Growing Roots: On Finding Voice and Belonging

Trigger Warning: CSA, sexual abuse, domestic violence, gender-based violence 

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They taught me in church that it is part of our Christian duty to be a “voice for the voiceless.”
I heard it at white church.
I heard it at Korean American church (But we just called it Korean church.)
I regurgitated it and I believed it and by the time I reached my late teens years I was ready to go out and do it.

They praised me, they celebrated me, they paraded me around as the future of the Church.

They did this until the moment I began to dig into this question:
“Who exactly are the voiceless? And what do they need me to say?”

Because it turned out “the voiceless” were actually people like us who had voices of their own. And they didn’t need me to say anything for them, because they were already speaking for themselves.

We simply weren’t listening.

As I started to share what I was learning, the church began to back away from me. I was breaking rank. I was no longer a poster child, because I was no longer using their collective language. As I moved away from regurgitating their voice and began to dabble in using my own, I became less predictable, and that made me a risk.

At first this rejection hurt, but then, it was freeing.

Because, it made me realize that the reason I had been all too willing to agree to speak for others was because it meant that I didn’t have to use my voice to be truly brave. If I was busy using my voice to speak for other people, I didn’t have to use my voice to speak for myself.

I had been taught that silence was safety for so long that I had built a home for myself almost entirely on the foundation of keeping the truth quiet.

“No one can do anything to you that you don’t actually want them to do.”
He told me this while in the act of molesting me. I was eight years old, but it had already been happening for as long as I could could remember. I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. But it was too late. I had already learned long before that my voice had no power.



“He pushed me up against the wall,” I told her. “But it was because he wanted to protect me.” I added that because I wanted to protect him too. I didn’t tell her how the mirror broke when my tiny body crashed into it. I didn’t tell her how I couldn’t breathe with his hand on my neck. She told me it was just between us. But, it wasn’t. And when he found out, I learned just how dangerous a fraction of truth could be. Total silence was the only safe retreat.



“Other people won’t understand,” and, “All families struggle like this, they just don’t show it,” my omma told me. They always told me in church not to lie. But, at home, my omma taught me that lying to protect my family was what good girls did. Because, if I told the truth people could get hurt. People could get taken away. I would be alone. The truth will set you free—unless you are an abused little girl. Then the truth will strip you of everything and everyone you’ve ever known and loved.



By the time I reached young adulthood, I had built a fortress for myself and my loved ones out of my own silence. I had been burying my voice for so long that I had forgotten what it even sounded like.

I left the white evangelical church in America. I left the Korean church in America. And I got on a plane to South Korea.

For the first time in my life I did something just because I wanted to. It was the first time I heard my own inner voice, and trusted it enough to listen. I had a vague hope that I would find a sense of connection and a better understanding of my mother, and that was enough for me to pick up and move.

What I found was that distance from all I had ever known gave me the power and freedom to begin to use my voice— first to speak truth to myself, then to speak it to others.

I had been in Seoul a few months when I was first asked,”Are you Russia saram?” I didn’t understand then but quickly learned that Russian was code for sex worker or sex slave, and that that was code for subhuman creature to whom a man can do whatever he wants. I understood this as the drunk ajjushi chased me home, clawing at my body, and pounded on my door shouting curse words that I only somewhat recognized from my mother’s angry outbursts, until the police came and told him to go back to work.

The only consequence that day was me completely turning inward and bombarding myself with self-loathing and shame.

But, it was that reaction, plus the distance, that allowed me to admit to myself for the very first time that I was not just a trained “advocate” and “ally” for women who had been or were being abused, but I too had been a victim. I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, and that had had deep effects on me. It was a jarring realization, and I felt like I was being cracked open—a splitting pain but also a relief like never before.

The next week would be the first time I ever said the words aloud to another human being. That was the beginning of my becoming a truth teller— a becoming that would assure that I could never return to “home” as I had known it. But I didn’t know, or care, about that then.

I was a newborn tasting air for the first time.



“We can no longer support you.”
“Your history of being abused makes you unfit to work with women who have been abused.”
“You are being used as an instrument in the hands of the devil.”
“You need to let go of the past, and be reconciled.”
Once I returned to the US and began to speak my truth, I was bombarded by ignorance. But, I really didn’t care. I was finally free, and there was nothing and no one that could silence or hinder me.

