Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me takes its title from a Richard Wright poem, but its more direct inspiration is James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. Coates’ book is in the form of a message to his son, Samori—but his prose throughout is also inspired by Baldwin’s rhythms, and sometimes even by Baldwin’s turns of phrase. “…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and distinct sadness well up in me. The answer to the question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.” The construction “those Americans who believe that they are white” comes from Baldwin; the Chuch cadence of that repeated “The answer” comes from Baldwin, the way that careful qualification becomes emphasis and exhoration is Baldwin. For Baldwin fans, to read Coates’ prose is to experience a delightful recognition; here is someone who loves the same person you do.
Coates takes a risk drawing such a strong comparison with America’s greatest essayist. In trying to capture Baldwin’s power, for example, he sometimes resorts to repetitive capitalized portentous abstractions —”the Dream” or “the Mecca.” The strain is visible and distracting; a reminder that Coates (like just about everyone else) isn’t as sure-footed as his model.
But Coates isn’t using Baldwin to demonstrate his own sure-footedness. Literary influence is often seen in the context of anxiety; Melville throwing his spear into the eye of Shakespeare, or Baldwin wrestling with Richard Wright. Coates, though, rejects that vision of adulthood via beating your parents. He recalls his grandmother telling him that his son would “one day try to ‘test me'”. He responds, “I would regard that day, should it comes, as the total failure of fatherhood because if all I had over you were my hands, then I really had nothing at all.” Fatherhood is about love, not testing—and that’s Coates’ relationship with Baldwin as well.
And not just with Baldwin.
Though The Fire Next Time may be the most obvious blueprint for Coates’ work, Between the World and Me is filled with other fathers and mothers. The schools he attended in Baltimore were “concerned with compliance”, not teaching, Coates says, but despite his dismal experience with public education, he developed a lifelong passion for learning. He listened to Malcolm X’s speeches over and over, “because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality…I loved him because he made it plain.” He played Ice Cube’s Death Certificate “almost every day.” He went to Howard where he hoped to find a coherent Black nationalism and instead was gifted with “a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.” And from his wife he learned, among other things, how to raise a child without the belt his father used. “Your mother,” he tells Samori, in a quietly heart-breaking passage, “had to teach me how to love you.”
Most reviews, positive and negative, have focused on the heartbreak in Coates’ writing, and there’s good reason for that. Between the World and Me is a painful book. It starts with Samori crying in his room when he learns Michael Brown’s killer won’t be indicted; it closes with Coates talking to the mother of one of his Howard friends, Prince Jones, who was murdered by a policeman who was never held accountable. These aren’t isolated incidents, Coates’ book makes clear. They’re part of a pattern of terrorism and violence stretching back to slavery, through Jim Crow and redlining, and on up through the neglected, violent streets of Coates’ Baltimore childhood. Police brutality isn’t an accident, or a few bad men acting recklessly. Rather, police, Coates says, are “enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” In order to keep thinking of themselves as white, Americans who think of themselves as white kill black people. So it has been, and so, Coates suggests, it shall be, if not for always, then at least as far into the future as you can see from here.
Mainstream reviews at the Economist and The New York Times were quick to chastise Coates for his refusal to acknowledge How Much Better Things Have Gotten, and his lack of hope. And Coates certainly doesn’t have much hope that white people will give up pretending to be white, or that they’ll start treating black people as human beings.
Coates doesn’t offer absolution to white people for the crimes they’ve committed, or, more importantly, for the crimes they’re continuing to commit. But that doesn’t mean his is a hopeless book, or even, for all its hurt, a sad one. On the contrary, Between the World and Me is filled with love—for Coates’ son, first of all, but also, in its language and structure, for Baldwin, as a particular mentor, and as an iconic representative of black heritage and struggle.
“…black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors,” Coates writes. He’s not a Christian, and mentions many times throughout the book that (like Baldwin) he does not find the comfort in God that many black people have. But he finds comfort, and strength, in black people themselves. “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors,” he tells his son. “Struggle for wisdom… Struggle for your gradmother and grandfather, for your name.” The cadences are still Baldwin’s, because Baldwin is Coates’, just as Coates is Samori’s. “We have made something down here,” Coates says, and what he, and his son, and his teachers have made is struggle and love.
