Speaking from Experience

CrossroadsI knew my marriage was deeply and catastrophically unhealthy when I would daydream about how much easier life would be if my ex-husband was killed in a car accident or had a sudden heart attack. During those morbid ruminations, the crux of the relief rested on how “acceptable” it would be for me to move on, to have a new life. That kind of unexpected, un-asked for tragedy would free me from the painful marriage I was in without me having to “end” it with a divorce.

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The Kindergartener’s Gospel

moms 4.15 imageI remember well the famous “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” poster which hung in every one of my elementary school classrooms in Alabama, with its purple handwriting on lined paper, and a shiny red delicious apple followed by a typed list of dozens of kindergarten insights. The poster featured such gems as “share everything,” “play fair,” “don’t hit,” “say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody,” “flush” and “wash your hands.” Now that I have a kindergartner of my own, this poster has an entirely new meaning to me. My 6 year-old son Hill is a literal-minded rule follower. He speaks the lines of this poster on a daily basis. He’s been taught to clean up his own messes and to take care of other kids’ toys, so that’s what he does. Period.

My son is also familiar with another set of rules not listed on this poster. These rules come straight from his many Bibles and from his parents and his godparents. We are all God’s children. God loves all of us equally no matter how we act or look. No people are better than other people because God made all of us. God loves us no matter what. These rules have been hammered into our son’s heart; they make up the fabric of his very being. And while these rules might not be earth-shattering to us as Christian leaders, the ways in which they play out in my son’s life most certainly are.

Last month Hill’s teacher introduced the class to the Civil Rights Movement, but their cursory study left my son with more questions than anything else. Hill struggled to wrap his brain around what actually happened, so we checked out a dozen books from the public library and dove in deeper. While reading Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa, a beautifully written and magnificently illustrated story about Rosa Parks, Hill gently interrupted me to ask, “Did people back then not believe in God?” There it was. He couldn’t make a connection; these segregationists obviously could not believe in God if they acted in such hateful ways.

I could feel his heart breaking when I told him that the meanest people during the Civil Rights Movement were people who claimed to be Christians. “But we are all God’s children, “ he pleaded. “God loves us all the same no matter what we look like.” This so-called Christian behavior did not match the rules that Hill had been taught, but it also did not match the rules of Martin Luther King. I read bits of my favorite sermons by Dr. King to Hill along with several books about his words and his life. Then Hill added to his list of rules: loving is stronger than fighting and God wants all children to live long, happy lives.

A few days later Hill asked me if “bad guys could buy guns in Virginia” where we currently live. I told him that our state government allows it; even folks who hurt their families with their hands and get arrested can still buy guns in our state. “Doesn’t that mean they could hurt them worse if they have guns?” Shaking my head I said, yes, that’s what it means. And then he asked if he could talk to the governor about it. I told him that he couldn’t call the governor, but he could write him a letter when he got home so that’s what he did. This time with his own purple marker and lined paper he wrote Governor McAuliffe a letter about loving rather than fighting and about kids’ safety trumping the right to own guns.

I find it devastating that a kindergartener can so clearly understand God’s unconditional, universal love while grown ups have been misrepresenting that same love for centuries. I am a person who self-identifies as a Christian pacifist and activist. The fact that a kindergartener is willing to take that extra step working for a just world while most adults would rather wait for someone else to do it for them rends my heart. I believe that Jesus was on to something when he said, “let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Most of what we learned in kindergarten really could get us through life.

Three years ago, I decided to take a break from parish ministry so I could spend more time raising our children. For most of those three years I’ve questioned whether or not I made the right decision, whether I’m honoring my call to the priesthood, whether I’m letting my gifts rot away in some dark corner. Then I have these conversations with Hill and realize that my work preaching the gospel and making disciples is actually thriving. My congregation is smaller than before, it doesn’t require wearing a collar and it doesn’t contribute to my pension, but it is still holy, sacramental and ordained by God. One day I’ll return to parish ministry, but until then I’ll be living the gospel according to my kindergartner.

