Father’s Day: Why I Changed My Last Name

hello my name is

What’s your first and last name?  Jonathan Ng. That’s spelled N-G. N like Nancy and G like George. And it’s pronounced like king, but without the k.

Since I was a kid, every time someone asked me to identify myself, I would rattle off the spelling of my last name. On occasion, I’d even copy my dad’s M.O. and throw in Nancy and George for safe measure. You learn to do these things quickly when you hear your parents on the phone, repeating tag lines after their last name. Or when you get puzzled looks from your teachers when they try to read your last name on the first day of school. Spelling and pronouncing my last name made it easier for everyone. It was efficient and anticipatory (my Chinese parents would be proud). But doing these things can only go so far.

Despite anything that I might say, I cannot hide the fact that my last name points back to my heritage and culture. Like so many other Americans from non-European backgrounds, my sovereign foundations are hardwired into my being and reflected in my skin, my person, and my name.

At times, people can choose to overlook my difference. That my last name distinguishes me as Chinese can be quickly passed over (Colorblind narrative). On other occasions, my difference can serve as a catalyst for celebration among friends and neighbors. Whether our shared experiences of diversity move past the superficial, though, often remains the ongoing question and invitation for each of us.

2 Minutes in My Shoes

When I was recently at the store trying to exchange a wrong-sized lightbulb, I experienced another approach to difference, one that shrouds itself in mainstream American expectations and the assumption that white is right.

As I walked up to the counter, I explained why I wanted to make an exchange. In customary fashion, the Lowe’s cashier lady asked for my name and contact to process my request. After spelling out my last name to her, I expected a brief silence, a quick line about how interesting my last name is, or maybe some surface-level chit-chat.

Instead, I got this:

Oh…. Huh! That’s so…You would think there’d be a vowel. There needs to be a vowel in there. I mean, I don’t get it, we’re in America.
And if you’re going to live here, you should just spell it the way the English language is supposed to work. I don’t understand why…

The Lowe’s cashier lady keeps going. I force a smirk and shake my head ever so slightly. Ignorance I can handle, but when my sense of belonging and being are called into question, we’re trudging in something much more nefarious. For a moment, I feel like I’m back in grade school again. I breathe and count to 3. But my mind has already kicked into overdrive…

I can’t believe she just said that.
Oh right, I’m not in downtown Austin.
…And she’s still talking.
Should I play this one off? Or should I call her out? Is it even worth it?

I remind myself that I still need her to give me a new light bulb. The smirk turns into a forced smile. But behind my constructed exterior, something inside of me burns. It’s been a long couple of years for so many POCs (people of color). I’m angry, and I’m tired. And all I can muster up in the moment is a sarcastic retort: “Yeah – I guess you can blame it on the people who named me.”

….And there’s that other last name….what is it … N-G-U-Y-something. That’s even worse – they pronounce it win.

Are you serious?

I try another tactic. Having just welcomed our first baby into the world, I just don’t have the energy for a full-on confrontation. So I opt for something more indirect: “Yeah – that can be tough. The English language can be tricky. There’s so many grammar rules. I used to be an English teacher for middle school in Dallas actually. And it was so annoying because I’d teach my students a rule, but then immediately, I’d have to teach them all the exceptions to the rule.”

Oh yeah – I guess that’s true. English is kinda tricky. There are a lot of rules that we just break….(awkward pause). Alright, well, we’re good to go. Here’s your new lightbulb. 


Enduring Evil

Every time I experience racism this blatantly, I’m reminded of the lie that I’m less-than, that I don’t belong. I’m reminded of how I must fight against the powerful, dismantling forces of division, even as I struggle to love the ones perpetuating them. I’m also reminded that I can’t do this on my own. I need you. We need you.

This kind of racism shows up frequently enough in my life that I’m no longer surprised when it does. It’s what I grew up with, and it continues to remain a part of my experience. But my familiarity with this entrenched evil does not make it unimportant. The beliefs of this lady are not trivial. Unexamined, they can go on to fuel more tragedies and hate crimes that we’ve seen far too much of. Unchecked, they can rob people of their God-given glory and lie dormant within our communities.

For our communities to move forward in unity and equity, we need to recognize the lingering vestiges of white supremacy within our organizations. We need to repent of our complicity. We need to acknowledge the failings of colorblind narratives and theologies. We need people of all backgrounds and colors to step up, to use whatever power and influence they have to combat the ugly sin of racism.  When we begin to take these steps, I believe we will see the stronghold of structural racism being dismantled within us and also our communities.

