The Astounding Recklessness of John Ortberg

This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective.

Danny Lavery is the son of John Ortberg, the influential Christian writer and senior pastor of Menlo Church, an evangelical megachurch in Silicon Valley. Last week, Lavery made a startling report: His 30-year-old brother, a student ministries volunteer at Menlo, disclosed to Ortberg and his wife two years ago that he was sexually attracted to children.  Ortberg not only allowed him to continue to serve with youth, he also supported his son’s decision to do this as a way of “treating” this attraction.  His son did not step down from serving with youth, both at the church and elsewhere, until he told Lavery about his attraction in November and Lavery insisted.  Lavery then alerted Menlo leadership about the situation, as well as his parents’ collusion.  Menlo conducted an internal investigation, in which they did not interview Ortberg’s son, any students, or any parents, and found no wrongdoing on Ortberg’s part.

This troubling story has countless layers, most of which have been thoughtfully explored by people closer to the situation.  Religion News Service published a thoroughly reported piece.  Detailed timelines of the allegations and the church’s responses are available online.  Danny and his wife Grace have been active on Twitter, detailing their experiences of attempting to address this situation with the Ortbergs, from whom they are now estranged, and the church.  Megan Goodwin, who studies sexual abuse in American religious communities, wrote a thoughtful piece on the Sojourners website.

As someone who has some relevant experiences that I have not yet seen represented in the conversation, I want to draw attention to what’s happening at Menlo and offer a few thoughts.

As someone who, like Ortberg, earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary, I am completely dumbfounded by his response to his son’s disclosure.  Fuller’s clinical psychology PhD program is fully accredited by the American Psychological Association; it is not a program that teaches pseudoscience or prescribes prayer and Bible verses as therapeutic interventions.  Furthermore, clinical psychology is a discipline that so highly values the safety of children that reporting child abuse is one of the very few reasons why it is legally permissible to breach confidentiality.  Given Ortberg’s training, the notion that he could see spending time with children as a safe and effective way of managing pedophilia is incomprehensible.  I might understand this response from an evangelical pastor who was skeptical of science or had no fluency in psychology or psychological disorders.  Ortberg, however, has no excuse.

As someone who went from Fuller to a position in student ministries at an evangelical megachurch similar to Ortberg’s – so similar that a number of interns from my time there went on to permanent positions at Menlo – I am, again, dumbfounded.  I have spent the last week putting myself back at that church, trying to imagine a scenario in which a volunteer disclosed to me (or anyone else on staff) a sexual attraction to children and was not immediately relieved of their role and connected with a specialized therapist.  I have come up empty, as have all the former coworkers with whom I’ve discussed this situation.

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Here’s the thing about student ministry:  The only currency you have is trust.  The trust of the students, certainly.  But equally important – if not more – is the trust of the parents, who dictate whether or not you get to spend time with their children.  No one is required to let their kids spend time with you.  It’s not school.  Their kid isn’t destined for hell if they don’t go to your overnight camp.  It is the job of the church to do not just the bare minimum to maintain that trust, but to go above and beyond to protect it – which means full transparency and full disclosure, so parents aren’t left wondering what you aren’t telling them.  Because if that happens, your currency is gone.

After its internal investigation, Menlo told the congregation at a town hall meeting – which was convened for another reason entirely – about the volunteer’s disclosure and departure from student ministries.  After completing a “restoration plan” with the goal of regaining trust with the church, the details of which are unknown, Ortberg apologized to the congregation for his poor judgment.  But a restoration plan to regain trust is of little use when the congregation was told that Ortberg made a single poor decision – failing to notify church leadership about a disclosure from a volunteer about a sexual attraction to children.  The church’s recent statement on the matter, as well as Ortberg’s apology this week, similarly suggest that this was a one-time mistake.  But in reality, Ortberg was regularly confronted with the reality of his son working with students, both at Menlo and elsewhere, over the course of 16 months.  Ortberg is not responsible for one poor decision; he is responsible for 16 months of consciously allowing this danger.  And he would have continued had Lavery not brought it to light.  This is not a single oversight or lapse in judgment – this is a lapse in judgment that lasted more than a year, resulted in children being exposed to danger for that entire time (16 months of camps, retreats, missions trips, and one-on-ones), and stopped only when someone else took action.  I am troubled by the vast discrepancy between this reality and what Ortberg and Menlo have owned up to and communicated to the congregation.

