Archive for March, 2008

MLK, civil rights, and sacrifice

My supervisor at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, where I volunteer/intern, called me during lunch to tell me she was going to leave early today and gave me the option to not come in today.

I had just come out of class, where we discussed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, sermons, and essays and watched a bit of a documentary on the civil rights movement, particularly the Freedom Riders. I felt an implicit challenge, a nagging poke in the stomach as I listened to Frederick Leonard of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) talk about how the white mob in Montgomery approached the bus as it stopped at at the station. The people inside made the decision not to exit the bus at the rear and instead face the opposition at the front door. Jim Zwerg, a white Freedom Rider, exited first, and the mob descended upon him with baseball bats, iron pipes, and bricks.

I heard other details of violent opposition, but hearing that story recounted by a man who was actually there stirred my imagination. What would I have been thinking at that very moment? A capacity for imagination in these kinds of instances affects me deeply. When I watch a movie and in it, a character faces imminent death, I place myself in his or her shoes…what would I be thinking? It doesn’t have to be death. It could be the possibility that I will never be the same again…a smashed-in face, inability to walk, difficulty with mental tasks, loss of sight. Would I support a cause knowing that I would have to give up my source of income, the comforts of home and family, the companionship of friends, or the cleanliness of civilized life? It is too uncomfortable to imagine one day going from handsome to grotesque, well-built to wheelchair-bound, top student at USC to social outcast…I could go on.

MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” helps me imagine myself as a black person in the South. How can I not feel exceedingly disconsolate as I read of the painful realities of segregation and racism? Deep down, though, I recall the Bible verses that teach me of man’s depravity and sinfulness–Romans 3:10-12, Romans 3:23, Isaiah 53:6. No one does good, no not one. For all have sinned. All we like sheep have gone astray. We feel so sorry for people who suffer and are oppressed. But the vast majority, if taken out of their hardship (ultimately by the providence of God), would spurn mercy and return to their sin. Sin knows no socioeconomic class, no race, no culture. If not for the mercy of God, I would be a sick sinner regardless of whether I was raised in a Midwest farm, Southern plantation, beachfront condo, drughouse in the projects, quiet suburban enclave, mountainside getaway, or Ivy League mansion.

It is these thoughts that keep me sober-minded and abjectly humble from day to day. It is this personality that feels a slight bout of anger but then a lingering sadness when I see other believers live life with such carefree and casual attitudes. They, of all people, should know better. Those who truly know that their lives are founded on God’s mercy will continually be disgusted at the pride that seeps through every crevice of their thoughts, words, and deeds.

Even in South LA, a bubble

I technically live in South Los Angeles, what was once called South-Central, but because that term has become synonymous with gang life, violence, and poverty, the city has changed it to just South LA. But the area around USC is still a far cry from the depravity just a few blocks south, east, and west of campus. While there are many older houses that are rundown and streets that aren’t in the best of conditions (where did all the construction vehicles go from 30th St after tearing it up to repave three weeks ago?), as well as a few homeless people walking around, it is easy for a student to become used to it and think, “Oh yeah, I’m tough because I live in the ghetto.” Far from it. Two miles away, a neighborhood struggles with gang violence, drug houses, mobile prostitution vans, and slum conditions.

I have it so good. Lest I forget…

Living with staggering violence in South LA

Sitting in the back pew

17Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
— Habakkuk 3:17-19

I read this passage today during service on my own. I opened to this book of the Bible and this closing passage was underlined from a previous reading. I had forgotten all about it, so reading it again was like discovering a $20 bill in your pocket. What contentment the prophet Habakkuk had even as the Lord Himself was raising up the Chaldeans (“a bitter and hasty nation”) against the Israelites. In the midst of coming injustice, wickedness, violence, and oppression, Habakkuk rejoices in God after asking him for mercy (3:2).

There are times at YKC when there is no fruit, no yield, no flock…and it discourages and saddens me. But Habakkuk’s response in the face of all this would not be perpetual sadness. No, in spite of this, “I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God the Lord, is my strength.”

Sickness

Our pastor emailed us yesterday telling us he had been diagnosed with shingles. He’s not going to be able to come to church for the next three weeks. His wife (recently married in December) is also out with strep throat. It’s going to be lonely for the next couple of weeks at church. Tomorrow, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and I hope that it will give me hope and encouragement. Easter is the following Sunday, but I really do wish I could understand the proclamation of the Word from the pulpit. My father will give a short message in English addressed to the EM, but that’s all it will be, a short message. The rest of the service will all be in Korean. I wish I could have a translation of the hymns and songs we sing, since many of the great hymns are mini-sermons. I hope that the next few weeks will not be times of apathy but will increase my dependence on God and His sovereign will.

I’m too small

I feel so small every time I go to share the gospel on campus with KCM outreach every Wednesday. I’m sure the few others who show up feel the weight of the Great Commission. Many of them aren’t afraid to show that they’re uncomfortable and nervous in going out talking to strangers on campus about their religious beliefs or faith. Today it seemed everyone was a little apprehensive about going out. I felt really convicted today. Every time I see students walking around, riding their bikes, talking on their phones, smoking in front of Leavey…I feel a pang of smallness. It is hard for anyone to understand this feeling I have, even other believers…I’m having trouble now writing about it. There were two young black kids skateboarding in front of Trojan Grounds. The nonchalant way they acted toward me troubled me. How was I ever going to be able to reach people so different from me? How do I break into people’s comfort zones and get them to actually think about more than all the work they need to get done tonight or that guy/girl they’ve been eyeing?

I can sit by myself in a random spot on campus and feel disconsolate about how one day many of these people will stand before a holy and just God after they die, with nothing to reconcile them with their Creator. It won’t matter that they drove a BMW, or that they had nice sunglasses, or that they had an iPhone, or that they did community service with their fraternity/sorority, or that they were baptized, or even that they led a small group for a Christian fellowship, or even that they went overseas on a short-term mission trip.

I’m reading what I just wrote and it doesn’t capture the weight of my thoughts.