I’m Still Alive


CW/TW

A year ago I began taking antidepressants.

Almost twenty years ago I tried to take my life. I spent three days hospitalized after ingesting half a bottle of pills.

Over ten years ago I fell into one of the worst depressions of my life. I was laughed at by the pastor of the church where I worked.

There was a time I would’ve been deeply ashamed to tell you all this. We’ve made a lot of progress on the stigma around mental health, but so many myths are still ingrained.

This year is the first time I’ve had entire weeks without thinking about suicide. I never knew it was possible. I used to think about it every single day. That was my norm. It still happens sometimes, but I don’t dread when it will. I also don’t dread happiness either. Antidepressants don’t suddenly make you “happy,” but they open the possibility that happiness is not attached to a trap door, small print, a karmic pay-off. It turns impossible into imaginable. For even a moment, joy becomes guilt-free.

A few months ago I managed to stopped taking medication for five weeks. But on week five, I spiraled out and went back on. I thought somehow I had failed. I knew that was objectively false, but that’s how deep the stigma goes. I’m finding it okay to be on medication for life, if I need it. And today, I need it. I’m thankful.

I don’t know if the next one will win. But I’m here. I’m still here. Thank God, I am here.

Thank you friends for your prayers, messages, stories.
You keep me alive too.

— J.S.

Holding Dignity



I have to tell you this story about “Ray,” who thought he didn’t deserve help.

I used to work at a nonprofit charity for the homeless and I met Ray when he finally got housing and landed a new job. But he needed a new tool belt.

My friend heard about his situation and bought a tool belt for Ray. A fifteen-pocket leather carpenter pouch, one of the nicest ones you could buy. Ray was beside himself.

A few weeks later, somebody asked Ray how he liked the tool belt.
“I haven’t used it,” he said. “I’m not sure that I can. I don’t deserve a thing like that.”

He thought he would ruin it with himself. “The things I’ve done,” he said, “pretty much disqualify me. I feel guilty.”

Ray had told us his story before: addictions, abuse, abandonment. He never had a chance, a lap behind from the start, stuck in systemic structures beyond him. He felt he deserved his fate. But Ray learned to believe a better story about himself. He didn’t need to be good enough for the gift; the gift was good enough for him. The things he had done and the things that happened to him didn’t disqualify him from what was good. Maybe Ray really was the kind of guy who didn’t deserve it. But that was the point. It was a gift. We need that sort of grace, a grace that invites us into a better story than the one we were given.

It’s true one act of kindness doesn’t dismantle a whole system. It doesn’t automatically mean we succeed. But a reminder of our dignity is the very least we need. Even as systems around us shrink us down, it never means we are small: only that we were always too big for all we were given.

I think of all the ways
our past selves
were never shown a chance
still hold us back
our bodies brutalized in headlines
our minds made hatred internalized
we believed tall tales about us
that told the whole story without us.

But all that does not see you
says nothing about you
only that they lack vision
and you are already made in an irrevocable Image.

To become someone new
often means returning to ourselves—
souls dignified, made divine,
forged in inherent worth.

And even souls inside bodies that are broke
hold a dignity that no one can revoke.
In you, I see the face of God.

— J.S.


– Partially adapted from my book The Voices We Carry

Church: What Are We Doing?


Disclaimer: Angry and disagreeable post to follow.

I’m still not over the American church of 2020 withholding comfort for pandemic anxiety, compassionate wisdom for masks and vaccines, and solidarity with POC—
but instead yelling election fraud and “my freedom.”
The church could’ve ended the pandemic in a summer and cut hate crimes by half.

Every Sunday of 2020, I was overwhelmed and hoped for a word of strength and wisdom. Instead the pulpit told me Black lives didn’t matter, masks were for cowards, and only far right Republicans could be Christians. Then had the gall to say “Don’t get political.”

I would’ve preferred the American evangelical church had said nothing, or at the least, “Let’s respect all sides.” Literally anything else. As someone who works in a hospital and is also a POC, mostly I felt embarrassment. Pastors in 2020 lived outside of reality.

I was told, “Not all pastors, not all churches, leaders, bosses, men”—
But we already know that. I’m grateful for good churches, especially now. But consider even one wounded person is 100% harmed and it matters to them. To say “not all” is to say “not me” which does nothing for those already harmed.
I was told,
“Just trust God.”
But God is all I trusted, especially in this lonely season.
I was told,
“Don’t look to people, look to God.”
But this was a complete cop-out, and I saw where God was looking: to the people.
I was told,
“Stop badmouthing the church.”
But not keeping leaders accountable was literally badmouthing the victims, the church.

