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At the height of Linsanity, Asian American Christian reporter Michael Luo voiced his emotions about Asian American Christian Jeremy Lin, and in doing so, he introduced New York Times readers to Asian American Christians.
“An Asian-American Christian? What’s that?
“Many in this country have probably never even heard of this subcategory on the religious spectrum. But if you are a relatively recent graduate of the Ivy League or another top-tier college, you will probably recognize the species….
“You will also immediately know it if you are part of a historically orthodox church in a major metropolitan center like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston or Los Angeles because your pews are probably filled with them. Like Lin, many Asian-American Christians have deep personal faith, but they are also, notably, almost never culture warriors. That is simply not what is emphasized in their churches and college Christian fellowships, including the one that played such a formative role in Lin’s life at Harvard.”
Still receiving nods for his February 2012 essay, including mine last month, I recently reached out to Luo to ask him what sparked his thoughts.
How did your essay come about?
During that first week when Linsanity exploded in New York and the rest of the country, the sports editor dropped me a note, because he knew I was a fan, asking for some of my thoughts. I sent some scattered observations back to him, mostly trying to explain why I was going nuts but also ruminating about his ethnicity and what that meant, as well as his faith. That eventually led to him asking me if I would like to write a first person piece. It was a really unusual request because I’m a reporter, not a columnist, and I had never written a first person piece for the paper. I was worried the piece would wind up being too personal in such a public forum, and leave me feeling too vulnerable. He said, “I’m all about vulnerability.” He encouraged me to make it as personal as possible.
How did you get the idea to introduce Asian American Christians?
When I was thinking about what to write about, I knew that focusing on what Lin meant to me as an Asian American would be relatable to a broader cross-section of people, so I thought a lot about just writing about that. I also chewed on writing about him as a Christian and what that meant to me, because that was also relatable to a broad group of people. But as I was turning it over in my mind, I realized that writing about him as an Asian American Christian was something I hadn’t seen done, that I thought was something unique that I could bring, and sort of introduce people to what it means to be an Asian American Christian, specifically. I felt like I had a breakthrough moment when I realized this.
I kind of stumbled on the Asian American Christian theme as I was reflecting on all the talk that was bubbling about Lin being a “Taiwanese Tebow,” referring to Tim Tebow, because Lin seemed to have a similar outspokenness about his faith. But Tebow had also become this hugely polarizing figure—in part, I think, because of some of his own decisions but also probably because of how he had come to be perceived through the maelstrom of the media. But I really thought Lin would never become that way. My theory about why was rooted in how he was distinctly an Asian American Christian.
I don’t know Jeremy Lin. I never met him, but I felt like knew him, because he’s grown up in the faith in the same exact institutions that I grew up in the faith. I became a Christian at Harvard. When I watched him on Youtube, his humor is very much like the humor of other people I knew from Harvard who were Asian American Christian. The churches that he was a part of in the Bay Area, I’ve been a part of those kinds of churches. I didn’t really know him, but I just felt like I knew what brand of his faith was like. And I thought I could explain a little bit of what that was.
And a big part of what I explained was that Asian American Christians are very devout, but they tend not to be culture warriors. It’s just not what comes up in their churches. You know, the churches that I’ve been a part of I’ve never heard them talk about politics.
As part of my job, I travel around the country, and I’ve written about all kinds of Christians. I used to cover religion. Sometimes these churches that are out there, they feel like completely different countries. They feel really different. I was just trying to offer at least a glimpse of what makes the Asian American church different.
So when I wrote the piece, it struck a huge chord, it got a huge response on Twitter and on social media. Since then, I’ve talked to lots of lots of people who’ve read it and felt like when they read what I wrote, “That’s me. I totally understand what he’s talking about. And he’s finally articulating what I’ve been thinking inside. And I’ve never really sort of articulated it.”
So yeah, that’s how the piece came about.
Did you ever share this with Jeremy Lin?
No, I never talked to him. At one point, I was trying to reach out to him to get an interview after the season ended. But I never heard anything back.
I’m pretty sure he’s read the piece, because people who know him have told me that they sent it to him. It was like a viral thing in the Asian American Christian community, so I almost feel like every Asian American Christian had heard about it or read about it. He would have read it. But I don’t know, it was a pretty busy time for him. I’d love to talk to him about it.
You said that people came up to you afterwards and said “That’s me.”
I got a lot of email and feedback in person and on social media from Asian Americans, as well as non-Asian Americans. Among the non-Asian Americans, I think some just appreciated the Ivy League part of my piece, how I showcased that there are plenty of people from highly educated backgrounds who are believers as well. But I think the piece, obviously, struck a major chord with Asian American Christians, specifically. One person, a Cornell undergrad, wrote to me to thank me for the piece, telling me it had been circulating among her friends and that she appreciated, in particular, how I highlighted that there was a “unique Asian American expression” of the Christian faith. I spoke at a Redeemer conference a few months ago and a bunch of people came up to me afterwards and said that they had read my piece and told me that it had really resonated with them. So I’m still getting responses.
“Asian American” and “Christian:” you said it was a breakthrough to put those two together. Did you put “Asian American” and “Christian” together before this piece? Was it lurking in your subconscious, or had you heard of it as a category?
Well, I obviously didn’t invent the term. But I don’t think people think enough about Asian American Christianity as a distinct subspecies in the Christian continuum. In terms of whether it has lurked in my subconscious, I think we experience the distinction all the time in subtle and not so subtle ways. It’s a matter of style, but it’s also more than that.
Like I said, I didn’t invent the term, because there’s been the Asian American Christian Fellowship at Harvard and for other schools for a long, long time. Whether people are now thinking about it more as a subspecies of Christianity—again, I don’t claim any credit. People have thought about Asian American ministry for a long, long time.
I guess I feel like where it hasn’t been written about is in the mainstream press necessarily. After the Jeremy Lin thing happened, we wrote a flurry of articles where we quoted Asian American Christians. We also did a story where we visited churches with a lot of Asian American Christians and got reactions on Lin with these man-on-the-street-type quotes. And all those Asian American churches that we visited, or heavily Asian American churches that we visited, were churches I told the sports department about. (laughs) “Go here, here and here.” And they also went to a Jeremy Lin viewing party for the Laker game, and it was through an Asian American Christian friend of mine, that I pointed to them to. So I joke that the New York Times quoted more Asian American Christians that week than in our entire history, and that’s probably true.
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.
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