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Deliverance Can Take Decades

Jenny Yang has been on the long journey advocating for just immigration policy for over 15 years. As the Senior Vice President of Advocacy & Policy with World Relief she shares her experience speaking with Christians about immigration reform, talking with her kids about race, and how a speaking opportunity in Amish country led to mutual mind changing.

The following is a transcript of Season 6 Episode 4 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

We are grateful to the Micah Center for sponsoring this season of the podcast.

Chris: Well, hello, friends, and welcome back to another episode of Do Justice. It’s me, Chris Orme, and I'm happy to be with you today, and I'm happy to welcome our guest. Our special guest today, Jenny Yang. Jenny is the Vice President of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief. She focuses on refugee protection, immigration, and human rights. She's also the co-author of the book Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate. Jenny, welcome, thanks for joining us.

Jenny: It's great to be with you guys and with friends and common collaborators in justice work. So, thanks for having this conversation. Thanks, Chris.

Chris: Yeah, very happy. And I like how you say “friends,” yes, collective co-conspirators

Jenny: Yes! Co-laborers, right? I think that’s a biblical term—co-laborers.

Chris: Yeah, I had a mentor—I’ve said this before on this show, too, but I had a mentor, you know, we're talking about justice work, it’s like, sometimes it's so big. And he would always say like, “Well, how do you eat an elephant?” And he said, “You know, one bite at a time.” But he took it another step further and said, “Yeah, and with as many friends as possible.”

Jenny: Hmm nice

Chris: So, let's take a bite out of the elephant today. Hey, how's that? It's big elephant.

Jenny: That sounds good. It's a big elephant, but you know we’ll do what we can.  

Chris: I wanna dive right in. So, your book Welcoming the Stranger—it's a staple on all of our shelves. We've used it to discuss immigration in our circles, including being a part of our Blessing, not a Burden campaign. And we saw that you posted online last summer about speaking to your son's first grade class about being a refugee advocate.

Jenny: Yes, yes.

Chris: Okay, so how? How did you talk with first graders about advocacy?

Jenny: Yeah, well, a lot of them were like, “Well, what is advocacy?” They had never heard the term before. My own kids don't really understand exactly, I think, what I do. All they think is you help refugees, and they know kind of what a refugee is. And so I had an opportunity during career day to go to my son's first grade class and speak about what I do. And I basically started off by giving them a sense of like, what is home to you? What defines home? And a lot of them said their family, their friends. And I said, “Well, you know what if there was a war that broke out and fighting and you had to leave your home? How would you feel? And so giving them a sense of what that feeling is like. And then just showing them images of places around the world that maybe they've never seen before, about what they're going through. So, what's happening in Ukraine and Afghanistan, and other places where people are displaced in large numbers, and there was a lot of eyes opening and interest in what's happening. Some students were very bright, so they knew exactly what was happening in Ukraine, and they were talking about Russia and what would you do? How would you respond? Would you fight back? And then other classes were just, yeah, they had a lot of more basic questions, but I think all of them—I was trying to give them the sense of what it would feel like to lose everything and as first graders, I think that's hard, because that's a hard leap to make, but having them develop some empathy and a worldliness, like an awareness of what's happening around the world I think is so important at a very young age, and so that's basically what I was trying to do. But when I talked about advocacy, I concluded my talk by saying, “All of you have power, and all of you have the ability to communicate how you feel, and a lot of times you do that with how you feel about yourself, but sometimes you can advocate with and for others. And so I showed them a picture, actually, of a boy who is exactly their age who wrote a letter to President Obama saying that he wanted to welcome certain refugees, and the President actually welcomed this little boy into the Oval Office. And there's pictures of that. And so I said, “Even you can write a letter to the President,” and I asked them what they would say. And people said, “Well, I would welcome them into my home,” or, you know, with refugees, “I would build them in a new neighborhood where they can live in. I'll give them my toys.” So they shared ideas about what they would do. I wanted to instill in them that as citizens of the United States, that for most of them they can write letters and get responses and be powerful advocates, and so that was just something I did with them. And it's the same message I carry to adults, too, because I think, as adults as well, you can sometimes feel like it's overwhelming or daunting, or you don't have time, and it's—some of those things can be true, but I just want to have it be easy for people, and have people understand the power of their voice in a lot of what they do.

Chris: Hmm, yeah. You mentioned that some of the kids really hopped on, and they understood where you were coming from and what you were presenting to them more or less right away. But then you said some kids had questions. What kind of questions? What sorts of questions came up?

