Interview with Life Group Leaders CJ and Valerie Alviar

Dream of Destiny sits down with CJ and Valerie Alviar to discuss their upbringing in the Philippines, their move to America, their personal experiences regarding race and culture, and the influence of Life Groups on racial unity in the Church.

1. Tell us how the two of you got together.

CJ: We met in 1994. I practically knew everyone in Valerie's family. We started hanging out with the same crowd in the same neighborhood. We were both in college, too, so, I think it was just God's timing that put us together.

Valerie: We met while we were in college at De La Salle University in the Philippines. CJ was my first boyfriend, and I was his first girlfriend. I graduated with a degree in psychology, and CJ graduated with a degree in civil engineering. We eventually got married in 1997.  

2. How were you both raised on the issues of race? Who or what formed your opinions on this subject?

CJ: We grew up in the Philippines, and in our country, people are divided according to their social status or class — upper, middle, and those at the poverty level. The funny thing is that we didn't grow up understanding the issues concerning race because, in the Philippines, social status is determined before you were born, so that's our way of racism. 

Valerie: In the Philippines, our history is that we were enslaved for a time by both the Spaniards and Japanese, so in terms of racism, we are very familiar with it because of our history. However, today, people's opinions rest on whether someone's family is either rich or poor. In our country, if you can't afford to go to college, then you most likely will not be able to find good work at all. Racial discrimination in the Philippines is much different than here in America. After slavery ended and the ones who enslaved us left, the Filipinos said, "Okay, that's it. Now we're free.” That's different than what happened here in America. After slavery ended, Blacks and whites still had to mingle, and so the effects of that are still fresh in many ways. And yet, I've traveled to Japan and Spain, and I still feel some of the same prejudices.


3. What aspect of your racial and ethnic identity as a Filipino makes you the proudest?

CJ/Valerie: Well, we are raised to respect our elders. For example, if somebody is older than you by five or ten years, you call them Tito or Tita, which means aunt or uncle, even if they are a family friend. We acknowledge our elders when we see them — we want to bless them by taking their hand. We put their hand on our forehead as a sign of respect. That's one thing I've never outgrown even though I've lived here in the United States for more than 20 years. [Valerie and CJ demonstrate]

4. In what ways does being Filipino impact your personal or professional life, if at all?

Valerie: I think it has impacted my personal life somewhat because, at times, I believe people lump all Filipinos together. For example, I am a nurse. In my professional life, I don't see any discrimination because where I work, most of the nurses in my field are Filipinos. However, I will say that when we first moved here, the first company that I worked for would ask other Filipinos and me on the job to do things out of the scope of our work, like peel their fruit and stuff like that. I believe they still had that mentality of, "You came from a Third World country, so I'm going to treat you that way."

Also, they would make comments like, "Is that your home?" Or if we would wear something with a brand name, they would say, "Oh, you can afford that?" It's almost like they felt that we had no right to wear the clothes we bought. It was difficult for me because I thought that we left this mindset behind us when we came to America. I expected everyone here would be on the same footing. I wanted to believe that we could buy quality things if we all worked hard, just like everyone else here, unlike the Philippines.  

CJ: Sometimes in my professional life, I've found that sometimes when Caucasians see a particular ethnic group all talking together in a work environment (like all Hispanics or African-Americans), they start thinking, "What's going on? What are you all talking about together?“

Valerie: Yes.

CJ: When I first came here to America, I struggled in the beginning because I had a blue-collar job; I cleaned parking lots. That brought me shame because, in the Philippines, a job like that is considered a servant position. I also had an accent, and it gave me an inferiority complex. I could speak English, but at times my words sounded a little different. I tried to talk slang, but that made it worse because it looked like I was trying too hard. These were two of the struggles I had when I first came to America. However, although it was hard, I realize the experience made me be a better person.

5. In your family, how have you dealt with the issues of race, especially with your children?

Valerie: Because our children grew up here, they learned a lot about race from school and playing sports. Our son plays basketball, and it's a very diverse group, so early on, our kids were exposed to different races. Sometimes the African-American parents of our teammates would make comments to us that we didn't understand at the time. They would say, "If my son drives down the street, you better believe he's going to get pulled over by the police." When George Floyd's death happened, what they said became real. 

