- Reference Points
- Asian American Christians
- Asian Americans
- Christianity in the World
- Christianity in America
- Spectrum of Views
We’re still here. Here’s a brief update to let you know what we’re up to!
- Connecting our dots. Mainly, we’re putting together all these pieces: interviews, hypotheses, statistics, histories, etc together into one cohesive whole! As we keep saying, AsianAmericanChristian.org is a proposal for a new ministry. So, we’ve taken the first half of the year to write things up as this has been our goal from the beginning. Lord willing, we’ll have a solid complete draft by June 30 and then begin to get feedback from various Asian American ministers starting in the Fall. (We know a lot of what we do here seems random, long, and boring even if you don’t know the person or ministry. But it has been for a purpose. We’re excited to share that with you soon!)
- Interviews. We also still have some great interviews to share, but they are still in various stages of editing.
- We are interconnected. We also had planned to touch upon how we’re interconnected. We’ve been on work on some materials for the last 2+ years, but this is on hold for now… Apologies.
I should still say, as I have previously, that “we” is still one main person. I do not mean to mislead; I just have a lot of trouble with the world “I.” In my heart, it is a “we” in the sense that I have a body of advisors, friends, prayer people, donors, champions. And it also is a very hopeful, “we.” After a draft of this proposal is finished, it will no long be just me. The proposal will help us present the big picture, get feedback and invite others to shape and comment, and be even more involved. It will truly, I pray, be the real beginning of a “we.”
Thanks so much for checking in and for those of you praying. Excited to be serving God and Asian American Christians!
In our dear Lord Jesus.
PART 2: Fall 2015
Advocates for English Ministries in Chinese Churches (1978 – present)
Fellowship for American Christian Evangelicals (FACE)
Connecting Asian Americans (1988 – present)
Ministries for English Speaking Asians (MESA)
Origins of InterVarsity Asian American Ministries (1970s-1990s)
For such a time as this
InterVarsity’s first Asian American coordinator (1980-2)
First full-fledged Evangelical
Asian American Ministry Seminary Program (2001 – present)
Logos Evangelical Seminary (正道福音神學院)
Founder of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Philippines
It’s not about black and white in Canada
Director of Multiethnic / Multicultural Ministry, Inter-Varsity Canada
|“I want to live |
my life for you.”
|“I’ve really appreciated |
all the people who have
invested in me.”
"Mount Hermon discovered
and affirmed our gifts.”
"Going to Mount Hermon
is like me revisiting
my spiritual pilgrimage.”
Lighthouse Christian Church
"We just loved going to|
Mount Hermon as a family!”
|“There is kind of mutual |
learning that happens
Christian Layman Church
Pioneering Asian American Churches
Uniquely Korean and American:
Pastor Min Chung and Covenant Fellowship Church
Many in Asian American ministries think InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s work leads the way. The national movement, formally beginning in 1941, has long contextualized the Gospel for college students helping them to love God and neighbor, locally and all over the world.
When the 1965 Immigration Act opened America’s doors to non-Europeans, Asian immigrants began to arrive in significant numbers. Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the children of these immigrants began to enroll in college. As those numbers grew, InterVarsity Asian American ministries was one ministry that welcomed these second generation students and helped them to love and know God in their own lives. Many of these insights were shared in InterVarsity Press books published between 1998-2006. These titles still account for a significant portion of popular Asian American Evangelical titles today.
Nina Lau-Branson served as InterVarsity’s first Asian American National Coordinator from 1980 to 1982 while she also worked part-time as a campus worker at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She, Jeanette Yep, Donna Dong and others engaged in the first efforts that grew into InterVarsity Asian American Ministries.
Please share with us some of your background?
I’m more second generation. My father was born in Hawaii but my grandfather took them back to China when he was a preschooler. Even though he was born in a US territory, really he was raised in China. [Her mother was born in Guangzhou, China.]
I was born in Texas. I was raised in a small city outside of Houston which I later found out was one of the regional centers for the Ku Klux Klan. When I was just starting junior high school, we moved to Hawaii where most of my father’s family was.
So, I’ve had two very, very different experiences of what it means to be Asian American in this country. One, where I was almost the only Asian person around—and almost the only person of color around—because of that community and who they allowed to live there. It was very clear that African Americans couldn’t live there, and they didn’t. Versus Hawaii: when I was in Junior high school, there was no white person in the school. So huge differences.
You went to college in Hawaii then went on staff with InterVarsity (IV) at UCLA before moving to Madison, Wisconsin to work at IV’s national headquarters.
My husband Mark Branson and I moved to Madison in the summer of 1980. Mark already had a commitment to a national ministry, Theological Students Fellowship, and we had just gotten married that spring. So that’s how I ended up in Madison, because of Mark’s ministry and commitment to InterVarsity.
How did you become InterVarsity’s first national Asian American coordinator?
I just happened to be there at the time when they were beginning more of the multiethnic student ministry conversation. Some think of that as God’s provision and prompting, saying “Yes, this is important. I’m actually going to put someone there even though you’re not ready to actually to have someone do this work.”
When we got there, I already had a part-time campus ministry position with UW Madison as part of the regular [InterVarsity] staff team. The other part of my time was starting an Asian American student ministry initiative.
Can you give us more background on how InterVarsity came to create this role?
It was all part of this larger conversation about InterVarsity trying to be more intentional in reaching out beyond the majority culture students [with whom] they had done such effective work for decades.
And it seems like often issues of race in our country often start with the white and black conversation. That’s not unusual.
InterVarsity had been thinking about reaching out to students of color. I believe they already had started discussions with [the late African American Pastor] Elward Ellis, who they did eventually hire to start Black Campus Ministries. Elward was recruited and moved to Madison to take that position.
There also was a conversation started around Latino American ministries. The other person they asked to kind of begin some conversation was a woman named Ruth Lewis. She was also already in Madison like I was. She wasn’t of Hispanic origin but a missionary kid who grew up in Latin America. So, she was a two culture person.
I think initially there were conversations from the Asian American staff at that time. There were very few of us. There were several from Hawaii—if you didn’t count them, there were maybe six. The African American conversation was just further along.
Initially, we gathered to talk about what we wanted to try and accomplish and what the basis was of having a ministry to Asian American students. Did it make sense?
At the time, how then did you view the need for Asian American ministries?
I will say that that was also a question that God raised at that time as well. It’s not a new question, whether there is a need for Asian American student ministries.
This question definitely doesn’t seem to come up in the same way for our Hispanic and African American brothers and sisters. That’s because of the difference between the number of students from our communities in universities that are able to perform to the standards of those institutions and systems. I think for me, simply being able to negotiate a different culture and system puts Asian Americans at an advantage. And especially Confucian-based cultures are again, very heavy into academics and achievement, and so there’s that overlap of value with the majority culture that values achievement and advancement.
But in my mind, simply because we could negotiate that culture didn’t mean that we were completely received for all of who we are in that culture. Just because you can negotiate it and deal at least to some extent, it doesn’t mean all of you is really welcome.
So particularly with Christian ministry, where the whole person is welcomed into God’s Kingdom, it seemed like we were only welcoming a part of the person into the Kingdom. There was another part that was still only seen at home, or seen interacting with family, and those kinds of things. This part was truly left out of the whole and not really being received into the Kingdom and the Body of Christ.
Also, because of the part of us that was being actively engaged was our American part, we weren’t bringing our other important gift because people weren’t seeing it, and therefore weren’t able to nurture it. So there really is a loss for all of us, the whole Body of Christ.
What were some of the things Asian American Christians in InterVarsity were thinking about in the early 1980s? What were some of the challenges?
