J.S. Park: Hospital Chaplain, Skeptical Christian
From Devout Atheist to Skeptical Pastor: A Blog For Busted-Up, Beat-Down People (Like Me)
I was asked why I joined a protest.
First: I am 100% behind the Black Lives Matter movement. Do Black lives matter? A resounding yes.
I also believe we can be 100% behind a movement that is not 100% perfect. We can engage without endorsing every single part of it. This has been true for every movement in history.
If the church dismisses a “secular movement” because it’s too “liberal,” the church will remain a windowless tower. It will isolate itself from all streams of healing and from all wounded people. And if the church cannot be the hands and feet of Jesus in these places, then who? What gospel will they hear except a self-affirming superiority?
I’m reminded of Rev. Dr. MLK Jr, who navigated every social-political sphere and led with leaders like Rabbi Abraham Heschel and monk Thich Naht Hanh. As a Christian minister, Dr. King moved in places he may not have endorsed, but that’s how the secular and sacred worked together. No divide, only divine.
What’s sad to me is that “social justice” has been demonized by church leaders. It’s “not real salvation.” So no longer does the world go to the church like they did to Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. If only the church was the bold beacon of hope it ought to be: movements would come to the church and we could lead together. Just imagine. That’s real evangelism.
It has been centuries now since the church was the pioneers of progress, the cutting edge of arts, science, music, education and human liberation. Now: churches are cultural conversion camps, cut off from a world they deem wrong.
Yes, I can uphold my theology in differing places, and more, my theology compels me to them. If your faith is “contaminated” by partnering with movements, what does that say about your faith? If a movement has to be done a “Christian way,” where are you? In the world, not of the world: that is a skill we must re-learn.
So no, I cannot separate myself from secular spaces, scholars, sources. God is moving there when the church won’t. I want to be there. To walk boldly and compassionately as Jesus did among tax collectors and Roman politicians, across all divisions. And I will always be for the wounded, every time. Every single time.
One of the big points that I make in my book is, “Self-awareness is only fully found in the awareness of others.”
That can mean
– deep, uncomfortable reflection
– reckoning with our own bias, prejudice, beliefs, and actions
– hard conversations
– asking for feedback
– hearing the stories of others – reading works from others with vastly different experiences
– one-on-one dialogue with safe people who are willing to process with you
– apologizing specifically on the spot
– praying with safe people
This does not mean
– putting the burden on others to educate you
– only discussing things online
– trying to process as a way of catharsis and clearing your conscience
– merely saying “sorry”
– forcing others to process without their consent
– comparing your story with someone’s story
– dumping your past guilt with racism onto a person of color, which can retraumatize them
– making yourself the hero of the story, but rather humbly receiving the gift of self-awareness
These are hard things. They can’t be done overnight. May we pace ourselves and keep pacing. Be blessed, friends.
Hey friends! I was interviewed by Jordan Raynor on his podcast The Call to Mastery. We talk about grief, false theology, my very tough work as a hospital chaplain, and my book The Voices We Carry.
On Spotify here.
On Apple podcasts here:
Jordan Raynor is bestselling author of Called to Create and Master of One. You can follow him here: https://instagram.com/jordanraynor
Yes, statistically, things are getting better. Global world hunger is down, the living wage is up, life expectancy is up, annual deaths from natural disasters are down, number of educated and vaccinated individuals globally is up, and the majority of the world population has electricity.
But when I sit with a patient who has brain cancer, when I sit with a homeless person who has been continually assaulted and lost their children, when I sit with a patient brutally assaulted by authorities, when I sit with a family who cannot afford their loved one’s chemo or surgery, when I sit with a woman who has been passed around the foster system and been taken advantage of countless times—no, I do not quote these statistics.
I do not hold up pictures of cancer survivors shaking hands with their doctors, smiling and posing.
I do not hold up pictures of families in front of their new houses shaking hands with their real estate agents.
I do not say, “Only one percent of people with coronavirus actually die.” Yes, fortunately things are getting better. But I have to keep asking, “Better for who?” Better for chronically ill individuals with no hope of coverage? Better for the elderly in nursing homes who are kept in prison-like conditions? Better for prisoners who are kept in inhumane conditions befitting of war crimes? Better for the Black community who struggles just to be heard?
Better for who?
Better for you and me, maybe.
But better for you does not make it true.
As I sit with the grieving and wounded and oppressed: I dare not quote facts and stats that mock their tragedy.
Because as long as my neighbor is not okay, it’s not getting better.
I cannot rest until we sit in the same shade.
[Statistics largely cited from Factfulness by Hans Rosling.]
You more than matter. Black lives are beloved, cherished, dignified, and bearers of the Image of God. It is a truth denied but it is no less true.
My friend “Shayla” (who gave me permission to share her story) was telling me that after the hundredth video of a Black person beaten in the streets, after one more citation of false facts and stats, after one more demand to “just work harder and get off welfare and quit drugs,” she had the terrible thought, “Maybe they’re right. I’m not human.”