But we have a long journey in front of us. Throughout this past week:

  • The Southern Baptist Convention struggled to pass a resolution denouncing the racism of the alt-right movement, and it only did so after extensive revisions.
  • The #PhilandoCastile ruling on Friday signaled yet another fissure in our society when it comes to race and justice.

Silence is no longer an option we can afford. 

A Choice in the Midst of Injustice

In a culture that only tenuously accepts us, difficult choices become our reality, and impossible situations become our norm.

With my baby daughter now in the world, there’s nothing more that breaks my heart than knowing that she will face the same things that I face. Don’t get me wrong – I’m an optimist by nature. But on this front, my optimism unquestionably yields to the sad reality that my difference, and hers, will not always be acknowledged and appreciated. Racism, both on the personal and systemic levels, is a part of this broken world that I’ve learned to endure and fight against.

I wish that all I needed to do is remind my daughter that Jesus loves her, that we love her.  I yearn for the kingdom to come in its fullness and make all things right. But in the here and now, I’ve had to learn how to cling onto the promise of Revelation 7:9 while also holding onto my present reality:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Rev. 7:9)

News flash: Heaven won’t be colorblind. One day, we will celebrate, know, and enjoy each other’s differences as God intends. But until that day, I will keep striving to cultivate communities that live as a picture and preview of God’s coming kingdom. I will keep battling against the surface-level diversity that has shackled our imagination. Until that day, I will keep living in tension, making choices that I do not always like making. 

Changing my last name’s spelling is only the latest choice I’ve had to make. (Don’t worry – it wasn’t some split-second decision I made because of what happened at Lowe’s. It’s been an option for years, and ironically, we got it done a few weeks before all this happened. All that’s left is for the paperwork to be processed). The choice isn’t a great one. A change in my last name’s spelling only moves the needle slightly for my daughter. In the eyes of some, we will still be seen as perpetual foreigners.  This is the lived reality that so many POCs wrestle with, and it’s painful.

So why the spelling change? (hint: it’s not about making it easier for others)
As I teach my daughter how to courageously respond to a world that may not always value her whole being, I’ve also chosen to try and protect her, however marginally, from the injustices I’ve experienced. 

Showing Up

In pockets of our communities, racism runs rampant in our world today. It shows up in our everyday interactions, and it will show up in the way my daughter experiences the world. But racism goes far beyond interpersonal relationships. It also shows up in the structures of our institutions, our churches, and our communities. As a new father, all I can do is keep showing up, too – to pray, resist, call out, lament, teach, and hope, even when I don’t want to. Even when I don’t want to change my last name.

So that’s what I’ll do.

And the next time someone asks me to identify myself, I’ll say: Jonathan Eng. That’s spelled E-N-G.

Hopefully, when that happens, Nancy and George can stay home with their little one, Elmer. Hopefully, you’ll show up instead – to listen, to learn, and to advocate for a different world.

Happy Father’s Day.



Yesterday Is More Important Than You Think

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066. And yes, it’s significant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Japanese American WWI veteran reporting to the Santa Anita Assembly Center after EO 9066.

What’s Executive Order 9066?

Don’t be too surprised if you’re unfamiliar – it’s not often taught in our schools, and it’s mostly overlooked in our US history books (scrubbed might be a better word). Personally, I was unaware of it until a few years ago. Yet Executive Order 9066, signed during World War II by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, remains an important part of our history that must be remembered, even if recovering such memories proves to be difficult or disconcerting.

On February 19, 1942, FDR signed an order that paved the way for militarized zones to be set-up throughout the United States for the internment of Japanese Americans. While official language cites “militarized zones,” presidential speeches, interviews, and internal documents reveal that the government referred to these zones as concentration camps – a place where people are imprisoned, not for any crime, but on the basis of who they are. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes and communities, labeled with tags, and forced to relocate in concentration camps, where military personnel set up machine gun towers with the guns aimed inside the camp. The collective trauma and communal devastation that Japanese Americans experienced under EO 9066 cannot be understated.

Learning from Our Yesterdays

It took decades of advocacy, activism, and even failed attempts within the court system for Japanese Americans to be heard, but in 1976, Gerald Ford officially rescinded EO 9066. Subsequently, Jimmy Carter created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1980, which published its findings (Personal Justice Denied):

In sum, Executive Order 9066 was not justified by military necessity…The broad historical causes that shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance about Americans of Japanese descent contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan.  A grave personal injustice was done to the American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.

Personal Justice Denied, by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians

Never Stop Questioning

In times when fear and anger seem to be high within our country, we have the opportunity to move forward together. And as a Christian, I believe the church is called to proclaim and embody the gospel – particularly in this tense space. Yet without a willingness to dialogue and reconsider our assumptions, we will miss that opportunity and opt for a more segregated and more divided nation.

