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Posts from the ‘justice’ Category

Nikkei incarceration and Episcopal faith

Several young adults of color (and one white person, certainly by mistake) were asked to speak to a small gathering of Episcopalians at General Convention this week to share our stories on the intersections of “faith, race, and justice.” Here is roughly what I shared. 

I found the Episcopal Church in August of this year, two months after I was able to link my racial identity with my faith in Christ for the first time. In June, I went on a pilgrimage with a group of college-age Japanese Americans to a desert three hours north of Los Angeles, to a place called Manzanar. During world war two, over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans were incarcerated by our government and put into domestic concentration camps. Ten thousand ended up in Manzanar. Some people have called this experience an “internment,” although what happened to our community in the 1940s was very different than the practice of wartime internment.

When we arrived, the reality of the camp hit me. It felt like the spirits of the people who had lived there were inches away. I sensed their heartbreak and loss so intimately. I saw the husks of barbed wire fences and guard towers. Stood on the hot, burning sands of the desert. At one point I just stood there with my eyes closed – and felt this total, eerie silence I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Though there was nothing for miles around, when I closed my eyes it felt like I was standing in a tiny, soundproof closet. It was deafening, and shattering. That is the first time I experienced how silence itself can be a literal form of oppression. That was when I started to believe that talking about race was actually important, and that if my faith was going to mean anything, it would have to start here. Not only with reflecting on race and racism in general, but here, in the sand, with these people who were held behind barbed wire.

What happened to our community is disturbing, but it’s familiar in light of the history of the country in which we church. Communities of color have historically been intentionally ghettoized, segregated, incarcerated, detained and deported, pushed onto reservations as their land was consumed. And yet we see every time this happens is that these transcendent, really divine forms of resistance begin to emerge through music, from hip hop to the blues to jazz, and art, these crushed communities consistently produce these beautiful, powerful emblems resilience borne from the crucibles of our pain.

In our case, they took Japanese Americans from coastal fishing villages and all manner of places, and placed us in a scorching desert. And we labored, we crafted, we irrigated, we created koi ponds and paper cranes and stone sculptures and transformed hard land into gardens and rivers, all while inward-facing machine guns were pointed at our heads. Where could this activity be from apart from the empowering presence of God, the work of the Holy Spirit? Divine spirit enables oppressed peoples to resist trauma with radical creativity. Those who oppress us never expect this. I am reminded of that old proverb: they tried to bury us – they didn’t know we were seeds.

cracked cement riverbed in Manzanar

cracked cement riverbed in Manzanar

The Helper is already dwelling in these places, at work empowering our peoples to survive pain of biblical proportions. So while I love this talk about Holy Spirit descending down upon us from heaven, if Jesus is to be found primarily among the bleeding and the incarcerated, perhaps we could also pray that the spirit ascend from these low places and trickle up to those of us who come from positions of privilege.

Now, some questions I have for us in the Episcopal church: if we believe that God is literally incarnated among those who are incarcerated, that God is most intimately present with people who are beaten, starved, shot, erased, disappeared, lynched, and crucified – then what does it mean for us to be the “Church of the Presidents,” senators, and financial tycoons? What does it mean for us to be consistently ranked the highest earning and highest educated Christian denomination in this country, and to house the halls of power?

What does it mean for me, as a Japanese American, to belong to the church of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who without apology demanded the plunder and incarceration of my people? What does it mean to be a part of a church that in the history of General Convention has never invited an Asian American or Pacific Islander to preach at the Eucharist? I have heard people say that we are not truly Catholic until we are all included, and this seems true here.

And wasn’t today’s worship amazing? Today was the first time my dad asked me to tell him more about our church. Why? I called him right after worship and asked, can you believe it? They had Taiko drums during the Eucharist. Dad, during a church service of mostly white people, yes, they honored the first Nikkei priest (who was incarcerated during world war two) and the mass was celebrated by Utah’s Japanese American bishop. And they brought a fleet of Taiko drums in to replace the usual calm, choral communion music with loud, powerful, palpable drumming. As Rev. Fred Vergara has said, this morning you heard the throbbing heartbeat of the Asian American community. No…we not some silent, complacent, calm, model minority. You heard the shouting of our drums today, and we are powerful, dangerous, an active threat to the evils of racism and white supremacy in our church and country.