I think all ministries were trying to make sense of our relationship with churches.
Staff who come from large majority culture churches would generally have the easiest time raising their support. In those churches, there was an understanding of what student ministry is, and they feel connected to it; they see the fruit of it. They see how it adds to them as a church, as they get more mature disciples who cycle back.
It was a complete disconnect with the Asian churches—at that time, our staff were coming from more Asian-speaking churches. [Second+ generation English speaking Asian American churches which were just beginning.] These churches did not see the benefit. They did not see the fruit; it was a foreign land to them.
So because of that, we tried to create some avenues to be in conversation and create conversation with these churches. And that was pretty difficult. From a cultural standpoint, it was very unideal. Having two or three young second generation Chinese American women [Donna Dong, Jeanette Yep and myself] trying to establish effective relationships with first generation Chinese pastors whose primary language is Chinese in such a Confucian-based culture would have been a challenge under the best circumstances. This was true even with the few second generation Asian American pastors we attempted to connect with. The whole cultural effect was ongoing in terms of gender and age.
The other challenge in my memory was that we were asked, “Why are you based in Madison where there are no Asian American students?” I believe in the conversations with my counterparts, they also were asked this question. Elward would be asked by other African American churches, “Madison is not exactly the hotbed of African American life and students. So, why are you there?” And really, there just wasn’t a good answer for it other than InterVarsity required it. I don’t know if InterVarsity is still requiring that of all their national ministries at this point. At that point in time, if you had any responsibility for national ministry, you had to physically be in Madison, Wisconsin. [Editor’s note: It is no longer required.]
I remember we raised the question if we could possibly be based in Downers Grove [a suburb of Chicago] with InterVarsity Press because you can at least make an argument that there are minorities there. But that wasn’t perceived as necessary. So Madison it was.
So, those two things in my mind were some of the great challenges.
You stayed in that position for about two years? What happened next for you?
We had a four year commitment in Madison. After the first two years, I left InterVarsity, and I did my MBA in Finance at UW Madison while Mark finished out his commitment.
I moved on to business. After graduating from UW Madison, Mark and I moved to the [San Francisco] Bay Area and spent about 15 years there, first working at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in their entrepreneurial services group, and then being hired by one of my clients to be part of their management team to take their company public.
Then, there came a point at the end our time in the Bay Area, that I just had a sense that God was asking me to step off my career path. At the same time, a couple of my mentors were urging me on to the next step, another start-up, another IPO, to be the CFO.
I did step off my career path. I didn’t expect it to be such a step off as it’s come to be.
We moved to Southern California, and my sense with the Lord was that he was inviting me into a time of solitude and wilderness, a time of prayer and journaling and simply being with him. We had younger children at the time; my youngest was just starting school. Anyway, that was almost 15 years ago. I didn’t realize that time period was going to be so long.
It’s only been in the last couple years that I felt God’s release to move into more external work. One of the things I have discovered in this past season is how Chinese I really am, which is a surprise.
Discovering how Chinese she is
Somebody asked me a great question: “Are you saying that really your soul is part Chinese?” I haven’t answered that question, but thinking of my soul as bicultural makes sense.
I think there was a part of me that wasn’t as available to God or as present to God that is very distinctly Chinese. I don’t think it’s because the Chinese part of me was inherently less available to God. I believe this Chinese part of my soul was not recognized and nurtured as much as my American part. I don’t believe it was less visible than my American part, but the Chinese part of my soul was not perceived like my American part. For example, the way I’ve been brought up in the church, in InterVarsity: it was speaking more to the American part of me. There was more nurturing and development for the American part of my soul. The Chinese part of my soul didn’t get substantially nurtured until God himself did it in the season of solitude and wilderness.
So anyway, I feel like this last season has really been about God moving into some of those places. And I’m really grateful for that.
As you’re moving more towards an “external” life as you say, it sounds like you still have a wonderfully deep internal life with God. You’re currently affiliated with the Missional Network, you’re a spiritual director, and you’re helping with various programs at Fuller. Do you have any inklings as to where God is moving you next?
These last couple years I am pondering what God might want me to do with who I am, and how he’s responded to, in my mind, very Chinese questions and what can I do with that. There’s not real clarity about this yet at this point.
Well, I’m looking forward to seeing how God continues to lead you. Thank you so much for your time.
Happy Martin Luther King Junior Day!
“Without hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.” —Martin Luther King, Jr, (1965).
This web-based ministry is three today, and it still is just a proposal. We still are just the work of one main person and illustrating what AsianAmericanChristian.org could be.
Our theme for this year is to begin to illustrate how we are interconnected. Our lives touch upon one another more than we realize.
Minutes before King said the quote above, in the same 1965 commencement speech imploring people stay engaged amidst the fast changes happening in this world, he said this:
“What we are facing today is the fact that through our scientific and technological genius we’ve made of this world a neighborhood….We must all learn to live together as brothers – or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together…. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.”
How much more true is his statement today especially with the growing ubiquity of the Internet. We are all the more tied together, connected to one another. We are created by one Creator, made in God’s image and thus of tremendous value, desired and loved by God.
How much more true this has this been since the 1965 Immigration Act that allowed most of us Asians into this country, turning us into Asian Americans! As recently as one or two generations ago, few of us imagined living across an ocean and having children, many of whom would grow up to only speak in English, who would interact with one another, inter-marry, and share Christ with one another. Many of us, first and second generation people, met Christ across this ocean, devoted our lives to Christ, ministering Christ to others.
As we have grouped ourselves together, just as others have group us together. Some of these interconnections delight us and some grieve us. Nevertheless, because of these interconnections, our ministries are dependent on one another even though we may not be familiar or know about the other’s existence.
This next year, we’ll be exploring our interconnectedness. We’ll be:
- Highlighting patterns and implications from our pre-existing interviews
- Exploring how we fundraise and think of fundraising, as this ministry fundraises ourselves
- Continuing to champion the relevance of all Asian American ministries
Lord, we give you this budding ministry yet again this year. It is yours. Have your way with it. Thank you for your past faithfulness, for paving the way, for connecting us with wonderful people to interview, to connect with, to know and advise us. That is all your doing, and we continue to give you all honor and glory and praise. Keep us in you, for you, for your glory. Continue to open up a way for us, a way to serve. Continue to grow a deeper love in our hearts for all Asian American Christians as for all people we come in contact with. Continue to clarify our communication. Continue to use us, if it is your will, dear Lord. We are here and at your service. We are here because we love you, dear Lord. We are here because we are in your good keeping. In Jesus, Amen.
Thanks for agreeing to meet with me and letting me record your story! Okay, this is on, let’s begin.
This is Joseph Wong, A-B-C. Born in Nogales, Arizona, making me a Chinese cowboy. (laughs)
Lord called me into the ministry when I was 17. He brought me into His Kingdom when I was about 15, and has been very gracious to me. Not only did He give me a new destiny, but He gave me a significant purpose in my life, to serve His church as a pastor.
And then (turning to Shirley), he gave me a helper. (laughs)
We started our official ministry in Seattle at the Chinese Baptist Church as a part-time youth pastor in 1961. We’ve been serving the Chinese Churches on the West Coast. We were there in Seattle for 10 years. And then we moved down to San Francisco Chinatown, where we served at the Chinese Independent Baptist Church (CIBC) from 1972 to 1980.
In 1980, we moved to a church we started in San Rafael, the Marin Chinese Christian Church. And we served that church for nine years. After which we went to the Bread of Life Church in Torrance, CA. We served there three years, having been warned by a church member that that’s as long as we were going to last. (laughs)
What did this church member say to you?