However you identify politically, and whoever you might be ethnically or racially, consider these next steps:

  1. Fast from your Facebook feed.
    • Take a break from social media, especially if it’s damaging your relationships. Your newsfeed is a mirror of yourself. It’s designed to reinforce your views. Let’s learn to look outside.
  2. Make time to listen to those different from you.
    • If you’re Caucasian, would you be willing to seriously consider a POC’s (person of color) perspective that differs from your own? Invite a friend to coffee, and come with honest questions. Ask for permission to learn from their experiences. And then listen with an open heart – without interrupting, correcting, or judging.
    • If you’re a POC, would you be willing to sit down with a Caucasian friend and begin the journey of reconciliation? You may have legitimate fear in doing this. It might be awkward. But your story is valuable, and without you owning it, our voices will remain unheard. And who knows, you might learn something new, too.
  3. Read, Listen, and Watch Widely.
    • Personal stories are great, but they only scratch the surface. Here are a few things that I’m reading (let me know if you’re interested in discussing these!):
      • The Making of Asian America – Erika Lee’s work covers a wide breadth of Asian American history and experience and examines the complicated function of race (from ‘despised minority’ to ‘model minority’) as it relates to Asian Americans.
      • Divided by Faith – From over 2,000 individual surveys, Michael Emerson & Christian Smith dive into evangelical white America and investigate the racial divide that plagues the American church.
      • “I Overlooked the Rural Poor – Then Trump Came Along” By Tish Harrison Warren
      • The Warmth of Other Suns – Written by Isabel Wilkerson, this book documents 3 individuals through their migrations in America. Winner of several literary awards.
      • Silence – Set in Japan during the 1600s as it experienced colonization and the Portuguese mission, this historical fiction presses into the question of God’s silence in the midst of faith, pain, and suffering. By Shusaku Endo. Now adapted into a motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese and in theaters.
    • Find several reputable news sources. Get outside of the vacuum.
  4. Ask questions out of curiosity, not judgment.
    • It’s easy to ask questions simply to assess whether a person is on your side or not. It’s more difficult, but much more rewarding, to ask questions out of genuine curiosity. Engage in the art of learning. Listen with empathy. Consider whether you might need to surrender any of your preconceived notions or deeply held beliefs.
  5. Advocate with conviction and civility.
    • We all have different starting points. It takes a journey, a process, and a community of trusted friends to move forward in racial reconciliation. I’m not the same person that I was 5 years ago, and sometimes I have to remind myself of that as I learn to love and serve among differences.

And – if you’re out in Los Angeles, make a short trip to the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. My family just did this last weekend, and we found it incredibly insightful and historically significant as we learn to interpret our times. EO 9066 literally changed our American landscape and severely impacted the generational consciousness of US citizens.

Our times offer us an opportunity to move towards something different than our current narratives. Let’s start questioning, friends.

“The important thing is to not stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

A Pastor’s Response to the Refugee Ban

Living in Tension


In this time of political turmoil, the consciousness of the church is being stirred, poked, and prodded. Will we wake up? As we’ve witnessed an executive order to ban refugees and the subsequent responses from the ACLU and the judicial branch, where is the church? Will we respond in ways that reflect what Jesus taught and embodied, or will we remain asleep, blissfully ignorant or complacent as we silently slumber away with our comfortable, self-interested versions of the gospel?

As a pastor, I serve at an Austin church that is predominately Caucasian, politically diverse, and spiritually made up of people who fall between a wide spectrum of faith, from questioning to leading. I love our people, and everyday, I’m learning more how to love and serve people who may think, look, and act differently than me. And everyday, I’m reminded that God’s call was never meant to be easy. The call of Jesus has always entailed dying to ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus. There are days when this feels nearly impossible for me. But there are also days when I catch glimpses of another world entering into our own, giving us a foretaste of God’s kingdom. Oh, that this would be a day when we see the kingdom of God coming!

So I pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it in heaven…”

So What’s With the Uproar?

If you’re reading this and you’re wondering why some have responded so viscerally to the executive order to ban refugees, I invite you to listen, just for a few moments. Aside from serving as a pastor, I am the son of immigrants, the child of a refugee mother who fled to Hong Kong during the political unrest of China’s “Great Leap Forward,” and I am deeply disturbed at the rhetoric that is now priming to become policy in our country.

