A Call for Tough-Mindedness: MLK, Jr. Day, 2018

With Ed Gilbreath and Karen Conway at Naperville Covenant Church, Jan. 14, 2018. (Photo credit: Brian Lee)

Here is a short talk I gave at Naperville Covenant Church yesterday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I was honored to speak alongside my longtime friend Ed Gilbreath (and author of Birmingham Revolution, amongst other great books!) and our fellow friend and church member Karen Conway. Ed spoke about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., Karen shared about her family’s experiences, especially as the parent of biracial children, and I gave an overview on how Jesus’s example of healing the blind man of Bethsaida can guide us in our own quest to be free of cultural and racial blindness. I am appreciative to be a part of a church community that takes seriously the call to address racial injustice and inequity, and I hope and pray we will all have the tough-mindedness to continue to press into the difficult and messy conversations that need to be had in order to truly address the areas of blindness we all have in this area.

Why White-Centered Discipleship Hurts Us All

Screen Shot 2017-12-05 at 9.08.22 PMHere is a post I did for CT Women’s #AmplifyWomen series. It begins: “For my 14-year-old son, the word ‘needle’ used to evoke feelings of pain. But last Saturday, he woke up with a strained neck that no amount of massaging or ibuprofen could improve. His grandparents convinced him to see an acupuncturist, and only out of sheer despe

ration—because he had a piano performance later that evening—did he agree. Two hours after the appointment, he walked out of Dr. Qi’s office praising the power of acupuncture, his image of needles forever transformed from instruments of pain to those of healing. Just as acupuncture is all about unblocking and rebalancing energy flow in our bodies, my Korean in-laws’ perspective removed the mental barriers of my third-generation, American-born son.

Similarly, we in the church don’t always pursue that which could truly be healing and transformational because we don’t know what is standing in our way. When it comes to women’s discipleship, we tend to default to the old ways of training and teaching women in the church. But a growing number of women—particularly those of color—see barriers and imbalances in our discipleship, especially regarding issues of race, culture, and reconciliation.”

Read the rest here:

The Case for Diversity On Your Conference Stage

storylineRecently there was a brouhaha on social media about the most recent Christian conference to feature an all-white speaker lineup. Laura Turner addressed this latest incident in her Religion News Service post, and other prominent Christian media figures such as Jonathan Merritt have also raised the issue before. But clearly, plenty of Christian leaders still fail to understand the importance of this ongoing problem.

This most recent conference featured the tagline “World Renowned Speakers That Will Help You See Life Differently.” But how would such a lineup do so if it is essentially a homogeneous group? If the goal is to help attendees see their lives differently, then would it not make sense to actually invite people whose experiences naturally reflect perspectives and life journeys different from most of those in the audience?

I’m not going to rehash the well-tread idea that Christian conferences should be more diverse because God is clearly a God who celebrates and mandates diversity. I think most Christians already know that. The Christian leaders who plan and run conferences can surely describe John’s vision in Revelation 7 of the church reflecting every tribe, tongue and nation. The problem is not that Christian leaders are ignorant of multiethnicity as God’s ultimate vision for the church. The problem is that many dominant-culture Christian leaders 1) absolve themselves of any responsibility of fulfilling this vision and 2) lack the ability to see the ramifications of omitting brothers and sisters of color because they have never ventured to the margins of the church themselves, relationally or experientially.

Maybe conference planners of these non-diverse events are thinking, “Well, these speakers we’ve invited are the people who have something to teach us all. They are the ones who sell books and whose names are known.” It’s a market-driven, not mission-driven perspective. So here are some market realities to consider: as an Asian American evangelical woman, my whole Christian life has been a cross-cultural experience. So attending events and conferences that feature  primarily- or all-white (or all-male) speakers only reinforces what I already know about the dominant culture. And I am not drawn to those gatherings. Nor are the increasing number of Christians of color in this country. (Are you watching demographic trends in America?) Nor are the (thankfully) growing number of white Christians who understand God’s call to reconciliation.

