Archive for category Asian American
I am not Asian-American. So when I read the Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church I did not immediately rush to sign the letter. It seemed to me impertinent to do so, not to mention presumptuous. How can I sign a letter written from a community of which I am not a part, regardless of how strongly I feel myself to be in agreement with the sentiments expressed therein?
As I reflected further however, I thought of my children. Well, my children are very brown — they look more ‘Black’ than ‘Asian’, but they are as fully Asian as they are Black and who are Asian-American, who understand Mandarin Chinese almost as well as English, whose kitchen pantry is filled with ‘exotic’ foods and spices used to make the yummy food that will always smell like ‘home’ to them, who, when they grow up, may be asked, depending on the setting, ‘where are you from?’, or ‘what are you?’. Because of how they look, they may miss some of the more egregiously negative experiences of being Asian-American, but that doesn’t change their heart.
I thought of my ministry. The Christian fellowship I planted for Asian-Americans, the Bible study group I led for Korean graduate students, the 2nd generation English Ministry congregation I served for more the 5 years as the pulpit supply pastor and interim youth director, the Asian-American fellowship I served for several years. I thought of their struggles and their triumphs, their fears and longings.
I thought of my Korean-American friend, the godfather of my eldest son, who feels equally at home pigging out at a soul food restaurant as at a Korean barbeque.
I thought of my wife, who really does have an answer to satisfy the curious who ask, ‘where are you from’ since she wasn’t born in the US and has lived a lot of her adult life outside of it, but who still deals with the assumptions and stereotypes that go along with her sex and ethnicity.
I thought of my colleague Kathy Khang who always seems to be in the thick of these things; pushing, advocating, pointing out — sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, but always with a desire to see the whole body of Christ do more and be better. I thought of many other friends, family members, colleagues.
And then I thought again about my sons. My beautiful, biracial, bi (multi?) cultural sons. Of course, it is not just about them. But the connection to family brings the abstraction of the pain and frustration and futility that so many others talk about into concrete form. That my sons will have challenges sorting out their racial / ethnic / cultural identity I have no doubt. After all their father is a Black American from the southern US, their mother is a 1.5 generation Chinese-American with Malay roots, and they are currently growing up in West Africa. Of course they will have challenges. But for their sake, and for the sake of the integrity of Christ’s witness in the world through his church, I pray these challenges and burdens will not be added to by those same brothers and sisters in the church.
On the heels of the rapidly subsiding waves of controversy caused by the “SPLASH” of the Deadly Vipers controversy (read more: here, here, here, and here), I find myself puzzling anew over the whole issue of how Asian-American identity is constructed, what is the relationship between ethnic identity and faith, how and whether to speak up and at what cost, and even how to bring others along on the journey without only being angry.
It strikes me that one of the basic underlying struggles is rooted in the question of what it means to be an authentically ethnic and Christian person when one either is or is immediately descended from people who intentionally forsook their ethno-cultural matrix in order to make a home in North America. Or in other words, maybe it isn’t just the Francis Chan’s of the world who are sell outs. Of course no one is actually calling the man a sell-out, it’s just making a point and raising a question about how much one’s ethnicity ought to be in play in an intentional kind of way, especially as a Christian.
But there is a larger and more problematically complex issue at stake here. The racial history of the United States has created an oddly distorted racialized system that has been a double-edged sword for Asian Americans. East Asian immigrants particularly enjoy quite remarkable economic and educational success in the United States and Canada. And the reality of immigration is such that those who chose to leave their home countries came generally (though not always) with quite significant economic, educational, or entrepreneurial drive that made their ability to climb the ladder of economic opportunity much more likely than those left behind in their native lands .
This has been true of most immigrant groups who generally outpace natives in economic achievement after the first generation, however the racialized nature of American society has meant that such economic advancement has rebounded to create a sort of idealized image of Asian Americans that is the foundation stone of the “model minority” myth; a myth alternately decried and embraced by Asian Americans since it provides needed distance from association with non-model minority — Black Americans. So the image of the hard-working, compliant, family focused and theologically orthodox Asian American who is educated at the finest evangelical seminaries is set against the decidedly lazy, angry, irresponsible and theologically liberal Black who is feared rather than loved. (not to mention Latinos and Hispanics!!) This of course ignores intentionally the many many lazy, non-hard working, irresponsible, dysfunctional Asians both here and abroad. It is quite easy to have a picture of relative success when you leave all the unsuccessful relatives back at home.