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Another thought from a student ministry perspective: Menlo has also been quick to state that every staff member and volunteer undergoes a background check, which should absolutely be the case.  But background checks reveal only criminal histories — incidents that were reported to authorities and where the individual was found guilty. They cannot reveal incidents that aren’t reported — and most sexual and physical abuse is not. In addition, many inappropriate behaviors involving children — too much time together, too many texts, too much emotional intimacy — are not reportable to authorities and would thus not appear on a background check.  Furthermore, in my experience dealing with Child Protective Services, reports of yelling and other forms of emotional abuse are rarely pursued.  Menlo’s assertion that everyone is background-checked is, if anything, more damning than reassuring:  Even a background check could not keep someone with a sexual attraction to children off of their volunteer staff.

Menlo has also underscored that they found no evidence of misconduct.  But misconduct with children is not always clear-cut, and this is especially true in student ministries at evangelical churches, where building relationships is everything.  At what point is an adult investing too much time in a student?  Is it appropriate for a youth pastor to use Snapchat to communicate with students?  At what point is too much emotional intimacy being cultivated?  The answers to these questions will vary from person to person, adults and students alike.  So the fact that Menlo’s investigator found no evidence of misconduct after interviewing church staff and reviewing emails does little to assure me that no misconduct actually took place.  Perhaps none did, but without interviewing any students or parents, who are in the best position to make that call — or the volunteer himself — it’s hard to say that with any credibility.

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A final thought from this angle: When an organization is invested in minimizing a danger or a failure in leadership, as Menlo appears to be, it becomes difficult for the organization to provide the people most directly affected by the situation the space they need to process it.  I have no doubt that every student and parent in Menlo’s student ministries is now aware of why this volunteer abruptly departed in November.  If Menlo maintains that this was a one-time failure of judgment, Ortberg has apologized and been restored, and it’s time to move on, are they giving students opportunities to process their complicated feelings about this volunteer?  Is the staff providing space for students (and their parents) to grieve the fact that their senior pastor knowingly put them in danger for sixteen months?  How are they communicating students’ and parents’ concerns in a meaningful way to leadership?  Do any of their concerns matter, given that Ortberg’s restoration process is already complete?  It is almost impossible to validate the concerns of the families impacted by the situation, make them feel heard, and give them agency in the response while also downplaying the problem and insisting that it has already been resolved.  The former things are of utmost importance to maintain the trust from families that student ministry requires, but you can’t do the former things if you’re also doing the latter.

As an observer of American evangelicalism – this is where things stop being surprising.

The megachurch was a hallmark of American evangelicalism in the ‘90s and early 2000s, its many orbits centered around a charismatic preacher who was usually white and always male (Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Tim Keller – the list goes on).  Ortberg is a pastor of that generation, and everything at Menlo – its multiple campuses, its marketing, its mythology – circles around him.  It is sadly unsurprising that Menlo is more invested in minimizing the gravity of this situation and protecting the Ortberg brand than holding him accountable.  Even when the safety of children is at stake.

The fact that Lavery is trans has tragically provided many Ortberg defenders an easy reason to discredit him, an escape hatch from seriously considering his account.  It is profoundly sad that even when the safety of children is at stake, many evangelicals have been quick to side with Ortberg, who enabled a pedophile for sixteen months, instead of Lavery, who is the sole reason why this pedophile is no longer working with children.  Others have already observed the irony that many conservative Christians have demonized queer and trans people as pedophiles, but when a trans person wants to protect children from a pedophile, the trans person is somehow the problem.  For me, this situation has been a clear illustration of how toxic, unaffirming theology isn’t just harmful for LGBTQIA+ folks (which would be reason enough, mind you, to discard it).  It is harmful for everyone.