The executive order to temporarily close our country to refugees does not only assault my personal sensibilities, it offends the very fabric of our Christian faith and our shared humanity with all people. As Pope Francis, speaking on Matthew 25, recently stated,“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

The imago Dei in each of us runs above any nationality that we might claim, or any religion we might profess. Human dignity does not primarily reside within our citizenship; it arises out of God’s image being placed inside of us. So when our neighbors seek our help, no matter their political, religious, social, ethnic, or racial background, we are called to recognize their God-given dignity, to love them, and to welcome them. Refusing to love and advocate for those in need breaks relationship between us and our neighbors and also between us and God. 


But What About..?

As Christ followers, we may disagree with how we vet refugees. We can debate over the efficacy of our current process. Some of us may rightly fear terrorism and ISIS and desire governmental action. What we cannot escape, however, is God’s call for his followers to “love the stranger among you, for you were strangers” (Deut. 10:19). Ultimately, we are not people of fear, but people of faith, hope, and love. As theologian Miroslav Volf has written, “Exclusion is barbarity within civilization, evil among good, crime against the other right within the walls of the self” (Exclusion & Embrace). Myopic exclusion on the basis of religion, race, or national origin leads to violence towards ourselves and the other. It feeds into the cycle of hate and division in this world. It results in things like the slavery of African Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese internment camps in 1940s America, and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in describing his approach to nonviolent resistance, minced no words when he wrote against faith that is useless:

“Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of [humanity] and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” (Pilgrimage to Nonviolence)

Both Volf and MLK show us that faith, if it is any faith worth having, must always find a concrete expression in our everyday ethics and relationships. For MLK, an embodied faith led him to struggle against segregation and the racialized structures he saw around him. Following Jesus cost him.

What will an embodied faith look like for us today?

The Refugee God

For some of us, we may want to consider who our faith is built upon before we consider what our faith should look like.

It was Jesus who showed us to love those who are different from us. When he entered into Samaria on the way to Jerusalem, he intentionally crossed over political, religious, social, and gender lines to meet a woman who had been tossed aside by her own people (John 4). While most Jews would have traveled around Samaria to avoid its people, Jesus intentionally opted to enter into the region. He risked ostracization among his own followers. He challenged the social and political norms of interaction because he was on a mission – “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus refused to bow down to fear, hypocrisy, and hatred.

It was also Jesus who taught us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31), to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31), and to love your enemy (Matt. 5:44).

And finally, it was Jesus who came to us as a refugee. In Jesus Christ, our God entered a world in which his parents were forced to flee from a political leader set on eliminating him and an entire generation of Jewish infants for fear of losing his power and authority. Jesus is the refugee God who came to rescue us.

This Jesus calls us to follow him and discover life (Mark 8:34). Faith is much more than belief. It involves actively following Jesus and living out God’s commands.

Let’s act.

A wholesale ban or a religious test on refugees should alarm us, for it runs counter to the very faith that Jesus calls us towards. While we have yet to fully determine the long-term aim of the current ban, we can begin to embody our faith. Throughout the expanse of scripture, God has always called his people to care for the orphan and to welcome the foreigner among you:

  • Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:17)
  • When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19: 33-34)
  • How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (1 John 3:17)
  • The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

God doesn’t call us to love people who are just like you; God calls us to love strangers – the very people who are not like you. If we were to modernize the parable of the good Samaritan, we might call it the parable of the good Muslim (see Luke 10:25-37). We are called to choose faith over fear, to risk love for our neighbors, to compassionately welcome those who are different from us, and to seek individual and systemic justice for others who are powerless to seek it for themselves.

Today, we are faced with the largest refugee crisis in human history. Refugees represent some of the world’s most marginalized and victimized people. Through no choice of their own, they have been forced to flee their war-torn home and neighborhoods, only to enter into a foreign country that may not altogether want them there. Their future in our country remains unclear. In the midst of these realities, our faith urges us to love out of a prophetic imagination.

How will you respond?

May your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

Where Do We Go From Here?

On the anniversary of September 11th, I’m reminded of the sheer evil that can be manifested in any and all of us. I remember the shock and horror I felt when I heard the news of planes crashing into the twin towers in NYC. I remember the confusion, the theories, and then the crushing reality of terrorism. I also realize that this day in history continues to impact us. It is not a distant memory but a moment that still shapes us as we recall the precious lives we lost, grieve, and reflect. Today, as I stare down the long, dark corridor that hate and fear have since carved in the wake of 9/11, I wonder like I did back then – where do we go from here?


“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s one of the most well-known maxims of our day. It’s taught within our communities and our families. It’s found within our ancient religious teachings and emerging spiritualities. It runs across our different cultures, capturing the higher imaginations of our broken humanity. Yet despite its near universal value, it remains one of the most difficult teachings to live out. Try as we might to struggle towards progress, more often than not, we find ourselves backpedaling in futility, tripping over each other and ourselves over and over again. Fear of the “other” grips us. Ignorance leads us to unwelcome. What would it look like if we truly learned to love our neighbors as ourselves? How would the landscape of our cities change if we saw beyond labels?

