Monday, October 30, 2006

The High Calling of Our Daily Work

Last Thursday while at the 50th anniversary celebration for Christianity Today magazine, I had lunch with Howard Butt, one of the founding board members for CT. Howard is a longtime champion of marketplace ministry and Christians living out the priesthood of all believers in business, work and other settings. We connected because I've written a few articles for their website,, which provides resources for people wanting to live out their Christian calling in all spheres of daily work.

Having lunch with Howard reminded me that I'd not yet blogged about their site. So here are links to some of the articles I've written for them, on topics from perseverance to anger to hope in adversity. One article I was asked to write was on "Is All Work a High Calling?" Here's an excerpt:
Christians in the workplace often wonder if what they do has eternal value or significance. Is all work in answer to God’s call? What about when work seems nonproductive or meaningless?

Let’s put this in a Christian framework. God created work to be good. God works, and we are created in His image. When we work, we reflect His divine purpose and intent.

But we also live in a fallen world. So we can’t give a blanket statement that all work is good. Some work is clearly bad. Some people’s “work” is morally wrong or downright evil. Theft and embezzlement, abortion and murder, prostitution, and drug trafficking fall outside God’s moral intent and plan.

Christians take heart that in Christ all work is redeemed and transformed. Virtually every job or profession is indeed a good and noble calling from God—and can reflect a divine purpose or intent for the world. Healthcare professionals, for example, reflect God’s identity as healer and Great Physician. Lawyers stand for justice and defend the oppressed, and law enforcement officers reflect God’s identity as judge and defender, refuge and shield. Christian judges, policemen, soldiers, and others participate in God’s justice.

Extend this to nearly every profession. Teachers and educators convey God’s wisdom and learning. Farmers, grocery store clerks, restaurateurs, cooks, and waiters participate in God’s good work to feed the hungry. Architects, builders, contractors and real estate agents help people gain needed shelter. Consider your own job and line of work. How might it reflect some aspect of God’s good character?

Let me also highlight Christianity Today's own site that is produced in partnership with The High Calling (and also reprinted that same article). And here are some further thoughts on implications of the kingdom of God for business and work, in an article "A Company? No, More Like a Kingdom":

Some people have told me to think of Jesus as my supervisor and God as my company’s CEO—and do my work to please them. Nice ideas, but for whatever reason, not helpful. Though my supervisor and CEO are both Christians, I rarely think that working for them is like working for Jesus. In fact, I have a hard time imagining Jesus as a corporate executive.

On the other hand, I often think about what it means that Jesus is king. He declared that the Kingdom of God is at hand. As Christians, we are the King’s servants. And as in medieval days, every king needs kingdom workers. Some are knights who protect the subjects. Others are artisans, craftsmen, and merchants. Some till the land. Others heal the sick. Some educate and raise the young. Some herald the king’s news. Every role is significant if a kingdom is to function effectively and the king is to rule justly. No kingdom runs by itself.

So instead of thinking of Jesus as CEO of my modern-day company, it helps to imagine myself as a medieval serf at work in a particular corner of the king’s realm. I get a better sense of how my daily job might serve my king. I am entrusted with certain work and deployed as a kingdom servant. My labor helps my king bring peace and justice to the land.

So why bring this up in reference to suburban Christianity? Simply this - being a missional suburban Christian is not just for suburban pastors or church planters. It's for all of us who live and work in suburbia. More people work in suburbia than in center cities. Most new industry is developing in suburban and exurban areas, like these tech corridors found in edge cities distanced quite some way from traditional urban areas. So suburban Christianity is not just a matter of transformation of residential neighborhoods and subdivisions - it's also about transformation of suburban commerce, industry and business as well.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Beware of cash advances

A few months ago, I stopped by a branch of my local bank and used the ATM to get $20. Unfortunately, instead of my ATM card, I accidentally used my credit card, which is issued by the same bank and has the same PIN (which is probably a bad idea, I know). The screen menu looked slightly different, but I thought it was just that this particular ATM had a different menu than usual. It wasn't until later that I realized I had gotten a cash advance on my credit card rather than an ATM withdrawal from my checking account.

