The Salt Collective: Embracing Being the Token

The Salt Collective: Embracing Being the Token

Today I’m over at the SALT Collective!


“I am the only one. On most committees or organizations, I am usually the only one. The only woman. The only young person. The only racial “minority.” The only liberal. And most recently, the only mother with young children. It was something I grew accustomed to rather quickly, this being the token fill-in-the-blank.”

This was the opening to the chapter I wrote in Streams Run Uphill: Conversations with Clergywomen of Color. A book full of theological, sociological, cultural reflections on the experience of clergywomen of color I had the privilege of editing turned into continuous fodder for my own reflection on the complicated intersections of race, gender, economics, and more.

Being a Presbyterian minister now for over ten years I’ve spent much time struggling to articulate what it means to be the token, a standout and a novelty – a Korean American clergywoman. Though I’ve come to feel comfortable in my clergy-skin teaching, leading worship, administering sacraments, and preaching from the pulpit, I still wrestle with the gaze of the wider public when I am out and about with my collar on. The white tab in the center of my neck surrounded by the somber black seems to cause a double-take by those who walk by me. It’s the clash of the traditional images of the office with the (relative) youthfulness of my face, my being a woman, and my East Asian heritage that perhaps elicits this response.

But, I haven’t always worn a collar – it’s not terribly common attire for Presbyterian clergy. Generally, Presbyterians like to blend in a little more.

I chose to wear one because I wanted to stand out.

Read the rest at the SALT Collective.

#BlackLivesMatter and Standing in Solidarity

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The following is the text of the speakers at the National Day of Resistance protest in Bloomington, Indiana published here with their permission. Rasul Mowatt is Associate Chair and professor in IU’s Public Health program. Chanelle Fox is a fourth year law/master’s in public health student. Both were incredibly inspiring – sharp, provocative, thoughtful, articulate, and have pushed me to pursue more of this work in our town. I offer their reflections here for your edification. Because “we need to learn Black Things today.”


Come in and let’s gather closely. Most of you do not know me, and I do not know you. But, we do not need to know each other to be close.

In beginning, I like to think back to the experience and opportunity of working for a Shule, a Black Independent Institution/School. These were/are remarkable schools for Black Children. Now I know most of you are not Black, and only some of you here today are children, but we would begin each day with a simple question:
‘What are we here to learn today’ and the children would in turn respond, ‘We are here to learn Black Things today.’

So, when I ask you, the crowd that is gathered here today,
‘What are we here to learn today?’ [Crowd: ‘We are here to learn Black Things today!’]

This makes me think of John Henrik Clarke, an elder and incredible historian that I had the opportunity to be around for some time towards the end of his life. He has been quoted with saying, ‘If we are going to be masters of our destiny, we must be masters of the ideas that influence that destiny.’

You see, there are many perspectives that we can draw from in engaging in something like this, and we when we invoke ‪#‎blacklivesmatter‬ then it is also necessary to have a broader understanding of Black political perspectives [beyond MLK]. With this in mind, and based on those perspectives there are several questions that I ask each of us to consider as we stand here, walk down Kirkwood, and gathering at Fountain Square.

1. What do you want to do?
Think it through, really. Are we attempting to simply imitate what others have done? One location does a die-in, so we want to do one? One location blocks streets, so want to block one? Do we want to be seen? Or, do we want to change something? You see, others have chosen to take a hard look at this and it makes me think of Chazz Giovani and the small group that gathered with him in New York City’s Grand Central Station to take Eric Garner’s last words, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and turned it into perfomance art that was powerful because it came from a place that was not based on imitation but from the heart and what they were experiencing there, in New York.

Whatever comes from the heart will touch the spirit.

2. Where do you want to do it?
I ask this, because you must determine were you want to do this work, to do this fight. Do you want to do this [work] here, in Bloomington? In Ferguson? Where ever you come from? Do you need to study abroad to engage in change? Because change is needed here.