Something’s Missing

How do you love your neighbor as yourself? What does it mean for us to serve our city? And as the challengers to Jesus once remarked, “Who is my neighbor?”

As I settle back into Austin, I sometimes wonder what the contours of my compassion will look like in the coming weeks and months. Will I only love those like myself, or will I learn to recognize the pain and need of people trapped in the greatest refugee crisis in history? Will I sit callous at the turmoil of others, or will I see into the plight of Native Americans who are protecting their land and their way of life? Will I remain sure about my convictions, or will I listen to the forgotten, small town, white Americans who are struggling with the economic changes of today? Will I live my own life, or will I hear the long cry for justice from my black brothers and sisters while also recognizing the sacrifices, the risks, and the responsibilities of our police officers? How I choose to define neighbor signifies an important decision. It changes everything, and yet it changes nothing. Good intentions alone have never moved us towards greater love and equity. 

Serving the Other

Several months ago while I was still in LA, I had the opportunity to serve the homeless in Rosemead with a friend of mine I’ll call J . I met J a couple weeks earlier, and his compassion to serve others was evident from the first moments we interacted. With an uncontainable excitement, J shared about his desire to serve the community. I could sense his joy and his genuine heart. Despite having very little for himself, and still struggling to maintain regular work to support himself at his trailer park home, J counted himself blessed. This took me by surprise. I soon found out that he had recently experienced God’s love breaking into his life and helping him out of his drug habit. With a renewed sense of identity, J discovered a passion to help others with his same background. So he acted upon it. He looked around his neighborhood. He saw the homeless with the eyes of Christ and, with echoes of the four friends bringing the paralytic to Jesus (Mark 2), J’s heart compelled him to seek the good of his neighbors.

J started simple – he wanted to meet the physical needs of those around him, so he hatched a plan to cook food for those on the streets. On his own dime, J bought ingredients to prepare tacos for his homeless neighbors.

J then invited me to join him. That weekend, I met him at his home with a couple other friends. Together, we put together care packages that included J’s tacos, socks, water bottles, and basic necessities. As we started to make our rounds to the pockets of homeless communities in the area, we introduced ourselves and provided them with gift bags. But it wasn’t this activity of serving that I found significant. Instead, it was the act of getting to know our neighbors and praying for them by name that began to place me into shared relationships with others. There were people like Frances, Bobby, and Vu, who lived within the fenced confines of an abandoned industrial building and parking lot. There were also those hanging out at the park – Jeanette, Jamie, Richie, Robert, and Roy. And Mando, Chris, and Ambrosia.

Learning their names moved me towards kinship with my homeless neighbors, and something about that felt beautiful and right. It mirrored, if only in a faint way, the kind of love God first loved us with. The act of neighboring taught me to see the homeless, not as objects to be served, but as subjects created in the image of God, full of dignity and worth.

Compassion as a Precursor for Love and Justice

When J, my friends, and I jumped into conversation with our neighbors, my initial hesitancies and prejudices subsided. In place of those things, I started to see something vibrant and new appearing. In our mingling, talking, praying, and crying, compassion had somehow emerged. People were acknowledged. Stories were heard.

Over the next few weeks, we visited our neighbors more. With each interaction, our compassion for one another increased, leading us to experience mutuality with each other. We heard both their triumphs and their struggles. We prayed for each other. We even began to explore how we could bring about restorative justice to those on the fringes of society. There was something divine at work.

Imagine how different our world would be if we lived with compassion rather than fear? It’s a worthwhile  question for us to ponder as we seek not only to serve others but to know and love them for how and who God has created them to be. How might you love where you live as you learn to respect, love, and empower the dignity of another? What kind of world do we want to leave behind for those who come after us?

“For the measure of our compassion is not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them, in mutuality.” – Father Greg Boyle

In Austin and Interested in Serving the City? 

Photo by refreshment_66 (Flickr)



To Non-Blacks: On Charleston

PC: Matella Merlo

Do I sit shellshocked from tragedy,
Or do I stand beside those suffering,
Remembering the saints shot down?
Do I find solace in the capture of a terrorist,
Or do I struggle to find a pulse for justice and shalom,
Among the rubble of our failing communities?
Do I remain silent,
With words unformed and thoughts untethered,
Or do I lament over a nation so fractured, frightened, frail?
Charleston, voices suddenly summoned,
Joining the song of black men, women and children,
Too long obscured or placated.
Do I hear mine among them?
Or do I find my silence masquerading itself,
On the sidelines of convenience?
Do I hide behind the comfort of my non-black skin,
Or do I awaken, finally, this day,
marred by the residue of black blood spilled?
Constructed from the unarmed, now still,
The anthem rings.
A church prayed,
Shots pierced the sky.
9 dead. June 17, 2015.
Racism, stark and unfiltered indeed,
Quick to distance ourselves,
Are we still so blind, so naive?