Except for these words, from my mother, my halmoni and my emo: “But, he is still your family. You have to honor him.”

I refused to see him. I had made my peace. I had decided that he was old and ill enough that he was not a risk to other girls so I would not waste my time in the courts. I was done with him.

So everytime they would meet with him and tell him what was going on in my life, I felt my agency and my voice being stolen again. He did not deserve the access that they gave him, and it was a clear transgression of boundaries that I had finally learned to set. Besides, he was related through my father’s side by marriage and even my father no longer had any contact with him. Why would they continue to hurt and betray me this way when they knew what he had done?

These were the women who loved me most in the world. They had been my sustainers. To them, I had always been and would always be the most precious thing in their lives. They love me with a kind of burning passion and depth of affection beyond my comprehension. They had always been fierce in their protectiveness over me.

And yet.

I just couldn’t understand what was missing. How could they love me and still hurt me this way? Would we ever understand one another?



More than six years passed before I returned to Korea again.

I had spent those years re-learning how to speak. Getting to know my own voice, deconstructing and reconstructing it again and again, and little by little mining out gems of truth that had been hidden for far too long in that old home-turned-prison called silence.

In those years, I burned that prison to the ground, cell by cell. And while I now found myself free, I also found myself uprooted and homeless. I often wondered if that would be my new reality, and had decided that I would be okay with it if it was. Home had never been a safe place, anyway– if it had ever even existed at all.

This time when I moved to Korea, it was for work. I was now nearing thirty, married, and confident in my identity as a biracial Korean American woman — a nomad living in the in between spaces in nearly every area of my life. But, I still carried with me the old familiar hope that this move would bring me deeper connection and understanding with the women in my family. The women who loved me but, who were in so many ways beyond my comprehension.

The community that I formed in Korea started with my work in the red light districts, and spilled over into the community of young Korean women activists who asked myself and other foreign women residing in Korea to come alongside them in their fight for gender justice.

I had arrived in Korea at a moment when the fight for gender equality and taking a stand against gender based violence was a tide beginning to swell. It was a moment where things that had long between whispered between women, behind walls, in the darkness, were spilling over into the light. Those whispers were collectively forming a roar, brought to a head by the murder of a woman in a public restroom by a man whose only criteria for targeting her was her female body. The momentum would later be spurred on by the rising tide of the burgeoning global #metoo movement.

In this context, a small group of women and I found one another. We were diverse, a mixture of Korean born women and expats from different ethnicities, nationalities, backgrounds, belief systems. And we decided to do a bilingual Korean and English production of the Vagina Monologues.

As we met, practiced, shared, I found elements of myself yet undiscovered. I found it especially among other women with Korean mothers and grandmothers and aunts who loved them, and who silenced them. Who chose their brothers first, who ignored their cries, who couldn’t protect them, who wanted only for them to be strong and to survive. I also found it among Korean women of my mother’s age, who were unafraid to embrace me and to call out bullshit, regardless of cultural norms and expectations.

In our shared commitment to storytelling as activism, I realized that my voice, intertwined with the voices of each woman who shared her story, and woven together by the voices of the women whose stories we heard and held, had formed into roots. Rather than finding my roots, I had in fact taken part in creating them.

Before then, my voice alone had been a powerful force in setting me free, but had left me without a sure footing. But now, our voices together formed a power even greater; our voices together were connection, they were community — and what are those things, if not the foundation on which home is built.

And the wonderful thing about a home with roots, as opposed to one with walls: it expands and grows as you do.

I saw my mother again last year. Bolstered by the strength of the roots I had grown, I had the courage to be vulnerable enough to tell her exactly what I had suffered, and without my usual protective defenses up, how she had hurt me. And through tears she told me things that showed me that she actually understood from experience more than I had ever known.

We are still reaching out to one another for connection, one revelation at a time.

It is hard. It is messy. And I have great hope.

Now that I am secure in my voice and my place, I am able to hear her voice more clearly; and not only that, I am content to carry between us all of the things that will likely forever be left unsaid.

