Rep. John Robert Lewis, civil rights legend and longtime Georgia congressman, passed away last Friday at the age of 80. Reading the news, I thought about my visit to Albany in southwest Georgia some twenty years ago. I remember driving by little cabins and cotton fields stretching to the horizon against the Southern blue sky – the kind of landscape whereby the American slaves were forced to handpick cotton all day. More than half a century has passed since the 1963 March on Washington, where John Lewis at just 23 walked as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement. But deep-rooted racism can still be felt in the economies and living conditions of African American communities, and not only in the Deep South. As much as the struggle for racial justice continues, John Lewis’ voting rights legacy and dedication to non-violent activism surely remain as an inspiration to live up to. “You must be bold, brave, and courageous and find a way…to get in the way,” he famously said.
Recently, a Korean American community leader asked if I could have a conversation with Black church pastors. “Please help mitigate anti-Asian assaults coming from Black people,” he said. I told him, “Such matters need a partnership for the long haul. How about you contact Rev. Al Sharpton?” He replied, “It’s not so easy because Rev. Al Sharpton’s not in the best of health lately.” There are a few civil rights giants who have worked hard to improve ties between Korean American and African American communities. Rev. Jesse Jackson, who’s based in Chicago, is one of them. Former Atlanta mayor Rev. Andrew Young is another. The relationship between Korean Americans and Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the NYC’s most influential black leaders, was strained due to the black community’s boycotts against Korean American produce stores in the 1990s race strife. But it has improved since, so Rev. Al Sharpton would have been a perfect person to reach out to. All in all, working in solidarity with African American community leaders will only be more important in the future.
The coronavirus crisis has brought the social problems to the forefront and in a way, we’re given the chance to honestly look back on ourselves. In the midst of all groaning and griping, faith pushes us to seek God’s Kairos moment and discern how God is interrupting our old ways of living to renew the world. We need spiritual wisdom to discern how God brings order out of disorder, ‘cosmos’ out of ‘chaos.’ God’s word and prayer is the place to look.
Cries to dismantle racism have grown into protests to dismantle the deep-vested interests of our society. We need these movements to ignite positive social transformation, which is possible only through respecting democratic and electoral processes. The consequence of rushed, abrupt dismantling is a social revolution, which is not without its dangers.
Our priority at the given moment is to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and to rebuild broken livelihoods. But recovery won’t come easy as long as the president prioritizes his political agenda at the cost of people’s lives. On the one hand, we have Trump supporters who take his words at face value and take face masks as a matter of personal freedom. On the other hand, they are clashing in the streets with protesters around the country. Trump is not the only one with the political agenda, however. NYC Mayor de Blasio painting the “Black Lives Matter” mural outside Trump Tower is also a political gesture that feeds division at large. In response to the mayor’s recent move, now police advocacy groups want to paint “Blue Lives Matter” on NYC streets. I wonder what the mayor wanted to achieve by showing a double standard. He basically gave permission to his critics and others to do likewise. As the Korean saying goes, “If others do it, it’s an affair; but if you yourself do it, it’s a romance.” Whether it’s Trump or de Blasio, I would like to see our politicians focus first on preventing the spread of the virus and recovering people’s livelihoods.
Saving and restoring lives should come before everything, both at national and local grassroots levels. A few days ago, a group of Black, Hispanic, and White pastors in New York met us on Zoom to share their Food Pantry ministry know-hows with us. We share food to help relieve hunger but also to take a step closer to our neighbors of all ethnicities and backgrounds. This time’s good neighboring ties is an important change for us – a transformation from the grassroots – but we can’t do this alone. We need partners and friends who are also focused on sustaining lives.
Someone once asked John Lewis, “What would you have said back in the 60s, if someone predicted that you’d become a congressman?” Lewis replied, “I would have said, ‘that’s not possible.’” But it happened. Lewis served for 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and in time, the first black president Barack Obama honored him with the medal of freedom.
God’s Kairos moment will be fulfilled through those who seek to find the way.