I checked my credit card account online a few days later, and not only did the $20 cash advance show up, there was also a $10 transaction fee. Yargh. Then the next month, there was an additional 25 cent finance charge. I had paid the credit card balance off in full, so I wasn't sure why there was this additional charge. According to the statement, however, the "average daily balance" on the cash advance was $12.30. Because it had not been paid off (according to how they calculate these things), I had to pay an extra quarter.

So the next month, I intentionally paid an extra fifty bucks or so to make sure that the full cash advance amount would be wiped out. No such luck. This time I was charged another $1.00. Somehow the "average daily balance" had gone up to $13.87, even though my payment should have eliminated it.

Finally, on this month's statement, it shows that the cash advance has been paid off. So it cost me $31.25 to have a $20.00 cash advance, just because I accidentally used the wrong card. How annoying.

Lessons? Be careful what card you use. And more significantly, this experience made me think about folks who get trapped by usurious credit card debt. Evidently my credit card has a 12.99% APR for regular credit card purchases, but 23.99% on cash advances, not including fees. I'm not a math major, so forgive me if I'm calculating this wrong, but it seems like the net interest rate to use/borrow that twenty bucks was 56.25%. That's crazy.

Anyway, I applaud local churches that have financial management classes and groups to help us avoid some of these pitfalls. Consumer culture is challenging enough to navigate these days, even for those of us who try to practice good stewardship and disciplines of simplicity and frugality. Oh, that the spirit of Mammon would be defeated by the spirit of Jubilee!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Suburbia as Mission Field: BreakPoint on The Suburban Christian

Prison Fellowship's BreakPoint radio commentary today is about The Suburban Christian. PF president Mark Earley (standing in for Chuck Colson) mispronounces my last name (it's actually pronounced "shee," like "She went to the store"), but the commentary does a nice job of capturing the missional intent of the book. You can listen to the message here, and here's the text:
The Land of Two-Car Garages: Suburbia as Mission Field

What is suburbia? A place where they tear out trees and then name streets after them? Endless neighborhoods filled with rows of cookie-cutter houses and two-car garages? A place where people are so busy that they don’t even know their neighbors?

Author Albert Hsu sees suburbia as something else: a vast mission field. In his fresh new book, The Suburban Christian, Hsu presents an exciting vision where Christians live and work to transform suburbia from a sea of consumerist isolationism into a hotbed of Christian hospitality.

Describing the history of suburbia, Hsu gives us the example of Clapham Common, an eighteenth-century British neighborhood founded by William Wilberforce and his friends. Clapham Common was designed as a place where families could find a healthy environment, green spaces, and common civic areas—not so that they could escape the world, but so that they could live in community and collaborate in their Christian mission.

But today suburbia seems much more like a place where people try to create their own little utopias. Consumerism tricks us into believing that the most important thing in life is the best cable service, the biggest lawn mower, or a Gucci purse. The commuter culture runs us ragged, as we invest valuable time scurrying between home, work, church, the soccer field, and the grocery store.

I don’t think this is what William Wilberforce had in mind, and neither does Hsu, who challenges us to abandon our suburban complacency. By selling all of our possessions and relocating to China? No—by adopting a radically biblical worldview that calls us to approach suburbia as a mission field right where we live.

Hsu says, “If we aren’t called to go [to the foreign mission field], we must be sure that we are called to stay—not in a passive sense, but to stay with an intentionality of active sending, sharing resources and participating in global mission even at home.”

If some of us are truly called to suburbia, then we are also called to transform it by denouncing personal isolationism and embracing hospitality—a value, Hsu says, that is at the core of the Gospel. We can fight commuter culture—a trend that keeps us in our own cars instead of in relationships—by strategically living, working, shopping, and worshipping in the same part of town. And we can walk, bicycle, and carpool more. That way, we can be available to “Good Samaritan” moments, as Hsu calls them.

