An Interview with Craig Wong, Executive Director, Grace Urban Ministries, San Francisco
Long-time CCDAer, Craig Wong is a Chinese-American, attending a church of mostly middle-class professionals in the Bay Area, and ministering in a neighborhood called “The Mission District,” a struggling Latino immigrant community. The founding pastor of the 25-year-old Grace Fellowship Community Church where Craig serves was shaped by the Civil Rights movement in California. The pastor’s dismay at the silence of the white evangelical church during that tenuous era propelled him on an ecclesiological journey—asking the question: What does is mean to be the church? “Were still learning ourselves,” says Craig, executive director of Grace’s CDC and a CCDA board member. “It has been on my heart a lot, spurred on by our congregation’s journey.”
Q: Why is San Francisco a unique place to do Christian advocacy?
I live in a liberal, progressive city. What most Christians think is radical and sacrificial is pretty normative in San Francisco. Many secular organizations and individuals ‘live for justice’ here. There is a great emphasis here on being a ‘sanctuary city’ for the undocumented immigrant. That means we offer them services, health care and other assistance more freely. That also means that the local authorities in SF are not going to cooperate in federal authorities regarding things like sweeps and other such things. This stance has a tone of Christ’s posture towards the person, transcending political quirks. Many of us churches support this and partner with the government to do it. We really hope President Obama will reverse some of the policies [that negatively affect immigrants].
Q: Does this kind of supportive societal environment make it easier to live out CCD principles like reconciliation, relocation and redistribution?[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]Advocacy is not so much an act of combating against something as it is demonstrating another reality, a different way to live; a way that liberates. – Craig Wong[/quote]It still takes intentionality to extend hospitality to our immigrant neighbors. It’s really easy to not know what’s going on, even thought it’s all around us. In SF you have the poor living in the ‘in-law units’ of multi-million dollar homes. The poor and the rich can live in the same square block. Since we’re less than one-fifth of the size of Manhattan, it’s more like a large village. Relocation looks a little different here since were more mixed up. The poor are more hidden here–they’re mixed in–which is part of the beauty of the Mission District.
Q: How did you begin to live out advocacy in your church and ministry?
We seek to be a community that extends mercy and stands alongside families at risk. We have lawyers in our congregation, and we find ways to provide practical tools for the families that we serve by hosting community education workshops, and immigration forums. On Friday nights our KALEO ministry, (which means ‘to invite)’ offers hospitality, food, friendship-building and teaching in an informal setting, teaching ministry. We teach ESL, computer literacy, resume writing; but the family that Christ creates is the most important thing we offer our neighbors. As we do this we must listen, be willing to be changed by them, and learn about the systems that are affecting them. We’re much more inclined to want to fix someone than to join them. We are a congregation largely made up of Asian and white professionals that are being changed and challenged by our immigrant neighbors. We must be in real community–real life. As Christians, we are being transformed in our values and our ways of thinking. This way we can see the injustices that are going on in our city that we otherwise wouldn’t see. As our outreaches draw people into the congregation, we must be continually self-examining.
Q: What challenges do you face doing Christian advocacy within and without the church environment?
A recent shooting was [committed] by an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, killing a father and his two sons. San Francisco’s strong position in favor of the undocumented became the scapegoat, and our mayor bowed to political pressure by changing the law to facilitate the immediate transfer (i.e. no due process) of undocumented youth who are arrested for any reason. Should a killer be punished like anyone else? Yes, but as the Church we must say “No” to a policy that makes it possible for a youth to be taken from his family and deported, for example, simply because of a scuffle with a classmate at school. In the end, we believe that our Christ-informed posture of hospitality actually enhances public safety, rather than compromises it.
A friend of mine said, ‘Good theology leads to good ministry, and good ministry leads to good theology.’ I would add that good theology also leads to good advocacy. We can talk about an ethic of caring at a societal level, but we must first ask how we are living that out as brothers and sisters in the Christian community and before those who God brings to our church doors. Ron Sider said something like, ‘We do not want to ask our government to live and act in ways that we are not living and acting in the Church.’
Q: Describe how you work with other congregations and community leaders to do Christian advocacy in your city. Why is this so vital?
We sponsor forums and other events that bring faith and community leaders together. We hosted our first theological gathering on immigration–not to discuss reform, but to draw from our collective theological lenses and understand the implications for the Church in light of the immigration crisis. What it did was bring people together to engage in an important issue, and just practice having theological dialogue. This is a very important part of Christian advocacy. We also coalesced congregation members and leaders, along with the community activists who now meet monthly. More people from different congregations—evangelical, mainline, and Catholic, now attend. It’s essential to rub shoulders with local advocates and agencies, Christian or not, that are engaging the issues and systems that are affecting immigrants.
Along with two other congregations, we had a prayer service on the war in Iraq and addressed the rising nationalism that came about after 9/11. It increased our sensitivity to our nation’s use of violence to solve our problems, and showed how counter to the gospel that is. A few years ago a church elder and I also represented our church at a prayer vigil in Washington, D.C. with Jim Wallis. We gave voice and physical presence to what God says is true. It was a demonstration of unity, shalom and the world needs to see and hear that.
BEFORE ENGAGING IN ADVOCACY, ASK:
- How is our understanding of justice being shaped by the pulpit?
- Are our actions consistent with the gospel we are learning together as a congrega
- What are the subtle idolatries that can be barriers to the hospitality we desire to extend?