Back in 1996, when I was a fledging magazine editor for Christianity Today, I wrote one of the few news articles that had ever been done about the Asian immigrant church in America. It’s a little embarrassing to admit this, but I still get comments even to this day about how this was a groundbreaking article for Asian American Christianity. This spring, 18 years after I last wrote on this topic of the magazine, CT asked me to consider writing a follow-up article of sorts, only this one would be a cover feature package rather than a news article, with more words to work with and greater exposure. It was an impossible offer to turn down. I spent a good portion of my spring and then my entire summer (plus some of my September!) working on elements of this feature along with its accompanying sidebars. As it may be another 18 years before I get a chance to write on this subject, I hope you enjoy the fruits of my labors! It was an impossible difficult subject to tackle given all the growth and development of Asian American Christianity over the past two decades. But hopefully this will give readers a small taste of how Asian Americans are beginning to find their voice in the evangelical family.
At First Covenant Church (FCC) in St. Paul, Minnesota, a church with longstanding roots in the city’s East Side neighborhood, you can still find families with ties to the original Swedish immigrants who planted the church 140 years ago. But by 2002, the congregation had arrived at a critical juncture. “It was an aging congregation filled with fear, fear of dying, fear of change,” says pastor Anne Vining. The largely Caucasian church decided that it needed to face those fears and pray for direction on its next steps.
What emerged from the crucible of self-examination for FCC and its leaders was the realization that although its neighborhood had remained blue-collar socioeconomically, the racial and ethnic composition of the East Side had diversified far from its Swedish origins. To keep pace with these changes, the church had to begin doing the same. Steve Benson, a lay leader whose daughter represents the sixth generation of his family to attend FCC, recalls, “The landscape of our community had changed, and we needed to re-envision ourselves given what was already right at our doorstep.”
(Read the rest of the article at On Faith. Photo courtesy of Grace Chapel).
I still remember the moment on Twitter a few years ago, when a Wall Street Journal tweet caught my eye with these inflammatory words: “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Within days, the phrase “Tiger Parent” had entered the modern parenting lexicon while Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Chua details the extraordinary lengths she went to push her children in order for them to achieve exceptional results. In one famous scene from the book, Chua is hovering over her daughter Louisa and demanding perfection in her piano practicing. “If the next time is not perfect,” Chua warns Louisa, “I am going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!”
What guides your parenting style?
It’s easy to deride Chua’s motivational techniques and overbearing attitude and say, “I would never do that to my kids!” But even if the methodology of most parents today differs from Chua’s, their motivations might be exactly the same: a desire to see their kids excel in school, demonstrate expertise in one or preferably several extracurricular activities, and ultimately gain acceptance to college (the more prestigious, the better) in order to ensure future success and security.
Could it be a danger sign that the lives of Christian parents appear to be largely parallel to their secular counterparts? Is there a different way to parent that runs counter to the messages of our culture?
These underlying motivations are just as present in Christian circles, as evidenced by the prevalence of hectic lifestyles that often look indistinguishable from those of non-Christian families. The only difference is that Christian families include church-related commitments in their list of activities. Could it be a danger sign that the lives of Christian parents appear to be largely parallel to their secular counterparts? Is there a different way to parent that runs counter to the messages of our culture?
(Read the rest of the post at Today’s Christian Woman.)
I was delighted to interview Jae Jin, a Baltimore-based aspiring musician who recently appeared on an episode of the television show House of Cards. His is a wonderful story of God using him in unexpected ways to bring a moment of worship into an otherwise dark show. Read on!
Viewers of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards have come to expect the show’s dark turns, whether involving murder, sex, or just the everyday political machinations of life inside the Beltway. But they might not have expected the moment this season featuring an intimate church worship service and a soulful praise song. Even more surprising is the story of the one who was chosen to bring the holy moment to life.
