‘We will survive and we will do so much more than that’

AAPI voices speak of joy and hate during Week of Action programs

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Joann Haejong Lee is associate pastor for Community Formation at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — After a tragic and deadly series of months in which Asian American and Pacific Islander people were targeted by racists and misguided politicians, the Rev. Joann Haejong Lee gazed into the Zoom screen Friday and made a bold declaration during the Presbyterian Week of Action.

“In the midst of AAPI hate and violence, in the midst of racism and scapegoating, in the midst of divisiveness and white supremacy, our joy laughs in the face of all that seeks to diminish or oppress us,” said Lee, Associate Pastor for Community Formation at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco.

“We will survive and we will do so much more than that,” she added a short time later. “We will choose love. We will choose beauty. We will choose joy and we will not be stopped. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

Lee’s sermon, which also lifted up the value of rest, food, family and solidarity, came near the end of a day chockful of programs focused on issues of keen interest to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

valerie izumi of the Office of General Assembly helped to organize last Friday as a day of AAPI Resilience, Resistance, Power and Affirmation. (Contributed photo)

“What a full and rich day it has been,” said valerie izumi, a member of the day’s planning team who, along with Lee and others, participated in the final program “AAPI Love, Beauty, Joy & Affirmation: An Antidote to AAPI Hate.”

The day highlighted a number of issues, such as anti-Asian racism in U.S. foreign policy, the need to formally end the Korean War and establish a peace agreement, anti-racism, the model minority myth, solidarity with others, and the shortcomings of the AAPI moniker.

Instead of lumping the communities together as the term AAPI does, “it is important for us to have our own spaces and our own voices,” said Lina Thompson, a Pacific Islander of Samoan heritage who took part in the panel “Beyond the Monolith,” an inter-AAPI discussion.

The “Beyond the Monolith” panel addressed topics such as the model minority myth and how the term “AAPI” falls short. (Screenshot)

As it stands, “our stories get lost, our people get lost,” said Thompson, who lives in the Seattle area, where there are many “Pasifika” people. “We’re not at all the tables that we need to be at to be represented at whatever tables — health, education, civic kinds of places — and so in that regard the term (AAPI) is problematic for me personally, and I think for our people, especially for our young folks to be able to have a place to see themselves and be valued for who we are and what we bring.”

Other realities for AAPI people include being stereotyped as well-behaved high achievers or the opposite — perilous or dangerous — and being harassed and called names, according to various speakers throughout the day.

Lee, a child of first-generation Korean immigrants, recounted how her parents were belittled for being different. She described being puzzled about why her parents had left behind semi-professional jobs and a clear understanding of their culture to establish themselves in such a difficult place.

“As I witnessed them struggle with life in these United States, as I saw them do backbreaking labor, working in dry cleaners in the hot and humid Houston heat, as I saw racism directed at them and scorn for their accented English, I wondered quite a lot, why are you here? … Why would we come to a place where people don’t respect us.”

But Lee’s parents were ultimately just trying to survive, she said, recalling how they grappled with the day-to-day challenge of trying to decide which bills to pay immediately and which ones would have to wait.

Such struggles make it difficult to fight against racist systems and structures in this country, she noted, bringing to at least one viewer’s mind the theme of the Week of Action: “Shades of Oppression, Resistance and Liberation.”

“It’s really hard to put up a resistance against oppression because you’re just trying to put up a resistance against the bill collectors, hunger, homelessness and hate crimes,” she said. “It’s really hard to notice and create beauty because ‘Stop and smell the roses?’ Who has time for that?”

Using a story about Elijah from 1 Kings, she discussed the key ingredients for being able to live an abundant life: help, a plan and hope.

“The help we need is God’s help — sure — but also human help, actual people to pitch in and work alongside us,” she said. “To build coalitions with people of color, we must seek out friends and allies who know more or just have some energy. We have to stop pretending that we can do this on our own because that’s what white supremacy wants — for us to be so darned focused on our own survival that we cannot see that we were created for so much more. We were created to thrive.”

In Racism/Antiracism 301, plenary speaker Dr. Jonathan Tran also spoke about solidarity with other people but acknowledged the complexities and difficulties of achieving it.

Dr. Jonathan Tran, a Baylor University scholar, discussed racism and antiracism during the Week of Action. (Photo courtesy of Baylor University)

“We often trade in forms of solidarity that are weak” and deal with “Pollyanna conceptions of community” and of ourselves, said Tran, Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology and George W. Baines Chair of Religion at Baylor University. “Oftentimes, our forms of solidarity are just extended modes of self-deception — dishonesty with ourselves and those we live with.”

In a similar vein, he said, “We can talk about racism and anti-racism all we want as a structural system out there. But at the end of the day, it is something we participate in daily, hourly, that I am advantaged from and privileged by it. … How do we begin to step into a space, not only with myself, with one another and with the ‘other,’ that helps me come to the truth of myself? How do we begin to do that?”

The Week of Action concluded Sunday, but you can find many of the videos at www.facebook.com/pcusa. Additional resources can be found at http://www.pcusa.org/weekofaction, including AAPI calls to action.

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