Hierarchy & the church

 

It is a word I’ve been thinking a lot about, particularly as it relates to culture and faith.  In the context of the church I currently attend, we are discussing the book Growing Healthy Asian-American Churches.  One of the things we recently talked about was the role hierarchy places in Asian-American and especially Korean contexts. There was reference of course to the Confucian based values system that underlies much of Eastern philosophical and cultural practice and mention of how those realities continue to influence the way Asian-Americans “do” church.   

For me the striking thing has been, again, the similarity between Black church and Korean church.   Pastors within the Black church context, regardless of denomination, have extremely wide latitude in leading/running the church, especially compared to their White counterparts. I can hardly find words to describe the honor and indeed reverence in which many if not most Black pastors are held.  Even when the person himself is not viewed favorably, the position of pastor is held in very high esteem and the pastor is generally thought of as someone to be obeyed within the context of the church, and indeed often outside of it.  Their authority is very nearly unquestioned. 

Not only that, but pastors are honored and served.  It is not unusual for a church to have a “pastor’s anniversary” in which thousands of dollars are raised, extensive programming put together, and mounds of food prepared all in honor of the “shepherd of the house, the man of God.” Pastors are often treated like princes. (there is a significant downside to this which I may address in another post) 

I do not mean to suggest that Black pastors are all dictators.  To the contrary, most are not.  And there are significant institutional and even cultural constraints on their influence.  But in general they are quite powerful. 

That such a level of authority and hierarchy is a reflection of culture, I was aware.  The extent to which it is viewed as being negative (as it seemed to be in the book and as it most definitely was described as being in our class) is something different. 

Having been raised in the Black church, I am all too aware of the abuse of power, but I never questioned the validity of the pastor holding such authority.  In fact I have been at times an apologist for it, from a scriptural position.  Indeed if I were ever a pastor I cannot imagine that I would operate much differently than that.  Obviously I do not believe that pastors have or should exercise dictatorial control over their congregants’ lives. 

That hierarchy would be so questioned raises some hackles for me.  What is it about hierarchy that scares us so much?  It is not as if there is much vote for democracy in church or in society that shows up in the Bible (if the Bible could be said to advocate for any particular formulation it would seem to be a type of Theocratic socialism).  Perhaps it is simply that power has so often been abused that people flee from the very mention of it. 

But, without the esteem, influence and authority which was held by Black pastors during the Jim Crow Era, it is doubtful that the Civil Rights movement would have gotten off the ground.  It was the authority of the pastors that gave them the wherewithal to lead their parishioner’s places that many would not have gone on their own, and thereby led society into a radical transformation. 

Could it be that some Asian-American pastors need to lean into rather than running away from the cultural preference for hierarchy and lead their congregations into radical directions for the sake of the gospel? Could the respect and honor given to these pastors be leveraged for the sake of challenging the principalities and powers that are arrayed against Asian Americans and others, thereby preventing them from achieving their God given potential?  Perhaps there is a place for hierarchy and pastoral authority that does not dominate nor subjugate but genuinely leads courageously into places that many 1st and 2nd gens don’t really want to go. 

I don’t know the answers to these questions; and the issue itself is complex, but I know that simply blaming “hierarchy” is not a solution.

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Skypecast Report – is the Asian American church neccessary, etc?

Well I normally never post without first thinking and editing carefully, but this one is on the fly.  Please forgive any egregious errors and misspellings that may appear.

Firstly, I am very grateful to the hosts of the conference call for inviting and even welcoming my participation in the discussion.  I am honored to be asked to “listen in” as an outsider to the culture to some of the challenging questions that face the next generation of Asian American Christians as they seek to engage the social, theological, and cultural issues that press the Asian American community.  I do not take for granted that opportunity, but I will say that I have been time and again impressed by the hospitality of those in the Asian and Asian American community. 

Secondly, I grieve the fact that these kinds of conversations are not happening more frequently than they are, although I suspect many more people that the 8 or 9 of us on that call are concerned and even actively pursuing solutions to these issues.  Certainly my church is trying to be proactive in its engagement of some of these issues within the parameters of being an English ministy within a Korean church, and EM that is increasingly diverse, but which is also made up mostly of churched individuals.  The question was raised during our discussion as to how such a group can become missional since it’s origins were based in serving the existing needs of the children of the 1st generation.  That is certainly a question that we have much room to explore.

Thirdly, I continue to be intrigued by the parallels and distinctions between Asian and Asian American culture and community and the Black American church and community and I lament the fact that there is, at present, little interethnic dialogue that is not mediated through the dominant culture. Certainly the disparate racial histories in this country present very different scenarios and challenges to our respective church communities, but I am convinced that we have something to learn from one another.