Jae Jin works for Humanim, a Baltimore-based nonprofit focusing on workforce development, human services and social enterprise. He is neither a professional actor nor musician. Yet this 29-year-old who survived a life-threatening illness as a teenager is accustomed to a life of unexpected outcomes. CaPC contributor Helen Lee spoke with Jae about his experiences on the show, and discovered what he learned from both the encouragement and the criticism he has received.
(Read the full interview at the Christ and Pop Culture site!)
Recently, I was a part of an initiative to help the evangelical church become aware of and understand its limitations in the area of cultural intelligence and sensitivity, particularly in its relationships with its Asian American brothers and sisters. In the wake of this initiative, I wrote a number of blog posts explaining the reasons behind my involvement and why it’s important for the larger church to increase its cultural IQ. Please feel free to peruse and comment!
From the Christ and Pop Culture blog:
I am not, by nature, a rabble-rouser. I’ve been teased and marginalized by others countless times due to my Asian ethnicity (despite the fact that I am a natural-born American citizen), but no matter how much these incidents stung, I would say nothing and keep the memories deep inside. Whether it was due to my own insecurities, a desire to avoid conflict, an inability to articulate an adequate response, a fatalistic perspective that nothing I could say would change anything, in all those moments I kept my mouth shut. Doing so became my instinctive and self-protective response.
I share this to provide some context as to why a 40-something Asian American woman who has not historically been one to raise my voice when confronted by racial and cultural insensitivity did so through the open letter to the evangelical church that was recently released by a group of Asian American Christians. As part of the organizing committee who spearheaded this effort, I want to bring clarity to our motivations for releasing the letter and hopefully dispel some of the misconceptions about the letter and about those of us who were involved in its crafting.
From Ed Stetzer’s blog:
I was born in Spokane, Washington, and I’ve lived all my 40-plus years in the United States. If you never met or saw me before but heard me speak, you would likely assume that English is my first language, and you’d be correct. I love watching the NFL, I vote and pay my taxes, I make an amazing apple pie—I’m American, through and through.
But more times than I care to count, I have been treated like someone who doesn’t belong here, solely because of my heritage as the daughter of two Korean immigrants. My husband is also of Korean descent so my children, too, are Korean by blood, but also 100 percent American as I often remind them. Even so, my 11-year-old eldest son broke my heart recently when he told me that he doesn’t think girls will like him because he is “not American enough.” And I know he’s not getting that message from anyone in our family.
(Read more at “How High Is your Cultural Intelligence?”)
From the Evangelical Covenant Church:
Earlier this week, a coalition of Asian American pastors and church leaders released an “Open Letter to the Evangelical Church” decrying the use of stereotypes that they say have hurt their community. Two Covenanters, Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, drafted the letter and sought the signatories.
Major media outlets across the country have run stories about the letter, which is attracting additional signatories every day. To view the letter, click here.
The women decided to write the letter following two recent depictions of Asian Americans, one by Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, and another by Exponential, a church planting group, during a conference at Saddleback.
A video at the conference showed a white pastor joking that he made his apprentice do menial activities. The apprentice responds by doing a parody of the “Karate Kid” that includes the pastor speaking with a Chinese accent, and the two engaging in karate before bowing to each other.
(Illustration credit: http://www.istockphoto.com/mstay)
I’m so honored to have written the following article about Jimmy Lee, the executive director of Restore NYC, an organization that serves trafficked foreign nationals in New York City. The piece received a prize from the “This Is Our City” project of Christianity Today, and I am pleased that Jimmy and Restore NYC will receive more attention for the wonderful, life-giving work they are doing:
As a child, Jimmy Lee didn’t seem too interested in justice. By age 9, he had figured out how to win his classroom’s monthly motivational prize through a combination of cheating, stealing, and smarts. In 7th grade, he and his fellow athlete-friends would regularly morph into bullies, selecting weaker boys and girls, then knocking down their books and teasing them.