After so many racist messages and images, it can become impossible not to believe, “I’m not human.” Or, “They’re right.”
The internalized trauma of racism is crushing. Day after day, the Black community is denied their lives, art, beauty, voices, stories, truth. Even when we know these racist messages are not true, they have a way of creeping in, suffocating, infiltrating our beliefs.
It cannot be overstated how much the trauma of racism deteriorates a soul. Trauma has a way of saying, “I am what has happened to me.”
I say as a chaplain but also as a human being: I have seen so many kinds of grief, but to believe your skin makes you deficient is one of the saddest, most haunting pains of all. It sticks so hard. It kills. It takes a thousand times more work to restore wholeness than to tear it down.
I will always be on the side of the wounded. I will do all I can to be part of that thousand steps towards wholeness.
For me, to say Black Lives Matter is a starting point to recognize the full worth of Black Lives. In Korean, the phrase Black Lives Matter is “huhg-in-eh seng-myung-un so-joong-hapnida,” which means Black Life Is Precious. I will continue to say Black Lives Matter, but even more, precious and worthy—not just worthy of protecting, but also having inherent worth.
If you are burned out, traumatized, overwhelmed by racist messages and images, please know the truth: you bear the Image of God. Your worth is not in what you’ve done or how you’ve been treated. It may be hard to believe today, but you are loved. I am with you and for you. As much as I love you, the Creator loves you infinitely more.
MYTH: “No one is born a racist, we are taught racism.” So I really wrestle with this one. I get the sentiment: Racist behavior must be cut at the root, or else it’s passed down. Yes, we need to unlearn bad behavior and teach better ones.
But if I went to every single bully in high school who threw punches at me while yelling ch*nk and asked their parents, “Did you teach your child to be racist?”—they would say no. Most of us don’t teach racism. To say we’re “taught racism” implies that if we’re just nicer and look people of color in the eye, then racism is thwarted. The myth is that learning better behavior is enough for equity. But that’s easy mode. And it’s easy to learn that game without real internal change.
When we say “racism is taught,” we might have a comical picture of neo-Nazis or southern racists in rusty trucks openly yelling racial slurs around their kids. So it’s easy to say “I’m not as bad as them” and never once consider ourselves in that cartoonish pool of people.
The truth. Ideas are not always taught, but caught. Ideas are stitches woven into systems, which weave their way into our DNA. Ideas can be learned by absorption, osmosis, by simple exposure, and our atmosphere has an insidious way of becoming the normal in our bones.
In other words, you may not have been “taught racism,” but you and I have been stitched into the fabric of systems that do not act with equity, justice, and accountability. We are not guilty, but we’re responsible.
Yes, where you‘re born is out of your control. The systems and structures are not of your making. But the unawareness of our environment does not disqualify us from participating in that environment. You take on the benefits of your birthplace. Those benefits are not birthrights. They’re only a reminder that no success is self-made.
Others take on the blisters of their birthplace. And if the words of Scripture are true—“if one part suffers, every part suffers with it”—then we must treat this at every level, both inside and on sidewalks. To simply teach good behavior is the bare minimum. The uncomfortable part is to enter in, own our duty, and to listen.
There are so many conflicting images. Peaceful protesters lying down in streets, kneeling and pleading, distributing masks and praying and holding signs for justice. Protesters separating instigators and educating witnesses. Then the burning buildings, looting, assaults, the provocateurs, outside agitators, the opportunists. Law enforcement shooting rubber bullets and tear gas, more knees on necks and backs, driving their vehicles through crowds unprovoked, even as crowds shout no. And images of officers and citizens kneeling together, hand in hand, reconciling, trying to understand.
I think it’s too easy to pick one image and make that the whole story.
Here’s what I see.
What I see is rioting and crimes committed, but even more, peaceful protests and people listening.
What I see is the black community disproportionately abused and killed. But even more, I see their deaths expose a coldness, that we’re unmoved and still, the response a dismissal and derision, as if they‘re a subhuman species, second class, their stories replaced with stats, “black on black,” and misplaced facts.
What I see is that the black community is not seen.
What I see are images of riots being weaponized to ignore pain: “What about the fires and looting and riots” in my inbox, and never once, concerned about racism and brutality on their street blocks. Instead it’s “Look at these burning buildings” and I feel them and I agree, and I also want to point to these burning black communities, they’ve been burning already for centuries while we had the luxury of apathy. You see good work undone by riots—but did you see good work undone by your quiet? I see both; I must see the bigger picture; and right now the pain is bigger, the protests are bigger, those are the thousand words in every picture.
If you wave around just the one image, then maybe you’re seeing what you want to see and you’ve looked for what you want to believe.
I see the violence and I condemn the harm. I also see protests and we have to march.