One salient difference is the strong desire on the part of most middle class Black people to rear their children within the distinctive culture of Black America to the extent that many will drive great distances or make tremendous sacrifices to ensure that their children learn what it is to be “Black” by being involved in the Black church, even if that church is lacking in other dimensions.  From what I have heard and observed, Asian Americans do not seem to share this strong desire – perhaps due to the natural rebellion against the immigrant culture that their parents brought with them, and perhaps due to the desire to assimilate as much and as quickly as possible into mainstream American culture.  I am certain there are other factors at play.

Finally, the issue of Asian American cultural identity is very tied to place, as the majority of Asian Americans reside on or very near the West Coast, with others concentrated on the East Coast.  This is somewhat reminiscent of the geographic concentration of Blacks in the earliest days of the twentieth century when most Blacks lived in the rural south.  As Asian Americas increase in numbers and have their own “Great Migration”  what changes will be seen in the culture and what new ways of cultural engagement will emerge? I suspect that the dominant desire for multiethnic engagement will be somewhat tempered just as the Civil Rights movement in the South (looking towards integration) and the North (economic & social empowerment) diverged.

“You should marry a nice Korean girl”

 “No I’m not married.  Yes I like Korean food.  Yes even kimchi.”  The ajumma’s nod at each other.  “Ahh.  You should marry a nice Korean girl.  They not like American women.” “Some of them…”  And so the conversation went, trailing off into a discussion between the two of them only tangentially related to me extolling the virtues of a good Korean woman. Apparently the chief concern of these women (and of most of my hyungs) is that I get married and that relatively quickly.  Being well matched is clearly at the top of their list of things I need to do. 

BUT… if I need to marry a good Korean woman, where will I find her? The silent question that echoes at back of the admonitions to marry a “good Korean woman” is this: who will sacrifice their daughter so this man can get married? After all, I’m not Korean or even Asian, and most significantly, I’m not even White.  The Asian woman who marries a Black man is a rarity, not because Asian women never date outside their “race” but because, well… you fill in the blank. 

One of my Korean students and I were discussing this issue and he mentioned that his parents told him they would support him no matter who he wanted to marry.  And so he asked what if she wasn’t Korean.  That would be fine, as long as you’re happy.  “What about if she was White?”  This time a slight pause, but again, as long as you’re happy.  “What if I wanted to marry an African-American?”  His parents face went pale, their eyes widened and their mouths dropped open. They did not answer.  It was quite simply too shocking a thing to even be considered. 

If I were a White man I don’t know that that unasked question (who will sacrifice their daughter…) would resound quite as loudly.  Certainly they would prefer their “good Korean daughters” to marry equally “good Korean men” but there are enough mixed race couples, and several of long standing that such a match would not excite much interest.  In fact if I were White they might well assume that my coming to the church was so I could scope out the ladies.  As it is, no such assumptions prevail, or at least none of which I am aware.  Instead I am pure curiosity. 

But would a good Korean woman even feel the freedom to like me? I certainly have no qualms about asking one out and my family quite honestly just wants me to marry somebody and get on with the business of enlarging our clan (my parents have a total of 19 descendants including grandchildren and great grandchildren).  I would chiefly have to contend with the disapproval of the many Black women who would view me as having sold out, though not quite as badly as if I had married a White woman.

 For the woman however, I think it would be a bit more challenging.  Her children, for all intents and purposes, would cease to be Korean and would not really even be considered Korean-American.  They would be Black, and she would have to deal with many more difficulties than me, even in the context of the church, and perhaps more so. In any event there are some fine Korean women out there and I can’t afford to let anyone’s ethnic prejudices keep me from giving them a holla if the opportunity presents itself.

Stranger in a Strange Land

For the last several months I have been attending a Korean Presbyterian Church – which is not particularly unusual until you consider that I am neither Korean nor am I Presbyterian.  I am not married to, nor am I dating a Korean woman, and I am not in any way confused or in denial concerning my own ethnic identity.  In fact, there is very little objective reason why I should chose to attend such a church.  Nevertheless, Sunday after Sunday I find myself sitting in the pews worshipping with Korean – American brothers and sisters, restraining myself from shouting out, “preach it” to the moksanim, and afterwards crowding into the fellowship hall/gym to partake of whatever the ajumma’s have cooked up that day. 

I feel like Alice in Wonderland gone down the rabbit hole. 

Every week, whether I’m bowing and waving goodbye, shoving a kimchi laden chopstick in my mouth, or being greeted by one of my hyungs – I find myself wondering, “How did I get here?” 