Between the World and Me isn’t just a letter, It’s a tradition and a community, a set of tools and voices which Coates found, and which he’s passing on. The book is a gift, and you’d have to be in the grip of a particularly bleak delusion to think that it’s given in despair, rather than in joy.
Summer is upon us, which means a little extra time for leisure reading as some people prepare for extended vacations, college students get a respite from required readings, and, in general, people just make room to catch up on all the reading that they couldn’t do earlier in the year. We here are UrbanFaith.com and Urban Ministries, Inc., are happy to share what we are reading in hopes that it will give you insight into what we’re reading and contribute to the books you might be able to add to your list. Check our list out and feel free to share with us what you are reading this summer.
My book for the summer is “Saturate” by Jeff Vanderstelt. I found out about this book as I’ve been on a personal journey to discover the best discipleship practices and how to make church more than just a once a week thing. Recently I have had my eye on Soma Communities which Jeff leads as a new form of church in Tacoma, WA and saw that he wrote this book Saturate. I want to read this book because it promises to show how, as a believer, you can integrate your faith into everyday life. –Ramon Mayo, Content Specialist, Adult Media Development
In the book “Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders“, author Joel Manby, CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, explains that agape love can be the foundation on which a successful organization thrives. Describing examples and life lessons that he experienced first-hand, Manby takes the reader through 7 time-tested principles of agape love which are: patience, kindness, trust, selflessness, truth, forgiveness, and dedication. It’s a great read that helps those in leadership roles change the way they lead by implementing love as a foundation for every communication, every decision, and every relationship. This book can help you move the emotion of love into intentional action that can help motivate employees to be passionate and caring about the work they do. –Janet Grier, Director of Youth & Children’s Media Content
I am looking forward to and have already started reading the national bestseller “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson. This book was brought to my attention by one of my high school friends, with excitement because Shondra Rhimes is adopting a mini-series of the book for FOX. I am always one to read before I watch, so I wanted to get into it. -Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, Contributing Writer
As part of my efforts to intensify my spiritual life, I’m reading “God’s Battle Plan for the Mind: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation,” by David W. Saxton. Concerned about the too-often superficiality of Christian lives, chiefly my own, I wanted to learn more about this spiritual discipline in which we’re admonished by scripture to regularly engage. Saxton teaches and encourages through his meticulous survey of Puritan beliefs and practices regarding meditation. –Chandra White Cummings, Contributing Writer
Cartozia Tales, edited by Isaac Cates, is a self-published fantasy comic book anthology series featuring otter girls, bears with masks, talking crows, and upside-down men. The stories all take place in the land of Cartozia, with different creators setting tales in different parts of the map every issue. The result is a gently whimsical, quietly manic hodge-podge suitable for children of every age who would rather rescue mechanical wind-up men than marry the prince. The seventh issue is out this spring; I’m looking forward to reading them all in short bursts of cartoon goofiness amidst summer excursions. –Noah Berlatsky, Contributing Writer
I am finishing a historical fiction book entitled “Joshua’s Bible.” It is the account of an African-American missionary that left America to serve in South Africa during the pre-World War II days. I am finding it useful in understanding certain African traditions–it explains many of them. I am coming away with a different mindset from the characterizations that white missionaries portray of African life and the way they categorize all African traditions as demonic because they do not understand them. The African-American missionary ends up falling in love and marrying an African woman and fighting for African justice. -Melvin Banks, Founder and Chairman of Urban Ministries, Inc.
