Ten years ago this month, I attended my first InterVarsity Asian American staff conference. I found it very helpful; I was glad to have a context for fellowship with other Asian American staff and discuss ethnic identity formational issues and such. The next year, I attended InterVarsity's triennial multiethnic staff conference, which had smaller gatherings within the larger conference for our ethnic-specific communities - black, white, Asian and Latino. I went into the conference looking forward mostly to the Asian-specific times and the opportunity to catch up with my fellow Asian staff.
Several things surprised me during the conference. One was that during the Asian track times, many of us were convicted of our own need for reconciliation with other Asian communities. Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese and others have long and complicated interrelated histories of oppression and pain. Many of us grew up in households that resented other particular Asian groups because of various wars or aggressions, or we looked down on other communities because they were not perceived to be "as good as us," whether educationally or socioeconomically or spiritually or whatever. So we needed to do some of our own pan-Asian community work and admit our own need for forgiveness and reconciliation.
Furthermore, when discussing whether Asians could play a mediating role between blacks and whites in racial reconciliation, one of our leaders pointed out that we were not quite in a neutral position. Many of our Asian parents were themselves prejudiced against blacks, and those toxic attitudes continue to affect how we relate with our African American friends and colleagues. Many Asian Americans, while still experiencing minority status, have not experienced the same degree of systemic injustices and racialization that blacks have endured. And Asians, while not immune to prejudice and discrimination, still tend to be in a somewhat privileged position in many ways.
This reinforced to us the significance of knowing and owning our own particular histories, as well as learning all we can about other people's stories. All of our communities have been shaped by particular historical events, whether the legacy of slavery, or the WWII internment of Japanese Americans, or the Trail of Tears and the loss of native lands, or discrimination against Americans of Irish or Polish or German or Jewish descent. We can't minimize any of these or relativize them - all of them continue to have repercussions in how society functions and how we relate to each other, sometimes as oppressors, sometimes as oppressed, always as broken people in need of healing and shalom.
So what ended up being most significant about this conference was not the ethnic-specific times, but the interaction between members of all the various communities, and learning from one another's perspectives. It was a powerful time of sharing joys and challenges together, and committing to one another in partnership and fellow travelers.
At the end of the conference, during an open mike time, I shared that what God had been impressing most upon me that week was my own indebtedness to the African Americans who have gone before, who for decades have suffered and fought for equality and civil rights. Even though things are not yet what they ought to be, I am grateful that our country has come a long way, and it is a far better place thanks to the perseverance of blacks. If Asian Americans have a place at the table, it is only because African Americans have paved the way for us.
So while I have said these things in various settings, let me blog this publicly to my African American brothers and sisters - thank you, thank you, thank you. It is an honor to follow in your footsteps and to walk alongside you in this pilgrimage toward justice and peace.