Sound of the Genuine

Christine Hong: Imagination Without Borders

June 03, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 3
Sound of the Genuine
Christine Hong: Imagination Without Borders
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Hong is Assistant Professor of Educational Ministry and Director of DEdMin Program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Her interests include decolonial approaches to religious and interreligious education as well as Asian American spiritualities and the spiritual and theological formation of children and adolescents among communities of color. Christine is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has spent time as a religious educator and youth and young adult minister in New York and Southern California. She received her B.A. from the University of Washington, holds a Th.M and M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and has a Ph.D. from Claremont School of Theology.

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli

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Patrick: Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine. FTE's limited audio series on vocation, meaning and purpose. I'm Dr. Reyes and today I have a very special guest in Dr. Christine Hong. I'm so excited to talk to Dr. Hong, who is a professor, writer, researcher, scholar, friend. All the things, minister, she can do it all. And she is leading another generation to be wise, faithful and courageous leaders for the church and the Academy. Grateful that Dr. Hong spent a little bit of time with us here on the Sound of the Genuine. 

All right Dr. Hong, it is so good to be with you today. I just need you to settle something for me as a West coaster. Of course, I think California is the best, and I know you spent a little time in Southern California and Seattle, so you got to tell me which one do you claim? 

Christine: That's hard. Okay. So Southern California is where I think I grew up till I was around eight years old. And then we moved up to Seattle. When my dad - my dad pretty much lost this business in Southern California when we were growing up. My parents are immigrants. They always struggled.

Like we don't have that kind of immigrant story where they have this tremendous success. I think like our family history with them trying to make it and provide for us has always been spotty. Like we have moments where we're good and then moments where we have to start over. That was really our childhood. And going to Seattle was like one of those moments where they were trying to start over.

And so we ended up there. So my adolescence was in Seattle, there are really formative memories for me in LA, so I try to claim both. 

Patrick: [What does your dad do? What was the business?

Christine: So they owned a little video store that rented out telenovelas, and it was called UNO video. So my parents both speak Spanish and I think picked that up probably faster than the colloquial English, because we were surrounded by Latinx and Korean communities.

So that was their business. That was their community. Some of my earliest memories are like sitting behind the counter or like being the one to rewind the videos when they came back. 

Patrick: So what'd your parents do up in Seattle? What was the business up there? 

Christine:  My parents bought a little gas station up in Marysville, Washington. It was far from where we lived. So we lived in Bellevue, Washington before Microsoft and all those places. It was just really the forest. And then my dad would drive every day up to Marysville, which is almost at the Canadian border. So it was like a two - two and a half hour drive each direction. Those were some hard years, too. And up there he was probably like the only Asian face for miles around that people had ever seen. He leased part of the parking lot to some First Nations farmers that were selling cherries and different things that they would grow. And he remembers like white folks coming in and saying really racist things or like tagging his shop, like store, like in the middle of the night.

And then it was really the indigenous folks that he shared that place with that we're his friends and would tell him when something happened or would watch out for him. I think as an immigrant, those were experiences he had since he got off the plane. And so it wasn't new to him, but it was new having friends and allies in a space  where there were also no Asian people. And that was I think, powerful for his own experience. And so he would share that with us. 

Patrick: How did you all form community up in Seattle? 

Christine: It was really the church that was the place, our home base, where we would go most nights, like for prayer services, for youth group. I pretty much stayed in the same church in Seattle from the time I was eight till I was like, yeah, like eighteen, nineteen years old.

And the friends that I've made in those spaces are still friends today. That was PCUSA. It was originally called Pilgrim and then it like changed. And the youth, we just hung together. And a lot of us went to college together at University of Washington. So it was those relationships that really helped me thrive.

Patrick: What'd your parents want you to do, you went to University of Washington. What were their hopes for you when you went off to school? 

Christine: They really wanted me to be a lawyer. I was really interested in writing. Like I really wanted to write and I wanted to be a journalist. I ended up going to UDub because I think at that time financially, I knew my parents wouldn't be able to help us. So I just did the math. When I was seventeen I did the math and I was like, okay, I can afford UDub. It's on a quarter system, so I can do this part-time job and this part-time job and maybe get some grants or get some scholarships here and there and I can pay those bills and so that's where I went. I had like lots of side jobs.

