My friend Thea Reimer, at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, has started a podcast entitled ‘The #RacismIsHeresy Project.’ It’s a neat experiment, affiliated with a Catholic theological school in the Latin Church, that, like a few others in theology who are curious about modes of communication in a digital age, interrogates the utility of hashtags as well as the importance of social media in theological work.
Thea has done me the flattery of attributing the idea of this project to my ‘coining’ of the hashtag ‘SexismIsHeresy’ on an older Twitter account. The truth is that, at the time, I was trying to figure out my relationship to the New Calvinism of my youth as an Eastern Catholic in my first year of mystagogy and really thought of it in the heat of the moment. If Thea thought of ‘#RacismIsHeresy’ from watching me muddle through my oedipal complex with evangelicalism at the time, then the credit really goes to her.
Still, Thea has honoured me with the first interview in the series. It was an opportunity to share what I had learned from my mystagogical steeping in the Kyivan Church, especially with my sisters and brothers at St Mary of Egypt Social Justice Fellowship, about race and anti-colonialism in the practice of Byzantine Orthodoxy in the contemporary world. As I say in the podcast, I am just a lay person in the Greek-Catholic Church of Kyiv. My theological knowledge is born out of being part of this family and praying in its midst as we make Christ present together in the liturgies we serve.
I’m thankful to Thea for making this podcast happen, as well as to the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology for this bold new venture. I look forward to following Thea’s journey in learning from people, most of whom will be wiser and more knowledgeable than me, about the connections between racism and heresy, the construal of orthodoxy in the modern world, and its continuing relevance in the circulation of digital publics.
I am so pleased to have been interviewed by D. Cheng in a Christianity Today article that came out on November 18, 2019, entitled ‘Praying for Hong Kong Can Be Disruptive — Even in America.’ The title, admittedly, is a bit overdetermined. What the article is really about is how Chinese Christians in North America do not really seem to do much by way of explicitly addressing the recent protests in Hong Kong, almost, as I say, for the same reasons that Christians in Hong Kong appear to have been front and centre. ‘Just as Hong Kong Christians most want peace,’ I say to Cheng, ‘those in the diaspora also want peace in their churches and in Hong Kong.’ The question, of course, is what peace looks like.
To me, this Christianity Today article is interesting for its contributions to how Asian American Christianity is conceived. Almost as a follow-up to Helen Lee’s classic pieces also in this magazine on ‘the silent exodus‘ and ‘silent no more,’ terms that were original to the Los Angeles Times reporter Doreen Carvajal in her exploration of Koreatown’s communities in 1994, Cheng’s piece contrasts one clear case of Asian North American prayerful alignment with the Hong Kong protests — the case of the Vancouver Christians for Love, Peace, and Justice group being protested by pro-Beijing elements of the Chinese community at Tenth Church Vancouver — with the reticence of most Chinese Protestant churches in North America to say much publicly about them. Referring also to my journey to Eastern Catholicism in Vancouver, it is almost as if Cheng is making the case that the silence of Chinese churches generating a new silent exodus, a point that also aligns with Esther Yuen’s writing about how Tenth Church is a multi-ethnic congregation formed by ‘mass exodus’ from Chinese immigrant churches as well as my piece showing how Tenth’s senior pastor, Ken Shigematsu, was one of the original planters of Newsong Church in Irvine, California, with Dave Gibbons, who was the poster child of the original ‘silent exodus’ articles by Carvajal and Lee. Narrating my Eastern Catholic conversion in the terms of the silent exodus was indeed provocative for me, and I will have to think some more about its implications and its play on silencing and silences in Asian American Christianities.
I am grateful to Cheng for writing this piece, as well as to Christianity Today for publishing it. I’m also gratified that my communities, both scholarly and ecclesial, could be included in it, the former in the form of the towering figure of Fenggang Yang in the social scientific study of religion and the latter in the ecumenical bonds that tie our Eastern Catholic Church in Richmond to Christians across the theological spectrum. It has also made me reflect on how the book that I am writing on Cantonese Protestants in postsecular civil societies on the Pacific Rim speaks to these apparent silences and motivates me in light of what is happening in Hong Kong to shed light on these complexities.
