What if Vincent Chin was an evangelical Chinese Christian? (Expanded)

December 5, 2016

This year, there has been an increase in anti-immigrant and racist incidents across the country. President-elect Donald Trump’s election campaign, which openly courted these sentiments, has been blamed for emboldening many people to perpetrate such acts. The church that I pastor was an apparent victim of such an attack just prior to the elections. Two backward swastikas and the word “die” were etched into a window and door in the back of our building as you can see in these photos:

We have not been able to find the perpetrators. When I posted these photos on my Facebook feed, I alluded to the elections, but provided little additional commentary. Most of my Facebook friends viewed this incident as an instance of a renewed climate of racism and nativism. Many, many friends and churches offered supportive words. Some even offered to help pay to replace the windows.

Many folks at my church, however, appeared more perplexed than angered or fearful. After all, this incident could have been a mere prank rather than an overtly racist act. Our large English and Chinese sign would have made us an easy target for pranksters or white nationalists. Even after local news reported numerous anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant incidents, my members did not seem to want to talk much more about it.

I think it’s safe to say that most Asian immigrant and conservative evangelical Christians are averse to addressing explicitly the structural sin that leads to racial discrimination, the violations of civil rights, and other seemingly minor acts of intimidation. Most of us are more comfortable engaging Family Values activism and remaining satisfied with being charitable. To paraphrase sociologist Christian Smith, like most of the evangelical world, most of us Chinese Christians do not have the “theological tool kit” to understand the systemic nature of racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice.

But what if more conservative Asian American evangelical Christians discovered that speaking against racial injustice, for example, is a core faith commitment? What if we learned how to break free from privatized spiritual habits? The editors at Inheritance Magazine challenged me to imagine an alternative history. So I came up with a fictionalized story of how an influential Chinese American evangelical family helped the Chinese Church in America to break their silence around racial injustice.

Because of space limitations in Inheritance Magazine, my original story was shortened considerably. So here is an expanded version. But remember, this never happened! Let me know what you think! – Tim

about-photo

Dr. Tony Yang


Update Dec. 6, 2016. Last June, fellow historian Dr. Tony Yang interviewed me to discuss racism and my Vincent Chen story in his “I’ll Look Into It” pod cast. [go to illlookintoit.org].

Here is the interview: 


Original Article: Timothy Tseng, “Chinese Evangelical Vincent Chin Pronounced Dead: What if Vincent Can had been an evangelical Christian?Inheritance Magazine (June 2016): 34-37

NOTE: In this story, Truman Wong, Chinese Evangelical Missionary Society and Go for Christ Missions, the narrator and his family are fictitious. The rest of the story is based on actual historical accounts.

San Francisco, California

June 20, 1982

“Why was he in a place like that?” Mom nearly shouted into the phone. “Okay, we’ll pray for him and for you. Please let us know if anything changes.”

Mom hung up the phone and returned to the dinner table. She could barely contain her agitation. “That was your aunt Lily. Cousin Vincent is in the hospital now. Very badly beaten. In a coma. Two men were arrested. They were white.”

“What happened?” Flora and I asked in unison.

“She’s not sure what happened. Vincent was at a topless club last night. We don’t know why he was beaten so badly.”

“What about his wedding? Are we still going to Detroit next week?”

“Flora!” mom was agitated. “We should be praying for Vincent!”

My sister Flora just graduated high school but had the sensitivity of a fifth grader. But she was right. Our family was planning to attend Vincent and Vikki’s wedding next week. But Vincent was in the hospital and everything was up in the air.

It’s not as if our families were very close. Mom and Vincent’s mom were not real sisters. They met at the Chinese Bible Church (CBC) of Detroit back in the early 60s before the church moved into the suburbs. Cousin Vincent had been recently adopted. Even though Uncle David was an American World War II vet, he worked all his life in Chinese laundries. Brought over from Canton province in China as a war bride, Aunt Lily also worked in laundries and restaurants. She found a support network at the church and mom became her best friend. At that time, dad and mom started the Chinese Evangelical Missionary Society (CEMS) at CBC. Years later, as CEMS grew into one of the largest Chinese para-church organizations in North America, our family moved to the Bay Area.

When CBC moved to Detroit’s northern suburbs, Lily and Vincent stopped attending. They said that the church was too far away, but I suspect that its new middle-class Mandarin-speaking professional members made it less comfortable for the working-class Cantonese-speaking Chins. But after Vincent’s dad died last year, Aunt Lily and Vincent started going to CBC again. Mom and Aunt Lily renewed their friendship. We heard that cousin Vincent was making his way into computer graphics field (whatever that was) and looking to purchase a new house.[1] His mom was planning on moving in with him and Vikki. We were especially delighted to learn that Vincent and Vikki had re-committed their lives to Christ and had started to attend the English ministry at CBC.

But for some inexplicable reason , Vincent was at a topless bar. And now everything was up in the air.