Of course this is the unintended consequence of the wholesale purchase of the American dream that has been sanctified via the dual cultures of Asian educational idolatry and American materialist pursuit. A consequence that is further illustrated by the uncertain sound of the trumpet blast of justice against biases and stereotypes such as those employed during the Deadly Vipers controversy. It is a bit challenging to sound the alarm against the system abusing, misrepresenting, and dishonoring Asian culture when ones own success and acceptance within America has been predicated upon the abandonment of that same culture or at least those parts of culture which are inconvenient and represent impediments to achieving the American dream. It is a bit hypocritical to condemn the exploitation of ones culture by others when you unwilling to pay the price of defending it. Certainly it is no virtue to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with being the “model minority” while wanting to avoid the quite high costs of being like that problematic other minority group that’s always complaining about something, i.e. Black people.
I say it with love and respect and those who know me can attest to my bonafides in terms of deep and abiding compassion (in the original sense of “suffering with”) Asian Americans, that AA have long enjoyed the fruits of the labors of others, notably Blacks and to a lesser extent Latinos, in plowing up the very hard ground of racism and racialization in the society. We have often been (and I speak here of Black Americans) on the “point” of major issues, speaking out, expressing anger, demanding redress and in so doing have taken many hits while others have slipped in on the backs of our misfortune and in the bloody footsteps of our sacrifice. It has been worth it. Deadly Vipers would never have been done with an African theme; the writers wouldn’t have written it thus and Zondervan would never have dared to publish it. However it has come at a cost, a high one. Are you willing to pay it?
A sell-out is one who bargains away his own identity or people in exchange for acceptance and benefits afforded by those in power. Asian Americans cannot continue sell out their cultural inheritance and then expect others to honor it. They (I started to write “we”) cannot ask others to pay the full cost of understanding and appreciating the nuances of Asian culture while failing to be educated and deeply appreciating what it is all about. They cannot continue embracing unthinkingly the theological and culture paradigms of White American evangelicalism which took root in a very different cultural soil while demanding a theology that influences and is influenced by the nuances of Asian American identity and understanding. Asian Americans cannot decry the maladaptive use of their cultural symbols, language, and ideas by others while maintaining a steadfast refusal in their churches to demonstrate the redemptive reuse and re-adaptation of those same symbols, language and ideas to the glory of God. It cannot be enough to say, “we are not your stereotypes” and remain unwilling to engage in the creative process of culture making, of dethroning Euro-American cultural idols of how church is to be done, and of creating an authentic Asian-American Christianity that is more than a bad system poorly imitated.
“It’s not about the faces on the stage, but the One who’s truly famous.”
So says the opening promo line on the Passion 2010 website highlighting the speakers for this years conference. The leaders of the Passion conference say, convincingly I might add, that their aim is to, “see a generation stake their lives on what matters most.” Praise God for such a vision! And praise God for the organizers of this event. Praise God for the godly men (and couple of women) who are listed as “leaders” for the event. Now, can we just be a little bit more honest about “the generation” and about those “faces on the stage?”
The generation the leaders of Passion are aiming to see stake their lives are suburban, upper middle class, overwhelmingly White evangelical kids. Everything about the conference and the conference website is geared towards that demographic and though they may tout international credentials, this is far from an international conference. These same kids will worship in much they same style they would at a secular rock concert though to Christian music. They will surge and sing. They will cry and commit. And they will hear from speakers who look and sound just like them (with the noted exception of Francis Chan — and the word is still out on whether he’s a sellout or not).
The faces on the stage matter. If they didn’t matter the organizers of Passion would not have rounded up the likes of John Piper, Louis Giglio, or the David Crowder band. These folks are some of the superstars of the evangelical church world, and if we could be honest, they are the reason why many of the folks signing up for Passion are signing up.
They matter for the same reason the Deadly Viper’s controversy was indeed a real controversy. It is not without significance that Deadly Vipers was initially introduced during a Catalyst conference (at least I think it was). The stunning ignorance (and quite ready repentance) of the authors of Deadly Vipers and of Zondervan is not theirs alone. The evangelical community within the United States over and again continues to demonstrate a tone deaf ignorance bordering on stubborn hard heartedness when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.
Why is Passion able to say without apparent irony that the faces on the stage don’t matter in a world where the fabric of evangelicalism even within the United States is incredibly diverse? Why did Zondervan stick their foot in the crap pile again after only a few years ago Lifeway was smacked down for producing other racial insensitive material? Why is any of this news to the large number of White evangelicals who honestly and with sincerity desire to work to proclaim the gospel effectively to all people?
Because White evangelicals live socially, economically, and indeed theologically in a world untouched by other perspectives and increasingly are seeking to isolate themselves further by developing specialized ministries that cater only to themselves. Call it FUBU for White people.