Jenny: Well. They were wondering like, why is Russia attacking Ukraine? And then they also questions like, What's the United States doing? What can we do to help them? And so I think there was a lot of concern like, why is there war? Why do people need to flee? Why—what can we do about it? So there were a lot of questions around the war like, why does war happen? So kind of trying to explain that. And then you know, questions around—well, people were bewildered that the President would even receive your letter. And so they were shocked about that cause I don't think any of them had written a letter to the President before, and so there was surprise about that. But there's a lot of curiosity. Like I think people were wondering what life is like in Ukraine, or what life is like in Afghanistan. And you know questions around that as well. 

Chris: Yeah, I mean, as you say that I'm thinking to myself, “Man, those are the kinds of questions that we should keep asking, you know, as we approach our advocacy as we approach whatever sort of issue is forefront for you like, hey, why is this happening? What is it like? Those very basic questions I know sometimes we want to jump right to the solution. And you know, maybe some understanding would go a long way.

Jenny: Yeah.

Chris: You mentioned, you know, talking to young people about an issue like refugee resettlement or immigration reform there's some folks who I'm sure would say, “Well, that's too young.” But you know, what do you say to that? Because I think these are important conversations, and I know I've had conversations with young people about racial justice and climate justice and again, it's the questions they ask that sort of show me they're ready. But in that moment, like you're in your son's class, how did you walk away from that conversation?

Jenny: Yeah. Well, one thing that I thought was so interesting was that they all had this common reaction, which is, “Of course you would welcome them.” Like, “if that person came to my neighborhood, of course of course I would welcome that refugee.” And they were all reflexively, innately knowing that you have to be kind like that. You have to be welcoming. And so, it's fascinating because these are the values we instill in our children and yet, I think, as we get into adulthood, we lose those values. We think, “Well, we don't have enough.” “Well,” you know, “there's not enough to go around.” “Well, we have too many people in our community. They're different than us.” But as children you don't ever think they can't get along because they're different, or you don't really think, “Well, there's not enough to go around.” You reflexively know that you have to be kind and welcoming. And so it's just fascinating to me, because the values and the kindness that children show each other a lot of times are values and attitudes that we lose as adults. And so it was just a good reminder, I think, for me that that openness, that sense of generosity, that spirit of friendship, really is so strong as a young child, and that we need to preserve that as we get older and not get hardened into thinking—in a scarcity mentality, where there isn't enough to go around, and where we start to think that we can't either be friends or being community with people that are different than us, which frankly, at least in the United States and probably Canada as well, that when the Syrian refugee crisis was happening over 10 years ago, that there was this reflexive “Well, we can't let them in because they're X, Y, and Z.” Most of the American Christians were saying, “Well, they're Muslim, and that's a threat to American Christianity, Canadian Christianity.” And so you saw that. But I feel like there has been almost a change, I think, especially in the past few years, as we have seen more Canadians and Americans stepping up to welcome Afghans and to welcome Ukrainians, where really no one has said, “Don't let them in.” They've all been saying, “We need to do more to love them.”

And so there has been a shift, which I think has been a welcome shift, and I'm hoping that that continues as we build out good programs and policies to serve displaced persons

Chris: Yeah, there's something about remaining curious, being in a posture of curiosity when—I love to travel, I mean, I loved to travel pre-pandemic. You know, we're planning some trips again and that's nice. But yeah, I think the most immersive or the best experiences that I've had happen because we're curious, and we want to know more. And I think, yeah, kids have that curiosity. Like, “Why? What? How?” I remember when my—you know my son's eighteen now, and so we're a far cry from grade one, we're a long ways away from there, but I remember being in the car with him and just the constant, “Well, why? Well, why? Well, why? Well, why?” And as a parent you're kind of like [groans[.

Jenny: Right, right, right.

Chris: But when we're having these kinds of common  conversations, it's like, “Yeah, why?” And I feel encouraged, right, because I need to be reminded, like, stay curious. Keep asking why.