Hsu’s book is filled with practical ideas for living out these Good Samaritan moments. For example, in the spirit of Wilberforce—who fought against human slavery—those of us in local government, real estate, or building industries could marshal our resources to fight against economic slavery by promoting affordable suburban housing for the lower and lower-middle classes.

And here’s a less demanding but equally valuable idea—practice hospitality by foregoing a solitary evening in front of the television screen and invite your neighbors over for dessert. You never know—it might open the door to tell them about the Creator of hospitality right in the midst of suburbia.

By the way, Prison Fellowship has a new blog, The Point, which covers a wide breadth of topics. Very good stuff. One of their bloggers also recently read my book and made a few comments regarding it here and here.

Friday, October 20, 2006

CT's Top 50 Books and the future of evangelical publishing

Many of the articles from Christianity Today's 50th anniversary issue are now available online, including "The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals." This past February, I was invited to submit my nominations of five books I thought should make the list, along with a brief comment why. Here are the picks I sent to CT, along with my commentary and reasons why:

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen: Not only is it a contemporary spiritual classic, it also modeled the recovery of art as an avenue for reflection and meditation.

Knowing God, by J. I. Packer: Still one of the best examples of biblical theology in service to the church at large.

Basic Christianity, by John Stott: A compact classic and a model of elegance and brevity in apologetic argument.

In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon: Despite its weaknesses in application and trivialization into WWJD? bracelets and knickknacks, it still motivated generations of Christians to live out their discipleship.

This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti: A book that reinvigorated the genre of Christian fiction and challenged evangelicals to take spiritual warfare and the supernatural seriously.

[If I’m not allowed to name Packer and Stott because they’re IVP books and I work for IVP, here are a bonus two.]

God Came Near, by Max Lucado: Before the pressures of cranking out a book every year made Lucado’s books start sounding all the same, this early work helped evangelicals reckon with the reality of the incarnation.

Jesus & the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright: This and others in Wright’s massive project competed with revisionist scholars on their own terms and modeled doing biblical historical work in service both to the church and public debate.

I was interested to see that three of my five main choices made the list. I was also pleased to see that eight of the top fifty were IVP books, including two of the top five - Knowing God came in at #5, and Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There landed at #4. I was surprised, however, that the top spot went to a book I had never heard of, Learning Conversational Prayer by Rosalind Rinker. CT managing editor Mark Galli's blog post explains some of the behind-the-scenes jockeying regarding the rankings. In the comments he reveals that C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity should/could have been #1, but got booted down for various reasons.

I was also quoted in the same issue for an article on "What's Next: Publishing & Broadcasting." When CT associate editor (and former IVP intern) Madison Trammel e-mailed me asking for my thoughts, I sent him the following:
Fifty years from now . . . Christian publishing will become both bigger and smaller. Christian publishers will continue to chase after the next big book and big-name celebrity author. But at the same time, dissatisfaction with monolithic evangelical publishing will lead to more independent Christian publishing that is more narrowcast than broadcast, more tribalized than mass culture, as indigenous outgrowths of non-traditional, post-emergent communities of Christians that have little historic connection with the structures of American evangelicalism. Just as evangelicalism will continue to fragment into multiple subcultures, Christian publishing and Christian media will likewise fragment and reflect multiple tribalized, post-denominational Christian subcultures.

A corollary - Christian publishing will become both more corporate and more independent. Media companies like Disney and Viacom will launch their own Christian divisions to compete with FoxHarperZondervan and NelsonBigIdea. At the same time, Christian editors and authors outside the mainstream will start their own alternatives to traditional publishers. As they do so, the definition of what is a "Christian book" will continue to morph and change. It may be that "traditional" Christian publishers end up publishing books that are horribly compromised by syncretism and consumer commodification, while indie books laced with profanity become the new spiritual classics.

