“All throughout scripture this is what God is doing: inviting people to raise their voice and to act, to create, to do, to be people who speak out against injustice and then create and be and help others become love.”
Kathy Khang is a speaker, journalist, and activist. She has worked in campus ministry for more than twenty years, with expertise in issues of gender, ethnicity, justice, and leadership development. She is a columnist for Sojourners magazine, a writer for Faith & Leadership, and a coauthor of More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith.
We recently sat down with Kathy to discuss her new book, Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up and the role that Christian artists can play in activism and community engagement.
Geoff: What does a day look like for you when you're writing?
Kathy: It's ridiculous, that's what it look like! Most of my writing is done when I have family around me and so that has changed over the years.
My kids are older now. There's really only one in the house most days and he leaves at seven in the morning for high school. Most days it's get the kid out and then get back, make coffee and then decide whether I'm going to spend the day in my pajamas or get dressed like some adults have to in order to go to work.
I know, and I am told, and it is true that it’s important to get into a rhythm of writing where you know every day you're writing a certain number of words. My day looks different every day. I try to squeeze in a yoga practice or some kind of workout during the day and because I write at home, usually it also involves procrastinating.
Laundry needs to get done, dishes must be put away, the mess on the kitchen table that shouldn't bother me because I'm not working out there but it does. I think the difficult part is it feels like I have not managed that internal work. I feel like my space, whether it's my office space or the rest of the house, has to have some degree of order for me to quiet the soul down to write.
Usually there is some sort of personal word count or goal that I've set for that particular day depending on what I'm working on. I try and give myself a little like wins and little awards for making the deadline during the day, especially if it's a whole day that I'm spending writing. If I hit this word count, then yes, I'm going to go to this yoga class that's in the middle of the day; or if I hit this word count, yes, I'm going to go have that piece of chocolate and take a nice walk. I try to keep myself motivated because I love writing, but it isn't always fun. It isn’t like the words are always flowing.
G: What role does spirituality play in your writing process?
K: I have a very loud internal critic and so writing probably is one of the worst things I could do. There's just so many people who are going to have opinions on what you're writing. And so in order to let what I’m writing go, in order to give it to my editor — it's always a spiritual practice.
One of the stories that I haven't written about yet is the reason why the book is launching this July at the end of this month. In part it’s because I missed two deadlines, and I missed those deadlines because I hit two walls with my internal critic and had to really dig deep and argue with God about all of my hang-ups and concerns.
I really had to listen to God remind me that the invitation was not to write a best-seller and that the invitation wasn't even to write a great book: the invitation was to write this book. Which was really hard for me because I think any creative wants to have their best work out there, and at the end of the day, I don't think we can control that. It's so subjective.
Missing those deadlines was in part me having to say I'm just scared. I'm scared of what people are going to think. I'm scared that this isn't the book people thought I would write. I'm scared that I'm taking it too easy, that it's too light, that it's too hard, all of those things. So it's always a spiritual practice. It’s finding the balance of what it means to be confident in my gifts, but also humble in how they’re going to be received.
G: Your book, Raise Your Voice: Why We Stay Silent and How to Speak Up, was just released. Could you tell us a little more about the book?
K: The book is about raising and finding your voice, and it's about helping others do the thing that I am still in process of doing. It is taking all the lessons I've learned in becoming the activist and engaged person that I am now.
It’s about knowing that's not who I was, or appeared to be, even 10 or even 5 years ago. It’s about understanding God, God's story and scripture. That all throughout scripture this is what God is doing: inviting people to raise their voice and to act, to create, to do, to be people who speak out against injustice and then create and be and help others become love.
There are things that we're all passionate about. Concerns and issues around justice that we all love and get angry about. I want to see more people act on that.
The process was trying to identify the things I needed to overcome and what I've seen other people overcome in order to get their voice out there. And the process was questioning whether or not I had anything worth saying and whether or not I felt like I had an actual book in me.
Did I think people would bother reading it? I'm not a white man. I don't often get invited to speak or write about leadership. That's really the root of where so much of this comes from and you know, thanks be to God, there are people I know who, for years have been asking, “Are you ready to write that book?”
The process was at some point feeling, “Yeah, you know what? I am. I'm ready to write this book.” Not every single book is going to be a best-seller, right? And so getting over myself and getting over the idea of what success looks like and just saying, “Okay God, if this is your invitation to me, then I'm going to go in. I'm going to go all in.”
G: What do you think the role of an artist is and shaping culture?
K: An artist can shape culture by mirroring a different perspective of what's going on in the present, in the past, and in the future. I think artists are meant to be not only prophets, but teachers who encourage the world to imagine.
I'm realizing in this current season of life in the U.S. that I’m appreciating artists who can bring out joy and playfulness because quite frankly, many day it feels like everything is burning. It's easy to stay in that. I think for artists it's particularly easy to stay in that very reflective, almost dark space of our creative world. I've just really appreciated artists who can do that and then also make me smile and imagine and dream about what “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” could look like. I think the role of artists should be not only to offer that challenging edge, but also the other edge which is hopefulness and laughter and joy and childlike wonder.
G: So how do you cultivate hope as a creative/activist?...that's a pointed question, but I think that's worth talking about because...I have a Twitter feed, I look at the news, and it's very easy to live in that place of, “Everything is terrible and things are awful.” And that is real, but if you live in that place all the time, that does something to the soul, it does something to the spirit. How do you, while still naming the realities of what is happening and living into that and being an advocate for justice, also live in a place of hopefulness?
