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"Why was he in a place like that?" Mom nearly shouted into the phone. "OK, we'll pray for him and for you. Please let us know if anything changes."
Mom hung up the phone and returned to the dinner table. She could barely contain her agitation. "That was your Aunt Lily. Cousin Vincent is in the hospital now. Very badly beaten. In a coma. Two men were arrested. They were white."
"What happened?" Flora and I asked in unison.
"She's not sure what happened. Vincent was at a topless club last night. We don't know why he was beaten so badly."
"What about his wedding? Are we still going to Detroit next week?"
"Flora!" Mom scolded. "We should be praying for Vincent!"
"We should be praying for Vincent!"
My sister Flora had just graduated from high school but had the sensitivity of a fifth grader. But she was right. Our family was planning to attend Vincent and Vikki's wedding next week, but Vincent was in the hospital and everything was up in the air.
It's not as if our families were very close. Mom and Aunt Lily were not real sisters. They met at the Chinese Bible Church of Detroit back in the early '60s before the church moved into the suburbs. Cousin Vincent had been recently adopted. Uncle David was a World War II veteran and worked all his life in Chinese laundries. Brought over from Canton province in China as a war bride, Aunt Lily also worked in laundromats and restaurants. She found a support network at the church and Mom became her best friend. At that time, Mom and Dad started the Chinese Evangelical Missionary Society at CBC. Years later, our family moved to the Bay Area as CEMS grew into one of the largest Chinese parachurch organizations in North America.
When CBC moved to Detroit's suburbs, Aunt Lily and Vincent stopped attending. They said that the church was too far away, but I suspect that its new middle-class, Mandarin-speaking professional members made it less comfortable for the working-class, Cantonese-speaking Chins. After Uncle David had died last year, Aunt Lily and Vincent started going to CBC again, and Mom and Aunt Lily renewed their friendship. We heard that Vincent was making his way into the computer graphics field and looking to purchase a new house together with Vikki and Aunt Lily. We were especially delighted to learn that Vincent and Vikki had recommitted their lives to Christ and had started to attend the English ministry at CBC.
So why in the world was Vincent at a topless bar?
So why in the world was Vincent at a topless bar?
Instead of a wedding, we made the trip to Detroit for a funeral. We found out that Vincent's friends persuaded him to have a bachelor party at the Fancy Pants strip club for one last fling. One of the dancers reported hearing Ronald Ebens making racist epithets at Vincent and his companions before the fight broke out. Everyone was glad that Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz had been apprehended.
The good folks at CBC encouraged Aunt Lily and Vikki to forgive as they awaited the hearings. But Aunt Lily, having lost her husband and her son over the past two years, confessed to Mom that forgiveness was the last thing on her mind.
Forgiveness was the last thing on her mind.
Today, Judge Charles Kaufman found Ebens and Nitz guilty of manslaughter. But he sentenced each of them to just three years of probation and a $3,000 fine — no jail time.
I was especially outraged when I learned that the judge said that Ebens and Nitz "aren't the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime." How could a statement like that NOT diminish the value of Vincent's life?
"Are you certain that you want to do this, Lily?" Mom had been on the phone for over an hour.
"Yes! Vincent was my only son! Where is the justice here? He needs to rest in peace, too. I am all alone now and I need your help." We could tell Aunt Lily was crying bitterly as her voice sounded thick over the phone.
"Vincent was my only son! Where is the justice here? "
"I always felt that the U.S. system of justice was the best in the world," my father remarked. "But this — this just doesn't feel right."
"Lily wants to appeal the ruling," Mom said. "And she wants our support to hire legal counsel. She will ask for help from CBC and the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council." We decided to donate some money for Aunt Lily's appeal.
Our family dinner conversation was tense.
"I want to go to the rally," Flora insisted. "I'll be safe. It's being organized by some Asian American churches in the Bay Area."
"I'm not sure we should associate with liberal Christians," Dad replied. "The greatest Chinese evangelists taught us to avoid them. They care too much about worldly affairs ... Anyway, our focus should be preaching the gospel and building up our churches."
"But this isn't about fellowshipping with non-Christians or liberals!" Flora said. "This is about speaking up for justice. And isn't that also part of the Bible?"
"But this isn't about fellowshipping with non-Christians or liberals! This is about speaking up for justice."
"I don't see how making all this ruckus with angry rallies will help," Dad opined. "Besides, Jesus suffered and died unjustly without seeking appeals or rallies. Lily is like family and we should keep it within the family."
CBC circulated a letter to Chinese evangelicals and encouraged them to pray and seek justice for Vincent and Aunt Lily. The Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE) also broached this public matter in their most recent newsletter.
"Dad, please say something to all the Chinese churches," Flora urged. "God put you in a strategic position to give our churches the courage to raise up their voices. And not just for Chinese Christians, but for everyone who suffers injustice."
Mom looked directly at Dad and finally spoke, "Stephen, I don't think it is wise to remain silent. Our children need to know that we care about what they care about."
I've never seen Dad look so weighed down as I watched him write a proposal to CEMS and other groups to make a joint statement.
Today, I start my first full-time pastorate at CBC. It took me an extra year to finish up at Fuller Theological Seminary, but the delay was worth it. I was able to be part of some exciting developments. But I'm not talking about the Vincent Chin case.
Vincent's case was met with the formation of the American Citizens for Justice in Detroit, preceding a national movement led by public pressure, Aunt Lily, and other prominent female leaders, which finally got a federal investigation. In November 1983, Ebens and Nitz were indicted on two counts — violating Vincent's civil rights, and conspiracy. By June 1984, Ebens was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but was released on a $20,000 bond. Nitz was cleared of all charges.
Three years later, the Department of Justice ordered a retrial. But Ebens was cleared of all charges in May. In last month's civil suit, Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million to Vincent's estate, but disposed of his assets and fled the state. Neither Ebens nor Nitz have spent a full day in jail for the beating death of Vincent.
Neither Ebens nor Nitz have spent a full day in jail for the beating death of Vincent.
Asian Americans are very dispirited, but new movements for racial justice — both secular and Christian — were launched.
Chinese evangelicals, in particular, have made remarkable progress. I was one of three seminarians invited to be on a commission created to study current issues, make recommendations, and implement social justice ministry programs on behalf of the Chinese church. After the shooting death of pastor Gregory Owyang on June 30, 1985, this commission offered reflections about violence and gun control. Partnerships with Asian American activist organizations were forged, and Chinese evangelicals gained a reputation for being deeply engaged with most important issues affecting Asian Americans.
The work of the commission gave overseas-born and American-born Chinese evangelicals an opportunity to work together on common issues. This ameliorated some of the intergenerational tensions within the Chinese American churches.
But not everything has turned up roses. As my dad anticipated, donors withdrew financial support for the groups that issued the statement he proposed. Many well-known pastors were very critical of the statement and the commission's work. Another Chinese organization also formed, with politically conservative alternatives, to counter our public stances.
Nevertheless, I remember to look to Aunt Lily's restored faith. Despite her disgust of the American justice system, she stayed here — emboldened by the church's support — to speak for the lives of other sons and daughters. These days, she tells me that she prefers to simply talk to young people over tea, telling stories — urging them to remember Vincent Chin.
No public statements were made by any Chinese evangelical organizations regarding the Vincent Chin case. All Chin family members mentioned in the story did not appear to have any connections to churches. The real Lily Chin returned to China in 1987.
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