Faith, madness and community…

Why do Koreans not treat their mentally ill until they go stark raving mad! My friend’s frustration was evident. We were sitting in Nak won, competitor of Ho Do Ri in the Ktown 24 hour bulgogi fix and the conversation wound until we finally got to the elephant we were trying hard to understand. One of my friend’s rounds in her med school journey was in the emergency psych ward. We had many conversations about it, being a Korean speaker she was often called upon to engage with the Korean patients and she found it to be a challenge to her faith. We had much dialogue on why God would create someone with such a disability; we had worked it out some but completely. Her concluding thought on the issue of the Virginia Tech killings was most revealing “This should be a wake up call to the Korean community that we need to seriously deal with mental illness and not just hide it until they end up in the psych ward!”

When an event like this happens, it breaks in and shatters our reality. At this point, no one is asking the right questions. One group is asking, “How can we stop this” “Where did we go wrong?” Another group is trying to point fingers and assigning blame. I found myself asking, "Where was his family? Where was his community? Yet, watching the Koreans here and abroad react out of their own cultural contexts has been painful. Issues of identity (just how Korean was he?) and culture get tangled in with the reality of 32 deaths. The current debate over whether or not NBC should’ve aired Cho’s materials is a distraction from the real issue, our broken healthcare system.

If mental illness is a stigma and a burden for the white middle class mainstream, it’s a nightmare in our immigrant communities. Many don’t speak English and come from backgrounds where there is very little education or understanding about mental health, much less illness. In discussing this event my pastor asked me a key question, where’s the church?

The answer: crippled. Church in America and in many other places has become a place where fitting in is what’s important, not transformation of lives. As long as people play by the rules and say and do the right things, they are Christian enough to fellowship with on Sunday only. The rest of the week we go back to our lives. The people on the fringes, who don’t fit into our boxes get ignored and shoved out, with sometimes-disastrous consequences. By all accounts this young man, despite being quiet, played by the rules, until his last day, when he broke them.

If we are followers of Christ why then aren’t we following his examples? We follow a savior who killed pigs to restore a demoniac. A savior, who when presented with a women who had been married several times, simply told her to stop sinning. When presented with another woman who was caught in adultery, he saved her life. Jesus did not sit in his home temple and only heal and teach to his fellow Jews who looked, acted, thought and talked liked him. No, he traveled and met and engaged with people who were very different than him. He healed people regardless of ethnicity or social class. Jesus met with people on the fringe, people who did not play by the rules, or who were shunned because of the rules.

Which brings me back to the questions raised in my conversation with my friend. It’s not just the Korean community that needs to do some soul searching about how it engages with mental illness. Instead its much bigger, this is a dialogue that needs to be had in the wider Christian community. Mental illness like hate is no respecter of boundaries, whether they be racial, ethnic or class. Isn’t it worth it to kill a few pigs, step on some toes to the save the life of just one person?


The Kaleidoscope of Race

There was a recent survery that came out that stated that Blacks think race is more of an issue than whites. Unfortunately I lost the link I was going to use. (doh!)But i'm sure one of my more energetic and enterprising readers will locate it for me. ;)

Moving on to the main point.

In many ways our discussion on race is like describing what we see in a kaleidoscope. We're all turing our kaleidoscopes and seeing different patterns, but these patterns are defined by our experiences. The problem with using experience as a baseline is that it's not objective. People are notoriously bad at interpreting what they experience. Do DTR's sound familiar? Haven't you ever had a conflict that started over a misunderstanding? I know i've been in plenty, still getting therapy over a few...shudder.

In terms of race what I think is happening is that white people are looking down through their kaleidoscopes and seeing more colors. Black people and other people of color are looking up through their kaleidoscopes and seeing primarily white. Reality is somewhere in between and varies greatly depending upon what part of the country you're residing in. One's experience of race in the South is going to be very different than what they may experience in the Bay Area or in New York.

