Thefts Make Korean Pastor Tackle Prejudice At Home

As the leader of an African-American church, Korean-American pastor Peter Chin has also chosen to live in a predominately black neighborhood. It hasn't always been easy, but Chin tells host Michel Martin how he has worked through issues with his family, his congregation and himself.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, President Obama used Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Bible to take the oath of office for the second time, which he did on the MLK holiday, but some critics really object to the comparison. We'll ask the Barbershop guys to weigh in on that and other news of the week. That conversation is coming up.

But, first, we turn to our Faith Matters segment. That's where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality, and speaking of Reverend King, his observation that, quote, "The most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning," unquote, is often noted and often quoted, even today, with no small degree of regret.

Often, churches will make efforts to have integrated worship experiences, especially at this time of year, when Dr. King's birthday is celebrated. But our next guest is someone who's trying to live the change all year long. For the last year, Peter Chin, who is Korean-American, has been serving as interim pastor at Peace Fellowship Church. That's a predominantly African-American nondenominational church in Washington, D.C., but it hasn't been all - shall we say - a Kumbaya experience.

He wrote about this in a piece for Christianity Today called "Daddy, Why Do People Steal From Us?" And he's with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Pastor Chin, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

PETER CHIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, what caused your daughter to ask this question?

CHIN: I think it was a very honest response to the many times things had been stolen from us. And so I think it was a very visceral response that she'd gotten one scooter stolen from her and a bicycle and our house had been broken into - I think, by that time - twice. And so it's a very natural question, like, wait. Why is this always happening? As a very kind of honest response like that.

MARTIN: And most notably, one of the things that she saw was that some clogs, like your wife - her mom's - clogs.

CHIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Some old clogs were sitting in this playground that had clearly been, like, stolen from your screened porch.

CHIN: Yeah. And so, when we tried to explain, you know, the previous instances to her, I think she understood that, you know, people did that because they needed money or wanted money or things of that nature. With the clogs, it was definitely harder for her to understand. Wait, these have no value. Even she knows that. They were very old clogs and I think she had a hard time understanding. OK. Wait. Why are clogs being stolen now? That really stood out to her, as well.

MARTIN: But is race part of it, though?

CHIN: It can be. It's possible and, you know, it's even probable to some degree, but at the same time, I can't say for sure and I think the error that we make mentally, sometimes, and logically, is that we say something is probable and so it is true when it's not. Without proof, without knowing, really, if something is happening because of one reason or another, it's a jump in logic to say it simply is. And so I'm aware of those dynamics, but for me to go out and pass them on to my daughter off an assumption is a whole different story, I think.

MARTIN: Well, let's back up for a second and the whole - kind of the whole dynamic of being different...

CHIN: Sure.

MARTIN: ...is one that you were familiar with from a young age, as I understand it.

CHIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, your dad was a Korean-American store owner.

CHIN: Right, right.

MARTIN: Right? And you grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and you grew up with the experience of it not always being easy, of him being robbed and having some sort of difficult experiences. What were you taught about race when you were growing up?

CHIN: I think there were things that I was taught verbally and things that I was taught kind of implicitly. Verbally, I really have to hand it to my parents. I've never heard them ever express verbal kind of prejudices towards other people. They were very careful, I think, in trying not to express that. But I think, in the Korean community at large, that so many of them were store owners in the inner city and either had these experiences themselves or knew people who had been affected by them. That undercurrent was palpable. I mean, children learn so much that's nonverbal that they're not actually being told. They pick up on undercurrent and sentiments and I think, in that sense, there was an undercurrent of fear.

MARTIN: And was the undercurrent of fear that we are being robbed because we are Korean and these are black people? Or was the undercurrent of fear we are being robbed because we have something that other people don't?

CHIN: I think that's the thing about fear; is that it doesn't exactly fall down into clear lines of why this is happening. I think people tend to gravitate towards whatever explanation kind of makes sense for them. So I'm sure a lot of people were saying, it's because I'm in the city. Some people - you know, because of racial concerns and money. And so I think fear kind of oozes out. It doesn't really stay focused on one issue. So, yeah, I'm sure that people felt afraid for multiple kinds of reasons.

MARTIN: And so what about you? When you decided to take on this church, when you were called...

CHIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to this church, why do you think you were called and why did you accept?

CHIN: I actually had a good deal of hesitation at the beginning. I'm a very skeptical person. I'm very cynical and, for me, again, coming out of an environment where, you know, I've had those experiences, I was ready to kind of accept the bitter reality that it wasn't going to work. It's just a pipedream, you know, kind of working with people of different cultures, especially cultures where there's tension. It's just not going to work.

And so I was internally very hesitant to do it, but at the same time, I felt like I didn't want that to become the norm. I didn't want to simply accept that as being reality for myself and my children and for the churches that I work with. As a part of it was kind of a step in faith. But to be honest, the experiences since then have really reinforced the positive side of it, that I have realized that the prejudices and divisions between races and cultures is not quite as dark and vast as we often portray them. And so there's a lot of room for growth that I think we simply kind of dismiss sometimes.

