In the past three years, two bullets shattered the front window, a teenager was shot just outside and the downstairs neighbor was mugged. Before that, a woman’s lifeless body was unearthed from a trash bin less than a block away.
But that part of East Oakland – where the neighborhoods of Fruitvale and San Antonio meet – is where Dr. Joan Jie-eun Jeung has chosen to live with her husband and their 6-year-old son.
“I just can’t imagine living anywhere else,” the 39-year-old pediatrician said. “Once I became a mother, I struggled with it. … We know we’re putting our son in harm’s way and wonder if he’ll forgive us. … Some members of our church told us they’d be out of here if they could, and they don’t understand why we choose to live here.”
Their home is where 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and barely 50 percent of the adults graduated from high school. There are people who only go outside in daylight. But with more than 40 percent of the residents foreign-born, the community has African American, Latino and Tongan churches, Southeast-Asian American shopkeepers and European Americans.
UCSF med school grad
She graduated from UCSF School of Medicine, earned a master’s degree in social medicine from UC Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard. He received his education at Harvard, Stanford and UC Berkeley. But the last thing they want for their son is a sense of entitlement.
“You can tell your kid about equity, but we’re trying to model it,” said Russell Jeung, who is Chinese American. “With my education, I was brought up to be competitive, not compassionate. I value compassion more and that’s what I want for Mathew, who will go to public schools.
“Suburbia, where you mostly live for yourself, is more ‘dangerous’ than living here in community. Raising families together – cooking for each other and caring for each other’s kids – is ‘safer.’ And you don’t need to hire babysitters!”
The Jeungs are joined by other educated and employed parents who helped establish New Hope Covenant Church. A storefront church, it has activist roots in the neighborhood dating back to the 1980s.
“We’re all asking what it means to be a good neighbor,” said Joan Jeung, who is Korean American. “If you want to say you care about community, you have to share in the good and the bad.”
Good happens for them every Sunday morning, where an average of 45 adults and children come together in a large meeting room at the offices of the Youth Employment Partnership on International Boulevard.
The congregation has included social workers, high school dropouts, Ph.D.s, ex-gangsters, teachers, refugees from Southeast Asia and Latin America, and “refugees from the suburbs” who, as Joan Jeung puts it, “are looking for a more radical and meaningful life.”
Unable to find an evangelical Christian service like it, many of them drive there from other neighborhoods.
There is Dan Schmitz, 48, lay pastor of the congregation, who remembers calling his hometown – Burlingame – “Boringame” because “nothing happened there,” he said. His father was an engineer at Bechtel Corp. They were Catholics, he said, “who talked about the poor when we went to church but there weren’t any poor people around.”
Getting apartments fixed
There is Carlos Flores, 39, a health educator at nearby La Clinica de la Raza, who grew up in “a somewhat privileged home” in San Jose and graduated from UC Berkeley with a political science degree.
Among others, including two Jeung house roommates who work in public-interest law and a Christian ministry, there is a commitment to this neighborhood that spans 15 years. It started with Schmitz, Russell Jeung and Flores living with Cambodian and Latino families in the Fruitvale Oak Park Apartments, where the landlord ignored raw sewage floods, leaky roofs, infestations of vermin and mold.
With a slew of attorneys, the tenants organized the others to file a lawsuit. In 2000, 45 resident families shared a $1 million settlement. The apartments were rebuilt, and the church transformed the crack house facing the apartments into a preschool.
Schmitz was the first non-refugee resident and only white person. Then came Russell Jeung, who moved into the apartments to study Asian youth gangs for his master’s thesis in sociology and helped organize tenants against drug dealers. Joan Jie-eun moved into the neighborhood in 1999 and joined them tutoring, mentoring, cooking, praying and founding New Hope.
At first, Tracy Saephan viewed her neighbors as outsiders. Born in Thailand, she was raised and lived in the East Oakland neighborhood most of her life.
“I was young when I met them but I wondered what they wanted, what their ongoing commitment was,” said Saephan, 33. “Long term was five years to me, and I wondered if they were in it for the short term. A lot of us who grew up in the neighborhood were exposed to things to make money, like gangs, prostitution, drugs – easy stuff. For me, it was OK to have sex before marriage, not like what we want now for our children. We were surviving, not knowing what doing ‘the right thing’ was.
“It didn’t take that long to see that this group came in full of mercy for the community,” she said. “You could feel their generosity. We started meeting at individuals’ homes. Maybe there were 10 or 12 of us. They had the heart to bring us together. In time, there was such a big transformation with the Oak Park Apartments that it was clear they weren’t outsiders any more. They wanted to be with us. They were gifts to the neighborhood.”
Today, Saephan lives with her husband and three children near Dimond Park in East Oakland’s foothills. She sells real estate and her husband runs a company that sweeps parking lots at night. On the church board of directors, she prays with her old neighborhood friends every Sunday.
Accepted as neighbors
Neighbors who are neither religious nor members of New Hope Covenant Church also accepted the Jeungs and their educated friends, according to Tane Oubkeo. Born in Thailand, the unemployed auto mechanic lived in the neighborhood since he was 5.
“After people experienced the incredible change with Oak Park, they accepted them as neighbors,” said Oubkeo, 28. “Before Russell and Joan, you wouldn’t see white people walking around and saying ‘Hi’ to neighbors. Today, it’s more of a reality. There’s a block party every year, and you can tell that that the founders of New Hope are neighbors, like everyone else.”
Before he met his wife and started attending the church, Oubkeo said, he was a teenager involved in “drug dealing, gang banging, robbing, stealing cars.” He could have lost his life “maybe five or six times,” he said. He witnessed a friend get shot in the head.
These days, Oubkeo lives near Lake Merritt with his wife, Keo Kong, who grew up in the Oak Park Apartments, and their infant son and 5-year-old daughter. They visit her parents often in the neighborhood and attend the church every Sunday.
The Christian activists turn the tables on the stereotype that configures an Ivy League education into a formula for fame and fortune. They see East Oakland differently from outsiders, many of whom pigeonhole it as a place where people care little about improving their lives.
The doctor in their midst explains “the real story” with one word that Americans of every class understand: stress.
Stress from lack of resources. Stress from broken families. Stress from unemployment. Stress from having to work multiple jobs. Stress from single parenthood, domestic violence, substance abuse, bankruptcy, poverty. Depression.
“Every parent wants the best for their child and it’s no different in this neighborhood,” Joan Jeung said. “Today, parents in better neighborhoods give their own money to schools. Here, parents don’t have enough money to do that. When this neighborhood fundraises, who gives? Others in the same situation.”
The physician spans two worlds in East Oakland. Besides being a member of her community, she cares for Asian immigrants and refugees at the Asian Health Services’ new clinic near Lake Merritt.
Mental health issues are Joan Jeung’s focus when she speaks about what her neighborhood needs besides resources as basic as a playground.
“I’ve seen plenty of depressed and suicidal youth. I even remember an 8-year-old who made suicidal gestures with a kitchen knife. In clinic as well as in community, I’ve seen plenty of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illness, which clearly affects parenting.”
She believes most of all in “wellness” – prevention before treatment becomes necessary. Clinics and schools should provide free, preventive programs such as anger and stress management, communication and conflict resolution, parenting, and nutrition and fitness.
“We need a system that creates preventive, interdisciplinary care that meets the needs of the whole person and family, not just diseases in isolation,” she said. “We need a system that doesn’t create long-term dependency but cultivates the capacity of people to care for themselves and others.”
You don’t have to live in East Oakland to understand this, she said. But it helps.