The Green Room Interview: About My Hospital Chaplain Work, Childhood, Faith, Author Journey, and the Pandemic

I was interviewed by my publisher Moody for their author series Green Room.
They asked me about my chaplain work, childhood, faith, my writing process, and my book The Voices We Carry, which is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

With my publisher’s permission, here is the entire interview below.

The Green Room Interview

– Childhood, Interests, and How I Became an Author –

1. What are one or two indelible memories you have of where you grew up? What was your childhood like?

I was seven. When my dad drove my brother and me to elementary school in his worn down Lincoln Continental, there was this was very steep hill that we had to cross. My dad would speed up and my stomach would do the funnies. Our own personal roller coaster. I would say, “Han-bun-duh!” which in Korean means, “One more time!” And my dad would always go one more time. My brother and I would scream and clap and cheer. My dad would do this five, six, seven times. We were always late to school.

I was probably five. We were very poor. My dad took me to this rundown, abandoned playground across from what passed as an apartment. He would pick me up by the torso and fly me around. Just as I was getting high off the ground, he would pretend to drop me. But he never did. He knew it would make me gasp and laugh. Those were hard times, but my father helped me soar, and he always had me.

My father and I.

Father, brother, and I.

We grew up poor, so DisneyLand was basically a trip to heaven.

2. Describe how you enjoy spending your free time and what you enjoy about it. Do you have any unique interests?

I love reading. I’m a little addicted, to be truthful. I have a long commute—an hour to work and back—and I exercise as much as I can, so I listen to audiobooks the whole while. I read to fall asleep, but when it’s interesting, I end up finishing the book as the sun comes up. I’ve tried falling asleep to the Bible before, but I end up three books later hunched over and yelling at David to get his life together. (Ironically, in a way I’m yelling at myself.)

I read as many science-based and atheist authors as I can. Anything about psychology or studies or human nature, I’m all about it: anything by Yuval Noah Harari, Andrew Solomon, Oliver Sacks, Chip and Dan Heath, Daniel Kahneman, Atul Gawande. I’ve read every single book by Brené Brown; she is beautiful and informative. I also love fiction; last year I finally finished The Martian and World War Z. My two favorite books last year were Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which is probably my favorite book of the last decade, and All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, about the author’s adoption and finding her biological parents. I also really loved On Living by Kerry Egan, about her hospice chaplaincy. She endorsed my book, and seriously, my jaw is still on the floor from her endorsement.

I love reading because of something my dad told me: You get a whole lifetime of wisdom and experience in a few days. To read is to live. We grew up poor, but when I asked my dad if I could buy books, he always said yes.

If it takes years to write a book, to read that book is to live a lifetime for just a few pages. That’s more than a fair trade. Sometimes I giggle while I’m reading; it’s the craziest life hack cheat I’ve ever found. You literally become more whole just by looking at scribbles for a few hours.

With the amazing writing team at Moody Publishers, summer of 2019.

3. How did you become a writer? Describe your professional journey.

I must have been eight when I first began writing seriously. My first writing was behind my dad’s business, where there was a lake filled with ducks. I noticed that one of the baby ducks was slightly lopsided; her wing was injured and she swam in circles behind her flock. I jotted this down with my mechanical pencil in my Lisa Frank notepad—necessary tools of the trade for any third grader—and I devised an entire mystery where the town was polluting into the lake, which caused the duck’s wing to grow sideways. No one knew because of the cover-up, of course. And then there was the great Mallard and Muscovy Feud, which turned into all-out war. I’m certain there was a twist where it turns out the pollution wasn’t the issue, but that all the violence between duck species had caused stunted growth. I suppose even then, I was writing about trauma and mental health.

In college, I tried to write several novels. One was about a rogue spy who invaded North Korea to overthrow the regime, and another was about an Asian-American kid trying out different American subcultures like “hooked up car racing” and “suburban gangsters” and “extreme youth group.” I was rejected a ton of times, but I got several handwritten rejection letters, including a very nice one that said, “Your story is weird, but you can write.”

