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Asian American Christians confront racism and evangelical 'purity culture' after Atlanta spa shootings

Jaweed Kaleem and Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

Before Robert Aaron Long burst into three Atlanta massage spas and allegedly killed eight people — six of them women of Asian descent — he was a teenager struggling to conform with Evangelical teachings on "purity culture" and abstinence from sex.

The Rev. Chul Yoo knew Long back then. A former minister in Long's church, Yoo understood the pressure and obligation the young in the congregation faced in resisting premarital sex. The Bible wanted them sanctified and saved from the immorality of an increasingly permissive world.

But when news broke last month that Long claimed he killed the women to erase temptation, Yoo, a Southern Baptist preacher and an Asian American, also recognized why a nationwide outcry erupted against an accelerating racism toward people who looked liked him. For Yoo, rigid religion and racial hatred had become entwined in one of the nation's worst mass shootings since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged last year.

Investigators have offered little on the motive in the Georgia deaths. There is no hate crime charge. Statements from law enforcement and those who knew Long point to someone ridden with guilt and anger over his visits to Asian-run spas that he believed went against the word of God.

"He would come back and say, 'I've done it again,'" said Tyler Bayless, 35, who lived with Long at a halfway house in Roswell, Ga., from August 2019 until early 2020, when Long left for HopeQuest, a Christian addiction center. Bayless described Long as "from a very traditional religious background" where "the thoughts that he had about himself were certainly reinforced by the members of his own congregation."

What's described broadly as "purity culture" is well-known in evangelical communities. The teaching persists today in some factions of the church after reaching its height in the 1990s and early 2000s. It looks toward a Thessalonians passage in the Bible as a basis for how unmarried teens and young adults should live: "For this the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor...."

 

Purity pledges and a canon of books and conferences on teenage sexual purity were once so common that they had even made their way into pop culture, with singers Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers once famously donning purity rings.

But for Christians like Yoo, now the pastor of Christ Community Church in Ashton, Md., the meanings behind the spa killings are deeper and more troubling than Long's comments to police about his sins. They are personal for Yoo in ways unlike other mass shootings, crossing lines of race, nationalism, immigrant culture and gender dynamics in conservative Christianity.

"We have a problem in the nation. I think of my own mother when elderly Asian woman are attacked. I look at the former president saying 'kung flu' and see the connections to hatred," said Yoo, 49, who leads a congregation largely made up of second-generation Korean Americans. "And in parts of church communities, we are silent on this racism and misteach what the Bible says. It says sex is only for a married man and woman. It doesn't say that girls are at fault for being a temptation."

The Atlanta killings came after a year of rising hate crimes and harassment against Asian Americans, many tied to verbal taunts blaming them for the COVID-19 pandemic that echoed former President Trump's rants against China. The deaths also happened as Christians of color were in a civil war of faith with white, conservative evangelicals who appeared united with them in core beliefs but divided over politics and how common and pernicious racial prejudice could be.

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