Responding to Some Sojo Love

My post Asian≠White was cross-posted at Sojourners recently, and there have been some interesting comments that have popped up.

I’m really quite new to this blogging-for-an-audience-of-more-than-20 thing, so I’m learning on the fly about comments, author engagement and such. In the meantime, I decided to keep responses here on my site so as not to confuse myself.

So, in response to some of the comments on Sojourners:

Thank you all for reading. I’ve been reading Sojourners magazine off and on for a few years, ever since my then-supervisor decided he was going to rattle his entire staff team’s faith and understanding of the gospel. Thanks, Big Guns!

@ BlueDeacon – The separation between Asian and American is one of both culture and race/ethnicity. My parents see it from language and culture, but my father often reminds me that I am not American either.

@pcnot4me – You wonder if liberals ever just enjoy life. Hmmm. I guess you’d have to ask one. My liberal friends would say I’m too conservative. My conservative friends would say I’m too liberal. All of my friends would say I do enjoy life. I have a wonderful and complicated life. I have my moments, like when squirrels took over my attic or when my child was near death. Those moments are hard to enjoy.

@facebook-1363553490 – I wonder with you. I have no idea what the question about liberals just enjoying life and the thread that followed had anything to do with my original post. However, if any of the liberals reading the post feel like they should give more to charity, please contact me. I am still raising ministry support.

@NC77 – I do not know what % of AA are Christians. According to the US Census, about 5% of the national population is AA.

@Ballfour – You had several questions. I cut and pasted your comment so readers here will know what I’m talking about.

I have a few specific questions that come to mind from your article. I was hoping you could answer these:
1. What precisely is your “ideal” when it comes down to racial integration in churches?
2. Why would that make the church “better”? (Please don’t answer “because it would be multi-cultural” as that only begs the question as to why multi-culturalism in a church setting would be better).
3. Is there any reason you did not site the thousands of Korean-Christian and/or Chinese-Christian churches in the country that perform services in their native languages and reflective of their cultures? Do you expect them to adapt to hiring “whites” and adopting more “white culture”?

Honestly, I don’t have an “ideal” in mind. My point was to ask why is 20% the threshold and how does a number translate into cultural change. There is a great follow-up interview with David Van Biema, Time magazine’s religion writer and the author of the original magazine article I was reacting to, on UrbanFaith.com explaining a little more about the numbers and why Willow Creek’s numbers are getting the love and attention of Time magazine.

I have lots of feelings all over the map about multiculturalism and how that can and should look in various contexts. I am the product of the immigrant church where there was little to no multiethnicity (except for the occasional Moody Bible student who was hired to teach Sunday School. I do not expect all churches to pursue numeric multiethnicity but at some point in a church’s life I do believe issues of multiethnicty, race and a holistic understanding of justice needs to be addressed.

I did not write about those immigrant or 1st generation churches because that is not what the article is about. I was simply responding to the attention focused on megachurches. I do not expect those 1st generation churches to hire “white” or adopt more White majority culture because to some degree they already do having established themselves here in America. Anyone who has grown up in a 1st generation church will tell you that issues of culture and ethnicity come up because the children growing up in the those churches will face those issues – the classic generational culture gap, if you will.

But if a church publicly states its intentions to pursue multiethnicity, which is what Bill Hybels and WC has done, I do expect them to address not just attendance and membership numbers. I would argue that the culture has to shift, as sociologists would agree, and that the leadership has to shift. It isn’t enough to say that the congregation looks different if we agree that isn’t what we are talking about when we say “multicultural” or “multiethnicity”. Are there songs sung in different styles and languages and the gifts of those cultures and nuances of language addressed? Is communion always wafers and grape juice when rice cakes and tea could also help connect and express the connection between host and blood? Is it always a drum set or can there be a djembe or janggu? Can liturgical dance also draw from 1st Nations’ and folk dancing? We learn so much from one another, and that is why diversity is better. No one culture paints the whole complete picture of God’s kingdom and I am blessed through the diversity of God’s kingdom and creation.

Asian ≠ White

Articles like this make me want to celebrate and cringe. Change can be a very difficult, painful process. The desegregation of the church and a deeper and theologically rooted understanding of ethnicity, race and culture demands current systems, institutions and communities to change. I want to celebrate the steps taken at mega-churches like Willow Creek that acknowledge and recognize the world isn’t as White as their congregations have often been, but I can’t help but feel a teeeeeny bit annoyed.