My father and my brother. Passing down a legacy of martial arts.

Over ten years ago, I began a blog. There were no clicks for a long time. I wrote nearly every day. For years, it was a ghost town. I might get a dozen clicks at most. I’d get a hateful comment and I would think about it for weeks; I’m not the kind of person that can shrug that off easily. Eventually I started taking questions on my blog, and slowly, I got visitors. I never really had the one viral post that suddenly catapulted my blog. It was a marathon, one word at a time.

Here’s how I found an agent. My wife’s friend’s husband’s friend connected me, and I had one shot to make an impression. It’s true what they say: it’s really who you know. But the other part of the equation is persistence, the honing of your craft, the open engagement with others. That’s true for any artist, singer, vlogger, dancer, pastor, leader. All those words and tears and sweaty armpits that no one sees, it all adds up to a hopeful shot at a tiny doorway at the end of a long hall. But even if I never got to that door, I loved writing. I wrote to myself. I wrote to God. I wrote because I loved it. I’ve gotten emails that tell me they were going to end it all, but they read something I wrote and stuck around. Those mean everything to me. I write for them and for you.

A virtual seminar with Dr. Deb Gorton and her amazing students at Moody Bible Institute.

My book The Voices We Carry helps readers navigate the many harsh and hindering voices we hear from outside and inside, such as self-doubt, people-pleasing, trauma, and family dynamics, and how every voice no matter how severe has a purpose waiting to build us. It’s also a memoir through my hospital chaplain work as I sit with hundreds of patients at the edge of life and death.

– Faith, Influences, and Epiphanies –

1. How do you engage with God? Describe a time in your life (a season or a single experience) when you vividly encountered God.

I’m the sort of person who doubts God constantly. I grew up an atheist and I found Christ much later in life. My old doubts creep back in, and it’s so tempting to stop believing all this stuff. I imagine that when Moses split the Red Sea, there were victorious Israelites whooping and cheering, and then the screamers who ran on their tippy toes. They all got in by grace. But I’m a tippy toed screamer.

Where I’ve found God the least and the most is during suffering. My own suffering and that of others. At one point during my hospital chaplaincy, I almost slid back completely to atheism. I kept seeing newlyweds with cancer, babies in car accidents, patient deaths with no family or friends. I kept thinking, “I can’t imagine a God in this sort of random, haphazard, unfair anguish. Pain, I get—but why this much pain?” I found it easier not to believe in God at all. But then another thought kept pushing back: “I can’t imagine getting through this without God, either. If not with Him, then how?”

The irony is that I experience God the most, it seems, when I’m doubtful or angry or questioning Him. It’s an odd, paradoxical push-pull. When He appears most absent is when I talk with Him the most. I hate that it happens that way. But in suffering, I find myself perusing through Scripture more, praying louder, having late night theological arguments with strangers, listening to sermon podcasts three or four times a day to find something, any thread of truth and comfort. It’s only in hindsight I found that the pain of seeking Him was a backwards mercy. His absence drips with His presence. I’d like to think so, anyway.

2. Which men or women of faith influenced you most? Why or how?

My very first pastor, Pastor Paul Kim, was a pretty ridiculous person. He took strangers to job interviews, visited hospitals and nursing homes, wrote handwritten cards and letters to every address in the neighborhood, volunteered for local park clean-ups, and made it 6:00am prayer service every single day.

I came to church a tourist, talking loudly in the back row and only visiting to play the drums and meet girls. My pastor had the thankless role of loving a person like me, week after irritating week. He never gave a sign he was annoyed. It took months, but some of his sermons infiltrated my brain. And his love was constant; it was impossible. He was an extension of supernatural grace. That’s how I met grace, too, through my first experience of a person who looked like Jesus on earth.

