of you view this interaction and what lens you would use to interpret it.

 

Since my fabulous FB community did weigh in- I decided to write out a more thorough response than could fit in FB comments.

 

Lens #1- The dude just wants to see the stage.

I get this. I was at a play last week and the women sitting next to me was holding the program on her lap and the stage light was glaring off of it in a weird way. So I politely asked her to put in on the floor. She did. I was no longer distracted. I believe this was part of what was going on.

 Lens #2- My hair is less political than a Black woman’s hair

My first thought, after feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed by his request, was to be glad that he hadn’t made the request of a Black woman. I was in a theater full of Black women, wearing their hair natural, or in braids that were in buns much larger than mine. White people commenting on Black women’s hair is racially, politically, socially, and historically charged. I was annoyed, but sort of glad it was me instead of one of the women around me. Cause having a white guy tell you to change your hair, as one of the only Black folks in Portland, while you are waiting to watch the Dance Theater of Harlem is NOT where it’s at.

 Lens #3- Cause he’s a man.

The women he was sitting with were clearly embarrassed by his request. They were laughing and I could hear them whispering “He asked her to take down her bun.” I don’t think that a woman would have asked me to do that. One, because a woman understands that another woman has put some time and energy into her appearance, and asking her to change it while she is in a fancy theater is pretty rude. But also because it assumes a type of power that women typically don’t exert over each other directly.

 Lens #4- Intersection- Thank you bell hooks

One of my FB friends asked why I made a point of describing his age, race, and gender. I included that he was an older white man, because I believe it was the intersection of those identities that made him think he could ask me to take down my hair. Try to imagine a young Black man asking an older white woman to change her hairdo. It wouldn’t happen. The man’s request reflected privilege and it affected how I experienced it. If an elderly Korean woman had told me to take down my hair, I would have experienced it differently. Context matters.

Do I think he was trying to “oppress” me? Not intentionally. But did he act out of place that was both rude and privileged? Yes. And I’m left processing the interaction, while he is enjoying the show- without the obstruction of my bun.

Because though I was surprised by his request, I was caught of guard and just acquiesced. And then I spent the rest of the night trying to articulate why it bothered me so much.

I would have felt self conscious pushing back, and that would have made me feel embarrassed. I’m direct when I’m talking about other people’s oppression. But I turn pretty indirect and Asian American in my communication when I feel personally offended. Do I wish I was different? Do I wish I had had some sassy response in the moment? Sure. But that’s why it’s feisty thoughts- where I have time to put things in writing. Not feisty improv comedy that fights racial and gendered micro-aggressions.

In the big picture this is not a terrible interaction.

But when you add that to the older white guy in Starbucks who made weird slanty eyed gestures and asked me what I was from

And then you add that to the seminary class where the 8 (mostly white) guys talk non-stop for 2 hours, as the 4 women in the class sit silently.

And then you add that to the man who called me the other day and mansplained my job to me.

And then you add that to the consistency with which older white men in Christianity talk to and about ethnic minority women with a condescending and patronizing manner.

Then it becomes something more than just a rude guy at the theater.

When people tell me that I’m making something out of nothing- I want them to understand it’s a part of a much larger experience, not just an isolated incident.

But if my response to this man is really strong, I get interpreted as crazy and inappropriate, because people don’t see the buildup of multiple other “isolated” interactions. And getting dismissed only drives up the crazy.

Would love to hear more of your experiences with this type of thing.

And here is a photo of the bun of oppression. Thought much less cute than how I had it at the theater.

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03/31/15

Sacred Space, Black Lives Matter, and Unhappy Korean Mom

Most of the time, when I hear the term sacred space, I envision a church or a place of worship, a space set aside. But recently the term has taken on new meaning for me. And as I have journeyed this last year, engaging with issues of systemic racism, Black Lives Matter, children trapped at the border, and my frustration and heartbreak at the ways Christians interact with these issues- the term has taken on new meaning.

I was at a conference a couple weeks ago and it was about two in the morning. I wandered back to my room after a full night of catching up with friends from around the country. My roommate was not back in the room. I knew the wise decision would be to go to sleep. I was leading worship, I needed to rest my voice. But after wandering aimlessly around my room for a few minutes I decided to go find my roommate.

I only had 12 more hours before I would return to my new hometown, where I am still mimages-193aking friends and feel lonely a lot of the time. I could sleep then. So I shuffled downstairs to the hotel lobby in my sweats and wandered into a room where my roommate and some other folks were hanging out playing spades and dominoes.

We sat around telling jokes and making fun of each other. I was just watching people play. At one point I was invited to play dominoes, but I play like a first grader and I could tell that there was a level of strategy happening that I did not have. (Stay in your lane, Erna. You will look like a fool if you pretend you can play at that level.)

