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When Victims Aren’t Angels
April 27, 2017

An interview with Pastor Eugene Cho, founder of One Day’s Wages

When we talk about child sex trafficking and try to raise awareness and concern to combat the problem, a current underlying the conversation swirls around notions of worthiness: a conversation about who “deserves” help. It’s an assumption underpinning the delineation between child and adult sex workers, that children are inherently “innocent” and therefore more worthy of saving. It’s an assumption that delineates between those who choose to work in the sex trade, versus those forced or coerced, and demarcates who we judge worthy of our attention—even though there are often hidden, systemic or societal factors that make coercion look like consent.

It is easier to choose to help those clearly worthy: the innocent, the hard-working dreamers just aching for a chance, the morally upright. However, the reality is that people are more complicated than that. Victims, or those at-risk, don’t always make the choices that we might judge best for them. Some students in our organization have dropped out of school, some have gotten pregnant at the tender age of 15, some have pushed away everyone who has tried to help them. Sometimes, people act in ways that are unlikable. It puts us in a position, at times, of having to choose between continuing to support them versus redirecting resources to someone else in need of help. It puts us in a position of trying to decide whether helping them is enabling them in the wrong ways, and of walking a line between showing them love is unconditional even if financial support might not be—when we as human beings may also be frustrated with them and exhausted.

These questions of worthiness not only impact us as an anti-trafficking organization, they infuse larger global processes as well. They have come into sharp relief with the current divisions in American politics and values worldwide. The rising tensions hit at the heart of the question of who is most worthy of attention and help: whether it’s minorities or working class whites, Syrian refugees or the populations who must absorb them.

To help shine a light on these questions, I spoke with Pastor Eugene Cho, who with his wife founded One Day’s Wages. In 2009, he and his wife decided to donate an entire year’s salary ($68,000 at the time) to help fight extreme global poverty. Since then, they have encouraged others (like Jeremy Lin) to share one day’s wages to invest in organizations committed to creating opportunities and empowerment.

Photo credit: Benjamin Edwards

His perspective is incredibly valuable, not only as a pastor and promoter of social justice, but because his words and actions have shown an incredible dedication to being willing to jump into the messy and the complicated, and to work within the complexity to promote good, even when it is hard. As he said about a recent trip to visit The Freedom Story and learn more about sex trafficking, “One of my convictions about development and issues about injustice, issues of trafficking, is it’s very complex, and sometimes I think in the West and sometimes for fundraising purposes we tend to simplify things. I think while it may have some short term gain, in the long run, it diminishes the complexity of the situation, it diminishes the work that folks like you and others are doing.…There’s such an intersectionality about [the] complexities, to focus on the one [while] ignoring the larger picture of the intersections, I think can be detrimental.”

Because of his willingness to examine issues more deeply, I turned to Pastor Eugene Cho to help answer the question:

What happens when victims are not angels?

In his response, his instinct was to deconstruct the notion of worthiness and to reject the idea that we can or should make a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving. As he sees it, making such a distinction is problematic for three reasons:

We all have biases and blind spots

We each have a worldview that helps us see certain things, but may render us blind to others. As Cho explains, “I think there’s always an element of our human judgment or human bias about [who is most deserving]. I think we have to acknowledge it and just name it, that we all have a particular inclination of the line between deserving and undeserving, and if we had to choose between those two things, I think our inclination is to help those that we think are deserving.”

However, there’s a chance we might not be seeing the whole story, and that delving deeper into an issue might cause us to view things differently. “For someone that steals something, we say, ‘Oh that person stole,’ but we’re not taking into account some of the circumstances or structural issues that lead someone into stealing. Here in the United States, when we talk about issues of mass incarceration against black and brown folks, I think that’s a classic example and a good example, where I don’t know of any people that would…justify the action in which someone is led into the incarceration system, but there’s so [many] layers that we need to be mindful of.”

Being on the side of justice requires a certain amount of humility—a recognition that we as individuals might not have the answer, but that collectively, we can get closer to truth. Cho says, “We need a perspective that’s nuanced, that’s deep, that’s rounded, that acknowledges our biases, and acknowledges some of our structural imbalances, if you will. And we need lots of voices. It can’t just be formed by my own perspective that might have its own blind spots.”

Even the undeserving are deserving

Much of Cho’s perspective flows from his identity as a follower of Jesus. He says, “We see Jesus having mercy on the criminal, even when Jesus is being crucified.” Out of his belief, comes a conviction that although we may all have different perspectives, none of it should “altogether condemn someone to eternal judgment or eternal isolation. I think every single human being still deserves an element of human dignity, and compassion, and mercy.” As fellow human beings, we should be willing to extend each other this basic fundamental respect.

There is abundance and we don’t have to choose

Out of fear comes judgment, and as Cho sees it, we should be willing to confront those fears and not let those fears undermine our basic humanity. He advocates calling out the fear for what it is, naming it, and realizing that it causes polarization and a society where we demonize and vilify others for not thinking like we do. “When we operate on that currency,” says Cho, “everything feels like a zero sum game.”

“There’s enough. There’s enough of God’s goodness, there’s enough of mercy, enough grace, there’s enough funding, there’s enough money out there.”

–Eugene Cho

The truth is, it is not a zero sum game. Mercy for one does not have to come at the expense of another. “When it comes to development, the argument is, it’s either global development or it’s in our own backyard. It’s one or the other; you can’t do both.” Cho argues, “We have to reject this thinking. There’s enough. There’s enough of God’s goodness, there’s enough of mercy, enough grace, there’s enough funding, there’s enough money out there. And so even with this question about deserving and undeserving, clearly with the election season a bit more of the rhetoric about the poor, working rural whites came about, and I think we should acknowledge, in many ways, they have been forgotten, but we don’t have to pit one against the other….I want to reject the zero sum mentality that delineates the deserving and the undeserving.”

The Case for More Grace

In the end, perhaps the question shouldn’t be “Who deserves help?” but rather, “In what ways do we all deserve more grace?” For Eugene Cho personally, the path has included expanding the supply of compassion. “The older I get, the more I realize to be alive and to be a human being takes courage. And I’m not even talking about issues of brokenness or injustice. I think just to be alive, to engage in friendship and relationship, to choose to be vulnerable, to choose to pursue passion, and convictions, and commitments. It all takes courage.”

Many thanks to Eugene Cho for his generosity, incredible support, and for taking the time to share his thoughts and perspective with us! We are very grateful for everything he, his wife and family, and his foundation do.

Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.

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