Jenny: Yeah, actually so it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, where it's like the third Monday, I think, in the United States where the kids don't have school. And so at school they were talking about who Martin Luther King Jr. was and my middle child Joel, who's four, came home and we were talking about Martin Luther King Jr. And he's like, “Oh, well, you're Black to me because you're wearing a black T-shirt, and I'm white because I'm wearing a white T-shirt.” I'm like, “No, that's not what it means.” And I was like, “it's actually the color of skin.” And he's like, “Well, who? Who is Black?” And I'm like—you know, one of our good friends is Black—and so I was saying, “Oh, Aunt Sabrina's Black,” and he's like “Oh, does that mean her son is Black?” I was like, “Yeah, Cole, he's black, too.” But I was like, “but Uncle James—” Sabrina's husband– “is white.” He's like, “Oh, well, can Uncle James turn black?” And I'm like “No, you know once you're that race, you're that race.” He's like, “Am I white?” And I'm like, “No, you're actually Asian.” And then he was like going through the list in his head. And then, you know the story that stuck out to him was how he's like, “Yeah, I don’t—” I guess they shared a story or were talking about how back in the day blacks and whites couldn't share the same restaurants, ride the bus, they had to sit separately, there were separate water fountains and he was like, “That's not right that they had to separate people out,” and he was processing it, and so it was fascinating for him to talk about and know what race is and how it's not what you wear it's the color for skin. And it to him, he was kinda like, “Why would people separate them out like?” You know?

Thanks to the The Micah Centre at the King’s University for sponsoring this season.  The Micah Centre helps students and the wider community grow a global vision of justice and renewal. Through classes, workshops, internships, lectures, global learning experience, and community initiatives, the Micah Centre brings the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah’s call to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” to bear on our contemporary world of global hunger, injustice, systemic poverty, war, and violence.

Chris: Yeah, yeah.

Jenny: ‘Cause, it's never been an issue, right? And so just even speaking to him about human difference has actually been fascinating as well

Chris: Yeah, yeah, wow.

Jenny: And actually, my kids are half Chinese and half Korean, so that's like a whole other conversation. But they're, you know, it’s funny, they're like, “Oh, I'm Korean, I’m Chinese,” you know. So processing that.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, it's yeah. It's fascinating. Because I mean I love the questions, you know, like, “Wait, what, who? Who am I? And who's Auntie Sabrina?” Yeah, that's—those kinds of questions, they reveal a lot, and maybe a newness to the journey, right. But let's talk about the length of the journey. Let's talk about being in the trenches for a long time, and look, it's the Tik-Tok generation. We consume media, you know, in fifteen second sound bites and quick fixes are super appealing. We want things to work. We want things to be easy. But discipleship, and we talk about working toward God's Shalom, it requires, you know, we've been referencing Eugene Peterson's quote, the “long obedience in the same direction.”

Jenny: Hmm, yes.

Chris: So you've been involved in advocating for holistic reform for the U.S. Immigration system. And I come at that conversation—you know I'm Canadian. I'm in Canada, and we have our own history. And our own immigration, experience. And, you know, I have friends who have been in those trenches for a long, long time, too. But for you navigating that, what has “long obedience in the same direction” meant for you as you engage immigration reform? And I think a part B to that, how did you—how did God pull you into this? I'd love to know that story, too.

