The day after he spoke on a panel on Black and Asian Christian solidarity, the Rev. Otis Moss III recalled the most surprising moment from the evening before.
“When Pastor [Gabriel Jay Catanus] talked about the experience of being a Filipino American and he said, ‘For you, it’s COVID-1619; for my community, it was COVID-1521,’” said Moss, the head pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side. “That thing just hit me, and I said, ‘You have opened my eyes in a unique way around our shared history.’”
For the better part of a year, Moss had been calling racism in America “COVID-1619,” a reference to the year enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia for the first time. Catanus, a Filipino American pastor at Garden City Covenant Church on the Northwest Side, was making a reference to the year the Philippines was colonized by Spain.
“Looking at American history and seeing deep connections between the Asian community and the African American community, we have to draw on that and recognize the power of that history,” Moss said in an interview with WBEZ. “When we come together … walls can come down, and institutions that were designed to destroy can be wiped off the map.”
The panel Moss and Catanus were a part of was titled “Black & Asian Christians United Against Racism.” Held at the Apostolic Faith Church of Chicago and streamed live to hundreds of virtual attendees, the event was organized by a year-old group called the Asian American Christian Collaborative (AACC). Speakers discussed the history of anti-Asian and anti-Black racism in the United States, the intersection of sexism and racism, and how the “model minority” myth has pitted the two communities against each other.
Raymond Chang, a Korean American pastor and campus minister at Wheaton College, said in an interview with WBEZ that the panel was an opportunity for Black and Asian Christians to “talk to each other, talk about our common experiences, and find ways of working together” — particularly during a time of heightened racial unrest in the United States.
In the past year, the AACC has released statements condemning anti-Asian incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the recent shootings in and around Atlanta, in which several Asian women were killed. Last summer, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, the group organized a march from Chinatown to Bridgeport to show solidarity from the Asian American Christian community. Most recently, in the wake of the Atlanta shootings, the group coordinated a national rally in 14 cities across the U.S.
Chang said churches are uniquely positioned to address racial injustice and to build bridges between Black and Asian communities because of their common history.
“The Black church exists because the white church didn’t want Black people in the church, or wanted to keep Black people relegated to the margins of the church,” he said. “And the same could be said of the Asian American church.”
Chang added that churches often “know our people better than most other entities would, and they can bring about healing along Black and Asian racial lines because we are compelled by the message of Jesus, to reconcile that which has been ripped apart, to build bridges where there is brokenness, and to stand in solidarity where we have been segregated.”
To critics who say the Christian church has contributed to racism and colonization in the past, Chang says, “The church is made up of people, and people cause pain and problems, especially when they’re motivated by self interest … this is not consistent with the call of Christ in any way.”
The church leaders said building bridges between the Asian and Black communities will also address long-simmering conflicts between the groups.
Chang, who denounced anti-Blackness in the Asian American community, pointed out that the way the two groups view each other is “driven by a white supremacist logic that has been internalized by our communities.”
He acknowledged that many Korean immigrants, for example, opened businesses in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods, leading to the perception that they are exploiting those communities.
“It wasn’t necessarily by choice that they opened businesses [in Black and Brown neighborhoods]; it was that they were unwelcome in other neighborhoods,” Chang said. “And there were existing racial narratives that went back hundreds of years about each of our communities.” Coupled with language barriers, he said, “mutual understanding was difficult.”
Chang encouraged Asian Americans to have conversations “in-house” about anti-Blackness “so that we don’t perpetuate the harms of a racialized framework created and curated by white supremacy.”
Moss acknowledged that some of the assaults against Asian Americans have come at the hands of African Americans. “In every community, you have people who are internalizing the pain, the horror of this peculiar American experience, and who are casting their pain on other people,” he said. “We have to hold each other to account, and we also have to hold each other in our hearts.”
Moss noted that both groups have endured forms of systemic racism. “The system of the racial caste wants African Americans and Asian Americans pitted against each other, because that way, we aren’t looking toward a larger system that continues to gerrymander, create apartheid, and pulls resources from our community and continues to pass on stories of tragedy,” he said.
Both Moss and Chang said they hope Monday’s conversation will be the start of an enduring partnership. Chang said AACC is in plans to organize conversations with Latino, white and indigenous communities, and he hopes, in the future, the group can funnel volunteers and resources from the Asian American Christian community to service opportunities and existing organizations in Black communities.
Moss said churches from both groups can also worship together and work alongside each other to “fashion public policy … and recruit the next generation of leaders together.”
“We serve the same God — who is loving, a God of grace, a God of mercy — and we want to make sure that that is the foundation in what we do together, a foundation of love and justice,” he said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.