I wanted to share the words by which I opened my presentation on No. 5 Road while at the recent Se faire une place dans la cité conference in Montreal. My collaborator on the project, Claire Dwyer, passed away in the summer, just as I was moving to my new post across the Pacific from where we had done our project in Richmond, British Columbia. When the illness that took her was in its advanced stages, a few colleagues of hers at University College London had contacted me to be part of a small project honouring her for her promotion to Professor. I was not able to come through for that venture. I also thought we’d have more time with her; she even emailed me from the hospital about our project and had the joy to discover that the last letter that she had written last year while I was on the job market was the one that got me my position at Singapore Management University.
And then, she was gone. I did have the words to grieve, and as I told my colleagues at the time, I did not know how I would find them. But Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germaine invited me to Montreal to talk about our project and said that they would say a few words about Claire. It was this conference that thus forced me to stop avoiding my grief and stare it in the face.
These, then, are the words by which I began my talk. Having said them at the conference, I feel it is only right to make them public here:
I want to begin by thanking the conference organizers Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germain for this kind invitation to speak here in Montreal. I have been on an academic job market journey of sorts over the last few years, so it has been difficult to pin down exactly where I have been: Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago, and now, of all places, Singapore. It is an honour to be brought in from so far, to a place that is almost entirely run en français. I have not spoken French with any semblance of competence since I learned it in a high school in California fifteen years ago. Apologetically, I will have to speak in English today. I do, however, know what people are saying, not just words, but almost full arguments. The problem is that my incompetence lies in retaining what you say. If you ask me what it was you said, I will have forgotten by the time you have uttered it. This means that I can probably participate in some discussion in French. But I will not dare to speak it myself, unless we have another cocktail tonight.
In this morning’s presentation, I come in the memory of my colleague and dear friend, Professor Claire Dwyer. I understand, when Frédéric first invited me, that Claire was supposed to give the talk that I am now about to give. With some shock, we probably learned around the same time that Claire was too sick by late last year to work, much less travel. It is poetic that the final job reference letter that she wrote for me was for my current position at Singapore Management University. I had the opportunity to tell her this news when she emailed me to discuss — from the hospice, no less — our collaborative project on what is known as ‘the Highway to Heaven,’ the stretch of road in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, British Columbia where there are over twenty religious institutions within three kilometers.
She was also well-loved in Singapore, especially at my university — Singapore Management University — where we are informally forming a small hub of cultural geographers of religion, with our president Lily Kong and my colleague Orlando Woods also there. Lily and I especially have tried to work through our grief together. I recently told her that I did not know how to grieve Claire. How do I even begin to grapple with the person who came all the way from London to Vancouver to mentor this kid in qualitative research methods because our department did not have such a course and then proceeded to work tirelessly to make sure I grew up and got a job that I could hold? I learned how to do research through this project on No. 5 Road. In fact, I even met the woman I married on the Highway to Heaven while doing this project. I do not know how to grieve Claire, and I hesitate from saying that this presentation in her memory is my public expression of grief because I do not know if that would cheapen it. But I am spending all of this time at the front of my presentation commemorating her because it was she who was supposed to give this talk. I hope her spirit is here. It would give me some confidence. In comfort, Lily told me that this is why we must hold our loved ones closer to us now, always.
Still, three months after the news, I am now here, on our behalf. In fact, the last time I gave this presentation, it was also in Montreal, in St Joseph’s Oratory. I find that it is poetic that I get to revisit Montreal with this work, holding Claire in my heart. I certainly hope that my performance will not be as disappointing as the last time.
Memory eternal, Claire. With the saints, grant her rest, O Christ. Memory eternal.
This last weekend, I was in Honolulu for the 2019 annual meeting of the American Studies Association. The roundtable panel that I organized was titled ‘Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies: A Conversation with Gary Okihiro.’ Its place in the program was on Friday, November 8, 2:00pm to 3:45pm, Hawai’i Convention Center, Mtg Rm 319 B. The subtitle in the program was ‘Re-Building Global Solidarity from Asian American Studies and Native Studies,’ but the general will of our roundtable members, including me, was for it to be changed to ‘A Conversation with Gary Okihiro.’ And so it was.