I suspect that Menlo perceives itself as different from “those” evangelical churches, the ones who voted the current president into office, who claim religious persecution when they’re told to stop gathering during a pandemic.  In many ways, it is:  It’s situated in the diverse, liberal San Francisco Bay Area.  Its senior pastor has a clinical psychology PhD, a pointed contrast to the anti-intellectualism that permeates American evangelicalism.  The Menlo congregants and staff I know reliably vote Democrat and endorse the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. Ortberg famously supported the women who accused evangelical megachurch pastor Bill Hybels, once his boss and close friend, of sexual harassment.  But this situation illustrates that even with all of its unusual qualities, Menlo is not immune to the powerful forces of minimizing, deflecting, and rationalizing that get set in motion when a charismatic leader – the sun around which everything orbits – makes 16 months of wildly reckless decisions.

As someone who has been watching American evangelicalism for the last 15 years, all of this – the impulse to minimize the problem, the transphobia, the choice to prioritize the reputation of the pastor even over the risk of child sexual abuse – all of this, unfortunately, makes sense.  Menlo is not an exception. The toxicity that pervades American evangelicalism is there, too.

As a parent, in light of everything discussed here, I have trouble imagining a scenario in which I would send my children to student ministries at Menlo.  I say this knowing several people on staff there – people with whom I’ve worked, whom I like and respect, whom I imagine were not aware of this volunteer’s attraction to children until Lavery reported it.  But after seeing the chasm between what Lavery reported to the church and what the church reported to the congregation, how could I send my child there without constantly wondering what they weren’t telling me?  When a pastor demonstrates that they are more committed to protecting their family’s reputation than the children they serve – and church leadership follows suit – how could I ever trust that pastor or church again?

I am not concerned about sending my children to Menlo, or any evangelical megachurch, anytime in the foreseeable future.  But in the wake of this story, I wonder if I can trust my children with anyone at all.  Churches, sports teams, schools – who is safe?  Who can I trust to make the right decision if my kids’ safety is at odds with the reputation of the institution? The scandal at Menlo has given me yet another reason to be suspicious of any organization that wants time with my children.

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If you’ve ever been a therapist or worked in student ministries, you know that inevitably, you will hear a horrible revelation that requires you to intervene. It is part of the job. A client will recount an experience of child abuse at the hands of a coach who still works with kids; a student will report being hit at home. The process of reporting these incidents is invariably terrible — brutal conversations, disrupted relationships, broken trust. The only things you can control are 1. fulfilling your legal and ethical obligations to protect minors, whether you know them or not, and 2. your effort to repair the relationships and rebuild the trust that were broken in the process. Regarding the former, Ortberg failed for sixteen months, and he would have continued failing if not for Lavery’s intervention. And now he and Menlo appear too invested in downplaying the severity of the situation to allow for the latter.

I do not know where they go from here. I do not know how they can go about rebuilding trust when they are committed to a position that doesn’t allow for it. And trust is the only currency they have.

#amplifymelanantedvoices

For #amplifymelanatedvoices, my top five works and people that have shaped how I understand race in america (and every single one of them is shorter than a book and available for free on the internet):

1. “The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’s 2014 cover story for The Atlantic is a masterpiece, illustrating how 250 years of slavery was compounded by 90 years of jim crow, 60 years of segregation, and 35 years of racist housing policies to bring about the racial disparities we currently see in socioeconomic status, educational attainment, health outcomes, and more. Coates is an infuriatingly good writer and his powers are on full display here: He’s a masterful storyteller and a meticulous reporter, at once blowing your mind and breaking your heart. Should be required reading for every American.

2. Roxane Gay is one of my favorite essayists. Her writing is incisive and penetratingly clear, and she tackles complicated, intersecting questions about race, politics, feminism, and sexuality with nuance and clarity. You can find her work in the New York Times, where she’s an opinion writer; Gay, her magazine on Medium; and – if you’re up for a book – Bad Feminist, her best-selling collection of essays that was bona-fide life-changing for me.

3. Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, law professor, and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (an organization you should be donating to), where he and his team represent innocent death row inmates in the South. Desmond Tutu has called him America’s Nelson Mandela, and the analogy is not hyperbolic. I’ve learned more from him about the ways in which the criminal justice system is stacked against black and brown defendants than anyone else. Stevenson is known for his best-selling book Just Mercy, but if you like articles, his 2016 New Yorker profile is excellent; if you like videos, his 2012 TED Talk is legendary; and if you like podcasts, his interviews on Fresh Air and Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing legit changed my life.

