By Stan Friedman
SEATTLE, WA (September 3, 2014) — Eugene Cho formed the nonprofit One Day’s Wages in 2009 to focus attention on extreme global poverty. So far it has raised more than $2.2 million to be distributed through multiple nonprofit organizations.
It also has brought attention to Cho himself. The pastor of Quest Church, an Evangelical Covenant Church congregation, has been featured in numerous media outlets including the New York Times, his blog is widely read, and he has worked alongside top national political and religious leaders.
But Cho says the title of his first book reflects how he views himself—Overrated. In the book, he says, “I like to talk about changing the world, but I don’t really like to do what it takes.”
He also cautions that his contemporaries are in grave danger of becoming “the most overrated generation in history” if they don’t do more with the resources they have to help those who have none.
Covenant News Service spoke with Cho recently.
CNS: What prompted you to write this book?
Cho: It’s a book I’ve always wanted to write. It was a matter of when and not so much if. The invitation to write had been there for some time, but I’ve always said no to publishers because I wanted to wait until I felt like I had more depth, with a stronger sense of who I am and understanding of my experience. I just felt like the time was now.
CNS: Why do you include so much self-deprecating humor? That’s not usually associated with books about justice.
Cho: I’m trying to be as honest as I am, and I don’t think everyone gets my humor. This is me, it’s me trying to be honest. Whether or not people see it as funny or not, it speaks to my personality to be faithful to that.
CNS: How do you keep from believing and getting caught up in your own press?
Cho: It’s a thought I really wrestled with. It’s kind of ironic that I’m talking about these things, about being overrated, and that I’m writing this book.
The first thing is to be aware of the possibility of arrogance, the possibility of hubris.
One of the other reasons I didn’t write the book for a long time was I didn’t feel like I had the maturity to deal with what could go along with that.
I feel that being part of a local church that knows me, where people have seen me at my worst, they know all my flaws and blemishes—or most of them anyway—keeps me grounded. My family is at a place where out of love and care we are willing to call one another out as well.
There have been a lot of things that I have accomplished over the years—being mentioned in the New York Times or meeting the President of the United States—but I know that I’m really nothing apart from the gospel. While I’m certainly not above pride, it’s a daily reminder that I have to engage in.
CNS: You’ve accomplished more than what a lot of people hope to ever accomplish in their lives, yet you say you are overrated and prefer to talk about justice than do it yourself. If you feel like you are overrated, then what expectations of other people do you have?
Cho: I think part of this is that most of the lessons I’ve learned aren’t lessons I’ve learned just recently but have been accumulated over the years. A lot of this isn’t just stuff I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s stuff that I’ve been thinking about for years. It’s stuff I’ve been wrestling with for years. I can honestly say that I feel grateful and encouraged by what the Holy Spirit has done in my life. It’s part of the journey where you realize that we in the world can be so attracted to the glorious or supernatural—not to say that my story is supernatural, not by any means—but there’s something about doing the small things where we’re not receiving praise and adoration
The lesson that I’ve learned is that God hasn’t called us to be glamorous, famous, or spectacular. God has called us to be faithful. I hope that people walk away encouraged to do justice, but I also hope that they are asking, “How am I doing justice? How am I doing it in my community? How is my church doing it?” I think the how really matters, especially when you realize that justice isn’t just something that we do, but you realize that God is impacting us and transforming us. That’s part of why doing justice is such a humbling process. You learn so much more when you’re exposed to your own faults and frailties, and this is where I think God’s grace is so amazing, and a community of grace is so important.
CNS: So doing justice is ultimately a matter of who we are?
Cho: Amen. When we’re pursuing justice and seeking to do justice, not only are you doing something, but it’s also a process of being.
The reason we do justice when it’s all said and done is because our God is just. Justice is part of his character. Maybe I knew that but I didn’t really know it, but I’ve been more deeply discovering it. It wouldn’t be right to extract love and grace and holiness out of God’s character. I don’t know what happened over the years and centuries, but it seems like we’ve extracted justice out of God’s character.
CNS: There have been some criticisms of the ALS challenge that it really doesn’t ask people to sacrifice, and that the participants are just jumping on a bandwagon. The same criticism has been leveled about people just clicking on Facebook “like” buttons. What about people who seem to just be jumping on bandwagons, regardless of the issue?
Cho: I would say, “Great! Get on board.” I think people start their journeys in different ways. My hope is that it’s not just a one-time thing. The engagement of seeking justice to be a disciple is not about writing a check or a one-time Facebook post. Doing justice is part of discipleship. I think there needs to be grace. One response I don’t want people to take away from reading this book is that Eugene is trying to slam people.
I tell people this isn’t a justice book; it’s actually a discipleship book. It wouldn’t be fair to justice to extract it out and compartmentalize it. It’s part of our discipleship and worship.
CNS: Who is this book is for? Is it for people who haven’t thought much about doing justice, or is it more “preaching to the choir” but getting the choir to really sing?
Cho: I didn’t particularly have an audience in mind. I just wrote the book and feel like I have a fairly good pulse of engaging our culture both in the church and in the larger culture as well. Clearly this is a Christian book. It talks about Jesus and references Scriptures throughout. But this message and the pursuit of justice isn’t monopolized by Christians, so I hope there are non-Christians who will read this. While they might not agree with everything, there might be some nuggets that will encourage them to do justice.
I try really hard to not say this book is just for millennials, or this book is just for justice people, or this book is for so and so. I really tried to make it as general as possible. I think we’re living in a world where people want to do good. I want to celebrate that. I hope this will be an encouragement to people.
There is no graduating from this.
I have to wrestle through these things on a daily and weekly basis about living into these conditions and being faithful to the things the Holy Spirit reveals to me.
CNS: Some people want a specific standard of what they’re supposed to give. You mention in the book what a life-changing moment it was for you when you learned that a teacher in a Myanmar school makes $40 a year. How do you decide when it is OK to spend $10 on something you want and when you should forego that and give the money away?
Cho: I think there are things we are committed to. My wife and I are committed to tithing, but we also see that as something from which we can grow on a daily basis. Certainly you want it to be a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit. We believe in the power and the reality of the Holy Spirit so we seek to be open and discerning, so it’s not just a one-time decision.
It’s a decision we have to make every day, but I have to be honest that I don’t always make that decision. But I think it would be too easy, too dangerous—too lazy actually—to make it a static decision and not something much more dynamic on a daily basis, or choosing to follow Jesus and believe that he is in us. Sometimes I feel like we are doing that well, and sometimes I don’t do it well.
CNS: You write in the book about putting up a notice on Craig’s List that you were renting out your house for several months so that you could raise the extra money you needed to meet your goal of giving it away, but that you didn’t tell your wife about it ahead of time. Most people would see that as an obviously bad idea.
Cho: I like to joke with people that I inspired her to be a marriage and family therapist, which she is now.
While my decision to put that ad on Craig’s List was idiotic and something that people should not do, what I do want to make clear is that from the beginning, it was a family conviction. It was us. I never had to sell this to her. The Holy Spirit convicted both of us. If anything, she was on board from the get-go. In fact, it took me several years before I said I want to do this and was willing to obey while she was on board from the beginning.
I don’t think I understood how hard this process would be. And I think that’s a grace, because if we did know, I think we’d all get scared and run the other way.