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.

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Top 15 blog posts over the last quarter

Top Asian Americans on YouTube
Jeremy Lin & Asian American Male Sexuality
Is Francis Chan a sell-out?
popular Asian American musicians on YouTube
The model minority myth is a lie.
List of Asian American Christian Bloggers
Beauty Is The Beast?
The Search for Asian-American Worship
Article: The Korean Pentecost: The Great Revival of 1907
Why Churches Split: A Family Systems Explanation
Why Asian American Obsession with Jeremy Lin is well, Weak
West Coast vs. East Coast Asian America
Jeremy Lin, The Civil Rights Movement, & The Empowerment of Voice
“A Silent Exodus” Leads to Freedom
The Ties That Bind Must Break

 

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Notice any missing voices?

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A rather broad term, Asian-Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island). See the latest statistics about this Asian American demographic published by the Census Bureau.

In juxtaposition with the sections on this popular website called Huffington Post. What do you notice?

huffpost-sections

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The model minority myth is a lie.

Nate Lee (staffworker of InterVarsity’s Cal Christian Fellowship at UC Berkeley) shared this talk ‘The Moral Model Minority‘ at the Urbana 12 Pan Asian North American (PANA) Lounge on 12/31/2012. Adapted from an article published October 2012 in hardboiled, the Asian Pacific American issues newsmagazine at UC Berkeley. (Posted with permission.)

My father calls himself “jooksing.” Meaning, empty bamboo; all form, no substance. Says that when he was a kid, when he would hang out at my grandpa’s convenience store, all of my grandpa’s friends would call my dad that—jooksing. He can never be truly Chinese because of his American values, his abandonment of dental school dreams, because of his fractured Cantonese; He can never be truly American because of how he looks—he is stuck in the perpetual in-between. The scary thing about floating in the in between is that you become susceptible to lies from either side.

Many of us have given into the lies. This talk is titled, “the moral model minority.” I hope to show how the model minority myth and our compliance with it, has solidified these lies in our minds, and how the MORAL model minority myth, the lies in our theology, has solidified them in our hearts and souls. I believe Asian American Christians, if we are not aware of it, are even more vulnerable to the lies than our non-believing Asian brothers and sisters.

Raise your hand if you play piano or violin. Why do so many Asians play violin and piano? Why not the gu-zhen or the er-hu? We have mastered the epitome of the West’s art form. We have become more talented and more skilled at the finest of Western arts. We made it! But who will play the guzhen?

A motif of the Old Testament narrative is for the Israelites to remember. Remember who you are and who God made you to be. The unfortunate truth is that the higher we want to move up in society, the more we must think, act, and talk like dominant culture. There is a negative correlation between success and the maintenance of our ethnic identity. The arc of society is for us to forget.

For better or worse, we have moved up, and many of us have forgotten. Majority culture has told us that we have succeeded without any handouts, and we have responded with a resounding “Amen!” without realizing that our alliance with the dominant culture has forfeited our identity and implicitly cast an indictment on other minority groups. Many Asian American Christians, finding that their Confucian values of hard work, personal achievement, and frugality aligned with the Protestant work ethic, have in fact replaced the Gospel with the American Dream.

Not only do we interact with a society that tells us to forget, but our theology furthers our ethnic amnesia. Church historian Tim Tseng calls it the “evangelical deconstruction of Asian America” where “our earthly identities ultimately do not matter because our Christian identity is our most important one.” The church often says, “Forget!” You’re not an Asian American Christian, you’re just a Christian who happens to be Asian American. Perhaps in our pursuit to, as Paul says, “be one in Christ,” we have actually silenced our own unique stories and become cookie cutter Christians who offer nothing unique to the feast of God.

We did not choose our parents, our culture, our ethnicity. These are gifts from God. Perhaps our faith opens us up to live most fully into the distinct people he created us to be. But this is scary. It’s easy to have a list of what a Christian looks like, how a Christian is to worship, what kind of songs, what kind of dress, what kind of behavior. But to say that faith opens us to live most fully into who God uniquely created us to be, well that means that we’re free. And those whom Christ sets free are free indeed.