I am grateful to the remnant who cared for these wounded. For the healthcare workers, therapists, and clergy over the last twenty-one months who have put compassion over conspiracy. For me, the wound is still too deep. I grieve the vision of what I knew the church could be and hardly was. I grieve knowing maybe this was who many churches really were. I grieve the many leaders I admired who were fooled. I grieve my optimism and complicity.

I’ll say it again. If your faith is making you a jerk, throw it out and start over. If Scripture is your guide, it must move us to justice, to be more kind. Otherwise it’s not what Jesus had in mind.

Over and over I heard stories of people wounded in church by abusers, predators, and political opportunists who worshiped a party over people. Pastors fired for not lifting up Trump. Victims who came forward to their pastors and were shut down or further abused. POC who needed hope and were told, “Calm down, God is in control, don’t worry about it, here’s a guest speaker who’s Black.”

I will never understand how Christian leaders are quicker to defend their denominations over the abused. The church isn’t some institutional concept that needs defending. The church is the people who needed our defense, the ones abused by leaders lording the institution.

When far right evangelicals throw insults because I talk about justice, masks, mental health, and fighting misogyny and racism, it is assumed I am “not in God’s Word.” I can assure you: the work of justice is straight outta the Word of God. Not a brag, but I’ve read the thing a lot. Six times now going on seven (not that the number matters; the words are there for anyone to read). Each time spoke differently. But on justice? That has always been the heart of God. Scripture, if anything, is the fuel for talking about these things. About the wounded.

My faith has changed a lot over the years, especially after becoming a chaplain. I am a witness to suffering around the clock. One of the truths that remain: the Bible is precious to me, which is why people are precious to me. Scripture calls me to see fully. And I hate when it’s used to abuse. It is *for* the abused. Even in the worst of my doubt and disappointment, Scripture calls me to compassion. Never less.

— J.S.

What Forgiveness Is and Is Not: Seven Rules of Forgiveness


Too often forgiveness is a burden on the wounded. Instead the imperative of accountability must be on the abuser.

When I’m told to forgive, I think about

my math tutor when I was barely twelve years old, who shouted in my face and dug his fingers in my shoulders

a grown woman who beat me for “misbehaving” at a public pool when I was seven

students who randomly assaulted me in school calling me racial slurs

the thousands of hate crimes and murders both reported and unrecorded against POC

the dozens of stories I’ve heard from patients assaulted by their most trusted people.

But I’m told to just let go. “Forgiveness is a gift.”
Is it? How is it a gift to remove this knife from my gut that never should’ve been there? Why is abuse became the abused person’s problem to solve?

Forgiveness is powerful, yes. On the other side there’s freedom. But when forgiveness is demanded of a victim in a bad power dynamic—who benefits? Abusive people and systems often act in a remorseless repetition of violence. It’s that very violence which keeps power and profit.

I have learned it is more wrong
not to be angry at injustice.
Why demand the wounded
to be level-headed, neutral, watch their tone, to grow, be resilient, be the example, take the high road?
Sometimes the high road
goes right off a cliff.

Inside anger
I hear the voice of grief
because the abused person
had their life interrupted
and never asked for an apology
—they needed honor for their dignity.

Here are some of my rules on forgiveness.
1) Forgiveness does not mean friendship.
2) Forgiveness is a daily choice that can take a lifetime.
3) No one can rush your forgiveness, ever.
4) You can be angry while forgiving.
5) Forgiveness does not negate justice.
6) If you have been abused and traumatized, then forgiveness is not a prerequisite for your recovery. To make forgiveness a burden on the abused only enables the abuser. It also mocks the abused. To skip anger is to bypass pain and therefore true recovery.
7) Do not make forgiveness an imperative burden to force a romanticized outcome of “peace,” especially on the abused and oppressed. All you’ll do is guilt trip already wounded people into a false truce.

— J.S.

Who I Speak For


I need to tell you this story.

When I was a pastor over ten years ago, I preached at a tiny conference and afterwards a young woman approached me. She had tears in her eyes, said she was single and anxious all the time and nearing forty years old and had “accomplished nothing.” I hurt for her.

Then suddenly—
I drew a blank on what to say. My seminary hadn’t prepared me for this. And I was scared for her. How would her church reply? Her pastor? Was this place safe? All I could do was process with her, validate her feelings, remind her of her inherent value, pray with her. Was that enough?

