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Racism was already on your screen in college?
I think I was in high school or junior high when we had the riots in Detroit.
Detroit is infamous for the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. But I think you mean the Twelfth Street Riot in 1967? Time Magazine calls that four-plus day race-related event as “one of the deadliest and costliest riots in the history of the United States.” It still has an impact on Detroit today.
Yeah. I graduated from high school in ‘71.
My last couple years of high school, I knew I was a Christian, but I wasn’t in fellowship as a Christian [just yet]. Some of my best friends were into the left-wing radical movement. The Vietnam War was still active; it was ‘69, ‘70. And so, I got involved in some of their causes which were equal rights, really anti-establishment and anti-racism.
We all have a disposition towards different things, and I think for me, when I see or hear things that are unfair to people, it bothers me. Even if I wasn’t a Christian, that would have been a strong conviction: the idea that you got to treat people with respect, regardless of all the differences.
As a Christian pastor, how do you think about unequal treatment of peoples?
It’s a Kingdom principle. So regardless of generational differences, we all need to find a way to get on board and be concerned about the things God’s concerned about like racism.
When you hear about some racist thing that happens to somebody that’s non-Asian, we should be just as outraged and involved in addressing that. Don’t wait until it happens to an Asian, because to me that gets to a very secular mentality: “My people. I’m just concerned about my people.” No, I think God wants us to be concerned about all people and justice from a Kingdom mentality.
Given your 30 years of working with Asian American Christians, how do you think we’ve been doing about responding to justice issues overall?
Overall, in the bigger scheme of things, from what I’ve seen in the United States, it’s gotten a lot better. The awareness, the concern about racism, and a need for greater diversity: it’s much more on our radar. In terms of how Asian American Christians are responding to this whole problem of racism, I think it’s gotten better. Especially in the younger generation, we’re much more concerned about social justice issues. I think largely that’s thanks to many of the campus ministries, with InterVarsity taking a big lead. So when we talk about diversity, equality and all these kind of things, the younger generation are like, yeah!
The older generation is trying to catch up a little bit.
Before, a lot of Chinese churches would make excuses. Chinese culture excuses the tolerating of racism in the Church. You can’t tolerate it just because it’s part of our culture! Not to just pick on the Chinese, but a lot of different human ethnic groups have cultural things that are kind of racist.
Any thoughts on how Asian American Christians are responding to justice issues today?
Remember, we’re dealing with Kingdom principles. This is not just a social trend, or a hip thing to do. Some younger Christians need to be careful, because I think that’s the danger.
I think we also have to catch ourselves from drifting out of a Kingdom mentality into a kind of secular mentality about equality. I’ve talked to Asian Christian leaders, and some talk about standing up for Asian rights and stuff like that. Okay. But, maybe we also have some affinity to other discriminated minorities.
You’re currently the pastor of Chinese Community Church in Sacramento. The leadership, at least on the website, looks amazingly multiethnic for a Chinese church.
One of the highlights of this ministry in the last four or five years is our men’s Bible study group. It has grown now to 10, 15 guys. and the diversity is incredible. I mean, we didn’t go out and canvas, but through friendships and contacts with other Christian friends, every single Tuesday night—we meet Tuesday nights—even if we just have eight to ten guys, almost all four of the major ethnic groups are represented each time we are here. And there are plenty of nights where the non-Asian guys outnumber the Asian guys. I’m talking Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, with Asians together. And everybody says, “Man! That’s one of the highlights of our discussions and our sharing and our fellowship together.” Because when there is an issue, we get the whole perspective. It isn’t just a bunch of Asian guys talking about Ferguson. What do we know? But there’s this great sharing. That’s the real highlight!
So, six and a half years I’ve been here. The percentage of non-Asians has increased. Not dramatically, but it’s definitely moving that way.
You’re a Chinese church that doesn’t have services in Chinese.
And there are fewer and fewer people who even speak any Chinese!
It’s always a little frustrating; we still get calls from Chinese people who can only speak Chinese. I have to tell them, “I’m Pastor Louis Lee, and I don’t speak any Chinese.” One of the few Chinese phrases I know is,” 我唔識講廣東話,” which is Cantonese for “I don’t speak (Cantonese) Chinese.” And then they keep talking in Chinese! (laughs) “Isn’t this the Chinese Community Church?” [they say?] “Yeah, yeah, it is.”
Louis Lee’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
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