My pastor, by the way, officiated my wedding, and he does missions in the Philippines to this day.

Wedding, December 2014. Pastor Paul pictured officiating.

3. What is one thing you’ve recently learned in your walk with God that you wish you could have known when you first became a Christian? What circumstance prompted this new understanding?

My early understanding of God was that we tell others about God by transmitting certain information about Him, and that if we knew enough correct theological facts, we could know Him.

I’m not bashing doctrine, of course, because correct doctrine is incredibly important for a proper faith. I’m speaking more about how we communicate about God.

What I’ve come to understand now is that purely transmitting facts about God is a westernized constraint, as if you and I can present a logical, persuasive series of facts, then the other person will “click” into believing God and meet the appropriate threshold for baptism and church membership. Nearly every modern mode of evangelism is based on a salesperson strategy, rife with counter-answers and philosophical gotchas. I suppose this works for some people, but like my preaching professor used to say: If you can persuade someone into something, you can persuade them right out of it.

I realized how short this all came up in my eastern upbringing. For many easterners, we speak in stories and metaphors, and it would not make sense to memorize Four Laws or take a Romans Road or wear a color-coded bracelet. The story of Christianity makes more sense to me as God punching a hole in the pages of the sky to write Himself into our story, that He would enter time to jumpstart healing for a dying people. Jesus’ parables make sense to me. Describing himself as a door, a shepherd, a mother hen, bread, wine, a vine, a ransom, a light, the bridegroom, all are things I can taste, see, touch.

In front of Moody Publishers, summer of 2019.

The Gospel—that is, the good news of Christ having entered the world to save us—ought to be simple enough for a five-year-old and sufficient enough for a man or woman on their deathbed. I love doctrine and I really mean that. But the Gospel is most of all simple and clear, a story of something that happened. It took many unheard sermons fallen on the unfortunate ears of my youth students for me to understand this.

This also means that the story of Christianity, rather than communicated only by verbal transmission, must also be communicated in our story. Christ comes alive in the supernatural surplus of how we live our lives. No one will believe the story unless that story is flexing from our fingertips. Not perfectly, sure, but passionately.

Wife Juliette, six month old daughter Alayna. Not pictured, my dog Rosco.

– My Writing Process, My Book, and Dedicating It to My Late Friend John –

1. What experiences compelled you to write your latest book?

When I entered the hospital chaplaincy program in 2015, the chaplains were tasked with writing reflections every week on our experience. These formed the backbone of my book. Visiting hundreds of patients at the edge of life-and-death, hearing their secrets and stories and regrets and last minute confessions—I was hearing countless lifetimes of wisdom in a single day of chaplaincy. I began to see patterns, hear echoes, to feel familiar currents of how people found peace in the end. My book, really, is a thousand books, a thousand voices.

A wonderful book endorsement by author K.J. Ramsey.

2. Describe your writing process. Do you take a lot of breaks or write in big chunks? Are you a night owl or an early bird? Where do you write and what (if anything) do you listen to while writing? How do you find inspiration when you get stuck?

I have absolutely no formal writing process. I know I’m supposed to, but my brain has a pilot light that gets shy the second I look at it. When inspiration strikes, I grab as much as I can, like a guy in a rainstorm trying to catch water with a teaspoon. I wake up at 3am and write twenty pages. Other times I have a whole free day to myself and end up re-writing a single sentence about four-hundred times.

Having a deadline helped. The night before my first major deadline, I wrote the last three chapters of my book with an all-nighter. It was twelve hours of deranged, delirious writing. (Don’t tell my editor.) My editor said she liked the last three chapters the most. When I re-read them the next day, I didn’t remember writing any of it. You could say the Holy Ghost caught me and threw me into a mad frenzy.

Signing a book for the first time.

