One of my first memories of being a pastor was a visit I made to one of our home-bound members, Julie (not her real name). Julie had been a child of the church, had attended worship throughout her adulthood, sang in the choir for years and had been married there — but all of that was long past and now Julie, well over 400 pounds, was confined to her home because of her weight.
Julie was also on my “twice-a-month” visitation and communion list.
I still remember the first time I entered her home: the clutter was mesmerizing and the smell was overpowering, but the voice of the Holy Spirit rang clear, whispering in my ear,
Okay, Bruce, you are her pastor.
When I walked into her room, I was in shock. There was human feces on the ground, rotten food strewn about and lying in the middle of it all . . . was Julie. Immediately, I knew that my first call after this visit was going to be to adult protective services because clearly she and her husband were no longer able to care for themselves.
I stood in the doorway, my human senses were repulsed, while my pastoral heart ached.
Bruce, you are her pastor.
Trying to hide my shock, I sat down on chair next to her and started to chat. I was the new kid after all, so I didn’t want to launch into a “What you need to do…” diatribe right off. I was first going to build up our relationship.
So you’re the new pastor?
Yes, yes I am.
I hear you’re letting all the Chinamen come to church.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Now I knew this was not about me and not the place to get into a prolonged conversation on issues of race, but still . . . in my head I did one of those cartoon double-takes and looked around to see if anyone else heard the comment. I would try to redirect the conversation and many times I would find myself transported by Julie to the home of her childhood, her experience of San Francisco in the early 1930s and her time faithfully serving at her church.
Visit after visit, this was our dance. I would think to myself, “I have broken down the walls! We’ve moved on, hallelujah and amen!” and then she would slip in . . .
Are you still letting in all those Chinamen?
Yes, yes I am.
I would serve her communion and then I would leave.
Julie died during my time serving that church and, honestly, while I certainly grieve the end of any life, I was relieved that those visits would no longer have to be made and I would no longer have to engage in such pastoral care contortions.
As if . . .
Recently, during a worship service I was attending, someone came up to me and asked,
You’re Rodger Nishioka, right?
No, I’m not.
Today, someone at the one of the coffee shops where I “work,” in their best Asian accent,
You no rike riving here, you can rive somewhere else.
And apparently (h/t: Angry Asian Man) a person in the Seattle area burst into a dim sum restaurant, sprayed soy sauce over everyone while yelling,
Go back to China!
Yep. That happened.
You see, these kinds of race-based comments are always being made, some with malicious intent and others simply out of a lack of sensitivity. When I hear or see these kinds of things there are always choices to be made. Sometimes I just sit there while the theater in my head acts out a mighty ass-whooping that I then unleash upon the offender. Sometimes I do feel that it’s important enough to say something directly. Most times however, I just get up, direct a little stink-eye their way and walk away. Honestly, having to measure my response is just is exhausting. And when I do react, seems that somehow the burden of the fixing the conflict gets sent back my way,
Don’t be so sensitive.
Sheesh, I was just joking.
You’re so angry.
How can you let this stuff go?
There are no easy or right answers and we cannot pretend as if there are.
I will say — I find solace in the idea that life is a long road of communal and social ebbs and flows and, if I am going to be who I believe God calls me to be, I cannot give these words power over my life. This does not mean that I allow people to not be held accountable for their words or actions, only that my life must not be fueled by feelings of retribution, revenge or humiliation as these simply mirror back and reinforce patterns of communal brokenness. Instead, I must be driven by the conviction and belief that we, as a society and community can and must do better if we hope to see extended glimpses of the amazing beauty that is humanity.
Simply put, I refuse to give up on the idea that being community across lines of difference is holy and I remain committed to the idea that we will only get there if more if us embrace the transformational power of extending our spirit, hands and words of graciousness and not rhetorical or physical violence. Words or actions of graciousness are not weak or soft, in fact, they are powerful and strong and find a way to confront injustice without denying the humanity or stripping the dignity of the one who needs to be held accountable.
So no matter how often I am mistaken for that other Asian Presbyterian or told to go back to where I came from, or hear my ancestral language mocked, read racist blogs or feel unsafe, marginalized or excluded because of what I look like . . . I choose the power of graciousness. It may feel better to strike back hard, but that is a choice I must force myself NOT to make at every turn, every day.
A difficult choice for sure, but one I hope more of us make.