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Beginnings of Consciousness: Asian American Christians share how they started connecting race and culture to their faith.
In January, I interviewed Drew Yamamoto, the Supervisor of Missions in Asia and the Pacific at the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Though his work takes him often to Asia and to his denominational headquarters in Michigan, Drew resides in his hometown of San Francisco. His realization that race mattered happened in two ways: intellectually, by minoring in Asian American Studies in college, and by experience, in seminary.
What has been really striking your heart?
I think the big question that has been driving me in the last several years is: “What does it mean to be Asian American Christian?” As I entered into my seminary studies, it was one thing that became magnified, especially as I had come to experience that seminary is really white.
There wasn’t—and still isn’t—an empowerment of students from Asian American backgrounds in Christian higher education and leadership.
If you’re going to [an Evangelical] school like Fuller or TEDS [Trinity Evangelical Divinity School] or Gordon-Conwell, it’s probably a different story, but go to pretty much any other divinity school, and good luck.
Where did you go?
[San Francisco Theological Seminary] SFTS and Western Theological Seminary [Holland, Michigan].
And that’s because you wanted to stay with your denomination?
Well, I went to SFTS because I wanted to stay in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. I felt like this was a context I could minister and understand well. But I switched to Western because I wanted to get more connected to the RCA. [Western is affliated with the RCA.] While the RCA is a small denomination, it’s done tremendous work, especially when it comes to reaching out to Asians and in part to Asian Americans too. I saw it as comparable to the Evangelical Covenant Church [denomination] in really engaging Asian Americans, and in trying to engage with what it means to be a more multi-ethnic denomination. That was something that was very exciting to me.
Can you give us more background on you? You say that being Asian American and Christian was magnified for you. What was it before?
[I grew up] in San Francisco. As diverse as San Francisco is, it’s easy for people in San Francisco to avoid people of other races.
Even when you were a kid?
Yeah. The school I went to from K-8 was majority Asian. It was a private school. And then in [public] high school, 40% of my school was Chinese and then on top of that, other Asian—so it was at least half Asian. My friends were Chinese American, so they invited me to a Chinese American church.
I went from a context where being Asian [American] was normative to a place [ where] it was not normative [in seminary]. In fact, people didn’t know what to do with me. College was probably the first place I was challenged to understand what it means to be Asian American. But it wasn’t until seminary where it became so personal and real that I am different and not necessarily in a positive way.
You were an Asian American Studies minor? What precipitated that?
I don’t know what led me to minor in that except it was an easy minor to fulfill plus I had curiosity about it. I wanted to understand what it meant to be Asian American. My dad was second generation Asian American, but my mom was first generation Japanese. [She] never learned English, and her main community is first generation Japanese.
Did you learn about Asian American ideas in high school, since San Francisco is so Asian American?
No. At least when I was in high school, it wasn’t part of any curriculum that was offered. It wasn’t something you think about, just like in other parts of America you don’t necessarily have a white history program in high school, or white history class—it’s just something that didn’t come up.
How Asian American was UC Davis [where you went to undergrad]?
Davis was less Asian [American] than San Francisco, but still probably about 30% was Asian.
What happened in seminary?
I was going to seminary in San Francisco, one of the most diverse cities in the United States. Why was it that I was one of 2-4 Asian Americans in seminary? There were obviously Korean students who were not Asian American, but Asian, and there were hapa [part-white] students who didn’t exactly identify as Asian American, and there was myself and a couple other students who fell into this Asian-looking, Asian-named, Asian-born American [category].
I really came to understand that the way I approach the world and the way I engage with people is very different from how mainstream American society does. That was quite shocking to me. Quite surprising.
Can you give an example of what surprised you?
The worldview [from which] I looked at things was a lot different. I think about how much more peace and harmony was central to my worldview, whereas that wasn’t necessarily true for some of my [white seminary] friends and classmates. I think about how much they were more driven by right and wrong and for me, it’s about shame and honor.
And I didn’t know how to interact with my non-Asian American classmates, whether they be Caucasian or Asian [from Asia]. It was like we didn’t know how to interact with each other. So, when the emergent movement started coming up in certain [seminary] contexts…
You went to seminary, what 5 years ago when the emergent church conversation [a discussion that reexamined how to do church] was more in vogue?
Yes. The emergent conversation was interesting, but it was disappointing [because] it was a mono-ethnic conversation. I couldn’t figure out how I fit into that conversation. It was trying to contextualize Christianity and church for postmodern Western, white, suburban Christians who were burned by the Church.
Essentially, these conversations that my classmates were so passionate about were not necessarily issues I was passionate about, and the issues I was passionate about weren’t issues they were passionate about.
What are you passionate about?
Going to seminary re-sparked my passion for racial equality. I can understand how important other aspects of justice—whether it’s environmental justice or [anti-] human trafficking or sex slavery…all these other things.
But in seminary, it felt like many people thought the racial issue was solved and done, [that] we live in a post-racial society. That was the attitude I felt when in reality we are still in the midst of that process. A lot of people thought with affirmative action being phased out or with more Asian [Americans] in higher education, we’ve gone beyond the need for racial reconciliation, but the reality is that we still need it. While explicit forms of racism have been seen and appreciated as wrong, the systems that encourage racism are still in place and have yet to be dealt with. And [that’s] the most nefarious types of racism.
Did you see that in everyday life? And have you always had this conviction, or was it really your Asian American studies program at Davis convicting you of this?
