In September 2014, the publishing debut from Seattle pastor and global hunger activist Eugene Cho was released under the title “OVERRATED: Are We More In Love With the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World?” The book, published by David C. Cook, and featuring a foreword by Donald Miller and glowing pull-quote reviews from the evangelical A-list (Christena Cleveland, Louie Giglio, Sarah Bessey, Derwin L. Gray, etc.) attracted the attention of Urban Faith’s Jelani Greenidge, who devoured his promotional copy and eventually sat down for a telephone conversation with the author.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
JG: So got the book and I burned through it immediately. I really appreciated how personal it was, and I thought it was very timely. Why did you need to write this book now?
EC: I’ve been invited to write a book for awhile now, and when I was first given the invitation, probably around ten years ago, my head got so big that I knew it wasn’t the right time, and I honestly just needed to examine myself and realize that I just didn’t have enough substance to share. But I have been itching, over the last few years, wanting to articulate some of the sense that I’ve been feeling about my own life and about what I’ve been witnessing in the larger culture, including the church.
When people ask me, “what’s the premise of the book,” I tell them it’s a confession, and I try to keep that tone. So really I just needed to write it, foremost, for myself, I needed to share some of what I’ve been wrestling with for the past ten years or so. And as I’ve been sharing these confessions, at times through sermons, or in conversations with people, formally or informally, on and off the record, I was surprised by how many people resonated with confession. A lot of people were, A) wanting to do good things and change the world, but B) confessing that they were more in love with the idea of it.
Because issues of justice and mercy and generosity have become that much more accepted and celebrated throughout the church – which is good, I’d rather that be celebrated than anything else —
EC: But the question of “how we do those things?” became important enough to address in this book, in the hopes that people could be deepened and equipped for the long haul.
JG: One of the things that surprised me about the book is how funny it is. It’s not a funny topic per se, but I was struck by your candor and your honesty. You talked about it being a confession, I do some stand-up comedy, and stand-up is a very confessional form. Did you have to work hard to find the humor in it, or is it just something that comes naturally?
EC: I am an extreme introvert, but I’ve always enjoyed humor, both listening to it, but also using it as a coping mechanism, And I mean, I don’t wanna get all psychological here, but for me, it helps me to deal with my insecurities. The older and more established I get, I keep expecting that at some point I would overcome my insecurity, but I haven’t. It’s still there, and I still wrestle with it. And I also think it helps people – especially self-deprecating humor – helps people to empathize. So that’s encouraging, I was trying to capture my true voice with the book. I can be serious and pastoral, but I also try to be comical sometimes.
JG: It definitely comes through, for sure. One of the other things I appreciated about the book — and I can’t remember which chapter you talked about this — is the way you talked about the legacy of your parents and the value of hard work and how they modeled that. I know some of that is a part of your ethnic and cultural identity, but how do you find a balance between being committed and willing to hard for what you’re trying to accomplish, but not being so single-minded and having so much tunnel-vision that you burn out?
EC: You’re referencing the chapter on “Tenacity.”
JG: Yes… right! I’m actually staring at the table of contents right now, and I was scanning the page for the words “hard work.” Sorry about that.
EC: Yeah, no, it’s fine. I’m with you.
And yeah, I’ve been deeply informed by my parents and their work ethic, their tenacity. And I’ve been informed by my experience as an immigrant, as an “other,” and feeling like I really had to persevere and be tenacious throughout a variety of circumstances. And just like anything else, you have to assess both the positives of that situation, as well as the downside of being so singularly focused that you create burnout. I think for me a couple of things come to mind… everything needs to be tempered by the question of why we do what we do, and where our identity comes from.
Even hard work, in and of itself, can become idolatrous, I see it from a lot of people with immigrant backgrounds, they react that way to certain experiences that they had, growing up, and it becomes a source of pain in their life. So for example, my parents never vacationed. It was never a part of their vocabulary. Even when they were sick. So I look at that, and while a part of it is admirable, it can also be dangerous, sometimes even ungodly or unbiblical. And it’s not sustainable for the marathon of ministry.
So when I say I’ve been impacted by the tenacity of my parents, I saw both examples of what to do, and what not to do. I suspect that my kids, when they look back at my life – and my oldest just turned sixteen – they’ll do something similar, see things that they’ll want to mimic, but also things that they want to do differently.
And also I just think it’s important to stay connected to the larger narrative of what it means to be in the marathon of discipleship. When you go back to the question of why (to work for justice), well the fact that I’m a follower of Jesus, the fact that through the scripture, God gives us some instructions on what it means to be grounded in prayer, and Sabbath, and sabbatical – I just came back from a three month sabbatical — I did that because I know my propensity to go hard and fast, and I don’t want to do that. It’s not fair to me, or my wife, my kids, or my church.
Over the years, I’ve found myself more attracted to brothers in the faith that are older, in their latter seasons of life, in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. I’ve had some opportunities to spend time with Dr. John Perkins, and what amazes me about him is not just what he’s accomplished, but that he’s still serving Jesus and he still has joy in his heart. That’s stunning to me, because the more I live and the more I do “God’s work,” the more I feel prone and susceptible to cynicism, and I don’t want to be about those things.
JG: Yeah, I mean any time you can spend hanging with John Perkins, good things are going to happen.
Stay tuned for part two of our conversation, where we discuss the role of racial awareness in justice work and the importance of rest and Sabbath. See the lighter side of Pastor Eugene Cho in our next installment.