Many of us, are waiting the return of the show the Wire on Dec. 26th. And interestingly connected to the police killings of Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, and Michael Brown, the character Prez, former cop who accidently killed a Black boy is a now a teacher, is at a teacher’s training and is disgusted that the school systems operates very similarly to the police department in moving numbers to benefit the system rather than changing lives and communities, and she turns to him and simply says, ‘Wherever you go there you are.’

See: “The Wire: Know Your Place (#4.9)” (2006)
Roland ‘Prezbo’ Pryzbylewski: I don’t get it. All this so we score higher on the state tests? If we’re teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?

Grace Sampson: Nothing. It assesses us. The test scores go up, they can say the schools are improving. The scores stay down, they can’t.

Roland ‘Prezbo’ Pryzbylewski: Juking the stats.

Grace Sampson: Excuse me?

Roland ‘Prezbo’ Pryzbylewski: Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.

Grace Sampson: Wherever you go, there you are.

3. Why are you here?
Really, why are you here? What is your motivation? Ask yourself this. The reason is that others have or might not have thought this out. Some of us are aware that Harvard law students are currently asking to be exempt from their final exams or have them extended because they are traumatized by the current events in the city and country. Many are questioning this, as to how could you turn these tragic deaths into something that is about you. Many think that this exemplifies what happens when people do not know why they are doing a thing, why they are here/there. But we should be here because we work, not protest, work on prison relief, wrongful convictions, arrest disparities, etc. in this community.

We need to be here, because of the work we do and because of the words of these women.

Toni Morrison said it best, ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else.’

4. How long are you going to do this?
Most of us, all of us, should know that State Sanctioned violence, summary executions, wrongful incarcerations have been going on for a long time. Longer than the oldest person gathered here today, not suggesting that anyone here is exceptionally old. But we must realize that if we are going to be about this, then we need to be prepared to be engaged in this for a long time, a very long time. Otherwise, why are we are…is it just to be in this moment, only? What are we doing for those who are most likely to be locked up or killed, the most disposable among us?

And this leads me to my final question for us to think about…to keep in mind:

5. What’s your price?
We all have one. How high is yours? Is it that job you always wanted? A certain amount of money? A certain man or woman that you have an eye for? Some thing? What is it that will make you not want to engage in this fight anymore? What is it that will make sway away from doing the task? What is your price? Know it. Know that price and try and make it as high as possible.

So these are the questions that I leave us to think on as we continue on this day we have chosen to gather. We must realize that this is no game. Think of Ramsay Orta and what he is currently experiencing. We would not know much of what happened to Eric Garner if was not for him recording the incident with his smartphone. He has been arrested and we cannot think that this is simply a coincidence.

So I end with what I asked you near the beginning, as I began this, ‘What did you learn today?’…I can’t hear you…‘What did you learn today?’ [Crowd: ‘We learned Black Things today!’]

Indeed. For if we have learned Black Things today and we are going to do Black Things tomorrow.

 


 

First of all, I want to take a moment to honor the many lives that we have lost to senseless murders by the police. I’ve thought a lot about what I should say, given that I have a platform to speak on behalf of a community that is hurting. I thought a lot about my own conversations that I’ve had with other people of color and white allies.

A few things come to mind when I think about how I, and many people of color, have felt in regards to the national conversations about race. The best word I can use is – solidarity.

To perform solidarity is to always be cognizant of what this means, and to whom the meaning belongs. It is performed by constantly being in conversation with systems of power, our roles, and how we can all work to deconstruct it. It means recognizing our own positions of power within the greater struggle of justice. I ask my white allies to please constantly be critiquing and critically analyzing their own privilege and power within the structure of white supremacy. I ask that you think before you act, think before you speak: That you act and speak slowly, and with humility. I ask that you are cognizant of the fact that your privilege has protected you from understanding – from knowing – black rage, from violence being committed not just on your body, but the bodies of those that you love daily, relentlessly.

I ask that you check yourself before you “whitesplain” to a person of color just how right you are on matters that you could never fully understand. I ask that you remember that for so long black voices have been silenced, and ask you not to perpetuate the violence and systems of oppression by drowning us out with your own voice. Because the reality is if we can’t breathe, then imagine how hard it is for us to speak, much less be heard.

Thank you.