I am reading “The Road to Character” by David Brooks. The book is about developing what Brooks calls the “eulogy virtues,” “the character strengths for which we would like to be remembered,” over the resume virtues, those that our society works harder at developing for short-term goals. I discovered this book through a New York Times excerpt of the book that, essentially, blew my mind and convicted me about the virtues I am nurturing in my own life. –Nicole Symmonds, Managing Editor UrbanFaith.com & Urban Faith magazine
I love reading biographies of all types of people from a range of time periods. It opens a window into the perspectives of the past and the experiences of a variety of people. This summer I look forward to reading “Unbroken : A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand. It is the story of Louis Zamperini and was a #1 New York Times bestseller and named the top nonfiction book of 2010 by Time Magazine. Louis Zamperini was survivor of a brutal Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II, a Christian inspirational speaker, and an Olympic distance runner. In 2014 the book was made into movie by Universal Studios, but omits Zamperini’s fight against alcoholism and PTSD and his “Billy Graham-inspired” religious conversion. -Kathy McLeister, Archivist
If you peek into my attic, you’ll find all sorts of gems that represent precious moments in raising my kids – photos, art projects, and the sweetest “I love you mom” cards. Cluttered alongside those treasures I’ve got piles of plain old “stuff” – toddler outfits grandma brought back from China, graded quizzes and tests, Halloween candy carriers, old baseball uniforms, and more. Enough. It’s time to pickup, purge, and put things in their proper place. This summer, Marie Kondo is going to help me do it with her best-selling book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” She’ll show me how to only keep things that “spark joy” and pitch the rest! –Shari Noland, Chief Content Development Officer
As a lover of pop culture and someone who is always striving for self-improvement, I tend to spend the little free time I do have reading the latest self-help books and autobiographies by some of my favorite celebrities. However, I vowed that this summer would be different. Instead, I have opted to go to my local bookstore and find juicy, fictional page-turners, starting with “A Generation of Curses,” an urban-Christian novel by Faatima Albasir-Johnson and Patricia Bridewell. It’s a story about Khadesia Hill, a mom and wife of a megachurch pastor-elect who seems to have it all together, until things from her past comes back to haunt her. Aside from being entertaining, there seems to be at least one character in the novel that we can all relate to, and I certainly look forward to having a good read to kick off the summer. –Amber Travis, Social Media Specialist
Happy reading this summer!
Today gospel performers, like Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples, are widely respected not only for their music, but for their association with the civil rights movement and the black liberation struggle. Jackson is even thought to have prodded Martin Luther King, Jr. to launch into his “I Have a Dream” speech. But gospel’s status, and respectability, was not always so secure. In fact, according to Robert M. Marovich’s new study of Chicago gospel, A City Called Heaven, there was a time when gospel was seen as decidedly unrespectable — as a scandal and a disgrace.
In 1920s Chicago, Marovich explains, religious worship was centered in mainline Protestant churches, and the music was decidedly refined. “The community’s preoccupation with classical music training and performance was prompted by not only middleclass upward mobility,” Marovich writes, “but also the expectation that the world would at last recognize that blacks could write, perform, and appreciate classical music.” The inrush of Southern migrants, with a more demonstrative form of worship linked to blues, jazz, and to West African traditions, was greeted with uncertainty. Marovich quotes one Cleveland resident declaring that God “doesn’t want us to be jazz band pilots or jazz babies and be filled with the devil’s spirits. He wants us to be clean and holy and be filled with the Holy ghost.”
The skeptics were eventually won over, of course, and gospel greats like writer Thomas Dorsey and singer and performer Roberta Martin became revered mainstays of Chicago’s African-American religious and musical life. But at the same time, the concern with a certain kind of cleanliness and respectability persisted. Mahalia Jackson, for example, had a number of offers to perform as a vocalist with jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, but she refused, on the grounds that to sing secular music would be an abandonment of her calling. And yet, despite such precautions, Jackson did not avoid scandal. In 1944, she and gospel pioneer Rosetta Tharpe were photographed next to the Rhumboogie nightclub. An erroneous caption said the two had actually attended a show there — causing much consternation. “A significant mandate in the gospel music community,” Marovich says, “especially at that time, was not to ‘backslide,’ or cross over from a clean lifestyle to a sinful life” — and nightclubs were certainly part of the sinful life. As a result of the photo, Jackson was banned from some churches, though her career was already firmly enough established that she suffered no lasting harm.
Marovich’s book isn’t about gospel respectability per se; it’s a history of the music, focused on cataloguing and honoring the many groups and performers — from Jackson to relative unknowns — who contributed to the city’s gospel legacy. But still, the issue of respectability, or authenticity, runs through his narrative. Gospel was an expression of African-American religion and community. But it was also a commercial enterprise, and different artists negotiated those commercial and religious tensions in different ways. Roberta Martin, organizer of the famed Roberta Martin Singers, refused to play the Apollo theater in New York because she believed it would be a betrayal of the gospel. Sam Cooke, on the other hand, left the Soul Stirrers to become a massively successful pop star, boosting his earnings from some $400 a week to more than $100,000 a year. Gospel singer Betty Lester heard Cooke singing pop on the radio and said, “I was so hurt that he had switched over, but as I got older, I began thinking, well, he has a family to support.”