4. 13TH, directed by Ava DuVernay. Speaking of the criminal justice system, DuVernay’s 2016 documentary illustrates how a loophole in the 13th amendment incentivized the incarceration of black people in the united states. it is meticulous, unassailable, and infuriating – not just because it meticulously outlines the hundreds of years of systemically criminalizing blackness that our government has done, but because our schools teach almost none of it. The Peabody- and Emmy-award winning documentary is available to stream on Netflix.

5. Another Round, hosted by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu.  This is my favorite podcast of all time.  It ran from 2015-2017 (and will hopefully return again), and it was just two black writers, then at BuzzFeed, doing segments on whatever they wanted: politics, culture, interviews with writers and actors and athletes of color, professional advice, Tracy’s bad jokes.  Getting to listen in on conversations between two black women taught me more about their everyday experiences than I could have learned anywhere else, and the fact that Clayton and Nigatu are hilarious and smart and deeply fond of each other made the podcast an utter joy. And two people of color hosting a podcast that was about whatever the fuck they wanted – and not just People of Color Issues, though they brought their lenses and experiences to whatever they were discussing – was revolutionary and inspiring for me. You can find this wherever you get your podcasts.

Happy to discuss further or offer more recommendations!

Remembering Jason Polan

Today was the funeral for Jason Polan, my classmate from second grade through college. Two things were evident from childhood: he was talented and he was kind. (He was also the cutest eight-year-old, and thus the first object of my affection.) His elementary school doodles became murals in high school and a thrice-weekly comic strip in our college paper. Then he went to New York and quietly made a name for himself, drawing prolifically, showing and publishing his work, collaborating with everyone from the New York Times to Nike, Marvel to Warby Parker, Tartine to Momofuku. Every new accomplishment would make me so excited, not just because I knew him but because he was such a good person — and what’s more gratifying than seeing a genuinely good person succeed?

Jason’s kindness was palpable even in the pictures and observations he posted on Instagram. Also apparent there is his delight in the details of everyday life, in silly coincidences, in the people and things that most would consider background noise. Everything fascinated him, and he made you see how fascinating everything is.

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Many of these qualities can be traced to his incredible family — especially his mother, who everyone knew because she ran the PTA and pretty much everything else in our community — and I am devastated for them. Jason’s sister Jennifer died of a brain hemorrhage at 23, two days before he and I graduated from high school. His parents have already had to bury two of their three children.

That is just not right.

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Last year, the Atlantic published a profile of Ocean Vuong that was written by Kat Chow, who had gone to the same high school. While they hadn’t overlapped there, that shared experience grounded their conversation beautifully. After reading that piece, I wondered if I could do a similar interview with Jason when I was further along in my career. I wanted to know what his experience of high school was like, how his sister’s death changed his work and his relationship with his family, what it was like for him to live in New York when his disposition was so thoroughly Midwestern and he was so close with his family. After he died on Monday, I found myself adding to the list of questions I will never get to ask: When you are so good at seeing and celebrating the minutiae of life, when you delight in small, lovely moments of human connection and compassion, when you are so finely tuned to the tiny details of being alive that most of us never see because we’re too damn busy running from place to place — what is it like to realize that all of that is coming to an end?

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I am mourning the loss of a childhood friend and an immensely gifted artist, but more than anything, I’m mourning the loss of a really good person. I thought that about you often, Jason. In a world full of assholes, you were quietly kind to everyone, strangers and friends alike — never drawing attention to it, just being who you are, no matter where you were. The world is darker and less delightful without you in it.

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Obituaries and articles:

A few of the many tributes on the internet:

Introducing the Top Five Podcast

My friend Chris and I love podcasts and we couldn’t find one where two Asian Americans talk about pop culture of all kinds, so we decided to make the podcast we wished to see in the world. Our first four episodes are now up on iTunes/Google Play/Spotify/everything! A few of the things we’ve talked about so far: Always Be My Maybe. Our top five problematic faves. The most adult things we’ve done in the last year. Our top five power couples. The Farewell. Our top five albums of the ’90s. It’s been really fun and we’re so excited to share this and to keep making it. If you’d like, you can follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and stream us here.