That was such a novel experience. I arrived down at the church and shortly after that I was invited by a church member for dinner. So I went, and I was asked, “Did you sell your home up in San Rafael?” And I said, “No.” And was told, “Good, you’ll be back there in three years!” (laughs)
And she was a prophetess. I was back in three years.
But that was the nature of that church at the time, they kept going through a pastor every three to five years.
What happened after that church?
From there, we decided to shift because I came to the realization that OBC Christians were not bad people. And the church leadership were not bad people. They loved the Lord, perhaps more dearly than I did. They worked hard, probably harder than I did. They gave sacrificially, perhaps more so than I did. So, in their love for the church, and in their service to the church, why the painful splits after every three to five years?
And I concluded, it’s because they didn’t know how to do what they wanted to do.
And I thought I had some clues as to what’s wrong. And I decided to become a church consultant and began looking for an organization I could connect with.
In 1994, we became part of the Church Dynamics International (CDI) staff. It was a discipleship training program. We go into a church, to try to help the church establish a discipleship training program.
But my real desire was to go in there and help church leadership run a church, to understand what is necessary.
And so from 1994 to 2011, we did just that. In 2004, we left CDI and eventually wound up with International Church Ministries. We were with them until 2011. With both organizations, we did short term ministries at churches, sometimes a year or two, sometimes as long as three years.
In January 2014, I left my last church responsibility in San Francisco. So in a sense, I’m retired because I don’t have church responsibility.
Shirley: I told him, you retire when you expire—
Joe: Under the guidance of my wife, I am still serving the Lord. (laughs)
Shirley: There is no such thing as retirement—
Joe: I have a tough taskmaster.
But I love her dearly. Anyway, we continue to promote a ministry called “Truth-Based Living,” a biblical solution to much of the pain and problems in the Chinese churches. Which I think is really the answer to many of your questions, but we can move into that some other time. [A synopsis is at the end of the FACE interview.]
So that’s sort of a history of me.
We love serving the Lord. We’re so grateful for the life that He has given to us.
Joseph Wong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
How did FACE start?
We started FACE in 1978.
It was Thomas Wang’s fault because he began a national association of Chinese Evangelicals. NACOCE. [North American Congress of Chinese Evangelicals, acronym pronounced NAY-cose] He invited me to do a workshop at the Congress, the first one in Richardson Spring, California. And Hoover Wong was invited to be a speaker.
There was a miscommunication. I was giving a workshop to deal with the potential and problem of American Born Chinese, ABCs. I thought I would be helping Church leaders understand the need for ABC ministry in local church. Instead, I got a lot of college students wanting to know how to witness to ABCs on Campus. (laughs) I apologized to them. That was not the preparation I made for this workshop.
So the next NACOCE, I told Dr. Wang, “I will do another workshop only if you make it a church leadership workshop. I want elders there.” And so he did.
We explained to them the problem of the Overseas form of church ministry as it applies to American-born Chinese. Had some good discussion. But no conclusions, as is usually the case.
So the third Congress came along, and I was asked to participate again. And I decided that, I want some action. Just coming up and talking about it, doesn’t help. So I shared this with some of my colleagues. And the four of us: Wayland Wong, Peter Yuen, Hoover Wong and myself, felt the burden: the hurt in the Chinese churches, the loss of their children from not only from their churches but from their parents’ faith.
So initially, I thought we could get some [OBC] pastors to come and join a team, and we’ll address the need for ABC ministries at Chinese churches. But in our discussion, we realized it’s unfair to ask the OBC leadership to do what they cannot do.
And so, the question was: do the four of us feel a sense that God is calling us to do this ministry? And in our prayer, we concluded, “Yes,” and we pledged together to establish FACE.
Our purpose was to hold up the banner for effective ministries to ABCs. ABCs need Christian ministries addressed to them. Not simply as a youth ministry, but as a full spectrum ministry, adults and children. Our goal was to develop equal parallel ministries for ABCs and OBCs. And so, we issued a proclamation, a birth from NACOCE which was FACE.
How did you try to fulfill your goal of encouraging parallel ABC and OBC ministries?
So we sought to do this all within the context of the Chinese churches. We didn’t pull out by ourselves and do things. We thought we would have some conferences, seminars if you will, where we would invite the [OBC] Chinese leadership to come in and hear us talk about ABC ministry and the adjustments in attitude and program that is necessary. And we called those seminars Face to Face. (laughs) We were very clever.
We had the seminars in Los Angeles, up here [in the San Francisco Bay Area], in Chicago. We would invite the church leadership to attend.
And we also decided we would publish a newsletter, quarterly. And we called that About Face. Which was was understood by the Overseas Chinese that this is about “face” (puts the back of his hand to his cheek). But no, our intention was that it was a call to make an “about face.” The church gotta turn around!
But that’s the culture, right? That’s where we communicate and miscommunicate.
What did you try to say to the OBC?
The OBCs must not think that the church they started has to remain that way. It has to evolve. You are in a different country. If you don’t evolve you will become irrelevant, if not offensive to your children.
Gail Law, a doctorate student, did a paper, and she concluded, 96% of their children are being lost. And my question is: how can you afford that casualty rate?
How were you received by OBC?
We found our seminars distasteful to the Overseas church leadership. And so, we were boycotted. We were called “Communists.” We were called “the Gang of Four” in a spin off from China’s Gang of Four. And we said, “Ok. If that’s what it takes, I guess that’s what we are in their eyes.”
Nevertheless, we continued to conduct these ministries for a number of years.
When did you start ministering to ABCs? FACE seems to have certainly had its influence. The generation after you: Donna Dong, Louis Lee and Steve Wong, they count you guys as mentors. Donna calls you her heroes.
NACOCE* held an ECCOWE (Ethnic Chinese Congress for World Evangelism, acronym pronounced E-COW-wee) conference, an ethnic congress in Hawaii [on July 5-12, 1984]. And we were invited to attend, and we did.
In Hawaii, I was blown away, and I think we all were, when we met David Chow of Ambassadors for Christ (AFC). David Chow was becoming a leader in the work, an OBC leader, though he was “one-and-a-half.” He came over to the US when he were quite young, and grew up in this country. Moses Chow [David’s father and one of AFC’s founders] was getting older and about to retire.
And so, David Chow shared with me, “I feel I can do the work of a bridge between first generation and second generation to create greater understanding between us.”
I liked his concept, and I appreciated his statement. And when he spoke at ECCOWE, I heard him saying the same things FACE had been saying.
And I told the other guys, “You know, he’s a far more acceptable speaker than we are with the Overseas leadership. And if OBCs are willing to speak and share these concepts, then I don’t see why we need to do that.”
So we made a shift from witnessing to the Overseas leadership to ministering to the ABC leadership, to try to help them to adjust and adapt to the Overseas Chinese leadership.
So we eventually ran summer conferences, a FACE conference at Mt. Hermon also.
It was almost at the end of Hoover’s stint with us. He went to Fuller (between 1999-2003 to start the Chinese Studies Program, a precursor to the current Asian American ministry seminary programs). He felt that the demand at the school was greater than what he could handle with FACE. And so he asked to be excused, and we accepted that. Then we sought to incorporate a couple of other pastors into the group. And so, David Woo and Bill Eng came in.
Pastor Wayland Wong tells me that Chinese Churches didn’t really begin thinking of its next generation until the 1980s. He credits parachurch ministries like Youth for Christ and InterVarsity and the work of missionaries for helping ABCs grow in the Lord.