Our white-dominated church needs our voices. Not to fill a diversity quota but because we bring irreplaceable perspectives to the living out of our Christian faith. Who better than hurting peoples forced to march trails of tears to teach us the meaning of biblical exoduses, or Jesus’ family fleeing King Herod after his birth? Who better to talk about the meaning of the story of Jesus’ family being turned away at the inn, Christ being born in a manger, than Seattle-area Japanese Americans, who were forced to live in horse stables and sleep on piles of filthy hay before they were sent to concentration camps? As North Americans, what else can we look to besides a tortured, lynched body to understand the meaning of the cross of Jesus?

Jesus said he is present wherever two or three are gathered together. What about ten thousand, trapped behind barbed wire, corralled into a crowded desert prison? Jesus promised to be present among two or three. What about hundreds of black bodies, chained together on a slave ship sailing across the Atlantic? What about the thousands of crucified bodies that literally littered the American South during the lynching era? Surely Jesus is also powerfully gathered wherever embattled communities of color in the United States have been given no spiritual food by our church other than what Dr. King has called the spoiled meat of racism.

The God of the Bible is living among our people, in our stories of creativity and resistance. If we do not begin looking for the Spirit of God here, I don’t know we’ll ever find her.

Flag over Manzanar

Christianities Collide at the Justice Conference 2015

I walked into the Justice Conference with insects flittering around in my gut. While I would have been pining to go to an event like this in my evangelical days, my very understanding of justice (and how it should be implemented) has shifted in recent years, from carceral to conciliatory, from retributive to rehabilitative. Further overloading my anxiety about attending the event was the fact that the spiritual abuse I have endured at the hands of former friends and mentors still orients my heart towards fear whenever I am around people who remind me of the people who hurt me (read: white, “Bible-believing,” Jesus-loving evangelicals).

Only in recent years, looking from the outside in, have I learned how the justice of white evangelical philanthropic sensibilities is often framed in damaging paternalistic or colonialist terms – we are saved, good, okay, and those people, there, in Africa, or Mexico maybe, need us to rescue, uplift, save, help them. Those poor women and children are trapped and need Jesus (and a Christian man to head their home) and only we can go into those places and bring the gospel there so that they can be saved.

* * *

This is the brand of “justice” I expected to find in Chicago’s Auditorium Theater this past weekend, surrounded by 2,500 well-meaning people who would make me deeply uncomfortable without realizing it. In short, I was afraid this weekend would fill me with more white-centric, anti-intellectual, or spiritually coercive teachings couched in friendly evangelical language – perhaps channeled through a few colored bodies. I have been to perhaps dozens of conferences similar to this one, both conservative and progressive in scope, where I have sat silently and attempted to glean grains of truth from a message I knew wasn’t designed for people like me.

However, I attended at the invitation of my friend Micky, who was kind enough to offer me a ticket. Upon arrival, I was surprised that I recognized several people, both on stage and in the audience. These were folks I called friends, and they didn’t remind me of my abusive experiences with Christianity at all.

Right off the bat, I saw the pre-conference “race and reconciliation” track featured some of the most prophetic and incisive voices on the scene today, folks who teach, preach, and compose the forefront of race and reconciliation thinkers in the church and academy. We heard (my future seminary professor!) Christian ethicist Reggie Williams lecture on the pervasiveness of white supremacy, Harlem renaissance resistance theology and art, and the history of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s black Christ. The inimitable Andrea Smith spoke only on a short “women of color panel” with seasoned faith leaders Kathy Khang, Chanequa Walker Barnes, Micky Jones, and Sandra Van Opstal.

All of these women – some of whom have unmatched academic credentials and are already extremely well known – would have more than commanded the crowd at a main stage session, but were not given that opportunity. Indeed, many of their names weren’t even listed on the website or any conference materials. Though they didn’t have more stage time, many continued to prophesy via tweets throughout the weekend.


