KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Stewarding Trauma, Shepherding Leaders with Irene Cho

Stewarding Trauma, Shepherding Leaders with Irene Cho

Season 1, Episode 6
A square image. It is a somewhat abstract Illustration in warm, bright colors of a blue and white landscape with flecks of orange. The landscape itself is undulating in about 4 waves descending from the top right to bottom left corners of the image. The sun is partially visible on the top left and the sky is blue. White, cursive lettering spells out “Shake the Dust” across the ground.

Today we have an interview with Irene Cho, the founder and CEO of a new urban, Christian leadership training company, The InBetween. Irene is a deeply empathetic and thoughtful person who talked to us about her company, her powerful approach to youth ministry, what it looks like for people to help steward the trauma of their communities, and a whole lot of other leadership wisdom.  

Shake the Dust is a podcast of KTF Press. Follow us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter. Find transcripts of this show, sign up for our free mailing list, and subscribe to our blog at KTFPress.com


Jonathan Walton – follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.  

Suzie Lahoud – follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.  

Sy Hoekstra – follow him on Twitter.  

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra – listen to the whole song on Spotify

Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam – follow her and see her other work on Instagram.  

Shake the Dust is produced and edited by Sy Hoekstra, and transcribed by Suzie Lahoud with help from Descript

Questions about anything you heard on the show? Write to shakethedust@ktfpress.com and we may answer your question on a future episode. 


Irene Cho: Of course, we want to help them deepen their questions. Not necessarily answer because how do we have an answer for where God is? Like, of course we don't have answers. That's the whole point of the book of Job, right? The point of the book of Job is his three friends try to answer that question, “Where is God? Why am I suffering?” and they got punished because they were being know-it-alls and arrogant and conceited and prideful that they could define God and define this meta question of suffering in the world, right. And what God wants us to do is sit with people and say, “I don't know the answers, and yes, it sucks, but I'm here with you. Let's figure this out.” Because we do know healing is going to come, right. That's the Sunday. Friday is here, and Sunday's coming around the corner.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]   

Sy Hoekstra: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF Press. I'm Sy Hoekstra here with Jonathan Walton and Suzie Lahoud.

Jonathan Walton: We are so excited to have Irene Cho with us today. She is a national speaker, writer, consultant, and advisor having worked with nonprofits for almost 30 years. She focused predominantly on youth identity and faith development. Her passion is for the misfits of the world and to bring the gospel message of joy and hope to the least, the lost, and the last. She's got a Master of Divinity from Talbot Theological Seminary and a BA in Christian Education from Biola University.

After serving as the Program Manager of Urban Leadership Training for the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary the last 11 years, Irene is embarking on a new venture resourcing those on the margins. She is the founder and CEO of a new leadership training company called The InBetween. We talk to her about that new venture, how she went about doing her powerful, empathetic youth ministry, and what it looks like for leaders to sustainably steward the trauma of communities. And we get a whole lot of leadership wisdom along the way.

Suzie Lahoud: As a reminder, if you like the show, you can support us by going to KTFPress.com and subscribing. A subscription gets you our weekly newsletter on resources to help you leave colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, bonus episodes of this show, and writing from the three of us. It also supports other projects we're working on like future books.

Sy Hoekstra: We wanted to set this up so that in addition to supporting a show that you like, you're also getting a lot of real quality substantive content from us. And so we're trying to put a lot of work into this stuff on a regular basis, and we hope that you all appreciate that and that you will consider subscribing.

We're also not on Patreon because Patreon is not great for people who use screen readers like me. So we are not going to be supporting that particular platform for that particular reason. But anyways, thank you for considering subscribing. We really, really appreciate it.

Suzie Lahoud: And having said all that, if you aren't in a position to pay for a subscription, that's totally fine. You can also hit the subscribe button on this podcast; follow us @KTFPress on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; and tell your friends about us.

Sy Hoekstra: So without further ado, here is Irene Cho.

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Sy Hoekstra: Irene Cho, welcome to Shake the Dust. Thank you so much for being with us today!

Irene Cho: Thank you for having me. It's such an honor to be here.

Sy Hoekstra: We think the same about having you here. And can you just tell everyone what you're doing with your company?

Irene Cho: Yeah, so I just officially launched and have it registered as, you know, a small business. Hopefully going to grow into not so much of a small business, but really came up with this brain child. I've been in academia working as a program director for the last 11 years, where I was in charge of the urban leadership training at Fuller Theological Seminary. And my program ended and really was kind of faced with a question of what do I do now as I am hitting this certain age point? And, you know, I had really looked into should I go into actually being a professor in academia, going for my doctorate, you know, that whole world. Should I stay, you know, in some sort of ministry serving capacity or do I do this other element by which I really kind of want to marry the two together?

I feel that there's such a crucial place for research, in particular research based in academia, but also, you know, usually that kind of research or information gets stuck in academics. And if you don't go to a college or graduate school, you know, some of the information that is so vital to those doing the work in the field and on the ground, they don't get that information. And so one of the things that I loved about the place that I had previously worked at was that it was an institute that really tried to marry the two.

I think, you know, what they are presenting though is more for white, middle-class, evangelical ministries and churches and families, which is totally fine. Whereas my passion and heart is for those people who are serving in marginalized communities, under-resourced communities, underserved communities, underrepresented communities, whether that is what we used to call urban- you know, we haven't found a new, nice little catchy name for that- or, you know, even rural communities, anywhere, you know, people of color communities, where you just, they're not really necessarily in the mainstream and represented. And so where can, how can we create an institute or a learning space by which we're bringing in those who are doing training, those who provide that kind of information and teaching, but doing it for those who are on the ground, you know, whether they're moms, whether they're, you know, in small groups, whether they're your lay leaders or actual paid staff, you know, people who are doing the work, how can we do that?

