On Hospitality

Below is a transcript of my talk during week 2 of Faith & Race. I describe the logic and work of race in my own life, and look to hospitality as a way forward.

When I arrived at the UW campus for college, there were two things that I was certain of. First, I would be an active member of an on-campus ministry.  I grew up at Chinese Baptist Church on Beacon Hill, where I was formed and nurtured in our youth group to love serving in ministry. It was within the context of this ethnic-specific community that I first came to understand God’s love for all humanity.  Second, despite my appreciation for my Chinese church, the on-campus ministry that I would join would have to be multi-ethnic. I reasoned that the next step in my spiritual maturation would be to worship with people not like me.

At this point, it’s important to point out that I was already worshipping with people not like me. Even in “homogenous” Asian communities like CBC, there is messiness and diversity, with a wide range of experiences, beliefs and opinions. We’re not all alike. I was only marginally connected to the Chinese immigrant congregants at my church, and by leaving my home church in favor of a multi-ethnic community, I lost my family’s immigrant story. I moved away from the story of their courageous journey to America, a story to which I am inextricably bound, regardless of how embarrassing it might feel to be connected to broken English and funny accents. That’s my story; they are my parents. It is ironic that by moving away from a multi-ethnic fellowship, I actually moved from a bilingual faith community to an English-only faith community, away from a community of people that were really different from me, to a place already quite familiar. Continue reading

now i’ve really done did it

somehow, between my last post, and now, carrie and i made a couple really big decisions.

first, i’m quitting my job. i’ll write more about this very bittersweet decision later.

second, i’m going full-time to seminary in the fall. bhang was right about me after all. of course, i’ll reflect on this a bit more, too.

amazing how fast things can change.

cancer narratives

i used to hate cancer narratives. during dennis’s illness, i avoided them because they usually ended in someone’s death, and i needed all the positive thinking i could get. then in the months that followed his death, i just was not in a place where i was willing to revisit the whole ordeal. i needed distance. plus, the thought that countless others had been marked by an experience with cancer seemed to cheapen my own experience. it was traumatic; and i needed that trauma to stand alone. i feared it’d be trivialized by being dumped in an endless sea of other stories.

but now, they’re an indispensable part of my life.

every time i come across someone’s story, i find myself terribly comforted by how familiar everything is to me: the phone calls and voice messages; the late night emergency room runs; the sounds and smells; the absolutely devastating conversations with doctors (it was never just one doctor); the absolutely devastating conversations with friends and family about the conversations with doctors; the low lighting of the hospital room; the images seared into the folds of my memory; the post-chemotherapy hospital visits; the frozen yogurt and takeout dinners; and the quiet desperation that pervades every corner of life. as i listen, i go through my mental check box, and say yes.

earlier this week at my school’s senior retreat, each student delivered a short proposal for their senior project. one complete pain-in-the-butt student that i absolutely love shared for the first time that a lump was found on his mom’s chest a few years ago. he was scared. he has no other family — no father, no siblings, no one. this loud-mouthed, off-task-all-the-time kid fought back tears as he talked eloquently about how he wants to use his senior project to start a small support group for kids of parents currently fighting cancer.

i am struck by the terrible bond i now share with my student. i’m also moved by how much gospel i see in his senior project. his woundedness will by god’s grace become a source, i hope, of comfort for kids who could use it. i know he will become a better man for it.

the formation of the student

this year, for better or worse, my school has turned its collective attention toward managing student behavior. we created a vision for how students are to behave in structured and unstructured environments, with detailed descriptions of what “good” and “bad” behavior looks like in both contexts.

our motivation for doing this is largely pragmatic: it’s just easier to teach when students aren’t going crazy. everyone is happier when the classroom is running in an orderly fashion — including the students who tend to be disorderly.

but there may be unintended consequences to this approach that may be worth reflecting upon.

the other day, one of my students was walking to his car in the parking lot when a security guard confronted him, grabbed his arm, and jerked him backward. i don’t know the particulars of the incident, but i do know the student was found to have done nothing wrong. this isn’t an unusual occurrence — my students are regularly harassed for no discernible reason. as i observed this situation unfolding outside my classroom, i found myself increasingly disturbed by my student’s lack of power to resist what was happening to him precisely because he reacted to this situation exactly the way we taught him to.

in some sense, our school is attempting to train our students to react to these (frequent) unfair situations precisely as john taylor gatto describes in his incriminating essay, “against school.” in this piece (which i had my students read and discuss), gatto claims that schools are “virtual factories of childishness” — that is, schools, by design, socialize students to never grow up. students are trained to do as they’re told, to submit to authority, and to uncritically obey the consumer ethos of american culture. we “reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” in every way, the public school is in service of the interests of the state while functioning under the misleading guise of student empowerment.

