Unbound In The West
Lum Shee Chinn arrived in San Francisco in 1914. At that time she had six children, some who hadn’t seen their father Wah in several years. Lum Shee wasn’t exactly upper class, but she and Wah had accumulated enough selling wares to move to the US and open a textile business. To hear her only daughter, my grandmother, tell it – “textile business” was a polite way of saying “lingerie for sex workers.”
There is this apocryphal story about Lum Shee, who had bound feet. Her five sons were rambunctious and treated like little emperors, as is the custom in many Chinese American families. They would break things or hit one another. When Lum Shee entered the room to discipline her boys, they would laugh at her, “You can’t catch us.” The pain she experienced when simply walking was intense. The boys would run from the room while she hobbled after them. But Lum Shee was no pushover. She remembered each infraction and would take slow, painful steps into their bedrooms while they slept and beat them with her cane.
Today, we call that “child abuse” and Lum and Wah would be called “illegals”. Chinese people were excluded from entry and naturalization from 1882 to 1952. To gain entry, Lum and Wah did what thousands of Chinese did: create “paper families” to establish an “anchor” for “chain migration” of the nuclear family. Wah arrived years before with the oldest sons, purchased false identities as nuclear relatives of an actual native citizen, then paid for the rest of the family to follow.
They joined an Evangelical Methodist Church. My grandmother told me stories of not being able to see movies, dance, or wear jewelry because of how strictly Protestant her parents were. When I told her about my own conversion to Christianity at the age of 21, she told me the story of seeing her parents’ church Elder in line for a movie on a Sunday afternoon. She decided that Christians were a bunch of judgmental hypocrites. She stopped going to church. My mother never did as a child and neither did I.
The story of Lum Shee and her descendants is a story of the church in the West: a story of immigration, ethnic mixing, religiosity, hypocrisy, and hope. It’s heroes are imperfect. They were sorely hurt and hurt others in turn. We Westerners built walls and red lines and told ourselves we were progressive and welcoming. We told the immigrant targets of our mission we were trying to give them Jesus and we gave them a White Anglo Saxon Protestant teaching them how to behave like a real “American.”
In the eyes of my childhood self, becoming a priest was like becoming “the Man.” All of the privilege and authority that comes with the recognition of religious consecration was the opposite of what I imagined I would become. Like so many Westerners, I want to believe that my accomplishments and power come from intrinsic qualities: I worked hard, I was smart, I was strong. I desperately want to believe that through my ruggedly individualistic efforts, I somehow willed God’s justice and peace into being. Instead I was faced with the realization that God and other people authorize my work and make it possible. Instead the power of the self, I am bound by promises I made to God and the institutions of the Church. My authority doesn’t come from within, but from people who looked on me and decided they could learn something about the universe from listening.
Jesus, the Christ, used his authority to serve humankind. Each year, during Holy Week I observe Maundy Thursday with ritual footwashing. Each year I invite someone to sit on the steps before the Altar while I wash their feet then I take the chair and they wash mine. As the liturgy progresses, I leave my shoes and socks outside the Sanctuary. As I make the Eucharistic Prayers, Strip the Altar and wash it, my bare toes curl into the red shag carpet.
In the West, we remake our selves. We try to make our own destiny.
But each year as Lum Shee’s blood runs through my veins down into my feet, I wonder if this wasn’t God’s plan all along. That somewhere in the violence, hypocrisy and foolish hope of one hundred years in the West, I might end up scrubbing the Blood of Christ from an Altar; feet unbound.
1/18/2019 03:46:36 pm
Honestly powerful. Thank you Arienne
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