Leadership and Apologies and the Open Letter to the Evangelical Church

I don’t use the word “retard” or “retarded” anymore when I refer to myself after I mess up.

I have two author friends, Amy Julia Becker, author of “A Good and Perfect Gift” and Gillian Marchenko, author of “Sunshine Down.” They both have daughters who have Down Syndrome. Knowing a bit of their story and their heart, I understand with a new awareness why flippantly tossing that word around is hurtful. This is true even when my intention has been to make fun of myself and not directed at another to harm or insult. In the past I have used the word, but now that I have faces and a connection with my friends, I have woven the understanding into my daily life and word choices.

I don’t put my hand up to my head and form a pretend gun and act like I pull the trigger when I feel frustrated with someone, or try to be funny and use that motion with “you’re killing me” when something ridiculous happens.

I had a friend and former student who took her life in this manner. I am personally aware how this action, even when done in jest, can be hurtful.

I have several African American brothers in the faith. Men I admire and respect. Men of impeccable character who are adoring husbands and dads. I have heard them share stories of how they, or their sons, have been pulled over by the police and mistreated. How, when they walk down the street, women move their purses to the other arm when they walk past. My friendships with these men have opened my eyes and my awareness to the reality of the injustice they experience on a regular basis.

Over time my circle of relationships has grown. Life experiences and challenges have introduced me to new worlds across different landscapes: ethnic, socio-economic, religious, cultural, life-stage, lifestyle, to name a few. I’ve watched courageous women and men navigate parenting kids with special needs, walk through divorce and being a single parent or trying to build trust in a blended family. I’ve seen first hand the heartache of infertility, the joys and challenges of adoption, prodigal kids, broken engagements, addiction, chronic pain, depression, job loss. As my awareness has grown, so has my appreciation for people who walk a path different from my own.

Relationships grow awareness.

Awareness brings about change in attitude and action.

As an Asian American woman, I have experienced first hand both blatant and unintentional racism. Everything from being teased on the playground as a kid to more recently when a well-intentioned missionary spoke slowly, in broken English, and asked me, “You China?” To which I answered in perfect English, “Well, actually, I was born in Wisconsin.” She still went on to ask, in slow, broken English, “You Mommy, Daddy China?”

Two women I deeply respect, Helen Lee and Kathy Khang, wrote an “Open Letter to the Evangelical Church” earlier this week and a group of 80 Asian American leaders issued a call for dialogue and building bridges after multiple cultural misses from influential leaders in the church. You can read more about the situation here in this article by Christianity Today. Nearly 800 have signed in support of the letter. I have added my name as well with the hope that this important conversation will continue; where relationships will deepen and grow awareness, and awareness will bring about change in attitude and action.

I don’t in any way question the intention of any of the men involved in the offensive depictions. Intention is rarely the issue. I think the issue being brought forth is a call and the need for continued conversation. Good leadership is willing to graciously address hard issues, and good leadership graciously receives and responds to feedback, and when needed offers apologies.

Darrin and I, just a couple of weeks back, had a friend and co-worker who asked to talk with us. We didn’t know what it was in regards to, but we held this friend in high esteem and looked forward to connecting. It was brought to our attention how our inactions brought about hurt, frustration, disappointment and a blocked goal of completing what this co-worker had been tasked to accomplish. Our friend was gracious and kind. We were genuinely sad and sorry for what we did (or in this case didn’t do). All of us believed the best. Darrin and I didn’t try to excuse our actions or get defensive. Once we understood how what we did affected our friend, we were able to see from their perspective and apologize from a place of identification and understanding. We were grateful that our friend cared enough to express to us our miss. We wouldn’t have known otherwise. The beauty of reconciliation is that now the air is clear. No hard feelings. Our relationship has been restored and even deepened as friends and co-workers.

All of us make mistakes. Leaders make mistakes. Sometimes intentionally, most of the time unintentionally. All of us have much to learn from one another. All of us can take away a new level of awareness through what we walk through and experience.