I tutored for a lot of English second language students that were Korean high schoolers. So helping them with SATs and different things and just daily, just schoolwork and helping them transition. I was really kind of a culture broker for a lot of new immigrant youth that didn't have friends yet, or friend circles.

And they weren't living with their parents. They would live with these host families that were paid to just shuttle them back and forth to school. And they had no access to anybody else. That was maybe even like my first ministry, I'd say. Like, we would talk about all sorts of things and these really young girls. I double majored in communications and English literature.

I really loved writing and I love the creative arts. So I did that. I also did some pre-law. When I applied to seminary, I also apply to law schools, including the University of Washington law school. That's really what my parents wanted me to do. And I discerned a different way. 

Patrick: How'd you discern that? How did you find another way in that moment?

Christine: So when I was 15, my parents, that church that we belong to, it was Presbyterian but super charismatic. They were part of the vineyard movement that was happening like in Toronto and Vancouver. We always had a revolving door of these like pastors from Korea that were also involved in that movement who would come and stay with us while they were preaching or doing revivals.

I don't even know who she was, but this one woman, she said that she wanted to pray for me. She like laid hands and prayed for me in front of my family. And she said, she's going into the ministry, deal with it now. And my mom was just like, uh uh cause her brother was a pastor and he was a church planter and a mission co-worker and he had a hard life. Truly that was his call and the same thing had happened to him in his youth. This is like a family story. He died and apparently was dead for three days. And then came back. And back then in rural Korea, like the body just stays in the room until somebody can come and prepare it for burial. And so his body was cold and in the room for three days.

And like a prophetess came and asked my grandmother, what do you want, what do you want me to pray for? And she goes, I just want my son back. And she said, will you give him to the ministry? And my grandma said yes, and she prayed for him, the day after that he died, like for 48 hours. And on that third day, he knocked on the door cause it was like locked from the outside and he was like, I'm thirsty. So he went into the ministry, again very young and had that call in his life early, someone called him for that. And then my mom was having flashbacks to that. Like when this woman said this over me and I just had to assure her that that was not what I was going to do.

Like she's wrong. She don't know. Yeah. Yeah. I'm going to be a lawyer don't worry. But sure enough, that same year felt a call very strongly. I was just in my room reading the Bible, I don't know why. I was reading the passage of Jeremiah's call about like he's too young and like he's young and people won't take him seriously. And I just started weeping because I just felt like I was being called to something else.

I didn't know what it was. So I knew that I wanted to go to seminary. At that time I didn't know if women could go to seminary other than to prepare to be pastors wives. So I knew I didn't want to be anyone's wife. But I wanted to go to ministry. So I inferred from what everyone was telling me that women could be missionaries.

So I was like, that's probably what I'm being called towards. So I decided to go to seminary in order to be a missionary. And my mom didn't speak to me for three months after I announced it to the family. You know it's bad when your immigrant mom won't cook for you! And she stopped feeding me for three months after I told her. It was like I didn't exist.

Yeah. But my dad who's who is a PK, came to me and said, did I ever tell you I went to seminary for two years? After the military? And I was like, I had no idea. And he goes, yeah, cause I blocked it out cause it was terrible. But he also said it was because of my father who was a Methodist minister made me. I had no choice.

I want you to have a choice to go versus live the life that I did, which is to have to go and pay my dues and never want it. If this is what you want, I support you and I'll talk to your mom. That's how he made it okay. 

Patrick: I mean, missionary education is very different than where I met you, when we were doing school together. So tell me, like what type of seminaries, what type of programs were you looking for? 

Christine: I was going to go to Fuller, I think, because I just felt like I wanted to be taught out of an evangelical tradition, which is all I knew. Even the women in my life who were in ministry were in children's ministry, not even youth ministry or were pastors spouses. And I continuously was being told by the male spiritual leaders in my life that I didn't have a lot of options. And so I was probably being called to be someone's wife or someone's spouse, who had a, someone actually said, who had a bigger calling than me. And I remember that.