Fifty years from now . . . Christian publishing will be more reflective of the multiethnic, global environment, with a truly international exchange of ideas and more scholarship from the Majority World church. Publishers continuing to focus on the white minority church, publishing only in English, will be more and more marginalized and irrelevant to the global church at large.

Fifty years from now . . . Publishers will still bemoan the decline of reading and literacy and try to reposition themselves as "content providers" and to "think beyond the book." At the same time, a post-digital cohort of neo-retro-evangelicals, tired of the transience of everything electronic, will champion a movement recovering the incarnational beauty of the sacred printed page, with a rediscovery of illuminated manuscripts, classical bookbinding and physical paper.

Fifty years from now . . . new Bible translations will replace stodgy old versions like The Message, which will be so archaic that it is only used in some conservative fundamentalist circles.

Fifty years from now . . . evangelical elder statesman Robert Bell of the Nooma Center at Wheaton College will commission a new generation of young leaders to take the gospel to every tribe, planet and dimension, using new string relativity technology to contextualize the message to those in alternate timelines.

Okay, now I'm just getting silly. I'm trying not to give the standard old boring responses like "Christian publishers will continue to take the gospel to those who need it, in whatever format people will be using, by all possible means to reach the most possible people," yada yada yada. I'm sure some exec or another will also talk about digital paper and e-books becoming commonplace, some sort of iPod/Blackberry equivalent of books.

Did you know that Rupert Murdoch bought So it's News Corp/Fox/Harper Collins/Zondervan/MySpace. An eBayAmazonBarnes&Borders conglomerate is not a big stretch either. Maybe fifty years from now the big corporate giants of the world will be Brazos International and KregelDoubleday.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Parents spending more time with kids - and less time elsewhere

A New York Times article reports, "Despite the surge of women into the work force, mothers are spending at least as much time with their children today as they did 40 years ago, and the amount of child care and housework performed by fathers has sharply increased." The article continues:

At first, the authors say, “it seems reasonable to expect that parental investment in child-rearing would have declined” since 1965, when 60 percent of all children lived in families with a breadwinner father and a stay-at-home mother. Only about 30 percent of children now live in such families. With more mothers in paid jobs, many policy makers have assumed that parents must have less time to interact with their children.

But, the researchers say, the conventional wisdom is not borne out by the data they collected from families asked to account for their time. The researchers found, to their surprise, that married and single parents spent more time teaching, playing with and caring for their children than parents did 40 years ago.

For married mothers, the time spent on child care activities increased to an average of 12.9 hours a week in 2000, from 10.6 hours in 1965. For married fathers, the time spent on child care more than doubled, to 6.5 hours a week, from 2.6 hours. Single mothers reported spending 11.8 hours a week on child care, up from 7.5 hours in 1965.

On the one hand this is a good sign. But where is the time coming from, that parents have more time with kids? It's not that folks are cutting back on work;Americans are not working less. The NY Times article doesn't mention this, but other studies have argued that the time that adults are carving out for family has been taken away not only from housework (due to advances in technology and efficiency), but also from leisure activities and adult friendships. So parents are spending more time with their kids, but at the expense of larger community and church involvement. We focus on our nuclear families so much that we no longer have time for volunteer work or community service.

The article notes that families are getting smaller and incomes have risen over the past 35 years, so more time and money is devoted to fewer kids. Suburban Christians should beware of the tendency of turning inward to focus on children to the exclusion of outside concerns and ministry. One suburban pastor I talked to told me that the biggest challenge he faces in his suburban church is "the idolatry of children," of suburban parents focusing so much on their kids that kids' activities and development take priority over all other concerns, including church, ministry, witness, etc. Better, probably, to find creative ways of helping our kids join in ministry and mission to and from the suburbs, so that they don't just become self-absorbed and instead learn to focus externally on loving their neighbors as well.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What color are cherubim?