Jenny: Yeah. So I'll start with your second question as how I began. So it's interesting. Because when I was in college and I studied abroad in Spain and I didn't—I studied international relations in school and when I went there I kind of solved from being there that there was really blatant racism in Spain. And I had experienced it growing up in the U.S., but to see it against mostly African migrants in Spain was really eye-opening. And so I remember people there—I was riding the subway one time when a group of teenagers graffitied on the subway wall in front of a Black woman and her child, “Get out of my country Black people,” and what bothered me about the incident was not only that it was blatant racism but that no one on that train said anything to this young Black woman who obviously saw what was happening and was just sitting there. And so that summer I volunteered at the UN doing some research around asylum laws, and I also volunteered at this grassroots anti-racism organization called and it was really—to battle racism, it has to happen at a systemic level through laws and policies, but also at an interpersonal level through social change and social attitudes. So both of those experiences kind of exposed me to what really is needed to create change. So when I came back to the U.S. I knew I wanted to work with refugees because my own experience as a daughter of Immigrants but also what I'd seen. And so I worked in politics for a little bit, and then I transitioned to World Relief, and at World Relief I started working in the U.S. refugee program. But as I started doing that, our constituency—our work is to really mobilize churches to care about the vulnerable. And what I found in my work at World Relief was that it was the Evangelical Church in the U.S. that were the most vocally anti-immigrant. That they were the ones pushing against policies that would alleviate a lot of suffering for a lot of immigrants in this country, and for me, I thought—I did not, and I actually was not aware that so many American Christians it seemed like to me hated immigrants, and being the daughter of immigrants, I was like, “Why are they so caustic? Why do they think immigrants are a threat?” I come from an immigrant family. It was astounding to me. I was like, “wouldn't you want more immigrants in this country? Isn’t that our ethos and our history, and our identity as a country of immigrants?” And so I started to dig deeper into that. And when I started seeing that, man, there are people that—there's a theology of migration that Christians are missing. And also the reality of the history of migration and the facts of migration being economically beneficial, all of these things, it became a passion of mine to start, really discipling the Church into not being so anti-immigrant, and so I became very passionate about that because I felt like people were missing out on the missiological and theological implications of what it means to welcome the stranger, and also the fact that when you look at the policies, most people, I think, would be supportive of the things that we were advocating for at World Relief. And so, and you know, it's funny because when I started doing a lot of this work on advocacy, I never wanted to incorporate my personal story into this, because I thought “Well, based on the facts and the data and the Bible people should believe what we believe.” And so I didn't want to personalize it because I actually felt like if I personalize why I care people would dismiss me. They wouldn't take me seriously because they would think, “Oh, she's just being emotional,” or “She's just—it's personal, but it's not factual.” And so I never wanted to corporate my personal story into it. And I remember one time I was speaking at a college, and afterwards I was speaking to a room of like 80 and 90 year-old retired folks. All of them were white. No people have color, and I was talking about these facts and data and they weren't really like buying what I was saying, and I wasn't winning them over in any way, but then one woman raised her hand and said, “Well, why do you care about this? Tell me your personal story.” And I started sharing about my dad and how he was orphaned during the Korean War and how we immigrated to the U.S. and the people were crying and they were like, “Oh, my gosh!” And the atmosphere totally changed. And then, after that, when I left, the coordinator of this chapel and the speaking engagement was saying to me, she's like “You need to start off sharing your personal story, because that's what really connects you to the people you're speaking with more than the data and the facts.” And ever since then I've started talking about my dad first and his story just as a way of connection. And so like, even for me, it was a journey of linking my personal history and my identity to the work that I do, because for a long time I didn't want to connect them at all. And then it became like a powerful part of my story and my advocacy, because I would say in the immigration advocacy space, that it is people with those lived experiences that are the best advocates.

Chris: Yeah, so what keeps you in it?

Jenny: Yeah, so honestly, I feel like it is a journey in terms of running the marathon and not running a sprint and being mindful of the fact that when you are advocating for systemic change, it does not happen overnight. So I've been in this work for over 10—over 15 years. We have not seen significant legislative change. I think the things that keep me going are the constant stories of people who are suffering under our broken system. We like to say the broken system creates broken people, and that's what we're seeing in the immigration system in the U.S. right now. And along the way I've met so many people like you, Chris, and others that have the same longing, right, the same foundation, the same desire to see social change. And when you meet those people, you realize that we're in this work together. And so at times when it's discouraging, at times when bills don't pass, it's being in that community where people remind you, “Hey,” you know, “God's still working. Hey, people's lives are still being changed, even, you know, even though you don't see it immediately.” Like that encouragement, and that community is really what keeps me going. And I also feel like God continually uses people, even in Scripture, through seasons, right? And a lot of times deliverance and freedom and liberation don't happen even within a decade. Sometimes it's 30 years, you know, and walking in the wilderness is 40 years. There's just long periods of drought in many people's lives and so, being reminded of that, I think, is helpful as well

Chris: Yeah, that's awesome. I mean, I think we've all had those moments too, right, where I am so thankful for the people who have come alongside me in my—I don't want to call them weaker moments, but those points where you're just, you know, this is hard! Like, this is taking too long. Why isn’t it changing? and I'm so discouraged. I mean, I'm always encouraged by just the—I remember growing up, you know, I came to faith when I was 16 years old and I remember going to the youth group, and they were talking about how the world is broken, and then you know the what the Church was telling me at the time of how the world was broken versus how I experienced it and saw the brokenness in the world were very different. And then, when I saw what those broken points were and realized that there was something about the radical love of Christ that can do something about that and that as his follower, I get to be part of that and having people who constantly remind me of that is just invaluable, like, it's a community thing, right? Like we can't do it alone. I wanna ask you about—give us a story where you have seen God at work, where you've seen the Spirit of God moving in the work that you do. And maybe it's in a way that you wouldn't predict, or you weren't expecting. Is there a story that fills your tank, you know? Like at those moments where you just, you know, maybe when you're running on empty and you're not getting the text back from your friend.