Community Organizing, Vigils, and How Plans Go Awry

Community Organizing, Vigils, and How Plans Go Awry

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“Don’t become too narrow. Live fully. Meet all kinds of people. You’ll learn something from everyone. Follow what you feel in your heart.” -Yuri Kochiyama

Lunch with a friend that I love and admire so much – we caught up as we don’t spend nearly enough time together. She’s in academic and intellectual circles, church and other social circles, and just well-connected. We shifted to remembering the #nmos14 vigil back in August and I realized I hadn’t blogged or reflected much on it.

When Michael Brown was murdered in cold blood by police on the streets of his neighborhood I knew I needed space to confront, to reflect, to mourn, to confess, to process everything. Twitter came out with ideas for mobilizing people for local protests and vigils and I jumped on the opportunity to help organize one for Bloomington. I assumed that in a university town someone or some org would be spearheading it even in the middle of summer when the students were still gone. I asked around. Wrote emails. Made phone calls.

Nothing.

So I did it. I made more phone calls. Used the few contacts I had through church and the university. Asked people to speak and help spread the word. Made posters. Found a karaoke machine. Got candles.

I realized I had no idea what I was doing. At all.

But the day came. And as word spread I received messages from all sides of the political spectrum. This was a concern to Andy so he went to the local police station and asked for police presence at the event. Two showed up and remained pretty inconspicuous standing a couple hundred feet away – we only noticed them when we left.

But a couple people insisted that I not make this about police brutality or an anti-police campaign especially since they were so … accommodating to us. In my opening remarks:

…the reality of racism and antiblackness is that white supremacist violence is a threat whenever we gather to uphold people of color. (Feminista Jones:) We are here “to remember the forgotten, ignored, killed, and abused.”

We honor the victims of police brutality. We are mindful of the ongoing tragedy of police violence and media suppression in Ferguson, and we recognize these things as direct expressions of racialized state power in the United States. We recognize that, as activist Kelly Hayes said this week, “State violence can’t cure street violence.”

This is not a time for blame but a chance to bear with each other. Our presence, your presence means that you acknowledge the reality that we are all complicit in these structures that give some of us privilege and marginalize these communities. To begin to work towards a solution means we confess and repent, and listen to others.

I inserted at the very beginning, “we are grateful for the peaceful presence of the Bloomington Police.”

And I felt awful saying it. Because I didn’t feel grateful. Because I didn’t want to center any narrative around them in the moment. Because I wanted to speak the truth. But I gave in and did it.

From there it felt like it spiraled down. Watching through different eyes I noticed the all-White music group, though they were sincere and well-intentioned, the almost all-White speakers, the almost all-White faces in the middle of the crowd, and the mostly all-White testimonies during the speakout.

I looked at the periphery and saw a dozen black people. Watching.

Per @feministajones‘s suggestion during the conference call we mimicked the photo of the Howard University students all standing with arms raised up. And I noticed that the black people stayed on the sidelines.

Everything felt strained. Awkward. Forced. Everything felt … Wrong.

Only a few black people speaking out. Christian religious leaders organizing it. White people with their hands up in the air. Bob Dillon-ish song as the opening music appropriating MLK Jr’s words.

The wrong people were up front. The wrong people and stories and music were in the center. The wrong words were said outloud.

I wondered if I should have stayed out of it. There was a vigil up in Indy. Maybe I should have just driven up.

And then I was reminded that everything is subject to critique. Someone will always find something wrong. This dear friend of mine reminded me that no matter what is said or how something is said that someone will be unhappy or upset.

But. What was right was that we tried even in our fumbling and inept way to make things right and do things right. We tried and sucked and failed a little. But as a Presbyterian minister (which I understood was even critiqued because God-Forbid a religious person be involved in secular affairs) and Christian I knew that I wanted to stand with the victims and their families even if it was 1000 miles away. Even if it was bumbling and ungraceful.

