Editor’s note: We are sharing the following transcript from the Progressive Asian American Christian 2019 Conference’s evening plenary message. We are delighted that we are able to share this message from Pastor Vicki Flippin with our Diverging and PAAC communities.
I had a lot of imaginary friends when I was a kid — human, animal, mythical. From the two kids who lived in a log cabin in my backyard to the wingéd-horse pegasus who sat by my desk at school to the channels of water that opened up next to me as I walked through the grass so that my pet dolphins could swim beside me.
I was truly never alone in the world.
Unless you’re counting flesh-and-blood humans, in which cause I was alone quite a lot. [Laughter] And that’s because my family was pretty isolated when I was a kid.
My dad and I were Chinese Taiwanese immigrants, and we were brought by my white American mom to the middle of Missouri in the
But even if there was, I would say that among the Earth’s peoples, the people who made my Chinese father feel the most trepidation were actually other Chinese people. So we did not hang with other Chinese people.
And that is because, a lot of you know, a lot of stuff went down in China and Taiwan in the last few generations. Some of you know that very deeply.
My dad was born in China in 1925. He went to war with the Communists, he lost the war with the Communists, and he fled to Taiwan in 1949, along with the former Kuomingtang government.
In Taiwan, my father’s party, the Kuomingtang (as I understood as an adult in a very painful way), instituted a dictatorship and martial law on the Taiwanese people. And did all the awful things that are associated with that all in the name of ridding the island of Communist sympathizers.
My dad’s suffering doesn’t compare to a lot of the people’s suffering on Taiwan. But my dad was separated from his family for 40 years. And he did leave Taiwan a pretty paranoid and traumatized person.
So when it came to other Asians, he did not trust anyone who was not a card-carrying Kuomingtang party loyalist.
Now, I don’t know if y’all have been to the middle of Missouri, but there are not a lot of Kuomingtang party loyalists there. [Laughter] In the town where I grew up, I think my family was the Kuomingtang party outpost in Jefferson City, Missouri. [Laughter]
So we were isolated. My dad was 60 years old by the time we immigrated to the United States. I was just shy of two when I started growing up as an all-American kid.
My baba loved me. I don’t know if anyone else can relate to this, but he showed his love by being terrified about everything that I was encountering in America. Part of his anxiety, and one of the reasons I had so many imaginary friends, was that my father was convinced that all of my real friend’s parents were trying to marry me off to their older brothers.
If my friend had an older brother, I was not allowed to play at their house, because obviously that is when the sinister plot to arrange my future marriage would unfold. I remember my mom trying to explain my dad’s anxieties to the mother of my best friend in third grade, who was white.
She did the
She was like, well you know, Vicki’s dad grew up in another culture. When he was a kid in China in the
That didn’t go very well. I was no longer allowed to play with that third-grader.
That was one of the many ways I learned not to talk about my Chineseness with the white people in my life. I found out that those things were just to be our family things, our secret family things. Our shameful family things.
Now, I know we often hear about how shame plays such a big role in our Asian cultures. But I have to say, a lot of the shame I’ve been working through is shame that I learned from American white supremacist culture. Shame about my family, about my father, and my heritage.
I was very ashamed of my dad. I was ashamed of his broken English and his smelly Chinese medicines and his weird obsession with floral patterns. I have to say that it’s a hard thing to wake up one day as a young adult and realize that you are racist against your father. And all the parts of you that are a part of him.
But to survive as a kid in white America, I rejected all of it as foolishness. Foolishness.
Now foolishness is a word that I’ve been meditating on recently. In tonight’s reading, Paul says, the cross is, what? [Audience: foolishness]. For the message about the cross is foolishness for those who are perishing.
Now that’s not very nice, right?
We know the cross isn’t foolishness. The cross is our jam! We deck out the cross, we bejewel it up and we wear it around our necks. We make the cross bigger than life. We hang it over our altars, and we prop it up on the biggest hills so that everyone on the freeway can see the glory of the cross. We make it look like vintage, and we wear it on our t-shirts in matching colors so we can find each other on the Six Flags youth group trips.
