Taking Radical Reconciliation Behind Bars
By Max Hunter, Assistant Director and Perkins Center Teaching Fellow
Photo by Amy Phan/Northwest Asian Weekly
When I began working in the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University last summer, it never crossed my mind that I would find myself visiting Tony Ng, one of three co-defendants in the largest homicide in state history: The Wah Mee massacre of 1983, in which 14 people were gunned down, 13 fatally. But I hadn’t met Sherry Danza, a black-belt wielding grandmother living with muscular dystrophy.
Sherry wanted to meet with someone to discuss Ng’s situation. She had been on the same mission for two years.
During our meeting, Sherry shocked me when she compared Ng’s crime to the “stupid” mistakes everyone makes as a result of being young and naive. I responded, “Everyone makes stupid mistakes, Sherry, but 13 people don’t end up dead because of it.” Sherry explained: Ng hadn’t murdered anyone, and the courts found that he had been coerced into participating. I countered that I couldn’t imagine that Ng was naïve about the other defendants’ intentions.
The next day, Sherry sent me an email stating that she was put off by my reaction. She later wrote, “This story is not only about people being killed, but about fear, and out of that fear making such wrong choices. I have made many stupid choices when I was younger. I even followed a man I thought I was in love with and ended up living on the streets in Santa Barbara, California. I had my two daughters with me.” Now a believer, Sherry wanted to make up for her past by helping the incarcerated. I couldn’t resist.
Since then, Sherry has done a number of things to promote reconciliation and eventual restoration. She displayed Tony Ng’s art in various venues. Sherry and I have met with players in Seattle’s International District, and we have done a great deal of research on the case.
Before this article is published, we will have had a breakfast meeting with an aspiring politician who worked on the late King Country Prosecutor Norm Maleng's staff for over 30 years. Furthermore, Ron Chew, an Asian-American community leader, and I will have coffee at the Panama Hotel Teahouse to discuss how this crime affected the vicitms' families and business in the International District. And SPU students will begin to prepare for a meeting with staff from the Wing Luke Museum to discuss how Chinese-American history comes to bear on the case.
On February 25, 2009, Sherry led a team into the McNeil Island Corrections Center. The public information officer facilitated the special visit with Ng. Our motley crew included a retired pastor; a blind Chinese prison chaplain and counselor; an Asian-American reporter; and SPU senior Melissa Warren, an SPU student-leader.
The five of us met on campus, just before dawn and drove south to Steilacoom, where we caught a ferry to the distant facility. It was a cold, blustery morning, so I began to shudder as we stepped off the ferry and turned toward the panoptic watchtower.
I thought “[and] the Lamb of God [has taken] away the sin of the world.” Upon our departure, Tony Ng had gone from being an anonymous prisoner to someone with people who cared about him.
After returning to campus, Sherry has been working to establish a student group called The Truth, Reconciliation, and Restoration Commission. What follows is Sherry’s story about how she decided to try to bring about reconciliation between Tony and the Chinese-American community.
How did you get involved with Tony Ng?
My former martial arts instructor introduced me to Tony Ng; they were cellmates. Before becoming a Christian, I studied martial arts to deal with the emotional and physical effects of my muscular dystrophy. In 1993, I began studying with H. Choe, a martial arts master in Tacoma, Washington. Seven years later, he was charged with second-degree murder and signed a plea agreement for first-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison, during which time he and Tony Ng became good friends.
That’s interesting! Can we take a step back? How did you become a Christian?
While helping Choe during his incarceration, I began experience more personal and physical challenges. Before this time, martial arts had served as a form of religion for me. Choe, who was a church attendee suggested I visit Agape Presbyterian Church in Federal Way, Washington. I didn’t totally embrace my newfound Christian community, but it was a start.
Choe received an early release from prison in eight years, but he and Tony had developed a close friendship while locked up in McNeil Island Corrections Center. They were cellmates in a 5' x 8' space, a little bigger than a bathroom. The two guys spent lots of time together. Choe had become more serious about his faith walk. He convinced Ng to attend worship services and a four-day retreat put on by Kairos Ministry. These experiences created a common bond between them. Then in 2004, I met Ng during the Asian Pacific Cultural Event on in the facility on McNeil Island. At that time, I had no idea about his involvement in the Wah Mee massacre. After Choe’s release, he thought I could work on Ng’s case, too.
When did you learn about the Wah Mee massacre?
I talked to Tony Ng’s attorney John Muenster of Muenster & Koenig, and also researched the case on my own.
What convinced you to continue on this journey to help him with his court case and see him restored to society?
I was deepening my faith and finding new ways to serve. Teaching Sunday school to first graders — who didn’t want to listen me — was unfulfilling. After going through so many health and family issues, I didn’t want to give in to my illness and despair, and felt a yearning to do something with my life.