Fast-forward several decades, to a solitary, pre-dawn morning in April 2012. Lee sat down in his usual chair for devotions, thinking about a different segment of the weak and vulnerable. Just hours earlier, he had been introduced as the new executive director of Restore NYC, a faith-based organization that serves foreign nationals who are victims of sex trafficking in New York City. As he thought about what it must have been like for these women who have experienced horrific and repeated abuse, sometimes 30 times a day for years on end, the former aggressor found his defenses crumbling, and he wept.
“I sensed God was asking me to enter into their painful experience, to feel what he feels when this kind of abuse occurs,” Lee says. “To feel his sadness as well as his hunger for righteousness, justice, and restoration.”
Lee’s story is one of redemption, of a child with a limited moral compass transformed into a grown man pursuing justice, freedom, and equality for the most at-risk members of society.
From Aggressor to Advocate
Two events left indelible imprints on Lee and undoubtedly helped to shift this former child bully into an advocate for others. The first was his conversion to Christianity in early high school. The second was his decision to spend the summer of 1994 in South Africa, right after the anti-apartheid movement had reached its zenith with the election of Nelson Mandela as president. Witnessing history in the making had long-lasting ramifications for Lee: “I knew from then on that I ultimately wanted to do something with my life related to pursuing economic and social justice,” he says.
His time in South Africa also taught him about the importance of leveraging the political process to enact change. For this reason, Lee invests significant time and energy into advocating for policy decisions that will aid sex-trafficking victims. He is no stranger to press conferences and meetings with state and city officials. And the impact of Lee’s involvement in the political realm has not just helped Restore NYC, according Dorchen Leidholdt, who leads the statewide non-governmental organization Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
“Jimmy has changed the way that key players in the system look at the issue of trafficking,” Leidholdt says. “He made the decision to formally bring Restore into the work of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition and to join our campaign, which has been pivotal. He takes advantage of all the opportunities to advocate for trafficking victims and survivors. And male legislators can hear from Lee in a way they cannot hear from the rest of us. He demonstrates that this is not just a women’s issue.”
Read the rest of this article at the This Is Our City website:
Apologies for taking a while to post lately, but I’ve been in Scandinavia! =)
My hope for either myself or my family this year was to go on an overseas missions trip together. But in the end, what happened was something unexpected: a chance to go on a family trip to northern Europe in a once-in-a-lifetime excursion. I am not much of a world traveler outside of regular trips to Canada and family trips to Korea when I was younger. But lately, I have been wanting to experience more of what God is doing in other parts of the globe, and having my kids do the same.
During our 12-day trip, we had the chance to visit three different countries–Sweden, Denmark, and Norway–and in addition to the fabulous scenery and the novelty of being exposed to different cultures, my kids learned valuable lessons that have convinced me that we need to do more of these kinds of cross-cultural experiences together in the near future:
1. The U.S. is NOT the center of the universe.
To some extent, my kids already know this; they are tri-cultural as Korean-American-Canadians. But they still largely identify themselves as being American more than anything else, and so visiting Scandinavia was a chance to discover anew the truth that there are many other wonderful cultures and countries outside of the U.S. We were fortunate to be in a part of the world in which so many people do speak English, but at the same time we both heard and saw numerous other languages around us during our time in Scandinavia. We had to go through the process of deciphering basic words and phrases in three different languages, and the disorientation, while jarring at times, was a good experience for us all. Although our kids were relieved to come back to O’Hare International Airport (“It’s so nice to see all the signs in English, Mom!”), at the same time they gained greater perspective that the world is a big but increasingly accessible place, and the U.S. is only a small portion of it.
The Europeans have done a great job at making their cities so accessible with public transportation; my kids did more walking and public-transit riding in 12 days than they had ever previously experienced. Of course, this was something for my kids to also grumble about at times (especially my 5 year old!), but it such a great contrast to their mobile, suburban lifestyle and a good reminder of the reality that so many people in the world do not have access to a motor vehicle. I enjoyed both the challenge and the freedom of being without a car, not to mention the exercise we did with all the walking–which helped to balance out our daily intake of breads, cheeses, and croissants!