I Didn’t Love the Mulan Trailer as Much as Everyone Else Did

On Sunday afternoon, I was working at a coffee shop when a Facebook Messenger notification lit up my phone. “OMG,” the message read, with a link to the teaser trailer for Mulan that had dropped earlier that day.

Judging from my social media feeds, “OMG” seems to be the consensus around this trailer. Objectively, I can see where this response is coming from: Every scene is beautifully shot. The lead actress, Yifei Liu, is a wonder — a sword-wielding, ass-kicking queen. The fight scenes look elaborate and intense. The entire cast appears to be not just Asian but specifically Chinese — which, given that we’re only three years removed from The Great Wall, is nothing to sneeze at.

The few lines of dialogue we got to hear, however, made me cringe.

Mulan says two lines in the teaser (which, to be fair, is all of 89 seconds long):

“Yes. I will bring honor to us all.”

and:

“It is my duty to fight.”

And I felt my eyes roll all the way to the back of my head.

Continue reading on the Salt Collective

I Never Wanted to Move Back to Michigan

“Of course I miss Michigan,” she said.  “Don’t you?”

It was the day after Thanksgiving, 2005.  I was home from my first year of graduate school — my first time living outside my home state, my first time needing to fly home for the holidays. After graduating from college the year before, I had watched almost all of my friends leave for New York and San Francisco as I stayed in Ann Arbor, applying to graduate school and trying to enjoy my life before selling my soul to a six-year program. Since most of my friends in town were still undergrads, I had spent much of the year hanging out near campus, fielding strange looks and pointed “Didn’t you graduate?” questions — thinly-veiled accusations that I was weird for still being around, that it was time to move on with my life.  By the end of the year, I was desperate to leave, the last kid to be picked up from the party.

Now I was a California resident, living just outside LA.  I had tons of new friends, a graduate program that I found endlessly interesting, and a constant supply of warmth and sunshine.  I could walk less than a mile to restaurants, shops, and grocery stores; I could drive less than five for a run around the Rose Bowl or a hike in the San Gabriel mountains.  I was animatedly describing all of this to my high school friends at our annual post-Thanksgiving leftovers potluck as they shared about their new lives in New York, DC, Boston — vast upgrades from our childhoods in the Midwest suburbs, we all believed.  Well, all but one, who had wistfully asked me this question.

I looked at her with a mix of surprise and confusion.  No, I did not miss Michigan.  Not even a little.

***

Much changed over the next decade, but my feelings about Michigan did not.  I missed certain things about it — my family and the handful of friends who remained there; specific restaurants (Ajishin, Olga’s) and regional delicacies (Vernors, Superman ice cream); fall and the crisp air, changing leaves, cider mill donuts, and football Saturdays that accompanied it.  But overall, I was content to live 2,000 miles away, my longings for home sated by phone calls and twice-yearly visits.  After graduate school, when my classmates started to move back to their small hometowns in the Midwest and the South, I felt only bewilderment.  Why are you going back?  I wondered. Wasn’t the point to get out?

Then I had a baby, and everything changed.

***

My husband and I knew that having children far from our families would be challenging.  Almost everyone we knew who had children also had the benefit of families nearby on whom they could rely for child care, or else they had incredibly generous friends whom they could treat like family and call when they needed a night out.  We had neither.  My husband’s family was also in the Midwest, thousands of miles away; we were relatively new to the San Francisco Bay Area, and our friends-like-family here had just had a baby of their own.  We had other friends we could call in a pinch, but in terms of our day-to-day lives, we were going to do this by ourselves.

My parents came to town for a month when our son was born — a nod to the zuo ye practice of traditional Chinese families, only without all the restrictions.  I did not anticipate how helpful it would be to have food on the table at every meal in the midst of my exhaustion, how much I would appreciate having someone to hold the baby while I napped.  My mother took care of everything — cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping — without placing on me the burden of giving her instructions.  If she saw something that needed to be done, she just went ahead and did it, and I was immensely grateful.

