After the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, I attended my first Shabbat as a show of solidarity. I went regularly for the next two years. When the killings took place in Atlanta, primarily against Asians, I again felt the need to do something. Some people had bought flowers, posted their support on Facebook, or attended rallies. Others supported Asian businesses, by eating Chinese or Thai take-out or getting a massage from an Asian massage therapist.
I did three things. First, I brought eight boxes of food to a Buddhist temple. I explained to the monk that for each life lost, I offered a box of food in their memory. He accepted my offering, “on behalf of the monks and nuns of the temple.” I felt some sense of joy and left.
The following week, I got eight boxes of food, and this time I went to eight different Buddhist temples, and gave each one a box of food with a note that thanked the Asian community for all it contributes to America and the world, apologized for the hate and injustice Asian people are experiencing, and asked each temple to accept my box in memory of the lives lost to hate and injustice.
Finally, I went to a Buddhist monastery and spent 80 minutes in prayer, 10 minutes of prayer for each life lost. My thought was: certainly each of the murdered people’s lives was worth 10 minutes of prayer. I prayed for each of the families touched by this tragedy, for Asian countries, and for every Asian person I could remember by name. I apologized for the wrongs suffered at the hands of Americans and Christians. I prayed using the promises from the Christian Bible and I prayed that Christians in every Asian country would be a true reflection of God.
Upon completion of the last visit, I thought about my experience.
I had to come to terms with my own racism. Not violent attacks or racial slurs, but ignorance, implicit bias, and complicity. Before this, I had not done anything to counter anti-Asian hate and discrimination. I knew little about the issues of the Asian community, and I had no interest in knowing more. I never asked the Asians I knew about their experiences. I had never realized that the majority of the people in the world are Asian, how pointless it is to describe someone as “Asian,” or that the Dalai Lama was Buddhist.
The first time I approached a temple, I was nervous. Why the anxiety? I feared the unknown, I was on unfamiliar turf, and my Buddhist hosts had the power. My fear was completely irrational — as is most prejudice.
Yet, when I saw statues there, all I could think of was that the temple was pagan. Where was all of this judgment coming from, and why was I so comfortable speaking from ignorance? After all, I had never had a conversation with a Buddhist to try to understand what he or she believed. I assumed that whatever Buddhists believed was not as good as what I believed. I did not see their humanity, but only my own need that they ideally convert to Christianity.
I had a different experience at each of the eight Buddhist temples I visited. It is like when people ask me to take them to a Black church and I ask, what type? A storefront church, a megachurch, a Catholic or a Baptist or Pentecostal church? There is no one meaning for “a Black church,” and I’ve come to understand that there is no one meaning for “a Buddhist temple” either.
The people were welcoming, showed me around, answered questions, and invited me to participate in their worship. I returned, participating in the receiving of the Dao, in an ancestor memorial, an incense offering, and meditation services.
I again discovered how important it is for me to go beyond my comfort zone, to get to know people who are different from myself. Someone has to take the first step toward understanding, why not I? We all have blind spots and deficiencies. We must be strong enough and willing to discover them, even if doing so hurts our ego and self-understanding.
Coming to know yourself and your neighbors is a perfect place to start. Reflecting on past wrongdoings, mistakes, and successes, both as individuals and as communities is also important — and too frequently overlooked. Without doing so, however, we risk simply repeating our mistakes.
I now feel a small connection with the Asian people I meet. I know we share things in common. I am sorry it took the loss of life for me to care about another community of people.
I know that what I did might be misunderstood or misjudged by fellow Christians. Why were you in a Buddhist temple for any purpose other than evangelism? Why did you bring the offering? Why were you participating in a Buddhist service, or listening to Buddhist instruction? The answer: I can do these things because I am comfortable in my relationship with God. My identity as a Christian does not require me to feel superior or inferior to others. I can respect others without compromising what I believe. Through these experiences, God has revealed to me what I need to change about my life.
My spiritual journey in Judaism was analogous. Then, I knew little about Jews as a people and their contribution to America and the world. I had not been to a Jewish service, even though there are numerous synagogues around me, and I know many Jewish people. I had to come to terms with Christians’ antisemitic behavior toward Jews and how Christians judged Jews from a place of ignorance and acted on those beliefs. Because Jews were different, in terms of religious, dietary, clothing, and other practices, we felt comfortable judging them, which resulted in a history of forced conversions, scapegoating, and hatred. I also found that understanding and practicing Judaism, however briefly, helped me be a better Christian. It was unfortunate that it took the loss of Jewish lives for me to make the effort to understand another community of people.
The mass shootings in America are a moral disgrace, and we must do something about them. I do not want the memory of lives lost to be associated with hate and violence and guns. I do not want my efforts to be limited to gun legislation. I can take efforts to better myself. I believe that if we all work to make each of us and the world better, both would be. Perhaps our acts of kindness toward the other might prevent a killing. We won’t know until we try. Anyone can make a difference, and everyone can try.