After I had met this young anxious woman, I changed two things.
1) I rewrote the rest of my sermons for the week.
2) I vowed to always think of this woman and others like her every time I spoke or wrote.

I knew up to then, to my own shame, I had never preached for the ones in the back row.

How could I have forgotten? I was once in the back row too. But my eagerness to keep “sound” and sound pretty and to please my professors overshadowed grace.

To this day, if anything I say does not speak to the person in the back row, to someone like me or her, it’s not worth saying. I have to remember where people really live. Hope cannot smother or bypass, but must only gently enter.

If our words only work for the well-off, able-bodied, and undisturbed, then maybe we’re
1) only speaking to popular powerful folks,
2) expecting profit from big pockets, or
3) comfortable outside reality.

I have a litmus test when new theological movements pop up. Will it matter to one of my dying patients and their families? Maybe that’s basic and unfair. But that litmus test has simplified and clarified my faith.

I still make this mistake, but always a reminder to myself: If it doesn’t work in the end, it won’t work at the start. If it doesn’t work for the wounded, it won’t make you whole. If it means a lot of arguing and posturing instead of compassion and action, I’m too tired to care. I don’t. Leave it out of the patient’s room and keep it on your platform.

Jesus is with the wounded and that’s where I want to be. Bottom line, dotted line, and end of the line.

Keep me where the people are.

— J.S.

What I Used to Believe


What do you no longer believe?
What are old beliefs you grieve?

I used to believe
all anger was wrong, so I was the captain of the tone police—
until I discovered politeness is not rightness, that anger is not always hate, but hurt, and to be loving is to be fiercely angry at injustice.

I used to believe
forgiveness meant friendship and even a flicker of pain meant I hadn’t forgiven my abusers—
but I found I can forgive from afar, over a lifetime, and that the pain was not my lack of forgiveness but how deep the wound was carved.

I used to believe
that death could bring people together—
until I saw covid take hundreds of thousands of lives and not even their deaths could evoke compassion,
until I saw refugees ceaselessly die in the headlines and too many justified their demise.

I used to believe
that god was American, homophobic, emotionless, and secretly disappointed in me—
until I found God had a vision of grace far greater than our sight, an imagination that far outweighed mine.

I used to believe
my value was found in my usefulness and contribution,
instead of inherently being human,
in an irrevocable Image.

I used to believe
every pain had a purpose, a connect-the-dots lesson, a fire to refine us, a reason to teach us—
until I saw pain is pain, it is not mine to explain, and maybe the only reason it happened was evil and abuse and systems that need to be unmade.

I used to believe
my depression was from a lack of prayer or faith or moral grit or fortitude—
but my mental health only lacked the help I needed and I found that therapy and medicine were not giving up, but giving life.

I used to believe
those who looked like me chose to be silent and passive—
except we were not silent, but silenced, and we had always spoken up despite this.

I used to believe
we could never unravel lopsided power dynamics and racist systems—
until I saw heels in the dirt making moves insistent, for years they had woven new stitches by inches.

I used to believe
everything I believed
was so certain.
I grieve my certainty
but I trust the mystery, to know
there is always more unknown.
Being “right” is to be alone,
but in discovery
we walk each other home.

— J.S.

Theology Is Complete with Our Hands and Feet


There’s a classic dispute among psychologists that’s best shown by the hair dryer story. It goes like this:

A woman believes her hair dryer is going to burn down her house. It gets to be a real problem; she’s driving back home twenty times a day. Her work life and love life and social life all take a hit.

Finally a therapist asks her, “Have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

It works. When the fear creeps in, the woman opens her office drawer and sees the hair dryer and she’s fine.

Some psychologists see a major problem here: “Nothing was solved! She still has issues! She needs to get to the root of it!” But others say she found a solution that worked for her.

I lean toward the second camp. The problem was real to her and so was the solution. Maybe later she would get to the bottom of things. But until then, she had found a way to make it okay.

The big idea is her story was taken seriously. That was the start of her wholeness. Only when a story is fully heard is there the possibility of connection or challenge or growth.

The thing is: Too many of our injuries are real. It is not merely “in their head” or “their side of the story.” And it is not enough just to believe it happened.

Abuse, racialized trauma, mass violence, systemic failures, misogyny, manipulated power dynamics, and all the mental health issues not seemingly visible—all of these need empathy, but it doesn’t stop there. They also need presence, action, compassion, and a complete reframing of all the ways that things are done. Justice would make things so right that we would never need accountability or to convince others to “believe me.”