And so, um, and the reason I call my company The InBetween is because I feel that most of my life that's been the theme. And so it is really reflective, I believe, of what we're kind of using as our tagline that the deepest, most transformational learning happens in the in-between space, which we don't really talk about a lot. In particular, when we see, you know, movies or TV shows, there's so much where we have a starting point of revelation and inspiration where the light bulb goes off, you know, and then we see the conclusion where the person is now fully, you know, understanding of that information, fully healed, fully transformed, but there's so much messiness that happens in the in-between space. And that's just a really crucial part.

No subject will be taboo. I just, I'm all about transparency and really uncovering the various different topics that have been not necessarily talked about, in particular in Christian settings. And so how do we, cause there, there's so much hunger there and there's so much desire and need to have these conversations. And so how can we create that space for folks who are deconstructing their faith, for folks who are dismantling, you know, socially, anthropologically, what they have known in their life and what they have normally, quote, unquote normally understood to be the standard. And now they're really processing and deconstructing all of that and dismantling it.

And there's not really space where you could learn from a professional, from someone who is an expert in these subject matters, because most of the time it's, I read a book, I'm in a book club, we're kind of all fumbling around and trying to figure it out, right. And so how can we create these little classroom mini spaces?

So it's not just going to be webinars, which is most of what training institutions or platforms are presenting. And it's very important- I mean, we're going to use those resources because they're needed where one person is teaching and you just listen on the other side- but rather we're wanting to create cohorts slash classroom spaces. Like you're actually going to get homework. You're going to need to do reading. You're going to need to have these conversations. But in regards to specific topics for folks who are what I call urban progressive people like, so you're not really fitting in the mold of evangelical and you're not fitting in the mold of what we call middle-class suburbia, you know, we're trying to fill in those other spaces for folks who don't fit those molds.

Sy Hoekstra: And it sounds like from your concept of what constitutes a leader that your training is very broad.

Irene Cho: It is very broad. Cause I feel, you know, in these, in particular, in these spaces, there are so many who are volunteers, you know, not necessarily paid staff. I just, I think, you know, I'm continually wanting to ask the question of how are we breaking the standardized infrastructure that we have thus far in church, in particular church structures. What have we set up? And those setups don't apply to people who are in marginalized communities. Like most of the leaders who were in our training program were bi-vocational, tri-vocational. Like there's, there's no way, right? So they volunteer at their church, they have a full-time job, and yet they also are, part-time working, you know, at this other position. And then they have families. They have, you know, they're just juggling so much.

And so I used to remember working in an immigrant church for me, in particular, you know, being involved in youth ministry. And at that time, the only youth ministry resources available were people who were white and very full-time paid staff, you know? And so they would have these get togethers or trainings and it would be like on a Wednesday at 10:00 AM and I'm like, at my job because I have to pay bills, and I don't work at my church except Friday through Sunday, right. Where is there capacity or space for me to do student visitations and do all these things that curricula, youth ministry curricula, would say, you know, you should meet with students during this time. And I'm like, okay, but not possible at all.

Sy Hoekstra: During your infinite time that you have.

Irene Cho: Right. Exactly. And, you know, that was me at mid-twenties where I had a plethora of energy. What about leaders who have family? And I was single, I didn't have kids. And so like, how do we address these, you know, address and compensate for leaders, as we call them, who are not necessarily fitting into that mold? So I'm just always trying to think of folks outside of the box that don't fit into what we have thus far deemed as people who are serving.

Suzie Lahoud: Wow, I love that, that emphasis on liminality and marginalization and just the really real and practical perspective that you bring to these spaces. And you just alluded now to your background in youth ministry and so, would you be willing to share just about that transition from the youth ministry that you were doing to, it sounds like your time at Fuller and academia, and then on. What did that, what did those transition periods look like for you and how did you make those decisions to move from one thing to the next? Do you think, in some cases, maybe you should have made those transitions sooner? If we could just kind of dig into those pieces of your story as much as you feel comfortable or feel like it would be helpful to share.

Irene Cho: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, so much. Let's, let’s sit on the couch and pop out, like take out the popcorn, cause I have so many stories to tell.

Jonathan Walton: Chips. Get the chips.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. We’ll get Jonathan’s chips.

Irene Cho: [laughs] Oh, lordy… So I stumbled into youth ministry. So I knew I wanted to be serving in some capacity and in, back then, you know, if I'm going to age myself, you know, back in the early nineties, when I received what I believe is a full calling from God to serve in some capacity, that was not my, you know, first choice. I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be the next Connie Chung. I was like, “Oh, I'm going to have a penthouse in New York. And I'm going to work for…” you know, at that time it was whatever, ABC news or 60 Minutes that, you know, we didn't have cable news really. And so that was my dream. And God was like, “No, I've got a whole other thing planned for you,” for a year. Which, I took a personality test, and, of course, so much better for where I'm at now. Like I would have been a terrible journalist really. Oh gosh.

So, you know, that was my senior year of college, I switched, or my senior year of high school, I switched out completely like which colleges I wanted to go to. And my advisor put me in Christian education, which is what my major was at that time. And I didn't even know. I, you know, I don't even think they asked me, they had just kind of assigned me that major. And it was perfect because we had a biblical major, we had intercultural studies, and we had Christian education as kind of the three Trinity tri-fold in regards to serving in some form of capacity.