Why? Well, maybe it’s because the arctic blast in the Midwest makes me annoyed at everything because I forget how fortunate I am to have heat in a house full of food and warm clothing. And, I’m a bit prickly. How does a congregation that is only 20% minority count as being integrated? (The Time magazine article cites 20% as “the quantitative threshold of a truly integrated congregation”.) It feels like some odd application of the one-drop rule. Maybe someone out there can help me understand the significance of the numbers and specifically the 20% threshold.

And then if you read on in the article, there is this:

Call it the desegregation of the megachurches — and consider it a possible pivotal moment in the nation’s faith. Such rapid change in such big institutions “blows my mind,” says Emerson. Some of the country’s largest churches are involved: the very biggest, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Community Church in Houston (43,500 members), is split evenly among blacks, Hispanics and a category containing whites and Asians. Hybels’ Willow Creek is at 20% minority. Megachurches serve only 7% of American churchgoers, but they are extraordinarily influential: Willow Creek, for instance, networks another 12,000 smaller congregations through its Willow Creek Association. David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame studying the trend, says that “if tens of millions of Americans start sharing faith across racial boundaries, it could be one of the final steps transcending race as our great divider” — and it could help smooth America’s transition into a truly rainbow nation.

Go back. I do hope I’m reading this incorrectly: “and a category containing whites and Asians”? Um. Are we, and I think Asian here means Asian American, lumped together in a category with whites?

I’m not White.

And my parents would argue I’m not Asian either.

Sometimes words and labels matter because assumptions are going to be made. Asians are not white. Asian Americans are not white. If we were, my answer to “Where are you from?” would never be followed by “No, I mean where are you really from? You know. Like where were you born?”

My prickly response here is to get us thinking, and to remind me to think, critically about the statistics, initiatives and innovations. What are we celebrating here? And how can we appropriately celebrate, re-group, look critically and then respond accordingly?

For example, if we stop too long in amazement over the racial make-up of the congregation we forget that the up front leadership at WC, by and large, according to the article remains white (the article does not mention gender). Where and from whom are the white leaders of churches like WC going to learn about the non-white experience? How will congregations that are 80% white experience multiethnic leadership if they never see it, hear it and submit to it at their own church?

Press “publish”. Holding breath…

Softening My Skin in a Mud Bath

My apologies to those who landed here because they were searching for information on skin care.

Zondervan’s decision to remove Deadly Viper Character Assassin and Mike & Jud’s decision to shut down their website is heating up the blogosphere once again. I’m concerned about the way some of these posts and tweets could be read – tone is a difficult thing to express well in the anonymous electronic world. And as many of us have learned during the past three weeks, the blogosphere can run pretty fast and furious. Right now there is a lot of mud being slung in all directions.

But one theme that has appeared in a variety of places has been the call to those who were offended (pick me, pick me) to grow, get, have “thicker skin”. The comment and admonition to get thicker skin is akin to saying “don’t be so sensitive” or “you’re choosing to be offended” – all of the interpretations lend itself to telling the offended person that this is their personal issue they personally have to overcome.

I don’t want thick skin, and I pray against that. Lately it’s been a daily prayer.

Literally speaking, skin is our largest organ providing protection, support and circulation (I helped Corban study for his science test). Healthy skin is able to do those things well. Unhealthy or damaged skin put the rest of the body in danger as sensory and circulatory abilities are hampered.

When I think of thick skin I actually think of dead skin that hasn’t been shed properly. The callous on my toe from those beautiful but painful new shoes. The gnarly cuticles that snag my most delicate sweaters. The tough skin on my elbows from resting on them too much when I have writer’s block. I scrub off the callous. I cut my cuticles (I know, you’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to push them back and put lotion on them to soften them.) I exfoliate my elbows. And then a moisturize like crazy to soften the skin so that it’s pliable.

I don’t want thick skin because honestly when I think of thick skin I think of elephants and their thick skin. Elephants are beautiful animals, but I don’t want to look like an elephant.