Next year is IVP's 60th anniversary, and as part of our commemoration of it, we're re-releasing a number of classic backlist books as IVP Classics. I was doing final checks on the manuscript of the forthcoming IVP Classics edition of Francis Schaeffer's Art and the Bible, and Schaeffer has a section about art in the tabernacle. There he mentions that the depicted pomegranites were blue, purple and scarlet. Schaeffer makes the point that purple and scarlet were natural colors for pomegranites, but not blue. So the implication is that art does not need to be photographic in representation and that there's freedom to make things artistically different from how they actually appear in nature.

Then, a few pages later, he's talking about another part of the tabernacle, and this line jumps out at me:

"Cherubim have form and are teal."

Wow! I didn't know that. How does he know that cherubim are teal? Or is Schaeffer's point that the artistic representations of the cherubim were painted teal? Boy, that seems like a funny color for cherubim. I thought they were supposed to be gold.

So I check the original edition of Art and the Bible. It says, "Cherubim have form and are real."

(BTW, Schaeffer died back in the mid-80s. So maybe he does know what color the cherubim are. One of my colleagues said that maybe this was his posthumous revision of the manuscript. "I've seen the cherubim, and they're very nice.")

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nathan Bierma's On Language column: Buzzwords

Nathan Bierma of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and author of the recent book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth has a weekly column in the Chicago Tribune, "On Language," in which he looks at developments and trends in how words are used. I got to know Nathan at the Calvin seminar on writing that I participated in this past summer, and I've appreciated his astute observations on all things literary and linguistic, from etymologies to neologisms. (Yes, I'm an editorial book publishing geek.)

Nathan's latest column looks at John Walston's new The Buzzword Dictionary, and he identifies the best and the worst of the new buzzwords being used today:


Faulty-tasking: Making mistakes because of multitasking. A handy word for what to call it when you accidentally send a personal e-mail to your boss and a business memo to your wife because you were writing both at once while also instant messaging, checking your fantasy football team and talking on the phone.

Boiling the ocean: This phrase was reportedly offered by comedian Will Rogers as a solution for defeating German U-boats. Today, "boiling the ocean" has come to mean an endless and pointless task.

DRIB: "Don't read if busy." This just about guarantees an instant delete if it shows up in the subject line. But it would save all of us a lot of precious time if more people used it.

Loop mail: That mountain of e-mails of which you are not the direct recipient, but on which you get "copied" just to "keep you in the loop." A handy term for e-mail that should come labeled "DRIB."

Taffy task: A job that should take only five minutes, but is stretched out to cover the entire day. Common on Fridays.

Percussive maintenance: Who among us isn't a skilled technician when it comes to the art of banging on something to try to get it working again?


Knowledge transfer: This means teaching someone how to do your job before you leave. But you're a person, not a computer hard drive.

Interdependent partnering: Is there any other kind?

Directionally correct: Replace with "we think we're on the right track."

Non-concur: to disagree. It's just chickening out to say, "I don't non-concur."

Double-click: Metaphorically, to take a second or deeper look: "Let's double-click on this issue for a few minutes." Good term for a computer mouse, bad term for a discussion.

Reskilling: What ordinary human beings call "re-training."

Terrestrial radio: What used to be called just "radio" before satellite radio and podcasts.

Geek handshake: Introducing yourself to a new co-worker by e-mail or text message instead of walking 10 feet to her cubicle. The term is fine, but the practice has got to stop.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A twentysomething's life in suburbia

My coworker Ann Swindell has a new article at Relevant called "Dishwasher Blues." Ann is a recent Wheaton College grad and newlywed reflecting on the standard of living and expectations in suburbia. She recounts this dialogue with a woman from her church:

“Oh, I remember those days. Now that I live in a house, I absolutely hate my life whenever I’m anywhere that doesn’t have a built-in washer and dryer. Or a dishwasher, for that matter. You do have a dishwasher, don’t you?”

