The Reality of Living Like Jesus

Part of 4 of in
an interview with Russell and Joan Jeung by ALISA WONG
Illustrations by JOHN LEE
Jan 01, 2015 | min read
Part of 29: Do Good
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The Reality of Living Like Jesus

East Oakland in California is home to International Boulevard, a 40-block hot spot for child trafficking. One particular East Oakland neighborhood, Oak Tree, is also known as the “Murder Dubs”. Within this neighborhood you can find New Hope Covenant Church, a taco stand, and the Oak Park Apartments, where Russell and Joan Jeung live.

Russell was a graduate student studying gang life when, in 1991, he decided to move into the neighborhood. What began as a summer of sociological observation would turn into more than two decades of relationship building and community ministry.

Joan moved to the neighborhood in 1999 as a medical student and is now a part-time pediatrician. Joan and Russell met at New Hope, fell in love with each other and the people in the community, and decided to make this their home. Still, they continue to wrestle with what they must give up to live among this less-than-privileged, yet vibrant community. Oakland had seen more than 5,000 refugee arrivals over the past 10 years, and waves of many different groups had resettled in the Murder Dubs. Twenty percent of Oakland residents live below the poverty line.

Since being married and having a family and home of their own, the Jeungs have devoted themselves to their neighbors, careers, family, and church. Like other church members who moved from outside the neighborhood to live among these neighbors, they share a vision for social justice and selfless love. With this holistic ministry model, the Jeungs and their family try to lay aside the things that keep them from effectively ministering to those in their community.

they share a vision for social justice and selfless love.

Embracing suffering

“Part of our calling [as Christians] is to suffer alongside others. We have to know the fellowship of [Jesus’] sufferings,” said Russell. “Unless we do that, we don’t understand how much God has suffered for us and how much love He has for us.”  

Imitating Jesus, for the Jeungs, meant being God’s hands and feet in a world where neighbors struggled with deportation, eviction, and death. “That’s why we’re there — to show that despite all these hardships, God is still with us and God is still with our neighbors.”

Even before living at Oak Tree, Joan had struggled with the idea of living in the same location as her urban ministry. Philippians 2:5-12 challenged her to move past her inclination for living in comfort. Joan had seen what her immigrant parents sacrificed and worked hard to give her: social and economic advantages, not to mention a great education at Harvard. But when she looked at this passage, she knew that she had to let go of these privileges in order to do Jesus’ ministry.

she knew that she had to let go of these privileges in order to do Jesus’ ministry.

“When I had first gotten this conviction that I needed to move into the city, it seemed like kind of a scary thing to me,” Joan said. “It was something I really wrestled with.

“This is how I would see Jesus in the flesh — working with the poor and working with the marginalized. And it’s just been a lifetime calling ever since [high school].”

Letting go of privilege, however, didn’t mean neglecting their academic research background and professional skills — these skills, along with Russell’s public policy students at San Francisco State University, have helped them better serve their community. In partnership with other organizations, the Jeungs spent three years conducting needs assessments for refugees from Burma, resulting in better health and employment services. The Jeungs also open up their home for tutoring and church gatherings, which also assists many refugees.

“Relocating and living in a low-income area helps me identify with other people’s needs a lot better,” Russell said. “If I’m suffering for the same issues, like gang violence, gentrification, or neighborhood violence, I feel firsthand the issues that the great majority of the world faces.

“[Our neighbors] see us not coming in from the outside ... but they see us actually living among them. They get to see our lives in fullness ... both the good and the bad.”

The Temptation of Being Needed

This church’s effect on the community is certainly evident. Joan organizes parent education sessions for smaller ethnic communities through her work. New Hope and partner organizations held a mayoral candidate forum to address the urban issues of their neighborhood, like the presence of prostitutes. In 2000, New Hope’s lead pastor (who was helping to plant New Hope at the time) and 200 of his neighbors won a landmark settlement against their Oak Park landlord. And this year, New Hope’s corporate witness to their local taco stand owners brought them and their kids to church, who have since become Christians and small group attendees.

One temptation the Jeungs face as they get things done and become recognized as helpers is pride. One can feel messianic and develop a “paternalistic, patronizing attitude towards the people who are being helped,” according to Russell. 