Before the pandemic, I visited nearly every independent coffee shop in the Tampa Bay area, and at least a dozen by the beach, to do my mad scientist routine. Home was too lonely, and my wife and dog would just sort of wait around until I was done concocting my verbal potions. The only thing I ever listened to while writing was noir jazz. I’m talking the 1940s black and white hardboiled detective stuff. If I got adventurous, I’d put on a movie soundtrack like Paddington, any Marvel movie, or anything by Joe Hisaishi. But most of the time I’d write in silence, and the headphones just blocked the noise.

I did have one consistent strategy: since I had two jobs, I set aside almost every weekend for six months to finish the book. That was my one consistent plan. My wife was generous and patient through it, but near the end was getting lonely. Writing a book requires a great deal of sacrifice, both from yourself and the people around you.

3. When you were writing this book, what stage of life or circumstances were you in? How did this affect your writing style and perspective?

I was seeing dying and dead people all the time. My faith was constantly challenged, at times on the verge of being tossed in the bin. I confronted my childhood trauma and family dynamics, all which I discovered through the chaplaincy program. My marriage, at one point, was falling apart, before it got “resurrected” by becoming a chaplain. When I wrote, I was desperate a lot of the time, a little manic even. But I was overall very optimistic, because I believed in this chaplain program, the wonderful chaplains I met, and all that God was doing there.

My typewriter, which I use for my typewriter therapy art.

4. What is your greatest hope for your readers?

My greatest hope for those of you who read my book is to find clarity amidst confusion. Both internal clarity with your own voices, and a strong clarity as you move through a world of noise. Amidst all the noise, my hope is that you continue to find what is good and to find what is yours. All the voices we hear can do a lot of harm, but a lot of healing can be found in them too. It takes skill to discern the good stuff and re-write the bad stuff. My hope is that my book can be useful in cleaning up all those distorted signals, finding truth amidst half-truths.

100 Day Celebration. In Korean culture, we celebrate our baby’s 100 days because many babies did not make it this far in our history.

In my book, I wrote a letter to my future daughter. At the time, my wife was not pregnant.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I had a patient (details altered) who idolized his father but hated him just as much. He at turns wanted to be like his dad while also completely jettisoning him from his life. We talked about what it would look like to honor the good things about his father without being controlled by his approval. We also talked about letting go of hating him while recognizing he did some very bad things. This wasn’t a fifty-fifty, middle-of-the-road, centrist take on the situation. It was back-and-forth, incredibly messy, never linear. But by sifting through the voice of his father, this patient soon found his own voice.

5. Describe why you decided to dedicate the book as you did.

I dedicated the book to my wife, my parents, and my brother, because they all helped me to become the fullest version of myself possible; I can only hope I did a fraction of the same for them. My wife is my exact opposite, and exactly who God knew that I needed. Our voices harmonize.

I dedicated the book to my late friend John, who passed away last summer. I have never, ever laughed with anyone as hard as I had with John. Do you know the kind of laughter I’m talking about? It’s an almost embarrassing type of joy, where you’re sure that people are looking but you don’t care that they are. John was my coworker, but also my closest friend at work. He was family to me. He was in the accounting department, but every department knew him. He was always sending me podcasts, songs and quotes that he liked, and one time, a video of himself working out with bricks. A bundle of joy, John was. In John’s last moments, when he was in a coma, I got to tell him I was writing a book. That it was for him. I wish I could’ve told him earlier. But I know that he knows now, and I know his laughter is lighting up Heaven.

My late friend John to my right.

My dog Rosco, hard at work on the sequel, The Bones We Bury.

– Navigating the Hospital in a Pandemic-

1. If we cannot help with supplies and material, what are ways communities can support their medical workers?

– If you’re able to donate financially for healthcare workers, there’s the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, Doctors Without Borders, and the CDC Foundation. You can also give to your local hospital.
Besides donating financially to both local and global healthcare relief, here are a few ways to support our beloved healthcare workers.