I put on my best fake smile and shook my head. “Nope. You’re looking at the dishwasher.”

The woman from church started to giggle. “Oh, you’re just too funny! You—the dishwasher—ha!” She stopped laughing abruptly, her face becoming much too serious for the topic of conversation. “I am sorry about that, though. I hope you do get those necessities soon—life is just a drag without them!”

Ann reflects, "
Living in a suburb in which every third woman who walks into our store has a diamond bigger than a dime on her left hand is overwhelming. Michael and I may not be rich by suburban Chicago standards, but we’re living—as far as we’re concerned—rather well: our own one-bedroom apartment, a running car, the ability to pay our bills on time … why shouldn’t we be happy?"

One comment posted at the article says,
"Also newlyweds, also no washer/dryer/dishwasher, plus no car. We have each other and God. What more could we need?" It's difficult at times to keep perspective when her neighbors assume that certain appliances are "necessities," but Ann's article provides a healthy reality check and is a good model of what author Lisa McMinn would call the contented soul. So whenever we're tempted to keep up with the Joneses, remember Tim Stafford's encouragement: "Never mind the Joneses!"

Update: Ann just mentioned to me that she has two other articles at Relevant: "Five Commandments About Money," and "Spare Keys," where she tells the story of what happened when she loaned her car to a complete stranger. A great example of Christian generosity, hospitality, risk-taking and trust.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Church Executive interview about The Suburban Christian

Church Executive, a magazine for church business administrators, recently ran this interview with me about The Suburban Christian in their September 2006 issue:

People talk about suburban, urban, rural, and exurb. What are we to understand about these words and where we may live in our own communities?
Suburbs used to be easily identified as the rings of communities surrounding established central cities, but it’s not quite that simple anymore. Today, the newest forms of suburbia, also known as exurbs or edge cities, are themselves becoming the new centers of industry and commerce and stand geographically distanced from metropolitan centers. Whereas suburbs used to be dependent on the central cities, now more people live, work, shop and worship in suburbia than in central cities. Suburbia may well be one of the most significant mission fields of the 21st century.

Is it harder to live for the church in suburbia?
Every environment, whether urban or rural, medieval or modern, has always had its own particular challenges to Christian faith and practice. But God needs Christians to be present everywhere, and the answer is not to abandon the suburbs, but to redeem them. The more common reality is that many, perhaps most, suburban Christians simply live in suburbia and uncritically absorb suburban trappings and worldviews. That’s why it’s all the more important for Christians to be intentionally strategic and missional about living Christianly in the suburbs.

How has suburbia changed the church? Is the church making any impact on suburbia?
Many suburban churches have worked hard to contextualize their ministries to a suburban context, just as any missiologist would work to translate the gospel into the language and forms of a particular culture. As a result, some of the most vibrant and thriving suburban churches have intentionally contextualized their buildings and ministries to resemble suburban architecture and institutions, from community colleges to shopping malls. A danger of this is that some forms of suburban Christianity merely mirror suburbia’s commercial, consumerist environment and are not distinctively countercultural enough. What some churches call contextualization, others might call compromise.

How can church leaders reading your book understand their constituency better and thereby minister better?
I hope suburban church leaders have a better understanding of the societal and sociological forces of suburbia that shape suburban life. Yes, suburbia tends to be fragmented and anonymous, community is difficult to develop, and so on. But how did we get here? Suburbia tends to be a place of consumption, not production. It’s a commuter culture, it’s a material world. It’s also a place where we can cultivate and practice classical spiritual disciplines of community, hospitality, generosity and simplicity.