All Lives Matter

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. (Psalm 51)

“For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” – bell hooks

Black History Month.

In my childhood it was a month of learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement and reading accounts about people that were hardly talked about in social studies the rest of the year: Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman. Always, it felt like an odd break in the year and almost obligatory. Some teachers would share the information enthusiastically, while others seemed reluctant and half-hearted. While we would read biographies and laud their subjects’ heroic efforts to pursue justice and equality for all humanity, I remember sometimes shifting back and forth in my seat. It was hard to ignore the reality that we were turning our attention to the sins – the atrocities, the violence, the crimes – of the founders of this great country, our ancestors and forefathers.

And, of course, how we inherited these sins, too. There was no getting around it. Later I would come to see and acknowledge how we participate in these systems of violence, and enact antiblack racism. Even I, as a person of color, participate in these systems. I confess my ways of benefiting from a white feminist politic that privileges certain bodies and voices over others.

When it was less complicated during those early school days there was always some big report or essay due at the end of the month. The same stories. The struggles. The same speeches. And, after a while, I felt them became more than just pieces of information. They became a part of my identity in terms my desire for repentance. My desire for compassion. For forgiveness. For justice. But, it meant that listening would be different. It wouldn’t be listening for the sake of information, but for the sake of transformation.

It’s these stories that help shape the way I listen and live out God’s Word whether they be words of lament or stories of overcoming hardship and strife. They put flesh and blood onto these pleas for help. They breathe and harmonize God’s spirit into these supplications for redemption and salvation. And they make me see anew the possibilities of God’s transforming presence in the world. It’s not about upholding a particular theology or stance, but recognizing the lives that matter around us, and that yes, all lives matter, but we need to work even more to show that black lives matter now and today.

Remembering Our Long Legacy

grace jsk

May is celebrated as the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month and the first celebration took place in 1977. During this month, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders remember our long legacy and contributions to the building of America. The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has a blog focused on accomplishments and challenges. The theme for the month is “I Am Beyond”: Evoking the American Spirit. One post featured Julie Chu, four-time Olympic Medalist of the U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey Team, Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, and Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama & Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls sharing their “I Am Beyond” Stories.

Asians have been migrating to all parts of the world, especially Europe, North America, South Africa, and Chile, since the early 19th century. Many migrated to the United States and Canada where Asians provided cheap labor. Asians first arrived in Hawaii and over three hundred thousand Asians entered the islands between 1850 and 1920. Asians labor became a commodity and the Chinese were among the first in that labor pool as they worked in the sugar industry in Hawaii.

The annexation of California in 1846 by the United States opened a door for Asian laborers. Since Asians were viewed as a commodity, Chinese laborers were essentially imported for the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Other Asians also arrived in response to the need for laborers to build America: the Japanese (1880s), Filipinos (1900), Koreans (1903), and East Indians (1907).

Asian women sometimes made the decision to immigrate motivated by a desire for freedom. Other times men arranged the migration of Asian women for profit and exploitation . Many women were used for harsh labor to feed, wash and clean for the men. Many were not ready for the hardships of the immigrant life. Korean women worked long hours. Others who worked in the fields for wages spent a full day under the sun, perhaps with babies strapped to their backs, before returning home to fix dinner for their husbands or other male worker. Asian American women suffered in silence within a culture where their roles were defined by the men.