It is already hard enough proving my injury is real.
I have the scars to prove it.
But what I need is more than belief,
more than moved hearts, more than speech.

Theology is only complete with our hands and feet.
Psychology can diagnose and make valuable notes, but only heels in the field, in the dirt, bring us hope.
Even with all our treatment and remedies, I still need you to sit with me.
In grief, your advice is probably good, but not as good as being on the floor with me.
May your pain be mine,
and your hopes mine too.

— J.S.


Part of this post is an excerpt from my book The Voices We Carry

Our Daughter Turned One


Alayna’s 돌잔치 (Doljanchi). Turning one.

Watching our daughter grow, I feel both dread and joy. I know this world will not be easy on her. I want to protect her from everything. The headlines make me insane for her safety. And already I can see her voice, her strength, her laughter, her resolve. I know she will be okay too.

I can see more and more of myself in the way she moves, laughs, talks (tries to talk). Sometimes that worries me. I see her mother too. That relieves me a bit. But I also see something uniquely belonging to our daughter. She will be the best of us. And something more.

I read these grown-up books to her (in between the children’s books) and I talk to her about culture, politics, race, faith, mental health (in between the dancing and animal noises and magic tricks). She can’t comprehend it right now. But one day it will become conversation. One that was always there.

They say children end up teaching their parents. I think it’s happening already. She’s teaching me it’s serious stuff to raise a child. But not to take myself so seriously. She’s teaching me my that my heart was bigger than I knew, my guts went even deeper than I could see. She’s teaching me she is not an extension of me but her own person, and today I hold her tight but tomorrow she will fly free. Until tomorrow, I hold tight.
— J.S.

[Photography by Hoon Park]

I React to Racist Facebook Comments After I Protested


Protest for #StopAsianHate in Tulsa, OK. I spontaneously bought a plane ticket, my first one in years, and took a day off to protest with my AAPI family. Every single speaker had beautiful and painful stories. Honored to join them. In awe of a diverse crowd. Lots of news crews.

Big shout-out to Jade H. Nguyen, one of the organizers, who gave me an opportunity to speak. I was just falling into the momentum already created by amazing people who worked like crazy to make this happen. My part was easy compared to the activists and advocates who have been doing this forever.

Love y’all, fam.

Part of my speech:

“Somehow we’ve become a punchline even though we’ve labored at the frontlines.

It is easy to believe after trauma and tragedy and violence that somehow, you are what has happened to you, that somehow racism has stained you or tarnished you, that we are the injuries that we bear.

But again I say: no.
You have a name.
I have a name.
We have a name.

We are souls, completely whole and valued regardless of all that has been done to us.

You have a name.
I have a name.
We have a name.
We are the ones who will be named.
Not after the fact, not as a stat or a fact, not after trauma and tragedy, but you have a name, right now: you have a name.

Things can get bad, and they’ve gotten bad, but it never means you are. As author Min Jin Lee has said, ‘Racism is the shame of the racist. It is not our shame.’
Their shame cannot take your name.

Family, you have endured shameful things but it does not say anything shameful about you. It only says that / you / endured.

And the reality of your daily pain cannot define the value of your interior reality. You still have worth simply for being you.”

— J.S.


https://fb.watch/4E9oMx1JxH/

Protested in Tulsa OK for Stop Asian Hate


Protest for #StopAsianHate in Tulsa, OK. I spontaneously bought a plane ticket, my first one in years, and took a day off to protest with my AAPI family. Every single speaker had beautiful and painful stories. Honored to join them. In awe of a diverse crowd. Lots of news crews. Big shout-out to Jade Nguyen, one of the organizers, who gave me an opportunity to speak. I was just falling into the momentum already created by amazing people who worked like crazy to make this happen. My part was easy compared to the activists and advocates who have been doing this forever.

Love y’all, fam.

Part of my speech:

“Somehow we’ve become a punchline even though we’ve labored at the frontlines.

It is easy to believe after trauma and tragedy and violence that somehow, you are what has happened to you, that somehow racism has stained you or tarnished you, that we are the injuries that we bear.

But again I say: no.
You have a name.
I have a name.
We have a name.

We are souls, completely whole and valued regardless of all that has been done to us.

You have a name.
I have a name.
We have a name.
We are the ones who will be named.
Not after the fact, not as a stat or a fact, not after trauma and tragedy, but you have a name, right now: you have a name.