You write about the public “third places,” a concept of sociologist Ray Oldenburg, and that work and home are the first two. In what way does the church fill the third place?
One of the ironies of suburbia is that it’s filled with people, but it’s very difficult to connect and build relationships. Which is why coffeehouses have expanded so much in suburbia over the last 15 years or so. They’re a commercial substitute for what used to be the public square, the community gathering places for people to meet and connect. But if anything should fill that need for the third place, it’s the church! Churches can become civic gathering places that are open to their communities. You don’t need food courts or espresso bars, just places that community groups and functions can meet.

Any cautions or hopes that you have for the church in suburbia?
My main caution — don’t contextualize so much that the church becomes just another consumer lifestyle choice alongside the shopping mall and the health club. Be an intentional community that heralds the presence of the kingdom of God, that seeks the welfare of the suburbs. And my main hope for the suburban church is that it would be a center of ministry and mission both to and from the suburbs, that suburban churches would minister effectively to their local suburbs, loving suburban people, and also looking beyond suburbia to give generously of their resources in partnership with the urban and global church as well.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Chinese buffets, human smuggling and undocumented workers

Here's an example of how global justice issues connect with local suburban life. A few weeks before my trip to China, I was talking with my mom about China's history and culture, and in an offhand, tangential comment, she happened to mention, "You know why Chinese buffets are so cheap? Slave labor." She wasn't talking about restaurants in China; she was talking about (some) Chinese buffet restaurants here in the United States. She said that the reason they can keep their prices so low and offer so much food is because their labor costs are minimal. Undocumented workers work six days a week, twelve or fourteen hours a day, for less than minimum wage.

I Googled this topic the next day and came across the article "The Smuggler's Due" by Alex Kotlowitz from the June 11, 2006, issue of The New York Times Magazine. This is an amazingly well-reported piece that chronicles the experiences of a young man who was sent to the U.S. by his parents and worked to pay off a smuggling debt of $45,000. Kotlowitz writes:

. . . the smuggling of humans from China has continued, though no one is certain of the numbers; estimates, though elusive, range anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 a year. Some things have changed. The smugglers — known as "snakeheads" — have become more sophisticated and considerably more expensive. Though many Fujianese still come by freighter or by fishing boat, many now also arrive by plane bearing false papers; moreover, they often land — by boat or plane — first in Canada, the Caribbean or Central America. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports that in recent months 50 to 100 Chinese each week have been taken into custody trying to cross the Mexican border.

The snakeheads, who in the 1980's had a Mafia-style presence in New York's Chinatown, often publicly beating and kidnapping those who fell behind in their payments, now apply much of their muscle back home in China, threatening and, if it serves their purposes, physically punishing family members of those who have fallen behind in their installments. For those on the Golden Venture, their travels cost roughly $30,000; the snakeheads reportedly now charge upward of $70,000.

As the cost has gone up, the number of years it takes to pay off the debt has risen as well. In the early 1990's, some could repay the smugglers in two years; it now takes twice as long. "A lot of Americans have a hard time understanding it," says Ko-lin Chin, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in Newark. "But put yourself in their shoes." If they remain in China, Chin says, they will earn perhaps $200 a month. If they come to the United States, they can earn $2,000 a month working at a restaurant. Once the debt is paid off, most continue to send money home and often help to pay the way for another family member to come to the U.S.
The workers have few expenses for food or housing (they are packed into apartments together), so most of their income goes to pay off the smuggling debts or is sent to their families back home in China. They have no papers or drivers' licenses and generally have little English proficiency, meaning that they have great challenges in navigating American society; after all, it is in the restaurants' interest to keep their labor force close at hand. Some escape the system, find work in non-exploitive restaurants and eventually are able to open and own their own restaurants.

What can we do? I'm not entirely sure. It's not just a matter of not eating at Chinese buffet restaurants; after all, most are lawful. The INS occasionally cracks down on restaurant owners that are exploitive and abusive. There's probably also a role here for local churches and Christians. My mom's Chinese church befriended some buffet workers and got to know their stories; they helped them learn English and get around. But the larger global challenges of human smuggling - does anybody know of any Christian organizations or mission agencies that work in this field?