The contradiction is that, in some ways, Cooke’s crossover success was actually in line with the dreams of the old line Baptist churches, which had looked down their noses at gospel. Cooke achieved the kind of mainstream success and accolades that the Baptist worshippers hoped to snare with their classical training. And so, for that matter, did Mahalia Jackson, who shifted her repertoire from gospel towards pop spirituals like “Rusty Old Halo,” and appeared in 1958 on the Dinah Shore show — the first black guest on the program. Jackson even had her own television show in 1954, though it was cancelled in 1955, because or “sponsors feared offending southern white customers” according to Marovich. Despite such ongoing racism, at least some (though by no means all) other gospel performers also managed successful careers. Singer Sallie Martin, for example, established a hugely lucrative music publishing house, becoming one of Chicago’s leading African-American business women.
Gospel, then, had numerous cultural and social meanings. As a form of specifically African-American communal expression, it served as a way for people such as Roberta Martin to show their loyalty to their community and their faith. As a commercial endeavor, it served as a platform for at least some black people to break barriers and accumulate power and influence in the teeth of racism. And, of course, as Marovich details towards the end of the book, gospel became, during the civil rights movement, and even before, a vehicle for social protest and an expression of struggle. Jackson’s rendition of “I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned” at the March on Washington was part of a tradition stretching back to the spirituals, in which black religious music was used to describe and protest against injustice. “Although only a handful of singers, such as Jackson, the Staples, Inez Andrews, and the Gospel Harmonettes’ Dorothy Love Coates, were Christian soldiers on active duty for the movement,” Marovich writes, “Most artists recognized the importance of lifting their voices in song to help the cause.” Many volunteered on gospel programs to raise funds for the civil rights movement.
Though here too, inevitably, numerous gospel musicians were accused of not doing enough, or of failing to commit sufficiently to the cause. Marovich’s book is in many ways a chronicle of gospel fans, performers, and devotees telling each other that they are in one way or another doing it wrong — performing too demonstratively, or in the wrong venue, or in the wrong way, for the wrong people. The criticism can seem excessive and narrow-minded at times, but it reflects, perhaps, how much has been at stake for gospel, as a music and a community. Gospel has, and has always had, a relatively small audience as American musical genres go, but in part because of that it’s born outsize hopes, dreams, and prayers. Keeping the faith — whether by refusing to appear at the Apollo or appearing with Dinah Shore — is a complicated process. A City Called Heaven honors those who devoted themselves to the gospel by showing how various, and how important, that devotion has been.
Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet in “Dead Man Walking”
On the surface, the film Dead Man Walking, which is 20 this year, doesn’t seem to focus much on the racial disparities of the death penalty. Black people are vastly overrepresented on death row; 34% of those executed in the U.S. have been black, 8% Latino, and 56% white, though African-Americans are only about 14% of the population. In Dead Man Walking, though, the death row inmate is played by Sean Penn, whose character, Matthew Poncelet, is not only white, but an outspoken white supremacist.
The 1993 memoir on which the film is based is also about white inmates. Sister Helen Prejean, the author, was a spiritual advisor to two white men executed in New Orleans, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, the latter of whom was in fact a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. But the book is attentive to the racial bias of the death penalty — a racial bias which, it explains, affects even white death row prisoners.
Prejean explains early in her book that “In Louisiana, it’s unusual for a black man to be executed for killing another black man.” She adds that “Although the majority of victims of homicide in the state are black (90 percent of homicide victims in New Orleans in 1991), 75 percent of death-row inmates are there for killing whites.” When inmates do go to death row for killing black people, the victims generally fit a profile which makes the crime especially heinous, or likely to sway a jury — the victims are children, or security guards, or, less often, women. The death of a black person, in itself, doesn’t warrant an eye for an eye; some other factor must be added.