Some of my friends who couldn’t attend tried to learn about the conference through Twitter, where many live-tweeted quotes and updates. The Justice Conference’s sparse website doesn’t offer much at all in the way of information on speakers, schedules, or content, and it didn’t seem like the conference wrought much external media coverage. Nonetheless, the event is a yearly staple for those in justice-seeking evangelical traditions, and it is important because it has the ability to influence thousands of faith leaders to set long-lasting social trends.

Though most of the thin online coverage was positive and accurate, there were a few individuals who seemed to miss the point. Twitter trolls balked at the conference’s engagement of race, calling the content that filled the #Justice15 hashtag “White-genocide type tweets.” Disapproving journalists (who we’ve met before) reported on the “controversy” of some of the main stage’s African American speakers (Cornel West, Otis Moss III, by extension Neichelle Guidry Jones) by fielding the alarmed reactions of several ruffled social economic conservatives (who happened to be Christian).

Some voiced frustration that Lynn Hybels was allowed to speak on peace in the Middle East because the co-founder of Willow Creek Community church “has sometimes criticized Israel.” A professor at a nondescript Christian College in the Midwest complained that “progressive thinkers rarely focus on job creation” and lamented “the myth of socialism.” Another critic condemned the conference’s liberation theological influence because “entitlement programs and wealth redistribution” don’t work, and neither does trying to create a “socialist utopia.”

I have a hard time seeing what any of these veiled, derailing economic platitudes have to do with orthodox/unorthodox theology. That these folks are attempting to malign or debunk liberation theology not on ethical, biblical, or theological grounds, but because capitalism is best – is very telling. Indeed, as Justice Conference speaker Soong-Chan Rah has noted on the article, “the attempt to engage liberation theology is not on theological merits. Instead, it appears to rehash social economic conservatism couched in ‘evangelical’ language.”

Despite my initial concerns, it seemed like the audience at the Justice Conference boasted a lot of people like me – Christians who love Jesus, believe in the Holy Scriptures, seek justice, and who have sometimes chafed greatly under traditional evangelical strictures. To us, the “controversial” speakers like Cornel West didn’t feel out of place nearly as much as the starchy, unexceptional talks given by folks like Louie Giglio.

In the midst of a conference specifically mired in critical conversations about how Christ followers should interact with others in a world gripped with poverty and racism, Giglio addressed neither, instead touching briefly upon the issue of human trafficking (through a gimmicky introductory video that cited vastly overblown, inaccurate figures) then focused on describing God’s peacemaking deal with us, and why we should generally care about being just.

It didn’t go unnoticed that Giglio’s pleasant but ordinary talk was far from representative of the witness of the conference as a whole. Rather, his message, by not acknowledging the key racial and systemic factors organizers seemed to focus on, seemed to add mainly to the whiteness of the conference.

love and death

The truly refreshing thing to me – as a multiethnic Nikkei, as a person of color, as a full supporter of the inclusion and headship of LGBTQ people in the church, and as someone whose moral fiber and Christian practice has been deeply weakened by the male-dominated theological environments in which I continue to be formed – the really hopeful thing about #Justice15 was that the standard-slate, big name talks given by folks like Louie Giglio (buttressed by presumed commitments to patriarchy and strict biblicism) were the outliers.

Indeed, spoken word artist Malcolm London opened the conference’s main session defending the dignity of transgender black women, lauding queer black men, mentioning by name Marissa Alexander and crucial Chicagoan activists like Mariame Kaba. Throughout the weekend, the main stage bristled with panels and lectures on the concrete social ills still disparately experienced by people of color in the United States.

We heard biblical, Christian perspectives on the impact of white supremacy on the survival of people of color – talks about police brutality, the spiritual consequences for worshipping a white Christ, prophetically confronting structural and systematic systems of oppression, the patriarchal exclusion of women from the pulpit, histories of American racism, racial profiling (too real, happened in full right after the conference) and mass incarceration – and Soong-Chan Rah boldly called out white colonizers who think they’re being missionaries. There were also moments of levity and joy, jokes and laughter that pierced the room at unexpected, life-giving moments.


