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
Asian Americans in the Episcopal Church, part 2: The Next Generations
Welcome to the next chapter in the Evangelical Shift series, which addresses the migration of evangelical churchgoers to liturgical worship, and the welcome that churches such as the Episcopal Church can provide.
This is the second part of a series that talks specifically about Asian-Americans and their experience within the Episcopal church. The previous installment challenged us to consider how the Episcopal Church and other churches can extend a welcome to Asians and Asian Americans. It also looked at the history of Asians in America, particularly first-generation immigrants, and their experiences in different churches, including the Episcopal church.
This section explores the experiences and concerns of the next generations of Asian Americans with regard to the church and American society and considers the unique challenges and gifts of the next generations of Asian-Americans looking for a spiritual home.
The next generations of Asian-Americans look for something different
The last installment discussed Asian-specific ethnic churches, which have long had a role in creating a spiritual home for Asian immigrants and first-generation Asian Americans. However, when we look at the current environment, as “Generation 1.5” (meaning, those who immigrated as children or adolescents) and 2nd and 3rd generations of Asian Americans come of age, the role of ethnic-specific churches does seem to be losing some of its importance, as these younger generations look for new ways of defining themselves and their spirituality.
I spoke with The Rt. Reverend Diane Bruce, the Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, who described the shortcomings of the older approach: “Historically, the Episcopal Church has not been quick on the uptake to address the changing demographics. So, what ends up happening is that we may have been pretty good in places at attracting immigrant populations: Spanish-speaking, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Hmong, and others, but we did not do a good job of holding on to Generation 1.5, or people 2 and 3 generations out, many of whom either left the church completely or left to a more evangelical setting. And now the church is struggling with attracting and keeping these populations. Asian Americans who are of these later generations, they’re having a very different experience, and they want to experience church in a different way than their parents or grandparents or maybe great-grandparents wanted or needed.”
On the other side of the country, the Reverend Steven Lee, Vicar of the Congregation of St Saviour at the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, describes efforts to change the focus in New York City: “Historically, from the 70s all the way up through the 90s, there was a very vibrant Episcopal Asian-American ministry group. There were several ethnic churches, including a Korean church, a Chinese church, a Japanese convocation, a Filipino church, and they would send representatives every year for a yearly celebration of Asian ministries in New York. It was a multi-cultural Asian celebration. But as with a lot of ethnic churches, it quietly went away. There is only one Chinese church left in the Diocese of New York, and part of that is because a lot of 1st-generation ethnic groups no longer needed language-specific, culture-specific churches. Part of that is because many of their children were becoming assimilated, and were going to other types of churches, such as Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church. With a large Asian and particularly Korean membership, Redeemer has become one of the most vibrant Asian-American churches in the city. So, one group I’m particularly interested in is the 2nd generation of Asian-Americans and what they are looking for. It’s a different mindset than new immigrants from Asia coming to America.”
One big challenge for churches who want to offer the most expansive welcome to Asian Americans, in addition to understanding and welcoming the many cultures within the Asian and Asian-American population, is also being able to extend an open welcome to different generations of Asian Americans and realizing that they have differing needs.
Understanding the Asian Americans in our midst
For churches like the Episcopal Church, where does creating a welcome space for Asian Americans begin? As with most efforts to be inclusive, looking and listening are essential. Welcome begins with awareness of who is in the community.
As The Reverend Peter Huang of St. Francis Episcopal Church (also in the Diocese of Los Angeles) says, “The question is, “Who are the Asians in our midst? What are their needs? What are the ways that we connect with and serve them?’ It’s not just about filling the pews so we have the right percentage at each church that represents the demographics of that community. We want to hear what the needs are of that community. Our welcome relies on our ability to connect with and respect the dignity of every human being when they show up at our churches. Do they feel that there’s a place for them at the table? Is this yet another place that they feel excluded?”
The Reverend Yein Kim, of LA’s St Athanasius Episcopal Church, describes some of the challenges in the church’s approach to Asian American ministries: “There are churches that feel their population is declining and discover that Asians are moving into the neighborhood. The church may want to start an Asian ministry to ensure growth, but often without understanding of these other cultures within the church. Then people get scared when the Asian ministry grows. They don’t know what to do.”
Mutual unfamiliarity as a challenge to the feeling of welcome
Unfamiliarity among newcomers with the detailed traditions and liturgy of the Episcopal Church can be a challenge, as Reverend Kim explains: “Asian Americans have different relationships to “church,” which changes your approach. Koreans, in general, have a very heavy Christian culture. A lot of Koreans are coming out of Evangelical churches—in fact, the biggest church in the world is a Full Gospel Church in Korea. But things are different for people who are Japanese or Chinese, who did not grow up in churches. They might not be exposed to theology. While they may be intrigued by the “all are welcome” sign, they might get inside and face an unfriendly prayer book, with lots of getting up and sitting down, but not much understanding. It can come off as microaggression. I understand the frustration of newcomers. We have not done a very good job of inviting those who are unfamiliar with our traditions. And when someone comes in and doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s hard to get them back.”