The dynamic Prejean discusses hasn’t changed. A Think Progress article shows that in 2013, as in 1993, the death penalty is rarely inflicted on those who kill minority victims. “While 32 of the 39 executions [in 2013] involved a white victim, just one white person was executed for killing only a black man,” and that white person deliberately waived his appeals, effectively “volunteering” for execution. In Louisiana — where Prejean’s advisees were executed — the death sentence in 2013 was 97 percent more likely to be handed down for those whose victims were white than for those whose victims were black.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement has mostly focused on police brutality and violence against black people. When African-Americans are killed by police, as in the case of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, our justice system seems to find it impossible to indict, or to hold the police accountable in any way. The death penalty dynamics that Prejean highlighted decades ago, though, suggest that the devaluing of black lives occurs in other parts of the justice system as well. It is not just that the prosecutors and juries are unwilling to punish police. It is that black lives are literally seen as being of less worth, even when those lives are ended by convicted criminals — and even, for that matter, when those lives are ended by convicted black criminals.
One response to this imbalance might be to demand equality. The death penalty, you could argue, needs to be handed down for those who kill black victims just as often as it is handed down for those who kill whites. As anti-police brutality activist Mariame Kaba points out, “…a lot of the conversation around justice, as it relates to police torture and violence and death, is to posit the very same criminal punishment system that already is harming and creating death in so many different ways. So you’re going to indict and then you’re going to convict killer cops, and do the same for any number of actors in the state system who you want to punish.” There’s an impulse to try to fix the problems with the justice system through the existing justice system.
But a more equitably, and more frequently, administered death penalty is not Prejean’s preferred policy solution. On th econtrary, Prejean has spent the past two decades working against the death penalty on every front — from writing the 2004 book The Death of Innocents about wrongly convicted death row inmates to, most recently, speaking out against the reinstitution of firing squads in Utah. Prejean points out the racist disparity in the death penalty not to argue for a more equal death penalty, but to show that the death penalty is part of a system that is fundamentally flawed and unjust. And part of the way that system is fundamentally unjust, she argues, is in the way it treats victims.
Prejean discusses working with victims, and organizing a victims rights group. Even the families of white victims were treated poorly by the authorities. Elizabeth Harvey, whose daughter was murdered by Robert Lee Willie, tells Prejean with some bitterness, “In dealing with the D.A. and the police…you could probably get more information when you get your car stolen than if your child is killed….” Another white family member of a murder victim who tried to apply for victim compensation funds was told by a deputy, “Don’t know nothin’ about these funds. Why don’t y’all write to Ann Landers? She helps people.”
But as callous as law enforcement personnel can be to the families of white victims, they are exponentially more indifferent and vicious to black victims’ families, in Prejean’s experience. She cites the Chattahoochee Report, which looked at the treatment of murder cases in several counties in Georgia, and found that in many such cases the D.A. never visited victims’ families. The report added that for black victims’ families “not only did none of the murders of their relatives lead to a capital trail, but officials often treated them as criminals.” Prejean highlights the case of one man who came home in 1984 and found his wife had been killed. “His only contact with officials,” Prejean says, “occurred when he was briefly jailed on suspicion of her murder.”
Stories of police indifference to victims in sexual assault and rape cases are familiar (here’s one about New Orleans police from last year, for example.) But Prejean’s work with victims indicates that the problem is broader than just one type of crime. The justice system that Prejean describes cares little about those harmed by crime. Convictions are pursued as a political matter, rather than out of concern for justice. The head of the parole board with whom Prejean deals, Howard Marcellus, is later convicted on corruption charges. The board was selling pardons for political favors, and withholding pardons based on the governor’s estimation of the political effects. “‘I did these things,'” Marcellus admits to Prejean. “I sat in judgment on these men like that — the guilty and the innocent. But who was I to sit in judgment? It still bothers me. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”
Prejean’s argument in Dead Man Walking is that the death penalty devalues life. As Robert Lee Willie says just before he is executed, “Killing people is wrong. That’s why you’re putting me to death. It makes no difference whether it’s citizens, countries, or governments. Killing is wrong.” The deaths that are central to the book are deaths of white people: Sonnier and Willie’s victims, and Sonnier and Willie themselves. But Prejean’s book also point out that these deaths are allowable, or enabled, because of a system of racism, and of classism, which says that certain people’s lives are more important than others, and that, therefore certain deaths are acceptable, or even virtuous.
