Growing up in San Francisco, Russell Jeung didn’t have much love for Oakland, his struggling neighbor across the East Bay. Yet Jeung has made his home in Oakland for more than 20 years, with much of that time spent ministering in Murder Dubs, a neighborhood riven with poverty and violence. He first moved there during a graduate school ethnography project focused on Southeast Asian gangs.
Meanwhile, as a sociologist, Jeung has devoted himself to learning about California’s Asian American population, a topic with deeply personal resonance. His great-great-grandfather arrived in the United States in the 1800s. “Since my family has been in California so long,” he says, “we sort of reflect Asian American history. All the injustices and issues that Asian Americans faced throughout their time in the US, my family has personally gone through them.”
Jeung’s family history and ministry experiences come together in his memoir, At Home in Exile: Finding Jesus among My Ancestors and Refugee Neighbors (Zondervan). CT assistant editor Morgan Lee spoke with Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, about his life’s work.
Why did you decide to study Asian American culture?
Mainly because it’s had such an effect on my life. Even though I’m fifth-generation, even though I grew up American, with season tickets to the 49ers, I was still treated as a foreigner and stereotyped in specific ways. And then I went to a Chinese church that taught that we were all one in Christ. I wondered, Why do we need a Chinese church if in Christ we are neither Jew nor Greek?
Over time, I’ve realized how the faith I grew up with differs from more culturally white versions of American Christianity. I wanted to be able to articulate those differences and share a Chinese understanding of Christianity for the sake of the larger church.
Where did the gangs that you studied come from?
Because refugees don’t get much income, they resettle in the areas with the cheapest housing—often crime-ridden, gang-infested neighborhoods. Children growing up in these neighborhoods assimilate to America, but they don’t necessarily assimilate to middle-class America. In these circumstances, they adapt to American ghettos, where it makes sense to join a gang. That’s where some of them find protection, especially when police aren’t fully staffed. It’s also where they can find a sense of family, and even gain income. That’s why Southeast Asian gangs form in these urban settings.
What has your neighborhood involvement looked like?
My wife and I moved into Murder Dubs because we wanted to meet Jesus in a new way. Jesus said “Blessed are the poor,” so I wanted to meet him among the least of these. My neighbors were people of peace who welcomed and embraced me and showed me so much love. That’s why we stayed there so long. I got a foretaste of the kingdom of God.
Gradually, we got to know our neighbors and began serving them. The kids asked for tutoring. The parents saw us working with the kids and asked us if we could teach them English. Later on, when welfare cuts affected them and they couldn’t get benefits because they weren’t citizens, they asked us to teach them how to become citizens.
Over time, we saw some of the more systemic issues that were shaping their lives. We began to not only provide services, but also do more organizing. When the kids were racially profiled by the police, we got the neighbors to bring in the police gang taskforce along with the American Civil Liberties Union, and we were able to help stop that practice. At our apartment complex, which was about 56 units of Latinos and Cambodians, conditions became so deplorable that the building got condemned, and we actually sued our landlord and won.
What types of tensions did you feel as a result of this work?
With a lot of our efforts, there were unintended consequences. We won the lawsuit settlement, and our neighbors got to move to larger, better apartments. But we also lost some of our sense of community as people pursued the American dream and lived more privatized lives. I look back at the lawsuit as a mixed blessing. People were living in healthier conditions. Children were able to study more because they had quieter spaces, and they were able to go to college, whereas before no one was even graduating from high school. But we lost that sense of community that I valued so much, that I thought was a foretaste of God’s kingdom. So I really had to wrestle with whether justice was achieved.
Later on, our youth pastor got killed in a hit-and-run accident—by a driver high on crystal meth—at a church event. That trauma really impacted me. That’s my worst fear: when a friend or family member gets killed by the senseless and random violence of the city.
There are no easy answers. One way I process the frustration is by embracing my identity as someone in exile. My refugee neighbors and my family—who are Hakka Chinese, and known as a “guest” people—have shown me the importance of living by faith. We have to admit that we are foreigners and strangers in this world. We only have citizenship in heaven. Maintaining this sense of exile helps give me hope for the work of serving our neighborhood.
Justice will be fully realized when Jesus returns. Right now, we’re in exile, trying to remain pure and undefiled and to reveal glimpses of the kingdom. How do I continue on with peacemaking, with seeking justice and doing mercy, in such hard places? It’s by learning from refugees and from my family, who were migrants and survived.
How do Asian American Christians understand their faith in ways that non-Asians don’t always understand or appreciate?
There are many gifts that Asian Americans have to offer back to God and bless the broader church with. We have the blessing of community, of hospitality, of dealing with shame and honor. Most cultures are shame-based, and I wrestle with how God not only saves us from our guilt, but also from our shame.
When Gary Chapman wrote about the “five love languages” [words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch], he said they were universal. But there are two other love languages that Asian Americans are especially gifted at speaking. The first is food. Chinese people show their love by physically caring. When they greet you, they say, “Have you eaten yet?” Food is a love language—when you’re starving, would you rather be told “I love you” or be fed? Food is the way God shows his love for us. He invites us to his table. Jesus wants us to meet him and eat of him. He gives us the bread and rice of life. That love language is not one of the five universal love languages, but I think it is a way that the Asian American church can share. Everybody loves food.
The other Asian American love language is sacrifice. Chinese parents will do anything for their kids. As immigrants, they become essentially deaf and dumb and experience downward mobility in order to give their kids more opportunity. Asian kids understand sacrifice because they see it through their parents, and that’s why so many understand Christ’s sacrifice in a tangible, visceral way.
These two additional love languages, food and sacrifice, are the two great symbols of the Christian church: Communion and the Cross.
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