Things can get bad, and they’ve gotten bad, but it never means you are. As author Min Jin Lee has said, ‘Racism is the shame of the racist. It is not our shame.’
Their shame cannot take your name.

Family, you have endured shameful things but it does not say anything shameful about you. It only says that / you / endured.

And the reality of your daily pain cannot define the value of your interior reality. You still have worth simply for being you.”

— J.S.


[Some of the photos found on TulsaWorld]

We Have Always Had a Voice: No One Is Voiceless


Who will tell your story?

In community college, I had an American History professor who got to the chapter Asian-American History. He grabbed the whole chapter with two fingers, flipped them, and said, “We’re skipping this. It’s a small chunk, anyway.” Everyone in class turned to the back to look at me. I said nothing. I stayed in my place.

In the same class, a student said, “We need to drop a nuke on South Korea, get rid of those communists.” I said, “Do you mean North Korea?” She replied, “It’s the same thing. Nuke them all.”

In third grade a kid named Danny ran by in the playground and punched me in the face. He went to a corner and started meditating like he was a ninja. He made whooping noises while chopping the air.

I was embarrassed to bring my bulgogi and kimchi to school. The smell brought out howls and hisses. I’d beg my mom for anything else. And that was the start of a dedicated measure to conformity. Even if I did not say it with my mouth, I said it with my heart: I began to hate my own skin. I wanted badly to be white. I am ashamed to tell you how ashamed I was.

I became a chameleon with the skin of a mirror. I fed the vanity of others, stoking their flames, crafting a personality out of the person in front of me, from bestsellers and banter and every hit show. Always nodding. I shrank myself so others could feel large.

My voice was strangled. In a place of manic conformity, where one wrong move could make others cold or “not one of the good ones”—What else could I have done? But fall in line? Fold in half? Forfeit myself so others were comfortable?

But always, I had a voice.
The one God gave and entrusted: it is mine.
They can take your pen and your microphone, they can tape your mouth to silence you:
but no, they cannot take your voice.
They cannot tell your story.
It is yours.

I see my baby daughter who is like her mother, other times like me. We laugh at how similar our daughter is to both of us. And then there’s this unique part of her. Not like me or my wife. That’s my daughter’s. It is hers. Her God-given voice. My prayer is that she can live fully into who she is. My hope is for her world to never ask her anything else.

— J.S.

We Are the Ones Who Will Be Named


Ryo Oyamada.

In 2013, Ryo Oyamada, a 24 year old student from Japan, was killed in a hit and run by an NYPD vehicle. The police car, according to witnesses, did not have its siren or lights on and was going 70 mph. The footage released by the NYPD showed the vehicles’s light were on, but this footage was proven to be altered—lights were apparently added to the vehicle.

I spoke about this in 2014, when it was finally covered in the news. I posted it on Tumblr, and to my surprise it gained almost 75,000 likes and reblogs. A petition to investigate the cover-up garnered almost 120,000 signatures. Finally, four years after Ryo was killed, after frustrating court proceedings, the family reluctantly took a settlement for half a million dollars.

There were vigils and rallies. Many did try to advocate for him and his family. But accountability? It’s as if he never existed.

Someone could argue that the murder of Ryo Oyamada was not a hate crime. But every subsequent action, from the cover-up to court battles to public silence to a meager settlement, is a failure at every level. Social, systemic, structural, relational. Forces both evil and complacent acted to erase Ryo from existence.

Why was his name not widely chanted? Was it too hard to pronounce? Too easy to think, “Just a foreigner from Japan”? How much was this family worn down to accept 0.00004% of the NYPD’s 11 billion dollar yearly budget?

Anti-Asian racism might be born in the heart, but it is woven into the system until it weaves its way into our DNA. We have been made to believe we deserve less, need less, are less. Asian-Americans and other POC may believe we are silent, but no. We have been silenced. We have a voice. It is our microphones that have been taken. Every single narrative pushed forth from pop culture to church culture to the dinner table is that we do not have a name. But we do. I do.

Names. Hyun Jung Kim. Soon Chung Park. Xiaojie Tan. Sun Cha Kim. Yong Yue. Daoyou Feng. Delaina Ashley Yuan. Paul Andre Michels.

I cannot read their names without weeping.
They have names.
You have a name.
I have a name.
We are the ones who will be named.
— J.S.

Hear Us, See Us, Know Us


Last summer during the protests, my friend told me:

“It feels like they won’t stop killing us until we start killing them.”