3. Life cannot always be comfortable.
Compared with traveling in a majority-world nation, in which basic needs such as sanitation and transportation might be much more undeveloped than what we experienced, our time in Scandinavia was not uncomfortable in the least. But yet, the boys still had to go through the discomforts of not being able to have what they typically expected or wanted when they wanted it, whether it was familiar foods, time to vegetate and relax when we were in full-tourist mode, or having to go along with mom and dad when we were headed to a museum instead of a park. It reminded me of how fortunate and comfortable our boys are at home, with more than all of their basic needs met and plenty of luxuries that come with the middle-class American lifestyle. And I realized that having more experiences out of their comfort zone would better prepare them to live missional lives in the future.
4. Wherever you go, you can find God’s people.
One of the highlights for me towards the end of our trip was visiting Immanuel Church in Stockholm, which had services in Swedish, English, and even Korean. We headed to the English service and were blessed to worship with an incredibly diverse congregation, yet the style and setting of the service was utterly familiar. My kids had the chance to meet, worship, and play with children from all around the globe. It was a wonderful reminder that the spirit of God knows no boundaries, and that anywhere in the world you go, you can find the people of God.
Our time in Scandinavia was definitely far from the missions experience I’d hoped I’d have some time this year. But at the same time, it gave me a small taste of what to expect when traveling overseas with children, which will help prepare us for the time when God does call us to our next trip abroad…which I hope will be sooner rather than later!
If you’ve traveled abroad with children for leisure or for missions, I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on how to prepare kids for the experience!
While having dinner with a family who lives in Manhattan, the parents told me about their daughter’s saga of testing for kindergarten admission into New York’s notoriously selective Hunter Elementary School. The parents are two of the brightest people I know, and their four-year-old daughter is fluent in at least three languages so far (Mandarin, French, and English). Her test results placed her in the impressive 98th percentile. And yet, she hadn’t made it past the first round; only kids who scored in the 99th percentile and above advanced.
My friends took it in good stride, shrugging off the results. “I look on the bright side,” said Jennifer. “At least she scored in the 98th percentile! I just wasn’t willing to do all the test prep that everyone else does.”
Test preparation has become the norm for many Manhattan families wishing to give their children that extra boost needed to gain admission into these very competitive public school programs. The New York Times recently reported that, despite education administrators’ efforts to downplay the impact of test preparation, an impact clearly seems to exist. The well-prepared child is one whose parents have the resources to afford the many tutoring services that have emerged to meet the demand of today’s anxious parents.
Thinking about the situation of my well-educated and intelligent friends and their precocious daughter, I have to wonder what hope there is for kids from families that are not as well-resourced. Pundits and politicians have dissected the increasing “opportunity gap“ that exists between the upper and lower classes, with conservatives and liberals both pointing fingers at the other’s flawed plans to bring more parity to our society. Unfortunately, policies can only go so far. What we’re seeing in our culture is not just an opportunity gap, but a moral and spiritual one as well.
Part of what Christian families can bring to the conversation is an awareness of this disparity and a willingness to stand against cultural norms to carve out a new pathway for themselves and their kids. I’ve been heartened to read more stories lately of Christian parents who are taking an approach to their children’s education that is clearly not based upon an individualistic desire to see their own kids succeed, but instead, seeks to lift the quality of education for all of the children in their community.
(Read the rest of the post at the Christ and Pop Culture blog.)
We recently hosted friends from New York City for dinner, who came with their two young daughters in tow. The elder, a precocious four-year-old who can easily speak three different languages (Mandarin, French, and in last place, English), had taken an entrance exam to attend kindergarten at one of the city’s notoriously sought-after schools. She’d done well, scoring higher than 98 percent of all applicants.
But apparently, being in the top 2 percent wasn’t good enough; she had to score well above 99 percent of all applicants in order to have a chance of admission. “Well, at least we know she scored pretty well on the test,” my friend Jennifer said with a shrug.