While there is one Justice Conference, there were two fairly distinct Christianities represented. They met in a finely orchestrated clash of creativity and force, and it was fascinating to watch cutting-edge Asian American and black liberation theologies collide with the monochromatic, male-centric, miles-wide-inches-deep Western evangelical theology that we so often just call “theology.”

The murky boundaries of evangelical “orthodoxy” are hotly contested borders, and perhaps because many view the biggest fault lines as being primarily around LGBTQ concerns have such candid conversations on race been able to find a home under the Justice Conference’s broadly evangelical umbrella.

Is Cornel West at home within the camp of white evangelicalism? Is Otis Moss III? Probably not. But with a bit of spiritual gerrymandering, conference organizers were able to find authentic ways to introduce and center these voices, even alongside more conservative, watered-down counterparts.

Refreshingly, this noteworthy collusion often happened without aggression or rancor. #Justice15 welcomed an audience from all places on the spectrum of justice awareness/ engagement, and encouraged all of us to go deeper in faithfulness, with God’s help.

Yet while I appreciated the big tent and denominational diversity of the talks, the dissonant theologies presented from the same stage sometimes caught me off guard. Attendees heard from pre-conference speaker Native theologian Mark Charles on the theft and pillage of indigenous land and the United States’ sinful “doctrine of discovery” – then raised our voices with a praise band asking God to “win this nation back.” We watched powerhouse preachers of color directly challenge us and name white supremacy in the church – then listened to entire messages delivered by white dudes that didn’t think race worth mentioning once.

It was a bit like hearing a series of alternating lectures – one from the Popular White Christian Conference Speaker Dude™ religious equivalent of your third grade arithmetic teacher, then another from an outside-of-evangelicalism faith leader primed on graduate-level spiritual calculus – and then hearing only brief (but brilliant) quotations from women of color professional mathematicians consigned to “women’s panels.” (There was literally a “women’s lunch” and a “pastor’s lunch” on the second day of the conference. Guess how many women were on the panel that spoke at the pastor’s lunch.)

Although the stark language of sinister “powers and principalities” at play in this world often bristles against both conservative emphasis on individual sin and liberal skepticism of the supernatural, this rhetoric is anything but hyperbole. Ask the people of color, the women, the queer and transgender folks in your communities (if you know any). The unjust things in this world are not just here by chance. There are planned, evil, satanic systems alive in the air we breathe that are nothing short of demonic.

The good news is that God has sent us a Helper, an Advocate, to give us life and strength to challenge the wicked systems and powers at work in our world. The liberative Spirit of God breathes fresh life to all in pain, and will always comfort, heal, and bewilder us, even as it continues to challenge our fears, demolishing our preconceptions and blowing around in the most unexpected of auditoriums. I am grateful to have been reminded of this at this year’s Justice Conference.

prayers for Baltimore

Lord God, your people call on you especially in times of chaos and suffering, and your Word and your promises never return void. We commune with you in prayer and meditation in these trying days, and ask that you orient our hearts and minds on all that you have taught us, on all that is good and true.

We pray for the safety of all people, in Baltimore and beyond. We ask that you protect protestors, police, public servants, homeowners, those without homes, families, clergy, volunteers, medics, teachers, students, soldiers, sinners and saints against all forms of death and destruction. We ask that you guard them from evil and all harm, not just from tear gas, tanks, rubber bullets, broken bottles, fists, flames, slings and stones, but from all forces of corruption, cosmic gloom, and spiritual wickedness at loose in this world.

We pray o Father of Lights, that you might make your Word known to us. We remember the words of your chosen prophet Jeremiah, who said: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” Asks Jeremiah: “Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No,” he reveals, “they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.” We remember that the sowers of a false peace are really advocating a return to violence, not preaching the liberative gospel that you taught us, o God.