When talking to Ng, I recognized that we had similar issues. Ng had a difficult time believing that God had forgiven him and that he was a real Christian. But after his conviction, he had found ways to move on with his life. He learned a trade. His college instructors and the inmates really liked him. But without self-forgiveness and forgiveness on the part of the Chinese community, he was unable to make amends and fulfill his purpose. I was trapped in a body that was betraying me; he was imprisoned on an island and ostracized from the Chinese community. Beyond that, I didn’t know where things were going with Ng. It doesn’t seem rational, but I just felt that God was moving me to help Ng.
What did hope you to accomplish?
I wanted to help Tony Ng! I would like to see him released when he appears before the parole board in 2009. But Tony will not go before the parole board until 2013. He could make a big difference outside McNeil Island Corrections Center.
Ng has done his time for the crime that he committed: burglary and assault. The parole board continues to treat him like a murderer. The judge and the jury convicted Ng during his trial. He has been doing his time, but he is still being tried every time he comes up before the parole board.
Seeing that Tony was co-defendant in the worse homicide in Washington state history, how did you think that you could help him?
After seeing Choe taken advantage of by a slick lawyer, I thought I could help Ng navigate the same sharky legal waters. The legal system provides a number of cultural and language barriers for immigrants; Choe had made a plea that wasn’t in his best interest. Then imprisonment created a barrier between him and the Korean-American community. People began to abandon him, but he eventually started reading and studying the Bible. Through this suffering, he began to draw close to God and realized a need to change.
In 1998, my twin sister’s 28-year old son committed suicide because he was facing 11 years in prison. He lived on the streets for many years, addicted to drugs, in and out of county jail. In the end, my nephew couldn’t face doing hard time, so he took his own life. Being in a body that no longer allowed me to do the things that I wanted to do, such as ballroom dancing, made me feel like I was imprisoned too. My personal issues and ministerial goals — success with Choe’s case, my nephew’s death, and own personal issues — shaped my interest in Ng.
Although Jesus commanded believers to visit prisoners, most Christians have an aversion for prison ministry. Why do you think prison ministry is important?
Working in prison ministry gives me an opportunity to give back to a vulnerable population that for the most part has been abandoned. Many inmates are uneducated and lack the skills needed to negotiate everyday life. During incarceration these deficits are amplified and expose their inability to deal with crisis.
What have you learned from your involvement in prison ministry?
No matter what someone does for prisoners, they are so appreciative. In one Bible study, a 68-year-old man tearfully said how much he appreciated our visits. He hadn’t had a visitor in six months.
Another man had a bad stuttering problem. He refused to read the Bible aloud in class, but after several services, felt safe enough to read a few sentences out loud.
God has given me this strength to go into this situation where a lot of people would never go, but God wants us to minister to the poor and prisoners, and I feel he leads me in this direction. While my desire to help others comes from God, I believe martial arts training gives me the physical and emotional confidence to enter into these prisons without fear.
Have you defined the critical issues pertaining to what you are calling “truth, reconciliation, and restoration” in the case?
The cores issues revolve around Ng, the courts, the media, and the Chinese-American community.
He has begun to fully grasp the impact of his crime on society and take responsibility for it. The courts haven’t dealt with Ng based on the legal criteria outlined for his charges. As a result, he has been doing his time, but the parole board tries him whenever he comes up before them.
From the beginning, the mainstream media sensationalized the homicides. On a yearly basis, on its anniversary, the local media describes the crime in mythical and sensationalized terms. Consequently, the families and the Chinese-American community continue to be stigmatized. This reporting draws on images that neglect the heterogeneity of the Chinese-American experience.
The justice system calls for lawbreakers to make restitution for their crimes. But the Wah Mee massacre stigmatized the Chinese community. This social taint makes it a taboo topic to broach in polite company. When it is allowed for discussion, Ng is completely demonized. Today, I’m driven by a higher notion of justice based on my Christian worldview.
Do you have anything else that you want to say?
I have been fighting all my life in one way or another. I was told by doctors I was going to be in a wheelchair because muscular dystrophy is a progressive disease and there was nothing they could do for me. From the age of 17, I watched and felt my limbs deteriorate from muscle atrophy; the logical conclusion was that they were right.
But God told me I had something more to do, and he gave me the strength that I needed to fight. I started to exercise, pray, and listen to motivation tapes, and that effort stopped the muscle deterioration. I started to get stronger. Some years later, after I started doing martial arts, I developed breast cancer. I am convinced that God healed me.
I have spent a great deal of my life trying to be a better person because of conflict with my family and a low self-esteem. I honestly feel God led me to Seattle Pacific University to get a better education to do the work he wants me to do with prison inmates.
It seems to me at this point in my life, the only thing I am meant to do is reconciliation. I am not sure how that will develop, but I believe I can make a difference with the diverse populations in prison.
I don’t believe all prisoners should be released, but I think if people do their time and they honestly try to make a change, they deserve a second chance — and even a third or fourth chance.
Max Hunter joined the staff of the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University in 2008.
While at Harvard University, he studied in the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Medical School.
has an A.M., Ed.M., and the certificate in bioethics from Harvard Medical School.
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