Shirley: Because the churches were not doing their job in terms of helping us individually to grow in our walk with the Lord. In those days, there were no American-born pastors, there were only the Overseas-born pastors ministering to us. And there was not much ministry.
I was helped by Caucasian missionaries that opened a ministry in (San Francisco) Chinatown. They ministered to us when the Chinese churches did not minister to us.
They really didn’t see the need?
Joe: Unlike the Japanese churches whose immigrants quit coming, what is very evident is that the Chinese immigration population continues to grow. In fact, with John F. Kennedy in 1965, the influx of Chinese mushroomed.
The OBC certainly had their hands full with new immigration due to the 1965 Immigration Act. Chinese immigration, in fact, still continues to grow today. In 2013, China surpassed Mexico as the number one country of origin for immigrants to the US.
And yet, it seems so different than what it is like now. When I spoke to Pastor Andrew Lee, he told me when he was growing up in New York City in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was no English Ministry.
The sermons, everything, was in Chinese. So you had to learn Chinese if you wanted to learn more about Jesus. If you wanted to be in ministry, you had to…
Learn Chinese, yes.
Now, I realize what they meant was more than to just learn Chinese. but to become culturally Chinese, which could not be achieved through language classes.
Can you help me understand more what it was like for ABCs pastors back then? Some churches today seem to jump at a chance for an ABC to help their youth ministry. It’s hard to believe the door was really closed to ABCs.
When I came to age the late ‘50s, I had friends who were preparing for the ministry but were frustrated because Chinese churches didn’t hire ABCs.
I remember an ABC guy named Bill. He went to Dallas Seminary, went for about two years and then he quit. And I says, “Why did you quit?” and he says, “There’s no future. Chinese churches don’t hire.”
There was another young man ahead of us who graduated from Fuller Seminary, and he ended up pumping gas because there was no position for him. And then another friend of mine who finished at Covina American Baptist Seminary of the West—he had to go to Hawaii for a position. That’s the way things were.
There was no avenue for ABCs to enter the Chinese immigrant churches.
How then did you find a position at a Chinese church?
So when I graduated, I didn’t know where to serve. But I belonged to the Independent Baptist Church here in Oakland. We have a Souls for Christ club, and I was active in that group, a leader in that group. I told my wife, “I was busy as a student, and now that I’m through studying, I would like to devote my full time energy to trying to build up this ministry, Souls for Christ.”
So I sent her out to work, and we gave ourselves. We even rented a house and had the young people coming over. We used it as a headquarters as a youth ministry for our church.
The church, however, never recognized me. Did not offer me any position. No acknowledgement of who I was, or what I was doing.
So after about nine or ten months of that, I realized my wife is working in a public school as a teacher in East Oakland, which was not a very safe place. I remember when she came home one time and she says, “Oh, they discovered a gun in one of the kids’ lockers.” (laughs)
So I said, “Her working is not right. I don’t want her there.” I says, “I need to find a job, so my wife doesn’t have to go out to work.”
That summer, I decided I would look for a church position. So we drove up to Seattle, visited the Chinese church up there, came down through Portland, visited the Chinese church and came back. We told them who we were and the fact that we were open for ministry.
Only the Pastor in Seattle, he says, “Joe, if you think the Lord wants you to come here, let me know. I will submit your name to the church Board.”
I came back and says, “You know, that’s the best offer I had.” (laughs) I wrote him, and said, “Please put my name in.”
So they invited me to go up there. I accepted a part time, youth minister position at $100 a month. We bought a second-hand trailer, loaded all our belongings in it, hooked it up to the back of my Simca—I don’t know if you know what a Simca is.
Shirley: It was a tiny little car. And we were pulling a trailer that was heavier than the car (both laughing), towing his pregnant wife and baby.
Joe: So we had one girl, and we were expecting a second, and we went up to Seattle.
We had a friend up there, and our friend says, “You have no place to stay. Move in with us.”
So we drove up there, and he says, “You can put your trailer in my dad’s carport.” And we moved in with them for over a month while we looked for a home.
Why Pastor Joe thinks it was so hard for an ABC to get a position in a Chinese Church
It was many years later, that I finally caught a glimpse of what’s going on. You know how you go around, and you get confused because you assume they think the same way you do, when they don’t. For decades, I didn’t know what was going on in my dealings with OBCs.
At a pastor’s conference, I met a Korean pastor who was a guest at that conference. He asked to talk to me about ministering to American Koreans. So we sat and talked. About a half an hour later, he says to me, “I think you’re right. We need to bring in American Koreans to minister to the second generation.” Then he said, “but they are such an evil generation.”
And I thought, “Wow.” I realized this was the thinking of immigrants toward the American-born.
That was such an insight for me. The reason the OBC do not accept us into the churches’ leadership was because they perceive us as evil. And since the church’s purpose for existence is to do what is good, how can you bring a guy that you perceive as evil to come onto the teaching staff?
I soon realized that this was a cultural perception, not a Biblical perception. But the cultural perception is considered Biblical because there is this tendency to equate what is considered good for the Chinese with what the Bible wants. If it’s good for the Chinese, it must be good in the Scriptures: this is assumed. Therefore, the Chinese culture became the culture of the Church. It wasn’t Christian, but it had the trappings of being Christian. But in reality, the commitment was to the Chinese culture. So the American Chinese could not be accepted.
My question is, how can that be changed?
Because the American culture does not see the Chinese Christians as being very righteous either.
Let me share one more experience. I talked with a Chinese pastor and he says, “Joe, you need to understand that your assumptions need to be challenged. You think you know what the problem is in the church, and we may agree with you. And you think you may know how to solve those problems. We might even agree with you there. But you assume, we are willing to be taught by you.” And he stopped, and I said, “Oh!”
And that’s been my experience in the Chinese churches. They will listen, but they will not allow me to change them. I’m not quite sure that can be resolved. I don’t think I’m the one to resolve it. My current “truth based living” ministry addresses this as a key issue in changing the church.
Can you share a brief synopsis of your “truth based living” and how it can change things?
Here’s my thinking on it. God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As the heavens are above the earth, so are my thoughts and my ways above your ways.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) And I thought okay, God is telling us He is different. And there are a lot of ways He’s different from us, but He chooses only two: his thoughts and his ways. And he says, they aren’t the same as ours, not close.
And I said, what are thoughts? And what are ways? And I concluded that the thoughts are what we believe to be good. And the ways are the methods we believe are right to use to pursue the good. And I thought, you know, the thoughts and the ways of a people is really their culture.
God is saying, my culture isn’t the same as yours. So if the Jewish culture isn’t good enough, so why do we think the Chinese culture, or the American culture is good enough to define the Church?
I think we need to take the attitude that my culture must be sacrificed to learn God’s culture. Learning God’s thoughts and God’s ways is the target of my truth based ministry, and the target of God’s Word to us.
But I’m still at the same place, “who is willing to listen to me?” (laughs) But anyway, that is another journey I am on.
Today, it seems like FACE got everything it wanted. Almost every Chinese Church today has an English Ministry run by ABCs. I can’t think of a church that won’t hire an ABC for their English Ministry. And quite a few ABCs are Senior Pastors of Chinese churches now too.
There has been some success with that, yes. However, ‘toleration and compromise’ seem to be the primary approach for resolving the differences between the two cultures. I believe the true solution is found in applying God’s Truth to the thoughts and ways of our churches. I believe a Kingdom culture must be emerging in the local church before there is true success.
Joseph Wong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
* By 1984, NACOCE actually had become integrated into Chinese Coordination Centre of World Evangelism, or CCCOWE, which served as a Chinese evangelical umbrella organization as inspired by the Lausanne Conference.