In addition to this difficult physical life, Asian American women experienced psychological and legal suffering in the form of prejudice and discrimination. A series of restrictive laws against Asians were enacted which discriminated against them and limited their life within the United States. In 1870, Congress passed a law that made Asian immigrants the only racial group barred from naturalization into United States citizenship. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Actsuspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years, but this was later extended indefinitely, eventually being lifted only in 1943. The 1917 Immigration Act further limited Asian immigration, banning immigration from all countries in the Asia-Pacific Triangle except for the Philippines, a U.S. territory at the time, and Japan. Japanese immigration, however, was subsequently limited by the1924 Exclusionary Immigration Act, which stopped new immigration from Asia. In addition to these laws, Asians were segregated in public facilities including schools and subject to heavy taxation, prohibition of land ownership, and prohibition of intermarriage with whites. World War II brought the unnecessary internment of Japanese Americans. It was not until the passage of sweepingCivil Rights legislation in 1965 that state supported discrimination ended.

These hardships experienced by Asian Americans are not well known within our society today. Their hardships, difficulties and experiences are often overshadowed by other racial minority group’s experiences of racism. These difficulties continue today. Third, fourth and fifth generations of Asian Americans living in the United States believe that they will never find ‘home’ in this land where they are viewed as the perpetual foreigner.

Racism against Asian Americans is disguised under different expressions like“model minority” or “honorific whites” within our society. This is evident in the recent scandalous life of Donald Sterling who favored Korean tenants over other minority tenants. Some use Sterling’s preference to show that he welcomes people of color and do not recognize the racist behavior in such preference of one group over another. We also see model minority affects in the killing of Vincent Chen. Society failed to recognize that Chen was targeted because he was an Asian American. Although such targeting fits the definition of a hate crime, the perpetrators were not charged with such a crime.

Asian Americans made significant contributions to the growth of this country. Asian Americans continue to play important roles in our life together. We have contributed culturally (tai chi, martial arts, tae kwon do, graphic arts), we have contributed to the palette of America by sushi restaurants, Asian food groceries and Asian fruits and vegetables. We have contributed to the religious diversity through our Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto, and Hindu religious heritage. We have also contributed in the area of sports, academia, and technology.

As we embrace the joy and accomplishments, we also need to remember the suffering and pain that so many Asian Americans endured to come to where we are today. And we need to recognize the need to do more. We need to promote more Asian Americans to the heads of companies and elect more Asian Americans to public office, even to the level of the president of the United States.

The effort to eradicate racism from our society needs to involve more solidarity, replacing charity and commiseration. We cannot continue to believe that racism does not exist except when someone makes a racist remark. Racism is a disease like alcoholism. Lots of alcoholics don’t drink, but that does not mean they are cured. It can flare up at a moment’s notice, erasing years of living in tolerance with other cultures. White privilege prevents many from recognizing that they perpetuate and contribute to racism. And this complicit perpetuation of systems of race happens just as much in the church. Therefore we must open ourselves and recognize that we all need to work together to fight for social justice and liberation. Silence on the sidelines is not an option in this matter. The way to begin is to provide platforms and share the true, and authentic stories of those legacies – of pain and suffering, of joys and victories – of those who’ve gone before us, so that we can leave the right legacy for those after us.

For futher reading and discussion, please read Gary Y. Okihiro, Margins and Mainstreams: Asian in American History and Culture, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014) & Seung Ai Yang, “Asian Americans,” in Handbook of U.S. Theologies of Liberation, p. 173-184, edited by Miguel A. De La Torre (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004).

[read also: God, Woman and Our Bodies, & Jesus and the Cross]

Streams Run Uphill


La vida es la lucha. Coined by our mujerista theologians it literally means, “life is struggle,” or even more simply “to live is to struggle.” Conversely, the flip is true, too – to struggle is to live. The book Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Young Clergywomen of Color was first inspired by an African proverb that echoes the sentiment above.

Where streams run uphill, there a woman rules.