And so I did that and I ended up focusing on youth ministry because my, you know, I wasn't a very elementary school person. That age group doesn't really interest me, which, you know, already breaks the mold because usually Christian women are relegated to children's ministry. I don't, I love infants to four years-old, and then from five, if I could pass off, you know, the kid until the age of 12 then bring them back, that's my, like, that's my whole thing. And so, you know, people think that it's very not the norm to, you know, love middle schoolers because they can be a pain in the behind and they ask, you know, and there's just, it's such a complicated age period where you're growing into your identity and you know, you don't know who you are and you're full of angst and you're full of insecurities. And you're entering into this new space and new world where you're leaving the safety of, you know, elementary school age, where everything is very concrete and very direct and very clear. And now you're moving into this abstract space where you're learning new concepts and it's just a, it's such an angsty time.

And I think because my own time period, when my parents got divorced, when I was nine and we moved from Los Angeles to New York, I moved from a space that was pretty diverse-I didn't even know this at this time- it was pretty diverse. And then moving into a city that was 85% Jewish, very upper middle-class- not even middle-class- very, very wealthy neighborhood. One of four Asian kids, you know, at that time where I'm looking like I'm 10 years-old, when everyone is starting to blossom and grow into their bodily, you know, spaces, I'm not entering into that. And so it was a horrible time and I had very buckteeth and my, I hadn't, I grew into them eventually, I think, you know, and it was just, it was a difficult time period of anger and uncertainty and all of that.

And so for me, I think that's why I really gravitated towards youth ministry, in particular middle school ministry. Because I really wanted to help young people in that age group know that it's going to be okay. And help them really get comfortable in who they are and affirm them and know that their questions and their anger and their emotions and their angstyness and insecurities are all valid, but also that you're going to be okay.

And so I think, you know, after 13 years of doing nine years of middle school and then four years of high school, transitioning to high school, which was a whole other game changer because, oh my gosh, some of them drive and they can pick each other up. It’s just a whole other game, right.

And I think, I had a supervisor who, and mentor who, when he hit the age of 32, he was like, “I think I’m ready to kind of leave.” And I think I was 24 at that time. And I was like, “You pansy.” Like, “You trader. You're not like loyal at all.” [laughing] And I remember when I was 31 or 32, I hit the same age and it was at my, the last retreat I led, and I was like looking around and I was like, “Oh yeah, I'm a little tired.” And I, not only was I tired, but I didn't know if I was necessarily bringing the freshness that, you know, I, that I had when I was younger. I, there was a lot more, I needed a lot more sleep. [laughs]

Suzie Lahoud: I feel that.

Irene Cho: Yeah. During the lock-ins where I would just be with the kids all the time, I'm like, “All right, I'm going to go in the office. If there's any problems, knock on my door, but only knock on the door when it's like, the building's on fire and we have to evacuate. Okay.” [all laughing] And I think I hit that moment.

But also, on top of that, the last church that I served at, which I call the church from hell, I, it was a very awful experience. My supervisor was one who didn't believe that women should be serving in ministry outside of children's ministry, that women shouldn't be ordained. It was like two years of horridness just working under that gentleman. I've shared other stories, but you know, the middle school- I was a high school leader- and the middle school pastor and I were talking and there had been, there had been some complications. I had gotten hired full time, which was amazing. It was going to be my first full-time position. And then they had issues in the upstairs, quote unquote, adult ministry area. And so because of politics, they ended up slashing everyone to half-time status if you were still in seminary. And I was like, “I'm a team player, that's fine. Like I have one semester left.” It was a three-unit course. And then I would be done in three months, right. So I was like, “It's fine.”

But in between those three months, my supervisor got hired. And so, you know, I, the middle school pastor and I were talking and he was complaining because he had to work two jobs for his health to get healthcare, to start saving up money, cause he wanted to get married. And I said, “I'm really sorry.” And he was like, “Why are you sorry?” And I, I said, “Because I'm the reason you're not getting a full-time position.” And we had a hundred, each had 110 students. How can you not have a full-time youth leader taking care of 110 students, right? There were complaints that I wasn't doing visitations and all these things. And I'm like, “I just, there's no way. Cause I have to pay bills and you are paying me like $10 an hour for this half-time job,” or whatever. And so I told the middle school pastor, “You know, you just wait. The moment I walk out the door, when I quit, two weeks later you're going to get a full-time offer on the table.”

And you know, I ended up getting fired because I was too progressive. I was too, you know, much of a rebel. I wasn't, according to their words, a team player, and all of these things, cause I was starting to really expand in my, deconstructing my theology of who Jesus is and what ministry actually is. And it really was because I took an exegetical of the gospels class. So I'm like not doing anything unbiblical here. Just asking a lot more questions of what we have deemed as, you know, right, or Jesus-like, which wasn't Jesus-like at all. So, you know, ended up being asked to leave, and lo and behold, two weeks after I was asked to leave the middle school pastor got his full-time offer on the table two weeks later.

Jonathan Walton: Of course he did.

Irene Cho: Of course he did. And so, and it's been only males being hired since then, you know. And so, I think that whole experience, by then, I, from some life stuff that I was asking really hard questions about trauma and pain and suffering and where is God in all of that. I was doing a lot of deconstruction work of what we had been told in the church where it was very much, Jesus will heal all things, cookie cutter, band-aid type of mantras and teachings. And really I was, I was questioning a lot of that. And then this, the whole experience with that part of the church really started, you know, leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

And then on top of that, you know, again, this was the early 2000s and I felt like I was the only one in my church environment asking questions about LGBTQIA folks- you know, back then it was just four letters- and saying, what are we doing as a church? Why are we not doing more to love on these folks and to meet a need, you know, a dire need? And this is before any research that I knew had come out and nobody wanted to touch the, the gay question in any church capacity, right.