Identifying Blind Spots and the Asian American Letter to the Church


Two Caveats:

  1. I don’t like to be in the limelight. It’s not my natural inclination to engage in dicey conversations or involve myself in conflicts. Yet if I’ve learned anything over my short 28 years of life, it’s that there are some things where you just need to step in. Not doing so would only perpetuate further misunderstanding, brokenness and disunity with all parties involved.
  2. I cannot begin to express my admiration of Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, the two women who originally organized the open letter (Kathy is both a friend and a colleague). I am thankful for their leadership and their willingness to raise awareness for the sake of the church’s unity. It’s been encouraging to see what God is already doing. However, I also recognize that for some, certain parts of the letter have been difficult. More on this below.

Why this post?

It’s been a little over a week since this open letter went out. Before I keep going, let me put this out there: it is not the perfect letter, and it never will be. Connotations, tone, authorial intent and personal interpretation are a part of language, and these ensure that there will always be a level of subjectivity when it comes to writing and reading.

As a staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who serves Asian Americans, I added my signature early on. Since signing, I’ve wondered whether writing anything would be worthwhile. As I’ve followed many of the thoughts and questions that have proliferated since the letter’s release, it’s been apparent that there is no lack of public and personal opinion. My hope is not to add more stories or share about my own experiences as an Asian American to somehow either bolster the points the letter raises or argue against them. Instead, I write because this is an opportunity for us, the people of God, to grow together in Christ as one body with many different parts.

I didn’t sign up to bash Rick Warren. And it’s not even really about him:

I’ll be short and sweet here. This isn’t about Rick Warren. This is about a call for reconciliation and greater cultural sensitivity. Yes, Rick Warren slipped up with the image he posted. WIthout a doubt, his apology left some wanting. But he did own up to what he calls “my insensitivity.” Let’s not miss that in the midst of deconstructing the inner meanings of if-ology (which I admit has its very valid points; my wife seems to agree wholeheartedly). Are there places where I think more dialogue and reconciliation can happen between him and others who have emailed him personally? Yes. Can we all extend grace more abundantly to each other? Yes. Does it start and end with Rick Warren? No. His now deleted facebook posts represents a need for growth, but it’s not an isolated incident by itself. As the letter cites, there have been independent incidents that have happened in the recent past that signify a need for respectful dialogue in the Church – both locally and nationally, privately and publicly. As the Church, we are not culturally well-versed, and we cannot ignore this reality. To overlook cultural insensitivity is to refuse the invitation to respect and honor one another as one body united in Christ.

I signed up for reconciliation, dialogue and grace.

On the other side of conflict is the peace of God. The Gospel calls for peace, and that is why I’m in this mix. Christ calls each of us to live in grace with each other, even as we navigate something that can turn messy (and in some ways, already has) before it gets better. But real peace and unity are where Christ is leading us. So, while the letter’s language may not perfectly express my sentiments in every way, I do believe that it accurately conveys a need for the American Evangelical Church, of which Asian Americans are a part, to reconcile as we dialogue and grow together.

I’ve been thankful for conversations that I’ve been having recently. They’ve been revelatory, challenging and grace-filled. One of those conversations occurred last night when I spoke with Kevan after reading his thoughtful post. It was a very honest and reconciling conversation, and in the end, it was encouraging to know that we both desired to see reconciliation happen.

The open letter is a call for reconciliation on all sides, and that includes those who may disagree with the form, content or tone of the letter. It is a call to forgive and reconcile. It is a call to identify blind spots. Rather than perpetuating the same cultural miscues and mistakes, we must learn how to appreciate, respect and celebrate the different ways God has created each of us. Throughout this process, people on all sides, Asian Americans included, will need to listen and learn with humility and grace.

Cultural blind spots abound in all of us. Let’s help each other identify and shed them. Here are a few that have popped up in my interactions:

Blind Spot #1: Cultural Insensitivity and Us vs. Them

Ironically, this was one of my own blind spots, and I didn’t recognize it until I started talking with others.