And then, that's when we decided to ask our kids, "How do you feel about what happened?” Up until then, we never really paid attention to race relations. Their sports teams were always diverse, and our kids were the minority most of the time. But my son made a good point when he said, "You know, mom, we don't really see color because we are a team, but I guess the world still does." Later, my kids were exposed to racism when they heard other people say that the Asians were responsible for the coronavirus. That's when my kids were like, "Oh, now we're being looked at."

CJ: Here at Shepherd Church, we live in a bubble, but once you leave Shepherd, then that's when you realize the world is much different. Our kids are so naïve about life. They grew up here at church. At one time, I was coaching here at Shepherd Sports, where there are hundreds of kids and many different races. It never really got in the way of any of our conversations with each other or friendships. But once kids grow older, it's a different story. 

Our kids are Filipino and not biracial, and it's still hard for them to understand where they belong. They're brown on the outside but white on the inside — like a coconut. But when they go to the Philippines, they don't fit in there either. When we went back on vacation, they felt they were treated differently because the other kids didn't want to talk to them. 

Valerie: They were intimidated by our kids, I guess, because the Filipino kids didn't want to speak English, even though they could. But my kids understand Tagalog. That's the thing. People don't know that, but they could talk to them in Filipino, and they would understand. They can't reply in Filipino, but they know.

Lisa (Dream of Destiny): CJ, what did you mean by your kids are brown on the outside but white on the inside?

CJ: I overheard my kids talking one day. They said the other kids would call them "white-washed," which means that our kids are Filipino, but the way they act is white. That's kind of like calling them a twinkie. You know, they have terms for this. And those are the things like, you just have to live with it. There's nothing you can do about it. That's life.

6. How often do you interact with people of a different race or ethnicity other than at work or church? 

CJ: All the time. Before Covid, it was easier, because we could go to the gym and other places, and we could just talk to people. I measured my interaction with people by this rule; if they were nice to me, I would be nice to them. If they didn't want to talk, then I'd leave them alone. Race had nothing to do with it.

Valerie: Being here at Shepherd Church has given us a built-in comfort level and confidence to interact with anybody. That's a huge part of being plugged in here. Before we joined Shepherd, we went to an all Filipino church, and we kept to ourselves. All of our friends were Filipinos. Once we started going to Shepherd, we felt we belonged here because there are so many different races and nationalities.

7. Have you ever witnessed someone being treated unfairly because of their race or ethnic identity? If so, how did you respond? How did it make you feel?

CJ: So, I was at work with a client. When I was about to leave, two guys were standing in front of my truck. And they just got in my face, like, "Where's the drill that you took?" I'm like, "What are you talking about?" Then my partner jumped in and said, "Hey, don't accuse him." Then they started cussing at each other. I didn't want this to happen, but at the same time, my friend stood up for me, but it could have gotten ugly in a split second.

Lisa (Dream of Destiny): And why did they do that to you? What was their issue?

CJ: I just happened to park in front of their front yard. They assumed that I didn't belong there. My client happened to be Asian, that they didn't like either, so it just went south, just like that.

Lisa (Dream of Destiny): How did that make you feel?

CJ: Like racism is real. Before, I was in my bubble, where I can talk to all kinds of races, but now with what has been happening, I start to feel for my kids. What if this happens? So now I'm a little bit more protective. I check where they are on my phone. I have to know where they are and check in with them and say, "Where are you?" I felt I didn't have to do that before, but now I'm a lot more aware of it.

8. How did George Floyd's death affect you personally? Any takeaways?

Valerie: For me, that's when racism became really real for me. Before that, I think I wanted to believe it wasn't happening anymore. And I said, "Wow, this still happens." Maybe George did some wrong stuff, but it still wasn't right to have that kind of force inflicted on him. And whatever the intent, it makes you think, what if this happened to a white person? And unlike before, there were no phones or cellphones to take videos, and the police officers knew they most likely would be filmed. They were very confident that they would get away with it because they knew that people were taking videos and the internet is forever. So, that was an eye-opener. And really, I went through all types of emotions, but I realized it wasn't enough to say, "Oh, that's sad." Because if it can happen to Black people, it can happen to Asians too. So yeah, like CJ was saying, we were living in a bubble, and that bubble burst.