Someone remarked on a blog that I could now pat myself on the back as a social justice advocate and organizer, and that essentially I did this for me. I DID do this for me. I’m thinking about 9/11 and the ways that we keep terrorizing, oppressing, neglecting, and doing violence to people both here and abroad. So yes, I did it – this “organizing” – to acknowledge and confess my guilt, my complicity, my wrongdoing. And I will keep doing it. I will keep leading and organizing moments where we have to confront our fuckups, our racism, our egos, our lack, and the work that needs to be done to enact and live into justice.

“Our ultimate objective in learning about anything is to try to create and develop a more just society.” -Yuri Kochiyama

Short-Term Mission Trips, Protests and Sharing the Narrative

Short-Term Mission Trips, Protests and Sharing the Narrative

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The first time I went to Mexico was a mission trip. A church youth group. An earnest youth pastor. And boxes of tracts in Spanish.

One purpose. We went with the intention of saving the poor and ignorant. Clearly, they needed Jesus. What was most important to their lives was the salvation of their souls.

Meanwhile, we played, we sang together, we ate and received their hospitality, we toured the area, and we felt like we were doing God’s work. We were their saviors.

II

For five years we travelled to the Dominican Republic to work “hand in hand” with one church community. Mostly youth, but we had parents, older adults, and even children who were on these mission teams. One summer we helped pour a foundation. The next summer we built walls. Always, we ate together, we worshipped together, we lived together. Always, we cried the last night as we held hands during the worship service. Always, we wondered how they would survive until the next year.

Each time we went back it was like a family reunion – we saw Dominican children grow up so quickly, and were amazed that they were able to expand the building and community even more.

Without us.

II

Clarkston.

The largest refugee settlement in the country is in Atlanta, GA. Ghanians, Ethiopians, Cameroonians, Chin and Karin, Indonesians and other South Asians. A local church has provided space for leaders from two of the ethnic groups to gather for worship and build a worshipping community.

We got on a bus with the pastors and leaders, and they took us to the safe apartment complex because the other one had three buildings burned down by individuals seeking retribution. Right around when the local elementary school let out so many children and parents are migrating in one direction. Driving into the community made me flashback to when we would drive into the Dominican community each summer, and the people would stare at us. Curiosity. Anxiety. Uncertainty on their faces. We stopped right in the center, we got out, and in twos, we walked around for about 10 minutes. Some of these refugees said hello, and others ran in the other direction.

Afterwards, we sat in the newly renovated sanctuary listening to the pastor and a young person speak animatedly about the wider impact having this space was making for their community of refugees from the Republic of Congo. This beautiful African refugee boy had a smile that lit up the room every time he shared stories about his friends coming to the church with him.

And all I could think – I kept praying, “Please God, please God, please God, keep him safe. Keep him safe and alive.”

II

We aren’t missionaries. We aren’t saviors. We aren’t even really terribly necessary.

It’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around whether it’s better for me to show up somewhere or to send money. There are times I criticize upper-class churches who are well-endowed and funded by their community, and all they do is write a big check every year to each of the different service agencies and non-profits in town. Because all the ways that these moments of standing in solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed – being with the Dominicans and Haitians – it has continued to shape me – that’s immeasurable and priceless. I treasure the experience of mutual ministry, and the profound hospitality and compassion that happens in these seasons, and the profound experience of each other’s humanity. To go and listen, and be taught, cared for and loved by these people was a healing balm.

And then I can’t help but cringe at the thought of how much extra work we actually created for our Dominican friends because they would have to stay longer to correct our shoddy brick-laying and building walls. It probably would have been better to just send the money I raised for transportation, airline, and everything and hire more Dominican workers.

We take up a lot of space. Our bodies. Our voices. Our privilege. Do we really understand what it means to walk into a community or tragedy full of our privilege? As much as we want to share, stand, walk with those we’ve hurt with our complicity, do we realize that we will never be totally without or innocent of our privilege? We will never be free of the privilege. We will never be able to totally check that privilege. We will never be free of the guilt of our privilege. And maybe we need to sit – quiet – in that discomfort.

Do we see the possibility that our perspectives and voices are not really necessary? And that if there’s anything that is even remotely helpful it is to stop talking, stop teaching, stop taking over, and just listen, and really listen, listen and point to the others who have been speaking, resisting, and protesting for years?

What if being a part of the narrative means to actually stop being a part of the narrative?