Yeah. And so I needed to like be humble and be prepared to have that. And I remember having a conversation with one pastor. I asked him to write a reference for me, for Princeton Theological Seminary, because I decided I wanted to go there cause I was a Presbyterian. So he said he wouldn't write me a reference.

And he was my youth pastor and my college pastor. And I asked him why and he said I wasn't practical enough for a ministry. And the woman that was mentoring me at the time, she also felt like this was not the right direction for me. Princeton was too liberal. And so she stopped speaking to me as well.

And here's the moment, Patrick, here's the moment where I knew that I had it wrong and that there was something more and that no one had told me about. The first chapel service that we went together as a class and there was communion and Nancy Lammers Gross, who was the minister of the chapel. And a woman was presiding over the table and she gave me the bread and the wine. And she said, Christine, this is the body, this is the blood. And I had never taken communion or received those words or the elements from a woman in a collar before. And I was like shaking. Like my whole body was just shaking because it felt so wrong yet so right. And I was like, this is, this is it!

No one had told me it was possible and had never seen it with my eyes before or heard it with my ears. It all came together at one time. This is what God is calling me to do is to be in the ministry in this particular way. 

Patrick: So what do you do with that? I mean you're 3,500 miles away from home discerning a call that's being affirmed but with folks who I'm assuming were not from your community.

Christine: She was a white woman, white Presbyterian woman. And all I knew was in that instant that I realized that I felt such deep betrayal by the Korean church. That I was like, wow this whole thing I've been struggling with in my youth that I couldn't name or even visualize is because it was kept from me. And I just thought, you know what, no matter what I do I'm never going back to the Korean church. That's severed. I was so enraged and I held onto that rage the entire seminary experience. And it was confusing for me because when I would go to classes at Princeton at the time especially like classes in Christian education, and right now I'm teaching in religious education. But any like religious history class or theology class, I didn't hear the voices of my people represented. And as much as I had in my mind put them away and said I'm never returning there, I still wanted to understand like how I was formed. I still wanted to understand, like what a particular theology of Korean immigrant theology Korean-American theology was. Like why did I have the particular biases that I had?

Why did I assume the certain things that I had about myself or about my community? What were my parents' experiences of the church? Why did they love it so much when it had betrayed me so much? And none of that was there except as maybe a chapter of a reading in a class. So I went through the motions at seminary to tell you the truth. It went in one ear - and I was like, I don't know who they're talking about because it's not me - and out the other. And the only place where I felt like my experiences were acknowledged was in like this friend group of Asian and Asian-American students that were mirroring back to me that those also were their experiences too.

Patrick: What a hard place to be between this affirming, not really inclusive, you're not from there but you're called to be here. And as a woman, this other piece that has to be deeply forming, going all the way back to rewinding those telenovelas isn't represented at all in this education or the thing that you are pursuing. So what is your next move after the MDiv.? Are you going straight into ministry? What were you thinking at this point?

Christine: I was already on the ordination track, through the church that I was interning at and had some great mentors at that church, it was all white church. It was my first time being a youth pastor. I learned a lot in that space and what a loving church it was. I think I just envisioned myself in a church like that. And at that time I was like, oh I'm probably going to be an associate pastor at an all white church. Somewhere in some suburb of America that isn't scared of like Asian people or won't ask me too often or tell me too often that my English is good.

Maybe once in a while, but not every day. And so those were the churches that I interviewed at, but there was just something that wasn't clicking in those interviews. Like it just didn't feel right. And I was like, struggling with that. I don't know what it is. Like I thought I had discerned this. Finally, someone sends me like a flyer or some email or something about a position in Long Island at a Korean immigrant church for like youth and family ministries. And I was like, I'm graduating soon, I need to figure this out. I need to pay bills. Like I need a place to live. I can't go home. I'm just going to apply. The pastors came to Princeton to interview me. So they invited me up to preach for their service.

So I went up and it was like 200 senior high faces staring at me. And I just preached the sermon that I had prepared. And then it was like an hour and a half drive home to Princeton. And I was just like talking to God in the car. And the conversation turned to a prayer of give me this church. Like in that conversation discernment was happening.