I welcome your thoughts.


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12 thoughts on “Leadership and Apologies and the Open Letter to the Evangelical Church

  1. Hi Vivian, great post…thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I was actually going to email you earlier this week re: the open letter but didn’t have time. Maybe it will be more helpful for everyone to correspond in public. I’m certainly open to suggestions

    I was going to write and ask some advice on a ministry blog I wanted to launch. You were the only one I could think of to reach out to because I don’t know many other Asians personally that live within the line cross-cultural overlap.

    I was worried the name was offensive: I’m calling it KungFuPastor, a play on the fact that 1. I’m Asian 2. I pastor a pan-Asian church. It’s memorable, light-hearted, and a reflection of that part of my personality.

    I was concerned though that 1. most of my readership is non-Asian and might perpetuate the very things the open letter talks about and 2. it might offend Asians if that is the result. Now honestly, about 50 people are going to read my blog, but you get the point =). The things I wrestle with:

    1. having worked primarily in non-Asian ministry settings, I’ve also experienced blatant and unintentional racism. I’ve often wondered if I’m too easily offended. The flip side: maybe Asians just are so distinct and our cultural features so prominent (outside of just physical, of course) that it should be something embraced and celebrated. Maybe putting up a blog that features me and my non-Asian friends as contributors would be a better way to facilitate cross-cultural interaction. And maybe (though this isn’t the intent) it’s not bad for the non-Asians to play on the Asian guys’ field. (Is it even a good thing to differentiate these two sectors?)

    2. I don’t want to broadbrush Asians. Every confidant I told about the name thought it was great, Asians included. The one and only rejoinder was: but you’re Korean! My predominantly Chinese congregation thought it was great and I should go for it =) Maybe I’m putting the cart in front of the horse on this point and should be glad if any Asian representation is lauded, and worry about splitting cultural hairs later?

    3. This is really me. I don’t much delve into the race issue though I certainly wouldn’t avoid it. But for most of my ministry years I’ve been in non-Asian contexts. I’m very comfortable there, and very comfortable in Asian dominated contexts. I’m not starting the blog to necessarily raise awareness on cultural issues though I think it will be a by-product. This is coming from a guy, while not quite raised in Wisconsin (wow!), has had his fair share of time logged in places like central Connecticut, rural areas of New York state, Pennsylvania, and other places not necessarily considered multi-ethnic hubs.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are we trying to hard not to offend at the expense of downplaying often obvious cultural differences? I do understand the nature of the letter and your blog is to get away from the hurtful and insensitive stuff. I’m wondering if you think my blog idea would be in that category.

    And of course the big picture question would be: how do we get past merely “not offending” and get to a point of honorably celebrating the differences we all bring to the table?

    Sorry for the long message. Hope you are doing so so so well!!

    • Mike,

      So great to hear from you. Appreciate you articulating your thoughts here. I will try and take a stab at giving my personal opinion and welcome continued dialog.

      Knowing your heart and seeing your gift set (teaching, worship, writing, leadership, now marketing, consulting, etc), I believe the Lord will continue to increase your borders and the people you influence and lead. You are a bridge person as you are able to move between two worlds (eastern/western). That said, I do think many Asians would find the name of your blog off-putting as it plays into racial stereotypes. If you actually are formally trained in Kung Fu then it would be different. Those that know you and your personality understand where you are coming from, but anyone surfing the net who comes across your blog will not. I imagine your readership will grow quickly from 50 to 500 to way beyond.

