Hi friends! It’s been way too long since we last met on these pages. I’ve very much been wanting to write, but my regular routine has changed considerably since my last post in early December. The biggest difference between then and now? I’ve gone back to school!
Well, not in the usual sense of going “back to school.” I’m not working on another degree. Rather, I’m working for a school, the University of California, Irvine, to be specific! I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to get back into anti-violence work, something I’ve longed to do ever since I had to step away from my role with Man Up Campaign a couple of years ago. UC Irvine has hired me, on an interim basis, to serve in its Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) office as the school’s Violence Prevention Coordinator! That means I’ll be helping to lead the university’s efforts to educate and train members of its community in recognizing and stopping gender-based violence, including dating and domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking, and other forms of intimate partner violence. I’m excited to have this chance!
My appointment is a temporary one, as I just mentioned, while UC Irvine looks for a permanent Violence Prevention Coordinator. But I hope I’ll prove worthy of the long-term position, which I’ve already applied for.
As for the work itself, so far, it’s going well. There’s still a lot for me to learn as I get up to speed on policies and procedures, but working alongside my colleagues and connecting with the students has been truly delightful.
And hopefully, as I get settled into my new routine, I’ll be able to get back into the regular rhythm of posting on this site! Take CARE until then!
I still have my very first Bible. I was five years old when it first overwhelmed my small hands – a heavy, black hardcover edition of the King James Version with “Holy Bible” stamped in golden, old English lettering on the front.
I still remember the first verse I ever learned using that Bible. My teacher at the fundamentalist Baptist school I attended underlined it with a red felt pen, as she did for all the students in our first grade class. In what we’d now call an eight point serif font, that verse spoke these words in black and white: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1.1).
I don’t use that Bible anymore; I haven’t since junior high in the early 1980s. Even during my twelve-plus years as a church minister, I favored modern translations, meaning King James either gathered dust on my office shelf or slumbered with other religious tomes in a storage box.
But I can’t bring myself to just give it away. That Bible represents the first baby waddles of almost my entire lifetime following in the path of Jesus Christ. It also reminds me that the white Southerners who ran my Baptist school, in a working-class part of oil-boom Houston, were the first to teach me what Christians call the gospel. That’s the “good news” about a God who loved us so much that he sent Jesus, the faultless One, to willingly endure enhanced interrogation, skin-shredding torture, and an unjust, grisly execution – all so we wouldn’t have to.
Tragically, I also absorbed from these fundamentalists a plethora of self-righteous and judgmental teachings, massive errors of biblical interpretation which sounded perfectly legit to my young mind and faith at the time. The toxicity consumed me from within as I became a harsh judge not only of others, but also of myself. Emotional and spiritual anguish came to dominate my waking hours, and did so for years.
Over the last decade, deep personal archaeology guided by a skilled and caring therapist, supported by my wife and a small circle of friends to whom I can tell anything, has been vital in my still-ongoing recovery from fundamentalism.
But though my first Bible teachers saddled me with a ton of theological and psychological baggage, I am still thankful that they introduced me to Jesus. That much they got right, these Southern, white evangelical Christians who distrusted government and universities; looked with suspicion upon any scientific theory that measured time in millions of years; abstained from profanity, pop music, drinking, and dancing; and cherished both Robert E. Lee and conspiracy theories about the end of the world.
Though many of those teachers have passed on, I recognize them in today’s Religious Right. That’s the millions of evangelicals, overwhelmingly white, who intensely support very conservative politicians and causes, believing that doing so returns America to its Christian roots. Such a spiritual revival, they say, spares the nation from God’s judgment for its immorality and brings economic blessings and security. Their words and actions make them seem descended from my Baptist school teachers, and not in a good way.
Nothing grieves me more right now. It both shatters my heart and infuriates me that so many politically conservative white evangelicals, who were first to tell me about Jesus, have made his “good news” look, to a watching world, like anything but. Not since the televangelist scandals of the 1980s have I witnessed so many people who aren’t Christians express their shock at the actions of those who profess to be.
By supporting him so strongly, these and other evangelical Trump enthusiasts, ranging from those with prominent pulpits to the average Joe and Jane in the pews, have effectively tied many Americans’ perception of Christianity to Trump’s behavior. And again, not in a good way.
Don’t believe me? Check out this small sampling of op-ed titles:
This is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve heard so many comments that reflect our current reality – that evangelical Trump enthusiasts have made Christianity look terrible, unrecognizable to many who aren’t Christians, as well as to some of us who are.