K: That's a great, pointed question. I make sure to live in that tension intentionally in my life. So along with being a writer, I am a yoga teacher now. What I have found even in my teaching is that I can bring that edge of growth, and challenge students to make mistakes and to laugh.
I model that and I tell my fellow students, even in these things we do for the betterment of our bodies and our souls, we have to learn not only to laugh at ourselves, but feel the freedom to find what feels good and experiment and be ridiculous. We must also be able to communicate that in our art.
I think that can be hard because, like you said, we both have Twitter feeds so we not only see what's out there but I think there's also a persona and a voice that we project through our social media through our art. I am conscious and aware and intentional in being all of me in what I put out there.
So, it is saying that the world is burning, but I'm also teaching a yoga class. Yes, the world is burning, but you know what, the world has always been burning. And even through that there is beauty and there is joy and there is laughter and artists need that too. And maybe it's not always in the art that they put out there for the public. I get that, but there has to be space in your own personal life and in your relationships for joy.
G: I would imagine that you find yourself in situations where, because you have a pretty sizable Twitter following, there’s indirect or direct pressure that says, “Kathy speak like this, we want to hear your thoughts on this issue.” There’s the idea that you could be pigeonholed in terms of only talking about these things, whatever the things are, when a healthier, more sustainable way of living is to bring all of yourself into it. It’s “Let's talk about immigration reform and having families stay together,” and also, “I'm gonna post about this awesome cup of coffee I just had” and those things are together.
K: Yes, and it's reminding not only my audience but also myself. There are a lot of things in the world that are going crazy, but even in that I need to take my medication and I need to drink water and I should eat some more fruit because I'm not having good bowel movements, right?
I am trying to find ways to do that not only in my writing but also when I speak, to encourage people to take the time I'm slotted and and say, “Okay, we're actually going to spend five minutes and I'm going to lead us in breathing exercises.” I can see the people who've invited me to speak thinking, “Well, we didn't pay you to do breathing exercises.” And what I say is if the audience is holding their breath and can't actually get all the oxygen they need, they're not taking in the programming. So I'm learning how to be fully me in all those arenas.
G: I like what you’re saying about breathing. A friend recently gave me this translation of Exodus 6 he had to make in seminary. In that passage, the Lord is speaking to Moses about delivering the Israelites from Egypt and they don't listen because of their discouragement. But the literal Hebrew translates to read that the Israelites did not listen to Moses from ‘shortness of breath.’ The word gets translated as anguish or discouragement, but it's actually a shortness of breath. So the idea is that the people of God cannot hear God's voice because they literally cannot breathe.
K: And then it ties into that question about what is the role of creatives? And right now I do feel like there's this desire in the creative world to be the prophetic edge and to kind of show the world how crazy everything is. But I've also noticed that our creative-prophetic-activists people are not healthy. So many of us are not healthy.
In that space of being a creative, it is easy to forget that we lose our connection to God if we're not breathing, if we're not resting, if we're not hydrated, if we're not in a good space. What we end up creating is not what God's inviting us to create. How much of what we do is created out of shortness of breath?
G: That concept is just so profound to me. I think about the last few years where you see a lot of shortness of breath in different spaces and faith communities, and reactions and responses that come out of that. I think the idea that artists both need to breathe but can help remind people to breathe is powerful.
K: Yeah. Yeah it is. Wow...I'm gonna have to read Exodus again!
G: Often artists are seen as truth tellers, people who name truth and calling out injustice. How can Christian artists become better truth-tellers?
K: I have been encouraged over the last few years seeing Christians creating good art. Not to be such a critic internally and externally, but gosh darn it some of our attempts at Christian art have just not been great. Not to make this sound like an infomercial, but that's why I was so excited about Alabaster and that idea of scripture not only being spiritual but beautiful.
Art that tells the truth does so in both the pain and the beauty. We should be the creatives and artists who can hold that all in tension. I think that's where the bad art comes from. In the past, Christian art has been so saccharine and ooey gooey that those of us who are culturally able to sit in that tension and live in that tension have just looked at that Christian art and went, “Yuck.”
Good, strong, important, truth-telling Christian art should expose the tension and the beauty of life. It is pain and it is hopeful and it doesn't have to say Jesus. For those of us who grew up in more fundamental Evangelical spaces, Christian art doesn't have to say ‘Christian.’ It doesn't have to have a cross. But also I am hopeful. In the in the last few years, I've seen so many more Christians create and live into that artistry of beauty and pain and ugly.
G: If you're made in the image of God, then the act of creation is actually just a part of you living into that image of God-ness. That realization opens the spectrum of what you can make and how that can be connected to God. And I think for a long time, Christians have kind of lived with this very narrow definition of, “Christian art has to have these markers, it has to explicitly say Jesus all of the time” versus a perspective that says, “I can just be excellent and in that excellence can be witness.” You actually can earn the right to be heard through dedication to craft. I think more people are coming around to that idea.
K: Yes and it's beautiful. And it is that very much what you said, it is the understanding Imago Dei. I write about that in the book, that's why I believe everyone should be raising their voice and speaking up. Whether it's their physical voice, their actions, their art, or their relationships. That is what God does. That is who God is. That is how God is in community. God is not passive and if we as Christians particularly believe that we are created in God's image, then we are also creators and creatives, and that is also important.
Word: Geoff Gentry
Photos: Bryan Chung
You can pick up a copy of Raise Your Voice from InterVarsity Press or your online retailer of choice.