An Interview with Father Joseph Cheah, OSM, Ph.D.

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: Why did you choose to be a Servite?


Father Joe: I first met the Servites when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California (USC). My undergraduate years were also the years that I expressed my faith in a more active manner. No longer relegating organized religion to the back burner of perfunctory Sunday observance, I channeled most of my energies into establishing an outreach group that provided opportunities for students to minister to the elderly in a nearby convalescent home. A few in our group also visited battered children at a nearby shelter and/or juveniles in correctional facility, but our main ministry was with the elderly. It was during this time I began to entertain ideas about becoming a religious priest. Since the Newman Center at USC was run by the Servites and they were influential in my spiritual and ministerial developments, it was natural for me to gravitate to this mendicant order.


Gordon: In what field do you have a doctorate?


Father Joe: My doctorate is in Cultural and Historical Studies of Religions (Theravada Buddhism and Roman Catholicism) and my area of concentration or expertise is in race and religion. Growing up in the inner city, I had a strong interest in issues concerning race and racialization. I remember as an undergrad, I would spend hours standing in the USC Bookstore, reading books on Asian American Studies. I learned so much about myself from reading these books. For the first time in my life, I was reading books written by authors who had me in mind when they wrote their books. When I went to graduate school, I was fortunate to be a Teaching Assistant and, later, a Lecturer, in ethnic studies and Asian American Studies courses taught by Professor Ling-chi Wang of the University of California, Berkeley. It was a no brainer for me to focus my dissertation in the area of race and religion by incorporating my experience of teaching and learning at U.C. Berkeley with theological and religious studies training I received at the Graduate Theological Union.


Gordon: Your first book was on Race and Religion in American Buddhism. Could you tell us about the significance of your book?


Father Joe: Yes, my book is entitled, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: white supremacy and immigrant adaptations. You have to remember that my book came out six years before Charlottesville. Prior to 2017, besides some African American scholars, hardly anyone else at that time had the courage to write about white supremacy in an academic publication. My book was probably the first one published by the University of Oxford Press with “white supremacy” on the cover of the book.


My book basically investigates the ways in which white supremacy has been operative in both the American adaptation of Burmese meditation practices and in the Americanization of Burmese immigrant Buddhists themselves. It has two interrelated parts: The first part is a bit complex. To put it simply, it challenges the organic metaphor assumed by many previous studies that Asian immigrant Buddhist groups have “transplanted” their new faith onto American soil. I challenged this assumption by demonstrating that the soil itself has already been contaminated with the ideology of white supremacy.


In the second part of my book, I provided an ethnographic study of the adaptations of Burmese immigrant Buddhists to the US context. I pointed out that home is an important site of worship for many Asian immigrant Buddhists. Many surveys, however, use a Christian measurement of religiosity to determine the religiosity of Buddhists who do not have an obligatory attendance of public worship on a weekly basis. For example, the 2102 PEW Study on Asian Americans and religion indicates that even though 57 percent of Asian Americans say that they have a shrine in their home, only 12 percent of Buddhists attend weekly services.


Such a low figure can be interpreted to mean that Asian American Buddhists are not very religious. My study of Burmese Buddhists’ religiosity at the domestic sites contests this dangerous characterization that often led to Anti-Asian violence in the past.


Gordon: You have given talks on anti-Asian racism during this pandemic. What impact does COVID-19 pandemic have had on Asian Americans?


Father Cheah: There has been a steady surge of hate incidents ranging from verbal harassment to physical assaults against Asian Americans since the emergence of COVID-19 pandemic in the US. When COVID-19 was first detected in the U.S., an Asian American woman wearing a mask on New York subway was attacked by another woman who assumed she had COVID-19. A month later, another Asian American woman was punched in the face by another woman for not wearing a mask. It’s damn if you do; damn if you don’t. In other words, if you look Asian, the assumption is that you must be a carrier of COVID-19. The worst physical assault occurred at a Sam’s Club in Midland, Texas when a 19-year-old Latino suspect stabbed three Burmese American family members, including a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, with the assumption that they were Chinese, infecting people with the coronavirus.