And so there were a lot of questions I started asking and I started wondering, “Is me being a pastor or youth pastor going to be the way to start making changes in ways that needed to be made?” And I think that's, there were so many elements that really started having me, kind of move on from doing direct on the ground ministry. And then I got a position in a nonprofit that was training urban leaders. And that really started opening my eyes that there were so many other ways to really make an impact, right, and really help leaders ask these important questions rather than me just doing my little silo ministry, which is- I don't want to say little like belittling it- but you know, my one, individual, personalized youth ministry group versus how can I start training leaders who are going to make an impact in the lives of these young people?

So then I, from there probably in 2005, 2004, started going into doing leadership training and working with leaders who are working with young people. And then it was really from there kind of continually moving on and moving on. And now I'm here where I want to start my own company, cause I still feel that most of the training institutions are still not at the place where I think a lot of folks are at where I think the church, and I say that as an institution, and leaders who are in the church are unwilling or scared to, for fear of loss of jobs or, you know, all the things in position are afraid to, or unwilling to ask the questions that I believe are, are really crucial, especially for the next generation. So, yeah.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, so you're talking about being a youth pastor, being a youth leader, and zeroing in on that particularly, just with the fast-pace that things happen and how quickly young people learn, what do you think young people in toxic church environments can do to start decolonizing their faith and how can youth pastors help?

Irene Cho: Yeah. Oh, it's such a loaded, great question. You know, for every student or kid in youth ministry, number one, I hope their youth leader is also asking these questions, right. And so A) I think that's such a rarity, cause I know I, from what I have seen of youth ministry world, not a lot of them are asking these questions. I know they have a lot on their plate, you know, and I know they're required to do a lot of things and are juggling a lot. So, you know, that's all great.

And yet, I think there is a very clear dissatisfaction that kids have when they graduate. You know, the Fuller Youth Institute did a research study from their Sticky Faith, what they call their Sticky Faith research, that showed, you know, kids, a majority of kids really liked their youth pastor, but they left when they graduated or they left youth ministry to move on into adulthood.

Most of the responses were, “I never felt like I was known.” “I didn't feel like I really learned.” “I don't, I didn't feel like church was a safe place,” you know. And there were a lot of those. But they really liked the youth pastor. And so the question I have for youth leaders in particular is, is your popularity, is that what you are trying to be- the cool youth leader, you know? Which, I think a lot of times we are told that that's the key to connecting with young people, right. And yet, all of the research directly from young people are saying otherwise. And we see stories where you see authentic older folks connecting because of the genuineness, the authenticity, the willingness to have conversations on difficult topics.

And I, I still have so many relationships with my youth kids who, in particular, who were from that high school ministry, where we have lots of, where I have issues. The kids mend my relationship, I felt were so profound. Like if I had it my way, I would have stayed one more year and concluded and graduated and left with my freshman class who came in, right. And I'm sad that I wasn't able to do that, but I still have such good relationships with a good handful of them. And they, the thing that, you know, and I don't say this bragging about myself, cause I made a lot of mistakes, you know. And I share always one of the reasons I love training leaders is to share my mistakes and to not make the same mistakes I did. But I think one of the things that I am going to brag about that I did really well was to give them a safe space. I share this all the time when I do training. There was- after I got fired, and fired, again, for providing the safe space and not being a dictator and an authoritarian figure to my students and to lay down the law, that I actually respected my kids and said, “We're going to have conversations about this and this learning process. And you growing is not my journey. It's your journey. And I'm here to help you,” right.

So there are two elements. Number one, how do you create a space? And, you know, I would have this thing where, back then in particular, you know, the big topic was smoking. Again, this was the early 2000s, right. And we had a couple of kids who did, you know, marijuana and stuff. I didn't have a lot of kids who were doing like hardcore drugs or anything like that in that youth ministry in particular. Not that it would be any different, I think, in my methodology. So let's take our kids who were smoking. You know, I would, every week, you know, I never ever told them that it was cool to smoke. And yet, somehow that bizarre narrative like kind of came up [Sy laughs] and it was all lies and like slander of me, right. But like every kid knew that I didn't approve and I was very honest. I'm like, “You're going to be impotent. It's going to stunt your growth.” I said it all. [Jonathan laughs] Like there was nothing I wouldn't say at the pulpit to my students, right, of like utilizing and saying, “You should live your life to the fullest in the fullest capacity that you can in enjoyment.” And I'm like, “You're, this is a temporary fix.” And like, you know, all these things. So I was never, I was never shying away from the fact that I disapproved.

But on the other side of that, it is a struggle. It's an addiction. Like I fully get it. My mom and dad were smokers and my mom, I watched her struggle. It took her a really long time to quit smoking. And so every day, every week, you know, that I met with the kids, I would come in and all of the 10, 12 boys in particular, who were smoking, all were very vulnerable with me. And we all knew their journey. So they would come in and I would be like, “How are you doing? How many days has it been?” And they were like, “I f’d up,” you know. And they would cuss in front of me and they would say, “I f’d up, I had a huge fight with my mom yesterday. I was so angry. I can't stand her,” this and that. “And I had to have a smoke.” And I'm like, “That's okay. It's totally understandable. Did you have one today?” And they were like, “No, I didn't. I didn't have time. I got ready. And then I came to church.” I'm like, “So today's day one. Let's start again.” And like, I would high five them and like, I'm going on this journey with them, you know what I mean?