We have a story. Many of us have forgotten about the pain and suffering. We have forgotten that many of the ethnic churches we grew up in were built because many white churches did not worship a God big enough to integrate their worship spaces. Our churches therefore became ethnic community centers where we could receive language training, develop job networks, and obtain positions of leadership. However, instead of continuing to identify as marginalized and expressing our faith in a way that promoted justice (like many Black and Latino churches have), we clung to our upward mobility, adopted a white, Western theology, moved to the suburbs, called it God’s blessing, and began to view the world from a distance, through a privileged lens.

We must remember that the Bible was written for marginalized communities in diaspora, not for privileged folks whose greatest fear in life is failing their classes. We cannot forget that Jesus was a poor refugee, that he represented a Jewish people who were oppressed by Roman imperialists, and that he led a revolution called The Way that stood in stark opposition to the status quo. But we don’t want to believe this, because to believe in this Jesus threatens our hard-earned success. So we nail him to a cross and we crucify our own identities and narratives along with him.

The Asian American Christian community must reclaim its identity. We must realize that God has given us a unique narrative, a unique history, a unique face, and that his desire is for us to live more fully into the people he has created us to be. This has everything to do with the Gospel. God is making all things right, making all things full and new and how he created them to be. Let us not be like the one who looks in the mirror and immediately forgets who they are.

The model minority myth is a lie. It is another way of saying that we’re dominant culture’s favorite slaves—the slaves that everyone else should emulate. Because we’re the master’s favorite, we get to eat at their table, take their jobs, and yes, even play their instruments. But guess what, we’re still slaves. But it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Perhaps we have been institutionalized in the prison of our own success. And when Christ comes to set us free, we cling to our own chains. Jesus says, “Those who lose their lives will find it.” We are so afraid to lose what we have gained, afraid to follow Jesus into the frightening, open, exhilarating space he calls the way. I long for the day we can throw off our chains, when we can love our eyes and our story and God’s face behind our own. I long for the day when my father will no longer call himself jooksing, but will be filled with the knowledge of the light of Christ, the light by which all other aspects of our self are illuminated and fulfilled. Amen.

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“Colorblind is just another way to say we don’t care”

Rapper and pastor Jason Chu chimes in with a few thoughts about why being Asian American matters with regards to one’s Christian faith.
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Jason Chu will be rapping next Friday, November 30th, at Evergreen LA, for the “Much Love.” live concert – with friends & featured guests DANakaDAN of afterschoolspecial, Kevin Lien, Priska, The Fung Bros., The Jubilee Project, and KingdomCulture.

Jason first got my attention with this Spoken Word Video “Colorblind” in response to racism in film, media, and theater, in particular, in response to the La Jolla Playhouse casting only 2 Asian-Americans in a play set in ancient China – part of the trend known as “no Asian faces on TV”.

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cf. La Jolla’s ‘Nightingale’ Doesn’t Sing and Apology Doesn’t Sway Many APIAs; Dr. Monica Williams’ article – Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism: A colorblind approach allows us to deny uncomfortable cultural differences (Psychology Today, December 2011)

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Demystifying Asian American Culture and Ministry

Adrian and Jennifer Pei presented this talk, “Demystifying Asian American Culture and Ministry” at an Epic Movement (the Asian American Ministry of Cru) event. They address issues of demystifying Asian American culture, challenges of ministry to Asian Americans, and the incredible opportunity of Asian American ministry.

Demystifying Asian American Culture and Ministry (Full Version) from Epic Movement Live on Vimeo.

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It’s a Small World After All

Vivian Mabuni shared her keen observation of just how subtle a Euro-centric Caucasian-worldview comes through even an amusement park ride at world-famous Disneyland, It’s a Small World. Here’s an excerpt from her blog post Small World Through My Almond Eyes, and how that worldview colors our theology too:

Even though the ride was created to illustrate the whole world, the world was presented as primarily a white Euro-centric world. A full three minutes of this ten minute ride focused on Europe. The Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America were all covered in 30-45 seconds each …

… The final section of the ride was when all the dolls, dressed in white, sang together intermingled. I thought about the world’s current population. If the ride was true to actual cultural and ethnic breakdown, one-third of the dolls would be from India and China alone. Only 13% of the dolls in the white section would be white.

… since the vast majority of the Christian books I’ve read have been authored by Caucasian men, the vast majority of church history I’ve been taught have been about Caucasian men, and the vast majority of Christian leaders I’ve seen and heard from have been Caucasian men, I kind of picture heaven full of Caucasian men.

Read the entire post >>

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