Love in Times of Hate and Misunderstanding

Love in Times of Hatred and Misunderstanding

(Take Selfie) I’m hoping I can find an app to send this up to heaven, cause my father-in-law, Ted Schoonmaker, who was a UCC Congregational minister for 40 years, would be absolutely amazed to see me standing in the pulpit giving the sermon. I can picture him getting this picture, going, “What! Well, I never thought that would happen.  Keith’s a good guy and great husband to my daughter, but he never set foot in church while I knew him.”  So I can imagine that he would be shocked that I’m here before you this morning. 

But then again, maybe not.  In fact, as I think about it, Ted and Hazel, in their own way, had a hand in me being here today.  When they visited us from North Carolina they always tried to come to services here at RUCC and they spoke glowingly of this place.  It was shortly after he passed from life-to-life that Sara and I started coming.  That was 18 years ago!  I guess I’m here to stay, and maybe standing before you isn’t so surprising after all. 

So what happened?  Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the pulpit. When I first started coming here, I was immediately greeted by warm and friendly people.  From the start, I felt welcomed and cared for.  That thing we say every week, that no matter where you are on the journey, you’re welcome here.  Well, that turned out to be true.  It didn’t matter that I had never really attended church before in my life.  It didn’t matter that I didn’t know a thing about the Bible (and psst don’t tell Jill, but I still don’t know much).  I wasn’t sure about the terminology or what to do, when to stand.  I was pretty clueless, but people were still so friendly and warm.  Several years ago, I thought I’d look into singing in the choir.  And even there, the extravagant welcome held true.  It didn’t matter that I couldn’t read music.  It didn’t matter that I had no idea what tenors did, and how to sing in parts. (ok, here, I think it is a little dangerous to drop all standards for entry), but STILL no one said, “You know, Keith, maybe your gifts are better suited to, hmmmm, you know, Education, yeah, they could use a hand there.”

All of which to say is that on this day, when the UCC is recognizing people of Asian American and Pacific Islander or AAPI heritage, we, at RUCC, are in a pretty good place to extend our extravagant welcome to anyone from those communities.  If they walk through those doors, we have a good recipe for success:  Take a heaping spoonful of warm, friendly welcoming, pour in a cupful of non-judgment and openness, and add in a dash of patience and persistence.  Not bad.  It lines up with that part of the scripture that calls on us to “love one another deeply from the heart.” 

And the chances of new AAPI folks coming to our door is growing as we speak.  Did you know that Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the country? I didn’t.  In the last 20 years, the Asian population has grown 81% and now numbers over 22 million nationwide, about 7 million live here in California.

It’s an incredibly diverse population with people here from around 20 countries in East, Southeast and South Asia.  The largest groups Chinese, Indian, Filipino. With large communities of Koreans, and Vietnamese.  Pacific Islanders refers to people with origins from Samoa, Guam, Fiji, Tonga and Native Hawaiians.  You have people like myself, Japanese Americans who have been in the country for generations.  And you have refugees who have fled war, and immigrants who arrived in recent years.   

So there are a lot of people to potentially welcome, and our lives and congregation would be tremendously enriched if that were to happen.

But while we have a foundation of extravagant welcome, the killing of 6 Asian women in Atlanta on March 16, reminds us that cultivating a welcoming, loving environment can be difficult in a society with a long history of hatred and discrimination against AAPI people.  The Atlanta killings were only the latest of a string of anti-Asian hatred that has taken the form of violence and discriminatory laws and policies. 

  • In 1850, just after California became a state, the legislature passed the Foreign Miner’s tax which required miners who were not US citizens, to pay for the right to mine for gold.  Only Chinese and Mexicans were forced to pay the tax. 
  • In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.  It was the first federal immigration law to specifically restrict the entry of a racial group.
  • In 1885, white immigrant miners in Rock Springs Wyoming, rioted and killed at least 28 Chinese miners and destroyed 78 Chinese homes
  • Even Redlands has a history of Anti-Chinese action.  In 1893, the community of 200 Chinese was driven out after city leaders required them to go through a costly and time-consuming process of getting a Certificate of Residence
  • In 1942, 120,00 Japanese were evacuated from the west coast and incarcerated without due process in concentration camps. My father and his family were incarcerated in a camp called Amache, in Colorado.  My grandfather on my mom’s side was arrested by the FBI and imprisoned by the Department of Justice for 3 years.  I know what it is like to be targeted by anti-Asian hate.
  • In 1982, a young man named Vincent Chin was murdered by two unemployed white auto workers who were angry that Japanese cars were hurting US auto industries.  They mistakenly thought Chin was Japanese.  Neither spent any time in jail.
  • And, in this past year, 6 Asian women were murdered in Atlanta, and thousands of anti-Asian incidents have been reported in the context of a global pandemic derisively called “King Flu” or “ the China Virus.”