Anti-Asian sentiments arisen from COVID-19 has also affected me at a personal level. I have relatives and friends, some of whom are elderly, in San Francisco Bay Area who are afraid to go to the grocery stores, take the BART, the public transport, or go for a leisurely walk around their neighborhood for fear of being harassed either verbally or physically. In a civilized society, no one should be afraid to go about doing the things they need to do for survival and to live a full and healthy life.


This is what makes the virus of hate and racism accompanying COVID-19 so despicable and dangerous. The moral virus of hate and racism has been a part of the United States since its foundation, and anti-Asian racism has existed even before the Chinese arrived in significant numbers in mid-nineteenth century.


What COVID-19 has done is to bring to the surface the sins of our past that we have not adequately dealt with: the continued portrayals of Chinese and other Asians as “perpetual foreigners” and are seen as unassimilable to the American way of life. These historical forms of racism and xenophobia continue to persist to this day as COVID-19 is associated with anyone who looks Chinese.


Gordon: Your recent talks are broader than anti-Asian racism. How did that come about?


Father Joe: Last May, I gave a presentation to my faculty colleagues at my University on anti-Asian racism in the wake of COVID-19. It went very well, and I was asked to give a fuller edition of this talk at a later date. Shortly thereafter, the horrific “lynching” of George Floyd went viral and the systemic racism experienced by African Americans, previously so coded that many non-Black Americans might not crack the cipher, descended upon all Americans like a bolt from the blue.


This has awakened the moral consciousness of many Americans as we witness another occurrence of a reckoning on racial injustice and a possible transformation in our society. This has prompted me to incorporate African American struggles into my talks such as examining the racial positionings of Asian Americans in the dynamic of black-white relationship, anti-Black racism in Asian American communities, and so on.


Gordon: What was your inspiration in writing Asian Pneumatology of the FABC and the Reimagining of Spirituality in Asia?


Father Joe : My article on “Asian Pneumatology of the FABC” came from a lecture I gave at the fifteenth anniversary of the Institute for Advanced Study in Asian Cultures and Theologies (IASACT) at the University of Hong Kong in 2019. IASACT is a six-week program for scholars to deepen their understanding of Asian religions, theologies, and cultures. I was fortunate to be among the first cohort when IASACT started in 2004. Most of the presenters at the 2019 conference were non-Catholics and I wanted to give a Catholic perspective of the theme of the conference on “Re-imagining Hospitality and Spirituality in Asia.”


In the area of dialogue and evangelization, the FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference) is years ahead of the rest of the church by removing the perception of the church in Asia as “foreign” through the pursuance of dialogues with the local cultures, peoples, and other religions. The last component of this Triple Dialogue is based on the premise that the Holy Spirit is operative in non-Christian religions as stated in the FABC document. This inspired me to write some of the ways in which the bishops at the FABC have reimagined spirituality in Asia.


Gordon: What was the response to your recent webinar on “The Asian American Catholic Experience”?


Father Joe: This webinar was given to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Hartford. It was part of the webinar series on the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter against racism. I could not tell the reactions of the viewers as the chat function was turned off, which was just as well as these responses might have distracted me from my presentation. But, according to the host and facilitator of the webinar series, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive.


I’m glad my listeners appreciated it because I was sharing with my audience something that is hardly mentioned in the church and in the mainstream American history; namely, anti-Chinese racism of the Irish in the second half of the nineteenth century and the Catholic Church’s complicity in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. It’s a story about How the Irish Became White, the title of a “path breaking” book by Noel Ignatiev. While Ignatiev focuses on how the oppressed Irish gained accepted in mainstream America by becoming brutal oppressors of African Americans, he completely overlooked the part of the history I covered in my webinar; namely, the Irish became ‘white’ in part by being racist towards the Chinese on the West Coast.


Gordon: Thank you for this exceptional interview and your service that helps all of us.

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