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A hope for more empathy

Journalism can topple barriers to empathy

A hope for more empathy


Two years ago, I asked a black pastor from Harlem what I can do as a Christian journalist to better report on racial issues for WORLD. At the time, as I am now, I felt frustrated at the divisions within the American church over racial injustice, systematic racism, or even the basic concepts of “racism” and “race.” 

The pastor asked me about WORLD Magazine’s readership. I said most of our readers, from what I know, are white conservatives. He sighed and told me, as gently as he could, that most of these readers would never change their minds, and it may not be worth my time trying to pry their eyes open to another perspective. He encouraged me to write for a different publication. 

Although the response I got from the Harlem pastor was discouraging at first, I decided to continue reporting and writing for WORLD. I didn’t want to leave a publication and staff I respect, whatever our flaws, for another publication in which I’ll feel more comfortable and shout mutually affirming words into an echo chamber. But I have to admit at times I’ve felt incredibly frustrated and discouraged. I also have to confess those times when self-righteousness, self-defensiveness, and pride let loose a lot of unedifying thoughts in my mind and heart. So many times I’ve wrestled against that sinful nature mostly alone, crying out to God for the humility, wisdom, and patience I don’t naturally have. I still fail multiple times, but I’m battling against my sinful self by the fresh mercy and grace of God.

For a long time, WORLD has upheld a colorblind mentality toward race, but that might also have unintentionally contributed to a lack of diversity in our staff and readership. As one of just four non-white reporters on a staff with 13 full-time reporters, I know my experience as a Korean immigrant makes it impossible for me to be colorblind. I might have been colorblind while living in Singapore as part of the Asian majority, but not here as a minority in America. I’m not complaining about it: My background gives me a unique perspective. It’s not better than anyone else’s, just different. We all need different perspectives to sharpen our discernment and widen our understanding of multi-colored humanity. 

But the Harlem pastor was also right: I can’t change people’s minds. I’m a journalist, not an activist, and who’s to say my opinions are always right? Who’s to say I know the answers to the world’s most tumultuous and complicated problems? 

Over time, I have changed my goal from trying to change people’s minds (only the Holy Spirit can do so) to trying to break down the barriers to empathy for someone with a completely different experience. That someone might be the alcoholic homeless man on the streets with no social support or hope to lift himself out of addiction and poverty. It might be that Honduran single mother who wept as she sent her child by himself across the U.S.-Mexico border, hoping he can find safety and refuge even if she cannot. It might be the second-generation Asian-American struggling with her “neither here nor there” split identity and culture. Or it might be the black woman who mourns the untimely, unjust death of yet another black man, thinking of her own black father, brother, or son who trembles every time he encounters a police officer. 

This year is the first time I’ve seen so many non-black evangelical pastors, leaders, and friends speak out against racial injustice and call for a collective lament. 

And I’ve seen empathy work. This year is the first time I’ve seen so many non-black evangelical pastors, leaders, and friends speak out against racial injustice and call for a collective lament. I’ve seen some people express suspicion: Where was this outpouring of evangelical support for the black community in 2012 with Trayvon Martin? In 2014 with Michael Brown and Eric Garner? In 2016 with Philando Castile?

But personally, I feel hope. Many white evangelicals say they started becoming more aware of historic and present racial injustices through deep relationships with their black brothers and sisters in Christ. Their eyes opened not because someone wagged a finger in their faces calling them racists, but because when someone they love hurts, they hurt too. That’s the beauty of being part of the body of Christ—when the toe hurts, we all feel it and cry out in unison.  

Does empathy solve injustice? No. Nor does journalism. That’s why the more journalists I see take an activist stance—shutting out opposing voices and championing groupthink—the more I fear for my industry: When the media gets to choose who deserves a voice or empathy, and decides what is “fact” when sometimes the facts aren’t all that clear, then they’re only reporting one side of the prism of Truth. Most issues are complex, nuanced, and multi-faceted. If there’s one reason so many people don’t trust the media anymore, I suspect it’s not because the media delivers fake news per se, but incomplete news. When people see that their own perspectives and experiences are not represented accurately or even represented at all, why would they trust us, the media? 

