My mom and dad are bickering about who should order our dinner at the Wendy’s drive-thru. After working long hours at the post office, neither wants to deal with the micro-aggression of their English being misunderstood. My dad is driving, so he ends up being the one who orders. From my view behind my mom in the passenger seat, I stare at his hand massaging the steering wheel like it is a stress ball, as if it is a lifeline to avoiding humiliation. With each squeeze of his hand, the memory of his discomfort embeds itself deeper into my memory.
I reflect on this memory from my childhood often, thinking about both the beautiful and terrible reality that was life for my parents as 1st-generation immigrants in this country. Looking back now, I see how courageous my dad was to do little things for our family in a different language, different country, and different culture that nobody else would see and that none of the white kids I grew up with would even understand.
But that’s what I see now when I look back. At the time, what I learned was a racial self-hatred. In her book Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong describes racial self-hatred as “seeing yourself the way whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy.” I internalized shame–that it was somehow my parents’ fault that they didn’t have good enough English to be understood clearly–and I vowed that I was going to successfully fit in, no matter the cost.
When I began working in 2014 for a majority-white organization that partners with local churches to train future missionaries, I was excited. Experiences of racial self-hatred had littered my life–from being told in school that Japanese Issei and Nisei deserved to be in incarceration camps after Pearl Harbor, to white peers using caricatures of Asian accents as humor, to basketball teammates reinforcing stereotypes that Asians aren’t athletic–so I thought I was finally going to have a way to fit in.
“Finally,” I thought, “I’ll finally be accepted and the pain I feel from anti-Asian racism will go away. Surely, if this is possible, it will be among other Christians, right? Instead, I began to awaken to how white evangelicalism has perpetuated the racialization of Asian American Christians.
I learned that to be accepted, I had to conform to the white expectation for East Asians as subservient, hardworking, and emotionless. In terms of career development, I saw that the white evangelical church displayed a similar pattern to the corporate sector regarding the lack of Asian Americans in leadership positions. And when I rejected their expectations, I was accused of having “poor character.”
To survive, I learned to tolerate colorblindness and allowed my coworkers to value my usefulness to their ministry instead of valuing me. However, the consequences of this started to show up soon after.
As Hong says, “The privilege of assimilation is that you are left alone. But assimilation must not be mistaken for power, because once you have acquired power, you are exposed, and your model minority qualifications that helped you in the past can be used against you, since you are no longer invisible.”
Like a sheep being led to the slaughter, I would soon enter into environments and ways of thinking that left me vulnerable to spiritual abuse.
In 2015, my white leaders approached me and said that because of my leadership potential, they wanted me to train potential missionaries at a white evangelical SBC megachurch in Dallas, boasting 15,000 people on an average Sunday. I voiced the strong hesitations I had about going into that kind of environment as a 23-year-old Asian American.
That caused the same leaders to quickly reverse their story from talking about leadership potential to how I needed to submit to authority. According to them, I needed to believe that they knew what was best and should just go along with the plan that they had for my life. They tried to back up that reasoning with Bible verses including Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13-14, and Hebrews 13:17. The problem isn’t relying on Scripture to guide our daily actions. That’s a good thing. The problem is using Scripture to make me out to be the problem for raising concerns about my wellbeing and dismissing those concerns in order to further the organization’s goals.
To be clear, this was the beginning of spiritual abuse. I was not being antagonistic. I was not yelling. I was not cursing. I was simply asking questions about the environment they wanted to send me into, one of the primary reasons being who I am as an Asian American. They dismissed my concerns, said I was being difficult to lead, and used sacred words to coerce me into “submission.”
What I didn’t realize then was that this groomed me for further spiritual abuse. As Kyle J. Howard explains in a Twitter thread, “the goal of ‘grooming’ is to cultivate a form of psychological & emotional dependency on the part of their target. They want their target to depend solely on them & see them as messianic. They want to isolate [their] target as much as possible so they can prey unencumbered.” Though the term “grooming” is more commonly associated with sexual abuse, I was still being groomed for spiritual abuse by being formed into a theology where submission meant acquiescence and humility meant self-deprecation.
During my time at that SBC megachurch in Dallas from 2015-2019, I experienced overtly racist situations like the white Christian nationalism on full display during the 2016 national election where leaders and church members alike used the thinly veiled racist language of “keeping out the criminal, illegal aliens who want to take our jobs.” For Asian Americans, this echoes the concept of the “yellow peril” that led to horrific injustices against our community, such as the Chinese massacre of 1871, the incarceration of people of Japanese descent—including many U.S. citizens—during World War II, and the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982.
When I brought these concerns about the church to my white leaders with my missions organization, their advice was always, “Just put your head down and work. Don’t cause trouble and don’t say anything.”
The next church I served at from 2019-2020 was even worse. When I pointed out a typographical error regarding a calendar date in a department meeting, my white supervisor—a spiritual abuser—at the church made me out to be someone “trying to bend the church to my will” and “lacking the fruits of the Spirit” for pointing out that typo. I was mandated to go through months of biblical counseling with the care pastor at the church, which my abuser and the care pastor predetermined to be about correcting my “prideful” attitude.
My spiritual abuser took it upon himself to spread the story of my “pride” and “insubordination” to the rest of the pastors and elders at the church as well as the white leaders with the missions organization I worked for. I had been successfully isolated from anyone who would have potentially been an advocate. The irony is that each leader that was told the story according to my spiritual abuser had the reaction, “That’s not the Roy that I know and have worked with,” yet their advice to me was still always, “Just don’t talk about it. It won’t go well for you. Just don’t say anything and don’t cause trouble.”
They didn’t defend me or stick up for me. They left me to the wolves for the sake of the organization’s reputation. My emotional and mental health slowly deteriorated, suffering from “death by a thousand cuts.” I was left confused and anxious, wondering if there was anyone I could trust. It was as if I had suddenly taken the place of my dad massaging the steering wheel, desperate for something, anything, to be a lifeline.
That this lifeline was offered to me in the form of Wade Mullen’s work in Something’s Not Right, Diane Langberg in Redeeming Power, and the voices of people of color, especially those of the Black community. In a time where my heart felt deadened and my soul felt betrayed, it was the voices of James Cone, James Baldwin, and bell hooks that breathed life back into me.
In hindsight, this juncture of my story is when I started to wonder if there was a better way for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color outside of white evangelicalism. For Asian Americans in particular, David L. Eng & Shinhee Han write in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation that the “loss and depression attendant to social and psychic processes of immigration, assimilation, and racialization” lead to a collective psychic condition of unresolved grief for Asian Americans. It was from within this grief that I resolved to get free. Relating to the words of James Baldwin, this was the moment “I had abandoned the ministry in order not to betray myself by betraying the ministry.” A death had happened in me, but resurrection was just beginning.