SUNSET PARK — A few days before the start of Lent, Father Vincentius Do assessed the COVID-19 pandemic’s assault on Chinese members of St. Agatha’s Parish.
“The report is bleak,” the pastor said, “The Asian community seemed to be spared in the first wave, but hit hard in the second wave.”
Sparse attendance marked the parish’s Chinese New Year Mass on Feb. 14. The event usually draws about 200 parishioners, but only 75 attended this year, Father Do said. About the same number attended this year’s Ash Wednesday Mass in Chinese, with Father Peter Bi as the celebrant.
However, Father Do added that there is another toll.
“People are still blaming Asians in general (for the pandemic),” he lamented, “not just Chinese.”
The blame has evolved across the U.S. with racial slurs and actual violence with some attackers blaming the virus on victims. Three Asian women were attacked on Tuesday in Manhattan, Harlem, and Queens, although it was unclear if their race was a factor in the assaults.
Father Do recalled how at the start of last year’s Lenten season, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio urged solidarity for the Asian community in the Diocese of Brooklyn and beyond.
“It’s always a good idea to bring attention to the bishop’s letter,” Father Do said.
I wanted to be on their side
On the day before Ash Wednesday, Bishop DiMarzio reflected on his appeal for solidarity one year ago.
The COVID-19 outbreak from Wuhan, China, a few months earlier in 2020, had not yet been declared a “pandemic” but Asian Americans already faced retribution from people.
“It was at the time of the Lunar New Year, and I wanted to be on their side,” Bishop DiMarzio said.
He initially made the appeal in his weekly column, “Put Out Into the Deep,” that appears in The Tablet. Printed copies were distributed at St. Agatha’s during last year’s Ash Wednesday Mass, where the bishop was the celebrant. The letter reminded everyone in the diocese that Lent is “a time when we learn to die to ourselves through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, while at the same time preparing ourselves for our eventual death.”
In 2020, the start of Lent coincided with “a time that we must be very concerned about the health of nations throughout the world,” the bishop said.
“Unfortunately, we see people looking to blame others,” Bishop DiMarzio wrote. “As we begin Lent, we should reflect on how we view our neighbors.”
A few weeks later, however, verbal and violent attacks on Asian people accelerated across the U.S. Those attacked included Chinese, Thai, Filipino, Koreans, and Vietnamese people.
Shunned, beaten, stabbed, and insulted
Most recently, on Feb. 18, New York City police announced on Twitter the arrest of a man suspected in the assault of a Chinese woman two days earlier. She was shoved into a row of news racks on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, Queens, according to police.
Also, police investigated two separate Feb. 16 attacks on Asian women in the city’s subway system. The first happened at 6:50 a.m. when a 68-year-old woman was punched while standing on an A-train platform in Harlem. About six hours later, another woman, 71, was hit while on the A/C/E train platform in midtown.
The group Stop AAPI Hate reported that it had tracked 2,808 anti-Asian hate incidents in the U.S. from March 19 to Dec. 31, 2020. According to a United Nations report, more than half of those incidents happened during the first two months of the pandemic.
In 2020, the New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Unit investigated 27 incidents against Asian people in all five boroughs and made 21 arrests, according to data from the unit. NYPD Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison added, “we also know there may be hate crimes that are not being reported.” Several cases have topped local newscasts:
- In late March, a 51-year-old Chinese woman was on a city bus in the Bronx when four young women berated her with coronavirus accusations. The haranguing turned violent when the victim was cut on the top of her head after being struck with an umbrella. Arrests ensued on charges of hate-crime assaults and harassment.
- An 89-year-old Chinese woman on July 14 strolled near her home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, when two attackers, at first believed to be adults, slapped her face and tried to set her shirt on fire. The shirt was scorched, but the woman was not seriously hurt. In September, police arrested two 13-year-old boys in the case on charges of third-degree assault.
- On Feb. 3 of this year, a 61-year-old Filipino man commuting on the L train in Manhattan was slashed with a boxcutter beneath his nose and from ear to ear. No arrests were yet reported by mid-month.
But not all Anti-Asian cruelty is violent. Pew Research Center, for example, reports that 31 percent of Asian adults in the U.S. say they have endured slurs or jokes during the pandemic because of their race. The group Asian Americans Advancing Justice has a website (standagainsthatred.org/stories) that records such incidents.
“People misplace their anger sometimes, looking for scapegoats,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “Nobody should stand alone when they are being prejudiced or they are being scapegoated.”
What’s a better way?
Yan Pan, a mother of two, came to the U.S. 20 years ago from China. She emerged from St. Agatha’s 2021 Ash Wednesday service concerned about her parish but optimistic too.
“Blaming, it will not help with anything,” she said. “It’s not about the problem; it’s about the solution.”
Pan said St. Agatha’s parishioners survived the pandemic’s first year with prayers on their lips and faith in their hearts. She prays for guidance to learn how she can help.
“This year, I went searching for the chance to donate,” she said. “It’s because I see the difficulty for everyone. But because of prayer and faith, I’m able to see what’s in my hand.
“You always have the good side and a bad side. But that’s the biggest difference as a Catholic … You have to cling onto it,” she added. “If you don’t know how to cling onto your faith at this time, when are you going to cling onto it?”