Because finding the words to tell the truth can be one of the hardest things we will ever do. It is also one of the most freeing and sacred; for no matter how long we are silenced, none of us is voiceless. And none of us have the right to rob another of the chance to discover that for themselves.

Elizabeth is currently most likely to be spotted exploring South East Asia with her husband Marc and her dog Mr. Chi.

Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash

Learning to Speak

I am a soprano. I have trained for years to use my voice with precision and with freedom; with agility and with richness; with my heart and my body; with articulation and with color; with diction and with meaning. I lend my singing voice to communicating words penned by mostly men (and once in a while, women), modulated through tones composed by mostly men (and once in a while, women). The meaning I convey is sometimes sculpted by a coach, sometimes mediated by a director, sometimes charted by myself.

Sometimes—these are the best times—my collaborators help me uncover compelling truths beneath the musty layers of repertoire consigned to the antique shops of Western art music, also known as “classical music”. And sometimes I have the added great privilege of communicating fresh truths, just written, to even smaller audiences willing to come out to experience something novel in the marginal world known as “New Music”.

I am more comfortable using my singing voice, mediated through all this technique and all these intermediaries, than I am in using my unvarnished speaking voice.

To me, my speaking voice sounds naked, colorless, flat, hesitant. Nobody ought to take this voice seriously.

I am also a writer. I have always had a facility with language. I began editing school newspapers at age 12. I was a newspaper journalist for over eight years, switching to academic writing after leaving my first career. My written voice has also not been my own: deployed at the service of the day’s news; telling others’ stories; or assuming the voice of a researcher putting a fresh spin on old facts.

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I was raised, like many in Asian families, not to use my voice, but to submit to the rules around me. I grew up in a Chinese-speaking home, in an English-medium school founded during colonial days, in an authoritarian post-colonial city. My identity was forged in the tension between the sophistication of “Western” liberalism, individualism, freedom, and logic; and the “Asian values” of conservatism, communal good, pragmatism, and paradox. (I have since come to question all of these assumptions.)

The “Asian values” part of my upbringing clashed with my internalized Western aspirations. They clashed at home, where personal success and family responsibility were stressed at the expense of following one’s dreams; and at my girls’ school, where correctness, modesty, and conformity were enforced even as the curriculum, filled with Western literature, cultivated an inner hunger for voices that were true to themselves and tried to change their world. I lapped up the stories of Jane Austen’s heroines, who asserted personal happiness in a world where women were little more than property; Charles Dickens’ orphans transcending the cogs of the Industrial Revolution; George Eliot’s nonconformists whose singular minds provided a way out of the strictures of Victorian society.

When, at 14, I turned to Jesus and the Christian faith that has defined my adult life, I was also converted into a post-colonial evangelicalism, which added to the tension with its emphasis on correct belief, right living, eternal membership, and institutional power. Never mind that the Bible tells a story of prophets calling out injustice, culminating in a power-subverting Messiah who submitted to ultimate humiliation to restore the cosmos to its original state of wholeness.

Because I yearned to be among the authentic, prophetic voices, I left home, during the Clinton years, for an America that appeared to welcome the stranger with open arms. Someone like myself, colonialized, apolitical, silent, elite; comfortable in the role of model minority; more facile in English than the average American; brandishing educational power; protected by religious identity; and completely blind to the country’s beleaguered cultural, historical, religious, and racial dynamics.

In America, I honed my stage voice to acclaim, moving audiences, chalking up successes, learning to live with failures as I grew in age, resilience and self-confidence.  But outside of my inner circle of trusted friends, my speaking voice stayed mostly silent, unwelcome in my family, my hometown, and, I subconsciously feared, in my adopted and hoped-for new home.

*

It was in relationship that I began to find my voice. Through true love, a partnership with someone who has encouraged me to embrace who I am, and to pursue what I believe in. And through motherhood, shepherding two young ones into my dream for them: a life of wholeness, overflowing in love.

I have learned lessons in watching my children learn to speak. A child is born with a loud voice. She has the words, too, deep inside her. When a typical child’s articulators—the muscles and organs that govern speech—grow and become coordinated, the words tumble out. My job, as my children’s parent, is to help them continue to stay true to their voices, to help them chart a path to use their voices in ways that are healthy and kind.