I was like, you know what, I'm going to struggle here and probably going to struggle really hard. But when I looked at the faces of those youth, I really loved them. And that's where I need to be so give me this church. And I'm still very evangelical in my prayers even though I'm Presbyterian. So I was like claiming it in the name of Jesus.

And within the next couple of weeks, we finalized it and I ended up there for five years. I had a hard lesson in Strong Island culture. Let me just say coming from like Southern California, that was not welcome. It was hard. They helped me mature in ways that I know I wouldn't have without them. I almost feel like we, in some ways, grew up together in our different ways.

And I made so many mistakes with them. There are some mistakes that I think about still to this day and just cringe, like cringe about it. Those mistakes were generally about my own ego, right? As a teacher and a pastor, or about my own unwillingness to learn something or to bend or be flexible, or to listen to what people had to say that were younger than me.

I had to deal with a lot of that that was internalized within me. Not only just in my own personality, but that was part of like my education in seminary and like a very white seminary that was about like borders and boundaries. And in immigrant culture there's no such thing. They have access to you 24 hours a day.

And that's what ministry is about. And so me saying you can't call me on the weekend or you can't call me on my day off. That's like straight up rude and it's unloving. So, yeah, it was awesome. That was, it was a hard, but beautiful time. 

Patrick: So what'd you do after five years? What called you elsewhere? 

Christine: I decided like three years in I felt like I can't do this forever because I had too many episodes where I was crying in the parking lot before I went in to preach. There were parts about ministry that I really, really didn't like. Also the church was helping me ask a lot of questions about Korean American religion and indigeneity of religion and spirituality.

So I went back to Princeton and did a Th. over two years, so part-time and worked with a professor there who helped me hone in on like very specific questions. And at the end of the day it was Richard Young and he said, Christine, I think what you're interested in is not comparative religions or comparative theology.

And you're not necessarily about comparing, but asking about the significant value of each in their own particularity and those two things being in dialogue. And that's different from the normative, like christian in the middle, everything around it. And so he said the only school that's really doing this that could maybe speak to the education interests you have right now is Claremont School of Theology. They're doing and starting exactly what you're envisioning. So I trust him. I only applied there. So I went to Claremont and it was the right decision. It was amazing. 

Patrick: What was it about this program that advanced your vocational aspiration, as you said to take a risk? 

Christine: I loved that church that I was at, but they underpaid me for five years. I was paid probably the least out of all the staff for the same amount of work. And it was gendered and ageist, but that was five years. I was still struggling with that. And when I went out to Claremont, the only reason why it made it possible was that I got full tuition there. So the only thing that I would have had to pay for was like room and board. That's when I took out the loans from the government to cover those and still paying them.

And for the ThM at Princeton, I'm still paying those too. Because they will get you. And I'll probably be paying them till, I don't know. I don't know what it says, but I'm going to be an older lady, by the time I'm done. But at the same time, I can't imagine in hindsight that I could have gone anywhere else.

So I wanted to be an educator. The thing that I discerned when I was a pastor in New York, was that I loved the teaching aspect of ministry and the being with people and listening to their stories and weaving those stories together with biblical narratives and like teaching in a way that was inclusive of not only my narrative, but the narrative of other people and bringing those stories together. And I just thought, wouldn't it be marvelous to do that as a teacher? And I didn't know if I wanted to go into academia. I just knew I wanted to teach and I didn't know what that would look like. So in my mind, I could have graduated with that PhD and gone back to the church and done some ministry as like an education pastor.

I didn't know what it was gonna look like. This is a complete leap of faith. So I went and I worked there with Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook who really helped me understand like the field of inter religious education as it was emerging. So I was interested in that, but I was also interested in like how do we weave in and not separate out anti-racism from that?

Or like intercultural work or multicultural work with that where it's not just about religion, but whole people and everything that they bring. And Claremont was a really cool place because it was the complete opposite experience of Princeton where Princeton was so white. It was white and learning to be white.

