Through The Eyes Of An Immigrant’s Son

Justin Warns

Justin Warns

Birmingham Lead Pastor

I grew up in Metro Detroit unaware of many things. If you had asked me if I understood my identity or ethnicity, I would have answered, “yep, pretty much.” As I grew older, I realized how much I didn’t know (and still don’t) – that’s why I love the statement, “Leaders are Learners.” I am still learning!

Recently, I had the privilege to travel with a group of 12 people on an Asian American Civil Rights Tour organized by my friend and coworker, Andrew Kim. I was excited that my mother was also joining this tour, but I was unprepared for how her presence would further impact me and open my own eyes…it was an honor to experience this journey with her and to understand how the history of Asian Americans in our country especially impacted her as an immigrant. 

I grew up in an interracial marriage. When I was younger, I didn’t realize this to be unique. (Did you know that interracial marriages were not legalized in the U.S. until 1967?!) My parents were teenagers living in two different countries; they were from two different worlds.

My father grew up in Toledo, Ohio in a farm and mill working community that was 100% Caucasian/White. He was the first to graduate from college in his family and was proud to have a few bucks and a broken-down car to his name.

My mom is Chinese and was born in Taiwan. Her family restarted their life in Taiwan with nothing after fleeing China and the communist party being taken over by Mao Zedong. They climbed over 40 mountains to escape while my grandma was pregnant. She delivered my uncle in a field with gunfire in the background! They escaped on a small boat, looking for a new beginning.

My background shapes my story and perspective. I am a multi-ethnic person, the son of a mother and a father from two different worlds. (I struggle to answer the question on every form that asks my ethnic identity but only allows me to pick one.)

Andrew invited us to visit some key places of Asian American history. We went to Koreatown where the L.A. Riots took place, and we met an incredible activist, Hyepin Im, who is passionate about helping fractured communities move toward unity and empowerment. 

We spent time with the unofficial Mayor of Little Toyko, Bill Watanabe, and learned about the 442nd infantry regiment of the US Army who were the most decorated in U.S. military history. Some of this regiment helped release the prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp, while approximately 120,000 Japanese women, men, and children were being held in concentration camps themselves within the United States. For over three years, they were held ­– although 70% were American citizens. 

This thought was so hard for me to grapple with: while Japanese American soldiers were freeing Jews from concentration camps, their own families were living in camps in the U.S. I learned, for the first time, that there was a report clearly stating that Japanese living in the U.S. were not a threat to war efforts but the expertise was ignored and hundreds of thousands of innocent people and their families suffered as a result.

In the San Francisco area, we visited Angel Island (think Ellis Island but smaller and predominately Asian immigrants) and Chinatown, and there was a notable shift in my heart. I realized that I wasn’t just learning Asian American history, but I was also learning a history that could have been. My grandparents fled from China to Taiwan, but I wondered what if… what if they had chosen the U.S. looking for “better days ahead?” This thought made me weep as I walked through the women’s barrack on Angel Island. I found an old chair and in the quietness of the room, sat alone staring at the beds stacked from floor to ceiling. I saw items that look so similar to what sat on my grandma’s dresser (I called her “Ni Ni”). Ni Ni was the kindest, servant-hearted woman. We could barely communicate with words but the love was felt so deeply. I imagine I can still feel her cheeks when I give my mom a hug.

As I was looking at the dehumanizing surroundings, my mom walked into the room. I wanted to shield her from this what-could-have-been history. I wanted to protect her from seeing how people were treated because they looked like her. I wanted her to not look at the photos or the Chinese characters scratched into the walls. Instead, I just walked with her, watching as she also experienced this painful revelation. I wondered if climbing 40 mountains was an easier path than being held in the place I was now standing.

In Chinatown, we met Reverend Harry Chuck. Rev. Harry is the Director of Donaldina Cameron House, an organization that serves the lower-income, immigrant Chinese families in Chinatown through after-school programs, discipleship opportunities, faith-based youth programs and more. As a part of our experience, we were invited to watch a documentary with footage from the 1960s-80s of Rev. Harry and other local leaders fighting for housing, their community, and future generations. Tears streamed down my face as we watched a group of young people passionately fighting for basic human rights and dignity. I was grateful to be sitting across from Rev. Harry – a Chinese American hero who had fought for people like my mom. As I watched these experiences of pain, (and was plagued by the what if? scenario about the past) I saw my mother more clearly than ever before. These people were fighting for her, because they were fighting for her humanity to be valued in this world as an Asian American. I couldn’t shake Rev. Harry’s hand without the tears flowing – “thank you” didn’t seem like enough.

Rev. Harry’s story reminded me of something Danielle Strickland said at Kensington’s Move Out Gathering a few years ago, “Jesus always goes out of the way to get in the way.” 

Jesus went through the land of Samaria, a land of outcasts because of their ethnicity. Jesus looked people in eye to let them know how loved and cherished they were. And, Jesus invites those that follow Him to see others as he sees them, to love as He loves. Jesus invites us to lean into the stories and experiences of others – not to avoid them. When we do this with a posture of openness, we learn and grow. What might happen if we listened to words of Jesus to “go and do likewise,” (Luke 10:37) and offered mercy and care in midst of this world’s brokenness?

I will cling to Jesus and the identity that is found in Him – how He sees me, how He sees my mom. Jesus moved into the margins of society and showed others their full humanity and value. I want to learn how to see the pain that others have experienced, the struggles that I may never face. By doing so, I can love differently, fight for justice, and show mercy and compassion.

Our country’s history is very complex, but we must keep learning. I have realized just how much history continues to impact the world we live in. 

There are generations of stories that stored up in each one of us, and facing history allows us to shape a different future. 

Instead of holding tightly to what I know (in pride and security) I have been challenged to instead see through the eyes of another.

Some of this learning could have caused me to grow bitter or frustrated, but I am intentionally pursuing the peace that only Jesus offers, a better type of peace. 

I love how Micah 6:8 reminds us, “and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”   

May we be a community that actively seeks to bring hope and wholeness to a broken and fractured world through the love of Jesus. May we see how Jesus sees and love how Jesus loves. May we be willing to see through another’s eyes. May we choose to learn, so that we can lead more lovingly, more compassionately, and with more mercy and justice in this world. Jesus, may we see how you see. Amen. 

The month of May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here are some resources to learn more:

Andrew Kim’s Blog: https://kensingtonchurch.org/not-virus-asian-american/

PBS documentary: https://www.pbs.org/weta/asian-americans/

George Takei’s Ted Talk: https://youtu.be/LeBKBFAPwNc

Wikipedia articles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manzanar

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updated June 23, 2021

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