If you have any family members or friends who are on the frontlines of healthcare, give them room to process. To vent, to cry, to pray, to make jokes, to shout or scream or rant or talk about a moment of hope they had that day. If you can be a sounding board for a healthcare worker, whether to listen or weep with them or laugh along, without lectures or lessons, this will go a long way for them to unburden themselves. Our regular ways of processing the emotional fallout have been narrowed. We need room to pour out what we’ve taken on.

Having said that, I’m going to tell you a secret about healthcare workers that you might not like, but you’ll need to have grace for. You may be surprised how dark that some healthcare workers can get. If you give them room to process, they may say some wildly uncouth things. That level of humor behind closed doors would be shocking to anyone outside the healthcare field. But we need room for that, too. This is how healthcare workers get through their day. We vent to each other and nobody judges, nobody ever flinches, because we know how it is. It’s obviously not cool in front of the patient, and we’d never get that way around them or their families. But between you and me, we need to be ourselves. We need those silly memes and gallows humor. We need to crack wise. If you can have grace for that without judgment, we’re indebted to you for life.

With my amazing fellow chaplains. Find me (hint: peace).

Express your gratitude directly to a healthcare worker. As specifically as you can. As much as you can. Here’s the thing: I’ve seen hundreds of posts now saying “Thank your healthcare workers,” and those posts are right. My issue is that we’re good at sounding grateful in a general way without directly saying, “Thank you,” and then listing the reasons why. I know I’m thankful for my wife, who’s a nurse practitioner on the frontlines. But does she know I’m thankful? Does she know that anyone cares? General gratitude is hollow, self-serving, and pandering. Real gratitude is sometimes awkward and clumsy, but it means the entire world when you express it with concrete words. If you can pay attention to those moments, God will give you a million opportunities to express specific thanks to our hard-working healthcare workers. You can do that by text, email, messenger, video chat, or face-to-face from six to ten feet apart.

Join an online support group to find out what their needs are. There’s a Facebook group called “Healthcare Workers COVID 19 Support Group” which currently has over 110,000 members. Healthcare workers share everything on groups like this one: things they’re mad about, something hopeful they saw, what their hospital needs right now, the funniest memes. It’s a wild mix of emotions and voices and opinions. Being part of this group has allowed the two things above: to give room to process and to express gratitude directly. It also helps to get a pulse on exactly what healthcare workers need right now locally and globally. It conveys the reality of both the joys and sorrows of being in the medical field. So if you feel called and compelled to do so, take a dive into that world and offer your empathy and grace and compassion. More than anything, simply listen, and as you are called, pray over them.

Chaplain Residency Graduation 2017

With Chaplain Sam at the Chaplain Residency Graduation 2017

2. How can we care for those who are ill if (due to lockdowns and quarantines) we cannot be with them physically?

We can always, always be a kind voice to someone whether by typed text, video chat, or phone call. If your loved one is ill, whether in the hospital or at home, it’s a good idea to schedule a regular time by phone or video to check in and say hello. And it’s also nice to talk about other things besides the illness, because an illness cannot and should not define a whole person. If that’s what they want to talk about, then yes, talk about that. But it’s also good to talk about human people things like TV shows and what the dog has been up to and the strange games your child has invented that week. You can have a movie watch party by phone, or sing a duet, or watch a sermon together, or pray, or ask them, “What do you want to do when this is over?” and fantasize about all the sushi and wings you’ll get at the buffet.

Chaplains, Christmas 2019

A last thing. If your family member or friend has tested positive for COVID-19, chances are that they feel shame and anxiety. Physical illness still carries social and psychological stigma, and in this case, it’s an especially ruthless cycle of self-blame, embarrassment, and feeling like a pariah. The unspoken legalism in our “stay at home” rule is that it’s easy to assume those who contracted COVID-19 were somehow bad and reckless. Please don’t mishear this: Of course we must stay at home, wash our hands, limit contact, keep distancing. What I’m saying is that those rules can come with a built-in judgment against the ill, as if they just didn’t try hard enough. We never know the whole story around someone’s illness.

