Last year, Kelly Wilson authored the four part series, the Evangelical Shift, looking at “Evangelical refugees,” in search of “deeper” worship, more progressive politics, or for a place to be welcomed. Continuing from that research, Wilson now offers a look into the experience of Asian-Americans in the Episcopal Church.
You can check out that original series here
Part 1: Evangelical Refugees
Part 2: Learning the Language of Liturgy
Part 4: Moving Forward
Seeking understanding through immersion and action
Reverend Huang talks about the importance of not only listening to the Asian community, but for non-Asians to actively seek out cultural immersion opportunities: “Another ministry that we’ve started here in LA is called Asian Immersion. Many of our Episcopal Churches are situated in communities with growing Asian American populations, yet our churches don’t reflect that, or minister directly to those communities. We put on a series of events and have invited non-Asian clergy and lay leaders to learn about specifics, spend time immersing in some activities, work on incorporating some of the things they’ve learned about the culture, and discuss what ministry possibilities might be there.
“And I would say part of it is, asking Asian Americans, ‘How would you like the church to be involved in your community,’ versus “here’s what we want to do to help you.’ The church here in LA works actively with the immigrant population. Most people don’t know that about a quarter of DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants are of Asian descent. There are a lot of needs that are related to immigration rights or education rights, or just basic needs of language, getting your driver’s license, health needs, things like that. And for others, the needs are in hearing what their stories are, just getting to know each other and hearing about the pain of discrimination and micro-oppression or invisibility that people carry and having the space where they are taken seriously.”
Creating space for questions without easy answers
Many Asian American Christians either were raised in an Evangelical environment or have gravitated toward Evangelical spaces, but there is a growing group of believers who are dissatisfied with the answers they are receiving for some of their questions in those spaces. There is an opportunity for churches such as the Episcopal Church to be a spiritual home for Asian Americans who are craving a more progressive approach to their spirituality.
As Bishop Bruce puts it, “Asian Americans are leaving Evangelical Churches over three issues. Number one, they want a place where women are in leadership. Number two, they want to be in a place where they can talk about and deal with LGBTQ issues. Number three, they want a place where they can doubt. When I first heard that, I raised my hand and said, ‘Right here, take us!’…To create a welcome for Asian Americans who are coming out of the Evangelical setting, it means giving them the ability to come together and talk about issues, in an environment where it’s safe and where they can express doubt. Not everyone knows how to do that well, but it’s what we should be trying to do.”
To that point, a church that is focused more on liturgy and community than centered around the dogma of the sermon can be more inviting in some ways for believers who want to question and stretch theology beyond the traditional. Of course, integrating cultures can be easier said than done, particularly when the church is built on a long history of its own specific (white, English, Western) culture. But creating a space where progressive thinking and doubt are welcome can go a long way to bridging that gap between cultures and creating a space that is welcoming and safe.
Looking for the gifts that Asian Americans bring to the church
One important part of welcome is embracing cultural differences and allowing our own culture to shift, as well. Not only can subtle cultural shifts be allowed to sometimes affect music and other expressions of worship to reflect the culture of a church’s neighborhood or region, so can broader cultural values, including harmony, family, and intellect.
I asked the Right Reverend Allen Shin, Bishop Suffragen of the Diocese of New York, what he felt were the gifts that Asian culture brought to the church: “One thing that the Asian culture offers is the strong foundation of community. If there’s one identity or one aspect that is shared by many Asian contexts, it’s that of being very community oriented. That is a gift to the church. The other is that, despite the similar horrors of war and revolutions in various parts of Asia, it’s still a culture that strives for a sense of harmony. The philosophy of harmonious relationship is very important. That is another gift. Then there is the diversity itself. You cannot put an Asian in a box or a single definition because they are all so different. That is an important, rich gift.”
As Reverend Lee adds about later generations of Asian Americans, “One thing that Asians who are still in the church can bring now is a kind of seriousness about their faith, and a real interest in God and Jesus, that will only continue to exist if we nurture it. And what the Episcopal Church can provide to Asians, many of whom grew up in Protestant traditions, is a way to the historic, Catholic and Apostolic, ancient faith, which is not something that a lot of Asian-American Protestants have experience with or access to. And finally, what Asian people who come to the Episcopal Church from a Protestant tradition offer us a fervor about their faith, and the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus, which for us as a church can be mutually beneficial. The Episcopal Church is uniquely placed, with one foot in the Catholic, Apostolic tradition and one foot in Protestant tradition, to bring a deep, rich vision of Christianity that is also really inclusive to people who might be interested in Christianity, but who find the traditions they grew up in a little too constrictive, or too conservative, or who are looking for more liturgy, sacrament, and mystery.”In these ways, the Episcopal Church can be a welcome home to a culture that is not just a model minority, vibrant group that enriches the church as a whole through our dialogue and interchange.
So, what does welcome look like for Asian American churchgoers, in practical terms?
I had the opportunity to talk with Audrey Lee, a layperson who works as a Leadership and Inclusive Diversity Consultant and is a part of the EAST ministry in NYC. Her experience is in some ways typical of 2nd generation Asian Americans, with conflicting ties to her parents’ culture, with a conservative religious upbringing, and reconciling those cultural connections with American expectations of equality.
Her experience is right at the intersection of Asian American culture navigating American churches and Evangelical churchgoers entering liturgical spaces. But as with every spiritual journey, her story is also unique. For the Church, the challenge is balancing attention to the commonalities in the stories of Asian American churchgoers, and also listening for the distinctions that define individuals.