At one point the conversation turned to a more serious topic. It isn’t my story to share and this isn’t the space to do it. But an African American friend shared his experience of a negative and racially ignorant interaction. He shared his experience and his story- we all responded in different ways. Personally my jaw dropped, I was shocked, I was angry, I was mortified. Everyone kept playing cards, playing games. Some focused on the playing. Others took time to express frustration. A few of us pondered an action plan. In the midst of it we kept making fun of each other and laughing. There were also raised voices, indignation, laughing at how awful the situation was. More people threw out ideas for response. We sought the wisdom an elder that was in the room. It was 4 in the morning and I didn’t know it, but I was in a sacred space.

racist-video-SAEWithin hours of leaving that conference the Ferguson report was released. I am in the midst of reading it now. Then Tony Robinson, another young black man was shot in Madison, Wisconsin. Then the heinous SAE video was released. And then the video of Martese Johnson- a young black man being thrown to the ground outside of a bar was released. There was barely time to grasp the heinousness of one thing, before the next thing happened. I could barely learn the name of Tony Robinson, before I was grieving the hatred being spewed out of the mouths of some young fraternity boys.

Again and again my mind has wandered back to that room at four in the morning. It has become a sacred space, a place where I could be with people and we could all be sad and upset about something without having to explain. Be angry, but still be laughing. Be acknowledging pain, but still be teasing each other in fun. Be naming an injustice, and forming a plan, but be fed by each other’s company. It looked like playing cards, it was actually holy ground.

Part of what makes this journey hard, the journey of fighting for justice, peace, and shalom, is the sense of isolation.

I called a good friend the other day, as I was reflecting on a painful interaction. I said, “Just tell me I’m not crazy. Tell me that I’m right to be hurt.” She said, “You’re not crazy.” That’s all I needed. Because when you’re in pain, and there are so many messages saying that you shouldn’t be, you start to feel crazy. We need a community where we don’t have to explain our pain, but it is acknowledged and seen and grieved.

When I first started followiIMG_1840ng Jesus more seriously in college I decided to spend the summer after my sophomore year at the Los Angeles Urbana Project learning about God’s heart for social justice, the poor, and the inner city. I had no idea the way that summer would change the trajectory of my life.

But in deciding to go, I was deciding not to come home for the summer. This upset my Korean immigrant mother profoundly. Asian culture values obedient children. And now there was a new voice in my life, Jesus, and I was being obedient to Him and that put me at odds with my mother. Not coming home for the summer communicated disobedience. And to make things worse, the choice to spend the summer in the inner city, working with recovering drug addicts and prostitutes, terrified my mother who had come out of poverty. She repeatedly told me, “I didn’t spent years working 15 hour days to send you to private school so you could go back to being poor.

That summer was the start a 10 year period of persecution and tension from my mother, where she repeatedly threatened to disown me. She eventually cut me off financially. When I came on full time staff with InterVarsity, where I had to fundraise my salary, she forbid me from reaching out to our friendship or family networks because she was ashamed that I was begging for money.

The fall after I graduated from college and was interning with InterVarsity I was invited to a conference for Asian American staff. It was an amazing experience. The most precious thing that happened was that they brought in another staff’s parents. In front of the group stood an older Japanese American couple. They were parents to Collin Tomikawa, an older brother who is still on staff today.

These kind, beautiful, Christian parents said, “We know that many of you are paying the cost of not having your parents blessing.”

And let me explain, in ministry we pay different costs, we pay in different ways, we pay for different things. For an Asian American person, to live outside of their parent’s blessing, is one the most painful costs there is. And it is not paid in one moment, but a longsuffering that often goes on for years.

Collin’s parents saidL574AgHG-Aerial-View-Wb, “For those of you who don’t have your parents blessing, we want to offer ours. We want to stand in their place until a time when they can bless you. We want you to know that we are proud of you and the work you are doing. That it is important. And we bless you. We bless you.”

We were invited forward to receive blessing. And all of us who came forward took off our shoes, because we were on holy ground. And most of us were on our knees weeping- because we were paying a cost that most of our fellow staff did not understand or even see.

And we received their blessing.

That was almost 20 years ago, and to this day remains one of the most sacred spaces I have ever been in.

I believe deeply in working for truly whole and reconciled multi-ethnic community where people are profoundly affirmed in who God has made them and everyone labors in love cross culturally, cross class, fighting all systems of oppression that deface the image of God in others. But it can be sad and heartbreaking work. It has been this year.

And I realize that to sustain, I need sacred spaces. Where there is grief, laughter, community, and vulnerability. Where others will let you know you aren’t crazy, because you don’t have to explain why you are in so much pain.

And so to my friends in the room at 4am, and to the brothers and sisters that wept with me on floor almost 20 years ago. I thank you and I honor you. In the name of Jesus, you sustain me.

 

02/17/15

Lady Leader, Baby Maker

Last week I wrote about my experience as a Christian Lady Leader that has chosen not to have kids. And I have to say, I was really bowled over by the encouraging and thoughtful responses. So many women wrote in with vulnerable, honest, and encouraging responses.  It was a great moment of online community.

This week I wanted to look at the experience of Christian Lady Leaders with kids who have chosen to stay in ministry. I asked some of my potent Lady Leaders friends to share the ups and down of staying in ministry as a mom. I’ll let them speak for themselves. I’ve included their reflections below. All these women are in their 30s to 40s and work for Christian non-profits.