The election of 2016, having belatedly exposed for me the yawning fault lines of American society, has provided the impetus for me to start using my voice.

On the one hand, my spoken voice is like a young child’s. My vocabulary, tumbling around unexpressed in a fearful mess just below the surface, needs work. I’m learning anew the rules of language, of conversation, of respectful communication. I’m learning to break those rules. My voice is tentative, it is lisping, it stumbles often. But here it is.

My speaking voice is also a mother’s voice. It is tender, it is ragged, it is loud and louder; it is wisdom, it is folly, it is music, it is noise; it is healing, it is hurtful, it can comfort, it can kill. It can sometimes roar. I am learning, sometimes painfully, to marshal this voice for truth anchored in love.

My voice is finding its expression: in person, on paper, scrolling across your screen. It wants to speak up for those with no voice, against those loud voices that keep others’ silent. For fellow immigrants, sisters and brothers of color, those in the LGBTQIA+ community who have suffered immeasurable hurt in the hands of the Church. Against systems of patriarchy and whiteness, unjust leadership, and a Church that has through the ages been drunk with power instead of leading with humility.

I am finding my voice, to show my children they too can use their voices, whether in song or in speech, in cursive or in print. My Asian-American children need to make themselves heard, to claim their space in a land which may not accept them as truly its own.

I can’t protect them with my voice for long, but I can show them what a strong and loving voice sounds like, so they, and their children, can speak for themselves and for the voiceless. They can speak, so that there is room for more people like them and unlike them, in America and in the world, where everyone can use the voices God has given them.

Sometimes, the voice inside of me, that creaky and unformed voice, tells me I am too old to go through, for the second time, this process of taming, of shaping, of unleashing with skill.

But another voice, the voice growing in confidence, tells me: It’s never too late to begin again.

 

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Jennifer Lien has worn several hats in her life in two continents: newspaper journalist, opera singer, music professor. She is also finding fresh meaning in doing justice and loving mercy in her roles as mother and community volunteer.

 

You’re Okay

Content warning: sexual assault

I have a comically quiet voice. The tone of my voice seems to hover right underneath the frequency that most humans have the ability to pick up. Even when I shout, people often don’t register what I’m saying. I’ve heard iterations of, “Huh? What did you just say?” or, “Oh, you know who you remind me of? That Asian girl from Pitch Perfect!” countless times, each time acting as another stitch to sew my mouth closed.

I don’t think this would bother me the way it does if I were not an Asian woman, but every time someone exclaims how quiet I am — as if they were the first to notify me — it makes me cringe. It makes me ask: Am I just reinforcing stereotypes of how Asian women are demure and passive? Would I be this quiet if I didn’t receive these subliminal messages all my life?

My quietness infected me at a very young age. Growing up, my father was the authoritarian figure in our household. Gregarious and as well liked as he was outside the home, to his family he was a source of fear. I remember slinking silently around the house, hoping he wouldn’t call me in to berate me on something else I had fallen short in.

I made myself pliable, knowing that it would be pointless to voice any opinion that went against my father’s. Where his voice boomed and shook tears from our eyes, mine softly murmured words of comfort to my mother after he was done. When he chose to go after my older brother, I would make myself small, unnoticeable, just thankful that he was distracted from me.

Looking back now, I realize that he was just another tiger-parent, and that our relationship was very similar to a lot of other second-generation folks with their immigrant parents. But at the time, I felt lonely, insufficient, and silenced. I was an unfailingly considerate and accommodating doll, made for display, hiding cracks in the facade.

~

My learned quietness at home inevitably affected my relationships with my peers.

We were friends first. He was outgoing, funny, and seemed totally at ease no matter what social situation he was in — essentially the opposite of me. He was one of the few people I felt immediately comfortable; where words flowed easily from my mouth when we joked with each other. He was also Christian and would often proselytize to me how, as the man, he should be the spiritual leader in the relationship.