“Lastly, in many of these occurrences of cultural insensitivity, we have seen a tendency amongst white Christians to point out that they know Asian Americans who weren’t at all offended by what they did. So, the argument goes, this must mean that any Asian American who is upset is being overly sensitive.” (Open Letter)

In Christ, we are all united as one. As a signatory, I personally own that these few sentences could have been framed in a more culturally sensitive way to our white brothers and sisters. While I cannot speak for anyone else, I can see why some have been pushed away because of these words (which accurately describe the reactions of some white Christians – and other ethnicities, I might add – but certainly not all). I apologize, especially to my white brothers and sisters, for how this, even in context, was a generalized statement that unfairly lumped white American Christians together. Many of you have embraced multi-ethnicity and even stood with us. I ask for your forgiveness and your grace as the Asian American communities navigate how to talk about our experiences in constructive, gracious and Christ-centered ways. I know that the letter’s intention is to welcome dialogue and reconciliation as we raise awareness about things that need to change. As the letter clearly demonstrates, there is real hurt and pain; the cultural insensitivity in the Church and in the world cannot and should not continue. So if you haven’t already, I ask for you to join us in solidarity. Doing so acknowledges that we collectively need to learn to respect each other more on every side. As we navigate current and future conversations, let’s pray for greater cultural sensitivity and grow in mutual respect for each other in Christ.

Blind Spot #2: References to the Civil Rights Movement and MLK

Our narrative is different from the Civil Rights.

It’s fine for us to refer to certain aspects of history. I don’t have any problem with that. But one thing needs to made abundantly clear. Now and then are not the same. We are not talking about civil rights, hate crimes and the ugliness of calculated actions against Asian American communities. Our levels of experience are not the same as African Americans during that era, and we would do well to acknowledge this. As of now, I haven’t really seen anything overt in terms of a direct analogy, but as we continue talking, let’s make an effort to be wise and clear in our communication. MLK fought against intentional offenses and systemic establishments of inequality. Many of the initial miscues Asian Americans have experienced represent unintentional offenses and systemic blind spots. That means that people either didn’t know or weren’t culturally aware. Of course, this does not make everything okay, which is part of the reason for the letter. But the call for grace (and wisdom) remains.

What we do need to tackle are the subsequent responses (or lack thereof). These are very intentional, and they have been mixed between sincerity and dismissiveness, solidarity and insensitivity. (See Blind Spot #4)

Blind Spot #3: Private vs. Public

I recognize that there is a temptation here to dig our heels into the place that feels most comfortable and confine our “dialogue” to only the blogosphere, the private conversations or the public forms. But we cannot afford to relegate our conversations to only one space. The cultural insensitivities have happened on all levels, and like it or not, they are being talked about in public and private spaces. As a united Church, let’s press in together to grow in personal and corporate reconciliation. If you’ve only had conversation in one particular space, I would encourage you to go beyond it, and invite others to do so, too.

Dialogue on these levels are often not one-time, quick fix conversations. Inevitably, in the coming weeks and months, it can appear as if parts of the Church are bashing one another or living without forgiveness. For some, that may actually be true, and if that’s you, don’t settle in a no man’s land of bitterness. Rather, let’s value others above ourselves in Christ (Philippians 2). Let’s forgive freely and live full of grace. Let’s believe that we are for each other in Christ. And let’s remember: growth will take time, patience and effort from all who are involved.

Blind Spot #4: Forgiveness and Reconciliation are Different

Let’s not confuse these two things.

Forgiveness is a gift we offer freely to others in Christ. We do so because Christ has freely forgiven us and calls us to do likewise (The Lord’s Prayer). It does not mean that we overlook the offense, or somehow downplay our hurt. Instead, forgiveness looks at the offense and chooses to love and accept the person unconditionally in Christ. When we choose to forgive, something beautiful happens. We not only free the one who offended us from our anger and desire to enact justice ourselves, but we also free ourselves from bitterness, self-righteousness and pride. We free ourselves from self-destruction. Or rather, Christ frees us. Regardless of any apology, forgiveness is God’s call for us. Sometimes, we may not be ready to forgive. More conversations may be needed before forgiveness happens. That’s okay. Yet, in the same breath, needing time and space does not change the fact that we are all called to forgive each other in Christ (Matthew 18).

Reconciliation is not forgiveness. Reconciliation includes forgiveness, but it’s not the same thing. Reconciliation is the process through which two or more individuals/communities progress towards renewed relationship, trust and understanding of each other. Reconciliation does not happen overnight, and often times, it can take months, even years for it to be fully realized. Forgiveness and reconciliation are the places where I pray we are going. May we, the Church, be people who have freely forgiven because of God’s forgiveness, but also people who are making every effort to pursue real peace and reconciliation through ongoing dialogue. As the people of God, we need to learn from each other. We need to listen. It’s a slow journey, but it’s always a worthwhile one.