More significantly, I did not anticipate how meaningful it would be to watch my parents start to form a relationship with my son.  They thought everything he did was miraculous — stretching; staring at lights; contemplating their faces, brow deeply furrowed.  They found him as interesting as my husband and I did, and they were as concerned about his burps and bowel movements as we were.

So in the month they were here, I came to understand why people choose to live near their extended families, why my grad school pals had forsaken our interesting, progressive city for their small, boring hometowns.  These relationships were beautiful.  The help was lifesaving — not to mention cost-saving.  Having seen very little of my own grandparents, who lived in Taiwan, I had not understood the meaning that grandparent-grandchild relationships could have — or how my own relationship with my parents could evolve after having a child.

One night during that first month, after my parents had returned to their AirBnB, my husband and I revisited our conversation about where our next destination would be.  We had started this discussion a few months before, overwhelmed by the cost of living in the Bay Area and how much more we could get elsewhere — and how much less stressful life could be as a result. Seattle was high on both of our lists; when my husband suggested Ann Arbor, I laughed dismissively.

Tonight, though, things were different.  “I would move to Ann Arbor tomorrow,” I whispered as we reclined in our bed, our newborn sleeping soundly in the bassinet beside us.

“Me too,” he said.  And just like that, our new plan was in place.

***

We kept this plan mostly to ourselves for the next two years, quietly checking homes on Zillow every night, letting on to friends who asked that we were contemplating a move at some point but not to where.  Between us, though, it only felt better with time.  Ann Arbor was a dynamite city, one I adored and had deep connections to, one that reminded Robert of a progressive version of his hometown.  It made every top-ten list for cities in which to raise a family, to go to college, to retire.  It was an hour from my parents — close enough that we could see them regularly and they could be a normal part of our lives, but not so close that they could drop by unexpectedly.  It was also significantly closer to my in-laws in Missouri and our siblings in DC and Boston than our current home in California.  It was diverse — for the Midwest, at least — and our kid would never be the only Asian American or multiracial kid in class.  It had more than enough restaurants and cuisines to keep us happy, especially as a young family that didn’t need thousands to choose from.  Thanks to the university, it had a constant stream of interesting talks and lectures and concerts coming through, not to mention year-round sporting events and performances that were relatively affordable.  It had a hospital where Robert could practice his very specific kind of psychology.  At no point did Ann Arbor ever feel like the wrong decision.

We tentatively planned to leave six months after Robert’s California pension vested — in the spring of 2019, right before homes in Ann Arbor started going on the market en masse.  Then I got pregnant with our second child.  On a rare breakfast date in the early days of my pregnancy, we looked at each other across the table and wondered how we were going to raise two children with no family help.  We moved our proposed moving date to fall 2018, immediately after Robert’s pension vested.

Remarkably, things have more or less gone to plan.  I had that baby, albeit five weeks sooner than expected.  Robert got an unofficial offer from that hospital in July; after ten weeks of waiting for state approval, during which we managed our anxiety by making every spreadsheet and timeline possible like the two firstborn children we are, it became official a few weeks ago.  We set our moving date for October 30 — interminably far when we thought about how much longer we’d have to raise these kids without any help, but far too soon when we thought about all the friends we’d want to see before then.  We’ll live with my parents outside of Detroit while we look for a house in Ann Arbor, which could take anywhere from a few months to most of a year, during which time we’ll take full advantage of all the extra hands we have to help us with our children and to feed us.

So in three weeks, I will be returning to Michigan as eagerly as I left 13 years ago.  Whether you’re a pal from high school, college, or grad school from the state or a friend with no Michigan connections, we warmly welcome visitors (seriously, please come visit) and offer our still-hypothetical guest bedroom.  Here’s to new beginnings in old places.

Snapshots

March 20, 1988.

I am 5 years old.  It’s hard to say what grade I am in — preschool?  kindergarten? — because the school I attend does not have grades, or so I am told.  When I am not in school, I spend my time riding my Sesame Street tricycle up and down the driveway of my house in suburban Detroit and pestering Donny, the older boy who lives next door, to play with me; he relents only when his real friends are not around.  Occasionally, when we are reading before bedtime, I ask my parents for a little brother, like the ones I see drawn in my books.