Jenny: Yeah, I remember once I was invited to speak in rural Ohio, and I flew in, and I had to rent a car and drive over two hours to Amish country, and I remember driving and I was like “I don't know if this is right,” because I'm literally driving, through cornfields and I didn't see anybody. There's no buildings. And then finally, I get to this area where there's horse and buggies on the road, there was anAmish schoolhouse. It was kind of like from a movie. This idyllic scene of children running around and beautiful people  on horses and buggies and farms, and in the middle of Amish country there's like this random modern hotel which I was staying at and so I stayed there And I checked in and then that evening I was speaking at this church, and the guy who invited me to speak at his church told me two things. He said, “You should know first, that everyone here voted for Trump. They are all Trump supporters, and the second thing you should know is that they all listen to Fox News.” I was like, okay, but this is my opportunity, like these are the people I wanna talk with. And so I gave my standard presentation about what it means to welcome the stranger and welcome refugees and immigrants and afterwards I was standing in front and there were some people who came up to me, and I remember this one woman came up and was talking with me, and there was like an old friend of hers that came up to this woman to talk. And she didn't want to talk with me, but she ended up talking to this woman that was talking with me. We ended up in a conversation, and she's like, “Well, I'm not sure about what you said because, you know, I was watching Sean Hannity, and he was saying that when Muslims come into the U.S. they're trying to establish Sharia law and I do not want Sharia law in our communities and things.” And I was like, “Well, can you give me an example of where he thinks Sharia is being implemented?” She was like, “In Houston, there’s Sharia law and the Muslims just want to take over.” And I was like, “Well, I don't think there's Sharia law in Houston, but I do think there's a Muslim community in Houston, likely, and other communities in the U.S. and it's their right to practice their beliefs just like we practice our beliefs as Christians.” And then she looked at me, and I talked about some of the refugees that were coming in and she kinda looked at me thoughtfully and she said, “You know, is it really hard to do what you do?” I'm like, “Well, you know, sometimes it's challenging,” and she started sharing about how she adopted these kids that were coming from broken homes and how they had addiction issues to alcohol and drugs and then how her church community didn't walk alongside her judged her, and she started crying because she was like, “Well, maybe that's what refugees go through where they don't feel welcome and they need a community to welcome them.”

And I was like, “Yeah,” and you know, in that moment I realized, this is not a woman who hates the other, this is a woman who's never been exposed to the other. Her whole experience living in this community has been one where she's been fed misinformation and fear, and that's her worldview. And so, you know, I realized in that moment that this is not a woman who did not have a cost in following Christ, in fact, she has been following Jesus at a cost by loving people who are quote unquote “unlovable,” and was cast out for those things, and her lack of understanding of the refugee experience does not speak to her love for God or Jesus. It just speaks to her not having been exposed to those things. And so it was an eye opening moment for me because I realize in the work that we do it's easy to castigate people who don't share our point of view, when I feel like for many people in the church, the lack of information, the lack of relationships has led to people having fear which I feel like we're responsible to dispel. And so it was—I think we're actually friends on Facebook. She friended me, and so I don't keep in touch with her, but I think about her a lot because I just feel like she had an incredible testimony. We weren't even supposed to talk. She didn't agree with what I said, but in that conversation she changed her point of view. And actually at the end of the conversation she said, you know, “I watch Sean Hannity every night. He is the kindest person I know, and I've never heard him speak in the way you speak about immigrants,” and she's like “I'm gonna write to him after this, and I'm gonna tell him that he should have you on his show.” I never got that invitation, I would actually welcome it, but again it was a reminder to me that I should never vilify or dehumanize people who don't share my point of view, and everyone has their own story, their own pain, and it's when we can not question people's motivations or label them into categories is when I think we can build more common ground on issues of mutual concern. So that's always been a good reminder for me.

Chris: Wow, yeah, that's everything right there. Thank you. Hey, I really appreciate you spending the time with us. Before we go, where can folks catch up with the work that you're doing and get in touch with you? What's the best way to follow you, encourage you, cheer you on?

Jenny: Yeah, so you can follow World Relief, because World Relief has Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, we post things a lot about the work that we do. You can follow me personally. I'm on Instagram @jennyyang318 and then Facebook you can friend me, or on Twitter you could just follow me @JennyYangWR for World Relief. So @JennyYangWR.

Chris: Awesome, and we'll put a link to the book in the description, too so folks who haven't picked it up yet can get it. If this is a, you know, if this is an area that you want to grow in and and focus your justice impulses in, this is a great book to really get you started. And you know, like I said, it sits on I think most of our shelves, in my circle of friends we all have the book. So yeah, grateful for this time. Thanks so much for joining us today, Jenny

Jenny: Yeah, thanks so much, Chris. I appreciate the conversation.


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