The truth is, the faces do matter. And my White evangelical brothers under the skin had better be aware that it matters more than they think. Every ethnic minority living under a dominant culture knows that it matters. Think I’m wrong? Spend any length of time in a foreign country and you’ll discover quickly just how welcome an American accent can be, or better yet join a church of a very different ethnicity than your own and immerse yourself. You’ll quickly discover that it matters a lot more than you think to have someone who looks like you, who can at some level identify with your experience, and who can articulate in a culturally relevant way those things that matter most, is very important. Call it the incarnation experience. You see, none of us have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. That is to say, Jesus knows well what it is to enter fully into the human experience and thus sympathizes with us in our own.
It is time for mistakes such as those embodied in Deadly Vipers and Rickshaw Rally to come to an end, and the Christian community ought to be the leaders in this effort.
Maybe I’m exaggerating here; actually, I’m certain that I’m exaggerating. Hyperbole is sometimes useful to illustrate a subtler point. And there is a point to this post, obscure though it may be. The point is simply this:
It seems to me when people talk about living in a “diverse” city, or having “diverse” friends, or being in a church that welcomes “diversity,” what they’re really saying is Gay people and/or Asian people with perhaps a sprinkling of Middle Easterners or Eastern Europeans thrown in for good measure. What they don’t mean is Black Americans, or White people from the south, or Hispanics (the “work in your yard, sit in the back of the pickup truck” kind of Hispanics don’t count in terms of diversity, only the “wow, can you teach me salsa dancing” kind do).
Okay… I’m and evil wrong person for using these exaggerated stereotypes. But how wrong is it really? To discuss diversity one metric to possibly use would be the raw percentages of non-Whites (since Whites / Euro-Americans are dominant in the US) in a city. The higher the percentage, the more “diverse” the place; this is a simple measure, right? Given that metric, the state of Mississippi would be considered one of the most diverse in the nation since it has a non-White population of nearly 50% or more. Except that most of those non-Whites are Blacks, and they don’t count towards the idea of diversity, unless there are some Asians and gay people in the mix and the Black people aren’t too low brow.
So perhaps that metric isn’t a good one. Maybe it is better to analyze diversity based on residential housing patterns. A diverse city would have many different ethnic groups living there. Thus, Chicago or L.A. are very diverse cities, right? Except that Chicago is notoriously residentially segregated, at least most of the Black people are. And there are many White ethnic enclaves throughout the city as well.
Is that diverse or not? Does being able to find good “ethnic” food count as being diverse, even though usually what counts as “ethnic” are various Asian cuisines with the occasional nod to Ethiopian and Mediterranean/Middle eastern dishes.
What if someone is Asian and grew up in the south, and their favorite foods are grits and turnip greens? Does that count as suitably “diverse?”
What does any of this have to do with anything, and what does it all have to do with the church, and Christianity, which is after all the topic of this blog? Actually, I’m not sure. It’s just that I wonder how much the much touted “diversity” we talk about in our society is really just a proxy for saying “Wow, there are Asian people here, and Asian people are the currently ‘cool’ ethnicity, so yay!!” It is kind of like the way people say “urban” when they really mean Black.
On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.
I was the soloist.
Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.
Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.
What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.
In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.
The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.
Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.
Thanks to Wayne Park and also to David over at Nextgenerasianchurch for spurring my re-engagement with the questions of the integration of faith and culture, particularly in the context of the Asian American church; a community which by God’s grace I have grown to love.
Most Sundays I don’t think much about the challenges and joys of being part of a 2nd generation ministry at a Korean church. I have been there long enough that I feel mostly comfortable being the Black person in attendance. I’ve learned a few things along the way; enough that I avoid the most egregious breaches of cultural protocol. Yesterday, however, presented what may be the beginning of a new season of challenge for me and for my community; the challenge of authenticity and vulnerability.
The initial presenting issue was the Bible study I teach. Yesterday’s lesson covered Philip’s evangelization of the Samaritans, which raised all kinds of issues of racism and prejudice — for the 2nd week in a row. It was singularly uncomfortable for me to ask the question “Who are your Samaritans?” or as I suggested, “Samaritans are the people your parents would fall over and have a heart attack if you married.” Now this phrase in itself isn’t hard to say, but it is hard to say or talk about when you are the one Black guy in a church full of Koreans. Race just isn’t something we like to discuss, and as hard as it is between Black and White, I think it is harder between 2 ethnic “minority” communities with their own brand of prejudice towards one another. How does a Black man bring up the prejudices of the church community when he stands inside, and yet apart from that community? How can those listening be honest about their own prejudices or those of their family when doing so might very well hurt my feelings? It is a question of how vulnerable we dare be with a topic that rarely rears its head and in a place where vulnerability is not prized.