I have no idea that in a few weeks, my parents will tell me that a brother is coming, and a few months after that, he will arrive.  I will spend a few uncomfortable days under the care of my grandparents, whom I hardly know, and at some point my father will pick me up to take me to the hospital and meet the baby.  When I arrive, my mother will be sitting up in the hospital bed, smiling at me, and hand me presents from my new brother.  One of them is a fat red pen that writes in 10 different colors.

Either because of the pen, or because this brother is the fruit of my requests for the past year, I will become instantly, fiercely protective of him.  When nurses arrive to draw blood from his toes and he cries out in pain, I start screaming as well, louder and wilder than he does.  I will be hysterical with rage, threatening the doctors and nurses with imprisonment at the top of my lungs.  My parents, for the first time experiencing life as the parents of two, will not know how to respond.

I have no idea that this baby brother will become my favorite thing in the world.  There will be times in the coming years when he will annoy me, when he will barge into my room when I want to be alone, when my parents will force me to take him to the mall when I go with my friends.  I will also bear the responsibility of being his second mother, teaching him to wash his hands after he uses the bathroom, acting as an intermediary between him and my parents.  But for the most part, my brother will be my pal, my confidant, my teammate.  We will share snacks, personality traits, inside jokes, tastes and opinions on most things.  We will sit across from each other at the dinner table, the first to read the other’s reaction in light moments and heavy ones, our silent side conversation continuing night after night.  In rockier times, he will be the person with whom I silently huddle, whom I seek out in the aftermath when my words have returned.  For all the people I will meet in all the years to come, he will remain the only one who knows what it was like to grow up in my family.

I am in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of my life to date.  My life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And I have no idea.

 

March 20, 1998.

I am 15 years old.  I am a sophomore in high school.  I have liked the same boy off and on for about 2 and a half years, suspecting at times that he is interested too, but with no reliable evidence.  I am newly obsessed with what college I will attend.  I have decided that I no longer want to go to Michigan, as I have for my whole life until now.  I want to study both theater and medicine, so at this point, I am most interested in Northwestern.  I still hate being Asian.  I have no Asian friends, save for YT, which is fine because I rarely encounter any Asians; when I do see them, on Saturday mornings at orchestra practices, I dismiss them as one-dimensional and regard them with contempt.  I read the Bible every Sunday for half an hour, as I have for about a year and a half, still not really comprehending what I’m reading but recognizing that it is of vital importance.

I have no idea that in a few months, YT will invite me to her new church and I will love it.  I will find that the Asians whom I snub on Saturday mornings are, to my surprise, really likeable.  I will stop hating my ethnicity.  For the first time in my life, I will make sense to myself, because I share things in common with this community that I’ve never shared with anyone else before.  I will meet people who will become some of my best friends and remain so decades later.  I will become a Christian, a choice that will permanently alter both my personal and professional trajectories.  Upon reflection years later, I will be unable to find a single part of my life that was not profoundly impacted by both this reconciliation with my racial identity and this decision to become a Christian.

I am in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of my life to date.  My life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And I have no idea.

 

March 20, 2008.

I am 25 years old.  I am in my third year of graduate school in clinical psychology.  I have a crush on an acquaintance from school; I know in my heart of hearts that we would not be a great fit, but I see no better options around.  I am in the midst of an existential crisis, as I have realized this year that I do not want to be a therapist, that I am in graduate school mostly because it is what my parents expected of me.  I am terrified that I have locked myself into a career that I am not enthused about when I have so many other interests.  I am exhausted from constantly changing hats, from spending my days running between class and research and practicum and all of the meetings that my role in the Psychology Graduate Union requires.

Desperate for relief, I am hoping to spend three weeks over the summer alone in Barcelona, writing and finding myself, in an eat-pray-love adventure of sorts.  Should I stay in graduate school, I reason, this will be my last hurrah before my clinical training goes year-round and I am indefinitely bound to my home outside Los Angeles.  My parents flatly refuse.  I am dejected until a classmate tells me a few days later that there is one spot left in our school’s annual summer theology intensives in Orvieto, Italy.  I race across campus to confirm this; the next day I return with my $300 deposit.