The cross is our self-expression lifted high, am I right?
A few years ago, the man known as the founder of academic Black liberation theology, the late Reverend Dr. James Cone, published a book called, The Cross and what? [Audience: The Cross and the Lynching Tree]. In the book, Dr. Cone reminds us that to Jesus of Nazareth, and to his community, the cross was not self-expression or decoration or glory.
But it was an instrument of torture and shame and humiliation and punishment. It was the ultimate reminder of the kind of death that you will die if you even look like you might question the power structure.
So to Jesus, and to the criminals on his right, and to his left, and to its countless other victims, the cross essentially had the same meaning as the American lynching tree.
I used to think that Paul said the cross is foolishness to people in the world because they just don’t get religion. People in the world are just haters.
But no, it was because the cross was foolishness.
Christians were running around bringing up over and over again how their leader and the bedrock of their whole movement was a convicted felon who was shamefully executed in an act of state terror.
I mean, the cross was foolishness.
So, it’s so radical when Paul says that the message about the cross is foolishness, to those who are perishing. But to us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God.
But when we really think about what the cross was, the question isn’t how is the cross foolishness. The question is how can a cross be the power of God?
And then Paul blows your mind.
Listen to this, he says, for God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. And God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
He’s introducing this concept that what it means to find power in the cross is to find yourself in some kind of upside-down, revolutionary, alternative, Alice-in-Wonderland universe where foolishness is wisdom and weakness is
Then Paul gets personal. I love when Paul gets personal. Cause you feel like you’re both time-traveling and eavesdropping on someone’s very private conversation. How fun is reading the Bible? [Laughter]
Paul says, and you know he has certain people in mind when he’s saying this, consider your own call, my beloveds. Not many of you were wise by human standards.
Don’t you love that English translation? Can you imagine this letter being read in the church? Like the reader, if they hadn’t read it aloud before they read it in front of the church, and they got to this line and just read out loud to everyone, Consider yourselves, not many of you were wise by human standards. [Laughter]
People must have been like what other standards are there? Dog standards? Chimp standards? What is he saying here? [Laughter]
But in Corinthians, when Paul says not many of you were wise by human standards, he’s not saying, You know, I was here, and I kinda noticed you all were kinda stupid. He’s not talking about IQ or intelligence here.
He’s talking about the kind of wisdom that people buy.
There were rich people, high class people in his society who learned a certain kind of philosophical Greek wisdom. People who could afford this elite Greek wisdom education.
That’s the human wisdom he was talking about.
Paul’s saying this is not a community that is built on that kind of elitist wisdom. This is not a community where, to be listened to, you have to sound well-read or Ivy League educated. He says, That’s not what this community is.
Look at yourselves. You built this community. You are not like that.
He says, Here in this community of the cross, God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what was weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are. That is the power of God.
Now, sometimes it’s hard for me to wrap my head around this upside-down wisdom and foolishness.
But it helps me to think about the church I am so proud to serve in New Haven, Connecticut: First and Summerfield UMC. First and Summerfield is an interesting place. It’s right on the campus of Yale University. Or Yaleu as my dad used to say. [Laughter]
Outside the walls of the church, we are surrounded by status. By the most elite Yale wisdom.
But I want to tell you about inside the walls of the church. First and Summerfield has been hosting a man named Nelson Pinos.
Nelson lives just on the other side of the wall of my office, in this temporary room that the church set up for those seeking sanctuary from ICE deportation and family separation. ICE has this policy that they will not arrest people in houses of worship.
As of today, Nelson has been confined inside of the walls of our church for 519 days. I want to tell you a little bit about Nelson.
Nelson’s from Ecuador, and he has been a resident of the United States for 27 years. Nelson is my neighbor. Nelson is my friend. But most of all, Nelson is a father. Nelson and I talk together about our children all the time.