And what, then, of the gospel? The gospel, the good news about Jesus that these evangelicals would claim is the most important message in human history, gets completely lost.
To be perfectly clear: I truly believe that white evangelical support for Trump has seriously damaged the cause of the gospel. The Religious Right is alienating far more people – “causing them to stumble,” to use Jesus’ language – than it is attracting, all in pursuit of political goals.
A number of us Christian public commentators said that this would happen if Trump were elected with a high level of white evangelical support. One of the most prominent was Andy Crouch, longtime executive editor of Christianity Today. One month before the election, he wrote:
Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.
Sadly, Crouch’s words are ringing more true by the day.
To be honest, if I weren’t already a Christian, I would perceive Christianity that way, too.
Power to the (Wrong) People
Standing with Moore also gives a sense of power to sexual predators and child molesters. I highly doubt there are many evangelical Moore enthusiasts who have considered this.
It is a terrible fact of life that there’s no place on Earth where abusers and assaulters won’t go to carry out their evil acts, and that includes houses of worship. I have known a number of abuse survivors who were victimized by people they knew from their churches. I have heard countless other such stories; often, the perpetrators were trusted family friends and even church leaders.
And what are these sexual predators, sitting in churches where Roy Moore is being defended as a godly man, thinking? They’re feeling emboldened, seeing and hearing exactly what they’ll need to say and do to get people to support them, should their own abusive acts ever come to light.
And what are abuse victims, sitting in these same churches, thinking? If they have yet to come forward to talk about what’s happened to them, they are now even more frightened of doing so; it would be an added trauma to tell their story, only to find people believe their victimizer rather than them. Those who have already told others about their assaults will likely feel re-traumatized.
The Religious Right’s strong support for Trump and now Moore are hurting a ton of people.
Man of Constant Sorrow
Yes, I am grateful to politically conservative white evangelicals for introducing me to God and the gospel many years ago. Yet their descendants now weigh my heart down with great sadness for all the damage they are doing. Sometimes, it very much feels to me like I’m reading from a totally different Bible than they are. And their Jesus? Unrecognizable to me. I wish it were not so.
Andy Crouch also wrote last year (emphasis mine):
There is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
Dear brothers and sisters in the Religious Right, in love I plead with you to turn away (in biblical language,repent) from depending on men like Trump and Moore. Repentance is the right thing to do, but I ask you to also do it for the sake of sexual abuse and assault survivors, and so that predators are not emboldened in committing their heinous acts. Do it, too, for the sake of the gospel, and so that you don’t continue to cause many to stumble.
Content Warning: Quotations of very strong, abusive language.
That Escalated Quickly
It began with a single phone call this past June to New York City’s famed Public Theater:
Tell that fucking bitch to get out of my country. I think it’s absolutely disgraceful what you guys are doing. You all are fucked up!
More such calls followed, sporadically at first, then with increasing frequency until they became a raging torrent. Within hours, the Public’s ticket office was completely overwhelmed by thousands of abusive calls, all responses to reports that the company’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar showed Donald Trump being stabbed to death. A small group of ticket operators handled the complaints, daily enduring hours of verbal and emotional abuse in the process.
Now, although box office operators have rarely, if ever, been the protagonists of literary opuses, a brand new one-hour play, Behind the Ides, tells the real-life story of those who worked at the Public during its run of Julius Caesar. A dramatic staged reading of Behind the Ides premieres next weekend (September 29, 30, and October 1) in Los Angeles, and I am incredibly excited for audiences to experience it! I’ve been fortunate to read the script in its entirety, and it’s truly powerful and timely.
Part of the play’s impact comes, I think, from the fact that playwright David Armstrong depicts events that happened to real people. But he also uses numerous word-for-word quotations of actual calls to the Public Theater, making the trauma the operators experience more shocking, and their struggle to cope more moving. The play then confronts audiences with essentially the same question I and many other Americans have been wrestling with lately. I’d put it this way:
How do I engage my fellow citizens whose fundamental values seem very different from mine, especially those who feel threatened by people like me, and who also support policies that threaten me and my loved ones?
Much Ado About Something
At the opening of Behind the Ides’ first act, the Public Theater controversy is just beginning. Perhaps you’ve previously heard about the actual uproar this past summer, which truly exploded when Trump-friendly media corporations Fox News and The Blaze, along with white supremacist website Breitbart, devoted major air time and screen space to the story. Though the Public has for years been one of the nation’s leading theater companies, winning over 50 Tony Awards and premiering highly successful musicals like Hair, A Chorus Line, and Hamilton, corporate sponsors Delta Airlines and Bank of America consequently withdrew their financial support. Even the National Endowment for the Arts distanced itself from the Public.