Last Thoughts:

As a brother in Christ, I’ve forgiven those who have been culturally insensitive. And just to err on the side of clarity, I was never angry or bitter towards anyone. As I’ve reflected on what’s happened in the recent past, I do not believe the videos, the facebook post and the Deadly Viper book were ill-intentioned. They were products of insensitivity or low cultural awareness.  I understand that some of us cannot accept the apologies offered at this point, and ultimately that is your decision. But apology accepted or not, we are still called to forgive, just as Christ has forgiven us. We also need to raise awareness and graciously share our stories so that we can be understood – even as we come to understand others. Otherwise, nothing changes.

Forgiveness is not the final chapter; it points to reconciliation. So now, as the Church continues to dialogue, the process of reconciliation can begin. And it is happening! Our American Evangelical Church is growing in Christ because of how this letter is raising awareness and inviting dialogue. Together with the writers of the letter, I am hopeful. We can debate the forum and public nature of the letter, but the truth is we are seeing Christ renew his Church. Even if you may disagree with the method of the open letter, please don’t miss what Christ is doing in all of our communities.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me. Would love to talk and grow together with you more!

Silence and Race

I’ll be honest. For a long time, I have sat at the edges as I’ve watched the Zimmermann case unfold, hiding in the background and avoiding any controversy. My wife and I have had few quick dialogues about updates we’ve heard or posts we’ve seen on facebook, but none of our exchanges have lasted more than 2 or 3 minutes.

As a Chinese-American, this type of veiled silence is often normal and deadly. Like a festering wound left untreated, it eats away at my soul and the collective well-being of our brothers and sisters. Of course, there may be an initial acknowledgment that something is amiss, perhaps even a certain amount of expressed sorrow shared on social media. But then, soon after, there is that silence that typifies so much of my own response. There isn’t an immediate uproar about insensitive comments, not even a response. Though I’m not Japanese, I’ll have to borrow this proverb because I think it illustrates a shared value that is often true for many, but not all, Asian Americans: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” While this proverb has some great truth, this is not a time for us to remain silent.

I’m not here to pretend that I understand. There’s plenty behind this case that I will never understand. I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m part of the in-between. I will never know what it’s like to be stopped by an officer because of my skin color. I will probably never experience the looks of distrust or fear that others face daily when they enter into a neighborhood. I will not get it on that visceral, internal, gut level way that my black friends do.

I’m not here to take sides, but…. I’m torn up, and my heart goes out to all those involved and touched by this case. No amount of words could ever bring back Trayvon to his family and friends, and no amount of words could ever describe Zimmermann’s experience over the past several months and what he still faces beyond this trail. Given the complexity of this case, there’s not much more that I can write that will be helpful here. However, as I read posts and reactions to this case from different perspectives, I cannot escape this reality: race still divides. Yes, the civil rights movement has secured on paper an equality for us all, and yes, we’ve progressed in so many ways. But underlying all of our suburban neighborhoods, city planning, justice systems and cultural consciences, there’s something that’s seriously rotting in us around the issue of race. And it stinks, guys. Our perceptions of race still carry significant implications on how we treat one another. Have doubts? Check this racial profiling video out (Thanks K Khang!)

I’m here. I’m here to pray for the day when Christ comes to heal all that is wrong and bring it to right. I’m here to listen to my brothers and sisters and learn from their own experiences. I’m here to commiserate when appropriate. I’m here to encourage dialogue and growth rather than unquestioned assumptions or unhealthy silence. I’m here to take a stand for racial reconciliation, even as I find things in myself that need to be repented of. And I’m here to offer my voice rather than my silence.

A Plea to Asian Americans and Others Like Me. It’s easy to avoid being that nail that sticks out, to sit on the sidelines when you’re not primarily or essentially affected. But we’re not meant to live on the sidelines. When real injustice perpetuates itself in instances like racial profiling, God’s Spirit nudges us a bit because it runs counter to the Person of Christ and our very humanity as it is meant to be. It’s almost like he’s trying to shake us out of our slumber, saying “Pay attention! Don’t ignore this!” And if we really take a step back and consider what’s at stake, we would see that we really can’t afford ignorance. It’s too costly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to guilt or shame you into caring. Indeed, God intends for us to live in, through and by grace. But He also intends for us to participate in his kingdom breaking in as He makes all things new and transforms us “till we have faces.” So let’s get in the game. Talk with your friends. Ask what’s going on. Listen. Learn about the ways that racial profiling affects your own perspectives. And where we still might fall short, let’s lean on the One who will renew all things for his glory.