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5 Things Russell Jeung Learned Among Ancestors & Refugees

Categories Theology Ministry

9780310527831From Syrian refugees to Latin American immigrants, Westerners are wrestling with complicated realities of exile in all of its forms.

What does it mean to be the Church for such people, and what can we learn from our refugee neighbors as we love them in the name of Jesus? Russell Jeung helps us wrestle with such questions.

In his spiritual memoir At Home in Exile, Jeung shares the joyful and occasionally harrowing stories of his life in East Oakland’s Murder Dubs neighborhood, and how those experiences with exile and relationships with refugees shaped his faith.

What I’ve learned from my family and gained from my refugee neighbors is a more precious gift. I have come to realize that both now and in the future, each of us is honored as a guest of the King. Even despite our temporary sufferings, in the midst of this fallen world, and in light of our shame, God knows our yearnings. And given his loyal love and his overwhelming peace, all of us—refugees, foreigners, aliens, and strangers—can learn to be at home in exile. (213)

Here are five more things he’s learned living among his ancestors and refuge neighbors.

1) Meaning of Generosity

Late one evening, when Jeung was in the throes of self-pity stuck alone in a ghetto slum, an immigrant from Mexico without documents knocked on his door and proudly displayed a large catch of fish. Initially he refused his neighbor’s generosity, but then accepted it.

As he cleaned the fish, his “self-pity turned to gladness and gratefulness,” for “Orlando’s generosity drew me out of my own obsessions; reciprocating his kindness further brought me outside of myself. He welcomed me into his community.” (22)

2) Meaning of Our Lifestyles

After graduating from Stanford, Jeung spent a year in China teaching English. He and his group of volunteers sought to live the same lifestyle with those they worked. Such solidarity with the poor led him to learn something about the world: “I came to recognize ways that the world was broken and how our lifestyles in the U.S. contribute to the severe inequities faced by the rest of the world.” (29)

He learned another crucial lesson, too:

In China, I learned that I didn’t need everything that others had, and I didn’t have to appear the way others looked. In the simplicity of my lifestyle, I found richness in relationships and a meaningful call. I could live without the material “blessings” that we Americans often pursue. (30)

3) Meaning of Richness

In an effort to escape his community of consumption, he sought to discover the blessings of the poor and live in solidarity with them. Here is what Jeung learned:

Despite these impoverished conditions and the financial struggles of the Oak Park families, our communal life was rich with social capital: bonds of trust and reciprocity. Along with those strong social connections, we had spiritual capital: life that was intimate with God and values that sustained us through struggle. (35)

“We were all poor; we knew we were poor,” one of Jeung’s refugee friends explains, “But we had fun. We had . . . life!” (35)

4) Meaning of Prayer & Scripture

Jeung shares, “the economic context at Oak Park revitalized my walk with God in very concrete ways.” Though his prayer life had become dry and Scripture reading stale, living among his ancestors and refugees “made these spiritual disciplines urgent for survival.” (35)

For instance, the psalmist’s declaration in Psalm 91, “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day,” took on new meaning:

For us at Oak Park, these arrows were actual bullets. … Arrows that fly by do not allude to intangible perils, but represent very present dangers requiring our utmost trust in God. So it is with those living in war zones where refugees must flee or in areas of organized crime in which parents send off their children unaccompanied. (39)

5) Meaning of Gung Ho

Jeung also discovered something when he returned to the misunderstood Chinese word gung ho. While Westerners interpreted it post-WWII to mean individual “enthusiasm” or “eagerness,” there is a much more communal flavor to the word; it means to “work together.”

As Jeung explains, “Individuals don’t seek what they can get out of the group, but instead look to how they can contribute to the group’s overall health and well-being.” (49)

That’s what Christian solidarity with the poor means. It is “similar to this gung ho mentality in our acknowledgment of our common humanity and neediness. Our unity is not based on our humanly constructed connections, but on the Spirit’s life in us and through us as the body of Christ.” (49)


With humor and keen insight, At Home in Exile will help you see how living with exiles will transform your faith. Journey with Jeung as he encounters the heart of God in all of its fullness alongside his ancestors and refugees.

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