Unquestionably, the Public’s rendition of Julius Caesar intentionally resembles Trump:
Yet I think most folks who’ve been to a Shakespeare play know that it’s customary for characters to wear attire that either pre- or post-dates the era in which the story is actually set. For its Julius Caesar, the Public presented characters from first century B.C. Rome in attire from present-day America. In fact, other theaters around the country have long outfitted their Caesars to look like whomever the president was at the time; Caesar has resembled nearly every president since Ronald Reagan, including President Obama in a 2012 Minneapolis production:
Behind the Ides shows how the Public Theater and its ticket operators even took pains to clarify that the assassinated character isn’t Trump, but Caesar, and that its version of Caesar resembles Trump to provoke thought, not promote disrespect or violence toward him. In fact, such is the underlying message of Shakespeare’s tragedy. (SPOILER ALERT IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS IN JULIUS CAESAR!) Far from being painted as heroes, Brutus and the other conspirators are condemned for resorting to violence. The fact that they were attempting to keep Rome from slipping into authoritarian rule doesn’t at all justify their murdering Caesar. In short, the ends doesn’t justify the means.
But that’s not how thousands of Trump supporters interpreted it.
Perhaps the abusive call in Behind the Ides that disturbs me most is this one, taken verbatim from the Public Theater box office’s voicemail:
You people are sick. You are disgusting. You are glorifying violence. It’s actually really, really sad. Really fucking sad and pathetic. You all think you’re so brave, putting on a show like this, and it’s just some sick, depraved fantasy. And then you hide behind your chickenshit email from the 1980s. Be ashamed. It’s shameful. You are not Christians. You are not good people. You should all burn in Hell for this. I will pray for you, but I don’t think there’s much hope for you, honestly.
As a former minister who pastored evangelical churches for more than a dozen years, I’ve definitely known folks like this. More basically, as someone who still identifies as a Christian after nearly 40 years of faith, I’m embarrassed.
But though I’m embarrassed, I’m glad Behind the Ides includes this voicemail in the script. (Sadly, it’s not the only one that’s piously high and mighty.) It epitomizes for us what not to do when attempting to engage fellow citizens whose values seem quite different from our own. And even though Armstrong’s play portrays just how awful Americans can be to their fellow citizens, it also shows how the box office operators strove to rise above the meanness. The play ends up being a story that is real, yet with hope.
I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the dramatic staged reading, and I hope you can make it, too! It features a highly diverse cast, which is always a win; the eight very talented actors and actresses will voice over 80 parts among them! I’m also excited for the production because I have great confidence in director Joan Marie Hurwit, who’s a friend of mine. We first met through her work with Native Voices at the Autry, and I’ve found her to be very thoughtful, incredibly hard-working, and strongly committed to directing and producing art that truly benefits the communities in which they are staged.
I asked Joan what she hopes Behind the Ides accomplishes, and she said (and I’ll quote her):
At this moment in time, art is inherently political, and artists are activists. When we choose to tell stories about the social climate, we have the power to implore our audiences to not only engage in a conversation with us, but also to carry that consciousness back out into our communities to effect positive change.
Since Behind the Ides is a new play, and it’s been very exciting to workshop and shape it as we go, I don’t know that I expect it to accomplish anything in particular. Instead, I hope it provides a foundation for people, especially of differing viewpoints, to have a conversation, to start a conversation. When art brings us together, as this play does, well, I think that’s a beautiful place to start.
And if you, kind reader, are wondering if I’ll take my daughters, who are ages ten and eight years old, to the staged reading, the answer is not yet, because of the raw and abusive language in the script. I hope they’ll be ready to see it in a few years. In the meantime, my wife and I will continue to teach and, hopefully, model well for them how to relate to people with whom they don’t see eye to eye in healthy and productive ways.
All of us have promised that we won’t forget. But have we learned?
Have we learned that unity among people is fleeting and doesn’t just happen?That it must be sustained intentionally by leaders and each one of us? That divisive demagoguery, both in office and over the air waves, weakens the ties that bind us?
Have we learned that our lives are more meaningful when we commit time and treasure to helping each other rather than just consuming stuff?
Have we learned to separate Muslims from murderers? That persecuting Muslims is not only un-American, but anti-Christian? That religious freedom for one faith community must extend equally to all, lest it become ineffectual for all?