That's what it felt like. And learning to operate in white institutional ways to remain relevant and visible.  Like coming from that, Claremont felt like, wow I could really bring my whole self including the questions that I have and those questions aren't going to tag me as being someone who is incompetent, but as someone who's trying to learn about particular contexts. And I credit that to the teachers that we have there. I did a dissertation on Korean-American girls and their identity formation around gender, spirituality, theology, and self.

At the time I worked for four years at a local Presbyterian church with a young adult ministry. It was a Korean church, but it was a multicultural ministry. 

Patrick: What do you do after you get the degree, a PhD in inter-religious work? What does that even look like? 

Christine: I was ABD, so I was looking for a job and I had adjuncted at Azusa and I didn't feel like that went very well. Actually it was my first kind of adjunct experience. And I was like, oh yo, maybe I'm not good at this! But I do know the church and I do love the church so let me see what there is. So I was just looking for anything and everything. And the PCUSA had a position open for interfaith associate and it was basically someone that was going to care for the inter-religious relationships in bilateral communities.

So a lot of dialogue tables, a lot of conversations about particular issues, inter-religious movements, taking care of relationships, official relationships, ecclesial, and interfaith relationships. So I actually just called the director and this is how it all comes full circle. The director of the oversight of that group, he used to be my preceptor.

He was doing his PhD at Princeton when I was an MDiv student and he was my TA for my worship session. So that's how I knew him. So I called him and I said, do you remember me? And he's like no. And I said, well I remember you and guess what? I'm going to in a year, have a PhD in this very topic. So I'd be interested in interviewing.

There are apparently more appropriate ways to do it, but I did it in a completely inappropriate way. Somehow got an interview and got the job. So that's what I did for two years in between, 

Patrick: As you did that job, I'm assuming you're also publishing your first book.  Were you thinking this is going to be my career, building these relationships for the church? What fueled your imagination about what your vocation was at this point? 

Christine: I feel like I could have done that job for a lot longer. Cause I felt like after two years I was becoming more confident in being at those tables. And one of the first things I realized was that at those tables are very few women and very few nonwhite women.

Often at the table, I was like the only woman or one of four women. A lot of the mainline churches had women at the head of those relationships but inter religiously, there were not women at those tables. And it was very political. There were so many politics that happened - divestment from companies in the West Bank happened on my watch. And some people really are like congratulations and some people are shame on you. It's just depends on who you're talking to. It was a hard time for the church it was a reorganization that happened two years in and we were on a restricted budget.

So I knew that I had to either move or raise some money. It was hard to convince people that this mattered, like in the conversation, in a very significant way. Not in the way that we believe now, even that many years ago. 

Patrick: Chris, I'm really curious about how you overcame all of these obstacles, both from your community and from these institutions that you served in. I mean, you're one of the most inspiring generative humans that I know.

Christine: I had so many people in my life, like starting with my parents and my grandparents who never put a cap on my dreaming. And I think that was so important because so many people did try. There are so many people, I think, in the lives, particularly of women of color that try to put just like edges or borders around your imagination and your dreaming about your future and about what you can achieve and how you even put yourself in a room and take up space in a room. So I had so many wonderful elders in my community, in my family.

I had wonderful teacher mentors. I remember Najeeba Saeed. I taught with her for eight years at Claremont, this class inter religious leadership and dialogue, which I'm getting ready to teach again in a couple of weeks. But I remember her just telling me like after that first session, she was like loosen up your body you can take up more space than you're taking up. And I remember her telling me that and I was like, okay. So I thought she meant like projecting my voice. She's like, no, like physically take up space. She's like, it's not about speaking loudly, move about the room. And she showed me how to do this. I had great teachers like that.

And Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook who reminded me that I didn't actually have to abide by the limits that other people were setting for me. And so watching them do that and defy limitations that were set upon them, it showed me that it was possible. And so even at those dialogue tables, sometimes being one of two women, one of three women, or the only woman there, like I never hesitated to ask my questions because guess what?

There were a lot of men around that room asked dumb questions. So being able to just speak up and also just watching how men with power moved in spaces and used their voice was a very interesting observation. A lot of what I observed in those very male spaces was that nothing got decided in the room.