We remember, too, your promises as told by your prophet Ezekiel: “Because they lead my people astray, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall…When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, ‘Where is the whitewash you covered it with?'” We remember that all who whitewash your truth, then and now, and all upholding the supremacy of white folks in America, are putting their faith not in your Word but in crumbling things.


Lord Jesus, we pray that your city Baltimore may deeply know you and the harmony and peace you have promised your disciples. Yet we pray not only for a superficial peace, but for justice, and ask that you reorient our minds around the truth that the status quo — law and order — is not “peaceful” in the Shalom way you have taught us to know peace, but that it is actually quite harmful for those who are suffering within rigged systems. We ask that you teach your people that while the privileged may pray for an end to protest and uprising, for those living in slums, for the poor, the dispossessed, the societally disenfranchised, a return to a status quo without hope is itself perpetuating violence.

Close, O Lord, the mouths of all who speak ill of their brothers and sisters at this time. Jam the keyboards and seal the throats of the wicked, that they might refrain from calling their brethren “animals” and “thugs.” Ensure their spiritual ignorance and their calls for dehumanization and further violence go unheeded. Please forgive their trespasses when we cannot muster the strength to do so ourselves. We ask also for an end to all misinformation at the hands of media and vigilantes, that all falsehoods be brought to light.

We know that vengeance is yours, o Lord, and that it is not ours to seize. We trust in your anger, which has surely been smoldering for centuries, your patience wearing thin, as you have long witnessed the wickedness in our land, the violence and the sinful stripes of oppression that stain our nation. We ask that you forgive those who have lashed out in anger and frustration, all who have injured others in recent hours. Please heal the pain of those misguided who are oriented towards destruction at this moment, who your prophet Martin reminded us were hurting, shouting in “the language of the unheard.”

Do not turn your face from us, o God. Do not forget our suffering, but impart in us your Holy Spirit, the breath of life that fills our lungs and drives us into homes, hospitals, houses of worship, into the streets. “I can’t breathe!” Cried one of your children, as Caesar’s soldiers snatched your sacred breath from his lungs. “We can’t breathe!” Cry your people, wounded by empires that print your name on their money but do not know your justice.

In the words of the Psalmist, “Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted…O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted; you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.”

You know your children’s pain. Gasping for air, you yourself cried out on the cross: “it is finished!” You, the crucified God, know above all what it is to suffer. You are the God of the poor, of the unheard, of the oppressed. You are the God who weeps with victims of starvation, torture, war, bombings, rape, lynching, crucifixion, depression, murder, incarceration. Your wrath is a righteous, frightening thing, and your justice means that the injured can turn to you for aid.

You are the God of Moses, who led Egypt’s slaves out of the grave, the God of Mary, who in Jesus slipped on skin and crushed the powers of Satan and death, the God of the American Negro, who gave your people comfort and strength in their fight for liberation. Though you offer your friendship and redemption to all, you are not on the side of the slaver, the slumlord, the slippery politician, but can always be found among the slaves, the starving, the suffering.

We ask this God for an end to the evil that grips Baltimore, which at its heart is not the actions of individual persons but, in the words of your apostle Paul, “powers and principalities.” We remember that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” which in our culture are surely illustrated by many evils, including the carefully calculated, undying bane of anti-black racism and white supremacy.

We pray for an end to the racist treatment of black Baltimoreans as we pray for the safety of elected officials and public servants. We pray for schools, industries, churches, and that this metropolis might be concretely healed from red-lining, white-washing, and racial segregation. We pray for the public officials, pastors, teachers, and local organizers who are working to accomplish these ends.

We pray for Freddie Gray’s family, and for the families of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, John Crawford, Oscar Ramos and Wenjian Liu, and all who have lost their lives in recent days.

Finally, we pray that your people would come to care far more about human life, about black lives, than the status of private property – that shattered spines and broken bodies might frustrate our consciences far more than shattered bottles and broken windows.

All these things we dare to ask in your name, Lord Christ, with confidence and faith in you our good God, who can do far more than we ever hope.