So it's like, you know, we go to retreats and in my previous other ministries that I was, you know, serving in where I wasn't the one making, calling the shots, you know, we would expel students if they got caught smoking. So they would go sneak out into the woods and then like have a cigarette and we would do patrol. And then if they got caught, they would get sent home or whatever, right. And I was like, I'm not going to do it that way. So we would have the rule where obviously you're not allowed to smoke. This is a no-smoking camp or a conference center or campus or whatever. And for those of you who are struggling, you're going to come and talk to me or one of the counselors, and we will drive you off the property. And, you know, we will, we are going to be with you if you're really struggling, but we really, really challenge you to try to take this time to make it a detox weekend and like, you know, do all of that.

And I had a volunteer come up to me because this was so unconventional. And they were, they were disapproving. And they, and I said, “Look, is it better for me to have them repress and hide and sneak out and then they cause a forest fire and all these things happen? Or is it better that they are able to journey with me and know that I am this safe space for them where I know they're not imperfect [sic]? They know that I'm not imperfect [sic], but we're doing this journey together to try to be more Jesus-like and to live the best life that we can live, you know, and we're, I'm cheerleading them on and encouraging them without any compromise of what the bottom line is. The bottom line is stop smoking. The bottom line is stop gossiping. The bottom line is stop bullying,” you know. All these things, right.

And I had to talk with this volunteer through and they really processed it and started to see what relational ministry actually was doing, how effective it was like that kids were really desiring to come to church and it wasn't about the games and it wasn't about the pizza. It was about the fact that they were having a space where they're getting challenged, where they're being asked hard questions. They weren't getting let off the hook, you know, and yet they really loved it. You know what I mean?

So after I get fired, I'm watching Oprah. It's a repeat, you know, episode. It's one in the morning. I'm in bed and there was this episode where a girl- she's beautiful. I think she was Mexican American. Her name is Jennifer and her story- I think you can find, I forget her last name- she was a sophomore in college and she went out with two of her girlfriends to a party, a college party. And as they're waiting at the stoplight, at the red light, a high schooler, junior in high school, was driving home drunk from a party and slammed into them. Cars caught on fire and her friends died and she was burned with third and fourth degree burns. And so he went to prison for involuntary manslaughter. And so, right, prime of his life. He’s doing the SATs. He’s about to go, like do college applications, just all of the hopefulness. And he is now in jail.

So she comes on and she has no eyelids. Her fingers are all melted. Her father has to dress her every day. Her father has to put drops in her eyes every 30 minutes cause she doesn't blink. There's not a dry eye anywhere. And this girl is just so filled with life and hope and it's so powerful and so amazing. And, you know, the cause that she's now trying to, you know, educate people on, about not drunk driving, et cetera. And the mom of the son is on the show, because they obviously can't film him as a minor, and she comes out and she is there to apologize. Cause this is the first time they're meeting in person. And she can't get through it. And she is just sobbing, trying to apologize for what her son did.

And Oprah asks her, “What do you want to tell every parent in the world as they see this? What do you wish to share that you have learned through all of this?” And she says- and I will never forget this- “I raised my son in a black-and-white world, a world of do's and don'ts, and I just wish I could have gone back and said to him, ‘I don't approve of you drinking. But if you find yourself in a situation that you have compromised in, give me a call. You won't get grounded. We'll figure it out together. I want you to be safe.’” And she was like, “Your kids are going to drink. Your kids are gonna make decisions that are not okay. And the question is, do they know that you are their backup plan, that you are the plan, that you are the safe space for them to call?” And I was screaming in my room, pointing at the camera, like, or at the TV, just, just screaming at the top of my lungs, “That's it! That's the gospel right there. That's Jesus fully in a nutshell,” right.

And I wish all leaders in whatever, not even just in Christian tradition, in all traditions, like that is who we are trying to emulate. That's the empathy that Jesus calls us to, right. This is the molds that he breaks. It's not about the fact that he broke sabbatical or, you know, that Sabbath, and that he healed on that day. He's talking about the principle of empathy, right? He's, he and the religious leaders at that time, just, they cannot, they cannot get out of that mold of do's and don'ts of, of what, you know, Dallas Willard calls, the gospel of sin management and it's all of that that I just wish leaders would understand.

It's not about you instilling, and here goes my second point… So, number one, how can you create safe spaces for young people? Not because you're compromising on what you believe is right or wrong, but that your journey, so that they can know they can ask these hard questions without somebody jumping down their throats, without somebody attacking them, without making them feel like you're a horrible Christian because they're doubting their faith or asking questions that aren't fitting in the little like, you know, square box that we're trying to squeeze evangelical God in. You know, all these things where trauma and suffering, if I have been raped, which is my story, by my senior pastor, like, where was God? Like these difficult questions that can't be wrapped up in a nice little, 15-, 20-minute sermon, right? How do you journey that students would actually know that you are the person that can pick up the phone at 2:00 AM when they find themselves at a party and they don't want to be there anymore? Are you the person that they're going to call or are they going to be like, my pastor can never know about this because I will get kicked out of youth group, right? Like, how are we doing that?

Which leads to my second point of like, you're not here in actuality to help build Bible quiz champions, where they can regurgitate, you know, like all of their biblical knowledge. It's great. Of course, we need to know the Bible. Of course, we need to understand scripture because scripture is how we understand God's heart, right. We understand God's purpose and God's vision and God's desire for us as humans, for all of humanity. So I'm not saying ignore the Bible and chuck it out the door.