There were lots of backroom conversations and side conversations that happen. And so I made myself available for those things too. So part of it was like learning to code switch into that type of behavior, but also reminding myself that that's not the behavior that I actually want to produce and reproduce in the world.

I teach in the area of educational ministry or religious education. And my work is primarily preparing pastors to go out into whatever ministry that they envision that they're called to, and also prepare students for PhD programs. We have a lot of people that apply towards the end of their master's degrees here.

I try to focus a lot of my energy towards women, Asian women in particular, women of color, black women and to help them understand like, these are my experiences and these might be yours, but don't believe the boundaries and the edges and things that people set up for you and tell you that you can't cross this line.

Like you decide that. And if you need backup, like I'll back you up. But yes, I teach particular subjects, but a lot of what I think I'm trying to teach is how to envision themselves into those futures, into those bodies and embodiments that they maybe sometimes haven't been told that they can achieve because of who they are and just tell them like, it's possible.

It's possible. No one's ever going to stop doing that to you, but those things are possible because you have a community around you that will back you up when it's time and when you need it.

Patrick: You know for people of color and women, women of color, that education almost needs to be formalized. Like, you know, the class being shown what you're talking about with your book, showing how to walk, how to present yourself in the room. The power analysis that goes into that, you're modeling such a powerful way and I'm so grateful to know that you're modeling for students and definitely for our fellows this last year, it was just absolutely incredible Chris. I am inspired by the way that you're doing this and talk beautifully about your dialogue with God, the kind of internal voice you have had.

I'm curious and this is my last question. How much of this has to do with that internal dialogue that you have with God and how much has to do with community? 

Christine: So much of it has to do with my community. I used to be like bothered by how I couldn't disentangle sometimes the voice of the spirit, capital S, with the voice of like my grandparents who have now passed. I have one living grandparent, but she also has had dementia for the last 20 years.

And so in many ways, like there have been goodbyes even though she's still living today. And I used to say gosh, that's the problem I have to disentangle, but I no longer am concerned with that. I think, yes, the voices of my ancestors are entangled with the voice of the spirit because they co-exist in the same realm of care for the universe, for the world, for me, and for other people. They share the same concerns and the same passion for us.

And so for me, that's where I find my grounding as an educator. That's where I find my grounding as a person and those are the voices that I listen to. Sometimes I will even just ask my grandma, like her name is Shin Gun Ja and she only had a fourth grade education. Before she died she wrote the Bible out by hand for all of her grandchildren, like nine of us.

And I have it in my office, like it's sitting in the room and there's like a notebook. And each notebook is like a book of the Bible and her handwriting is a fourth graders handwriting because she also was born in colonial Japan. So she didn't learn Korean at school she learned Japanese. Her Japanese is immaculate.

So it's like her Korean is the hand writing of a girl, of a little girl that learned how to write it by candlelight because someone gave her a few lessons here or there. And she wrote in that broken hand in the handwriting of this child, the Bible out. And like for me, yes, God is present and alive in her voice.

And so sometimes I'll even say, grandma, like intercede for me. Yeah. And those are the people, the voices, the lives that are so - I don't know, they're always before me in whatever I do, and they come behind me too. And my only thing that I can wish, I know that I've heard you say this multiple times, like we don't know how much time we have on this earth.

We just don't. There is a sense of urgency of I want to be able to be that voice too for my kids and for other people. So I'm trying to soak up the wisdom that I can on this side of like life and death so that I can share it on either side. 

Patrick: Chris, I'm so grateful that you shared your story with us and took us on your journey from the telenovelas to the notebooks, ancestral wisdom, speaking into your call and affirming it and affirm the hard work and dedication you put into so many of us. I am so grateful and inspired by you. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I deeply appreciate it. 

Christine: Thank you so much for having me. 

Patrick: Now I want to thank you for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and Dr. Hong's story. We know that you can expand your vocational imagination by listening to a lot of things and we're glad you spent some time with us here at FTE. Special thanks to our design managers, Heather Wallace and Elsie Barnhart, and @siryalibeats for his music. Don't forget, you can get more information about the Forum for Theological Exploration and our many resources at Subscribe and share this episode with a friend and we will see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.