[The acronym is pronounced CO-WEE.]
The Story of FACE
Your time as an American-born Chinese (ABC) pastor under Overseas-born Chinese (OBC) church leadership at CIBC San Francisco couldn’t have been that horrible. There’s clear fruit. You had a significant hand at planting two churches from that congregation: Sunset Church and Marin Asian Community Church.
How did you relate as an ABC to OBC leadership?
Steve Chin wrote about submitting to OBC church leadership for the sake of the ABCs. [“God’s Double Blessing on the Church,” published February 1984.] He was a young fellow and early in his ministry, when we asked him to write an article for About Face. He’s [still] in Boston at the Chinese Evangelical Church (BCEC).
And I thought, that was an excellent attitude to have. You can’t demand to have what you want and split everything apart. So when it’s necessary, the ABC should accept the leadership of the church, so as to not split the church. And then to do what they can.
It was pretty much my attitude, when I came down to San Francisco (in 1971) to the Independent Baptist Church which was in a big brawl at the time. (laughs)
In discovering that I was becoming their new English Pastor, I told the ABC leadership that we’re going to adopt a non-fighting attitude. We will present our case. We will tell them what we want to do and why we need to do it. When we are in our business meeting, we will ask for permission to do so. If they decline it, we’ll accept that. We will focus on what we are given permission to do, and we’ll do a good job. And we will not seek to get even when they present a program they want to do. We will be supportive, unless somehow it is a violation of Scripture.
So we adapted that attitude, and in two years time, we were healed. We became a single church again.
It was at that time that I suggested, maybe we can start a church in Outer San Francisco. And so that was the beginning of the Sunset Chinese Baptist Church, in the Sunset [district of San Francisco]. They just call it the Sunset Church now. They are neither Baptist nor Chinese anymore. (laughs)
“Chinese” was also in the original name of the church you planted, Marin Chinese Christian Church. It’s now Marin Asian Community Church. If the congregation is English-speaking, can you help me understand why “Chinese” in its name?
I also learned from my brother-in-law, Sen Wong—I don’t know if you heard of Pastor Sen Wong. He passed away just earlier this year. He started the Bible Churches. There’s one in Sacramento, Chinese Grace Bible Church. He didn’t particularly start that one, but he planted a number of them: Stockton and Belmont and Oakland and Fremont and San Francisco. And their motto is: “The world our goal, the Chinese our view.” So he says, we’re trying to reach the world, but our focus is on reaching the Chinese.
I liked that, and so, when we started the Marin Chinese Christian Church, we asked ourselves: do we want to use the name “Chinese?” And my answer is yes, because that is the focus of our ministry. But we are not exclusive. We have no problem with any other nationality. But because there was no Chinese church in the county, we wanted to do a ministry targeting the Chinese people.
It is now called the, “Marin Asian Community Church.” (laughs) So they changed Chinese to Asian, because they started getting some Koreans in, some Japanese in. So, it’s okay.
Joseph Wong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
How did you become a Christian?
As a little child, we did not go to church because my father didn’t go, and my mother didn’t speak English. We were in Arizona until I was, what, 8?
My parents came over in the early ‘30s, maybe late ‘20s—but really during the Depression as immigrants. My father came to work initially as a truck driver delivering vegetables to grocery stores. And then I guess he saved enough to buy a market in Nogales, Arizona. Probably the cheapest one he could find. (laughs)
So we were there for about 10 years, and my father did well with that. And then he retired and moved us to Berkeley, California because my mother says, “Enough is enough.” We were basically the only [Chinese] family in Nogales, and my mother didn’t speak English. So she’d been isolated for that period of time. So she insisted that we come to the San Francisco Bay Area. They had family in the Bay Area.
Well, my mother was a Christian. I remember there were occasions in which my mother read to me from the Scriptures, in Chinese, at which time, I used to understand.
And it was God who sought me out. Nobody came and witnessed to me. Instead God gave me a nightmare based on one of the stories my mother read to me about Daniel and this rock that was not carved out by hand, destroying the statue and then growing into a mountain and filling the earth. My nightmare was seeing this rock in the corner of my bedroom growing. And just as it’s ready to crush me, I would wake up.
It was a recurring nightmare. I think I had it two or three times. But what I realized was it made me aware of my mortality. As a 13 year old kid, you don’t think about dying, but it made me aware of that. And I began to ask, how do I get right with God?
I knew I wasn’t ready to meet Him. I knew enough to understand that. I knew I was not a good boy. So I began to inquire, how can I deal with my sin—I didn’t even have that term—but how can I deal with this guilt that I had, that I couldn’t stand before God?
And nobody had an answer. We weren’t really attending church, although we went to Chinese school in a liberal Chinese church. But I didn’t hear about the Gospel.
I thought, maybe I need to get baptized, so I asked my mother to arrange baptism for me. And so, I was baptized in the Presbyterian church in San Francisco Chinatown. But when I stood before the preacher to question my faith, everything was in Chinese. Classical, theological [Chinese]. I didn’t know what I was answering to. I was about 14.
So I was baptized, and thought, well, now what? I had no relief of my guilt.
But a few months later—my baptism was on Easter—around August, September, I was in bed and again troubled by my lack of acceptability to God.
Not knowing what else to do, I began to pray, “Lord, help me. I don’t know what to do.” That was pretty much the essence of my prayer. I repeated it a number of times. “Lord help me.” And then He answered me.
He spoke to me very simply. He said, and I remember it, “Joe, it’s okay.”
That’s all I heard, but immediately, my sense of guilt was gone. And the sense of relief brought tears to my eyes, and I wept briefly and then fell asleep. The next morning, I wondered what happened. (laughs)
I had no theological training, no background, I had no idea what that was. But I began to look for answers, and then one day, I came across the passage, “They who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” And I says, “Oh, okay, so He kept his promise to me!”
And that’s how I got saved.
Then I started going to church, Independent Baptist. My sisters were going there. Attended Youth for Christ meetings and so on. Began to grow in my understanding. Went to Mt. Hermon for a Christian conference [not the same as the JEMS one]. I dedicated my life to the Lord because that’s what I heard I should do. I said, “that makes sense, so I will.”
And a year later, the Lord put into my heart, “What if I want you to go into the ministry?”
I said, “I was serious about my dedication, so if you want me to, I will. But please make it clear to me that’s what you want.” And I argued with God about that for about eight months, but He did not answer. I couldn’t get rid of the idea. So after eight months, I decided I would settle it with the Lord.
So I went into my bedroom, closed the door and got on my knees. I wasn’t coming out until I settled it. I was serious. And I said to the Lord, “Do you want me to go to the Ministry? If you do, please make it clear to me.”
And He answered me, second time He spoke to me.
“Joe, if I want to make something clear to you, I can.”
And I said, “Of course, Lord, I know that. That’s why I’m asking you to make it clear. You know, send me a telegram, write it on the wall. Any way you want. This is all I ask from you.”
He says, “I tell you what—” (laughs) He’s so clever! “Why don’t you pretend that I want you to go into the ministry. And if I don’t, I’ll make that clear to you. Will you trust me for that?”
And I says, “Whoa” and I knew He had me. I says “That makes perfectly good sense. So okay, I’ll do it.”
So I came out of the bedroom heading for the ministry. I realize now, He had given me a purpose for my life.
Joseph Wong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
So how did you meet?
Shirley: We met actually at Mt. Hermon. Mt. Hermon Christian Conference.