So I’m still reporting and writing for WORLD, not because I hope I’ll change minds that don’t align with mine. But I do hope that we who share the spirit of truth and love also share the ability to empathize with others, and the same desire to love and honor them well as we love and honor God. As of now, that hope is still greater than any discouragement or frustration I may feel. 


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  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 07:56 am

    Excellent points but a question about this statement "Many white evangelicals say they started becoming more aware of historic and present racial injustices through deep relationships with their black brothers and sisters in Christ." 

    How does that truly effect change if the Harlem pastor still holds his view? "most of these readers would never change their minds, and it may not be worth my time trying to pry their eyes open to another perspective. He encouraged me to write for a different publication."

    Doesn't true change also require a concilatory reception? Isn't a sweeping response to this tragic event also indicative of "old perceptions?"

    WE must TOGETHER overcome racism. If BLM fails, will it have failed because it wasn't enough or because they weren't willing to work TOGETHER?

  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 01:27 am

    It would help if you and the pastor would elaborate on what he meant by  "most of these readers would never change their minds, and it may not be worth my time trying to pry their eyes open to another perspective. "  It sounds like to me he is prejudging many people he doesn't even know.  Why don't you try us, we might surprise you.

  • BS
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 05:38 am

    As a white, life-long "evangelical" American, I'm ashamed and heartbroken by our legacy of apathy regarding injustice towards black and minority people in our country. Of course, I say apathy, but that's at best. There are too many examples to ignore of people claiming to be Christians, while promoting or defending racist ideas and policies (including slavery), even though the very idea of "races" is an unbiblical pseudoscience created by people trying to institutionalize white superiority.

    The Harlem pastor is painting with too broad a brush to say that all "white evangelicals" are unable to change their views on race--especially since "evangelical" has apparently become so broad a term as to be meaningless. That said, it is to our shame that that another Christian even thinks it's true, let alone that it actually is in many cases.

    Sophia, I for one am so glad you decided to stick it out at WORLD. I am consistently impressed by the quality and nuance of both your reporting and your op-eds, and always look forward to reading your new pieces. Recently, I particularly appreciated "A broken system" and "Losing a friend". Your work is making a difference, and this magazine is better for having your writing in it. Thank you, and God bless.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 07:55 am

    Let's be very clear here - a Christian wouldn't and couldn't be a racist. If a "Christian" acts like a racist then he is not a Christian - period. If you find yourself with racist thoughts then you should immediately examine your faith and repent.

    The human mind makes all situations into analogies - that's how we deal with a new situation by contrasting it with a previous. The dictionary defines prejudice as "a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience." We all have built-in assumptions about things which may or may not be true and these need to be continually recognized and challenged but to give a prejuduce even a foothold is totally wrong.

    Neither is the person a Christian who calls or assumes a fellow human being a racist without a shred of evidence to base this on. Making this assumption would fit in perfectly with the definition of prejudice that I just gave. Making the claim that "all ----- people are racists" fits perfectly with the definition of prejudice.

    I am required to give the benefit of the doubt and when wronged forgive when asked - I'm not sure how else to apply 70 times 7. And therefore so much for the Harlem "pastor"

    Today's issues seem to speak to an underlying problem - we don't understand what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps all of this would be clearer if we spent more time as Christans studying scripture and that our knowledge was more than just singing emotion driven worship music.

  • Johnny T's picture
    Johnny T
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 02:21 pm

    Sophia, your writing is impecable, your word choice most communicative.  Stay the course my dear.  World Magazine needs you for all of those reasons you've stated in this article on race.  As a white evangelical and very nondenominational I try to look at the differences in people as those who have heard the Gospel and responsed in faith, and those perhaps who have never heard, who wander and are blind to the issues of life and of course Truth.  Can you see how important revival becomes?  Oh, how we all need Christ, His fresh Spirit, and His compassion.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 03:16 pm

    I'll add my voice to those who don't find the perspective of the Harlem pastor you quote very helpful. You will never change everyone's mind, no matter where you write. If you write from a position of prayer and deep devotion, you will change some minds for the better. I trust you do that daily, and I see evidence in your writing that you do.

    One of just four non-white writers on a full-time staff of 13? That comes pretty close to mirroring the demographic of the nation. Why do you feel ill at ease with this? That's an honest question, not a barb.