I don’t want thick skin because I do not believe God wants us to create a bigger barrier to feeling and engaging deeply with God and with one another. Our sinful natures make it tough enough. Adding more to the junk of our souls or covering it up with thicker skin isn’t going to help.

I pray for a tender heart and soft skin so that I can hear what God has to say to me, our community, our world in that pain. When someone offends me, brushing it off doesn’t allow for a sacred moment between me, the offender and God. Thick skin means I just “get over it” and move along. But what if God doesn’t want us to move on so quickly all the time? What if our attempts at getting over it just mean “it” never goes away?

There have been some nasty comments in reaction to the Deadly Viper situation – people assigning motive and intent, name-calling, etc. In some places it’s getting mean. If we all get a thicker skin I’m afraid we’ll never understand each other. And besides, Jesus didn’t tell people to get thicker skin. He didn’t tell the bleeding woman to stop being a victim and get over the social outcast thing.  

Issues of race, ethnicity and gender all involve tough conversations about power and privilege. I don’t like being called names. I don’t like being lumped together and being referred to as the “minority tail wagging the majority dog” (yup, that’s an actual comment on a blog). I don’t like being told to stop playing victim because I made some noise and the authors were the sacrifice (yup, that’s real too). But I suspect people who thought nothing of the initial outcry paid much attention because maybe they never had to. Maybe the anger and disbelief over the book being pulled and the authors shutting down the website has more to do with never having anyone tell them to get over themselves? See, it can get ugly and polarizing real fast. Thick skin will just keep us from going deeper. 

I’m not suggesting an over-the-top emotional response to everything in this world, but when the mud-slinging ramps up like it has our natural instinct is to duck…or throw more. But the mud has to land somewhere right? Maybe instead of ducking I need to sit in the mud a bit, get a little dirty and then let the mud soften my skin.

The Unseen Privileges

In the eight years I worked specifically with Christian Asian American college students, I knew that my gender would get in the way. I was not a pastor – youth, English ministry, college, women’s ministry or otherwise. I was not a seminary student. I wasn’t a pastor’s wife. I was a married women with a child whose husband was not in vocational ministry. I was weird. Colleagues would later call me a trailblazer, but to be honest most days I simply reveled in the complexity of my amazing life while simultaneously crying in frustration over feeling like the only thing being burned was me.

And how do you talk about the unseen privileges my male colleagues, and more specifically my Asian American male colleagues, benefitted from without sounding demanding, whiny or bitter? Believe me, I keep trying even though I’ve been called all of those things. Even yesterday as I was supervising a younger male leader he talked about a local pastor’s gathering he was invited to attend. In all the years I worked at the same campus I was never invited to those meetings.

What that leader is learning is that he has unseen privileges that give him credibility and access. He knows it. He sees it in some of the male students he is mentoring – young men who have told him they don’t connect with me as a speaker – and he and I trust each other enough to say it out loud. It’s not about content or quality of delivery. It’s because I’m a woman, and in the Asian American context we still have some internal conversations that need to be had about cultural patriarchy and how some cultural values are so deeply rooted that it will take time, prayer, faith and pain to work through them. 

Over the years I’ve had to learn what it means to lead out of influence, to have a voice in the conversation even when I am not at the table. I’m still learning, which is why this controversy over Deadly Viper Character Assassin is affecting me so deeply. I have been physically at the table in conversations with the authors and publishing executives, but I am struggling in what feels like an unfair choice but perhaps prudent choice. I’m just not sure.

I’m having a tough time shaking the gender piece of this curriculum that hijacks and then stereotypes Asian culture while creating a false dichotomy between the feminine and masculine and describes strength, integrity and leadership in hyper-masculine terms. If my culture is nothing more than a decorative background and kung fu fighting illustration then I am reduced to a stereotype. And if my gender and things that are girly are equated with weakness then I am silenced. Twice.

I’m not making this stuff up. Really. Thanks to logicandimagination I did a little hunting and found an online preview of the book. (On a side note, I’m hoping to get out this afternoon and visit the local Christian bookstore to look through a copy of the book. I can’t bring myself money to pay for a copy, but the credibility of my critique of the theme – based on the website, dvd previews, blog and online book preview – is being questioned because I haven’t read the actual book.) 