I am a Bible nerd. I geek out to Bible stuff, right. So like, but are you creating people who are able to regurgitate information or you are helping mold people to be transformed in their lives? And that means providing more questions than answers. Again, referring back to my friend, Andy Marin, he said he ended up meeting in his research process, meeting a gentleman who his whole doctoral study was on open-ended questions. Which, my friend was like, how did he get funding for that? I don't even know.

But as he met him, he was so fascinated by this concept of open-ended questions versus close-ended questions, right. Which is, “What is the weather today?” “The weather is 65 degrees.” That's a close-ended question. “Do you like bananas?” That's a close-ended question, right. And in this fascinating, in this research of the, again, the LGBTQI issue, you know, the question of, “If I'm gay, will I go to hell?” that's a closed-ended question, right. And so he went through all four gospels and line by line. He said, Jesus never answered a close-ended question that the religious leaders gave him with a closed-ended answer. He always responded back from their close-ended question with an open-ended question. He never answered the question because he knew it was a trap.

He knew it was just to confirm their bias or their assumption of you, right. Which is usually the purpose of a close-ended question. And so he always responded back with an open-ended question. And the only time he actually answered was when he was at the end of his ministry, ready to face his death and Pontius Pilate asks him, “Are you the man who they say that you are?” And he says, “I am who they say that I am.” And he answers the question, right.

And so we need to be helping these little humans learn how to ask more questions, how to ask better questions of themselves, of their families, of their lives, of their friends, of their communities, of the systems of government, of like all the things, right. And so, and, you know, I intuitively started doing that and I think because my mom raised me that way. And so with all the research that continually comes out, I just go home back to my mom, and I'm like, “Job well done, woman, for not having any like resources for how to, you know, raise a, you know, an insightful human being.” I just always high five her. She was like, “Okay.” Cause she was like doing that. And my students would be constantly frustrated with me because they would ask me a question and I would throw back a question at them. And this was, again, before I even knew that I was doing the right thing, right, or being Jesus-like. And so, and they would get so frustrated because they're like, “Just give me the answer,” you know, “Pastor Irene.” And I'm like, “No, that's not my job.”

As you said, we're not with them all the time. So my job isn't to make sure they can checkmark all the little boxes, because they're going to go to college and then life, even more life stuff, shtuff is going to happen to them. And it's going to have them ask even bigger questions, which was one of the things that these kids in the Sticky Faith research was saying- they didn't feel that their church prepared them for life. Their church did not prepare them for these bigger questions. And that was a thing. Like Steve Jobs in his biography, right, was one of the things when he was 13 years-old, asked his priest, as he saw a Time cover magazine about Africa and poverty and AIDS. And he was like, “Where is God in all of this suffering?” And his priest told him, “You don't need to worry about that. That's not a question that, you know, you have to bother with.” And I'm like, “Why would you tell that to this 13 year-old, who has these huge, gigantic, metaphysical questions about life and suffering and God?”

And, you know, of course we want to help them deepen their questions. Not necessarily answer, because how do we have an answer for where God is? Like, of course we don't have answers. That's the whole point of the book of Job, right? The point of the book of Job is his three friends tried to answer that question, “Where is God? Why am I suffering?” And they got punished because they were being know-it-alls and arrogant and conceited and prideful that they could define God and define this meta-question of suffering in the world, right. And what God wants us to do is sit with people and say, “I don't know the answers, and yes, it sucks, but I'm here with you. Let's figure this out.” Because we do know from life and from research, from wisdom, healing is going to come, right. That's the Sunday. Friday is here and Sunday’s coming around the corner, right.

The promise is that there will be healing, not the promise that we're going to know why this happened. I don't know why I was raped to this day. When I meet the Lord, I hope one day, I will, somehow, maybe, know the whole divine Providence for why this terrible thing was again, you know, allowed to happen or did happen or, you know, whatever the words we want to use semantically to describe it.

But like, in my finite humanity right now, all I know is that I have grown from it. I have grown wiser from it. I have grown stronger from it. I'm more empathetic because of it. I have more information about trauma and healing because of it. All the things that the Bible promises us actually happens. Not this lie that evangelicalism has told us where Jesus is going to make it all better. No, it absolutely did not make it better. Like I still get triggered. When the Me Too movement started happening, like it was all of my wounds and scars that were fully healed and there are scar, like wound markings, but not bleeding, happening there. You could feel the tingling, you know what I mean? Like all the triggers are just under the surface.

And so do we like wish that we wouldn't have to live in a painful world? Of course we want to live in utopia, but this is the world that we live in and we hurt one another. And there are systems and structures in place that are hurtful and harmful and toxic and all of these things. So your job as a leader is not to help them checkmark boxes. Your job as a leader is to prepare them to know BS and horrible things are coming down the pipeline because that's life and nobody is, you know, immune to pain. Nobody is immune to suffering. And the question is, are we helping them know how to have the tools to be prepared for that, right? And so I would say those are the two-fold number one for leaders.

And then for young people, you know, as I counsel, continually counsel, young people who are so traumatized and so hurt by what they've experienced at the church, in the church, by church leaders, I just would sit with them and say, “I know, and I'm with you. And it sucks. And people suck. And I'm really sorry. And how can, how can we talk about it, and share about it, and how can we learn, and how can I be there for you? In what ways, you know, can I be a shoulder for you to cry on, a body that you can lean on, a spirit that can give you hope in the midst of a time period when you might not see any hope at all whatsoever?” But not in a toxic positive kind of way, but a very realistic, you know, “I've been through, I've been through a lot. And so let me be a beacon to know you're going to be okay. Like I'm with you. Like you're not alone in this journey,” right. And I think that's the best we can do because at the end of the day, each person in community needs to find their path of healing, needs to find their journey for what that looks like.