Joe: By Santa Cruz. It was a college conference Mt. Hermon sponsored every year. It wasn’t JEMS. The JEMS [camp] came around later. They were at Redwood Camp sometimes.
Mt. Hermon then was very influential among evangelical Christians.
Joe: Yes. Especially in the [San Francisco] Bay Area here.
Shirley: Because the churches were not doing their job in terms of helping us individually to grow in our walk with the Lord. In those days, there were no American-born pastors, there were only the Overseas-born pastors ministering to us. And there was not much ministry.
This was in the ‘50s, right? Right after the war.
Joe: Uh, huh.
Shirley: I was helped by Caucasian missionaries that opened a ministry in Chinatown. They ministered to us because the Chinese churches did not minister to us.
How did you guys get together?
Joe: This woman didn’t want anything to do with me. We knew each other for about three years and she tells people, “When I saw him coming along the campus going this way, I would turn around and go another way.” (laughs)
We were in college then, San Francisco State. I was actually in private college, but it was such a small school, we had to get our upper-level courses at San Francisco State. I got involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and some of their ministries. It was exciting. Made some good friends.
We had a mutual friend. She was a blonde, green-eyed Russian. My girlfriend. We got serious with each other, even though it was against my principles. I wasn’t going to date a Caucasian girl. (laughs)
Shirley: She was in the Navigators and a close friend of mine. She would try to convince me to go out with him, and I said, “No.”
Joe: She said to her, “For you, but not for me.” (laughs)
So Billy Graham was in town with his Crusade, and I was a counselor. The night of the event, I found out she was babysitting in Berkeley. So I asked her, if it was okay if I dropped by after the Crusade. She said okay, probably without thinking.
Shirley: But I did do a lot of planning.
Joe: And then she planned to invite her friends over as well, so she didn’t have to be stuck with me, so to speak. And so, they came in waves. Two bunches of them came. And they finally left shortly after midnight, and I was still there. I don’t know what I was doing because she wasn’t talking to me. But after they left, she came to talk to me.
And she tells me, she asked the Lord, “What am I going to say to this guy?”
So she came down, we sat down and chatted and inside of five minutes, out of her mouth—not mine—she says, “You know, we’re getting married.”
Shirley: I avoided him for about five hours.
Joe: And she knew it wasn’t her speaking it, because that was the last thing she would consider saying. And I was just listening. “Oh, okay.”
Shirley: Crazy, huh? When you know, you know.
Joe: Then she had to argue with the Lord. She says, “Lord, I have no feelings for this guy. How can I marry him?” And the Lord answered her. God speaks to her too, I know that.
God says, “Love is an act of the will, you can choose to love whoever you will.”
So she accepted that, and she gave her second objection, “I’m not the type to be a pastor’s wife.” She was Miss Sophisticate. Shopped at boutique stores. (laughs)
Joe: The Lord, answered that objection: “Will you let me change you?”
That may have been harder to do. I don’t know which is harder (laughing) to choose to love me or to let the Lord change her. But she made those two commitments to the Lord, and it’s been 56 years.
Shirley: Basically, what he’s saying is that I did die to self. (Joe is laughing)
Because I was not the type to be a pastor’s wife. I only bought from boutique stores.
Joe: Well, we shop at thrift stores now, and she loves it.
Joe: We have a happy life. She likes these twilight years. It’s good.
Shirley: Because you have to die to self.
Joe: So that’s how God put us together, and I see God’s hand in our lives very much. And I tell people if you knew how we got married, you would know, there is a God. It wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Shirley: If I saw him walking down the campus, I’d go the other direction. Can you imagine marrying somebody that you avoid? (laughs)
Joseph and Shirley Wong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
How Pastor Joe and Shirley came to be
IVCF Philippines was founded by InterVarsity USA worker, Gwen Wong.
Gwen Wong arrives in Manila
Though only 15 students are interested, early morning prayer meetings begin. Saturday afternoon meetings and eventually “Timothy club” meetings also are added for prayer, Bible study and to discuss witnessing
Peter Kemary, an alumnus of British Inter-Varsity (now UCCF) and an executive of Shell Oil Philippines, also begins what is now Graduate Student Fellowship Philippines
Students begin to form student-run groups on five other campuses:
University of the Philippines, Diliman
University of the East
Far Eastern University
M.L. Quezon University
First weeklong student conference
First Filipino staff worker appointed at this conference: Tomasa Francisco
Tomasa Francisco started “Inter-School Christian Fellowship” to reach high school students
Canadian and InterVarsity USA staff Mary Beaton came to help
The movement’s first graduates return to their hometowns and spread the student movement to Cebu, Davao and Iloilo
Ephraim Orteza comes on staff
First month-long intensive training at Kawayan Campus in Negros Occidental
Key national leaders emerged from this camp
This yearly training becomes known as Kawayan Camp (KC)
Leadership and Financial Responsibility turned over to nationals
Ephraim Orteza made first General Secretary of IVCF Philippines
3 staff workers: Tomasa Francisco, Emmanuel Pizana, and Leticia Abakan
Board Chair: Ruben Orteza
Monthly budget: P$500/month
IVCF Philippines is at 78 colleges and universities and 65 high schools. along with nurses and graduate groups
4,789 student members
842 student leaders
944 students trained in evangelism
10,117 “heard gospel”
2,748 students in evangelistic Bible Studies
2,236 “became Christians”
- Mr. Darby S. Aspacio, 2001, Sower Campus Club, IVCF at University of Mindanao, Tagum College
- IVCF Philippines, history
- “2015 IVCF Corporation Meeting,” PDF booklet, August 29, 2015.
- Gwen Wong (interviewed September 29, 2015)
Gwen Wong, 91, is struck by how the Lord calls. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Lord called her, to become an early staff worker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IV or IVCF) and to reach the Chinese. She, however, never quite made it to China,* but staffed many InterVarsity campuses in Illinois and pioneered student ministries in the then US territory of Hawaii, Taiwan (1957-9)¹ and most notably in the Philippines (1952-9).
As she and co-laborer Canadian Mary Beaton (who joined her in 1956) wrote to their superiors in 1958: “Our task in the Philippines is finished. We leave behind a National Committee, a corps of national staff workers, a supportive Christian constituency…”² This was in stark contrast to what then InterVarsity USA President C. Stacey Woods saw on his 1955 Asia trip.
“‘Grave questions considering traditional missionary work, the failure of much of the present-day approach, the failure to identify oneself with the people, the inescapable fact that too often the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being confused with our western way of life, and the fact that so many missionaries today seem to be improperly trained, to be spiritually immature and in some instances lack direction in terms of missionary goals tended to depress one and call for a re-examination of our own approach to student work.’”³
As other missionaries struggled with to indigenize ministry, Woods saw Gwen Wong’s work to be the epitome of what pioneering student work should be. He described it as:
“a classic example of the New Testament pattern of those who could found a work and then move on, instead of following the disastrous pattern of so much missionary paternalism.”4
Today, IVCF Philippines remains a ministry of Filipinos for Filipinos by Filipinos and today operates in nine regions throughout the country reaching high school, college, graduate and nursing students.
Gwen Wong is also InterVarsity’s first full-time Asian American staff worker (1948-1952). She currently resides in Burbank near her nephews at a senior assisted-living facility. I spoke to her there in September 2015.
A call to reach the Chinese
Pioneering IVCF Philippines
Asking Gwen Wong present-day questions of identity
“Am I more InterVarsity or am I more Christian?”
Gwen Wong, professional softball pitcher
The greatest things that happened to Gwen
How did you find out about IV (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship)?