My parents’ ultra-protectiveness of me made me terrified to introduce anyone to them as my partner, so him and I carried on in secret. He made the first move, and at first I wasn’t sure if this is what I really wanted. But, as they so often do, my words failed me, and we tumbled into a relationship in which we were isolated from our communities. Our guides were books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and whatever else we found on our parents bookshelves.

Physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries were crossed. Things happened without my consent, but at the time, I didn’t even have a concept of consent. He was the man, therefore he was the leader, and thus he had control over where the relationship went and how it was conducted.

All the while, I knew something was intrinsically wrong with our relationship. Not only was it built on lies and secrecy, but shame was also building to unbearable levels. I felt just like all of those women puritanical sex educators described: a piece of candy that was sucked on and put back in its wrapper, never to be the same again. And yet, each time I had no words to stop what was happening.

I never verbally said no. I made my will pliable, because that was what I had done my whole life. I remained silent and accepted everything that was happening, to then be wracked by a sense of regret and loss afterwards. My voice failed me, over and over again.

Eventually, we broke up. I finally snapped after he tried to manipulate and control my behavior and personal choices. It was only when I went to my campus’ Take Back the Night event — a march and vigil to stand against rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence — a year after we had broken up that I began to understand what had happened to me. As I was listening to other survivors share their experiences with sexual assault at the open mic after the march, I started to draw connections to their stories and mine. My memories of him and me always left a sickening aftertaste and I never knew before that moment what it stemmed from exactly, but their bravery in sharing their stories helped me see my situation clearly.

The realization brought me to a new low; my friends found me crouched in a dorm stairwell at 2 a.m., and let me cry for the next 3 hours while they silently comforted me, knowing that nothing they could say would make anything hurt less. It’s been several years since that night, and my hands still sometimes shake if I think of him and what happened between us. Sometimes, I’m plunged into a memory that feels like it’s happening in the present; my heart starts to race until I take deep breaths and remind myself of my surroundings. Feel the wood counter under your hands. Hear the sounds of milk being steamed and the clink of mugs. Breathe in, breathe out. You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.

~

When I fell in love with my English classes at college, it was as if I had found a new way to speak. While my corporeal voice was quiet as ever, my writing could articulate my thoughts to others in a way that wasn’t physically draining. As I started to write articles that were published online, I felt heard, for one of the first times in my life. People were reading and commenting on my pieces, and even if they didn’t agree with what I was saying, they were still engaging with it and thinking about the topics I brought up.

I also found that writing letters to my father was one of the most effective ways of communicating with him. Before, when we would argue, I would get too upset to speak while he raised his voice and ended up feeling completely run over by him. But, after I removed myself from the situation I would write him letters laying out my point of view, which he would eventually cave in and read. While we still wouldn’t necessarily agree with each other after this, he would come to respect the time and thought I had put into my decisions and actions, bringing us to a point of peace.

After the world subjugated me to its preconceived notions of what I was allowed to say and when I was allowed to speak, it felt like God was empowering me and affirming me that my voice was worthy to be listened to.

After years of prayer, therapy, and sharing my story with trusted friends, I’m healing. My spiritual and emotional progress has been all but linear; I’d go through healing prayer, dust my hands off and say to myself, “Glad that’s over with!” only to be wracked by overwhelming levels of shame and anxiety a few weeks after. But, while my experience with sexual assault has become an inextricable part of my life story, it will never define who I am. Instead, my voice will continue to do that for me.


Created by: Naomi Lee

About the Author: Naomi is a writer who is passionate about social justice, storytelling, and personality tests. She likes to spend her free time hiking and watching kids cartoons.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Notes from El Camino de Santiago

Tuesday, July 12, 2016, the sixteenth day of walking on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which began from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, averaging about 27 kilometers (17 miles) a day over varied terrains and vistas. As I leave the Municipal Albergue of Mansilla de las Mulas (a pilgrim’s hostel), a question comes to me: “What is so religious about this pilgrimage to Santiago?”

I walk, eat, arrive at a destination, nurse my feet, journal, sleep, wake up the next day, and walk again. I meet people from all over the world, sometimes enjoying a spontaneous international celebration like last night. Though some participate in prayers and religious services, what preoccupies us mostly is mundane and personal stuff. The reason for this walk is “religious” for someone like myself, but it is not the case for the vast majority of others walking with me. It may be for them just a different kind of walk on a major trail or a backpacking trip. This pilgrimage though feels like no other hiking or backpacking trips I’ve done before in my life.