And everybody is different. Some people are going to hunker down and really kind of like action their way through. Other people are going to have to really sit in their emotions and dissect and understand it and do all of that, you know. And other people are going to have to confront and, you know, do other ways by which, you know, they're going to find healing through justice means, right. So everybody's different. And we have to allow everybody to go at their pace and to have their process, I think. And so I think just empathetically being with people is the most important.

Jonathan Walton: Thank you for sharing all of that.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, oh my God.

Jonathan Walton: Because, particularly because I think, one, like exegesis is important too. Like I think you, you did not answer the question in such a way that gives us more information, but you answered the question in a way that invites us to the feet of Jesus, which is reflected in you because you're made in his image. And so I appreciate that. And I'm grateful for you allowing us to know you and hopefully, if we do the work, to know God and ourselves better as well.

Irene Cho: Yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: I have, I just want to say I have like a very direct, specific example of what you were talking about before of getting kids to talk, to ask bigger questions.

Irene Cho: Yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: A big question that I had before I was deciding whether or not I wanted to, like commit myself to Jesus was I, I just did not like the idea of hell and I didn't like the idea that God had created, you know, a universe in which, the, you know, billions of people or whatever would, would suffer forever and he knew that that was going to happen when he created it. And we believe that he's perfect. So he didn't need us. And like all the, you know, it just didn't, it seemed kind of needless and cruel.

And it was, it was somebody in my youth ministry, a volunteer actually, a 19 year-old volunteer who I'm still friends with, who kind of pointed me to like, whatever problems you have with that, that's actually a less important or compelling question than the question of why did God make everything, knowing that he would have to suffer through all that, right? Like knowing that he was going to the cross, knowing that he was going to experience like everything that we experience as people. And so then, like from there, you can say, well, whatever he's doing with creation, you can trust him, right? Like it's a point of trust. It's a point of authenticity and I, I dunno, I just, you took me back there very pointedly to a specific time where someone getting me to ask a different question, getting me to ask a different question led directly to me, like deciding to follow Jesus.

Irene Cho: Yeah. And it's those things like, and I would do that. I would share my understanding and my belief, but I would also always ask bigger questions. Like I believe in that, but there are still going to be questions by which, you know, is this a necessity? There are people who strongly believe in God and don't believe in hell at all. Like, and that's okay. I always would tell students, go in the rabbit hole, do the journey, but have like, have a tie, have an anchor because you know, I've done the rabbit hole trail. And so I would, I would share with them like, bounce these questions off with somebody who's safe, bounce these questions off, as you're asking, like, you know, ask all the questions that you need because there are going to be answers and there aren't going to be answers and it might lead you to more questions. And that's okay. Like God can handle, God can handle all the questions that you have. And you may not end up finding answers and all of these things, but, you know, try to make sure you don't forget where home base is.

And I think kids really appreciate it when I say to them, “That's an excellent question. I fully don't have an answer for that. I still don't know why there's suffering in the world. And that's one of the first questions I'm going to ask God when I meet God.” And that's so reassuring for them, you know what I mean? They're like, “Oh, my youth pastor is,” you would think like, I know a lot of leaders are worried and they're like, “Oh, I have to have all the answers.” No, you so totally do not. And what it does is… and you can even invite them and be like, “Hey, let's read this book together.” And like, “Let's ask these questions together because I also don't know.” And what a great opportunity that is.

Sy Hoekstra: So switching gears a little bit, I think, um, you talk a lot about leaders being people who have to constantly deal with or steward the trauma of their communities. Yeah, could you just give us a couple of ideas or examples of what practically it looks like for people to help, for leaders, Christian leaders, to help the communities, you know, steward trauma well? And maybe in particular touch on, you know, when we have all the videos of police brutality going around all the time and we have the Me Too movement that you've already brought up, there's just kind of so much of it in the air. So what does that look like for leaders to help in that way?

Irene Cho: Yeah. We could do a whole other episode on this.

Jonathan Walton: We could.

Irene Cho: You know, I think first of all, number one, I want to validate it is exhausting because like helping and walking with people, you're, you have your own stuff that you deal with, right. And then to walk alongside a community that may never really see an end to the struggles is, is so exhausting. And so we talk about this a lot. Self-care is one of the most crucial practices for you as a leader when you are engaging with communities of trauma, or communities with trauma.

So we talk about this a lot in urban contexts, by which, you know, we feel this burden and this passion and this obligation to be the savior of that community and of those people. And not in a vindictive kind of way, right? It's very, the intention and the desire I think is, is very warranted, is very, is very good, but you can burn yourself out from the savior complex. So number one, you know, take care of yourself, finding rhythms that are good.

I know the work is so plentiful. The work is so overwhelming. The work and the need is just like suffocating. You, you have to find those spaces by which you can unplug, even in the city, unplug in the chaos, and go away for just a time period. It's there, that time is there. Jesus was bombarded by hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people on a daily basis. And yet found time and capacity to go recover and recuperate and like rejuvenate himself, right. So let's model that. Let's model after who we are trying to model after and really do self-care.

Number two, we have to become knowledgeable. I think, you know, this idea in the church that therapy and psychology and anthropology and sociology are against God, that all of those scientific understandings are not faithful, the stigma of that continually needs to be dismantled. And like, there's so much information that is needed to be conveyed for how to address the way we communicate, the way we resolve conflict, the way we take action, you know, civil action against the systems and structures. And we need, we need people to tie those things together because we have the activists, we have the people, the leaders who are doing nonprofit work, you know, leading on the ground. We have the people, you know, who are fertilizing, who are supposed to keep the peace of the community. And we do not have the tools really to helpfully, holistically, intersect and intertwine and engage all of the different schools of thought and practices that would help alleviate that, right.

