Standing Up for a Forgotten People
I will never forget the moment when my definition of the word “neighbor” was expanded. Dr. Bill Clark, an anthropologist by education and peacemaker by vocation, began sharing about the pressing humanitarian crisis occurring in Xinjiang, the Northwest region of China—also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). As Dr. Clark spoke, he called me out of the ignorance I was unaware I possessed; he spoke in a way which only those deeply connected to the pain of others can. It was there in that classroom that I learned of the 1.8 million Uyghur and other Turkic minorities suffering intense persecution as they are locked in concentration camps, forced into labor, and ultimately cleansed of their ethnic identity by a campaign of cultural genocide.
It was because of my concern for justice issues that I chose to pursue my master’s degree in International Community Development. I already hoped to work with those rejected, forgotten, and even mocked by society. I wanted to love my neighbor. But until that day, I had thought of my neighbors as those in close physical proximity to me. I had not realized the implications of globalization for my duty to love my neighbor. I had not fully considered the claims of those whom my daily life touches, even at a distance. I now realize that my neighbor is also the migrant worker who picked my vegetables in California, and the Uyghur mom in a forced labor camp who sewed the clothes I bought at Nike.
As a Christian, it is hard not to see the comparison between Christ the suffering servant—who was rejected by contemporaries, forgotten in the grave, and mocked in His death—and those who suffer injustice today. Hearing about the Uyghurs and other Turkic people suffering terrible atrocities reminds me of my Savior who experienced the same. I find it ironic and revealing that today the experiences of a predominantly Muslim people group resemble Christ’s experiences more than my own experiences do, as an evangelical Christian. Yet, it seems that many in the Christian world have almost entirely forgotten their existence, whether by choice or by ignorance. In my case, it was ignorance: it was not until I was sitting in that class with Dr. Clark that I learned about the Uyghurs and their plight.
Through my classes, I began to experience personal transformation. I began to understand in new ways that Christ, who suffered deep injustice and told His followers that whatever they do for “the least of these” they do for him, called His followers to not only love their next-door neighbor, but also the neighbors around the world—and even their enemies. I knew from experience that many Christians do their best to practice these commands—they love “the least of these” they encounter on the street, and love their neighbor next door. However, many fail to extend their love to people outside of the context of their own community and culture. Thus, I began to ask myself: “How might American evangelicals begin to actionably love our Uyghur neighbors?” I chose to write my thesis on the topic “American Evangelicalism and the Uyghur Crisis: A Call to Interfaith Advocacy” shortly after asking that question and meeting with Dr. Clark for coffee. One of the most transformative topics I learned about during my master’s program was globalization, and more specifically, the global supply chain. The books I read, lectures I attended, and research I conducted opened my eyes to the realities of how my everyday purchasing habits and consumption impact the lives of others all around the world. Through my thesis, I sought to offer some approaches that American Christians could take to love neighbors all over the world through their daily shopping choices. We all make contributions (good or bad) to humanitarian crises around the world through our shopping habits—most of the time without knowing it. Secondarily, my thesis also focused on overcoming misconceptions about interfaith work. I noted that historically, the Christian community was slow to respond to crises impacting those who practiced different faiths. Thus, my research included helping Christians overcome religious apprehensions about standing against injustices committed against those of other faiths.
As I researched my thesis, I had the opportunity to be transformed by living with Uyghur men my age in Washington, D.C. Like me, these men were graduate students; unlike me, they had been orphaned in the United States without contact from family for three years because of the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign of cultural genocide against the Uyghur people. We formed life-long friendships, and I learned about each of my roommates’ life stories--all of which were marked by tragic pain and losses which are unrecognized (or unheard of) in the American evangelical community. It broke my heart to hear my friends’ stories, but to imagine that there were millions more stories exactly like theirs frightened me. Their stories compel me to act.
The conclusion of my thesis learnings was an event titled “Cultural Genocide and the Uyghur People: A Call to Action.” I invited some of the Uyghur friends I met during my fieldwork to speak about the crisis and to call Christians to action. The event was a powerful statement that those of different faiths can work together to seek justice, and that those living far from their “neighbors” in Northwest China can make shopping decisions today to help end oppression.
Of course, the reality of justice work is that it is ongoing. On January 28th at 7:00pm, I am hosting a similar event to discuss the ongoing crisis alongside of Dr. Clark. The event will feature a Uyghur speaker who will share about the personal impact the crisis has had on them and include actionable steps. To join us, visit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/cultural-genocide-and-the-uyghur-people-a-call-to-action-tickets-133267008209
While there is no end in sight to the Uyghur crisis, progress has been made and legislation has been passed. Now it is time for a grassroots movement to rise up and demand justice for a people group facing one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. I am convinced that Christians should be at the forefront. I continue to work with my Uyghur friends to alert the Church, and the public, to the needs in the Uyghur community. I hope you will join me in standing up for a forgotten people.
Josh Blay was born in Prince George, Canada but considers his home to be Woodinville, Washington. He currently works as an Immigration Specialist for Seattle-based immigration start-up Legalpad where he works on visas and green cards for start-up founders. Since earning his Master’s in International Community Development from Northwest University in May, he spends his time with his wife figuring out what it means to be a Christ-follower in the midst of a global pandemic. He also loves meeting new people, hiking, and traveling to places off the beaten path.