Today is an easy day–only 19 kms (12 miles) to León, a major city. I walk rather briskly, passing others. At about 11 km point, I encounter a young German student, age 18. He is surprised to meet a middle-aged Korean American who could sustain a conversation in his native tongue, though faltering here and there. He just finished Gymnasium (high school), did well in Abitur (university qualifying exam), and gained an admission to the Faculty of Law at the University of Hannover. He is quite clear on his position “against” church and religion, especially the Catholic Church. When I share my own critical appraisal of these institutions, he asks me why then I am still a pastor and remain in church. I tell him that religion and church are complicated and not simply this or that. Hearing that he has been active in politics as a youth member of SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), I ask him whether every elected officer and the running of German government are as ideal as what former Chancellor Willy Brandt (SPD) embodied? He agrees that it’s not always the case and there are problems in politics. “Yet, you are still active in it,” I observe.

He’s been involved with the refugee resettlement. He once stayed at a monastery near Augsburg and–noticing so many rooms had not been utilized–sought out the monks to consider possibly housing the refugees there.  He was met with, “We don’t want those kind of people here.” Just recalling it gets him incensed: “Das ist so unchristlich (That’s so un-Christian)!” A clear evidence and ground to be anti-church/anti-religion. What fascinates me is his intuitive grasp of Christian values with which he criticized the church. I remind him that such would not be in accordance with the current Pope Francis, and add, “By the way, El Camino de Santiago is a very Catholic stuff and without Catholic religiosity, it would not exist.” No tourism marketing scheme or social movement could create and maintain El Camino for thirteen centuries–I am acknowledging–were it not for some kind of deeply felt and sufficiently authentic religious inspirations.

I interject: we need to change many people currently occupying influential positions in all institutions (religious, political, social), and transform the institutions themselves in order to better fulfill their original purposes. These are tasks for the younger generations to tackle, hopefully not repeating the mistakes of my and older generations. He is skeptical about such possibilities because he knows well how young people everywhere are politically and economically so “entrechtet” (disenfranchised; literally, dis-right-ed). We talk about nascent global young peoples’ movements. If young people talk to other young people, together they could engender new visions and possibilities. He becomes excited.  “We could use the social media!” When we arrive in León around 1 PM, we eat lunch at a KFC (!) and part our ways, heading toward different albergues.

At the Albergue San Francisco, four pilgrims from Korea with whom I’ve often walked together had arrived earlier and had my bed reserved. Amazingly, the laundry service is included in 10 euros for overnight. I take a long shower, drop off all my laundry needs, and take a tour of León with the fellow Koreans. The six euro dinner at the albergue offers three selections for both first and second plates. The acoustics in the refectory are really good. I begin to sing a camp song to the tune of Frère Jacques: “God we thank you (x2), for our food (x2), all of us together (x2), thank you God (x2).” An Australian woman in the queue picks it up, others join in, and soon we have a great round going for a while. This feels like a religious moment!

A man from Tennessee with a cane comes over to our table and introduces himself. He hurt his knees on this pilgrimage, received medical attention, and has been recuperating for two weeks. I share my own knee problems earlier on El Camino, and how I had to unlearn my lifelong habits, newly discover and relearn how to walk, and by doing so had healed the damages. He wants to try it himself. After about ten minutes of un-and-relearning, he walks slowly without pain and without his cane. Buen Camino!

Wednesday July 13, 2016, the Seventeenth Day on El Camino. I wake up at 6:30 AM, repack my stuff, and eat breakfast as soon as the refectory opens at 7:30. The server is not as hospitable as the one last night. Yet, to my surprise, I am not critical but understanding. Did El Camino change me?!

As others leave, I return to the room to be alone and quiet. A sudden fatigue comes over me. Setting the timer for 20 minutes, I lie down on my bed but miss the alarm to wake up at 9:05. I rush out to get to the Cathedral for the 9 AM mass, but the door’s already closed, and no latecomers are allowed in. So, I simply resume my walk, following the yellow arrows with the seashell sign.