Because we begin to assume the very people who created oppressive institutions will somehow also be the solution. We see a growing number of race “experts” talking about and blogging about Ferguson as if they hold the knowledge and tools necessary to absolve racism–but end up trying to absolve their own guilt and complicity. How many of the people writing about race have never even bothered to organize in their own communities to end violence? How many of these experts will no name state violence, knowing they benefit from the continuation of state power? What does it mean when those we uphold as leaders of the church and leading voices in race politics get their paychecks without having to give up any of the privileges afforded to them by their own status? What we have is an overabundance of people talking about race and injustice, and too few willing to take up the cross. We need to build co-strugglers and not allies. We need to stop talking over those most directly impacted by structures of violence and instead center what they have been saying for years. Especially as middle class East Asian Americans, we need to learn how to put down the microphone.

Let the right people drop the mic.

Ferguson is not a stepping stone to talking about orientalism and the perils of war. Ferguson is not merely a conversation starter to recenter Asian American narratives. We need to understand how we have relative and not comparative histories alongside Black people in America. The reality is it becomes too easy to point fingers at whiteness without realizing how we, as Asian Americans, can often further the chasm between Blacks and Whites. Equality with white people is not equality for everyone. Solidarity with black people is more than an intellectual understanding of anti-blackness. Our politics are who we choose to center, listen to, be in community with, and organize around. We need people to silently stand behind the most marginalized without looking for the glory that comes with visibility and credit for being a follower of Christ.

“Be therefore imitators of Christ…”

Gracious Protest: When Kindred Live Together

Gracious Protest: When Kindred Live Together

Gracious Protest

Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11: 1-2a, 29-32

Witherspoon Street Presbyterian
Alex Wimberly

17 August 2014

“A police force that does not represent the entire community cannot serve any in the community.” That was the lesson drawn by the chairman of the policing board in Northern Ireland when the decision was made to deliberately diversify the recruitment of new officers. A nation with nearly 40% identifying as Roman Catholic had a police force that was almost exclusively Protestant. And as a result, many in the Catholic communities of Northern Ireland regarded the police as an occupying force, a tool of British oppression, the enemy, and in the minds of some―a legitimate target. It was hard not to think about that discrepancy between police and civilians when watching the news from St. Louis this week. “A police force that does not represent the entire community cannot serve any in the community.” A population that is mostly black, with its law enforcement almost exclusively white? That doesn’t look like Ferguson’s police force, does it? It looks like someone else’s.

Now I cannot speak with much authority on the situation in Missouri. Neither am I really an expert on the peace process in Northern Ireland. But having lived there for seven years, I do know what a huge step they made towards peace when they took extraordinary efforts to ensure their police served the entire population―and not just one segment of it. Through affirmative action, they evened out the numbers of Catholics and Protestants on the force. They set up independent commissions to oversee the whole operation to make sure abuses and allegations were handled properly. They changed the name of the very British sounding “Royal Ulster Constabulary” to the more perfunctory and wonderfully bland “Police Service of Northern Ireland.” And while some were skeptical, they have over the last fifteen years not only reassured those who had come to distrust the police, they have also successfully replaced a deep source of division in that country with something that everyone can get behind. Because the great majority—Protestant and Catholic—wanted peace. The people as a whole—Loyalist and Republican—wanted justice. The province of Northern Ireland—British and Irish—wanted a fresh start. And by starting with those common desires, they found something that could unite people across the bitterest of divides.

Come Closer

As our scripture for this morning suggests, such healing is indeed possible and need not be so rare, for there are common threads to our humanity that span the divisions between us. There are still ties that have the power to draw us closer to one another. Paul reminds us in Romans, that each of us—regardless of who we are and what we have done or not done—each of us depends on the mercy of God. So at least we have that in common: we have all fallen short. Putting it one way: none of us is God. Putting it another way: we need to cut each other some slack. We aren’t all that different from one another. Indeed, as Genesis suggests, even those who seem strange and alien to us can turn out to be our closest kin.