I went to Cal [also known as the University of California, Berkeley]. IV at Berkeley met at the Bible League which was located across the street from campus. I became a committed Christian through their fellowship.
InterVarsity in the United States was just starting around that time. The Canadians were still planting it. How did you come on InterVarsity staff?
A grad student from Canada, Mary Beaton, went to Cal also. She was a very strong InterVarsity member in Canada. When she came down to the US, she helped that group become [a] very strong InterVarsity [chapter].
And I went with her to InterVarsity summer camp: Campus-in-the-Woods in Ontario. And I just became very interested in InterVarsity. I went to seminary after I graduated from Cal and was called to do student work, I thought, in China.
But at that time, China was closed. I was trying to get closer to China. That’s why I ended up going to Hawaii, and then I went to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea. I couldn’t get into China proper. I never did get into China.
But I learned a little Tagalog and a little Mandarin.
Because I’m Chinese. That’s it. That’s really it.
I said, “I’m Chinese, I’m Christian. They need the Lord, and God called me to China,” I thought of Chinese students particularly. Because I became a committed Christian as a student through the fellowship of InterVarsity.
What brought you to the Philippines?
I went to the Philippines because it was the closest I could to go to China. I kept thinking, I was making a hop skip and a jump to China. Hawaii, Philippines, Taiwan, China. I was still thinking of China.
But the Lord led me to the Philippines and that was interesting because the Philippines at the time was still so very pro-America. It had just become independent from [America in 1946]. They were English-speaking, and they loved the fact that I was from the States and spoke English like an American. They liked to point me out I was an American Chinese and stuff like that. That’s why I learned very little Tagalog.
They wanted to hang out with an American?
Right, right. And besides, I wanted to be with the Filipinos. They were having some tension with the Chinese population in the Philippines. The local Chinese were dominating the Filipino economy, so there was tension between them and the Filipinos.
But they accepted you? Didn’t they think you were Chinese?
I didn’t talk too much about it. I just tried to go more with the Filipinos mostly. I knew a few Chinese, and I went to Chinese church once in awhile, but mostly, I was with Filipinos. I wanted to make sure we were doing a Filipino movement and not a Chinese movement. Because the Chinese were so strong there, I didn’t want to… Anyway, the Lord led me to be with Filipinos.
Where did you meet them?
I met one or two student Christians through one of the churches there, and I got to know a couple of churches, and found the college and university students, you know.
In an IV article about you, you said that school officials wouldn’t allow you on campus, so you would have Bible Studies in your car.
We began to meet, and we began to have a vision for being on campus and on the different campuses rather than just coming out and meeting off campus. Although we had an InterVarsity movement in my home, I tried to start a student center. That was a long time ago. A long time ago.
You told me before we started recording that now two former students you had known from the Philippines are coming to visit you tomorrow!
It’s just amazing that they are coming to see me. I haven’t seen them for 40, 50 years. But they’ll be shocked looking at me, with my gray hair, 90-something. I won’t recognize them because I knew them of course when they were kids. They are now 50, 60 years old. I’ll be shocked and they’ll be shocked.
“I never thought of myself as a missionary.”
I never thought of myself as a missionary. I just thought of myself as an InterVarsity staff member. So when I went to the Philippines, I did not identify with missionaries because to me—I’m sorry but, I don’t know if you want to tell this—but I was sort of anti-missionary.
Because in the Philippines when the missionaries got into anything, they took over and they became very strong leaders. And the finances would come from the US and stuff like that.
I said, InterVarsity here is going to be Filipino. And the leadership and the financing and everything was going to be Filipino. Not American. So, I deliberately stayed away from them. You don’t want that stuff in there.
What you are saying is no longer that controversial.
Well, I guess not. Because now, the Philippines is completely politically independent and has been for a long time. When I went there, they were just emerging, they were just coming out of being a colony.
In the time of Magsaysay, I was watching the change. [Ramon Magsaysay was President of the Philippines from 1953-57.] There were the first beginnings of wanting Tagalog to be the national language, rather than English—because everything was being produced in English: the newspapers and everything.
English really kept that country together because it had been an American colony. Since, all the different islands spoke different languages, the government was pushing Tagalog, and Tagalog became the national language which helped the Philippine Islands to become truly a national whole. That was amazing to see that.
And the Lord led that the Philippine movement had to be Filipino—not Americanized, not funded by IFES or anything like that. It was going to be Filipino: the leadership, the staff, everything.
Were the Filipinos used to that model? If missionaries were as dominant as you said, I would imagine some Christian Filipinos were already accustomed to someone else being in power.
True, but somehow, I don’t know what we did, but our groups were always very Filipino. The board, our staff, everything—the leaders, the student leaders, everything was very Filipino.
This was really remarkable! While missionaries had been trying to empower indigenous movements for 100+ years, it really was hard for them to change.
When InterVarsity (USA)’s president C. Stacey Woods visited Asia in 1955, he noticed Western dominance was rampant in missionary work. He saw your work as the example of what student-movement planting should be! In his own words, he called it “‘a classic example of the New Testament pattern of those who could found a work and then move on, instead of following the disastrous pattern of so much missionary paternalism.’”4
Pastor and former missionary Wayland Wong told me that people didn’t think you could do it, and establish an indigenous movement. But you did, and within seven years, it was self-sustaining.
Yeah, I wonder how come he knows that so well. (laughs)
[About Wayland] He’s amazing. And I met his wife, Clara when she was a student in Hong Kong. And I was working with InterVarsity there too. I remember seeing him in Hong Kong, but I don’t remember when we met. All the time I was living in the Philippines, I was doing some of that traveling [to Hong Kong etc].
I never thought of myself as being one of the first Asians to go overseas with an American mission board. I think Wayland schooled me in that. Because he was apparently turned down once by a mission agency for being Asian, for going overseas.
Do you mind sharing about your family background?
My mom and dad were born here [in the States]. My granddad came [from China] in the mid-1800s. My dad was born in the later two-thirds of that century, so my granddad came when he was really young. He was brought over apparently by an older relative. And that relative passed away, and some Indians picked him up and raised him.
Really, Native American Indians?
My granddad. And so, he was brought up in Northern California by American Indians.
I don’t know how he got together with my grandma who is Chinese. Nobody ever says it but I have a feeling she was brought over as a, well—they say she was kidnapped as a kid, brought over by the family. We’re reading these days about the slave trade and all that, and I bet she was. But I’m just guessing. That was a couple generations ago. She never talked about of course.
What were they like? Do you remember them?
My granddad? I was just this big when he passed away. (hand gestures a little above her knee)
I remember my grandma. She was a tyrant. And my my mother was a very obedient daughter-in-law. She was born here [in America], but her parents took her back to China, and she was raised in China. So she came over here, I have a feeling, she was more like a picture bride to my dad. Because they were looking for somebody with American papers. She was very Chinese and very sweet and docile to my grandmother, her mother-in-law, you know. We were raised as much by my grandmother as by my gentle mother.
We were a half a dozen. In fact, recently, our last brother passed away just a month ago. We were not a Christian family.
And I prayed for them. I still pray for them.
Was your community Chinese?
No. Alameda [a town neighboring Oakland, California] was strictly American. In fact, we had Italian neighbors, Irish across the street. Germans a little further away. We were all just a big mixture.
Do you mind if I ask you about being Chinese or being a woman?
What about being Chinese?
There weren’t that many back then, right? This is before the 1965 Immigration Act equalized immigration quotas for non-Europeans.
Oh yeah, yeah. It was in the ‘50s. (long pause)
When you say, how do I feel as a Chinese being brought up here? Was that your question?