As Audrey told me, “God cares about our culture in a very specific way. He made us as individuals within a cultural context. He cares about us as individuals within that context. Therefore, that context doesn’t just go away, even when we enter into a sacred context. Especially when we enter a sacred context. God cares about all aspects of us, including our cultural context.”
Audrey grew up in California, the child of an Asian-American mother and father. She grew up in a conservative Chinese church with much in common with Evangelicals (“Liberal was definitely a bad word,” Audrey says). She grew up firm in her faith, with a strong evangelical impulse: “When I was 5 or 6, I was like ‘Jesus is my savior.’ At recess, I tried to talk to kids about Christ and about God, and what it meant to me as a 6-year-old. I always thought I’d go into the ministry. I thought I’d be a missionary.”
This religious impulse continued through her youth, even when it came in conflict with other family and cultural priorities: “I was serious about my faith and my vocation. And my experience at church was that, after we moved around a bit, we had left the Chinese church and ended up in a sort of mega-church, with a youth group, and choirs, and things like that. We had to beg to go to church. That was my rebellion, going to youth group. And they’d say, ‘Ok, you can take a night off from studying and go to youth group.’”
It was during this period that Lee began to question some of the restrictions of the Evangelical tradition, particularly the historical restrictions on women in ministry: “I started asking a lot of questions like “Well, where do women go to be a missionary? What else do women do when they can’t go to seminary or go into ministry?” And what I heard was about how as a woman, you could be a music minister, or you could teach little boys in Sunday school, but that women should not teach men at all.”
Later, she went to college in Indiana, she was a member of the collegiate religious organization InterVarsity, where, despite good experiences, she faced similar challenges: “There were also parts of it that were toxic, because I was a woman. I didn’t behave the way they thought an Asian woman would. I think a lot of it just came because they didn’t know what to do with someone with a strong personality, and someone who was very serious about faith in a way that wasn’t just emotional. I liked to sit around at lunch after church and debate points. And people would stop me and say, ‘I don’t think you should be arguing with our brother like that.’”
Lee wondered if perhaps her hopes of ministry were not what God wanted: “I felt like maybe God doesn’t want this, and how can I be totally sure? Even if I were totally sure, how can I be TOTALLY sure?”
It was a personal experience with liturgical worship that first opened up Lee’s horizons to different ways of worshiping: “During that time I had a friend who was studying to become a Lutheran pastor. And he said, ‘I want to share this with you. I’m going to take you to this Episcopal church up in Chicago for the Great Easter Vigil.’ And I was completely floored. I had read some stuff about symbols and all that and had heard some of the things that Evangelicals would say about it, that it was very regimented and stilted, and maybe [those doing liturgy] didn’t really mean any of this stuff. But then I went there, and I thought ‘This is the embodiment of what I believe.’
“I was really stunned because, when I studied music, the first thing I learned about Western music was the role of the church. Why were people writing this music? For prayers. So, I was reading through the leaflet, and I’m reading the Credo, and I’m reading the Gloria, and my thought is “This is the Bible.” What do people mean when they say that “Catholics don’t use Scripture?” This is Scripture! And all of our senses are engaged with it. We’re asked to enter into a full body, mind and spirit experience, with our whole being. Everything from the stained glass to the choreography at the front to the incense we are smelling, it’s all prayer. And the sacraments, they are the concentrated windows where we see the Divine.”
After a few years of going back to Evangelical churches and struggling with rituals that didn’t offer the same meaningful experience, and spaces that didn’t offer ministry opportunities (or in some cases, because of being single, even social opportunities) for a woman, Audrey eventually moved to New York, married an Asian-American Californian with similar background, and found her way into Episcopal worship.
“I love the idea that the Episcopal Church is a place where there are questions about how we live out our faith and our identity, and our daily sanctification. There are questions about God and the mystery of God. And there’s not a pretense that we already have to know those things before we walk into the church and experience the sacraments. I like the idea that we are just witnesses. WE don’t have to decide exactly how God meant Creation to be created from the beginning until the end of Time. We’re not called to do that. When we think about some of the commandments, we’re not even done fulfilling loving of our enemies. We don’t get to move on anything else. Later on, we can find out if we were right all along about this and that issue. We’re here to help each other, not to be right or wrong about this or that.”
And for Lee, this place of helping each other is the launching pad for her experience with other Asian Americans in the church: “Both my husband and I are starting to get involved with this vessel, EAST, the Episcopalian Asian Supper Table. I like the intention of really seeking out people of color to come together and talk about their experiences in the faith. And that the church is interested in that, too. They wanted to know more about what our experience is and how it is impacting the witness. It’s a good time to do that.
Lee talks more about how churches are engaging with diversity in their communities: “I really enjoy seeing how some churches are engaging with different cultures to ask how do we bring different people who are in the community into the worship experience, in a way that still expresses sacrament and honors the tradition? And if we find something honorable and helpful in that culture of context that we borrowed, that’s good. So how do we keep the piece that allows us to connect with the church that has meaning, that brings our theology to life and allows us to embody that in a real way, but still connects us culturally to the context. That’s something all denominations should be talking about right now. I think there are a lot of churches that are struggling with making room for us right now. But Asian-Americans are slowly starting to speak up about that. And the fact that there are churches that are now seeing that there is room for us, that’s what I’m excited about.”
Lee continues, “And it is good to know that the church is listening. If the church is not being changed by what they are hearing, then they are not doing the work.”
Kelly Wilson is a writer and blogger living in New York City, where he also serves on the staff of the landmark Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. More of his writing can be found at www.kellywilson.com.