If you are a dominant culture leader, how much do you know about what it means to live as a person of color or a minority of any kind in the church? How much do you understand what it’s like to experience Christian culture from the vantage point of a person of color? How familiar are you with the gifts and blessings that people from different cultural experiences can offer the body of Christ? The reality is that those in the dominant culture need voices from the margins way more than people of color need to experience voices from the majority culture, because we already do, all the time. I know this sounds arrogant, but it’s not intended to be so. It’s just the way it is.

So if you are leading a conference or organization that does not consistently pursue diversity in your events and even amongst your leadership, you are shirking a crucial piece of your responsibility as a Christian leader. You are withholding a taste of the full glory of God from those who you are leading and instead presenting a truncated perspective of reality, a false gospel that runs so counter to the vision of Revelation 7 that it screams inauthenticity and privilege to those who have the eyes to see it.

And then there is the issue of what these homogeneous events are communicating to those in the minority. Whenever people of color see a Christian conference demonstrating a complete lack of awareness or willingness to present a full picture of God’s kingdom, we hear the following messages: You are not welcome here. Your perspective is not needed here. Your voice is not one we want to hear. You don’t belong to our tribe. Then, if any of us who were excluded choose to challenge the homogeneity of these events, we are criticized or accused of doing so out of spite or pettiness or political correctness. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We are doing so because we understand what is missing and what we can contribute, and we are taking steps of vulnerability to offer those gifts to our brothers and sisters in Christ (knowing full well those gifts may be rejected). But we believe in the church’s incredible potential to be a reconciled body, a witness to the world around us of the bridge-building power of the gospel. We challenge the church’s status quo for the sake of the gospel, not for our own sakes.

What will it take for this longstanding pattern of exclusion to finally start dissipating? I have long given up the hope of expecting cultural epiphanies to overtake Christian conference leaders en masse overnight. Change rarely happens unless a person in the dominant culture has their own road-to-Damascus experience in which their blinders of privilege and power finally fall off. In the meantime, however, there are ways you can help further the process of change, no matter how slowly it may come:

1) If you are in the dominant culture and you understand these issues, use your position and platform to voice your perspective on behalf of those on the margins. If you are a dominant culture speaker, then find out more about the event you’re being asked to speak at and make your agreement contingent on seeing diversity on the main stage (h/t D.L. Mayfield). Take the radical step of even foregoing some of your main stage time to give it to a person of color whose voice you believe in that needs to be heard. And if you are a potential conference attendee and you see homogeneity in the pre-event promo materials, raise the issue with the organizers. Express your unwillingness to attend unless the makeup of the speaker lineup changes. If enough people begin to do so, then organizers who haven’t been willing to acknowledge the issue might finally recognize that diversity matters.

2) If you are a conference organizer or an organizational leader and you want to try making strides in this area, don’t throw the recruitment of people of color onto the end of your event planning as an add-on (and certainly don’t just put all the people of color together on one workshop/panel or showcase them for a minimal time or in marginal roles on the main stage and think that is sufficient). Start early and get to know who you are inviting to build mutual trust and acceptance. Go the extra mile to find #speakersofcolor who you may never have known before–there are SO many in the church if you are willing to look just a little beyond your existing networks. If you claim that you tried to invite people of color to speak and they all refused, then you did not try hard enough. There are too many brilliant and gifted voices of color out there for this claim to be the slightest bit plausible.

Market and promote all your speakers equally, both before and at your events, and not just those who you may be tempted to give “top billing” due to their platform or name-recognition. And if your boards and leadership teams remain homogeneous, then your progress will only go so far. You need to be willing to share or even give up power to those on the margins to make true progress in the area of affirming diversity in your organizations and events. Find those voices of color who will not be afraid to challenge and stretch your organizations–don’t just settle for the appearance of multiethnicity.

3) If you are in the minority culture, don’t shy away from events that seem to skew largely white. You may have to be the lone pioneer for some time before others will join you, but reconciliation cannot happen if we don’t continue to inhabit those spaces and places. If you are asked to be a speaker, use the opportunity to probe further about the organizations that are inviting you–do they have diversity represented on their boards and leadership teams? What portion of the main stage speakers will be people of color, or are you going to be the only one? But even if you are being asked out of tokenism, you can help educate and instruct that organization in matters of race and reconciliation. Take risks to speak out in love about what you observe and see, even if the news is difficult to deliver. You might not get invited back, but you will have planted seeds of multiethnic understanding that will hopefully bloom and grow over time.