to further compound the issue, i’m wondering about how the church figures into this situation. for better or worse, the public school plays an enormous role in the formation of students, and unfortunately, as gatto might suggest, this kind of formation seems better suited to serve the interests of rome rather than the kingdom of god. as a christian teacher, i’m forced to consider what kind of student do i hope to produce, and i wonder if hauerwas’s idea of the resident alien could inform the way i think about shaping students as people who can live within a system, while looking forward to (and bringing forth) another way of being. as i explained to a few of my students, i hope that my students learn how to operate within the world, not so they can become servants of the world’s logic, but so that they can ultimately turn it upside down.

i done did it

well, it’s official now. by day, i’ll still be teaching full time. but by night, i’ll be a seminary student, working toward a masters in theology.

folks who know me well have basically all had the same response. of course you’re going to seminary, what took you so long? chris (somewhat jokingly) told me that he’d give me one more year of full time teaching before i just quit my day job and ran off to seminary full time.

but a lot of other folks have asked me what it is exactly that i hope to accomplish by going to seminary. why bother?

i’ve had a much more difficult time trying to answer this question. on one hand, i would not be disappointed at all if i finished my program, and that was it for my work in theology. if i never end up doing doctoral work, if i don’t wind up working at a church, or if i never end up “using” my theology degree in any other formal way, well that would be quite all right. it is enough for me to know i won’t wake up someday wondering what might’ve been. and if it just so happens that theology for me is meant to be a thing i read about on the side and occasionally try and live out, well then so be it. to a large extent, i’m less concerned with what i can do with theology than i am with what formal study of theology can do with me.

but on the other hand, i must admit that i’ll be a bit sad if it turns out doctoral work isn’t in the cards for me. a small part of my heart deep down hopes this is what’ll happen, and yet i can’t let that part of me speak out too loudly. what if it doesn’t work out the way i hope it will? academic work has always felt hyper-competitive, and because i’ve been surrounded by people who are much more brilliant than me since high school, i wonder about how realistic it is for me to aspire to professorial work. nevertheless, here i am with those aspirations in hand.

so what exactly do i hope for by going to seminary?

first, it’s to have a deepened faith. i have always found myself most in awe of god when reading a beautiful analysis of scripture, or some brilliantly composed theological treatise. while a rich worship experience at church is good for my soul, the written word is what drives me to my knees. quite honestly, i think i just need to go to seminary for my own spiritual vitality.

but secondly, i’m going to seminary because i think i might want to teach theology some day, and i wanna know if there is some word brewing in me that i must be obedient enough to speak to the church. i don’t know if this will ever actually happen, if this is what god wants for my life, or if i’m even smart enough to do the work well, but i guess i won’t know till i try.

DONE (almost)

i can hardly believe it’s true, but i am ALMOST done with my second year in the classroom. i still have an enormous stack of finals to grade (why do i insist on making my finals so long??), but when i lock my classroom door on friday afternoon and drive away from the parking lot, my teaching responsibilities for this school year will be done.

when i decided to become a teacher, i could not have dreamt up a better situation for myself. even though i’m double-endorsed in special ed and english, i figured i’d only be able to use my special ed endorsement for years since it is near impossible to land a steady position teaching english. not the case for me. most of my time is spent teaching ap lang & comp, but since we have a compulsory model of ap, my whole special ed case load is mainstreamed into my ap classes (… that whole situation is a long blog post for another day). at times, it can feel impossible to do my job effectively with the enormous range of students i have, but i feel extremely lucky to have this position.

i came into the year knowing i would have every junior at our school (along with a section of seniors), and i also knew the juniors had the (deserved?) reputation of being a “hot mess.” all last summer, i feared starting the school year, and in some ways, the class lived up to its reputation. just a few weeks ago, i had a sub (jury duty… again) who left me a note about my 4th period class. as a retired teacher, he went out of his way to offer his sincere condolences for me having “one of the most dysfunctional classes” he’d ever been a part of. he reminded me to keep my “chin up” though since that 4th period class was “the type of class that you only have to deal with once every ten years.”

10 months after i started with this class, i recognize how blessed i am to have worked with this challenging, but incredibly rewarding group (and certainly in no need of consolation). when i talked to my 4th period a few days later, i just told them we’d let the past stay in the past. they breathed a huge sigh of relief, and for the rest of the period, we all busted our butts getting ready for my monster final.

there are many weaknesses in my teaching. i’m not always technically sound, and sometimes my well-planned lessons flop. but i’m really proud of the relationships i was able to build with kids that have had a rough go at school for a long time.

and now, i’m also feeling really excited to give it another go in september (especially if the plans come together and i start seminary in the fall). i visited my incoming students today and handed them their summer reading assignments: wesley yang’s paper tigers and amy chua’s why chinese mothers are superior

it’s gonna be a lot of fun working with the next group — but before it’s time to start analyzing yang’s rhetoric, summer beckons me.