Upon receiving the Christian Church of Northern CA-NV’s annual MLK Award

This award was given to me on January 11, 2015 at Lafayette Christian Church during the CCNC-N’s annual MLK service. Following are my remarks upon receiving the award.

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I find myself thinking a lot about the previous recipients of this award, because they have all deeply shaped me.

I’m in the land of Pacific School of Religion, and many of you know that PSR’s slogan is, help me with this, “a tradition of boldness.” And that is true. I am in a sea of boldness in this region. But as far as I know, there have only been five graduates of the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago in this region, and … I am the fifth to receive this award, following:

  • Carl and Esther Robinson, who lost his parish in the 1960s for refusing to kick a gay youth out of his church’s youth group;
  • Robert Lemon, who lost his parish for standing in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the migrant farm workers’ movement;
  • Vy Nguyen, who hasn’t been fired from anything yet, but is leading Week of Compassion and helping us respond to disasters across the globe and here at home;
  • and while David Kagiwada is no longer with us, his widow JoAnne received this award, acknowledging her work to make sure that Japanese American internment camp survivors received recompense from our government.

So in the land of the tradition of boldness, I’m grateful to have had the chance to import a little boldness from Chicago.

I am also shaped by other award recipients:

  • There is no one who stands with poor people more powerfully and inspiringly than Sandy Perry;
  • I have learned much of what it means to participate in civil rights from Clarence Johnson, who was at the March on Washington, but who was also an ardent worker alongside Stokely Carmichael, which is a reminder to us all that radicalism can be held deep within the most humble servants of God;
  • Ben Fraticelli was about the work of building multicultural community in Oakland decades before the Oakland Peace Center started its work three years ago; and
  • Jim Mitulski, who led us in the chant “Stand Up! Fight Back! Fight AIDS!” buried more bodies than most of us can count, because so few churches in the 1980s were willing to acknowledge the human dignity and divinity of the mostly gay men dying of AIDS.

I am an Asian American who was shaped strongly by Black civil rights: 4th grade was the first time I heard about India in school, when we learned that Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement in India. I was hooked; I read every book on Dr. King in the library, and for a long time it was the closest reference point I could find to make sense of my experience as an Asian American in northeast Ohio.

When Vincent Chin was beaten to death in 1983 because — Japan? — the API (Asian and Pacific Islander) community rallied in many ways because of lessons we learned from civil rights.

And I also recognize our narratives are distinct: when we sing Negro national hymn (and Rochon Hemans would want me to remind you all that the Johnson brothers wrote a Negro National Hymn, not an anthem), I can’t sing the last line, because I do not know what it means to be “true to my native land.”

And so I am grateful to be shaped by the previous recipients of this award who have done so much to build a cross-sectional movement.

We are at a powerful moment right now the civil rights movement:

The Black Lives Matter movement is made up of young leadership with no one figurehead, in what my friend Alicia Garza calls “low ego, high impact” Many of them have felt burned by the church. It reminds me sometimes of the emergent church movement, where young people say, “Why do you not care what we have to say? Why do you only want to engage us on your terms towards your ends?” I believe in this moment that Christ’s call to humility and listening are guide points for the church, a church that has not always had to be accountable for its silence or its absence and was applauded when it was present.

Dr. King was critiqued for shifting from hearts and minds to policy solutions too quickly. One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was when someone complained to him that he had given up on hearts and minds and wanted to know why he kept pushing a policy agenda instead. He responded, “A law may not cause a man to love me, but it can require him to not lynch me, and I think that’s pretty good.” The civil rights movement today, ironically, is being critiqued for not being focused on policy goals. Now, there are a lot of policy goals involved in this moment from body cameras to new standards for grand juries to President Obama’s commission, and while I do not believe there are enough police accountability policies yet, they are emerging, too. AND, while we stand on the shoulders of giants, it is worth remembering that most of the people in this movement are younger than me, and my life has been made up of watching most of the policy achievements of the previous civil rights movement repealed one by one. This movement is definitely doing policy, but they believe it is not enough. There needs to be a culture shift. This is the moment for a church committed to relationship, but it will require us to weave accountability into those relationships if we want to avoid being coopted by those who seek to preserve the status quo.

This is also a diverse and disparate movement with connections being made, from Restaurant Opportunities Center organizing often undocumented workers in independent restaurants whose conditions are deplorable; to 18 Million Rising, an Asian American civil rights organization who were on the front lines in solidarity with activists in Ferguson; to Causa Justa::Just Cause, bringing together Black and Brown tenants’ rights work; to Black Alliance for Just Immigration, reminding us that not all immigrants are Latino and also that the dichotomy between Black Americans and immigrants is a false dichotomy; to the Christmas Day action for Black Lives Matter in the Castro by radical LGBTQ rights activists. This is a moment of solidarity and cross pollination. This is the moment for an anti-oppression church if we can be as unafraid of the anti-oppression language as we are embracing of the pro-reconciliation language. The song of generations is rising again: which side are you on? Let us be on the side of Justice.

Dr. King in Selma reminded the crowd: we are not requesting. We are demanding.  At the Millions March, the Black Lives Matter movement proclaimed: we are not requesting. We are demanding. The question for those of us in the room today is, do we believe the young Black people have the right to demand human dignity instead of having to request it? Is our answer is yes, we need to find ways to listen to support and to theologize this work for our brothers and sisters who do not.

In a country founded on anti-Blackness and who uses the rest of us as pawns in that game of power and privilege for a few, it is a radical theological overturning of American culture to proclaim that all lives will matter when black lives matter. Will we proclaim it?

I am also shaped by the bravery of First Christian Church of Oakland, a church that had the courage to place community first and step into the bold vision of handing over their building to the work of peace, creating their own legacy in the process, the Oakland Peace Center. First Christian Church of Oakland reminds me of the scripture about how our old men will dream dreams and our young people will see visions. I am reminded of the not-so-old Bill Shive and how he embodies Robert F. Kennedy’s quote, “Some see things that are, and ask Why? I see things that are not and ask, Why not?” And I am reminded of 21-year-old Aimee Fields who led her congregation today through a conversation on racial justice in worship, and who will tell you, accurately, that when I suggested the idea of the Oakland Peace Center to her when she was 16, she helped shape what it is today.

In that spirit, I would like to offer a challenge to everyone here today. Several years ago, this region engaged in the Pentecost Project, where congregations all across the region participated in projects that built ongoing relationships with their community. Let us make this summer Reconciliation Summer. In every congregation in this region, let’s engage in dialogue with those from different cultures than ourselves. Let’s read and learn and discuss with the young leaders of Black Lives Matter why they are doing the movement the way they are, even if we don’t fully agree with or understand it yet. Let’s study books that help us see into different worldviews and different ways of understanding a Bible filled with justice. Let us embody the racial justice that will lead us into being a model for the whole denomination and the whole country of what racial reconciliation really looks like.
Amen.

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