There are a number of Christian organizations who are already doing this well and their conferences reflect this competency and commitment–InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, the Evangelical Covenant Church (full disclosure–IVCF is my employer and the ECC is my denomination!), Christian Community Development Association, and Missio Alliance, just to name a few. But far too many Christian conference attendees experience a unichrome version of God’s kingdom that falls so far short of God’s ideal. Sure, at the end of time we’ll all experience God’s beautifully diverse kingdom. But what a shame it would be to wait that long if we can have a taste of it here and now.

My “Fresh Off the Boat” Dilemma

FORREST WHEELER, IAN CHEN, RANDALL PARK, HUDSON YANG, CONSTANCE WUI want to be a fan. I want to be a hater. And therein lies the problem.

If you follow current developments in network television, you might have noticed an anomaly in upcoming programming, in a show that is an eye-catching example of “one of these things is not like the other.” ABC’s

(FOTB), based on the bestselling memoir of restauranteur and chef Eddie Huang, premieres this week. It is the first sitcom featuring an Asian-American family in more than 20 years.

The last such show, All-American Girl starring comedian Margaret Cho, was never renewed past its first season. Fresh Off the Boat is similarly set in the 1990s and centers on the life of a 12-year-old version of Eddie, who struggles to fit into his new life in Orlando after growing up in more multiethnic D.C. Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang (who also happens to be the father of Hudson, the actor who plays young Eddie), describes FOTB in his piece ?Why the ?Fresh Off the Boat? TV Series Could Change the Game?:

The show is like nothing you will have ever seen before on television?it will blow minds, raise eyebrows?It?s that different. And provocative. And, yes, gut-bustingly funny.

Oh, how I?d love for it to succeed.

And yet, part of me hopes it will not.

(Read the rest at the Christ and Pop Culture site!)

18 Years Later, My Follow-Up Article for CT

HLUB

Back in 1996, when I was a fledging magazine editor for Christianity Today, I wrote one of the few news articles that had ever been done about the Asian immigrant church in America. It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, but I still get comments even to this day about how this was a groundbreaking article for Asian American Christianity. This spring, 18 years after I last wrote on this topic of the magazine, CT asked me to consider writing a follow-up article of sorts, only this one would be a cover feature package rather than a news article, with more words to work with and greater exposure. It was an impossible offer to turn down. I spent a good portion of my spring and then my entire summer (plus some of my September!) working on elements of this feature along with its accompanying sidebars. As it may be another 18 years before I get a chance to write on this subject, I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labors! It was an impossible difficult subject to tackle given all the growth and development of Asian American Christianity over the past two decades. But hopefully this will give readers a small taste of how Asian Americans are beginning to find their voice in the evangelical family.

How Pursuing Diversity Drew In a Community

Grace ChapelAt First Covenant Church (FCC) in St. Paul, Minnesota, a church with longstanding roots in the city’s East Side neighborhood, you can still find families with ties to the original Swedish immigrants who planted the church 140 years ago. But by 2002, the congregation had arrived at a critical juncture. “It was an aging congregation filled with fear, fear of dying, fear of change,” says pastor Anne Vining. The largely Caucasian church decided that it needed to face those fears and pray for direction on its next steps.

What emerged from the crucible of self-examination for FCC and its leaders was the realization that although its neighborhood had remained blue-collar socioeconomically, the racial and ethnic composition of the East Side had diversified far from its Swedish origins. To keep pace with these changes, the church had to begin doing the same. Steve Benson, a lay leader whose daughter represents the sixth generation of his family to attend FCC, recalls, “The landscape of our community had changed, and we needed to re-envision ourselves given what was already right at our doorstep.”

(Read the rest of the article at On Faith. Photo courtesy of Grace Chapel).