Have we learned that our safety is much more threatened by white, American-born young men with weapons of mass murder than by brown, foreign-born ones?
Have we learned that though surveillance is necessary to our security, privacy is necessary to our American identity?
Have we learned that force must only be a last resort? That without wise leadership and planning, we cause more destruction than we prevent?
Have we learned that all our daughters and sons who serve in combat and survive do bear the wounds of war, even if unseen?
Have we learned that the security of our people is advanced much more efficiently and effectively by seeking the good of all peoples and not just our own?
Have we learned that each person in our land deserves empathy and compassion, regardless of, well, anything, and that criticism ought only to proceed in humility not self-righteousness?
Have we learned that we Americans have much more in common than we don’t?
Let us never forget. But let us be sure that we also learn.
No matter where I go in the world, Houston will always, in my heart, be home. I haven’t lived there in over 20 years, but that won’t change.
I was four years old when my family moved to H-Town, starting out at the tall Sheraton Hotel over by Memorial City Mall. After moving to Katy for a year, we settled clear across town into the South Belt area house which holds my childhood memories.
That house probably sustained significant damage during Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Houston. I don’t have a picture of my old home during the flooding, but I assume there was considerable damage because my neighborhood was the one most mentioned in tweets for help last Saturday night. As Harvey’s torrential rains pounded furiously and relentlessly, rapidly overwhelming drainage systems, desperate residents in my old community – unable to get through to 9-1-1 or the Coast Guard by phone – tweeted pleas for rescue. Their 140-character posts, listing the number of people trapped, their ages, and the addresses of their flooded homes, were gut-wrenching to read.
Some of them noted that they were taking shelter in their attics to escape quickly rising waters. Other Twitter users responded, imploring them to take an ax or hammer to break through the roof if necessary.
The lot on which my old home was built was particularly susceptible to flooding, given that it was lower than the others on my end of the street. So half a block of runoff always flowed toward us, and the sewer drain directly across from us, when storms came.
And oh, how there were storms. Most vividly, I remember Hurricane Alicia. Almost exactly 34 years before Harvey, Alicia schooled me in just how many ways water could invade a home.
It would be surreal to behold my old home now, surrounded by a moat. It’s even more devastating to see Houston, my city, MY CITY, looking like something out of a post-polar-ice-caps dystopia. It absolutely breaks my heart, especially to see what’s happened to places I’ve known and even loved.
Most of all, I hurt for my family and friends. Their suffering has constantly been on my mind throughout my waking hours. My wife has a few relatives there, and we have, literally, hundreds of friends who still call the region home.
A number of them have had to leave their residences, some wading through flood waters with kids on their backs and bags of clothing in their hands. Several friends have already begun ripping out floors and breaking down sheetrock, in a race against the spread of toxic mold. Others can’t get to their homes because nearby roads are still rivers. There are even neighborhoods that will remain flooded for weeks because they’re situated near reservoirs that must release water to prevent dam failure.
I have been so proud of my city to hear the many stories of neighbors and even strangers rescuing, feeding, housing, and clothing each other. My heart is touched seeing Greater Houston’s 6.5 million people, spread over 9000 square miles – an area greater than the size of New Jersey – looking out for each other in genuine empathy and compassion.
That’s my city. MY CITY.
It ain’t perfect, not by any means. It’s got its infamously unbearable heat and humidity, making the city hotter than hell, according to many a visitor – though how would they know? It’s got incredible traffic that daily chokes the patience out of drivers courageous enough to brave its 600 miles of freeways. And it’s definitely got the other problems that big cities usually have.
But it’s got an incredible spirit, one of cleverness and can-do. To me, that’s very aptly symbolized by the Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium, which kept legions of mosquitoes out and the air conditioning in. It’s also still a major point of civic pride that the first word spoken from the lunar surface was “Houston,” reflecting the creativity and gumption with which Houstonians led American efforts to put a man on the moon.
But to me, the spirit of Houston is found, as much as anything else, in its ethnic diversity.
They’re All Precious in His Sight
Greater Houston, the fifth most populous metropolitan area in the country, has long been majority-minority. Just 40 percent of folks are white, while 35 percent are Latino. One out of every six residents is African American; around seven percent are Asian. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times declared Houston the “most diverse place in America.” (Yes, the L.A. Times!) CNN’s celebrity chef-turned-globetrekker Anthony Bourdain says it’s “as multicultural a city as exists in the country.”
