A few years back I had the pleasure of meeting Esther Lou, a Chinese-American woman who has a ministry to kitchen workers in the Chinese restaurants of Los Angeles. She calls herself a ‘restaurant shepherd’.
Industry statistics tell of more than 1 million immigrant labourers working in some 42,000 Chinese restaurants in the US. According to Esther, many of these workers speak little or no English, are at the bottom of the social scale among their own ethnic community, often work 12 hour days, 7 days a week, and, if they are in the country illegally, have no access to labour unions or social services. To cope with their circumstances, many fall into gambling, drugs and alcohol — even prostitution.
In an interview about her work, Esther is quoted as saying, ‘In every kitchen, there’s always the same tired old man hiding in the corner near the stove that is his life.’ She tells of the Taiwanese pot washer who laboured for long hours, 7 days a week for 30 years to support his family. When he died, Esther says, she asked his two daughters to speak at his funeral, but they couldn’t. They said they hardly knew him. Indeed, Lou says that people in this business speak of a regimen they call ‘going from the pillow to the stove.’ There is no other life for them.
Esther Lou is an extraordinary person, driven by a passion for a people group hidden from view for most of us. Her own experience as a restaurant owner has included its own pain, even financial ruin. But it was through these experiences that she and her husband found their faith in God. It’s this that now motivates Esther’s commitment to service within this community: ‘For all these people, I want to serve as a bridge, not only to religion, but to a better life.’
It’s an inspiring story.