In all of these examples, a persistent pattern of how racism works can be found.  A group of people come to be seen as a racial group that is somehow different, and in contexts of fear and animosity, those differences fuel the rise of racist stereotypes which dehumanize people and make it easier to treat them badly as less than fully human.   Then this pattern takes on a life of its own, and continues over time, so even though the discrimination started long ago, the legacy can be felt in the hearts, minds, and bodies of people today.

In the case of Asians, those hurtful stereotypes can take different forms.  A big one brands us as foreigners, no matter how long we’ve been here.  My grandparents came to this country over 100 years ago, my parents and I were born in California, yet some people, at first glance, may think that I’m not from the U.S. or be surprised that I speak English well. 

Those who have immigrated to the U.S. more recently, of course, are much more vulnerable to being seen and mistreated as strangers and foreigners because they don’t speak English, or speak with accents.

Another stereotype portrays us as the model minority, people who have made it.  But even this “good” image can cause problems.  It has been used to pit Asians against other racial groups, the message being, “if those Asians can make it, then why can’t you?” and it misleads people into thinking that there are no problems in our communities, when there are plenty. 

Another one portrays Asian women as a mix of being overly sexual and exotic, while also being subservient and docile.  Many of these images are tied to the US’s military involvement in Asia.  These images have made Asian females subject to sexism and unwanted and potentially dangerous attention, which was likely part of what happened in Atlanta. 

In all of these examples, the stereotypes work in the same way.  They lump everyone into an amorphous but homogenous group, assigns everyone in that group certain distorted characteristics, that serve to erase our distinctive human qualities. 

So what does this have to do with RUCC and our efforts to welcome new AAPI people?  I don’t think need to worry about anyone acting out the more overt and mean-spirited forms of anti-AAPI hate.  That’s not our nature as a church.

But all of us, no matter how well-meaning and welcoming we are, still carry in our minds the racist stereotypes that have been circulating in the US for a long time.  It cannot be helped and it’s no one’s failing that it happens.  These ideas are like smog in the air and we’re bound to breathe them in.  They can affect how we interact with our AAPI neighbors and may lead us to do things that are well-meaning, but which may be interpreted and experienced as unwelcoming. 

Let me give you a couple of examples of from my experience of how this could happen.  I remember one time (not here), that I introduced myself to a woman for the first time.  She asked if I was Japanese, and when I said yes, she immediately started speaking the Japanese phrases she knew.  She was clearly pleased that she knew some Japanese and thought it was a way to connect with me.  But I was totally put-off by this partly because it reminded me that, as a result of pressures to assimilate, I never learned Japanese.  But it was also off-putting because in that moment, the woman was not really relating to me, but was more interested in thinking about her own idealized relationship to things Japanese.  If she really wanted to connect with me, there were tons of other ways to do it. 

Here’s another way that racism and foreignness can creep into our interactions.  This one’s on me.  I’m not so good with names, and I’m not very good at all with names that I have trouble pronouncing or remembering.  So I often have difficulty with Asian names.  There’s a Chinese man I know and like, and when we first met, he introduced himself as Michael.  But later, he decided to go back to using his Chinese name.  He was trying to resist those same pressures to assimilate that I experienced.  But now, it was me that felt awkward and uncomfortable.  I had a hard time remembering his Chinese name and didn’t want to butcher and mispronounce it.  I began to feel tentative, and worried about making a mistake.  Then I found myself not calling him by his name at all, and that was no good. 

Are these the worst things that can happen?  No, but I mention them to get us thinking about the ways that stereotypes around foreignness, may lead us to unawarely fall short of our desire to extravagantly welcome people, ways we may be timid or hesitant with AAPI people, ways that our enthusiasm to connect may still be a bit off target.

When I was thinking about this sermon, Jill and I got together on Zoom.  I told her what I was thinking about and asked if she knew any scriptures that might be relevant.  She came up with the scripture that Ken read earlier from Hebrews 13:2 – Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 

Though not entirely clear to me at first blush, I think it simply means this. When strangers come walking through our doors, especially Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, be thoughtful about our hospitality, think about how the history of anti-Asian treatment, may make them wonder about whether this is a place for them.  Think about ways to connect based on who they are as distinct human beings, rather than how we think they are as Asians or Pacific Islanders.  If we do that,  then we’re likely to see the angels that they and we truly are.

1 Peter 1: 22 and Hebrews 13: 2 – To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Day, Keith Osajima will deliver this week’s sermon.  As a longtime member of our church, Keith will share thoughts on how RUCC’s extravagant welcome can help us love our AAPI friends and neighbors in times when racism and misconceptions can get in the way.