Sue Park-Hur is the denominational minister for Transformative Peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA, overseeing peace and justice related issues. She also supervises Women in Leadership. Park-Hur co-directs ReconciliAsian, a peace center in Los Angeles specializing in conflict transformation and restorative justice for immigrant churches. A former co-lead pastor and co-church planter, her passion is to see the church living out the shalom of the gospel. Park-Hur is trained in Intercultural Development Inventory and is a Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) practitioner.
This blog is part of an ongoing series from Women in Leadership.
Like many, one of the daily rituals that has been grounding me through the pandemic is a brisk walk around the neighborhood a couple of times a day. Living in southern California with temperate weather and beautiful sunsets, I have no excuse not to hop outside and enjoy a stroll to clear my mind from a mental fog and exhaustion I have been experiencing more during the pandemic.
A couple of weeks ago, I went on a walk with a retired Mennonite pastor from Pennsylvania, who now lives only half a mile away from me. We had our masks on and had a lovely walk observing the oak trees lined along the streets, the succulents that were budding flowers and the songs of many birds. We exchanged stories about the churches we have served and what we learned through them. When we arrived at her house after an hour walk, we parted saying we must do this on a regular basis.
When I was about half a block away from her house, I stopped on the grassy part of the sidewalk and looked at my phone to see how many steps I had taken and to check the messages I ignored while we were walking.
I saw a person coming from the opposite direction but didn’t pay much attention since I was out of her way and had my mask on. As the person was approaching me, I realized that she was swinging her arms. Again, I ignored her thinking that maybe she was on a call and was in conversation with someone else.
It was only when she was a few feet away from me that I realized this white woman was pointing both of her thumbs to the right side for me to see. And as this woman was stomping toward me, she said, “Here we walk on the RIGHT side! Ughhh!” and walked past me.
At that moment, my body froze in disbelief of what just happened, but my mind was racing. Did she really say what I think she said? What did she mean by “here”? What did she mean by “we”? Would she have had the audacity to say what she said if I were with my white pastor friend whom I was with just a few minutes ago? How dare she dictate where my body should or should not be in public spaces? Why didn’t I say something?
On my five-block walk back home, I now felt vulnerable, angry and unsafe, realizing that as an Asian American woman, I need to have my guard up even in my own diverse neighborhood. I was again faced with the reality that there is still an assumption that I don’t belong “here” no matter how long I’ve lived here in this neighborhood or in this country. There is an expectation that I will make myself invisible and get out of the way. When I dare to claim part of my place in shared public spaces, there is rage.
This caustic incident was not an isolated incident. Racialized bodies are socialized from an early age to become invisible. This encounter triggered other painful memories from childhood. I remembered how I was routinely harassed on my way home from school by a blond bully on his silver Schwinn bike. He would abruptly show up on his bike, speed toward me, encircle me shouting racist slurs and enjoy seeing me get scared and walk faster to get away from him. I may have been a star student at school, but I learned who held power on the street.
As I shared what happened with my friends, many empathized and shared their own complicated sidewalk stories. Many BIPOC friends shared that we need to make intentional efforts to take up room and claim spaces even knowing that our bodies are at risk. A walk around the neighborhood can be dangerous or even deadly. Black Americans remain to be most targeted for hate crimes, but the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has been experiencing this danger acutely throughout the pandemic, especially AAPI women. In fact, anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339 percent last year compared to the year before; two-thirds of the incidents were reported by Asian women. Stereotypes of Asian women being weak and subservient make us easy targets for violent acts. The deaths of GuiYing Ma, Yao Pan Ma, Michelle Go, and Christina Yuna Lee confirm the visceral danger AAPI women feel in public spaces.
As I was walking around the neighborhood this morning, I prayed. I asked God to give me an imagination where sidewalks and other public spaces can be a safe and shared place for everyone. I asked God for courage to stay in my body and claim that it is good and worthy to take space. And I prayed for opening of eyes for our churches to create space to hear these stories and be part of the social change we need to ensure all bodies can feel safe and acknowledged.
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