Thefts and robberies were not uncommon when my mother ran a dry cleaning business some twenty years ago in Chicago. It was almost like an annual event. Paying to replace the stolen garments was no small loss for the business. More serious damage was the trauma after being held at gunpoint during the robbery. After each incident, mother would let out her tense emotions by making racist comments. She didn’t back down when I tried to hush anything racially biased. “Step into my shoes and then speak,” she used to say.
Those very words rang in my ears this past week, as the protests raged over George Floyd’s death. As a pastor I’ve been good at talking about issues of race; I’ve actively sat in meetings and walked the protests. My mother’s life, in contrast, was about actually living the daily grind together with people of different races and ethnicities. She was a simple-minded person with limited education. Upon meeting one or two nice Hispanics, she would be all praises for the Hispanic people. The same went for Blacks as well as Whites. Then she would meet one or two who do wrong, and suddenly their entire race was to blame.
Her dry cleaning business wasn’t so profitable, but she made sure the employees were properly and justly paid. Her employees came from various racial backgrounds – Korean, Hispanic, Black – and she treated every person with respect and care. Of course, she did not hold back from speaking her mind when it came to thieves and robbers. But my mother was a small fish. The reason why the business couldn’t keep up had much to do with the lease contract. She could never win her landlord. Eventually she closed the business without making any money. It really didn’t matter how hard my mom worked or how good her employees were. They were all small fishes, as opposed to big fishes who made big profits regardless of their working hours and characters.
I don’t know why, but I thought about my mother as the issues about racism made headlines recently. Racism is more than skin deep; it involves the problem of power. Prejudice plus power equals racism. From the Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1863 to the Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and 1968, we have learned that it takes more than a proclamation to advance racial equity in people’s lives. While promoting the ideas of political correctness and social justice, ‘polite’ liberal racism in the North has still maintained its baseline realities through segregated neighborhoods and schools. People’s lives don’t intersect and people won’t sit down to eat together. There is discomfort with being around people of color. People eat together in the South, but the underlying beliefs of traditional racism are reflected through social constructs of racial hierarchy and white privilege. Both Northern and Southern racism are still lived in the everyday, and both make up the uncomfortable truth of this country.
Cries for justice over the death of George Floyd and countless other victims of racism should, and will bring institutional and legal reforms. But changing the law is not enough. Spillover effects must extend to myriad aspects of our lives. Since the 1980s, I’ve taken part in movements for human rights and racial equality, calling for justice and peace. To this day my wife occasionally teases me, saying, “Are justice and peace not here yet?” “Is the Korean Peninsula still not reunified?” It’s her way of saying that discussions and acknowledgments alone don’t change the world.
My wife was a social worker. She told me once, “If you think that by solely preaching from the pulpit you can make people come out of the darkness and live in the light, you are missing the point.” She explained how social workers would, literally and metaphorically, go and knock on the doors for people to come out; how they would go the distance to work one-on-one, a step at a time, assessing the particular needs and making resources available to bring about the necessary change.
Speaking and writing about racial justice, preparing worship for Racial Reconciliation Sunday, holding up signs and walking with the protesters – these are all feasible tasks within our own capacities. But we know that ‘feasible’ does not automatically translate into ‘tangible’ results. Living and embodying change has never been easy. Nonetheless living and communing, right where we are, with people from different racial ethnicities and cultures is still the most excellent way to go.
Rev. Tae-Hoo Lee is another person that crossed my mind this past week. He moved to that notorious Uber Street of North Philadelphia as an inner-city missionary in 2003 and has since been ministering and working with the local people, especially children. One time I visited their summer VBS along with some pastors from New York. Young volunteers were staging a skit and acting out the Bible stories. Then Jesus entered the scene: a Korean young man with his face covered in white, wearing an all-white robe. We immediately put on our thinking hats. ‘A White Jesus in a Black community. The efforts are good but there is clearly a lack of historical consciousness,’ we thought. But later it occurred to me that while the critical thinkers stood and watched from the sidelines, the people who actually shared meals with children and played with them in summer heat were church volunteers and students, whose primary interest was sharing the love of Jesus Christ. You could safely call them good-hearted, evangelical Korean Christians.
I was deeply moved by the beautiful flowers that Rev. Lee was growing – and how they were blooming – in front of the row houses on Uber Street. He wasn’t a visitor. He had become a resident and a local, and he was making the neighborhood a beautiful place with his neighbors.