One of my friends commented that he was surprised I was at a Presbyterian church; more taken aback by that than by the fact that I was at a Korean church.  And yet week to week that combination continues to intrigue me. 

Recently in our Wednesday study we began reading the book Growing Healthy Asian American Churches.  As the conversation began, I felt very awkward.  How much was my presence hindering their discussion?  Could there be real freedom to discuss the issues of health in a Korean church with me there? Who invited me to the party?  I became very conscious of my ethnicity in that moment, and the question of whether my presence was blessing or curse was salient in my thoughts.

The other non-Korean present, a White man married to a Korean woman, seemed not at all hindered in his participation.  He freely commented on the things he felt were problems and even offered his thoughts on what could be done differently.  I found myself growing annoyed with him.  Firstly he called the pastor by his first name without appending the appellation “pastor,” something I would never do – certainly not in public, and something which I had never heard anyone in church do, other than his wife, and even then only rarely.  Secondly, he talked a lot and with a directness and assuredness with which I’ve become unaccustomed.  Thirdly, he put the pastor on the spot by asking direct questions about money and budgeting, which I don’t think the pastor really wanted to talk about.

 

I don’t think this man was aware of his cultural power, but then again what do I know. Perhaps he’s been around long enough that he’s considered an insider.  Even so, the rules by which he was operating were definitely dominant (White) culture. As for me, I’m not sure where I fit.  I am a minority, so there is some shared cultural capital I have, but I also know that my presence in the room likely changes the conversation; that it is difficult to have some kinds of “family conversations” when I’m present.  I also know that if I withdraw or offer suggestions when those honest conversations begin to happen that I will short circuit the process of my being welcomed into the community at a significant level.  I want to be around long enough and exhibit enough integrity that others have freedom in my presence to say what they think and feel without the need to edit themselves for the sake of the non-Korean in their midst.

   

Dpark and others are having a Skypecast about issues of the Asian American church, and I’ve been welcomed to participate.  Though I am deeply grateful, I feel personally unworthy to say anything.  I do not know what they know, or feel what they feel.  I am a cultural outsider and cannot enter the conversation in the same way, nor am I sure that I have anything to contribute, even though I am growing to love and care deeply about the Asian American church and community.  

Why I am here?  How did I get to this place of love and concern for Asian Americans? I do not know for sure, but I know that this is where God wants me.  God may I be found faithful in pursuing your calling. 

Calling

I recently returned from the Urbana 2006 missions convention in St. Louis, Missouri.  The convention had delgates from 145 countries, from every state and province of the United States and Canada.  It is a massive event and this years theme was “Live Worthy of the Calling” from the book of Ephesians, which was highlighted throughout the conference. Issues of calling are salient in the minds of college students as they take classes, attend lectures, and pursue careers.  For many others of us, calling is a question that fades unfortunately into the background noise of pressing daily concerns. 

That is at least, what had begun to happen to me.  It is not as though I had abandoned the Lord, or had ceased to listen for his voice.  It was rather that I had grown rather complacent in simply living and working from day to day.  I had moved from a place of intensity in my desire to hear clearly and distinctly what God wanted to do and to be, and found myself beginning to settle for mediocrity and ordinariness in both my work and my personal spiritual life. 

Fortunately for me, our God cared enough to rouse me from my sleep and again shine brightly on me – the bright light of his calling as annoying and welcoming as the sun breaking through the early morning slumber with which we are all familiar. Why is it that we stop our pursuit of calling and settle so easily?  Partly I think it is a healthy place of maturity that causes us to rest from the turmoil of a youthfulness that wants to do everything all at once and is impatient to see the kingdom of God come NOW.  Mostly though I think it is the accumulation of resources material, emotional, relational, and physical.  We buy houses and furnish them.  We marry.  We watch newscasters that agree with us and read books that reinforce our beliefs.  We hang out with people who, if they don’t look like us, at least act and think like we do, and so confirm for us that our state of self satisfied complacency is the best of all possible worlds. 

In short, we stop pursuing calling because God is simply too unpredictable and unreliable when it comes to the comfort and convenience of our lives.  He might ask us to do something upsetting, like move into the inner city, or go serve the poor overseas, or drop our steady job and go back to school.  He might alter our plans, disrupt our schedules and generally make a nuisance of himself with his insistence on being Lord of all of our lives.  Quite frankly we think that sort of radical reorientation is best left to young people, to high schoolers and college kids, to the kinds of people that go to Urbana. It is good for us that God refuses to every take rear place to our own agendas, no matter what.