My Response to the “Open Letter from the Asian American Community to the Evangelical Church”

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.

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We already knew how to sing, we only needed to know the words

Singing, like worship, is an expression of the human soul that is universal in scope and yet as diverse as the myriad people that populates the globe. People every where and throughout history have puts words to music in order to somehow articulate their inmost thoughts and feelings. Music is like art, or poetry; it gives voice to the inexpressible in a way that actually communicates transcendentally. Is it any wonder then that almost every religion in the world incorporates music in its expression of worship to God?

When the holocaust of American slavery met the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, an entire culture of Black church that is as unique and diverse as the Black people who inhabit it was born. What a glorious multifaceted expression it is. This expression is made all the more glorious by the fact that it reflects the authentic African-ness of a people living in America. It was not that these Africans did not know how to worship, or were somehow deficit in their ability to relate to the transcendent reality of God as over against their European subjugators and would be interpreters of scripture. They simply lacked the language and understanding of the good news of Jesus.

When they received this gospel (though not the first Africans to do so) they “ate the meat and spat out the bones” of a gospel that said they were less than human and worthy of nothing more than to be vessels of dishonor in the White man’s house. They refused to bow in worship at the altar of the White man’s god.

Instead these Africans in America contextualized the gospel message and found a savior in Jesus as well as heroes in Moses, the Hebrew boys, and Esther. They reinvented and rearranged traditional hymnody and gave birth to both gospel music and its cousin, contemporary Christian music. They took the art of preaching and combined it with the traditions of African storytellers to create a synthesis of that is envied and copied to this day. These Africans in America already knew how to sing; the coming of the gospel merely gave them the words.

If this is true in the Black American experience, is there any less reason for it to be true within the Asian American experience? It seems that there remains complex and insidious stronghold of neocolonialism deeply ingrained in the Asian America psyche that resists any true effort to contextualize the gospel within their own communities. Perhaps I am speaking out of school, so to speak, that is, outside of my range of experience or level of trust. If so, I implore your forgiveness.

Nevertheless, I marvel that on the one hand Asian Americans are some of the most gifted, highly educated, and creative people in evangelical Christendom today, and yet “with hands high and hearts abandoned” the gospel that is preached and sung sounds remarkably exactly like that heard in any White suburban church. Asians clearly know how to sing; there is no lack of cultural creativity within Asian and Asian American communities. And the words of the gospel are accessible and present to all, Asians and Asian Americans together. Can there be a generation raised up who would be willing to integrate these powerful realities into something that can speak in a lovingly prophetic way to multiple generations of Asian Americans and invite them into the choir? Oh Lord God would you be so gracious as to raise up people who will indeed seek to be faithful to you in this generation; a generation who will sing the Lord’s song with their own melody but with your words?