And so, and I know that's really complex. There's so many levels. I mean, I just said a huge mouthful and there's like a monolith of stuff by which we can address when talking about like all of these things. But as one leader who's engaging, you know, equip yourself with better tools for understanding how to psychologically like help people and yourself get better, right. And we could do it in lay terminologies. There's books out there, there's video out there. There are, there are people who are willing to train, you know, others.

I had a friend, they do government grants where they help with that. And so they had a whole program where they went into various lower income communities and helped with marital counseling. And in like the, you know, stories that came out of these families who would not have access to therapy and marital counseling who went through these classes and training, and they're like, “Not only is this helping our marriage, but it is helping us learn how to be better parents now,” because they are having tools to learn how to ask better questions, tools to learn how to do conflict management and deescalate themselves and deescalate with their kids, right.

And these are all these things by which these communities, we need to provide these tools. And so how can we continually do that as leaders and bring in experts, bring in people, learn how to, and this is the third thing, learn how to collaborate together. Again, removing the savior complex. You cannot be all things to all people. Even Superman has his kryptonite.

I am a Jack of all trades. I'm very talented in a lot of things, but I am not talented and capable in a lot of other different areas. And I need to admit to that and I need to own that and I need to be like, “Experts come in and like help with this community,” right. And let's do this thing together and not even bring an expert there, but there might be experts within your own community that you did not know that were there, right. And so we talk about this a lot in urban trainings of like, what are the assets that already exist in your communities and how can you collaborate and expand on that?

And so, you know, I think the trauma element is so, it's such a gigantic animal. And there's, it's like things that are in our capacity to change, things that are outside of our capacity to change, things that take longer for us to address, things that are immediate that we need to address. And I think it's really important as leaders to understand what are the assets in your community so that we could collaborate together because there are so many levels to address and attack and to, you know, deal with that can happen all at the same time if we are being an Avengers team, not just depending on Superman.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. Thank you, Irene, for just all of the things that you touched on and, yeah, no, I just resonate when you were talking about looking at the assets in your community, it just reminded me a lot of the work that my husband and I were involved in in Lebanon with the refugee population there. And one of the important things that I feel like we learned was just how, when you talk about trauma in communities, one of the most healing things for a community is to be involved in their own healing and to be able to be a part of that, that reconstruction process, on the personal and interpersonal level, on the communal level, and to be able to help rebuild their own lives and to be able to contribute because they have so much to give. And so moving away from that just sort of giver/receiver dichotomy.

And, so yeah, I think all I really want to say is just amen to what you shared. There's so much wisdom to that and, yeah, and just, I love how I feel like one of the themes that you're sharing is just seeing people as whole people and embracing them in their humanity and, you know, all being able to move towards transformative work together. So, yeah, again, just thank you for coming on the show and for sharing all of that.

Irene Cho: Thank you. All the snaps to what you just shared.

Sy Hoekstra: I'd second that. This has been fantastic. We really appreciate all the time. And just before we go, what do you want people to see? Where do you want them to follow you?

Irene Cho: Um, everything on my social is Irene M, as in Michelle, Cho. I'm probably the most active on Twitter, but I'm also the most abrasive on Twitter. [laughs] And then I have more, I'm more insightful on Facebook, and then some insightful stuff on Instagram, but a little bit more fun stuff.

And then the website is FindingTheInBetween.com because I could not, at the moment, get The InBetween, but I'm hoping to somehow get that later. And if you want to follow The InBetween, everything on social is @TheInBtw. And, but the website is Finding The InBetween for now. And so I have some blog entries on there and hopefully, I'm in the works right now to start building the whole platform to create classes that you could sign up for. We have a certificate that we're going to be launching out at the end of August for the fall. So if you are interested in getting a one-year urban training from some of the top four, you know, leaders on the ground who are doing the work, they're phenomenal. We'll be talking about different subjects of, you know, the theology and philosophy of urban ministry, holistic understanding of you as an urban leader, talking about trauma and self-care in there in particular, abuse, you know, healing, all of those things. And then leadership management is the fourth course. And then the fifth is community development and engagement.

So if you want to do that it's only $1,000 dollars. We used to do this program in my old job, and it was an $8,000 course. And we're basically bringing it down because it's predominantly online and you won't be meeting in a classroom officially like face-to-face physically, but you'll get all of the learning, all of the training, and it'll be only a year versus a two-year program. So we figured this is a launch pilot. So the price will probably go up after this launch, you know, when we do run the next cohort. So take advantage of it if you would like and sign up on the website.

Sy Hoekstra: Yes, absolutely. We encourage that. Irene Cho, thank you so much for being with us today.

Irene Cho: Thanks for having me. Thanks for letting me ramble on. [laughs]

Jonathan Walton: Thank you so much.

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in briefly, then fades out.] 

Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much for listening. Please remember if you enjoy listening to this show to consider going and subscribing at KTFPress.com. And either way, please follow us on social media, @KTFPress on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and tell your friends about us, please. We would really appreciate it. Word of mouth is a great way to support the show.

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you all next week.

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]  

Sy Hoekstra: Irene Cho, welcome to Shake the Dust. Thank you so much for being with u-yus today.

Irene Cho: Thank you for having me.

Sy Hoekstra: Wow. Okay, no, I messed up literally the first line. [Irene laughs]

Jonathan Walton: Go back please. [Suzie chuckles]

Sy Hoekstra: I will try that again…

KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God – Shake the Dust features candid interviews and informed discussions that guide us as we seek Jesus instead of empire.