A system that is built on white supremacy will always care more about enforcing the power of white supremacy than about justice or victims, black or white. Critics of #BlackLivesMatter sometimes complain that the movement ignores the fact that all lives matter. But Dead Man Walking suggests that no lives can matter until black lives do.
Urban Faith’s Jelani Greenidge sat down for a wide-ranging phone conversation with Eugene Cho, founder of One Day’s Wages, pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, and the recent author of “OVERRATED: Are We More In Love With the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World.” In the first half of the conversation, they talked about tunnel vision and the value of hard work.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
In one of the chapters you talked a lot about having more depth than 140 characters and being an expert… I wonder if you could speak to this idea of specialization. In the evangelical church, a lot of our ministries have become specialized to the point where we have youth pastors, pastors of young adult ministries, pastors for every grade level in children’s ministry, pastors for seniors… I don’t necessarily think all that is bad, but where do you draw the line between being specialized and being well rounded enough to have an overall kingdom mindset that ministry is ministry?
EC: Well, I kind of feel like you just answered the question for me. Ultimately, we have to have kingdom mindedness about anything and everything, we can’t allow our particular specialties to hijack us to the point where it becomes the only banner that we wave. Even good things that we’re called to, if we’re not careful, if it’s not a response to the gospel, it can become idolatrous. This question is an important critique to our culture. We can become so specialized that our worldviews in ministry can become compartmentalized. I tell my pastors at our church, despite the fact that they have certain titles and adjectives that describe what they’re doing, the most important word is “pastor” – they are there to pastor the church, you’re not just a compassion-and-justice pastor, you’re not just a music pastor. You’re called and given the burden and privilege to care and teach and lead. And I share that with all of our staff.
But having said that, I do think that there’s a balance. We understand the bigger picture or narrative, but if you’re called to something and feel convicted about it, we owe it to ourselves and to the Holy Spirit convicting us to get more substantive and deep and committed so that we’re able, in that season of our life. I was a youth pastor, and way back then, that’s what I was called to, to go deep into those friendships and relationships in my pastoring and my caring, in addition to things that would help me contextualize the way I do leadership.
Also, I think about urban ministry, and we don’t want to absolutely segregate everything, but I think it’s absolutely true that there are certain dynamics that are different in an urban context versus a suburban context. So for a suburbanite to say, “hey, I feel called to urban ministry,” but to take no time to invest in friendships and relationships and being in situations where they could be mentored and listened to and read books… for that person NOT to do those things, it’s insulting to the work. So that’s what I mean, I think there is a balance. I think sometimes we can become enamored by an idea and not end up doing the hard work, digging into whatever conviction that might be.
JG: I noticed in a CT cover story that you’re featured in, you mention that at Quest Church, you emphasize race and ethnicity as an important part of identity and how it relates to the gospel. When you talk to people outside of your community, do you find that they’re surprised that you have such a focus on race?
EC: It depends on who I’m speaking to. You and I both know that the conversation about race and racism or racialization, depending on who we’re speaking to, can be a very, very different conversation.
JG (laughing) Uh, yeah.
EC: I think there are those, because of social media and being sort of a mini public figure, I hear from people who are disturbed, they say there’s only one race, the human race, and we shouldn’t be talking about race or racism. And then there are those on the other side, there are those who are encouraged by it, and surprised that there are evangelical churches out there that are willing to engage this issue. There are those who are surprised that a multiethnic church is being led by an Asian-American. And I’m someone who finds a lot of joy in knowing that this is who God created me to be, and I’m not afraid or timid to talk about my ethnic heritage and my experiences as an immigrant as I minister in my church.
But… there are two extremes that I try to address, that concern me.
One extreme is those who say that issues of race have nothing to do with the gospel. That’s a huge concern for me. I explain to people that we don’t talk about race and racism for the sake of talking about it. I mean, I don’t enjoy talking about it, I’m not a sociologist, they’re intense, and they can be difficult. For me, I’m compelled by the gospel. The gospel informs and transforms everything we do. It’s that huge. I don’t ever want Quest Church to be known or hijacked by any issue – even if it’s important, even if it’s true – I don’t want anything to supersede the “why” of gospel. The gospel is so magnanimous, it’s so beautiful, it’s not this one-dimensional thing where you just get to get into heaven. Talking about race gives us the opportunity to illuminate the depth, the breadth, the absolutely scandalous nature of the gospel, and why Jesus Christ came, not just merely for a foundation but for the whole process of reconciliation.
