One of Our Own
Every time Sam Kim sees something horrible happen to his African-American brothers and sisters, it immediately brings back the racial trauma he’s experienced. He’s transported to the first time he remembers being called by racial slurs, to being chased through the streets of Chicago, to hearing his parents laughed at and taunted. This trauma has continued, even after living and working in the United States for decades, even after serving as a U.S. soldier in a war. He can tell stories of being threatened after disputing a bill and of having racial slurs and profanity screamed and him and his children as they drive down their neighborhood street. “People hear these stories and are outraged,” he says, “but this is just my life.”
Within these experiences, Sam has seen how society pits minority groups against each other, both intentionally and subconsciously. He remembers specifically the trauma he experienced in the midst of the L.A. riots after the beating of Rodney King, when the narrative shifted to one of Korean versus African-Americans. “I was outraged about the Rodney King verdict,” he says, “but I felt like I was forced to choose a side. I see this played out every time—things pivot to something else besides the big, elephant-in-the-room issue.”
This experience has shaped him. “Of course I care about discrimination against Asian Americans,”
Sam says. “But if I just focus on them, I also buy into, participate in, and contribute to this bigger system of racism, which at its heart tells me to care about my own kind above anyone else. But in this season, even though on the same news are stories of Asian Americans being beaten, I need to care about my Black brothers and sisters, who are not of ‘my kind,’ equally or even more.”
When Sam first saw the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting, all of his own memories and trauma came flooding back. But in that moment, something changed. “Ahmaud didn’t live anywhere close to me. We have no personal connection. We’re not of the same race or experience, but when I saw that video, I broke,” Sam remembers. “He was an ‘other,’ but now he was me. He was ours—not theirs. He was one of us. We naturally care about those we consider one of our own. And when Ahmaud became one of my own, I couldn’t just sit there and stay silent. I couldn’t do ministry the same way anymore.”
Sam insists racial justice and reconciliation must start with love and an adamant refusal to dehumanize anyone: “We’re only going to care, do something, and say something about people we care about. That’s always a relational thing.” These relationships allow us to see those we consider ‘other’ with as much detail and as much humanness as our own selves and families. “And that’s when it becomes about ‘us,’” Sam says.
This refusal to dehumanize anyone extends beyond just color, and sometimes puts him in a “precarious” position. Sam cares deeply about the violence towards African-Americans, and he is a chaplain to the state police. “They too have names,” he says. “They grieve. They have to fight their own demons. They’re just as human. Because I intentionally choose to enter a relationship with an officer and his family, I can grieve with his family over his death, just as I grieve the death of Ahmaud. We want it to be simple, where we can put people into categories of good and evil, but it can’t be. I insist on the messiness of one person at a time, seeing each other as a human being worth our care and love because he or she is worth the love and care of Christ.”
This love is the root of all of our other actions as we pursue racial justice, even ones that require us to take actions to protect people from harm. Racism is a Christian issue because it is a lack-of-love issue, Sam insists. He says, “Stop looking at people of color as a cause or a task or a problem to solve. Actually look at me. Actually see me as an equal, precious, created child of God that He bled for and died for. Am I worth your time?”
After he saw the video of Ahmaud’s murder, Sam became unapologetically vocal, posting on social media, writing to those in his denomination and church networks, and preaching in his own congregation. He knew there were risks, “but once you actually care about someone as your own, he or she is more than worth the risks,” he says. This love-rooted concern leads to intentional actions.
“After I made enough noise, I got some bites,” Sam says, and that started him and the church partnership he’s a part of in Massachusetts down a path of taking racial justice seriously. As a part of this, they’ve hosted panels together, which you can watch here and here. “I saw pastors in our area, caring and speaking up about this issue as the church united together, in spite of their own doubts, fears, and questions. That in itself for me is a fruit—we’re actually trying.” Sam says.
Sam sees how some people who want to do more continue to turn to one token person of color in their community or network for advice, recommendations, and stories. “This reveals where you need to do the work,” he says. “There is a vacuum of relationships, and that’s the harder work—of reaching out and building relationships with people who are different than you. You need to be the one to do the work of building bridges and meeting them where they are instead of waiting for them to show up.”
On top of this, as churches seek to be a part of racial reconciliation, they need to submit to the leadership and authority of people of color. “If our focus in racial justice as non-black Americans is ‘how can we help them’ or only conversations about how our ‘expertise’ supports a particular action, we’ve missed the point,” he says.
Sam knows that in most majority-white, conservative churches, becoming publicly vocal and active about racial justice will result in pushback. “We dwell on the blatant pushback,” he says, “but the biggest pushback on this type of work is, has been, and will continue to be silence and inaction.”
For those who want to engage but are afraid or feel ill-equipped, Sam has a gracious word. “You don’t have to get it perfect. You don’t have to wait until you’re absolutely sure you’ll get it all right. It’s more important for others to see that you’re trying. Don’t be afraid. Just try, and we’ll do it together. It’s messy, but we’ll do it together.”
Sam Kim is the senior pastor of Intercultural Mission Church in North Andover, MA.
This article is part of our ongoing series, Through the Valley: Real Conversations About Following Jesus When the Road Gets Hard, in which we're talking about discipleship in the parts of life that are difficult, complicated, or sometimes controversial.