These are the times in which we live, that pressures begin for parents of children even in the supposedly innocent years of preschool. As Jennifer shared how many of their peers had “prepped” their precious four-year-olds for the exam, I found myself wondering what good could come from a society that is pushing even our littlest ones into academic success at such a young age.
(Read the rest of the post at the What to Expect When You’re Expecting blog.)
As I was browsing through Facebook last week, I noticed that my friend DJ Chuang had posted a photo on Facebook about the upcoming Urbana Student Missions Conference, as he was running a contest to encourage pastors to win a free pass to the conference. (DJ is on the “Social Media Squad” for Urbana to help cover and promote the event.)
Interestingly, though, it wasn’t the contest that seemed to generate any attention, but the photo that DJ posted (which you can see on his website); he had created a montage of the current lineup of speakers for the “Pastors and Church Leaders” track, and although the 12 people portrayed reflected ethnic and racial diversity, the glaring reality that only one was a woman (Jeanette Yep, missions pastor at Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA–and a dear friend of mine) hit a nerve with the Facebookers who saw it. “What?? Where are the women?? This is an outrage!!” was the immediate outcry.
Lost amidst the momentary buzz was the reality that Urbana as a whole actually does a great deal to pursue and uphold the contributions of women amongst the conference leaders, plenary speakers, worship leaders, and workshop speakers. According to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) vice-president Tom Lin, director of missions and Urbana, “More than 60% of Urbana’s Program leadership is comprised of women, including Nikki Toyama-Szeto (program director), Sandra Van Opstal (worship director), Lindsay Olesberg (Bible Study Manager for the Conference), Diana Collymore (Afternoon Programs Manager), Alison Siewart (Theatre and Arts Director), and Lina Sanchez-Herrera (National Prayer Co-Coordinator).”
Nevertheless, the comments came flying, with varying degrees of frustration, concern, and disappointment, from many who are InterVarsity insiders. It was a moment of InterVarsity family business, so to speak, but on display for the world to see. I, too, initially felt disheartened to see only one woman on that track, fabulous a selection though she is. But as someone who thinks highly of both Tom and also of InterVarsity in general, I was certain there was an explanation, and I did not want to comment until I’d heard it.
And there was: according to track director Donna Wilson, the track’s speaking assignments are not yet complete, and the Urbana team is still waiting to hear from other women who have been contacted to speak in this track. The photo montage was not an official photo created by the Urbana team, but one that DJ put together out of a desire to make it easier for people to see the information about all the currently confirmed speakers in this track. And I have absolutely no doubt that the Urbana team will find more women to help balance the gender gap currently present in this track.
Urbana and its parent organization, IVCF, have demonstrated their commitment to diversity in more ways than one, both in terms of gender representation at major events like Urbana, as well as in its well-documented commitment to multiethnicity and multiethnic ministry, well before doing so was considered necessary or important. Through its publishing branch, InterVarsity Press, IVCF is the organization responsible for publishing numerous books affirming the value and role of women in ministry (Discovering Biblical Equality, Women in the Church, Living on the Boundaries, and More than Enchanting, just to name a few.) It features women involved at all levels of leadership and ministry. If what happened with the Pastors and Church Leaders’ track was an oversight, then believe me, they are doing everything they can to rectify the situation.
In this instant-feedback culture we live in, in which it’s easy to offer up our immediate reactions and have those reactions be validated in real-time by others who think similarly, we sometimes forget that before we react, it makes good sense to pause or to pursue an explanation first. This is true both in the old “think before you speak” adage, but even more true online, where our immediate reactions are now visible for all to see. Was it wrong for people to make a comment about the seeming lack of gender diversity in the Pastors and Church Leaders track? No. I think we need to speak up when we see inequalities that need to be addressed.
But if and when we do, I think it is wise to reserve judgment until we are well-versed in the facts. Otherwise, all we’ll do is perpetuate an outrage or an outcry that may not have had a reason to be perpetuated in the first place.