 

 Lady Leader 1

When I was pregnant with #1, my supervisor told me to consider working less than 30 hours a week because preacher_medium_poster-r95b95e109a52432f8b1eebf0bf7d50fc_wad_8byvr_324our joint fundraising was not that great. It now strikes me that no one had that conversation with my husband or with us together. 
I also had a conversation just this week where someone in positional power over me said that they assumed I was just a mom who wanted to stay involved, instead of someone who wanted to lead, grow, or develop. 
On the positive side, having supervisors who are women and have kids has been the best thing for me the two times in my career it happened. There was less need to explain or defend myself, and their wisdom was appreciated. I also like hearing from Dads on staff about their personal lives with their kids and the ways they carve out time to be involved. It gives me more freedom to feel like we are all in the same stage of life and trying to do our best with ministry and family calls.

 

Lady Leader 2

When I’m traveling, people will ask, “Who’s taking care of your kids?” I think they are doing it to be nice, but to be honest, I don’t think the guys get the same question. It kind of puts the women leaders in a bind. You feel like you have to say that you have a fantastic childcare arrangement, otherwise you’ll get judged. You don’t want to say “I couldn’t figure something out, so I paid my school extra money to watch them…”

A lot of women drop out of leadership because they just get overwhelmed. I think mentors know a lot of the heart questions for leaders:il_430xN.92021261

What is your calling?

What’s your gifting?

How’s your soul?

Choose faith instead of fear

But not a lot of mentors know the questions of the heart of a leader/mom:

How do my two callings as a mom and a leader intersect, compete, add to each other?

Are they compatible?

Which is my higher calling?

How will I know if I’m messing up one or the other?

Will I make a choice I will later regret?

Will my kids be ok if I make this choice?

I made a point to travel with each of my kids the first year of their life. 
If the meeting wouldn’t accommodate my kid, I didn’to-OLD-MAN-CONFUSED-570 go. I was trying to be prophetic in some circles. For example, one group said “We want more women and younger people involved,” so I brought my infant to the meeting. I wanted to communicate, “If you want more of us, this is what we look
like.” I got crazy reactions from the men of a certain generation! “Is that a BABY in there?” they would ask. My daughter would be asleep in an ergo, buttoned over my “work clothes”.

 

Lady Leader 3

No one gave a thought to childcare at chapter camp because the wives usually came up to watch the kids. But since I don’t have a wife, let alone a stay-at-home-mom wife, I raised questions about cost, exceptions for primary child-care providing spouses, family housing, etc. The same went for staff meetings and conferences. 
I have had to ask to be excused from leadership meetings because they run during my kids’ spring and winter breaks, and ministry does not trump time with family. 
Rarely do I hear of men making those same choices. There are a few, but by and large, it’s the women.

B - baby in the Bar
I’m not shut down on purpose, but there are so many informal times of networking after hours. How do you do that if you have children at the meetings? Childcare is only for the “official” sessions, but we all know so much happens over dessert or wine.

How have I been encouraged? I have been blessed by a few incredible male supervisors who didn’t have a clue and were humble enough to ask for help. I had some key female friends who have been there for me when it takes every fiber in my being not to scream at the men and non-parents in the room. And I have an incredibly supportive husband and flexible children who want me to keep on keeping on.

 

What Caught My Attention

These are just some of the thoughts that my friends shared. But they reflect a lot of common themes. This quote also stood out.

“People say no for you to various opportunities because they assume you are in over your head

and can’t handle it. I might be in over my head, but I would like to say no for my own self.”

I realized that coworkers, supervisors, and congregants make a lot of assumption and decision for Lady Leaders with kids. And these actions may go against the articulated position on women in leadership. I know that I am guilty of assuming that moms are not as interested in developmental opportunities. It’s only as close friends have navigated this journey that I see how much Lady Leaders long to be seen and taken seriously, in the midst of the chaos of young kids.

I realize that supervisors have a lot of power to set culture for good and bad.

  • Supervisors assume that moms don’t want to be developed anymore.
  • Supervisors assume that it’s the woman that will decrease her hours.
  • Supervisors say they want mom’s there but don’t provide child care.

On the other side supervisor cans be advocates, be proactive about childcare, and continue to develop and invest in Lady Leader moms. I’ve seen examples of this in my organization.

I also realize that we still have very traditional views of parenting. When a man in ministry has children, nobody asks him any questions about childcare when he travels. In fact, there are very few expectations on him as a parent. The role of pastor’s wife  assumes that along with a full time minister comes a stay at home wife that will carry the burden of childcare. (This deserves its own post.) We still assume a dad is “babysitting” when he takes care of his kids

In reading these reflections I hear women with great passion for both leadership and their families. But who often feel isolated and different as they try to navigate the ministry world as moms. None of them questioned their ability to be both a mom and leader, but encountered lots of people who assumed they couldn’t do both.

I would love to hear from more of you Lady Leaders with kids. What do you wish people knew about your experience? What advice do you have for those of us that are working with you?

And final word- let me praise the Lady Leader Moms that led me in my earlier years. I had no idea what you were juggling and what a prophetic and complicated choice you were making. Much respect you and your pioneering ways.