March 16, 1983

Instead of a wedding, we made the trip to Detroit for the funeral. We found out that Vincent’s friends persuaded him to have a bachelor’s party at the Fancy Pants strip club for one last fling. Such a tragic decision for a guy whose life was heading in the right direction. Everyone was glad that Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were apprehended. The good folks at CBC encouraged Lily and Vikki to forgive as they awaited the hearings. But Aunt Lily, having lost her husband and her son over the past two years, confessed that forgiveness was the last thing on her mind.

Today, however, Judge Charles Kaufman had found Ebens and Nitz guilty of manslaughter. But he sentenced each of them to just three years probation, a $3,000 fine, and no jail time. No prosecuting attorney was present and neither Lily nor any witnesses were called to testify.

“Are you certain that you want to do this, Lily?” mom had been on the phone for over an hour.

“Yes! Vincent was my only son. And I cannot rest until there is justice for him! He needs to rest in peace, too. I am all alone now and really need your help.” We could tell Aunt Lily was crying bitterly as her voice shrieked over the phone.

After praying with Aunt Lily, mom and dad gathered our family for a discussion. When she shared the details of Judge Kaufmann’s ruling, we were all shocked.

Lily’s very upset. She wants to appeal the ruling,” mom said. “and she wants our support to hire legal counsel. She will ask for help from CBC and the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council.”Despite thinking that racial prejudice was behind the light sentencing, we didn’t want to entertain that thought any further. Nevertheless we decided to donate some money for Aunt Lily’s appeal.

June 5, 1983

Our family dinner conversation was tense.

“I want to go to the rally,” Flora insisted. “I’ll be safe. It’s being organized by some Asian American churches in the Bay Area.”

“Which churches?” asked dad.

“The Chinese Community Church of Berkeley, a couple of Japanese congregations, I think. I know that Chinese Presbyterian Church of San Francisco and folks from Cameron House are involved.”

“Well, I’m not sure we should associate with liberal Christians. The greatest Chinese evangelists taught us to avoid them. They care too much about worldly affairs instead of preaching the gospel. That’s what John Sung concluded after his studies at Union Theological Seminary. And he was right. After the war, these Christians compromised with the Chinese Communists. Chinese evangelicals should focus on preaching the gospel and building up our churches.”

“But most of my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship friends will be there, too” Flora said. “So will many local American-born Chinese evangelicals. This isn’t about fellowshipping with non-Christians or liberals! It’s about speaking up for justice. And isn’t that part of the bible, too?”

Detroit’s Chinese community had gone ballistic over Judge Kaufman  and refusal to acknowledge their anger. Yes, the American auto industry was tanking, but blaming someone who looked like a Japanese person for it and then beating him to death… and then that judge’s sentence made me boil over. I was especially outraged when I learned that Kaufmann said, when questioned about the sentencing, that Ebens and Nitz “aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.” How could a statement like that NOT diminish the value of Vincent Chin’s life?

American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) was formed in late March to coordinate the community outcry. Members of twenty groups in Detroit formed ACJ, including the Detroit Buddhist Church, the Chinese Community Church, and Chinese Bible Church. Their legal team appeared to have found evidence of racial discrimination when one of the dancers reported hearing Ebens making racist epithets at Vincent and his companions before the fight broke out. They sought federal civil rights investigation into the case. ACJ also mobilized many groups to raise national attention and apply public pressure for a fair sentencing. On May 9 about 1,000 marchers rallied in downtown Detroit to protest the sentences. Rallies were planned for a number of major cities, including the one upcoming in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“But I don’t see how making all this ruckus with angry rallies will help,” dad opined. “Isn  If this wasn

As the General Secretary of an important Chinese evangelical para-church organization, he was never expected to speak on a public issue. While increasing number of younger Chinese Christians were urging him to address the Vincent Chin case, he correctly ascertained that CEM’s support base would be highly critical of any venture into the social arena. Dad was feeling the pressure and seemed genuinely torn.

Foe instance, most expected the Chinese Community Church, a member of the liberal United Church of Christ denomination, to be part of ACJ’s effort, But we were taken by surprise by CBC  In fact, CBC circulated a letter to Chinese evangelicals and encouraged them to pray and seek justice for Vincent and Lily Chin. They wanted dad to write an editorial in the CEMS newsletter.

We were also surprised that the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE) also took a public stance. Truman Wong wrote an editorial in the most recent issue of FACE’s quarterly newsletter, AboutFACE, that broached a public matter for first time ever. I shared with my dad this excerpt:

     Our brother in Christ, Vincent Chin, was not the perfect model of Christlikeness. But God was turning his life around. He was renewing his commitment to Jesus Christ and the Chinese Bible Church of Detroit….The God of the Bible is both forgiving and just. Out of love for him, his mother, Lily, and his fiancé, Vikki, we invite our fellow Chinese American evangelicals to speak out for justice. Even if you do not participate in upcoming rallies, please take time to study about biblical justice, to pray for a fair hearing, and send petitions to your local representatives.[2]

“Dad, please say something to all the Chinese churches.” Flora urged.