I was just a happy kid. I didn’t think too much about it. I played a lot of softball and hung around with everybody.
So it was not just something you thought about really?
Okay, that’s fine.
Going to Chinese school was as Chinese as we got.
[Gwen asks me about me. I tell her my parents are from Taiwan.]
How did you feel? Most of the early Chinese here are Cantonese.
Yes, that’s true.
How did you fit in?
Well, like you, we didn’t grow up in Chinatown, we grew up with other white families. And just like you, I felt like I was just another kid. It was news to me when someone pointed it out to me that I looked different.
I remember looking in a mirror and thinking as a child,”Well, I guess I do look different than anybody else.”
There weren’t a lot [of Chinese kids] in Alameda either.
When we were kids growing up, people would say “Ching Chong Chinaman,” you know. Stuff like that. We’d get that. But not too much. Because we were in a mixed neighborhood.
My first job out of college was at InterVarsity’s headquarters; they call it now the National Service Center. They talked a lot about multiethnicity and even more so today. They wanted me to bring all that I was and asked me to share with them what it means to be Chinese. At that time, I honestly had no idea.
So when you asked that question, I’m thinking, “What’s she talking about?”
I appreciate you sharing that.
We all have that feeling, I guess, [we] American Chinese who were born here and raised in white neighborhoods and everything: “What do you mean, Chinese?” But my grandma was thoroughly Chinese. She made sure we knew we were Chinese.
(Gwen imitating her grandmother scolding in Cantonese.)
“Yes, Grandma. No Grandma..” (nodding tentatively)
You can imagine how long ago that was. Centuries ago…
You never had to go through the period, which I did during the Japanese war in the ‘40s. when we had to go around saying, “I’m Chinese, I’m not Japanese.” You know, that was very important. Of course, when they were put into camps, it became less important. Because if we were still here, then we were Chinese, and they were Japanese.
Some people are going to want me to ask about you being a woman in ministry. How was that?
In student work, it doesn’t matter. At least, I didn’t think it did. Maybe it did, and I was too dumb to realize it, or that there was a difference. We developed male staff members. It didn’t seem to matter. And I didn’t want to be a preacher or anything, so I don’t think it made a difference in the ministry, if that’s what you mean.
No one questioned you about it?
No. Certainly not to my face.
When did you come back to the States?
In the ‘60s, I think.
And then you stayed in the States.
Yes. And I actually—I was away from the Lord for a while. When I left InterVarsity, I left the Lord.
You know that that’s pretty bad.
When I left InterVarsity staff, I figured: am I more InterVarsity or am I more Christian? That can happen. I was so strong with the organization, the culture and the ways of the organization—you take it all on and you think that’s the same as being Christian. Not necessarily.
Except the Lord really does use InterVarsity.
What did you do in those years?
When I was away from the Lord? I lived in different parts of California. I was out in the desert. You know, all over. I worked on YWCA staff for several years. I went into the federal government and was employed by the department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).5 And I later transferred and became a staff member of the US Department of Labor. I lived in Washington DC for a while.
How did you come back to the Lord?
I don’t remember. It just the Lord called me, I guess. It’s amazing. I recently just became much stronger in realizing that God calls. God chooses those who are going to be his. The Lord Jesus said so.
You know, I said that at one Bible study here, and one person said, “No, God doesn’t choose, everybody has a chance.” So I just shut up. But Scripture says—the Lord Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me, I chose you.” [John 15:16]
One verse that is very very meaningful to me, is that the Lord called me by name. “I called you by name.” [Isaiah 43:1] By name! He knows Gwen Wong in heaven? Amazing!
There’s a story about you, about how you used to be a professional softball pitcher.
That was just earning my way through seminary. Biblical Seminary in New York.6 I don’t even know if it’s still existing. I was just there so long ago.
In the 1940s and 1950s professional women’s softball used to draw large crowds, particularly in the Chicago area, like in the 1992 movie, A League of her Own. You’re even part of a yet-to-be-released documentary about your league!
So playing ball with Bloomer Girls in 1947 helped pay for seminary?
That’s right. And so I got to know that [Chicago and surrounding states] area. So when I was on InterVarsity staff, I covered that area as a staff member after Seminary.
I was a pitcher. Because when I was a teenager, I was a pitcher in Alameda [California, near Oakland] and according to the locals, I was supposedly pretty good. (smiles)
That was a brief interlude after I had developed into an effective softball player on the American Alameda team.
I guess when you help me to think back on my past, some of the greatest things that happened to me…
Well, one was helping to start the student movement in the Philippines. Of course, that was a wonderful thing. But something stupid like, being a professional softball player…
I’m sorry, Gwen, but that ranks up there as super awesome.
It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything, but it was a very strong important part of my life.
Since we’re talking about my history and everything, one of the very important things in my life that I learned in Hawaii was that I learned how to play the ukelele. (bursts out laughing)
I also used to be a operatic soprano. I was a soloist at various weddings and churches. I can’t sing a note anymore. If I sing anything anymore, it’s in baritone! But 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago, I learned some operatic arias. You can’t imagine how long ago that was. Crazy.
Do you mind if I ask how old you are now?
I’m 91, going on 92 in January.
You look awesome!
I just said to the Lord. Take me home before I lose all my hearing. I can’t taste anymore. You know? This is enough.
And I also said, I’m so glad I’m not facing any eternity without you because eternity without the Lord would be horrible!
I am certainly not longing for long human life. Especially living around here in an assisted living facility for seniors. I see what’s happening with old people. I say, God take me home before that happens to me. That’s very real.
But meanwhile, I’m very, very thankful that I’m learning to spend more time with Him.
Gwen Wong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
¹After Wong’s time in the Philippines, she joined Richard and Lucille Webster, two UC Berkeley IVCF classmates who were pioneering student work in Taiwan. Richard Alvis Webster’s autobiography Seize the Baton (2001) credits Gwen for helping their ministry become more indigenous. “…(D)uring the next two years she served as a catalyst, helping bring the island’s college and high school work into an indigenous unit called Campus Evangelical Fellowship.” (31)
“She pointed out that as long as everything centered around the missionary, things could not fully develop. The students needed to move from passive to active involvement. They needed to see the work as their own. The Christians of each campus should come together and do their own planning, praying, and outreach to their fellow students. Missionaries could speak by invitation, but the students were to take the reins and promote it themselves.“ (31)
²Gwen Wong and Mary Beaton, quoted by Pete Lowman, Day of His Power (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1953), 155, quoted in Donald MacLeod, C. Stacey Woods and the Evangelical Rediscovery of the University (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 174.
3Stacey Woods, “Minutes of the Meetings of the Fourth General Committee of the IFES, September 4-7, 1956,” Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, 49.2.A1, page 6, quoted in Donald MacLeod, C. Stacey Woods and the Evangelical Rediscovery of the University (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 154.
6Biblical Seminary of New York changed its name in 1965 to New York Theological Seminary. According to Columbia University Libraries, Biblical Seminary was founded to as an non-denominational, progressive and evangelical institution that trained both men and women particularly in inductive Bible study. Inductive Bible study too is a hallmark of InterVarsity. Wong taught Filipino students inductive Bible study too. She joked to me that some of them know it as the “Gwen Wong method!” Gordon Govier corroborates this here.
*Correction from Wayland Wong, Gwen Wong’s former pastor (no blood relation): Wong finally did go to China at age 80. Pastor Wong, his wife Clara, Gwen and others taught 240 teachers of English near Chongqing, China. Wayland Wong, personal communication, January 28, 2016.
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