He was trying to express his feelings of helplessness and rage. The sheer insanity of all he was seeing and experiencing. The fatigue of wanting to do more, but already working twice as hard to be half as far. And even if I didn’t completely understand it then, I hurt so badly for my friend. When I protested, I walked for him. For so many—too many—I walked for those who felt what he felt.

I understand that feeling a little more these days. The stomach-sick, catch-your-throat, feverish, fist-clenching disbelief. The urge to shout and throw things, but somehow it is wrong to fight for our lives, so we must only be polite to survive.

To see a body like yours, like mine, brutalized over and over again, then told it was your fault, what were they even doing there, a million more where you came from—but let me eat your food, watch your movies, wear your robes, I’ll tell you about my Asian sister-in-law, let me say hello in your language to impress you, let me tell you about the Vietnam War and the Korean War and my time stationed in Japan, let me tell you how much I love kimchi and bulgogi, I love the K-Pop on Jimmy Fallon or was it Kimmel, make me fried rice some day, your English is so good by the way, and your baby daughter has the most interesting eyes, but tell me about your pain and I will tell you it’s not real, it happens to everyone anyway, tell us at this panel and Q&A, but we only have half an hour today, you have no history or future or feelings of your own, you are my decoration and my proof of diversity, you are the authority on all eastern culture so tell me your story and pronounce your name but leave out all your hopes and pain.

All I feel is rage.
This grief is only the surface.
I am enraged.
For the love of God,
see us,
hear us.

— J.S.

Everything I’ve Seen Is Almost Too Much


This is my face near the end of a chaplain shift at the hospital.

I entered chaplaincy almost six years ago. I have loved every second of it. And every second of it has been brutally, insanely, impossibly hard.

I’ve sat with thousands of patients now. So many who told me their final words, secrets, regrets, confessions. At their deathbeds, watching their heart rate dwindle down to single digits. Their last breath on earth.

I have seen terrible things. There are sounds a human can make which no human ever should. Pure agony. Sometimes grief. Other times relief.

Something I haven’t talked about much is that during my year long residency, I lost my faith. I reverted back to atheism for a long while. I’ve shared before that my faith has always been skeptical, cautious, doubting every single day. I’m like one of those Israelites who probably ran screaming through the Red Sea, not sure if the walls of water would hold up all the way. In the hospital, I had seen too much. The waters crashed down. All this suffering, I couldn’t comprehend a god who cared about this random, haphazard, utterly chaotic madness. No pattern. No reason. Babies born to die? An entire family burned down in their sleep? A roof can just fall on a child’s head? I found it hard to believe in a god at beside. I also found it hard not to believe, either.

Eventually I did come back around. But different than before. The walls of my faith had broken, rebuilt, expanded. I found out miracles were not just healing, but a story finally being told, a family staying night after night, a covid patient rolled to a balcony above their family to say one last goodbye, a baby after weeks in a box being able to breathe on her own.

Today I am one year older. And I feel I have lived a thousand lifetimes. I have died a thousand lifetimes. I’m glad to do so. To be in the shadow of my patients, to be their cheerleader and sidekick, a tiny lighthouse in the dark of the sea: there is no higher honor than for me to cheer on my patients, who are the hero of their stories. I am but a footnote. I am grateful to be one.

I wrote a book to honor my patients, and I can only hope I did some justice to their voices.

— J.S.

My Voice Was Taken


These last few week I’ve been reading about the many assaults against Asian-Americans, and I was hit with a lightning bolt of a memory I had nearly forgotten.

It is my very first memory. I was four on my first day of preschool. The only Asian in class. I didn’t speak English. When the teacher found out, she forced me to sit in the corner all day. She told me not to talk or turn around. I wept the entire day.

My mother, when she picked me up, cussed out the teacher and switched me to another school. But it was too late. A year or two later, as I learned English, I lost much of my Korean. The trauma destroyed my native language. My tongue had been burned of its millennia of heritage in my still-forming mouth.

To this day I can still understand Korean just enough, but when I try to speak I get tongue-tied. A block. It is apparent why. My voice was strangled. A teacher failed her “non-compliant” student. A system allowed racist violence against a child. A teacher did not understand she had a non-English-speaking American in her class, and instead of including him with even the smallest gesture, simply cut him off in a corner. The teacher was a cog in a system not funded with resources to equip their educators. That child never had a chance.

Our voices are still strangled. When I am yelled at violently in traffic because “Asian driver.” Spoken very slowly to by a cashier. Spoken over constantly in meetings. When people I supervise don’t take me seriously because they are not used to an Asian in the lead. When Asian jokes are told with zero hesitation. When people who look like my father go on a walk and are killed.