CJ: What's scary about it is that no one should die like that, but we always focus on the stuff that happens to us personally. Like, back in 2005, in Woodland Hills, the culture was how you look, how you dress. At the time, I was wearing this cholo outfit, big baggy pants, gold teeth, and all that stuff. While I was driving in Woodland Hills, I got profiled and stopped by the police. A gun was drawn on me and I was handcuffed. I said, "What did I do?" I happened to be driving a beat-up car, and they were looking for something. They said, "Why do you have bullet holes in your car?" I didn't have bullet holes. I took the spoiler out of it. As a result, they took an hour of my time. I had to prove myself. In my head, I said that I'm going to go to jail for nothing. This kind of thing is still happening today. Sometimes I try not to watch the news just because of that.

9. Why are Life Groups so crucial to fostering cultural and ethnic diversity?

CJ: It's important because Life Groups is one way that we can learn from each other. We can all learn from people of a different culture. Culture affects how people act, how they talk, and how they were raised, and you can learn from them.

Valerie: Life Groups is a safe zone where you can do life with people, and you're more open with them. I know that whatever I share in this space is secure. And so, joining a Life Group is the best way to share your culture and ethnic diversity because you know you are welcome. There are things in my life that I will only communicate with my Life Group that I won't share with anyone else. Even though everyone is not on the level of a best friend, they are still my family. They are praying for me, supporting me, and because of that, I feel safe because I can be myself and not pretend. It's a safe place for everyone to be who they are, and we don't have to worry about, "Am I black enough?" "Am I brown enough?" We're a family under Jesus.

CJ: In the world, we primarily stereotype each other. If we see a picture of 7-Eleven and you see a picture of an Indian guy, we say, "Oh that makes sense." Or when we see a Mexican, some people automatically think they must be a gardener. Under the banner of Jesus Christ, we are all friends. We can break bread together and hang out. We can see each other at church and after church say, "Let's go eat somewhere."

Valerie: Yeah. We all have the same goal to point people to Christ. We see each other as teammates or brothers and sisters. We focus on what we have in common and spread the good news about Jesus.

CJ: If people can see a black, white, Asian, and a Hispanic guy eating together at In-N-Out, enjoying each other, and getting along, you can alter other people's perspectives. You change the world for that moment just by looking at that table because you can see that there is no racial division. As Christians, we are doing life together under the banner of Christ.

10. What are some of the things that you think that Shepherd Church can do more to foster unity and inclusion within our church and our community?

Valerie: I don't think there's anything more that they can add to what they're already doing. Because I see Shepherd Church as being very intentional, even on stage. When my daughter was in Kids of the Kingdom choir, they made sure there was diversity with the kids on stage. I remember the leadership of our church said that they wanted people to come to Shepherd and say, "I belong here because someone looks like me on stage." For example, when my daughter was performing, I remember people coming up to us and saying, "Oh, that was beautiful that Filipinos are represented in the play." Shepherd's worship team also sings songs in Spanish, so that's beautiful to hear. Also, I love that there are diverse Life Groups.

CJ: I remember back in 2010, the first time we went to Shepherd thinking that this was an all-white church. So, I was standing there looking around, and a tall bald guy approached me and said, "You need help?" I thought he was one of the greeters, so I brushed him off. Then service started, and I told my wife, "Hey, I was talking to that guy." And she was like, "Dudley?" I was like, "Who's Dudley?" She said, "He's the pastor here." And I said, "Are you sure that's him?" I realized then that he was the same man who was trying to help me. I didn't know he was the pastor and here he was, the pastor, trying to help me and I brushed him off. I ended up enjoying that service. And one of the things that attracted me the most then and now is that Shepherd is a diverse church where everyone is welcome. Now the ball is in our court as churchgoers to apply what we have learned and be the Church that Jesus intended us to be when we interact with others.