From the Prologue: It is the dynamic but unexpected harmony of streams that “run uphill” that compels me the most. There is struggle in an uphill endeavor, but miracle in its very existence. There is an irrationality about it, as well as a subversive, kingdom-shaking quality. There is something off-putting and hard to swallow but undeniably compelling about it. So, too, it is with the “other” clergywomen and our work and ministry, their calling and community relationships, their voices and their perspectives.The original subtitle was “The Pastoral Identity and Ministry of the Other Clergywomen.” The word other is significant. It conjures up orientalism, exoticism, colonialism, and those felt effects still present today even in the more liberal disciplines and vocations. The history of feminism especially in North America has mostly been narrow and excluded women of color until fairly recently. But, this isn’t unusual. Much of majority culture has often marginalized groups based on gender, race, economics, orientation, and ability. Still, especially in the church, there continues to be an urgency in working towards reconciliation at all levels, and at the vey least it means making sure there is a space for all voices and experiences.

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

Colossians 1

Growing up, and even today, my parents love to say, “고생해.” Loosely translated it means, “You need to know trouble/grief/pain/sorrow.” It’s an odd blessing to offer one’s child, but they knew that there was something valuable to facing one’s struggles. It reminds me a little of Paul’s words in Romans about suffering producing character, etc. and somehow ending up in hope.

As a woman of color I’m always forced to struggle with the questions: Is it because I’m Korean? Is it because I’m a woman? Whenever I left an interview for a position or felt sidelined or silenced during a committee meeting, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something else beneath the situation. I can’t begin to count the number of times I had heard a church’s rejection and wondered if my ethnicity, gender, or age had more to do with it than the cop-out language of “God is leading us elsewhere.” And for a long time, I was silent in my response to it. Perhaps the “encouragement” from my parents to face these struggles head on meant more than developing a thick skin and more character, but a word to work for a greater change.

Those that are outside of these particular experiences can never understand how those questions are always agonizingly a part of the equation. No one makes this up. If I were white and male or even simply white I would never wonder if my race/ethnicity would make an impact on the dominant culture’s questions and doubts towards me. But these questions have been there from the beginning and stayed with me throughout seminary, my call process and interviewing at churches, and ministry. Not everyone has these experiences.

And thankfully these weren’t the only experiences I had throughout my life. But they’re out there and real. The stories in this book blessed, challenged, and inspired me to continue in the struggle.

From the afterword of the book: I let myself savor the stories in these pages like a glass of fine water turned into wine from that wedding at Cana. I celebrate, I give thanks, and I am deeply humbled by all the sacrifices and risks made by these writers. These clergywomen were vulnerable. They were transparent. They were genuine. And they were and are trustworthy. These are only glimpses into much more complicated histories and larger narratives. Yet, even these small windows allow us to see the possibilities for real connection and community, a little taste of the kingdom of God and how we experience that in the midst of struggle and surrender, in those places where reconciliation with God, neighbor, and self is rooted in embracing the other.

Being the other is not only a philosophical, social, political, or literary concept. It is a theological image. It speaks of a God of the margins, a God for the oppressed, a God who loves and pursues the stranger. And despite the history behind it and how it traditionally is a negative phenomenon, being the other does not have to be associated with colonial and imperialistic movements or a tool of oppressors or a burden of those who internalize what it means for the oppressed. The language of the other is redeemable but also an instrument for redemption. It speaks of the extreme and miraculous routes God forges to connect to us. It is the other that helps us to see God’s love for us even more. It is when we see and recognize the other in ourselves that we begin to fathom the depths of God’s love for us.

Making Lists: One Mom’s Response to the Trayvon Martin Case

As a wife, mother, and clergy person I struggle with what to tell my son about Trayvon Martin.  As the mother of a five-month old black male, I am particularly concerned about what I will tell him.  There will be a day when my son will ask me some hard questions and I hope I am ready to answer his questions.  I hope that I’ve laid the groundwork for him to understand how incredibly valued he is and how racism is not his fault.

Because I needed to grieve for Trayvon and because I needed to think through what I was going to say in the future, I pulled together a list of the things we say to him now.  I have seen several of these lists already, but they all seemed to be missing something. They were all missing God and they were all missing an important lesson, that humans are valued.  This list is my attempt to make sense of a world that sometimes doesn’t make any sense, to myself or to the tiny human that is my son.