The trick is to understand how and where your experiences fit in the wider picture. This means that we need to set aside our kaleidoscopes and look at what the academics and other legitimate news/research sources are telling us about race in America. Once we have done our homework, we need to be willing to listen to one another. This means instead of trying to "school" or "educate" someone, perhaps we should "engage" and "discuss". This is an important step because in America most change happens from the bottom up. Women and African-Americans and other important social justice movements didn't gain traction until whites signed on too. That happened once channels of communication were opened between the groups. What this recent poll shows me is that those channels of communication are no longer working. There's a disconnect somewhere. Until we get those channels flowing again we won't be able effectively examine the structural and cultural issues that keep people on the bottom and out of leadership and moneyed positions. Finally, people let's have an honest discussion about class in America and the role it places in our understanding of race.

Many people are trying to engage in the race discussion in a thoughtful way, but lets be honest, it's easier to turn your kaleidoscope than to deal with the reality in front of you. You have more control over your kaleidoscope than actual, living people. Doh!


The Second Chance

So the other day I subjected myself to the treacly, christian, white privileged guilt movie called The Second Chance, starring Michael W. Smith. While it is very tempting to spend this post tearing apart this movie, someone else has done that for me here.

Instead lets examine what this movie says about Evangelical culture of late. A much more interesting exercise.

On the heels of the 90's christian men movement, there has been a growing awareness of social inequality and racial reconciliation within evangelicals. What this movie shows is an extension of that awareness and that white evangelicals are in their own awkward ways, trying to talk about these issues. But more than that we see that more and more evangelicals are trying to engage more with American culture. They are slowly but surely moving away from the specter of Elmer Gantry and fallout that book and later the movie caused. Evangelicals are no longer on the fringes of of the mainstream. they are attempting to move into the middle.

Part of this move to the middle is finally starting to trickle down into the Bible Colleges. The New York Times ran an interesting article on dancing at John Brown University . Apparently conservative colleges in the Bible belt are finally allowing their students to dance, within limits, of course. This is a shift that i had observed occuring at Fuller Seminary among their younger students. Many there were dissatisfied with their fundamentalist/conservative christian background and were more willing to engage in the contemporary culture around them. So that this shift is finally being recognized by a major newspaper is noteworthy.

Here's the most illuminating statement from this article:
"The students I met at J.B.U. were, for the most part, the kind of thoughtful undergraduates whom top secular colleges would be proud to have. They’re not Stepford students. In 2005, a political-science class at J.B.U. took a poll of 228 students, and while on most issues the students were conservative — very Republican, generally supportive of President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq — 43 percent of the men and 55 percent of the women said they believed there were circumstances in which abortion should be permitted. When presented with the statement that “homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in high schools,” only 33 percent agreed. That diversity of viewpoints was what I expected after hanging out with these undergrads for a week. Most were not having sex, but some were; most did not drink, but many did. Most were disapproving of homosexuality, but one student sat down next to me, introduced herself and told me the story of her lesbian love affair in high school. The only thing they all agreed on was that there was something special about their campus culture, even the parts they disagreed with."

There, you heard it from a Nytimes reporter, evangelicals are not a monolithic bunch. Nope, there is burgeoning diversity amongst the youngsters and this is a group that is paying attention to what's going on around them. And this is the group that are going to leading the church, once the boomers step down, doh!

So what does this mean in terms of the movie? Well in my mind, its a start. Hopefully evangelical movies and thought on race, social injustice and reconciliation will become more sophisticated, with more depth. 20 years ago movies like this were being made for tv, now they're being made for churchgoers. Made for tv movies have gotten a bit more sophisticated and the themes they started have leaked their way up to major motion pictures and impacted the wider culture. So, who knows, perhaps in a few more years this move will spark a more sophisticated dialogue among the evangelical leadership on social issues and theological engagement. Moving it from the academic and fringes to the mainstream.