Beyond “Tiger Parenting”

Tiger MomI still remember the moment on Twitter a few years ago, when a Wall Street Journal tweet caught my eye with these inflammatory words: “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Within days, the phrase “Tiger Parent” had entered the modern parenting lexicon while Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Chua details the extraordinary lengths she went to push her children in order for them to achieve exceptional results. In one famous scene from the book, Chua is hovering over her daughter Louisa and demanding perfection in her piano practicing. “If the next time is not perfect,” Chua warns Louisa, “I am going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!”

What guides your parenting style?

It’s easy to deride Chua’s motivational techniques and overbearing attitude and say, “I would never do that to my kids!” But even if the methodology of most parents today differs from Chua’s, their motivations might be exactly the same: a desire to see their kids excel in school, demonstrate expertise in one or preferably several extracurricular activities, and ultimately gain acceptance to college (the more prestigious, the better) in order to ensure future success and security.

Could it be a danger sign that the lives of Christian parents appear to be largely parallel to their secular counterparts? Is there a different way to parent that runs counter to the messages of our culture?

These underlying motivations are just as present in Christian circles, as evidenced by the prevalence of hectic lifestyles that often look indistinguishable from those of non-Christian families. The only difference is that Christian families include church-related commitments in their list of activities. Could it be a danger sign that the lives of Christian parents appear to be largely parallel to their secular counterparts? Is there a different way to parent that runs counter to the messages of our culture?

(Read the rest of the post at Today’s Christian Woman.)

When God Showed Up in House of Cards

Jae Screenshot 5I was delighted to interview Jae Jin, a Baltimore-based aspiring musician who recently appeared on an episode of the television show House of Cards. His is a wonderful story of God using him in unexpected ways to bring a moment of worship into an otherwise dark show. Read on!

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Viewers of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards have come to expect the show’s dark turns, whether involving murder, sex, or just the everyday political machinations of life inside the Beltway. But they might not have expected the moment this season featuring an intimate church worship service and a soulful praise song. Even more surprising is the story of the one who was chosen to bring the holy moment to life.

Jae Jin works for Humanim, a Baltimore-based nonprofit focusing on workforce development, human services and social enterprise. He is neither a professional actor nor musician. Yet this 29-year-old who survived a life-threatening illness as a teenager is accustomed to a life of unexpected outcomes. CaPC contributor Helen Lee spoke with Jae about his experiences on the show, and discovered what he learned from both the encouragement and the criticism he has received.

(Read the full interview at the Christ and Pop Culture site!)

Embracing Every Tongue, Tribe, and Nation

 

Basic RGBRecently, I was a part of an initiative to help the evangelical church become aware of and understand its limitations in the area of cultural intelligence and sensitivity, particularly in its relationships with its Asian American brothers and sisters. In the wake of this initiative, I wrote a number of blog posts explaining the reasons behind my involvement and why it’s important for the larger church to increase its cultural IQ. Please feel free to peruse and comment!

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From the Christ and Pop Culture blog:

I am not, by nature, a rabble-rouser. I’ve been teased and marginalized by others countless times due to my Asian ethnicity (despite the fact that I am a natural-born American citizen), but no matter how much these incidents stung, I would say nothing and keep the memories deep inside. Whether it was due to my own insecurities, a desire to avoid conflict, an inability to articulate an adequate response, a fatalistic perspective that nothing I could say would change anything, in all those moments I kept my mouth shut. Doing so became my instinctive and self-protective response.

I share this to provide some context as to why a 40-something Asian American woman who has not historically been one to raise my voice when confronted by racial and cultural insensitivity did so through the open letter to the evangelical church that was recently released by a group of Asian American Christians. As part of the organizing committee who spearheaded this effort, I want to bring clarity to our motivations for releasing the letter and hopefully dispel some of the misconceptions about the letter and about those of us who were involved in its crafting.

(Read more at “Why I Raised My Voice (And Encouraged Others to Do the Same)”)

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From Ed Stetzer’s blog:

I was born in Spokane, Washington, and I’ve lived all my 40-plus years in the United States. If you never met or saw me before but heard me speak, you would likely assume that English is my first language, and you’d be correct. I love watching the NFL, I vote and pay my taxes, I make an amazing apple pie—I’m American, through and through.