    Trayvon Martin? Outside of George Zimmerman, nobody knows quite what happened there. We know the result; we don't know what led up to the result. There's too much speculation involved to build a case for outrage there that will stick. And Zimmerman was not a police officer. Michael Brown? There may have been some issues with the police department in general, but the specifics of that case don't look good for Brown. I'm at a loss to explain why this one keeps coming up as an example of policing gone bad. It was not, "Hands up, don't shoot." Any attempt to portray it that way is a lie designed to generate outrage and not a prescription for healing. Eric Garner? Looks bad for the police in question. I have no other way to categorize it. Philando Castile? Looks bad for the policeman, but ultimately there's a window to believe he could have been reacting to something nobody else saw. I'm not comfortable with the Castile case, but I also understand policing has a lot of decisions that have to be made very quickly and without benefit of deliberation. The end result is awful, yes. But, I don't think it necessarily falls under the category of police brutality against blacks. Maybe it does, but maybe it doesn't as well.

    So, what do we have? We have a mixed bag. Should police do better? Yes. Should people do better? Yes, that too. Empathy? Yes, we should have that! But sometimes empathy needs to flow two directions. There are a whole lot of people in this country assuming the worst about several cases, sometimes on bad information, sometimes on no information, and sometimes on partial information. Where is the justice in that?

    By and large, it is journalists who have stoked the flames of the assuming of the worst. How many examples can you point to of journalists asking us to withhold judgment where we do not know? When will journalists lead out in the direction of healing as they do now in the direction of outrage?

    I don't want to see or hear of another black person killed by police. I also don't want to hear of another black person being killed, period. By and large, I believe black people do live under a level of suspicion from police--and from the rest of us--that others don't. And that is wrong. There are things that need to be fixed, but the fall impacts us all. If we argue in such a way that implies some people are more exempt from the fall than others, we are bound to reach bad conclusions. We will make no problem better.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 05:19 pm

    “By and large, I believe black people do live under a level of suspicion from police--and from the rest of us--that others don't. And that is wrong.”

    Young black men are committing a much higher percentage of crime compared to other races. Police are being shot in the head, run over with cars, and regularly attacked by young black men. They have to be more careful and there is nothing wrong with it. Black police officers do the same thing so this has nothing to do with “systemic racism” which is the biggest lie our education system and media feed us!

  • AlanE
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 06:01 pm

    So, are you suggesting it's okay for police to pull a car over, one that has committed no violation, because the driver is black? That is the repeated experience of US Senator Tim Scott. It's okay to treat blacks as a lesser class because there are troublemakers among their number?

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 07:07 pm

    Would you say it is wrong to pull over a white man if a crime just occurred where a store was robbed by a white man in a black neighborhood?  Should I get all bent out of shape about it if I was the white guy getting pulled over? No! 

    To answer your question, there are often other factors that weigh in the decision, such as car make, time of day, location, manner of driving, etc.  For example, My brother and I were driving in Colorado on a certain highwa where shipments of drugs were hauled in rental trucks. We were pulled over and checked out because we were in a rental truck.

    Another time I was with a couple East Indians with dark skin in a car headed to New York. Our car was older and we all fit the profile of drug dealers moving drugs into New York. We were pulled over twice by police within a half hour. Did we feel bad about it? No we realized the police were just trying to stop the flow of drugs into New York. I wasn’t a lesser class citizen for being pulled over!

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 06:33 pm

    Sofia, are you saying World Magazine should have hiring quotas? What kind of PC nonsense is this? Here I mean to chide you but only in a gentle way.  I never started reading your articles because you were Korean but because you are a person with interesting writing who communicated ideas in an interesting way, in the process communicating your story and perspective.  I have advocated World Magazine to give an International flavor by hiring reporters from around the world- which would include many races, which they have done.  I read their articles wanting to know more about them, their lives, their culture and the international politics which impacts them.  

    I don't buy this notion that there is systemic racism in the police departments or in our country.  If you look at the evidence it just isn't there, though the race pedaling crowd try to push the dogma.  Even in our churches the differences are often cultural, where the "races" feel more comfortable with their people and worshiping styles.  I am all for interracial congregations but I've realized just how hard it is to achieve. People with common similarities like to hang together. 
    I don't think manufacturing false self guilt and confessing that leads to interracial healing. It seems Christians feel they have to do something like this to be Christian, but God would never condone this behavior.  
    These Christian race baiters are every bit the problem as the liberal ones, and they probably are one in the same. I don't agree that "racism" is the greatest problem of our country. I think the manipulation of guilt and the use of PC thinking are greater concerns. This is not to say that there isn't cases of racism in the church or larger society but they are not the norm.  Where they exist we need to resist and push them out of our churches and society.

