I woke up last week to the news that there had been a mass shooting in Atlanta, and the shooter seemed to have a specific target: Asian American women. What I had feared deep down for several months had finally come to pass. The hateful rhetoric and anger toward Asians had reached its full bloom.
The fatal attack seemed to be the result of growing animosity and violence toward my people over the year since the pandemic began. Little did I know, there was more to the nightmare.
As I scrolled down the newsfeed, I caught a glimpse of the picture of the gunman. For a moment, I thought he looked like someone I knew. Then I saw the name, and my heart sank in a way that I didn’t know it could. The murder suspect was a member of the church in Georgia where I served before my current pastoral position in Maryland. Our families are friends.
For a moment, I thought it was a terrible dream. When I woke my wife to tell her the news, I couldn’t speak. She knew something was wrong and asked, “What’s going on? What happened?” and I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth.
I’ve spent the past several days trying to process the shooting and figure out how to grieve. The stories of the six Asian American women among the victims reminded me so much of my own mother. She has worked 12-hour days for almost the entirety of the four decades she’s lived in the United States. I couldn’t stop thinking about Hyun Jung Grant, the 51-year-old single mom who left her two sons orphaned and heartbroken. I grieved for my people.
In the midst of my grief, I also felt frustrated by the response. So many people, in their efforts to speak prophetically on social media, began suggesting what led the shooter to a place where he would target Asian American women. Because the media uncovered details about his faith, much of the criticism was directed toward Crabapple First Baptist Church, a congregation whose members I love dearly.
Some said it was a crisis in discipleship. Others said it had to do with an unhealthy view of guns. Many pointed to purity culture and a warped view of sexuality. One prominent public theologian posted a picture of the church and stated, “[The shooter] was radicalized here.” I grieved for friends who were caught up in all this. They were shocked and heartbroken over what had happened, as I was, yet had to endure these accusations and speculation.
My heart ached all around—for the victims whose lives were cut short by an unspeakable, evil act; for the Asian American community who would now be grappling with an existential threat to their safety; for my current multiethnic congregation; for the shooter’s family and my former church community, who were on the receiving end of uncharitable public ire.
Opportunity for our own reflection
Those who know Crabapple First Baptist only as the church that had posted the baptism and testimony of a young man who went on to kill eight people are bound to have a distorted view. It’s hard for us to imagine him among a congregation full of generous, caring, Christ-centered people, but that’s who I know Crabapple to be. Its members remain my close friends.
The day Crabapple First Baptist voted to bring me on staff, the entire church erupted with applause and this overwhelming sense of joy. Any fear that I might have had about my being received in a predominantly white Southern Baptist church vanished. My family thoroughly enjoyed our three years there (2012–2015), and in hindsight, the Lord used that period to give us much-needed rest and support.
As with all churches, Crabapple is not a perfect place. It does have its shortcomings, but not the ones that would lead a young man to go on a murderous rampage. Can people find fault as they comb through sermons and dissect its documents? Of course. I think the church’s current leaders would be the first to admit that. I am not sure that any church in America would go unscathed if put through the same scrutiny.
While our hot takes and our instincts to place blame may prove unwise, there is an opportunity for Christians to engage in sober reflection. No man is an island, and we are our brother’s keeper. As they grieve, Crabapple will be able to carefully consider any blind spots brought to light by this incident, and the rest of us too will have a chance to take a closer look at our own churches, institutions, and hearts.
I share in the mounting frustration among minority Christians in our country. I have great angst over the racial animosity that has come to the surface in the last several years and have been dismayed at times by the church’s response. When ethnic minorities accuse or point to a church culture that might have led to a deadly shooting, it’s because we already have concerns about what we see the church consistently tolerate when it comes to the issue of race.
Over a hundred years ago, the African American minister Francis J. Grimke called out the white church for their silence after the Wilmington coup in 1898. He lamented “that the white people of the North, to a very large extent, are either indifferent to these wrongs or are in sympathy with them.” I want to believe that the times have changed, but the last four years, from the Charlottesville coup to today, have shown otherwise.
Reconciliation and rebuilding trust
When the country went into lockdown, I was a little nervous about the potential negative response to the geographic origin of the virus, and my concerns were raised as the former president called COVID-19 the “China virus” and “Kung flu.” It hurt to hear the crowds cheer when he emphasized the terms at his rallies. Some Christians dismissed the rhetoric as Trump being Trump, but his verbiage ended up correlating with the rise in anti-Asian crimes during the pandemic.
In my state of Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan—who is married to a Korean American—pointed out that while hate crimes overall were down during the pandemic, incidents against Asians were up, by 149 percent according to one study. The case of a 75-year-old Asian man who was fatally assaulted in Oakland, California, this month is not an anomaly but part of a string of attacks on Asian American seniors. We all fear for ourselves and our elders when innocent people are being hurt in broad daylight.
For the first time in my life, I think I am beginning to understand the fear that hangs like a cloud over the African American community. I was outraged by the senseless killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, but I did not personally feel a sense of threat until the last several months, as anti-Asian violence continued to rise.
I do believe that our shared faith as evangelicals offers us not only a place to mourn the state of our country but also a grounding from which to change our response.
Historically, the evangelical movement cared greatly about social issues—activism is one of the four distinctives in David Bebbington’s famous definition of evangelicalism. Evangelicals believed that the gospel lived out had great social implications for our society. It was Jonathan Edwards’ posterity who worked tirelessly to abolish slavery in America. In fact, Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter of a prominent Edwardsean pastor, Lyman Beecher.
We, as evangelicals, stand on the shoulders of gospel-centered activists who believed in true religion: to care for widows and orphans. As evangelical Christians, we need to lead the way with robust gospel proclamation and through the transforming power of that gospel strive toward reconciliation.
Last year, our Asian American church merged with a predominantly Anglo congregation. We met for one week, and then COVID brought everything to a screeching halt. We are now just beginning to meet regularly, but many of our folks at Christ Community Church still do not know each other very well.
In many respects, it has been a strange year. As I shared the news of our family’s ties to the shootings in Atlanta, I could sense the shock and disbelief. I wondered how each side would see the other. Would there be suspicion and anger or compassion and empathy?
As I write these words, I can see the faces of my church members, and I am hopeful. I am hopeful that the bond of unity shared in the Spirit will allow us to jump over the hurdles that keep us apart.
My hope is that the evangelical world will move forward together by embracing and cultivating a true evangelical ethos, working toward a hermeneutic of trust. But I know that the hard work must begin in my own house.
Chul Yoo is senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Ashton, Maryland.