I realize I am lucky. My experiences are not as bad as others. My pain though, like any pain, is still pain. And I am not tougher for what I have gone through. I was made less. I was stripped of my home tongue. But no: I will not be stripped of my voice. It will not be taken. We each have a voice, gifted by God, just the one we are given. You have a song and it must break free. You have a microphone to pass to a young uncertain child, that they may sing too. Your voice. Speak. Your voice will carry you.
— J.S.

I Am Invisible: Will You See Us?


With the recent hate crimes against Asian-Americans, I am reminded again I am invisible.

When I was a boy, someone had spray-painted a swastika on my father’s dojo. My dad painted over it, but on hot humid days we could still see that Nazi symbol like a pulsing writhing scar.

We got a voicemail on our answering machine—maybe the same Nazi artists—who spent ten minutes making fun of my dad’s accent. I remember seeing my dad listen to it several times, staring quietly out a window. When he noticed me, he turned it off and said, “Just boys playing a joke.” The voices were from grown men.

In middle school I remember being assaulted, shoved around, called “ch-nk yellow belly,” having fries thrown at me during lunch (I sat alone) which were drenched in ketchup, some kid yelling “your dad killed my dad in the war” and then I watched his dad pick him up from detention.

At weddings, funerals, leadership meetings, conferences, I am often the only Asian. And I am invisible. I have literally sat in rooms before where I speak and no one looks my direction. Not even glances. I once called my wife in a dramatic panic, asking, “Do I exist?” And she knew what I meant. The invisibility.

I could tell you a hundred stories like this, and a hundred more. I have. And, well—no one hears. Or remembers. I know my experiences pale in comparison to racist violent acts done to so many others. I only wish I was heard. Seen.

A couple years ago I was a guest at a panel where we discussed race. I shared how I felt invisible. Afterwards, a wonderful Black woman approached me with tears in her eyes, hugged me and said, “I see you. I see you. God sees you.” Over and over, she whispered, “I see you.” And I was so moved, I wept with her. “I see you.”

I still hear her. Thinking of it now, I still weep. For a moment, at least, I was seen. We saw each other. We have so much work to do—but that day, that was enough for me. I was seen. To see is to make visible.

— J.S.

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.

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

It’s Bad News and Good News: It’s Not All Up to You


Culture breakdown.

There’s a philosophical principle in South Korea called Hongik-Ingan (홍익인간), the devotion to benefit all of humanity. It’s a good thing, but it also has some very dark implications.

Basically, many Koreans are told that if their life doesn’t measure up to a surplus benefit, they might as well take their own lives. In other words, always contribute and never consume—or die.

The upside is that Koreans (and easterners in general) have a remarkable work ethic. We work crazy hard. But the downside is that if any of us encounter failure, disaster, or even imperfection, we immediately fall into an abyss of worthlessness.

I’m convinced this is one of the reasons why South Korea has the tenth highest suicide rate in the world.

The westernized philosophy of American Exceptionalism is not a lot different than 홍익인간. You see it in hustle-porn podcasts and bootstraps literature: “Believe it, dream it, achieve it, ”—but with the hidden clause, “And if you can’t, it’s all your fault. Why can’t you just …?” The eastern judgment is based on how others see you, but the western judgment is based on how you see you. It’s the same problem wrapped in different coats.


The overarching message: If you fail, you’re somehow no good. If you can’t beat this, it’s your problem. If you haven’t succeeded, it’s on you. Bigger, faster, more, or you are literally smaller, slower, less.

So when it comes to mental health, racial trauma, chronic illness, problems in the larger system—all of these are considered “excuses.”

Both the east and west are brutally unforgiving to those in uncontrollable circumstances. “Maybe you’re depressed because you’re not trying hard enough. You’re homeless because you didn’t do your homework in high school. You got abused because you were asking for it. You’re always sick because you don’t have faith. That wasn’t racism, you just weren’t acting right.”

These shaming statements revolve on the same terrible axis: that when life is bad, you are bad, and that you attracted the terror to yourself. We believe this because it fits a logical worldview. But it is not a rational one.


Here’s what I know. Your goodness absolutely does not hinge on what happens to you. There is no 1:1 ratio of your value and your life, of your effort versus outcome, no matter how someone got here. And no one ever became successful by themselves; no one is a self-made person. So it is also true that no one has ever totally failed themselves.