My five-year-old and his six-year-old play dinosaur puppets together and watch random YouTube videos of people taking candy out of the wrappers. Did you know that was a thing? [Laughter]
Nelson and I marvel together about how that is a thing as we watch our children play. [Laughter]
Sometimes Nelson and I start to talk about how he’s doing. And he has this infectious smile. But sometimes, it droops. And I know he is falling into the despair of the thought that he might have to leave his beloved family behind. Kind of like my dad had to do.
And I have to say it breaks my heart to have to answer my five-year-old’s questions about why her friend’s daddy has to live in the church, and why he can’t go home and, why the government wants to take Brandon and Arlly and Kelly’s baba away from them.
It is sickening that we live in a world where we have to explain these things to our children.
But one of our local immigration activists noticed this recently, that Nelson, from within the walls of our church has, over time, has managed to create a home. Not for himself but for the community.
He has opened our doors to students, and activists, and undocumented people, and sometimes even celebrities.
They come to visit our church basement, which has become Nelson’s living room. They come to see Nelson and to do yoga with Nelson and to plan actions and create art with Nelson. Nelson makes coffee for the activists who gather in our space before they drive up to the state capital for early morning rallies. He opens our space for events that get young people involved in movements around brutality and immgiration justice.
It’s like outside of our walls is one of the most prestigious schools in the world, offering the most elite wisdom. And inside of our walls, Nelson Pinos has become the dean of this alternative learning institution for the wisdom of resistance.
Consider your own call, my beloveds. Not many of you were wise by human standards. Not many were powerful. Not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are.
Before I end, I want to tell you a little secret of mine, just between you and me. Are you ready for my secret? Here it is:
There are some Christian churches for whom I am not their ideal pastor. [Laughter and applause].
There are some churches and some Christians out there who, when they picture their ideal senior leader, they do not picture a young, female, progressive, multiracial, immigrant mother.
If you don’t know, now you know. [Laughter].
It’s actually more than some churches. It’s most of them. [Laughter] And that sucks, it does. But along the way, I have found these rare communities, like some of the churches I’ve had the privilege to serve. Like the PFLAG API Rainbow Parents of New York City. Or like the community that has come to surround Nelson Pinos.
Along the way I’ve found these very special communities where you walk in with every part of you that was a liability in every other space, and people in that community look at you. They look at all of you. And they say wow, you are exactly the kind of person we have been looking for.
Does anyone else know what that feels like? Has anyone else ever felt that feeling?
I think that a lot of us are here because we have found that feeling here at PAAC.
You’ve lived in worlds where pieces of you have been made to feel foolish. Pieces of you have been said to be weak, to be low, and despised. Maybe your race, or your culture, your family, your gender identity or expression, your sexual orientation, your marital status, your citizenship status, your mental health needs or disabilities, your politics or your passions, your doubts about religion.
Some parts of you that the world treats with abuse and disdain, those shameful crosses in your life that you would hide from the world if you could.
But then Liz put out the call, and we found Lydia’s facebook group.
And for the first time, many of us found a community where God turned a wonky world upside-down for us. And our foolishness became wisdom, and our weakness became strength. And we found that every previously shamed piece of ourselves, our immigrant families and our brainy faith, our protest chants and our worn-out bibles, our ancestral traumas and our secret feminist thoughts. Our imaginary friends and our father’s fears.
Every piece of us was valued and honored.
And through a community that really saw you, God spoke, This is my beloved. With you, every part of you, I am well pleased.
Have you felt that?
Because if you have felt that, you know what that can open up in you. The transformation, the healing, the growth that can open up in you when those hidden, shamed, made-to-feel-foolish parts of you are not just tolerated but celebrated as wisdom.
Has anyone found that thing here?
Isn’t that an amazing thing?
Isn’t that a divine thing?
And here’s the thing — don’t you want that thing for every other beloved child of God around you?
Because that thing is nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ. And spreading it is a work of God, for the people of God, thanks be to God, Hallelujah, Amen.