The other extreme that I’m concerned about concerning racism… and this is a very sensitive issue, I know a lot of people push back at me, even at my church… when you talk about Ferguson, when you talk about Trayvon Martin, as complex as those issues are, it’s important for us to call upon our larger society and culture for justice, it’s a critical part of the entire process. There are some people who clamor too easily toward reconciliation without understanding the important necessity of justice. But I would also caution people — even though that’s absolutely true, the opposite is also as true. As we rightfully clamor for justice, that we should always have reconciliation in mind as well. Both of those are really essential, and we should never highlight one over the other.
JG: You talked earlier about the value of hard work, and you know as a pastor that people in ministry always have to work hard to ensure we have good boundaries, so that we’re living well balanced lives. So I ask you what I ask a lot of people in ministry – what do you do for fun? How are you checking off your “fun” box?
EC: Well, I’m a big sports fan. I love playing and watching sports, both of those are challenging, since we cut the cable, we don’t have a TV at home.
JG: Oh, wow.
EC: Yeah, and I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing basketball 6 or 7 years ago, so I’m not able to execute my slashing, penetrating game, or talk trash like I used to – well, I still talk trash.
JG: (laughing) You just can’t back it up anymore.
EC: Those things are important to me, I love the outdoors, which is why I love living in Seattle. I love hiking, fishing is a very life-giving aspect of my life. Every year, I take two weeks off to go fishing ten hours a day in the Midwest, and I love fishing for salmon here.
The older I get, the more I realize how important friendships and relationships are. I can just come out and say it in public – I’m a recovering workaholic, pretty much my whole life. Some years ago, I learned, it’s best not to hide it but just to name it and be mindful of it. My wife, who happens to be a therapist, figured that out a long time ago. So I take a sabbatical every three years. I mean, I used to actually feel guilty about resting. And now I see it as an important part of how God designed not just me, but actually all of humanity. The Sabbath is a really critical thing for me to embrace so that I can remember that it’s not about me and that things don’t revolve around me. It’s not fancy or glamorous, but it’s me.
JG: Okay, you ready for the speed round?
EC: Yeah, let’s go.
JG: Okay, we’re gonna play “Overrated, Underrated or Properly Rated?” Here we go.
JG: “The Lego Movie.” Overrated, underrated, or properly rated?
EC: Haven’t seen it.
JG: The Ice Bucket Challenge.
EC: Properly rated.
JG: iPhone 6.
JG: Xbox One.
JG: Aunt Viv from Fresh Prince, or Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show?
EC: Gotta go with The Fresh Prince.
JG: Biggest guilty pleasure, junk food or junk television?
EC: Man, I’d go with junk food.
JG: I guess not having the TV helps there. Favorite kind of vacation spot, beaches, mountains, or somewhere else?
EC: Beaches, for sure.
JG: If you had to pick only one sport to follow for the rest of your life, between NBA, NFL or MLB… what is it?
EC: Oh wow… that’s tough. I would have to go NBA.
JG: Yes! (laughing) That is correct. Nice job with the speed round.
Okay, final question… if there were to be a new Blue Thunder in a few years… (the baby blue Miata referred to in the book that he needed to sell)… what kind of car would it be?
EC: Oh, man… this is not good… wow… umm…
JG: Do you need to plead the Fifth?
EC: No, I’ll answer the question… I guess, actually, it probably wouldn’t be a Blue Thunder, it would probably end up being an RV.
EC: Yeah, maybe it’s the post-midlife crisis I’m going through, but yeah, just coasting around in a nice RV with my wife… just thinking about having as much time with my kids, in seven years, my youngest will be off to college, so that’s probably the best move.
Eugene Cho’s first book OVERRATED is published by David C. Cook, and is available at both internet and brick-and-mortar retailers nationwide.
Eugene Cho, pastor of Seattle’s Quest Church
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.