      Some random thoughts in no particular order:
      1. I wouldn’t want the name of your blog to be a barrier to keep people from reading your material.
      2. You are naturally in a position to affect change. As the number of ethnic minorities grows in this country so will the need to raise up bridge leaders like you to help navigate the tensions that come with cultural differences. This plays directly into your last big picture question about moving past offending to honorably celebrating the differences. God will use ALL of you: your gifts, experiences, gender and Korean-Americanness. I can picture God using you to help inform and raise awareness for both parties, Asian and non-Asian.
      3. If your hope is to keep the ministry blog more “in house” with people who know you and know where you’re coming from, then keep the name. You describe it as “really me.” I don’t question your heart or humor. If your hope is to expand your influence through the internet world by gaining readership across the country, I would recommend a name change.
      4. I love the idea of having your non-Asian friends contributing material. Most Asians will pick up on the non-Asian playing on the Asian guys’ field and I think it is important to model how it looks to have shared power, and Asians in leadership.

      I ran out of half and half so I’m sans caffeine this morning. Hope something I wrote makes sense. :)

      Cheering you on from the west coast!!!

      • Hi Vivian, thanks so much for taking the time to response. Yeah, I really am torn. The last thing I want to do is to put people off, esp. fellow Asians. *sigh*

        I’ve wrestled with the name for over a year; bought the domain last summer. Finally a friend said, “Just go find out. You don’t have to do the blog forever.” I’m planning to do six months and see how it runs. Maybe it will turn out well, maybe it will crash and burn and offend lots of people. Not knowing is quite terrifying.

        I really appreciate the personal encouragement, especially from someone that understands the blogosphere and cross-cultural ministry. Thanks for the long-term perspective on cross-cultural leadership & equipping; I totally agree the need is already present and will need to rise.

        Looking forward to being a part of the solution. I definitely invite you to tell me if I’m doing anything out of line! I respect your opinions greatly.

        • I think your friend is right. You don’t have to do the blog forever. I doubt it will offend a lot of people once they get to know your heart through your writing. Hopefully your name is common enough that in the event it does crash and burn (which I hope won’t be the case), you can walk away and return without residual damage–we will all just call you Pastor Michael, or Mikey, or Mitch or something. :)
          But in all seriousness, I do believe God will use you to be part of the solution. Your willingness to learn, ask for feedback and take risks are all excellent qualities in a leader. Would love to hear how things go in the next six months as you give it a go.

  2. Viv, this is powerful. As a white middle class male in a mixed heritage family and working at a job with many people from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds, I consciously struggle to gain the right perspective and understanding. Thank you for your call to keep up that struggle for the sake of the people God puts in our lives, and those we think are beyond our reach but are still affected by what we do individually and as a society.


  3. I really love this.
    I live in a monochromatic town (that I know you know and love, Vivian) I think that ignorance brings about a whole host of ills. I know I’m embarrassed by some of the assumptions and attitudes I had growing up. By the Asian Americans Christians United posting this letter they are drawing light to the matter and educating people (such as myself). I found the letter so respectful and so honest – a letter written with the intention of creating reconciliation within the Church while being honest. If people are able to read this with an open heart, the Church will be stronger. Beautiful.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Karyn. Reading your words encourages me deeply. I do think having open hearts and willingness to learn from one another and really hear from different people’s experiences enriches all parties involved. Appreciate you taking time to comment. And yes. I do know and love y(our) town forever. :)

  4. Hey Viv :) I always enjoy keeping up with your blog and the Lord has used your words of empowerment and encouragement across cultures to continue to spur me on as a young-Asian-American-female minister of reconciliation (that’s one hyphenated identity haha). But in all seriousness, I praise the Lord for your heart of humility and openness to bring about conversations that will result in the gospel and the Kingdom being forwarded. Love you and you rock! 😀

    • Oh Christina! I love every one of those hyphenated words describing you. :) Thanks so much for reading and taking time to comment. Excited for the important role you will play in the coming years in this very arena. The Lord is raising up a new generation of Asian American leaders to take us into the next chapter of our story. So grateful to run with you. :) Love you and I think YOU rock!

    • Appreciate you, Karen, and your encouragement! Look forward to continued conversation with you about all things relating to this crazy walk of faith! :)

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