This diversity was plainly visible to me in my younger years when I’d drive along Bellaire Boulevard near the Beltway; even back then, street signs were posted in both English and Chinese. The ethnic flavor of that part of town has only mushroomed since then, with Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and mom-and-pop businesses as far as the eye can see.
The heterogeneity was also visible in my deeply refreshing visits to Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Houston’s Fourth Ward. Its pastor, the Rev. D. Z. Cofield, was my first prof in grad school and became nationally known that semester when he officiated the memorial service for legendary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. More recently, D. Z. even served as the head of Houston’s NAACP chapter.
Houston’s ethnic diversity is also audible. 145 languages are spoken in the Houston area, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, French, Tagalog, Korean, Yoruba (a Nigerian language), and Tamil. Nearly half of Harris County’s residents are bilingual.
(Alas, I took Latin in high school, and my proficiency in Mandarin Chinese can only be described as … mild. Fortunately for me, one of Houston’s 145 languages is English, although it’s not always intelligible to folks from other parts of the country.)
The multi-hued character of the city is also embodied in its favorite sons and daughters. Its best-known citizen is the still-popular, nonagenarian former president, George H. W. Bush. But its most beloved star athlete arguably remains a Nigerian immigrant and proud American citizen, basketball Hall of Famer Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon. Hakeem the Dream, as he was called, led the University of Houston to three straight Final Fours and the professional Houston Rockets to its two championships.
The sculpture that honors Hakeem outside the Rockets’ home arena, the Toyota Center downtown, is a clear reminder that the spirit of Houston welcomes people from every corner of the world. A devout Muslim who amazed ignorant non-Muslims like me by dominating even during Ramadan, Hakeem wouldn’t consent to a statue being made in his image; that would violate Islamic teaching. So the team made a sculpture of his Rockets jersey, which stands as a testimonial to his accomplishments, his integrity, and the mutual love between the native of West Africa and his adopted city.
Of course, no discussion of Houston’s favorite sons and daughters could exclude the one, the only, the Queen – Beyoncé! Surely she needs no introduction. But I’m old enough to remember when a new girl group called Destiny’s Child signed CDs and posters at the local Blockbuster Music with only modest attention paid to their presence.
Other internationally prominent figures closely identified with the Houston area include the late Tejano singer Selena, champion boxer George Foreman, and Houston Rocket Yao Ming.
Together, they embody what I see as the spirit of Houston: a multiethnic rainbow of resourceful, optimistic people who, when push comes to shove, don’t give a flying Texas cockroach’s ass about how different you are. You’re a neighbor and a human being first and foremost.
Wouldn’t it be something if it didn’t take tragedies to remind us of that?
But that’s one of the things about Houston – as a whole, it doesn’t forget. When things went to hell in Vietnam, Houston took in tens of thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia. (Every Vietnamese friend of mine back then, and I had many, came to Houston shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975.) Houston, in fact, takes in more refugees than any other American city, and most other countries. If it were a country, Houston would be the fourth most welcoming in the world to refugees.
Yes, that causes conflict with the state’s governor. We won’t get into that right now. And of course, Houston has its share of racists and xenophobes. But they’re not the majority, and they’re not usually the ones in charge.
Not Over Yet
I very much appreciate the outpouring of generosity that the rest of America is directing toward my city. I do ask that you’d remember that this crisis isn’t close to being over, and it won’t be for literally years to come. Flood waters are still rising in some areas. Folks trapped in homes are still being rescued. Thousands are still without essential services like running water and electricity.
And then there’s the long, arduous clean up, which may take more than a year, if other storms are any indication. Nearly 200,000 homes throughout the Gulf Coast have been damaged or destroyed. Only 20 percent of folks have flood insurance, meaning thousands have lost all their material possessions.
Of those whose homes are currently uninhabitable or are total losses, their owners or renters need to find some place to stay for the next several months, if not longer. These victims especially face difficult challenges. Many potential alternative housing options, like vacant apartments, were also flooded. So then where do these folks go? Some have been evacuated to Dallas and Austin, far from their jobs and schools. How will they make it until they return, if they eventually choose to?
In months to come, when you feel the pain of how much more you’re paying for gas because Gulf Coast refineries are offline, please remember my city. Please keep praying, for human effort alone can only restore so much. Please keep giving, both out of compassion and because Houstonians will be there for you when disaster strikes your region someday, just like they were for Louisianans after Hurricane Katrina.
Hi friends! If you don’t see any new posts on this site since the last time you visited, check out my pieces for HuffPost, which just a couple of months ago invited me to join as a contributor! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my reflections as a feminist dad blogger and an Asian dad blogger.