When my son was in preschool, his teacher said that she thinks my son would make a good lawyer one day because he is so concerned about justice. When I asked her what she meant, she explained that he is very diligent about making sure things are fair especially when it involves him. Now she wasn’t being mean, she was just making an observation. Now that my son is almost seven, it has been a joy to watch him grow into a caring and empathetic boy. But isn’t it true that often times our involvement in justice issues is personal – as it should be. It has to be. It should and does involve everything of who we are.
In Cynthia Holder Rich’s article, she describes two scenarios where people who are committed to justice are committed only in “the forms and arenas of justice that they define, choose, or to which they feel called to engage. And then – there are the kinds of justice that they choose not to engage.” This can be dangerous because every bit of who we are colors our lens of what justice means. Justice – no matter what kind – can have a tunnel vision effect or a linear effect. Careful attention and awareness is needed in how the justice we seek intersects and affects other justice-seeking mediums. How one approaches GLBTQ issues in a white society is different than in a Korean one. Age can be a huge determining factor in how one addresses women or racial justice. The dangers when seeking justice is when we cling to our status as victim and lose sight of how our behavior affects others; we are not aware of our status of power and how even simply our presence can change the dynamics of conversation and decision-making; or we fail to recognize how complex and vulnerable an issue can truly be and therefore dilute the impact of what needs to take place for effective justice to happen.
Our involvement with justice always starts with who we are, who we claim to be, and who we are labeled to be. I AM A . . .
YOUNG-ISH (I add the “-ish” because in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA), I am considerably young according to the national average age of Presbyterians, but according to what is defined as young in PCUSA, I have two more years before I no longer receive any more invitations to young adult events.)
RACIAL ETHNIC (KOREAN to be specific. 2ND GENERATION KOREAN-AMERICAN to be even more specific.)
Given who I am, I describe two scenarios. Both are real, recent, and have experienced either directly or indirectly.
At the 219th General Assembly of PCUSA, an overture to form another Korean-language presbytery had overwhelmingly passed in committee and was being presented on the floor for final plenary vote. Usually, when something overwhelmingly passes in committee it’s almost a given that it will pass on the floor as well. However, two of my 2nd generation Korean-American clergywomen colleagues and I spoke against the overture on the floor and to our surprise, the vote turned and the motion was defeated.
Korean-language presbyteries were originally formed because Korean churches and pastors felt that they needed space to speak not only their own language, but also do effective ministry and mission. In a denomination that is predominately “white,” this seemed reasonable at the time and slowly more and more language presbyteries were formed. However, two main issues we highlighted were that in Korean-language presbyteries, women were not given sufficient opportunity for ordination and finding a call. Also, 2nd generation Korean-American clergy who didn’t speak the language were not able to participate fully on committee or at presbytery meetings. In our eyes, creating more language presbyteries without addressing these concerns, would further make it difficult for the above issues to be addressed.
At a conference held specifically for women of color, concern was expressed regarding the presence of “white” women who were serving in some type of leadership role, not to mention the main keynoter was a man. Some felt uncomfortable, inappropriate, or unnecessary with having those that represent a dominant group to be placed in roles of leadership. Also, there were incidents where in moments of conversation, “white” women who were to be listeners and facilitators, tended to dominate the conversation and steer the focus of conversation away from issues that concerned women of color. This stirred much debate and discussion, which in turn stirred more public displays of disagreement from both sides. At different times in the conference, younger women of color would privately and publicly address their concerns to the leadership and the wider body. But the leadership either made no changes or scolded the young women of color that their behavior in how they addressed their concerns was inappropriate and disrespectful.
Past General Assemblies have approved and recommended that funding be set aside to provide conferences for women of color in order that they have safe spaces to share their experiences in vulnerable, empowering, and authentic ways. Although that was the main intention of this conference, the focus was diverted to caring for those that represent the dominant group and women of color turning on each other. Also, lines were drawn not only by age, but by race. The younger women of color who spoke out were mostly Asian-American, while the older women of color in leadership were African-American.
At the heart of these two scenarios is the question, “Who has the power?” Ultimately, justice has to do with power. Who has it and how it’s used. And this question can only be answered when one understands who they are and in what context they are in.
So given who I am labeled to be, let’s unpack these two scenarios and attempt to answer the question of who holds the power.
Unpacking Scenario 1:
For 20 years, the Korean-American Presbyterian Clergywomen group has been advocating for ordination of women. In the Korean church, women struggle years to find a call and be ordained where there are cultural and religious reasons used to not ordain women or place younger adults in roles of leadership. In a culture that doesn’t necessarily value the voices of younger women, speaking out on the General Assembly floor seemed like the only option we had to speak and be heard. We had no expectations that the vote would turn. When the overture didn’t pass, the feeling of being heard was overwhelming. One could say that after years of having no power to speak, victory was ours. But in this situation, the issue of power is quite complicated. As 2nd generation Korean-Americans, we were knowledgeable not only in speaking the English language, but also working the Presbyterian system of Robert’s Rules of Order. Our ability to work within the system and speak out was at the expense of our parent’s generation who didn’t speak the language well and wasn’t prepared to defend their argument. In a sea of mostly “white” Presbyterians, we took the risk of airing the “dirty laundry” of our people and therefore hurting and humiliating our very own people. Here are two groups who struggle with inclusion and being heard; who struggle with finding acceptance and safe space to live out one’s call in a denomination that functions according to Western standards and values decency and order above all else.
Unpacking Scenario 2:
For decades, women of color have been paving the way for equality and inclusion in the PCUSA. Huge strides were taken to educate women of color in the ordination process that they wouldn’t normally receive in their presbytery due to racial discrimination. It is due to their hard work that times have changed and more younger women of color are being called into the ministry. But because times have changed, there is a divide between those that have gone before us and those that have certainly benefitted from the hard work of our predecessors. Although the lack of success of this conference could be placed on the behavior of the “white” women present, what was equally disturbing was the lack of support and even acts of scolding from the older generation of women of color who were on the planning team, who silenced the younger women of color instead of empowering them to speak and be heard. What should have been a conference of empowerment turned into a conference where women of color turned on each other instead of uniting and supporting one another. The issue of power in this situation is also complicated as the planning team in many ways may have been set up to fail given the lack of support, direction, and resources (although approved and mandated by previous General Assemblies) to hold a successful conference for women of color.
Understanding where the power lies is vital to addressing justice when age, race, and culture intersect. Context is also important to understanding one’s role of power in addressing justice in a particular situation. Who is being silenced? Who is empowered? Although power shifts in both of these scenarios, ultimately systemic power is at the heart. How does PCUSA value, honor, empower, foster, inhibit and address justice issues. If they value voices of women, people of color, and young adults, how does the system make room for those voices to be heard?