El Camino soon splits into two. The original path follows a major highway, and the alternative route goes through a more scenic countryside (though it’s 6 kms longer to Hospital de Orbigo). I take the alternative.

An elderly woman stands in the middle of a long ascent, observing a large anthill with legions of ants working diligently in full cooperation, carrying food that is so much bigger than they.

“Increíble (incredible),” I comment.

“La palabra correcta (the correct word),” she responds, and continues to describe the unity of purpose the ants display in achieving something beyond themselves. We humans should emulate them. I answer in my limited Spanish, “Well, yes for working together for common projects. No for being programmed like the ants. We are not robots. Inspired to join, yes; forced, no.”  She points to the road, saying, “El Camino de Santiago is that inspiration which unites us. The Holy Spirit illuminates all.” She lives in León and walks 4 kms everyday on this road praying her rosary until she reaches a small chapel ahead and returns. While I’ve been mulling over what makes this walk religious, here is someone for whom it’s never anything else. She invokes Santiago to guide me on my pilgrimage, and I reciprocate with the only blessing I know in Spanish: “Que Dios le bendiga (May God bless you)!”

The sun is strong yet the air cool at this elevation. The frequent breezes make this quiet, lone walk pleasant. I stop at a hospitality point in Oncina to rest and write, move on, eat a late lunch at Chizas de Abajo, do some more writing, etc. By the time I arrive at Villavante at 6:00 PM after walking about 37 kms (23 miles), I am so exhausted and am suffering from nagging pains in my right hip that I need to stop.

While waiting at the only albergue there, a man ahead of me laments that we would miss the opportunity to sleep at the Parish Albergue in Hospital de Orbigo that we hear so much about. That was my original destination for the same reason. He would push himself for extra 6 kms, but the girl with him is in too much pain. Upon hearing it, something stirs inside me. I go to the bar, order an orange juice and croissant, rest for ten minutes, and take off again.

At the outskirts of Hospital de Orbigo, I ask for a direction. Noticing the shape I am in, the gentleman offers me a ride to the church about 1 km down the road. I answer, “Gracias, pero necesito caminar (Thank you, but I need to walk),” and inch away. I am not sure how to describe my feelings as the narrow, ancient bridge connecting to the old town comes into view with the church staple right in front me, only a couple hundred meters away. Stepping onto its rough pebble surface, I am greeted by a girl in Spanish: “You’ve finally arrived.”

It’s all true. Entering the Parish Albergue is like being transported to an oasis in the middle of a desert. Beautiful trees, a courtyard with murals and soothing water fountain, a garden.  Every detail–even to the toilet door handles–is carefully, aesthetically appointed. The place welcomes me as if to home! A Hungarian volunteer registers me, gives me a bed, and informs me that the evening mass is at 8 PM. It’s 7:58. I drop everything, and go to the church next door for a 30-minute mass. On returning, two college students gently offer me a simple Korean meal of rice and spicy soup with potato, zucchini and pork. I eat first, take a shower, do my laundry while trying to catch the last of the sunlight, and clean the dishes as an expression of gratitude.

A pleasant reunion, Alejandro from Oregon and Ollie from South Africa are in the kitchen, cooking chicken pasta in spicy Spanish seasoning. Alejandro thanks me for my earlier suggestion to change his shoes and way of walking. He could even run now without issues. Ollie informs me that the American professor from Lebanon I had a pastoral talk with is doing much better.

A white American woman on two crutches is nursing her feet. She talks about how she takes time to notice things as she walks and balances her alone and social times. She then declares, “I don’t get those who just walk and walk, just to get there fast. What’s the point?”  “Well,” I respond, “the Spirit of El Camino is so wide and generous that it embraces all kinds of reasons and ways of walking, each with its own validity. I think this generosity is what helps us find whatever is needed at the moment. We feel this intuitively or unconsciously. That’s why we walk religiously every day  and do not give up, even with all these pains and injuries.”