I interrupted, “God put you in a strategic position to give our churches the courage to raise up their voices. Don’t you remember George McKinney’s message at Urbana? At times, the church must speak up for what is right.”[3]

“And not just for Chinese Christians, but for everyone who suffers injustice,” Flora added. “Suffering for our faith doesn’t mean we have to remain silent. The next generation of Chinese American Christians will not want to be silenced.” Flora was making me proud. Just one year at Cal’s IV chapter and she was thinking like a prophet.

Mom looked directly at dad and finally spoke, “Stephen, I don’t think it is wise to remain silent. Our children need to know that we care about what they care about.”

“Okay. I’ll call Jeremiah and propose that CEMS and Go for Christ Missions make a joint statement.”

August 1, 1987

Today I start my first full-time pastorate at Chinese Bible Church in Detroit. It took me an extra year to finish up at Fuller Theological Seminary, but the delay was worth it. I was able to be part of some exciting developments. I’m not talking about the Vincent Chin case. That was a disaster. It started well enough. A federal investigation was opened, partly in response to the public pressure. In November 1983, Ebens and Nitz were indicted on two counts – violating Chin’s civil rights and conspiracy – by federal grand jury. The following June, Ebens was sentenced to 25 years in prison for violating Chin’s civil rights, but was released on a $20,000 bond. Nitz was cleared of all charges.  Then last September, a federal appeals court overturned Ebens’ conviction on a legal technicality (an attorney was accused of improperly coaching prosecution witnesses). This spring, the U.S. Department of Justice, facing intense public pressure, ordered a retrial to be held in Cincinnati, Ohio. But Ebens was cleared of all charges in May. In last month’s civil suit, Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million to the estate of Vincent Chin. However, he disposed of his assets and fled the state. Neither Ebens nor Nitz have spent a full day in jail for the beating death of Vincent Chin. Asian Americans are very dispirited, but new movements for racial justice – both secular and Christian – were launched.

Chinese evangelicals, in particular, have made remarkable progress. The 1983 joint statement from CEMS, Go for Christ Missions, and FACE found its way into just about every Chinese evangelical church and ministry in North America. This statement, based on the section on Social Responsibility in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, encouraged Chinese American evangelicals to more deeply explore the meaning of biblical justice and social engagement. I was one of three seminarians invited to be on a commission created to study current issues, make recommendations, and implement social justice ministry programs on behalf of the Chinese church. I believe that the commission broadened the North American Chinese evangelical church’s social concerns to include poverty, gender discrimination, and other pressing issues. After the shooting death of Greg Owyang on June 30, 1985, this commission offered reflections about violence and gun control. Truman Wong’s Chinese ministry program at Fuller Seminary and other Chinese-language seminaries incorporated the commission’s resources social justice into their curriculum. Partnerships with Asian American activist organizations were forged. Chinese evangelicals are getting a reputation for being deeply engaged with most important issues affecting Asian Americans.

The work of the commission gave overseas-born and American-born Chinese evangelicals an opportunity to work together on common issues. This ameliorated some of the inter-generational tensions within the Chinese American churches.

But not everything has turned up roses. As my dad anticipated, financial support of the groups that issued the statement shrunk. Many well-known pastors were very critical of the statement and the commission’s work. Another Chinese organization was formed to counter our public stances with politically conservative alternatives. Oh well, at least these folks are also engaging the public square.

Neverthless, I think the best thing to come out of all this was Aunt Lily’s restored faith. Yesterday she told me that she recently contemplated returning to China because she was so disgusted with the U.S. justice system’s inability to be fair to racial minorities. But after witnessing how her son’s death inspired Asian Americans and Chinese Christians to fight for justice persuaded her to stay and share her story of struggle and inspiration. Occasionally she speaks at churches and public events, but she tells me that she prefers to simply talk to young people over tea. I think Aunt Lily is becoming a symbol of the struggle! [4]

SOURCES

“Murder of Vincent Chin” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Vincent_Chin

Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2010)

Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (New York, 2000) pp. 55-81

The Lausanne Covenant (1974). 5. Statement on Christian Social Responsiblity https://www.lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant
     We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all people. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression. Because men and women are made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture, class, sex or age, has an intrinsic dignity because of which he or she should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ. The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead. (Acts 17:26,31; Gen. 18:25; Isa. 1:17; Psa. 45:7; Gen. 1:26,27; Jas. 3:9; Lev. 19:18; Luke 6:27,35; Jas. 2:14-26; Joh. 3:3,5; Matt. 5:20; 6:33; II Cor. 3:18; Jas. 2:20)

NOTES

[1] http://racerelations.about.com/od/historyofracerelations/a/Remembering-Vincent-Chin.htm

[2] Chinese Bible Church actually did not participate in ACJ and did not give attention to the Vincent Chin case.

[3] George McKinney: Professing Christ In The City (Urbana 1981) https://urbana.org/urbana-81

[3] George McKinney: Professing Christ In The City (Urbana 1981) https://urbana.org/urbana-81

[4] The real Lily Chin returned to China in 1987.

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