  • FibrSpinr
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 06:41 pm

    "trying to break down the barriers to empathy for someone with a completely different experience." Thanks for doing this. It's why I seek your articles, Sophia, in each edition. From an old gray-haired white lady.


  • NBrooks
    Posted: Sat, 06/13/2020 10:28 pm

    The most upsetting thing I discovered when getting to know about black and white relations with a group of black and white sisters was that the white Southern church often participated wholeheartedly in racism. Two recent stories involved young white youth pastors being fired (two separate churches) when they brought black children to VBS. One of the families became believers and were told they were not welcome at the church. This, I repeat, was recent. 

    When black people were segregated and discriminated against in the South during Jim Crow, it wasn't the Christians who stepped in to help, even in practical ways (educating, encouraging, etc.) (Hopefully there are examples that show some did). Some of the people who stepped in were communists and leftists. Muslims also became an integral part of the Black Rights movement and adherents began to push violent Black Power.

    I say all this to say that when I get frustrated at the leftist ideology, the godlessness and the anger I see in the black rights movement, I remind myself those entities stepped into the void left by us.

    On the other hand, I also admit I become frustrated with Christian young people today not understanding the undergirding communist, leftist, anti-God factions they inadvertantly support at times.

    Sophia's articles are interesting to me and often show me a different view, something I need. I've learned from them.

  • Paulo
    Posted: Sun, 06/14/2020 08:38 pm

    I find it interesting that the pastor's mind is pretty much set - just as he believes world reader's mind set is set - What I believe is sorely missing in our dialog is that we as a nation have decided to mostly leave God out of the equation - and I suspect we are just beginning to experience the possible  unraveling of our society.

    We have lost our fear (deepest respect) for the ways of God and have decided to go our own way - God's commands are to love one another - if we are Christian and we do not love those who are different than us - we would be wise to question the authenticity of our faith


    Paul G

    Posted: Mon, 06/15/2020 10:49 am

    Imagine you are in the skid row area of Los Angeles, and it is after 11pm. Your car will not start, and your cell phone just died. Down the street you see three burly men walking toward you: One Hispanic, one Black, one White. All have tatoos on their faces and necks... what are you thinking right now about their approaching you? I imagine most people would be a little worried, especially a woman. Why? Might it be that these approaching visiges are typical of gang members? Former prison inmates? Do such engender trust and confidence? How are these faces protrayed in the media? TV? Movies? The nightly news? On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you right now of their compassion and trustworthiness? I, a white male, grew up in the 'hood, and I know how I'd be feeling right about now...

    Does it change your feelings to know these 3 men have just come from a bible study?

    Is it "institutional racism" or is it a problem of "perception"?

    I had friends of all colors as a kid in school, but twice, while delivering papers to a mixed race neighborhood, I was mugged by groups of Black kids. There is not a racist bone in my body, but those experiences affected my perception. To this day, I have to work at supressing the feelings of distrust and anxiety when I meet a Black man on the street. Those feelings are only hightened by the racial tensions and hatred stoked over the last 10-12 years. It breaks my heart to hear my Black business owner friend relate how rudely he was treated when he stepped into a bank dressed in pretty common attire of his community (which mimicks gangland clothing and style). Was the response "racist" or was it a problem of "perception" or was the bank employee just a jerk?

    I don't see "institutional racism" and neither do many of my Black friends, and there are many Black men and women decrying this on social media (Candace Owens, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman are some). I see a "perception" problem, and all I see from this "racism" narrative is more hate and division. I know many good, compassionate cops who feel similarly. Help me understand...

    Sophia, I appreciate your writing, and your heart to dig in and ask hard questions, and your nuanced reporting on both sides of the issue. Please don't stop. I always look forward to hearing your perspective.

  • Kingdomnetworker
    Posted: Mon, 06/15/2020 01:01 pm


    Thanks so much for your writing.  I appreciate very much your writing the stories of real people from various walks of life... from the border patrol officer to the immigrant in Mexico hoping to get to US, to this pastor in Harlem.  I pray that this pastor will meet some white evangelical lost in Harlem and befriend him/her and see their life change.  At times of weakness, we all doubt that anything can change. This world is indeed a sin-sick place, but by the work of the Holy Spirit and through believers in Christ, people can change.  

    Most of us interpret the world around us and the people we meet, through the lens of our own experience.  As a white male, I grew up in the civil rights era among many racist people (yes many "Christians") and went to a high school much like the one in "Remember the Titans" movie. Later, my wife and I went to Africa and spent 20 years there. We found family in Christ there but also saw much tribalism, racism, prejudice. Sophia, your writing opens me up to the experience of your own life as well as the life of many others different from my own.  This allows me to empathise with them and see them as image-bearers of Christ.   

    To my fellow readers, remember that salvation is "by grace, through faith, not of works".  All believers are "a work in progress".  I cannot hate my brother and love God. May the body of Christ grow to love our neighbor as ourselves.

    Be blessed.

  • Steve Nugent
    Posted: Mon, 06/15/2020 03:01 pm

    Dear Sophia,

    Thank you for perservering!  Being one of those "colorblind" white, evangelicals, I can only say that the path to recognizing color in a loving and God-honoring way has been (and is) a difficult one.  I, and so many others like me, were raised to believe that being colorblind was the epitomy of being non-racist.  Seeing color differences was the "bad behavior" of racist people.

    The evening that I saw images of crowds of black Americans in Chicago crying and hugging one another when President Obama was elected was (to my shame) the first time I began to realize that there is really a completely different Amercian experience to which I was blind.  I wished, though I could not abide his pro-abortion politics, that I could have voted for Obama just to stand in solidarity with my crying, hugging fellow Americans.

    Recently, Shai Linne posted a moving and heartfelt article with the Gospel Coalition.  You've probably seen it.  For me, his article was the "hurting toe" that broke my heart again over the shame of my own blindness and the blindness of the American evengelical church.  Thank God that we serve a risen Savior who opens the eyes of the blind.  He is our only hope.



  • GC
    Posted: Tue, 06/16/2020 05:45 pm

    Thank you, Sophia, for not giving up! We need you now more than ever! Keep prodding us! Keep burrowing beneath the protective layers of defensiveness! Keep showing us the human stories and personalities of those whose skin pigmentations may not match our own! I have grown through reading your words and I can't help but think that others have too.

  •  Wilebo's picture
    Posted: Wed, 06/17/2020 04:04 pm

    "He sighed and told me, as gently as he could, that most of these readers would never change their minds, and it may not be worth my time trying to pry their eyes open to another perspective." How will reconciliation occur if that's the attitude of a black pastor? No matter what you do, Christian or no, you'll be in the wrong. The world no longer cares about any Truth.

  •  Wilebo's picture
    Posted: Wed, 06/17/2020 10:52 pm

    "He sighed and told me, as gently as he could, that most of these readers would never change their minds, and it may not be worth my time trying to pry their eyes open to another perspective." How will reconciliation occur if that's the attitude of a black pastor? No matter what you do, Chrisitan or not, you will always be wrong.

    Posted: Fri, 06/26/2020 03:00 pm

    Immediately when the Harlem pastor learned that the readership was "white conservatives" he like many African Americans seems to have automatically translated that into "redneck bigots" or worse. This is an odd sequelae at least as I see it. All the couples I know who have adopted young and not so young black children are what some folks would derisively term "fundagelical TheoCons". If folks are committed to reconciliation and overcoming mistrust among ethnic groups to be honest I cannot think of a more visible demonstrative way of telling the whole world you are NOT a racist.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Tue, 07/21/2020 12:18 pm

    Thank you, Sophia! I for one value greatly every chance I get to learn about the lives and experiences of people who have faced challenges very different from my own (and yet sometimes not so different). I want to understand, and learn, and grow in my love for all my varied neighbors. And I am grateful when they show empathy for my imperfect efforts to do so.

    To the commenters who have taken issue with the Harlem pastor's perspective, yes, he may well have been at fault to make such a broad judgement, but let's remember to believe the best about him too. It can be a fine line between realism and cynicism, and it is not always easy to know when one has crossed it.