The brothers of Joseph have no idea who he is. They are in for a surprise. Driven by jealousy, they had beaten young Joseph, stripped him of his precious coat and left him for dead. Later enticed by greed, they sold him into slavery. But years later, desperate and hungry, they have come hat in hand to Pharaoh’s steward, not knowing that this is the boy they gave up for twenty coins. The one they now need is the one they pushed away. But when he finally reveals himself to them, Joseph does not push back. He tearfully pleads, “Come closer to me.”

It is a beautiful line of scripture. “Come closer to me. I am your brother.” It is a moment of grace and redemption, but also of reckoning. It is a moment of true reconciliation. For in Joseph’s act of mercy, he forces his brothers to confront their sin. This is the brother they betrayed; the one they gave up. Yet Joseph is reaching across the years of separation and animosity to reclaim what they still have in common: “I am Joseph, your brother—is my father still alive?” No longer is this a stranger standing in their midst. No longer is this a foreign prince distanced by wealth or class or race or status: this is their kid brother, who knows the same father they know, who knows them better than anyone else does, who knows them better than they would like…yet who wants to draw closer to them, who wants to close the gap of their separation, who wants nothing more than for them to come and be with him, to be safe and secure and happy. “Come closer to me. I am your brother.”

The Broken Body of Christ

For Christians, that moment of recognition, reckoning, and redemption in the Joseph story echoes the recognition, reckoning and redemption in seeing Jesus on the cross as both the brother we have betrayed and the God who reaches out to us in mercy. “Come closer to me,” Christ says, “I am your brother.” The reason we worship Christ is that Jesus shows us who God really is and what humanity should be…in the very moment when our own humanity is identified as wicked, sinful, undeserving, and when God is revealed as humble, gracious, and redemptive. The cross is both salvation and condemnation, the cross is where we see why none of us deserve the mercy that we are all being offered. Or as Paul puts it: “God has imprisoned all to disobedience so that God may be merciful to all.”

Such an understanding of reconciliation allows us to recognize each other as brothers and sisters—across racial and social and political divides—we are kindred by way of our common sinfulness, we are brethren in our unity through Christ. Those who believe in the Lord cannot judge one greater than the other for all fall short of God’s glory; yet no one can be judged unredeemable for God has extended mercy to all.

Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But as we know from Northern Ireland, Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians can deny their common bond and allow hatred and fear and judgment to separate themselves one from another. As we know from American politics, progressive Christians and conservative Christians can fixate on our differences rather than on our commonalities. As we know from this most segregated hour of the week, black Christians and white Christians and brown Christians and Pentecostal Christians and Baptist Christians and Lutheran Christians can continue to emphasize what distinguishes us rather than what unites us.

Places of Healing

There are exceptions. This church, for instance. And I’m glad to report that what has taken place in Northern Ireland over the last decade or so also provides a great deal of hope. In that overwhelmingly Christian but alarmingly sectarian province, some of the war zones of religious and ethnic hatred have become places of true reconciliation. Moments of gracious mercy have forced some to confront their own sin. And when people have had the courage and grace to look beyond superficial differences and religious categories, they have seen fellow sinners and fellow believers, kindred with Christ in common, and found true brothers and sisters in their midst.

We, too, in America (in Princeton), with all our divisions and all our reasons for pulling back from one another, can still be surprised by our underlying connection, the brother in our midst, our shared faith, our common cause. We can come to see how each of us has pushed away the one we now so desperately need. Brother and sisters each approaching with hat in hand. Brothers and sisters hearing him say, “Come closer to me.”

Being able to see ourselves as broken but loved people allows us to make room for others who are also broken but loved, who are also part of a big messy family, who are not enemies or threats or rivals, but kindred living together. This is where our faith becomes the basis for reconciliation in our relationships with one other, in our relationship with God, in the ongoing healing of our nation. This is where we find the courage to integrate our society at all levels. This is where we find the grace to draw closer to one another. And it turns out we are already closer than we may wish to admit—in our common sinfulness, in our genetic make-up, in the unmerited love we each receive from our one true father, who is still alive.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God: Amen.


 

For more statements and sermons by Presbyterian leaders go to PCUSA’s vice-moderator’s website HERE.