“And then there’s little old us looking like school girls with plaid skirts on, because we are unskilled and undisciplined in the area of character. We’re weaklings with rail skinny arms and toothpick legs.” DV, page 11, 

“So we are asking you to make a choice and a decision right now. We are asking you to go balls out with us and become warriors, fighters, and black belts in the art of integrity. For some, this might be painful. For others, this will simply validate your leadership choices and good decisions. This is the grand master challenge to conquer yourself. We want to party with Master Po! We are warriors in the making.” p. 21

School girls with plaid skirts? Really? And how the *bleep* am I supposed “to go balls out”? Yeah, that’s going to be painful if not impossible. I don’t have balls, thank you very much. What is that even supposed to mean? I asked my husband because he has balls, and he couldn’t believe his eyes. We both agreed. If any of our kids used that phrase they would know immediately that Mom and Dad were not validating their leadership choices and that using the phrase was not a good decision.

My husband acknowledges that he can choose. If he chooses to engage in the gender piece of the conversation and controversy he will be viewed as an advocate. He can choose to acknowledge that the denigration of women and Asian Americans is unjust, but the impact of the former is a few degrees removed for him – even as he can sympathize as a son of a woman, husband of a woman, father of a young woman. His unseen privilege is that he does not lose credibility even if he chooses.

How will my credibility be affected if I chose to ignore blatant sexism in order to speak into issues of race and ethnicity? How will my credibility be affected if I chose to ignore blatant racism in order to speak into issues of sexism?

I haven’t given up hope that there are ways to embrace the complexity and dive into it more deeply. I’m convinced that the more complex conversations will take longer and be more painful, but they have the potential to lead us to a deeper, integrated and holistic understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image. I’m just not sure if I’m too angry or not angry enough to see where a conversation like this could lead.

Saying Goodbye to the Green Card – Biometrics

I’ve received notice that the government is ready for me to be fingerprinted. The FBI will cross-check my prints against its databases while my paper documents are verified.

Fingerprinting has nothing but negative connotations for me. If you’re being fingerprinted, you did something bad, someone thinks you did something bad, or your parents are afraid you’ll be abducted so they have your fingerprints, recent photograph and physical description on hand for the police.

Some of you may be wondering if I’m being a wee bit over the top with my thoughts in this process. I hope not. I hope that thinking through what citizenship means is appropriate, needed and welcomed by those born into the privilege…because the fact of the matter is that even after I’m (hopefully) naturalized I’ll still be asked, “Where are you from?” 😉

 

Does God Care I’m an Asian American Woman?

So my posts about becoming an American has been generating some great on- and off-line conversations and comments about citizenship, identity, etc.

My job involves engaging people into the conversation about multiethnicity/multiculturalism & Christianity. The conversations are always rich and often difficult. A question that “AS” brought up in her comment is one that often bubbles up to the surface:

What does it mean to say that “God doesn’t care if you’re black or white, male or female, rich or poor?”

What do you think? Does God care? Does it matter to God?

The Asian American Sidekick

Bethany doesn’t play with dolls anymore, but every now and then I’ll talk with a mom of  a younger girl who happens to still be very much in the AG doll phase. I don’t know what came over me tonight. Maybe it was thinking about culture in preparation for a Sunday School series I’ll be teaching at church later this month? Maybe.

I went on the AG website and was reminded why I was grateful when Bethany announced she had grown out of that phase of childhood.

Currently AG, from what I can tell, has two Asian American dolls. And both dolls are the sidekicks to a “main” doll. Again, finding affordable, quality, multicultural dolls is not the most pressing issue in the world, but it is a pretty typical parenting dilemma for many of us. Our kids want dolls, and while they might not immediately care whether or not its a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll, some of us parents do care for a variety of reasons.

Anyway, these two dolls are the sidekicks, and of course I have my theory. (I’d love to hear yours if you have one.) My theory? They haven’t figured out how to create and then market an entire line of historical fiction-based matching outfits and accessories for girls and dolls based on the Japanese internment or the immigration/resettling patterns of East, South East and South Asians.

Oversimplifying Asian American history? Yes. And really, isn’t that what the line of dolls is? It makes history (or historical fiction) accessible for those who can afford it, but it isn’t without its share of stereotypes which in the hands of young girls can be a bit tricky.