What I say to Isaac :

1).     You are loved. Isaac, you are loved and beloved by God.  God loves you and knit you together.  God loved you so much that he sent his only son to live, die, and be raised again so that you could have eternal life.  Isaac, God loves you every second of every day and will love you forever.  God loves you in your joy and in your sadness. God is always with you and God always loves you.

Isaac, your parents love you.  We love you and will do our best to make sure you know that every day.  Some days we will definitely fail and some days we will not get along, but we will always love you.  Your extended family loves you.  Your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, (and because we are southerners all of those people we aren’t related to but call aunts and uncles — they love you too).

2).     You are wonderful, you are beautiful, you are strong, you are smart, and you are worth it.  God holds you in God’s hands and cherishes you as something marvelous.  God surrounds you with his grace, not because you are perfect, but because you are complex, interesting, and wonderful. Thankfully we are not made to be perfect.  We are made to stumble and fall, we are made to be human.  Our humanity makes us fragile, but we are made to be good.  We are made to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God.  You are so wonderful; you are so worth it, so keep trying.

3).     We expect you to strive to be a good man.  We expect you to be respectful, helpful, thoughtful, and kind.  We also expect that you will not live up to those expectations all the time.  You will eventually be a teenager, you will probably rebel, and that is part of your job as a child.  You will have to figure your own way to be a good man.  During all of this though, we expect you to be a good man.  We will work very hard to teach you all of this by modeling this behavior, but as I said in #2, we are all human and we make mistakes.  We promise not to just say these words, but we will try and live them out everyday.  I pray that we can live in a way that teaches you how to be a good man, and I promise, we are doing our best.

4).     Some people are mean and it has nothing to do with you. There are a lot of hurting and broken people in our world.  There are a lot of people that are mad and that don’t know how to deal with their anger.  You have seen firsthand that there are people that are hurting, both your parents are clergy; we are up to our eyeballs in the hurt and pain of others.  Some of these people might take their own issues out on you.  Their issues have absolutely nothing to do with you.  Some of these people will assume terrible things about you just because of the color of your skin.  Never. Ever. Believe Them.  Re-read #’s 1 and 2; there is nothing wrong with you.  Some people may even try and harm you, do not engage them.  I can imagine you will want to stand up to them, (you have a lot of me in you) but sometimes to survive you have to run.  Keep walking, run if you have to, call an adult, call the police, and ask for help.  (Sometimes the police will not be on your side, but please assume that they will be).  Do not try and fight crazy; crazy will always win.

Right now my little son is exclaimed as cute wherever he goes.  Our congregation lines up to exclaim at his cuteness, and little Isaac obliges with giggles, coos, and smiles; he’s already the overly accommodating PK (we’ll have to talk about that).  We live in the south and since we are all generally cousins and overly friendly, whenever we are out with him we are stopped and told that he is very, very cute.  It is true, I think he is absolutely adorable and his fans have fomented my belief that he is as cute as I think he is.

When most people see him they see an adorable little face they want to kiss and hold.  But what is society going to see when he becomes a teenager and then an adult black man?  If he is so incredibly cute right now, what are we all going to see when he is big?  Are we going to see that same cute face only bigger, with opinions, attitudes, and thoughts?  Or are we going to see a threatening face, meant to rob and kill?  Are we going to assume my little Isaac is nefarious or are we going to remember that he is Isaac?   Something changes in people when a black male child becomes a black teenager and then a black man.  And so I am working to prepare little Isaac for a world that is not ready for him.

I saw a cartoon the other day that hit entirely too close to home. It showed a mother handing her black son a sign to pin on himself that said, “Don’t shoot, on my way to school.”  Am I going to have to make Isaac that sign?  I know that most of the time we don’t know what to do or say when it comes to talking about race. And that makes me afraid for my son.