It hits me! “Religion” etymologically means “binding again.” All those loose ends are ultimately bound and given back to us with enough sign posts to give our life an overarching orientation that is life-giving. It is not a specialized part of our life as many assume. Similarly, God is not one most supreme being among many beings, but that which allows the beings to be: the Ground of Being (Paul Tillich). There are many “ism’s” and entities claiming to provide such a framework and function like a religion. The theological task is to critique these, to see if they are really life-giving or not.

Could our church then become as generous and open as El Camino, to the point where even atheists and anti-religious folks benefit from its grace?

I turn off the light for the night and rest in that grace.

 


Created by: Charles Ryu

About the Author: Charles is a United Methodist pastor in Middletown, NY, who is always seeking what is divine in the most mundane. He is a bit of a pianist, an actor, a community organizer/activist, and a writer who does not write much.

All photos taken by the author.

You are Wilderness

 

He took a couple large steps toward his bed and sprang upon it with an impish grin that suddenly lit the darkened room. As he landed, it was as if time had softly halted and he lay there for a half-minute in slow motion, his long limbs aflutter, stomach and groin taut, strong shoulders recoiled, and hands landing somewhere behind his head. I reached forward into the air and plucked out what appeared to be the heart of the universe suspended by a palpable strain threaded between us. This heart was silvery and beating, as small as a thimble that capsized as I drew it closer. Warmth spread towards me, a single sunbeam that permeated my entire body. It was at that moment the heart of the universe decided to speak.

Bienvenidos, it cried in upside down exclamation points.

I laughed.

Never had I been greeted in such a way. I had studied hundreds and hundreds of religious texts—Judeo-Christian theology, the Qu’ran, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and critical philosophical theories from old, haunted bookshelves littered all across this earth. But this—this little beating sunbeam I knew from the deepest recesses of my childhood. Light! Light! Light! The Greeks called it ἀγάπη, or unconditional goodwill. Time whirred into motion again, and little golden flecks fell at his feet.

Him! I had briefly forgotten, but there he lay—a teasing and complete stranger, still donning that impish grin. I took one more look at his tussled blond hair and icy blue eyes and was immediately seized again with the urge to tear all the clothes off his body. I had been there the whole night wearing a dress that defiantly wished to cling either to the ceiling or the floor; but it was as if a timer had been set to explode somewhere deep behind my navel and nether regions, leaving me with a mere ten minutes before I lost total self-control.

Instead of walking towards him—as would have been the only natural response—I heard myself mumble a few departing words and escaped into the cool night breeze.

He came through the door and stood still on his porch, as material as the planks beneath our shoes— and it was as if my body had faded into the night, translucent— as if this was how I had always been to him and to myself during these past two months— as if I was gossamer on a long autumn’s night. How could I have expected or wanted for him to see me? How could I have wanted to or been able to give anything of myself when all exertion of self-understanding remained but a ghost? And there he still stood, material as tree bark against my diaphanous skin.  

I have traveled this green earth

And never understood

How violently and delicately

The wilderness rushed within

Who knows, maybe my night serves as a defensible position for us. Our voice. Asian America. Perhaps our cadenced dialogue is a defining factor of our current political collective in America, a dynastic rhythm of silence and speech that threads us to our ancestors—Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Shinto that we had shed our bodies from only to be subsumed in a wrought Christianity by assimilation. Perhaps we have to take our time to speak, and perhaps our ways seem yet indefinable because our histories are long and complex, traversing numerous cultures, wars, religions, and political ideologies.

Or maybe, this shit isn’t that deep and I just wanted to talk about sex on a Christian blog.

Regardless, I’m thinking of all of you again, and as itinerant and terrible a religious person as I am, I wanted to raise a prayer of peace for you who continue to search and for myself—

I pray you would find what relics of hierarchical Asian society and Christian America, of your families and personal histories hold you back. What iron bars keep you from being all that you were meant to be—bare as from before you were born—as you are. And I pray for release from that which continues to subjugate us.

Because we are a wilderness

Waiting to be heard


Created by: Charlene Choi

About the Author: Charlene is a nomad based in Los Angeles and is a strategic planner for nonprofits serving marginalized communities.  Find one of her creative endeavors here.

Photo: taken by the Author.  Port au Prince, Haiti.