“Sidekick!” – it makes me think of the movie “Sky High” where new students attending this special school for super hero-type kids had to show off their super hero skills. Cool skills like super-duper strength mean you go to the super hero classes. Other skills like turning into a rodent mean you are a “Sidekick!”

My favorite doll growing up was a little “rag” doll my mom made out of a pattern. She cut out two pieces – the front and the back – sewed and stuffed. Voila! The other doll I remember loving was my “life-sized Barbie-like doll”; she was a black doll! My parents couldn’t find an Asian doll so they figured better black than blonde I guess. I can’t say I remember noticing or caring. The dolls were mine, and that was all that mattered.

Is it always that simple?

Chinese Eyes & Playground Prejudice

“Look, mom! Chinese eyes!”

Apparently that was the lesson of the day during recess.

Three years ago my son came home from 2nd grade and showed me how he could gently pull up the outer corner of his eyes. Duh. Chinese eyes.

I didn’t want to alarm him or make him feel like he was a bad kid, but I didn’t want him running around pulling his eyes back for obvious reasons. What I was able to gather was that a kid on the playground came up to Corban and said, “Hey, this is what Chinese eyes look like.”

Corban, who at the tender age of 7, understood he was Korean American but he associated that more with some of the customs we keep, our Korean names, the food and the language. He figured that he was learning something new about the Chinese, and thought his classmate was sharing fact. 

“Mom, did you see? I made myself Chinese,” he said with his one-dimple smile.

I wrote in my journal:

“I need more manuals for this kind of stuff.”

So what would you have said if your child or a child you know came up and proudly showed off her/his newly acquired skills?

I remember walking into my new 2nd grade class. We had recently moved from the north side of Chicago to the northwest suburbs. As far as I was concerned we had moved to Mars. 

Miss Thompson did her best to welcome me, but the real welcome came in the bathroom. “Amanda” came up to me and asked me what was wrong with my eyes and nose.

It was an honest question with no ill-intent, just like Corban’s re-enactment of what he had experienced on the playground. Amanda had never encountered an Asian American, and I had never encountered someone that weird. We were best friends that year.

But when you get beyond the playground, say, in your 20s, 30s or not quite 40s, it’s not quite that simple is it? Or is it?

My youngest is in second grade. I wonder what lessons Elias will bring home from the playground this year…

Virginia Tech

This morning, the phone woke me. “Did you hear the Virginia Tech shooter was Asian?”

The first phone call I received in my office this morning, “Let’s pray for Virginia Tech, but
also that there will be no backlash against Asians.”

As I read the newsposts, its striking to me. I was searching more facts about what happened,
explanations, analysis. But I also felt a bit nervous about how race would be brought up, and what it would be used to support.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that most of the journalists mentioned that the man from South Korea was a resident alien. It might just be accuracy from a journalistic perspective. But as a man who immigrated to the US in the mid-90s, I wonder what they were trying to say.

I was a bit upset that several of the articles went to the Department of Homeland Security and cited their data as “His point of entry in the US was…” It felt like they were tracking the port of entry for a terrorist–as if “people from this country don’t do these types of things.” Somehow, I felt like a stranger in my own country. Perhaps I’m being a bit sensitive–but I feel a strange identification with the young man. It’s the whole, “What will they think of us (Asians)?” mentality.

The JACL and the Asian American Association of Journalists have highlighted this. Here’s a statement from the journalists.

“As coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting continues to unfold, AAJA urges all media to avoid using racial identifiers unless there is a compelling or germane reason. There is no evidence at this early point that the race or ethnicity of the suspected gunman has anything to do with the incident, and to include such mention serves only to unfairly portray an entire people.

“The effect of mentioning race can be powerfully harmful. It can subject people to unfair treatment based simply on skin color and heritage. “

This morning, I’m filled with sadness for this young troubled man. I’m also grieving for the students on the campus who went to bed not knowing that was their last night. I’m grieving for the parents who cannot get the information and answers that they need. And for a campus that is stirred up, cloudy, and soaked in this violence.

But I’m also very sad for Asian American men on the campus. And I wonder what it is that they go through. If I were to walk, for one day, in their shoes, would I be strong enough to absorb what they go through on a daily basis?

Lord, have mercy on us all.