Nikki Toyama-Szeto on Hoping in God Despite Injustice
Individuals and congregations sometimes despair while working for justice. Sometimes they forget that although God invites us to join in justice work, God remains in charge of changing the world. That’s why it’s crucial for justice seekers to stay rooted in Christian community and worship.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto is executive director of Christians for Social Action (CSA). Before coming to CSA in 2017, she served in leadership positions at International Justice Mission, the Urbana Conference, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Toyama-Szeto writes and speaks on justice, leadership, gender issues, and racial justice, and she hosts the podcast 20 Minute Takes. In this edited conversation, she talks about how Christians and communities who work for justice can remain grounded in God.
The late Ron Sider started what is now Christians for Social Action. What do you see as his legacy during these polarized times?
Ron Sider was an extraordinary model. He had a humble, learning posture, yet held strong convictions. In a way that seems almost foreign in today's civic discussions, it was his convictions that made him more open to hearing others’ viewpoints. I wish we had more of this. Ron’s example was both particularly poignant during these times and also timeless. His commitment to simplicity and simple living seems so prophetic in the U.S. today.
You have a degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, so how did you end up in justice work?
Yes, that is an interesting detour. Mechanical engineering was about looking at the world, prototyping solutions, and learning from those. And those are skills that I use in the justice space. My journey was one of many twists and turns. After studying (and working) as an engineer, I went into Christian ministry. But what really captured my heart is God's heart for the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.
This quote often attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt gave form to my Christian conviction about God’s heart for the poor: “Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are.” So what I had was this degree and an ability to analytically look at problems and understand systems. I was in the U.S. as an Asian American woman. I've been trying to do what I can to help the church participate in God's work of justice both locally and globally.
What spiritual practices help you stay hopeful when you see the gap between our broken world and God's dream for God's people and creation?
Hope in God's character, God's words, and God's presence is absolutely key in the justice journey. It is so easy to get caught up in how things look today or the discouragements of today. You begin to think that it's your work, and you become too identified with it. As Christians, we're invited into something God is doing, and we're invited to faithfulness and friendship with God. But too often people feel like they are supposed to change the world. So it’s very helpful to choose practices that help us step away from the work—or in the midst of the work—to create space for right relationships with God, others, and self.
How do you practice stepping away from work or creating space amidst work?
For me, this looks like a regular practice of sabbath, rest, and stepping away from the work. I go on spiritual retreats once or twice a year, meet regularly with a spiritual director (and spiritual mentors), and do regular practices of prayer, examen, and scripture meditation. Once a year, I go on a retreat with folks who are my community. I also try to be mindful in caring for my emotional, spiritual, and physical health.
Finding the practices that work for you can take years. These rhythms that I just described are the fruit of trying out different things over fifteen to twenty years, and they are just a snapshot of today. For different stages of my life, these looked very different. I would encourage folks to try lots of spiritual practices, for a period of time. Nurture relationships that might turn into the community of people you can meet with regularly over many years. Learn to recognize the ways the Holy Spirit is tending to your needs before you even know them.
Can you share a story of how congregational worship helped sustain you during a challenge?
I remember when a group of us was working on an action and intervention related to violent injustice against a particular community. Some of the strategy is very different when you have issues of imminent violence against vulnerable people.
During some of the very tense times and discouraging moments (and in justice work, there are many!), it was an extraordinary grace to be in a worshiping community. Whether it was singing gospel songs of longing, or hearing the scriptures read, or the prayers of the community, . . . those times of worship with the community were helpful.
There were moments when I just didn't have the words. To be in the presence of the community worshiping God and praying felt so uplifting and sustaining. Sometimes being so close to the injustice can make it hard to hope. I find that sometimes folks who have different vantage points or distances from the injustice can pray in different ways that are a gift for the whole community. In the particular instance I just described, the news was not good. Being able to mourn in a community was a precious gift in a difficult time.
Given the polarization in many congregations, what first steps might pastors, worship leaders, or lay leaders take to find a pastoral invitation in a current issue that divides people politically?
The first step is to build empathy so you enter into dialogue or relationship across deep difference. The temptation of the moment is to turn people into "things" or "ideologies" rather than affirming the "made in the image of God-ness" of each person. I think that churches would be well served to cultivate practices of empathetic listening and learning.
Rather than repeating political talking points, pastors and leaders can instead root what they’re saying in God’s imagination. They can ask, “Is there a pastoral invitation in this situation? What does this divisiveness show me and our community about our ache for Jesus and God? How can we be imaginative and generative about what God requires of us in this moment?”
Explore Christians for Social Action’s initiatives, programs, and resources. Read or listen to more about Ron Sider’s legacy. Nikki Toyama-Szeto is a co-editor of the book More than Serving Tea (IVP, 2006), a collection of essays, stories, and poems about the intersection of race, gender, and faith for Asian American women.