“I like being needed,” he elaborated. “Some of our neighbors need tutoring, or they can’t speak English as well, or they need help because they’re poor. Assisting them makes me feel I’m needed and useful.”

But Russell is also chastened by the fact that his neighbors’ trust in God can at times be much greater than his own. “I need my neighbors just as much as they need me. I need to learn their faithfulness, their poverty of spirit, their hospitality. I’ve been blessed by having my needs — for physical protection, moral support, and elderly wisdom — served by my friends here.”

I need my neighbors just as much as they need me. I need to learn their faithfulness, their poverty of spirit, their hospitality.

Another temptation that Russell faces is doing good out of a sense of guilt, rather than because of love and grace.

“I have mixed motives,” Russell admitted. “I feel guilty for having so much, that God’s given me so much. Like why do I have a stable family background? Why do I get to eat and go on vacation when so many people are starving? I don’t know how to deal with being blessed with so much except ... to give back.”

One danger of resolving your guilt by helping others, according to Russell, is feeling overwhelmed by the amount of need.

“You help people, you tutor, [you] provide healthcare. But still there’s all these poor people, and there’s still all these sick people, and still there’s all these kids dropping out ... even helping one family is really difficult. And when we think about trying to help a whole neighborhood, or a whole city, then it becomes even more overwhelming.”

When overwhelmed and burnt out, people serving others can become cynical or apathetic. Instead of using people to work off his guilt, Russell seeks to serve with compassion and humility. 

“I can’t think of people as projects; I need to think of people as people,” Russell said. “What I’m trying to do is to learn to love as Jesus does, to learn to be humble. As I receive God’s forgiveness so I don’t feel guilty, I can respond more healthily to others’ pains and concerns.”

I can’t think of people as projects; I need to think of people as people.

Grace ahead

In giving up comfortable, socioeconomic privileges and advantages, the Jeungs risk their family’s safety on a daily basis and constantly wrestle with decisions about their lifestyle. They even moved out of the neighborhood for a season because their daughter didn’t feel safe. 

More recently, they wonder if they are hindering their son’s education in order to continue the work in their neighborhood. Later this year, Russell and Joan’s son will begin middle school, a “trickier time socially and academically,” according to Joan. Since finding a good public school in the area is difficult, they know there is a possibility of having to move out of the New Hope neighborhood.

“We’re looking at different options to see what’s right, what’s right for our family, and what God wants for [our son],” Joan says. “That is very much a live struggle about how to be faithful in this time, balancing his needs with our ongoing work.”

That is very much a live struggle about how to be faithful in this time.

New Hope is growing too, with about 100 attendees — more than double the number of attendees they saw in 2000. But not everyone lives near the church. Russell wonders how his church can serve one another while maintaining their focus on the neighborhood.

“When we’re young and single, it’s easy to spend a lot of time doing all these programs,” Russell said. “Instead of outreach, our ministry now has turned to inreach, where we try to build up those already in our church. Even within our church we have people who are trafficked. We have people who are addicts. We have people who are homeless. We are faced with limits in how we can serve even our own church family.”

Russell and Joan know that their lifestyle isn’t for everyone and that not all churches can be located in the city. “If you’re not living in a poor neighborhood, your call is to be, as much as you can be, the embodiment of Jesus wherever you are,” said Russell. “But pray for people who are where you aren’t.

“First, focus on being Jesus where you’re at. If you’re a person with financial resources, and most Americans are, then how well are you being accountable and a good steward of your wealth?

Focus on being Jesus where you’re at.

“Second, know that you can’t be everywhere, but that Christ’s body is pretty spread out. Not everyone’s going to live in a poor neighborhood. Not everyone can be a missionary either, right? Everyone has their own ministry wherever they’re at. Pray for the church’s body to be the hands and feet wherever they are.”

The Jeungs caution the Church to not ask, “How far do we go to be good?”, but “How much do we love God?”

“We love God with everything, all that we are. And as we love God, then we seek to obey. As we love God, then we seek to do acts of compassion,” said Russell. “Because we love God, we seek to act justly.

“We’re good because Christ’s grace makes us good. We don’t have to do anything, we don’t have to go anywhere to be good. Christ’s blood was sufficient.”

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