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.