But more times than I care to count, I have been treated like someone who doesn’t belong here, solely because of my heritage as the daughter of two Korean immigrants. My husband is also of Korean descent so my children, too, are Korean by blood, but also 100 percent American as I often remind them. Even so, my 11-year-old eldest son broke my heart recently when he told me that he doesn’t think girls will like him because he is “not American enough.” And I know he’s not getting that message from anyone in our family.

(Read more at “How High Is your Cultural Intelligence?”)

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From the Evangelical Covenant Church:

Earlier this week, a coalition of Asian American pastors and church leaders released an “Open Letter to the Evangelical Church” decrying the use of stereotypes that they say have hurt their community. Two Covenanters, Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, drafted the letter and sought the signatories.

Major media outlets across the country have run stories about the letter, which is attracting additional signatories every day. To view the letter, click here.

The women decided to write the letter following two recent depictions of Asian Americans, one by Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, and another by Exponential, a church planting group, during a conference at Saddleback.

A video at the conference showed a white pastor joking that he made his apprentice do menial activities. The apprentice responds by doing a parody of the “Karate Kid” that includes the pastor speaking with a Chinese accent, and the two engaging in karate before bowing to each other.

(Read more at “Covenanters Call for Dialogue on Asian American Stereotypes”)

(Illustration credit: http://www.istockphoto.com/mstay)

NYC’s Unlikely Defender

JImmyI’m so honored to have written the following article about Jimmy Lee, the executive director of Restore NYC, an organization that serves trafficked foreign nationals in New York City. The piece received a prize from the “This Is Our City” project of Christianity Today, and I am pleased that Jimmy and Restore NYC will receive more attention for the wonderful, life-giving work they are doing:

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As a child, Jimmy Lee didn’t seem too interested in justice. By age 9, he had figured out how to win his classroom’s monthly motivational prize through a combination of cheating, stealing, and smarts. In 7th grade, he and his fellow athlete-friends would regularly morph into bullies, selecting weaker boys and girls, then knocking down their books and teasing them.

Fast-forward several decades, to a solitary, pre-dawn morning in April 2012. Lee sat down in his usual chair for devotions, thinking about a different segment of the weak and vulnerable. Just hours earlier, he had been introduced as the new executive director of Restore NYC, a faith-based organization that serves foreign nationals who are victims of sex trafficking in New York City. As he thought about what it must have been like for these women who have experienced horrific and repeated abuse, sometimes 30 times a day for years on end, the former aggressor found his defenses crumbling, and he wept.

“I sensed God was asking me to enter into their painful experience, to feel what he feels when this kind of abuse occurs,” Lee says. “To feel his sadness as well as his hunger for righteousness, justice, and restoration.”

Lee’s story is one of redemption, of a child with a limited moral compass transformed into a grown man pursuing justice, freedom, and equality for the most at-risk members of society.

From Aggressor to Advocate

Two events left indelible imprints on Lee and undoubtedly helped to shift this former child bully into an advocate for others. The first was his conversion to Christianity in early high school. The second was his decision to spend the summer of 1994 in South Africa, right after the anti-apartheid movement had reached its zenith with the election of Nelson Mandela as president. Witnessing history in the making had long-lasting ramifications for Lee: “I knew from then on that I ultimately wanted to do something with my life related to pursuing economic and social justice,” he says.

His time in South Africa also taught him about the importance of leveraging the political process to enact change. For this reason, Lee invests significant time and energy into advocating for policy decisions that will aid sex-trafficking victims. He is no stranger to press conferences and meetings with state and city officials. And the impact of Lee’s involvement in the political realm has not just helped Restore NYC, according Dorchen Leidholdt, who leads the statewide non-governmental organization Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

“Jimmy has changed the way that key players in the system look at the issue of trafficking,” Leidholdt says. “He made the decision to formally bring Restore into the work of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition and to join our campaign, which has been pivotal. He takes advantage of all the opportunities to advocate for trafficking victims and survivors. And male legislators can hear from Lee in a way they cannot hear from the rest of us. He demonstrates that this is not just a women’s issue.”

Read the rest of this article at the This Is Our City website: