The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
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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The weekend that my city, Los Angeles, roiled in anguish, anger, and chaos, my husband and I were in the mountains, about a two-hour drive away. Our plans to detox from technology and society disintegrated into ashes like the wood in our campfire.
We had gotten married during the pandemic, so we hadn’t been able to enjoy a honeymoon. Someone had gifted us a weekend trip to a Getaway cabin in the woods, and since my husband’s birthday was that Sunday, we decided to turn the trip into a double-celebration of our non-honeymoon and his birthday. The whole philosophy behind Getaway is to put your cell phones away (there’s even a lockbox for your phones) and simply enjoy the company of nature and your partner.
Our cell phones never made it to that lockbox: Our social media feeds blew up with pictures of exploding police cruisers, burning buildings, broken stores, and thousands of people marching the familiar neighborhoods of our city, demanding justice and accountability.
After burning our dinner on the campfire, we ate our first meal of charred salmon and crisp-black sweet potatoes in the quiet woods, scrolling on our phones and sharing new images and news from across the country. All our conversations started with “Wow … ” and “Did you see this?” We talked endlessly about the broken systems and hearts in our nation, constantly asking, “What is happening? What to do?” We tried several times to put our phones away, but the knowledge that our country was currently going through a painful, historic moment kept pulling us back into the news feed.
It felt surreal. We were surrounded by chirping birds, fragrant pine and oak trees, and a stunning coral-and-violet sunset. Less than 100 miles away, our city boomed and shook with police officers shooting rubber bullets and tear gas, protesters screaming and cussing, glass windows shattering, and looters ripping stores clean of merchandise. We were so close, yet a world away. We never felt so distant from the city we call home, the people we call neighbors.
On Saturday night, as we watched a peaceful afternoon protest in LA erupt into violence in the evening, we also watched the campfire in front of us crackle red, orange, and blue, dancing in the gentle mountain winds and providing much-needed warmth to us in the freezing night. In other areas, the same kind of fire was burning buildings and cars—different places, different uses, different effects.
A fire here—contained within the safe perimeters of a metallic bowl—symbolized coziness and comfort and warmth. A fire there—stoked from generations of hurt, neglect, injustice—symbolized something very different: People who felt invisible and ignored all their lives were unleashing their once-muffled cries in a way that society can no longer ignore, however nihilistic and anarchistic that may seem. It’s no wonder these protesters were strategically targeting wealthier, gentrified neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and downtown, while lower-income, minority-heavy neighborhoods such as South Central remained mostly calm. Americans live in vastly different realities and have different perspectives—disrupting the peace of more-sheltered neighborhoods caused some folks to recognize that.
Had it not been for technology, my husband, David, and I would have had a blissfully ignorant weekend. We would have talked about many things other than systematic injustice and racial reconciliation. Our lives would have been more comfortable, but out of touch with what’s happening at street-level.
But that’s impossible in the age of social media. And as a journalist, I felt a duty to be there to observe and report what’s happening, so I messaged one of my editors, asking what I could do. He asked if I was able to do any reporting on the protests.
“Should we go back home?” I asked David.
“I don’t want to, but I feel like we need to,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right to be here with everything happening at home.”
“I’m sorry this happened on your birthday weekend,” I said.
David shrugged: “That’s OK. I knew I wasn’t really going to be able to celebrate much this year. Man, what a year: 2020, man.” Then he asked, “What do you think God is doing through this?”
I thought about it for a long time, staring at the fire twirling in front of me. “I don’t know,” I finally said. “But I have to believe He’s still sovereign over this. I have to believe He’s trying to tell us something through this. I have to believe that He works all things for good to those who love Him.”
The silence in the woods echoed back to us. My heart felt so heavy: I later realized I was holding my fists tight to my chest, as if to support my heart. I turned to David and saw his facial muscles contracting with anxiety and sadness. There wasn’t much we could do that night except pray, so we did.
In the quiet of the still darkness, we prayed out loud, begging God for mercy and peace and justice. We also repented. I thought of Nehemiah, when he “mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven” for several days, heartbroken over the state of his people, confessing the sins not just of his people but “myself and my father’s family” (Nehemiah 1:4-7). Even as a Korean immigrant, under the flashlight of honest self-examination, I knew I shared the sins of hate, division, pride, and idolatry that are at the heart of racism.
We made a decision together that night to leave early the next morning: David’s birthday. That afternoon, I attended a protest in downtown LA to report on it, while David trailed along on the sidelines so he could observe and learn.
If he hoped for clarity or answers by being at the protest, he didn’t get them, at least not just by being there. The diverse group’s noises were loud yet confusing, unfocused, emotionally high-strung, and in some instances incredibly vengeful and bitter. I saw divisions within the protesters themselves—most people worked hard to keep things peaceful and had specific demands for the city and police department. Some people threatened to burn the city down so they can rebuild their version of a just society.
I attended three protests during the week. I walked 9 miles in one day, observing and listening to these protesters through interviews and eavesdropping. As I write this I am emotionally, mentally, and physically drained. Listening to all these passionate cries and wails at the protests, then going home to listen to the confusion, division, and finger-wagging on social media, my mind and spirit are split apart—my mind gorged with noise and information, but my spirit feeling empty, restless, and lost.
My soul longs for the quiet mountains again. But this time, it’s not to get away from these tumultuous times. It’s to go before God and pray: Oh Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer Your servant is praying before You day and night for Your servants, the people of God.
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If you have a journalist for a friend, I am sorry. Or maybe it’s just me. My friends can’t enjoy a decent hang-out session with me without me fact-checking their statements, sharing my opinions on every relevant and irrelevant issue, and reminding them of all the dark and depressing issues that they’d rather not dwell on at that moment. Please have pity on my friends.
I can’t seem to help it. My job is literally to inform people, and I was raised by a preacher who used every moment with his family as a teaching opportunity, so it’s both in my blood and my vocation to constantly teach and inform and correct people around me. And that irritating habit has gotten even worse during this COVID-19 pandemic.
I did it again several weeks ago with my women’s Bible study group. We were on a group text thread one evening, talking about the latest news on the coronavirus (what else?), when a friend shared something that I sniffed out as inaccurate. Like any good reporter would, I fact-checked it, and then quickly informed her on the group text that her information was outdated. My friend texted back an unhappy emoji face with rolled-back eyes, and I realized then that I had probably ticked her off.
At first, I was also annoyed: Well, didn’t she want the correct information? But then as I thought more about it, I felt convicted: It wasn’t just that I had basically edited her in front of others. It was the way I did it—my text response to her had been curt, undercutting, and ungracious. Feeling guilty, I texted my friend privately, asking if she’s mad at me.
She responded right away: “I’m not mad, Sophia. It’s just sometimes you come at people like you know everything. Which is awesome, you’re smart, I get it. But I notice that when anyone says anything to you, sometimes the way you answer is like everyone is stupid except you.”
Oh, boy. She was right. I knew she was, because even though I can come up with all the excuses I want for my behavior, as I just did—I’m just a journalist being journalisty, I’m my father’s daughter, I am just trying to be factually accurate, I don’t want misinformation to spread, blah blah—the Holy Spirit shed a bright, torching spotlight into the chambers in my heart, and I saw arrogance, and even a little bit of elitism. Yes, I do often think I know more than others around me. Yes, I do pride myself for being well-read and well-researched—you know, an intellectual. Someone different, someone a tad superior to others.
How easy is it to get that sugary twinge of self-satisfaction when you prove someone wrong? It’s seeped into the language of our culture today, and we see it often in the headlines of YouTube and Facebook and certain media posts: “So-and-so absolutely DESTROYS so-and-so!” “So-and-so conservative pundit leaves so-and-so libtard SPEECHLESS!” “So-and-so OUTSMARTS idiot so-and-so!” “Compilation of snowflakes completely TRIGGERED!” “So-and-so WRECKS so-and-so!” “The TRUE story of xx agenda!” And so on and on.
God has wise humor though. That same week, our Bible study group had planned to study Philippians 2:1-11 together. As the Bible teacher, I had prepared for the study that week, but we ended up having to postpone the Bible study. The next week, I prepared for the study again, but we had to postpone another week. That meant I had to read and study Philippians 2:1-11 at least three times by myself in the quiet mornings, meditating and praying on those words for three weeks. God wanted to teach me something Himself, and I received it loud and clear in that entire passage, particularly verse 3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Oh, Lord, have mercy on me. This commandment from You is so simple to understand, yet so challenging to act out! It cuts deep into the deepest and darkest sins in my heart, igniting that yearning battle to purify myself from inside-out, for humility can’t be feigned. To “count others more significant than yourselves” requires an exorcism of all the junk and grime of selfishness, envy, pride, conceit, and greed that have congealed inside me—a thick, gooey, stinky mess that only spreads and drips and putrefies the more I try to wipe it away with my own sticky hands. The only man to do this perfectly was Jesus Christ, who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself ... and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” And now that’s whose name we confess and exalt, whose mind we seek to adopt and emulate.
I still think about this passage often today, especially as I look at the divisions between the Body in Christ shaking wider during this turbulent season. I’m not certain we are currently “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” as the Apostle Paul exhorted. We don’t even agree on what to call this season. One group would call it a public health crisis born out of a deadly virus. Another might call it an economic or constitutional rights crisis born out of overblown panic and political agendas. Another would interpret everything through the lens of prophecies in Revelation.
Two decades after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, back when our nation still knew how to band together into a collective grief, we’ve become more polarized and outraged rather than united and determined against a common enemy, partly because we don’t even know who the real enemy is anymore. Sometimes I think our enemy has become each other.
That evening when my friend called me out, I thanked her for doing so and told her I’ll try to be more aware of my flaws. She replied, “Sophia, we have nothing but love for you. Trust me. We are all different in our amazing ways and that’s what makes us awesome together. We all fill in the gaps.”
What, I wonder, would the church in America look like, if we all individually and collectively lived out this vision of Christ-like humility in Philippians 2, as a people who have been forever transformed and reformed by it? What if we all, like my friend here, recognized and celebrated God’s unique thumbprint on each of us, and exhorted each other in humility to count each other more significant than ourselves? Why, I think our one and only enemy would quake with fear.