Saved by My Refugee Neighbors

Oak Park Santas 2-1

Here’s my essay recently posted on Christianity Today’s “This Is our City” series.  It offers snippets of our twenty years of urban ministry in Oakland, about which I’m writing a spiritual memoir. You can read the story here.

This is an excerpt about my Mien neighbor:

Faithfulness over Effectivenesss

While it is tempting to romanticize the kids and our communal life, the city’s violence born of inequality and structural racism has worn on me.  Over 2,000 individuals have been murdered during my time in Oakland and I have witnessed my share of shootings.  Even when we organized our neighbors and won a housing lawsuit that rebuilt Oak Park, the new apartment layout unintentionally eroded our sense of community. I had to move because of federal rental guidelines, and the families preferred to remain inside their enlarged units.

When the issues of our city appear too daunting, I likewise retreat and focus on my own personal life, where I have some semblance of control. After leaving Oak Park, my wife and I purchased a home two blocks away, and we built gates to keep out the city’s dangers. But, fortunately, our refugee neighbors continue to knock at our door to teach us kingdom values.

When we got our house, I borrowed a rototiller and cleared weeds in our huge yard. After an afternoon of hard toil, I gave up; all I had readied was a small plot 5’ by 10’.   The next day, I was surprised by a small, turbaned lady sitting up in our apricot tree, like Zaccheus.  Yien Saelee, a grandmother who is Iu Mien, was hacking branches.  She had seen that the lot was empty and came to start a garden with my permission. I agreed, but doubted her strength to do the work.

To my surprise, though, she returned with two other grandmothers, each armed with only a small machete, and cleared the entire yard.  They planted the Native American Three Sisters– corn, squash, and beans—and soon, my family received locally grown, organic vegetables to meet our daily required vitamins.

Yien later joined our church’s “Young Family” cell, which paradoxically came to include five grandmothers.  As we shared and prayed together, I learned more of her story.  During the Laotian Civil War, she had lost three sons—child soldiers fighting with the CIA—and her husband was assassinated.  Moving to our Oakland neighborhood as a refugee did not make her life much easier; she remained poor and constantly felt fatigued.  Her step-parents’ spirits tormented her such that they made searing burns on her arms.

After being resettled in Oakland, Yien became a Christian when God revealed himself in a dream to her.  Since then, she claims, “My heart is light now because I no longer have to bear the burden of the spiritual world; it was too heavy.”  Not only did she pray for us and support her own local Mien church, but also she regularly taped gospel songs to be sent to Laos.

In spite of their advanced years, Yien and her fellow grandmas collect aluminum cans and hawk their produce to supplement their scant disability benefits that were almost cut by welfare reform. Her sense of social justice isn’t about asserting her rights, but taking responsibility for others.  Always chipping in for our water bill, she states simply, “I’m happy for the opportunity not to starve.”

When my father passed away, Yien, her back bent from osteoporosis, took the time to stand with my family in our grief.  Despite our communication and cultural barriers, her unceasing prayers  and faithful presence comforted me.  Growing up with privilege, I came to expect to make my mark and to effect social change in Oakland.  Unfortunately, our neighborhood has not been transformed despite our church’s best efforts.  If anything, its persistent poverty reflects the growing inequality in our nation.

Yien models for me another way to make one’s mark.  The servant who is faithful is the one who enters the joy of the master. The persistent widow who prays boldly is the one who receives justice.

Celebrating or Rueing API Culture?

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

May is API Heritage Month! So I thought I’d celebrate our culture, but in a round-about way. I want to boast about two perceived weaknesses of API culture—especially in the context of American mainstream culture–so that God’s redemptive power and grace might be revealed.

The first is the lack of physical affection and emotional nurture given to us by our parents.

Few of us, especially those with immigrant parents, got verbal praise. And I’m sure that even less of us got hugs and kisses after the age of 7. Consequently, we feel wounded and insecure, longing for unconditional love from our parental units. If those smarmy kids in TV sitcoms got hugs, why don’t we?

The good news is that our API parents do love us. They just show us in a different way—through food. According to the news, an Asian food craze is sweeping the nation. But we’ve long known that APIs love to eat, and love to eat everything that crawls, walks, flies or swims.

I was at the zoo in Melbourne, Australia a while back. Now Australia has some bizarre animals with cool names, like” wombat.” Besides having pockets, their animals own features like duckbills and webbed feet. As I walked around, a group of tourists from the PRC were behind me. At each exhibit, they would remark, “That’s good eating!” and “That’s good in stew…” They wanted to stir fry every creature there!

Our ability to cook all kinds of dishes stems from the joy we receive from taking care of our families and feeding them well. This display of love isn’t unknown in the Bible. In fact, we know God’s love because He feeds us daily and He feeds us well. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper because it’s Jesus’ way of offering himself to us, just as our parents offered us food.