Reverend Huang dives deeper into considering the interchange between Asian Americans and liturgical worship, and if there are opportunities for integration, “One of the challenges I think the Episcopal Church faces, is both a benefit and a challenge, is liturgy. The liturgy can be awesome in capturing a sense of sacredness, particularly for some Evangelicals and others who come from lower church settings where they feel like they need to reinvent the wheel every week. Liturgy can be a very healing experience. Some Asian Americans will step into an Episcopal Church and feel that it’s very white and English. What would liturgy look like for the Asian American community?”
On the other side of the equation, Reverend Lee describes how the church’s unfamiliarity with Asian American cultures and generations can get in the way: “In the Episcopal Church, because we don’t have many Asians, and perhaps because in the regions where we are the strongest our churches don’t have many Asians, there is an unfamiliarity. People aren’t quite sure how to treat Asians. In some areas, like California, there is a little more multiculturalism. People are used to seeing Asians doing all sorts of things, beyond the stereotypical ‘math nerd.’ You can see Asians playing baseball! But sometimes when I enter Episcopal spaces, I feel I am stepping into time-warp, as though I were living a generation or two ago, given how people interact with me.”
And that unfamiliarity with Asian Americans, including the differences between cultures and generations, can be felt by some as soon as they walk in the door. As Bishop Bruce recounts: “A situation I’ve witnessed myself is that someone will say to an Asian-American when they come to the door, ‘Hi, it’s nice to meet you. Where are you from?’ and the young Asian American person will say something like, ‘Omaha.’ And then the person at the door will say, ‘No, really where are you from?’ and what they really want to know is their ethnicity: Are you Korean? Are you Chinese? Are you Japanese? You wouldn’t ask somebody else at the door that same thing. That’s a problem.”
Creating spaces for Asian Americans to connect
One approach to helping see, hear, and understand the Asian and Asian-American community in a church’s neighborhood is to create a space where those people in those populations can come together. The clergy and leaders that I spoke with talked about how this effort was being made practically real in their cities and discussed how to foster similar initiatives in other regions.
One particular initiative within the Episcopal Diocese of New York that Reverend Lee told me about is called the Episcopal Asian Supper Table, or EAST. According to the diocese website, EAST “invites all people of Asian ancestry to come together. WE are building a united community by sharing stories, developing spiritually, and lifting up our membership as leaders….” As Lee explains, “The challenge for Asians in the Episcopal church is often that people want to group us into a place, but the existing categories don’t fit. I think part of what we are trying to do in EAST, just by existing and being part of the church, is saying ‘We have a role, a space, and maybe you have to create a new category for us. Just because we don’t fit into the existing categories doesn’t mean you should put us into those categories, but maybe we can be our own category.”
Reverend Huang spoke to me about another initiative on the West Coast, called the Gathering: “We’re very blessed in the diocese of Los Angeles and the diocese of New York to have a group of young, energetic Asian-Americans that are looking to create opportunities for this group to come together. One of the ministries we started last year is called the Gathering. Our hope is to gather together Asian Americans from the Episcopal Asiamerica Churches in LA, as well as those from across the Asian American diaspora in other mainstream churches, who might want to connect with other Asian Americans. Sometimes, when you attend a mainstream church, you almost feel like you have to check your ethnicity at the door. The full name is The Gathering—a Space for Asian American Spirituality. We have monthly events, a mix of panel discussions and more experiential events, just to gather the people to get to know each other and to see what’s next.”
The movement to unite Asian Americans is not just limited to the big coastal cities, and technology may be a way of helping make and maintain those connections. As Bishop Bruce describes, “We are starting to look at how we can engage with those Asian-Americans across the country. How do we engage with Asian-Americans in Omaha or Boise or Kansas? We’re trying to look at different ways that we can encourage Asian-Americans to come online with the Episcopal Church. Their voices are very, very important, and it’s a missed opportunity within the church. We want to take what we’ve learned here and replicate it for those other areas.”
Reverend Huang describes one specific way technology is innovating one Asian American community: “There’s a Facebook group for Progressive Asian American Christians. Many now regard that as their church. That is their community, but it’s online. They have local meetups, but the technology is definitely part of their organization. Which asks the question, what is church? Is it something other than somewhere to go on Sunday morning? How is the church present in the community? How is it present to the people? How does the church be present to things that are not necessarily related to showing up to a program on a Sunday morning?”
Organizations such as EAST and The Gathering, as well as emerging online platforms, give Asian Americans a specific place to voice their concerns as well as their hopes, and it goes beyond just meeting up on Sunday mornings. It allows others to listen, which is always an important beginning to dialogue, but it also helps us as a body to identify areas within our church where we can act.
Next: In part 3, the series looks at listening and making space for questions as the key attitude towards creating places of welcome. We’ll also look at the experience of a someone looking for a home in the Episcopal church and how that journey has unfolded.
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.