This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 9-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has the opportunity to publish their work at Bearings Online. Click here to read essays from past Emerging Writers Program cohorts.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, I began vocational ministry and became a third generation pastor. Although I’m not currently serving in a pastoral capacity at a church, I preach, teach, and care for people just as my father did and his father before him. Before I started, my parents laid their hands on my head in prayer, summoning, or perhaps generating, a courage I didn’t know I could have. They spoke words of perseverance and humility, of a holy burden and suffering, for the presence of God to journey with me always. “What an honor it is,” they said, “to have another member of the family toil in the harvest.”
In September 2020, I flew to New York, where my new church was, with a blazing heart. Each time I felt that entering ministry was a mistake or that it was an impossible task, I pulled their prayers tighter over myself and pushed through.
Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to our cry (Ps 17:1)
My father tells me that his ancestors prayed their way through the Korean War. “Imagine bombs and bullets falling like rain. What can you do but pray?” I considered the scene and the question and came to the same conclusion. My grandfather was a second generation Christian, an uncommon thing in early twentieth century Korea. Long before the war, before my ancestors crossed the 38th parallel and became refugees in the south, they were introduced to the listening, intervening God of Abraham. As an adult, my grandfather became a pastor and dedicated his life to a church in a small, impoverished town until the day he died.
Decades later, my parents, sister, and I crossed another border when we immigrated to the United States. With that, we became a Korean American family. Over time, the soft yet profound distinctions between being “Koreans in America” and being “Koreanamericans” settled into our lives. “Ye Eun” yielded to “Julie” as I underwent a nearly complete transformation and became a cultural stranger to my ancestors. Yet to this day, no prayer moves me more than ones uttered in my mother tongue.
When my parents were hired as pastors at a church in Los Angeles, California, we became a family in ministry. We prayed for our daily rice. We prayed as the church erupted in conflict, then as the church closed down. We prayed through bouts of unemployment.
If you try our hearts, if you visit us by night,
If you test us, you will find no wickedness in us;
our mouths do not transgress.
We have avoided the ways of the violent. (vv. 3-4)
One of the hardest lessons I learned in my youth was that my parents were, in their own words, mooneung hada, without power and competence. As immigrants, they lacked cultural, linguistic, and institutional knowledge. As individuals, they possessed a meekness that made them easy targets of offense, though they were rarely offenders. Perhaps this is why I am so protective of them. I grew up believing it was my responsibility to protect them. I’ve seen them ignored, mocked, and yelled at. Out in public, I often lead the way. I listen carefully when people talk to them, ready to jump in at any second. I double-check their texts, forms, and documents. I’ve checked us into every restaurant, flight, hotel, and hospital where Korean was not spoken. I remember brokering conversations about why I was a troubled student in parent-teacher conferences.
Children raised by immigrants often grow up with the tension of being adult-like even when they are just kids. Conversely, being an adult immigrant can be an infantilizing experience. Children often speak for their parents, take care of their affairs, and, many times, act as their own parents. We hope that other people will play nice with them. The reversal of roles is not a desirable phenomenon but one necessary for survival.
We call upon you, for you will answer, O God,
Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge
from their adversaries at your right hand. (vv. 6-7)
During the pandemic, there was a video floating through my networks of a young man chasing an elderly Asian woman. He had his phone in one hand, recording the scene, and in the other he had a bottle of Purell. “Come here! Sanitize your ass!” he shouted between laughs while squirting her with the hand sanitizer. She ran away, and he followed her. In another video, I saw a masked man sitting on a stairway outside of an apartment. A middle-aged Asian woman emerged from her home to take out her trash. From behind, the masked man poured acid over her back. The video ended just as her arms flailed in reaction.
I remember the elderly woman set on fire in Brooklyn.
The elderly man set on fire in Honolulu.
The Filipina pummeled on her way to church.
The man whose face was slashed across both cheeks.
I had seen blatantly hateful acts committed against Asian Americans all my life, but never so many, so fast, and so creative with their hatred.
With the influx of hate crimes against Asian Americans, particularly the elderly, my protective instincts kicked into high, almost frenetic gear. My parents’ jobs were considered essential, so “lockdown” had mostly social implications. While cases of assaults were piling up, my parents clocked into work dutifully.
In 2020, I crashed into the realization that I cannot protect my parents, especially not all the way from New York, and not when I was dodging my own adversaries. As I tumbled through my first year in ministry and through the racialized violence of 2020, I learned that I, too, am without power and competence. Nado mooneung hada. Despite my American tongue, I need the right hand of a savior myself. At first I prayed with contempt, frustrated by the lack of options and convinced that prayer was small. I wanted to retaliate in equal measure and fight back, but when I considered the fists, fires, and blades wielded against us, all I wanted was to be hidden.
It is true that the helpless pray. Yet it is more true that God listens because they are helpless. Weakness is a qualification for prayers of supplication. In the psalms, this weakness is what makes God listen. For what need do powerful, competent people have of God? In 2020, I learned how to pray like the weak, mooneunghan person that I am. When my efforts fail to produce a safe place for my family, I pray. Before my fury devours my hope, I pray. Knowing that future disasters are bound to scapegoat us again, I pray. Prayer is the language of the weak and helpless. It is the activism of the vulnerable by which they appeal to a powerful God who can and, they believe, will be strong in their place. Surviving war, living as immigrants, and being the scapegoats of a global pandemic is something only people made strong by God can do.
Guard us as the apple of your eye;
hide us in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who despoil us,
our deadly enemies who surround us. (vv. 8-9)