Theme reflection by Theresa Cho
Depending on what translation you read, Luke 10:1–11 is either titled “The Sending of the Seventy” or “the Seventy-Two”—leaving many commentaries to refer to this passage as “. . . Seventy(-Two).” The parentheses are significant because they acknowledge that some ancient scripts say “seventy” and some say “seventy-two.” Are the numbers important? Why not say just about, around, or just over seventy-two.
When I first began at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, numbers mattered. In recent history, St. John’s has not been a large congregation for a long time. We worship about and around seventy. Like many congregations who teeter around this size, St. John’s wanted to find ways to grow . . . in numbers. So I was hired as the associate pastor. With two pastors on staff, St. John’s became seventy(-two).
Within the parentheses, many expectations, assumptions, hopes, and fears were placed—
Expectations that the numbers would grow if I spent the majority of my time outside the box persuading people in the neighborhood to come to church.
Assumptions that it’s the pastor’s job to venture outside the box to bring people inside or create enticing programs to attract people inside.
Hopes that the church found the one person who will bring life back to the church so they can be the church they were always meant to be.
Fears that the risk of using the ever-diminishing endowment to hire another pastor would be futile.
Many times, I felt the church wasn’t “The Sending of the Seventy(-Two),” but the Seventy sending out the (-Two).
For Jesus, numbers didn’t matter. Previously, Jesus sent out Twelve with all authority to heal and proclaim. He fed five thousand with five loaves and two fish. He healed one boy and everyone was overwhelmed. Before sending out the Seventy(-Two), Jesus reveals why it is difficult for even one to follow him—for it requires us to examine our own life commitments and priorities. Even Jesus knew that getting out there required us getting out of our own way.
Getting out of the box is not only about getting out of the building, but it also requires us to get out of our heads—our perceptions, prejudices, and assumptions of others. If we don’t, then whatever we hold inside affects how we welcome and treat the stranger, the neighbor, and the Other.
Serving a church in a cramped seven-mile by seven-mile city where over 800,000 strangers, neighbors, and Others reside doesn’t come easy. Often people don’t want politics to mix with church. Acts of social justice can appear political especially if it pulls at our sense of who we are. However, no one in San Francisco is immune to the housing crisis, increase in homeless neighbors, the exodus of families and people of color, and the vulnerability of socio-economic and immigrant status.
There’s a line in the movie, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” where Jimmie, a San Francisco native, is on the bus listening to two young stereotypical yuppies complain about the city. He turns to them and says, “You don’t get to hate San Francisco. You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” For St. John’s, the challenge is loving this city enough to do something, even when it breaks your heart repeatedly.
Sometimes the best way to love someone is to feed them. For a while, St. John’s has been serving groceries to our neighbors. Because St. John’s resides in an affluent part of San Francisco, you wouldn’t think that there would be neighbors in need of food. But every Saturday, over 200 neighbors frequent the food pantry. Recently, there’s been growing concern of ICE raids at the food pantry. Because of this and many of the neighbors being of varying immigrant status, St. John’s began considering whether or not to be a sanctuary church. However, this was not an easy decision. There were so many risks.
Risks for having a food pantry involved ruining the carpet and getting your hands dirty. Risks for being a sanctuary church involved confronting prejudices and assumptions as well as safety concerns for the building and people’s lives. However, immigrants are risk takers. My parents were risk takers when they left their family and country to begin a new life in the U.S. with no guarantee of survival. Risk-taking requires letting go of what’s most valuable; believing in the midst of insurmountable odds; mourning what’s lost; celebrating what’s gained; and doing it in community.
Leading the congregation through this process revealed that some wondered why those interested couldn’t do it on their own. Others didn’t feel a connection to immigrant issues. For many, this tugged at the affluent and predominantly white identity of St. John’s—pushing many out of their comfort zone and facing their own fears and prejudices.
As a daughter of immigrants, I wish I could say I gladly accepted this adaptive challenge. However, I too had to face my own privilege, power, and ways I’m complicit in the existing power structures. While my mind advocates for equality and justice, my body exposes how much more I need to grow and learn. My father was the “right kind of immigrant.” My parents followed the immigration process and became citizens without many obstacles. But not all immigrants come with the same life choices, opportunities, and resources. Naming my place of privilege in the conversation of immigration rights was vital in order to re-imagine and reconstruct my own identity.
Storytelling became a way to unravel the fears and assumptions around becoming a sanctuary church. Sharing our migration stories, whether our ancestors or moving across town, revealed our own feelings of being uprooted. Sharing our experience with rules and laws revealed that criminalization is not limited to those that commit a crime. Just being ourselves can be deemed criminal as our history has shown. Sharing stories of this country and our city revealed that this is a country of natives, immigrants, refugees, and colonizers. With each story, we slowly were able to get out of our heads, open the doors, and get out of the box.
God’s kingdom is coming—no matter what. Whether we stay inside the box or venture out, God’s kingdom is coming. All God requires is that we love the world. Love it enough to hate it. Hate it enough to change it. God’s kingdom is coming.