I have no idea that on this trip, on a bus to Siena, I will meet my life partner.  He will sheepishly ask if he can sit next to me, hoping to finish our homework assignment; I will allow him to sit but not to get any work done, because I am too busy regaling him with questions.  We will talk the whole way there and the whole way back, and a few days later we will do the same on a trip to and from Assisi.  He is kind, present, and centered, his responses thoughtful and measured.  Our bus conversations will turn into long nighttime walks around Orvieto, overlooking the Umbrian countryside; on our last night there, we will see red, white, and green fireworks in celebration of St. Peter’s Day.  When we return to LA and make our relationship official, I will be amazed by how easy it is, by how transformative it is to be loved unconditionally, by how this relationship makes me more at ease in my own skin.  Two years almost to the day after that bus ride to Siena, I will marry this man, declaring before family and friends that he is the best man I’ve ever known.  We will build a life together that will evolve its own language and culture, that will anchor us through moves and career changes, that will yield a new little life that brings us joy beyond measure.

I am in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of my life to date.  My life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And I have no idea.

 

March 20, 2018.

I am 35 years old.  I am a writer, adjunct professor, organization co-runner, toddler-wrangler — in that order, I tell people, though the reverse is probably more accurate.  No matter how much of the other three I do, I measure my professional success by how much I am writing, which is never as much as I want to be.  Because we live so far from our families, I am fairly certain that our days in the San Francisco Bay Area are numbered, and the cost of living here does nothing to dissuade me.  I have mixed feelings about parenting, but at two and a half, our son is the most delightful he’s ever been.  By day, I watch him fall in love with the world — squealing at animals and anything he finds cute, excitedly naming all the numbers and letters and vehicles he sees, saying words and phrases he’s never uttered before — and do impressions of him with my spouse at night.

I am 6 months pregnant with our second son.  If it were entirely about me, I would not have opted to have another child; our life is full enough with the one we have, whom I am crazy about, and I consider it highly unlikely that we would have another one this easy.  I am also grateful to finally be in a place where I can spend part of my time working and part of my time tending to the child, a place that took two years to reach.  But it is not entirely about me.  I want this boy to have a teammate, like the one I got when I was 5, like the one I still have as an adult.  My gratitude for mine has only increased with time, especially as I started a family of my own and began the reflection on my family of origin that this process often triggers.  There is no one else in the world with whom I can process what it was like to grow up in my family, who understands how my parents empowered me and wounded me, who appreciates their ongoing evolution in the same way that I do.  I want my son to have the same — someone to play and fight and learn to share with, someone to share secrets with, someone who can understand what it will be like to be raised in our home.  Thirty years after getting a teammate, I am giving my son one of his own.

He is in the midst of perhaps the most formative year of his life to date.  His life is on the verge of cataclysmic change.  And he has no idea.

The PAAC Lent Devotional

Last month, a member of Progressive Asian American Christians asked if anyone knew of a commentary or devotional that was maybe a little more progressive and maybe not written by a white man. No one knew of anything, but another member wondered if we could make one ourselves. Within 72 hours, she had gathered (and scheduled!) more than enough people to make one for every day of Lent, including not just writers but also illustrators and photographers and calligraphers and dancers.

Today is the first day of said devotional, and I couldn’t be more stoked. I haven’t done anything in Lent for years, so i’m looking forward to actually doing something. And more than that, I’m so proud of this amazing team for seeing a need and creating something beautiful to meet it.

One Year

A year ago today, I posted a piece on The Salt Collective about how lonely it is to be a progressive Asian American Christian. At the end of it, I linked a brand-new Facebook group that my brand-new friend Lydia Suh had just started. I had no idea that in the course of a year, that group would become a vibrant online community of over 5000, members would host meetups in 17 cities, we’d start a podcast with our new friend David Chang, we’d host a national conference, we’d launch a 9-month online intentional learning community with 28 dynamite fellows and 9 incredible speakers. I had no idea that this community would teach me so much, introduce me to amazing people and dear friends, and make me feel at home in a way that I hadn’t since I was 17. I had no idea how dramatically my life would change.

What a beautiful, crazy, transformative, humbling year it’s been. So thankful for Lydia and the many, many people who’ve made this experience so rich and meaningful.