It did convict me of this, but going back to my Asian [American] ghetto, I started to believe in a lie that we were done with this, that this was something that happened in the 60s, that everything is okay now. That was what I believed after I finished my studies at Davis and entered the real world. Because you know, I have white friends, I have white colleagues. They treat me with respect. They treat me as another person.
Moving to Holland, [Michigan] for Western Seminary, it really hit home how much further we have to go especially in places outside the West Coast. It’s easier to be Asian in the West Coast, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s not easy in any sense of the word to be Asian, especially Asian in the Midwest.
What was hard about living in Holland [Michigan]?
Every time I would preach at a church as a guest preacher, someone would comment genuinely and with sincerity: “Boy, your English is so good.” They were all white churches that I spoke at.
Did you feel like they could hear your message?
I don’t know. All I know is that they felt the need to compliment me on my English. And [though] it was a genuine compliment, but it was sad that that was the compliment they had to give me. But the fact they couldn’t accept or process and understand that to be Asian doesn’t mean Asian immigrant, and that perpetual immigrant stereotype is very hurtful to me.
Did you ever tell them that?
You know, when someone is trying to thank you after a sermon, that’s not the appropriate context to do so. But it was something that I would bring up with my seminary classmates, or in other contexts, I’d make people aware of some of the subtle types of racism that I experienced. It wasn’t racism in that it was intentional, but it was unintentional, and I think that was painful and frustrating too.
Another interesting experience I had was when I went to see Avatar [the movie] with Kevin who is a mentor of mine. He’s white, but he [formerly] was on staff with Soong-Chan Rah, the professor at North Park [Seminary and author of The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity]. Because of Soong-Chan, Kevin is very aware of racism. So, Kevin and I were having a conversation about how Avatar is so racist because your proverbial white male saves ethnic peoples and sweeps the ethnic woman off your feet à la Dances with Wolves, à la Pocahontas, à la Last Samurai etc. Our [other] friend, a Japanese national, couldn’t see the racism at all. For him, as a Japanese person in Japan, he was a majority person in power. So it really struck me that he did not understand the Asian American plight of being marginalized. What does it mean to be a native of the land and be marginalized? There is no home to go back to, so you’re a minority no matter where you go.
So what are you learning about being Asian, American and Christian?
Well, I’m learning that it’s not about integrating into white Americana. If I do that the church loses the Asian American voice which is just as important.
I’m learning that the Asian American voice is very fragmented because it is more a political term than a socio-linguistic term. There’s just as much difference between a Japanese person and a South Asian as there is between a Japanese person and a white person. So it’s hard for us to agree on what it means to be Asian American, how much more difficult it is for us to come together and understand what unites us in theology and in praxis. [But,] there’s enough of a overlap, shared experience.
So I think, there’s too much focus on what does Asian theology look like, or what does Western theology look like, but there isn’t enough emphasis on what Asian / Western theology, which is what Asian American theology needs to look like. So I’m grateful for people who have set up the Asian American track DMin at Fuller. I think that’s a good and important move.
But I think there’s still a lot of questions that need to be answered before Asian Americans live more fully into our place in the church in North America.
On one hand, we’re marginalized by churches that speak our mother tongues, but on the other hand, we’re also marginalized by churches that speak English and aren’t Asian. How do we bridge those two cultures, and how do we make a difference in those two cultures as well?
How has thinking this way helped you personally?
I think it’s given me permission to not conform with a style and thought that is white or mainstream American. It’s allowed me to also empathize with my ministry partners in Asia who still struggle with Western colonialism and its effects on their countries and churches. And it’s allowed me to be a better advocate and more of a lover of those who are marginalized. And it helps me understand Christ and his choice to come into this world, in the way that he did as a peasant, to a red-neck part of the Empire, not as Emperor or Caesar, but as a baby born to a carpenter.
You live again in San Francisco. Has it changed how you feel at home?
Yeah, well. It makes me sad when I see my Asian American brothers and sisters treat other ethnicities in ways that we don’t want to be treated because we’re able to marginalize in our context.
As you’ve spoken with your white colleagues about feeling marginalized as an Asian American, how do they receive what you’ve had to say?
The RCA has made part of its mission to enter into a “multiracial future free from racism,” [so,] I get a lot of empathy and solidarity. And I’m able to speak into that from an Asian American perspective, and that’s a very important one. There aren’t enough Asian-Americans in leadership in the RCA, especially those who are second and third and fourth generation. Those who are in leadership are first generation. And the issues that the first generation have are very different from the issues that we have.
I feel like a lot of their issues are about what does it mean to be [say] Indian, in a foreign country, and for us it is, what does it mean to be Indian in our country?
So when you talk with your Asian American Christian friends about this, is this what people are talking about?
Well, it depends on the context. A lot of them don’t see it because they’re in Asian American churches where that doesn’t come up as an issue. I think others don’t see it because they’ve chosen to believe that we’re in a post-racial society. Maybe it’s just the circles I run in, but I [meet a lot of people] who are more and more frustrated with the lack of representation and voice that Asian Americans have, especially in Christian contexts, Evangelical contexts.
. . .
This is not a strict transcript of the conversation. While preserving as much of the interviewee’s voice as possible, this interview has been edited for clarity.
Tagged with: Asian American theology • college • Emerging Church • Evangelical Covenant Church • how to do church • Japanese • marginalization • MIchigan • Midwest • multi • post-college • post-racial • Reformed Church in America • San Francisco Bay Area • San Francisco Theological Seminary • seminary • Soong-Chan Rah • West Coast • Western Seminary
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