The roundtable revolved around the provocation made by Okihiro in Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation that the educational objectives of the Third World Liberation Front in the late 1960s were stillborn and replaced with an ‘ethnic studies’ hegemony that focused on communities of color, not on the conditions of material domination in the infrastructures of what Okihiro terms the ‘social formation.’ Chairing the panel was the historian Ji-Yeon Yuh from Northwestern University. Karen Ishizuka (Japanese American National Museum) elaborated on street gangs as pre-political preparation for the more radical movements of the 1960s, Doug Kiel (Northwestern University) engaged Okihiro’s engagements with what the indigenous scholar George Manuel calls the ‘Fourth World,’ Daryl Maeda (University of Colorado-Boulder) talked about the institutional challenges of Third World Studies as opposed to ethnic studies, and yours truly addressed the methodological contributions of talking about the social formation as opposed to the myopic social scientific gaze on communities.
We had a very lively discussion that broke down concepts of the ‘academy,’ the ‘university,’ the ‘community,’ and the ‘streets.’ But perhaps the consensus was that the best part was that Angel Trazo, a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, drew our panel. Here is her tweet:
I am so excited to be preparing to fly to Montréal to be part of the workshop-conference ‘Se faire une place dans la cité‘ from 16-18 October 2019. Frédéric Dejean and Annick Germain have been discussing it for over a year with me, and it’s finally happening, along with a stellar line-up of keynotes by Lori Beaman and Jean-Paul Williame.
I’ll be part of two sessions on 17 October. The morning one is titled ‘Urbanisme, dynamiques spatiales et religions,’ while the afternoon will be ‘Les groupes religieux au service d’une ville inclusive ?’ My understanding is that I’ll speak for about twenty minutes on the research on which I collaborated with the late Claire Dwyer on No. 5 Road in the morning, then on the parts of my book project on Cantonese Protestants in Vancouver in the afternoon.
What is intriguing about this conference is that the presentations seem to be a prelude to a larger conversation that will happen in three-hour blocks. I understand from Frédéric that the delightful challenge for us academics will be to speak practically to planning practitioners. I relish this opportunity — as I told my dean, it’s a bit of a rapprochement — and in doing so, I’ll have to brush up on my high-school French. Frédéric tells me that everyone’s PowerPoint will be mercifully in English. I do not know if I will be brave enough to speak a language I haven’t spoken in years on my colleagues’ home turf.
Many thanks to Frédéric and Annick for organizing, as well as their very competent organizers Louis Raymond and Vincent Létourneau for handling the logistics.
Many thanks to Grace Yukich for asking me to do this review, and of course to Nicolette Manglos-Weber for writing such a fun book. By way of a more personal recommendation, friends came over around the time I was moving to look for interesting books to pilfer from my collection and thus lighten my load. Joining the Choir was instantly taken from me by a sister and brother in my own church choir — it is not only the Ghanaians who use this terminology among transnational religious communities in Chicago (mine is ‘transnational’ with Kyiv) — though in the throes of packing, it slipped my mind. A few weeks later, I was at these friends’ house and saw the book. Isn’t this mine? I said, and no one could be sure. But it had been read, so they were sure it was theirs now.
I was pleased with how this interview went, though the truth of the matter is that Mondays are my most serious workday, and my greatest hope when I arrived to speak with Jerome McDonnell was that I would at least be coherent. The questions were, as usual, very good, covering a range of topics from the appeals to the American government for support, Joshua Wong’s visit to Germany, the drama around the announcement about the bill’s imminent withdrawal in Legislative Council, and the possible futures of the protests. Jerome’s questions even got me to pull back deep into the heart of the research that consumed me from my undergraduate days and has percolated into the graduate work that fuels my career: the identity politics of the ‘Hong Kong person’ from the 1970s to the present. We also got to speak about protest music; my only regret is that I did not mention the new song being sung as an anthem titled ‘Glory to Hong Kong.’
I see these interviews as the community engagement portion of my scholarly work. As I told Jerome, the task of scholarship is to describe, not prescribe, so all that I am doing here is to see, to sort, and to say what I see and am sorting. It is an offering, then, for ongoing conversation on these momentous events in Hong Kong. I am thankful to Jerome and the team at Worldview, especially the producer Julian Hayda, for bringing me in yet again, and I hope that I was coherent enough in my description of the problems and prospects at hand to encourage further discussion among the publics who listened and will listen to this segment.
I’m very pleased to have been interviewed as part of the journalist Douglas Todd’s piece ‘Hong Kong protesters turn 1970s hymn into anthem.’ My main role in this article is to sketch how the protests in Hong Kong have been using the Jesus Movement chorus ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,’ which I also did with my colleague Melissa Borja on her Anxious Bench group blog on Patheos, and how Christians may or may not be part of the protests in personal and institutional ways.