MARTIN: And why do you think they called you?

CHIN: Well, partially, I'm not sure if they had anyone else to call at that moment. You know, their founding pastor had just left and so, for them, I think it was, you know, whoever can come in here and help us out, like, you know, it doesn't matter.

MARTIN: It's all good.

CHIN: Yeah, yeah. It doesn't matter where you're from.

MARTIN: It's all good.

CHIN: Just - we need a warm body in the seat. And I think it's become more than that. I'm more than just a placeholder for them and they're very dear to me, as well, so...

MARTIN: What about your kids?

CHIN: Yes. I have four of them now and so my first two children - I have to mention my daughter Katie because I mention Sophia in the other two articles that I've been featured in. She was very jealous and so she said, if you ever talk about our family again, you have to say my name, so I'm saying, Katie. Katie, I love you. OK? OK. Yeah. So I had two kids and that's when we moved to D.C. and so we had a family of four. And, actually, at that point, our story just went crazy because, while I was planting a church, my wife was diagnosed with very aggressive breast cancer, went in for her mastectomy and, while she was on the gurney about to have surgery, we found out she was pregnant with our third child, a son.

And they told us that we should probably terminate and go ahead with the chemo regimen and we were - you know, it was a terrible time for us. We decided to go ahead with chemo, as was planned, but also try to keep the child, not knowing what would happen. And, you know, wonderfully - thankfully, I think it was a miracle that everyone came out just fine. So, my wife was cancer-free and my son was born two years ago and he's a healthy two-year-old; rambunctious and wonderful.

And I relate that story because I think, in some way, it provides perspective for them. Like, yes, our house has been broken into a couple of times and our car and, you know, things have been stolen. But they've actually experienced worse. Strangely enough, outside of the whole, you know, living in the city and the church work kind of thing, our family has gone through the fire and I think that's allowed them to have perspective where they can shake things off fairly easily nowadays.

I think, if we were in the suburbs, everything was perfect with our family and nothing had ever gone wrong, they'd be crying in the corner. But for them, it's kind of like, oh, well, Jonathan almost didn't live. So, you know, we lost a scooter. You know, it gives quick perspective to them. And that's the beauty of suffering, is that it allows you to have perspective and gives you internal strength to recognize mole hills from mountains when they're in front of you, so...

MARTIN: To end our conversation where we began it for today...

CHIN: Sure.

MARTIN: What did you tell your daughter when she asked that question about why do people steal from us? What did you say?

CHIN: You know, very much like along the lines of what I wrote in that piece for Christianity Today, I told her, you know, that we don't need any of the things that were stolen. Like, all these things can be replaced. We're OK. Our family's OK. Everyone's safe. And so, you know, just let it go. Let it go. You know, these clogs are gone. They were old, anyway, sweetheart. Don't worry about it. And I think she understood that and I think she understood that in light of everything that our family has gone through, as well, and our previous experiences.

And people have questioned, you know, why didn't you just tell her? You know, why didn't you just tell her that you're a Korean and there is tension there? You know, why not just be upfront about the reality of the world and I've thought about that.

MARTIN: Why not say, you know what? Some people aren't going to like us because we're different.

CHIN: Well, I think there's two reasons why I didn't do that and the first is because I don't know if that's true. You know, it could have been a teenager who would have stolen clogs from any porch, to be honest. It's just my clogs happened to be there or her clogs happened to be there. And I think that's the danger. I think, when something bad happens to us and we immediately jump to the easiest conclusion, which is, oh, it's because I'm Korean, when I don't know, in fact, that they were taken for that reason. And so for me to make that assumption, but then, again, pass it on to my daughter was something that I didn't really want to do. I want to be much more critical-minded in terms of what I tell her.

But additionally, I think I'm very careful about how I tell my children, especially at a young age, these kinds of things because what I have experienced as the father of four is that kids hear not what you tell them. You can tell them a very nuanced expression of race relations and they will hear one thing and only one thing, or they'll internalize one thing, which is maybe that no one likes me because I'm Korean. Or I should be scared of people because they're not like me. And so, even though I may something nuanced and balanced, she may not receive that and I've realized with young children we have to be much more careful about what we say and realize that they may process it very differently and I want her to be in a position where her experiences with people will allow her to avoid generalizations. Where if I told her that she'd be able to think to herself, yes. But I have many friends who have other cultures or other races and she'll be able to pair those experiences with what I tell her about the reality of the world and get a fuller picture.

Without those experiences, if I told her, yeah, people don't like other different kinds of people, she has nothing to nuance that lesson, just that, if you're different, you're hated. And I don't want her to believe that yet. I don't want her to absorb that and internalize that for the rest of her life.

MARTIN: Peter Chin is the interim pastor at the Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. He wrote a piece called "Daddy, Why Do People Steal From Us?" that appeared in Christianity Today and he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios.

Pastor Chin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHIN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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