If it were all on you: every rainstorm would be your fault, every disaster would be your doing, winning the lottery makes you a saint, and being Jeff Bezos makes you god. Which, of course, is straight up lunacy.

Sometimes the environment or system or leaders or our own bodies were hostile, and so we never stood a chance. Unfortunately our world is not always kind to those “lesser” because we see it as their fault, therefore they’re not given an opportunity, which only reinforces a vicious cycle. You and I simply do not get better by being told, “Hey it’s entirely your fault, so good luck.”

Yes, I believe in both personal responsibility and interdependent community. We must make wise choices. I’m proud of much of my culture and how strong we are. But our choices can be limited by the mechanisms that surround us. We can always choose, but the world often determines how far we move.


All our philosophies may have many strengths, but they are built on a lie: that somehow it’s all up to you. The truth? It never was. At times the world around you has failed you. And sometimes you need help, and you won’t be able to contribute for a time because you need others to support you. And it’s okay to ask for that.

It must not be shameful to ask for charity. Any culture that makes this shameful is in itself a shameful culture that must be dismantled. You and I need help. We need each other. We need the gift of grace, a God-given help outside ourselves. We need to be okay to fail. And that does not make you less. The best of us emerges when we find where we need help.

My hope is that my daughter knows: your worth never hinges on your work. Sometimes life is just hard. It is unfair. It is ruthless. You will need help. That does not make you less. In fact, to ask for help makes you more. It makes you yourself.

Or as esteemed theologian Captain Jean Luc Picard says, “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

— J.S.

Knowing Ourselves Requires Knowing One Another


Last summer I wrote a piece on my own experience with race and racism. A blogger then publicly blasted some harmful views I was expressing.

As I read her words, I felt she was right—but I had a hard time seeing where I fell short. So I asked my friend, with her permission, to help me. How did I get this wrong? She first pointed out what was good. Then she kindly and firmly pointed out the various ways I missed the mark. Slowly and painfully, I saw how much I had messed up.

In particular: I was invalidating others’ experiences to boost my own; I was subtly drawing disproportionate comparisons, hijacking language and images that did not belong to me; I was mostly absorbed in self-pity and blame instead of sharing a vulnerable experience. When I saw it, it clicked: I was way, way, way off.

The easy thing to say here could be, “I’m still learning, I had no idea, show me grace, I’m sorry.” And that’s true. But my words were harmful. There’s no way out of that. I have to sit down, take the L, and simply be wrong. There’s no defense, excuse, rationalization, “but”—I was wrong, plain and simple.

This can’t be about my realization or epiphany, but about tending to the injury I caused.

Even though I’m a POC, that doesn’t make me free of criticism in matters of race and racism. Even though I wrestle with depression and anxiety, I still get it wrong about mental health. And as a chaplain dealing with grief: I’ve gotten that wrong too.

We can only become self-aware through the awareness of others. Or like C.S. Lewis says, “My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others.” To see is painful but necessary. We need others to see where we have fallen for deception, conspiracies, biases, agendas. It can truly happen to any of us. And even though I’d like to think I’m a friend to the wounded and weary, I still miss the mark. A lot. What I can do is not only examine how I went wrong, but act based on those new convictions. To rethink how I enter for the wounded, not just for my own catharsis. It shouldn’t be anyone’s burden to educate someone on the basics of humanity, but thank God for sending friends who took time to school me.

J.S.

A Response to “Stop Looking at People, Look to God”

Anonymous said:

i just want to say i think it’s ok to be skeptical and have questions and doubts but it’s bad when you start making the christian faith about people rather than Jesus. stop looking toward to people for faith and focus on Jesus and encourage that more as well

 

Hey there, thank you for your concern and for bringing this up. I hear what you are saying and I can agree, and I’m also not sure it’s the whole picture.

I heard those types of statements last year dozens of times: “Stop looking at people, look at God. Stop focusing on the church, focus on Jesus. Stop putting your hope in people” etc.

I understand this to be a meaningful truth. In fact, I can say this: People let me down so much last year that the only one I could really trust was God. It was only my tiny bit of faith that kept me alive, kept me from completely unraveling in my depression and anxiety. I doubted and questioned people. Did I doubt God? Sometimes. But absolutely not as much as I did the church. When nothing else was good, I trusted that God was the only one who is.

Most people of faith know that they ought to focus on the center of their faith rather than what people are doing. It is such a basic and obvious truth, that again, it was basically my only option.

Back to your statement. I want us to consider a few things.

Continue reading “A Response to “Stop Looking at People, Look to God””