I like how Todd positions my comments as the lead-in to the story that he really wants to talk about, which is the hundred or so pro-China protesters who picketed the evangelical Tenth Church Vancouver during a Hong Kong prayer rally organized by an inter-denominational and ecumenical group of clergy. Interviewing one of the clergy leaders Samuel Chiu, Todd sketches a broader picture of Chinese Christians in North America — and indeed, Chinese communities in a more secular sense — that are internally divided in terms of transnational politics.
In addition to the Hong Kong interest, this is a developing and interesting story in Vancouver. I’ve written about the senior pastor Ken Shigematsu before as a ‘different kind of evangelical‘ who emphasizes an Asian Canadian sense of social justice and contemplative spirituality, and I’ve also put an article on Tenth into the Brazilian journal Relegens Thréskeia. On this particular issue, Shigematsu has commented on the church’s solidarity with ‘justice issues’ in a non-partisan way, and Fr Richard Soo SJ — the Eastern Catholic priest who brought me into the Greek-Catholic church that has formed so much of my recent musings on the postsecular even while I continue to write, research, and teach on publics on the Pacific Rim — has written an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun about how religious solidarity with Hong Kong is not the practice of partisan politics.
I am so pleased that my friends on the show Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago had me back on to discuss the Hong Kong protests and the recent mass arrests there. The host Jerome McDonnell wanted to discuss a number of issues with me, including the significance of the date August 31 to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the (non)ideological stances of the protesters and the issues of (non)representation in a leaderless movement, the ramifications of ‘one country, two systems’ for the question of rule of law, and the future of the protests. My reflection on working through each of these themes is that it was not unlike giving an undergraduate lecture. There were quite a few technical terms that I found myself having to define as I was speaking, including ‘black hand’ and ‘white terror.’
As usual, my interpretations represent no one except for me, and in the context of a rapidly developing story, that ‘me’ is but a snapshot in time. The tentative arguments I make are, if you will, the work of a scholarly observer, and as I’ve clarified numerous times in the past, I have never claimed to be a ‘Hong Kong person.’ I also note that analytical commentary on protests is not the same as participating in them, and my comments are descriptive, not prescriptive. Just as I did as the lead editor of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement(Palgrave, 2016), my aim is to offer analysis based on what we know to be facts, not invented opinions. Needless to say, scholars like me also have minds of our own, so as is always the case, our views do not represent anyone except for ourselves. This understanding is the basis for the academic freedom that enables the dialogue and conversation that helps us to understand the world, instead of imposing on it models, theories, and conjectures that lead more to confusion than clarity. It also means that all errors of judgment are strictly my own and that acknowledging them is how we come together to grow in knowledge.
I am very excited to be teaching the Big Questions course that is being rolled out with the newly revised Core Curriculum at Singapore Management University. Each year, the ‘Big Questions’ rotate themes. This year, it’s Happiness and Suffering. I’m told that next year will focus on ‘global and local.’
Some people have asked me how a geographer like me can teach such a philosophical course. I often respond with an answer that I once heard from a prominent feminist geographer as to what geographers do, that our readings are quite ‘intellectually promiscuous.’ Our discipline focuses on the examination of space, what it even is and how that interacts with human agents and non-human actors, so there is an element of theory that is shot through all of our work. I see teaching something like ‘happiness and suffering’ as an opportunity to move from the theoretical to the philosophical, to be invested not only in the applicability of ideas about space but also to test whether how we think about the basic concepts of feelings, affect, interiority, the self, and so on are even sound, even as we are interested in how they come to be deployed in space.
It is in this sense that I’ve articulated my sections of the course to be focused on the philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular dimensions of happiness and suffering. There is a field within academia called happiness studies that I understand to try to measure what happiness is, while alleviating suffering. What I want to do is to locate such discussions in a broader theoretical conversation about the structures of feeling and what Charles Taylor calls a secular age. In some ways, teaching the course in this way is, like all of my other colleagues who are trying out pedagogical pathways into this topic this year, a grand experiment to see whether these ideas will interest students who are faced with a real world in which they’ll have to work and build lives.
Teaching begins soon, so I must sign off on this update and keep up with my preparations. I’m very excited to meet my students.