Which brings me to the second catalyst and the inspiration for the title of this post. In cell group last night as we discussed the fact that God saves us due to no merit of our own, the leader asked what is a very simple question: “Why do we behave as though we have to earn God’s grace?” A simple question, to be sure, but profound. There was some sharing; the giving of “right answers.” And then I shared, and as I did, I found myself surprised by my own emotion. “It is my pride,” I said, “that keeps me from receiving his grace. I don’t want to be the kind of person who needs grace. I want to be better than I am.” Our conversation went to another level of authenticity and realness. There was, to me, a palpable change in our willingness to talk honestly, authentically.
On the way home I was struck by the thread that ties these incidents together. There is an unquenched thirst for honesty, vulnerability and authenticity in my community. But there is likewise a stark fear, tinged with a shameful pride, that prevents us from going deeper. We long for more, but are ashamed of our longing. We desire to be deeper, but know how shallow we are. In other communities these issues manifest in other ways, but in ours, and I suspect in other Asian circles, it shows up as complaint, and angst, self loathing and blame. The first generation blames the second and the second blames the first and they all blame themselves secretly while outwardly pretending that everything is well, and if not well, then at least we are prosperous and financially stable. We’re out of the garden and everyone knows it, but no one knows the way back, and the grace that is on offer from God seems to be salt in our wounds because it serves to remind us of just how fallen we are.
Is it possible for us to ever move past our desire to repay our parents by attending the best schools and marrying the right person and getting the right job? Can we ever stop trying to repay our Father by the endless cycle of striving failure repentance and recommitment that has gone on so long that we cease trying altogether. Can we ever get to the place where we do not fear to admit our thirst and so have it quenched by the one who is himself that fount of living water?
Today we celebrated the festival of the resurrection. It is, or at least should be, the most holy and high holiday of the year, much more important than the festival of the incarnation (Christmas). In preparation for the day, I read a couple of books in defense of the Christian faith and also read through the four gospel accounts. As is customary our church had a combined service in which all segments of the church participated; children, youth, English congregation, and KM. I briefly debated whether I should participate in the service or if I should take the opportunity to visit a church out of my own Black Pentecostal tradition (i.e. my father’s church). I decided, after praying and experiencing the Lord’s conviction, to go to my church – the Korean Presbyterian one.
The service was, of course, longer than is typical; nearly three hours altogether, with 3 sermons, two performances by the youth, and a full fledged cantata orchestrated by the KM choir. My upbringing in the Pentecostal church put me in better stead than many of my co-parishioners from the English speaking congregation who were unable to endure such a lengthy service. Did I mention we also celebrated the Lord’s Supper and had a baptism?
As I sat in worship singing along to the cantata in my broken Korean watching as a silent video of “The Passion of the Christ” played on the overhead, I had ample time to reflect on such question as the evidence of the resurrection. As I sang, and read the English translation, as I took my bread and cup, bowed my head in prayer, celebrated the baptism (though I disagree with the method) of new Christians, I had lots of time to allow what I experienced to sink in.
It is Christ that is the center of the resurrection event. Perhaps that is why “Easter” has never quite caught on as a holiday – we are decidedly on the sidelines in the celebration of Jesus being raised from the dead. There are no gifts given, no special songs, and no customary foods. There is merely the reality that a man, once dead, was made alive again by the power of God. That truth, that sacred reality is what made it possible nay even enjoyable to worship with these Korean folks. I marveled that in English, in Korean, in Twi, in French, in Swahili, in Farsi, in languages unknown to me – the Lord Jesus Christ is praised. I marveled that this day, above all other days, is a day that levels the field – placing us all at the foot of the cross and yet also elevates each of us, making us more truly man, more authentically woman, more fully Black, more completely Chinese than any other day. Today is a day of grace, wherein God demonstrates his mercy and exonerates his son, forever banishing the fearful specter of death, hell, and the grave.
What does this have to do with my decision to go to the Korean church instead of my Dad’s church? Simply this; the resurrection is the thing that even makes it possible for me to have that choice. For all the failings of “the church” in general and of my church specifically, it is the creation of this special day. Despite the complaint of our generation about how often out of touch or irrelevant the church can be, the wonderful gift of God is that we can be the church, and that I am indeed family with these Korean believers and with believers all over the world. In no other place or way is such a thing possible. Indeed, had I been anywhere else in the world on this day and see that this gospel, this obscure faith that by all human measurements should have been snuffed out, started as it was by illiterate men and poor women, is not a gospel confined to a people, a language or a place. I thought to myself, the privilege of being called a son of God is worth the very minor inconvenience of worshipping in a language not my own.
This realization makes me wonder if the bridge between generations in the Asian American Church can be built by beginning at the ground floor of our joint inheritance as sons of God and heirs of the promise. Unfortunately, I suspect that many are much more ready to build those bridges outside of the community rather than within it.