So as much as possible, if your family member or friend is ill, please affirm them as much as possible. Love on them. Encourage them. Do not shame them. It doesn’t matter how they got ill; what matters is they’re made in the image of God still. Remind them you’re still there for them. Remind them God loves them unconditionally, in any condition. Remind them that with Christ there is no social or spiritual distance. He proved that by entering a body that could get sick, that took on sin, that suffered in solidarity with us.

3. How can the Voices Model help us cope in such unprecedented times of uncertainty?

In my book, there’s a chapter on grief. One of the dangers of grief—our response to loss—is that we tend to suppress it, because that’s what we’ve been taught to do. “Don’t cry, be strong, it’s okay, you’ll be all right,” and all that sort of talk. But without acknowledging grief and letting it flow free, the voice of grief will still break out anyway. And suppressed grief will emerge in ways that harm instead of heal. Grieving freely is how we begin to live again with loss.

In a pandemic, or any large crisis, we experience grief on multiple levels: the loss of our jobs and autonomy and internal peace and freedom of mobility and in the worst case, the lives of our loved ones. In many ways, we’re collectively mourning in a single voice, a globe of people crying out for relief. Unfortunately, there will be a loud voice pushing back, telling mourners, “You’ll be fine, it’s not that bad, it’s only 2% mortality.” (By the way, if any two people out of one-hundred I knew had died, I would be devastated.) Whatever you hear, don’t bury the grief. Whatever you do, don’t bury the grief of others. Let them grieve how they’re going to. When you allow grief to take its course, this is the path to finding ground again, to adjust to the “new normal.” In any way you can facilitate your own grief and that of others, the more resilience you will find in our changed world.

I’m smiling here, but this picture was taken during one of the worst depressions I’ve ever had. You never really know until you’re close.

In the midst of grief, you can still enjoy the things you love. It doesn’t have to be “grieve only” or “play only.” In the midst of sorrow, there is always unexpected joy. Working from home can be challenging, but it can be nice seeing your family in the hallway. Chatting with loved ones by text or email is a bummer when you can’t see them, but there’s powerful resonance in reading words from a loved one. And there’s no rule that you can’t laugh in the wake of severe grief. I’m certain that God created laughter as a way for our bodies to deal with absurdity. As author Josh Riebock said, laughter is the language of the survivor. In our community prayers, we lift up both our sorrows and celebrations, our concerns and our joys. We mourn and we rejoice. We can do both.

The very first month I began writing my book.

In one of the last chapters of my book, I talk about discerning voices, or investigating the multitude of opinions and advice we hear everyday. In moments of crisis, experts will abound. Some will offer cliches and platitudes like the ones I mentioned above: “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad, don’t cry,” and other types of verbal scaffolding that don’t hold up. Some will spew far more dangerous information, like false treatments and hateful rhetoric. Still others will incite panic and escalate fear. I don’t mean the productive sort of fear for our safety, but counterproductive fear that leads to mass panic.

Each of these voices must be examined carefully. Sources must be checked and double-checked, now more than ever. But we also can’t go to the other end of extreme skepticism. Thankfully, many voices can be trusted, like those of physicians, scientists, and scholars. God often speaks His wisdom through people He has gifted. He offers good resources that will get us through, both in practical and spiritual ways. So we must be wise enough to discern which voices are unhelpful and humble enough to receive those voices which are for our good. Discern wisely.

— J.S.

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One thought on “The Green Room Interview: About My Hospital Chaplain Work, Childhood, Faith, Author Journey, and the Pandemic

  1. JS, thank you for including your interview iin your blog. I enjoyed getting to know you better and the behind the scenes with health workers. In my former career in the criminal justice system, we also used dark humor and also light moments. Abundant blessings to you and your family. May your book sell well and may you write many mire! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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