Instead of asking, “How are you?” , my grandmother always asked me, “Have you eaten yet?” That’s how I knew her love—she would always want to be sure that I was cared for and fed. This month, let’s celebrate API love through food—that selfless giving that is concrete and filling (James 2:15-17).

The second weakness is our quietness. In the U.S. people who post themselves on youtube and “represent” are admired, while the quiet ones are ignored and hit glass ceilings.

“Oh no,” you cry. “Don’t raise that model minority stereotype. We’re still celebrating Jeremy Lin’s shattering of stereotypes, as he went against all odds. Wait, that’s another model minority stereotype…”

(If you want a real stereotype that hurts APIs, it’s that we’re cheap. Ask any retail or food service person what they think of APIS when they enter their establishments. They automatically think we’re cheap and we’re going to bargain. It doesn’t matter if you’re Korean, either, because they’ll think you’re Chinese. We’re racially profiled “SWA,” or shopping while Asian. We just don’t know we’re getting bad service because we’ve never known any better.)

So what’s so great about being quiet? Well, despite Americans’ penchant for awarding the assertive and confident, being predisposed to quietness helps to develop a lot of biblical qualities. Blessed are the meek. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Indeed, the quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of the ruler of fools. So this May, let’s follow our culture and be still, and know that the Lord is God.

APIs have lots of cultural traits that American evangelicalism doesn’t necessarily promote, including a sense of shame, mutual obligation, and hierarchical relations. But in each of these perceived weaknesses that we may have, God can use and redeem.

Let us not be quick to reject our culture simply to replace it with evangelical culture that is Americanized.  He may even bless the rest of the church with these API cultural gifts.

Why Asian American Christian Love for Jeremy Lin is well, Idolatrous

Why Asian American Christian Love for Jeremy Lin is well, Idolatrous
by Russell Jeung on Sunday, February 12, 2012

I just wrote that title for hyperbole’s sake, but I do want to raise some issues.

Every Asian American pastor seems to be posting about Jeremy Lin on FB. The New York Times even just came out with an article about him as an Asian American Christian. He’s the Taiwanese Tebow!

Like Michael Chang, our last great Asian American male athlete, Jeremy Lin thanks God every chance he gets. Faith must play some factor in their success in overcoming stereotypes, because as noted sociologist of religion Carolyn Chen writes, “the sacred makes people utterly reorganize their lives for something outside of themselves.” By playing not just for themselves, but for God and His Kingdom, they have that much more motivation to do well and represent.

Asian Americans, and Asian American Christians (AACs) in particular, are “linsane” over Jeremy because he’s one of us. We can claim him, since he’s the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent in league history (I like how we have to identify his ethnicity specifically so we can know who can authentically identify with him).

Moreover, we embrace him because he’s overcome odds to start in the NBA. He’s endured racial taunts on the courts. He was stereotyped so he wasn’t recruited by the Pac 10. He got cut twice from other teams (Doh! Warriors!).

But c’mon, he grew up in Palo Alto and went to Harvard. That doesn’t really constitute being underprivileged.

What scares me more about AACs’ love for Jeremy Lin is that it may be based on idolatrous ethnic pride rather than genuine Christian fellowship. After all, how many of us really have prayed and shared communion with Jeremy Lin?

I’m reminded of when the children of Israel wanted a king instead of God. They wanted a real person in flesh and blood, somebody that they could call their own and follow. I hope we aren’t watching more Jeremy Lin on youtube than we are praying…

I also recall how Paul would rather boast about his weaknesses, not his strengths. We AACs seem to take pride in Jeremy Lin, because he’s famous, athletic and Asian. We’re happy that he’s winning, on highlights, and playing as well as the brothers. Yet I haven’t heard anyone boast about his weaknesses; where’s our biblical values?

And I think about how Paul wrote, “May I never boast except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Our pride and boasting isn’t that we’re so great, but because God is gracious.

So if we are to boast in Jeremy Lin, it should be about his unselfish play and deference to his teammates. It should be about his humility before God and his desire to minister to the underprivileged. But it shouldn’t be about empty ethnocentrism or pride in man’s accomplishments.

If we are to identify and find solidarity with anyone, it should not be the powerful and noble, but the weak and oppressed.

[reposted with permission]

Why Asian American Obsession with Jeremy Lin is well, Weak

Why Asian American Obsession with Jeremy Lin is well, Weak
by Russell Jeung on Sunday, February 12, 2012

I ain’t gonna’ lie. I’ve followed Jeremy Lin’s basketball career since he was at Palo Alto High. I was proud that the GS Warriors signed him. And when I youtubed the clip of his wicked crossover and dunk against Washington recently, I was gratified that an Asian brother could ball.

And yet, I’ve also been feeling vaguely uncomfortable with my man-crush on Jeremy. I think Asian Americans, especially males, are a little too linsane about him, and that should give us pause. Why are we so proud to see him succeed in the NBA? Are we so hero-starved, as emasculated Asian American males (EAAMs), that we’ll fawn over any slight success against whites and blacks?

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