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I asked Nikki Toyama-Szeto what she sees God doing among Asian Americans, and she’s noticed four trends. Program Director of InterVarsity’s Urbana Student Mission Convention, a co-author of More Than Serving Tea, Nikki will be speaking in Los Angeles March 11-13 at the Asian American Leadership Conference.
So what trends are you seeing?
Trend 1: God redeeming the calling of people in their 30s-40s who said “no” to him in their 20s
There’s a lot of folks who felt a sense of calling when they were in their early 20s to ministry, mission, the pastorate. But for various reasons—probably the number one reason being parental disapproval, but also for some other reasons or pressures—folks basically decided to say “no” to that invitation.
The path [they’ve] taken [instead] has been management consulting, business school, law, that kind of thing. And now as folks are entering their 30s and 40s, as they’re getting married, having children, and establishing an identity that is not as susceptible to social and parental pressures, they are coming into their own. They are revisiting that calling. So what I hear repeated often is “I felt called in my 20s; I said ‘no.’ I went to grad school, I went to management consulting, and here I am 10 years later re-entering ministry.”
And I think that is so exciting because a whole slew of people are coming in with some extraordinary world and professional experiences and skills [and] are now entering our Christian foundations, our Christian organizations, our churches, our denominations. It is an extraordinary thing to begin to see how some of these Asian Americans are beginning to take the helm of organizations because of this great set of tools that they have in their toolbox that initially came from saying “no” to Jesus. And now that they are in their own and saying “yes,” they are bringing that to bear. That’s been pretty exciting to see.
Trend 2: A broadening of what it means to be Asian American Christian
[From] my InterVarsity corner of the world and a little from my connection with the Asian Pacific Islander Women’s Leadership Conference, a partnership with other parachurch organizations, Asian Americans Christians for a long season really meant East Asian Christians.
There’s [now] a strong South Asian contingent and Southeast Asian contingent that is [becoming more integrated with InterVaristy Asian American ministries].
For example, here in the Midwest, the Hmong community is becoming much more prominent in InterVarsity’s Asian American ministries, and it’s really challenged East Asian folks. Before the [conversation] used to be more about the immigrant church and the second or third generation, and now it’s more second and third generation folks having to deal with their own racism, and their own rejection of the immigrant or the FOB (Fresh-off-the-Boat) prejudice. As critical mass grows of Hmong Christians in certain areas, or Filipino Christians in other areas, it has changed that conversation from a generational conversation to more [about] inter-Asian prejudice or sin or history which I think is really good.
People don’t really realize where they draw the boundary of Asian American Christian as they accidentally cut out some folks, or realize they know no one from these other categories. It’s something of a realization for folks, especially because these communities in America tend to be economically and sociologically very different. Sometimes [this] really challenges what we think of the “Asian American Christian” experience.
For those not as familiar with InterVaristy, can you give us an example of what the conversation was like before and how the Hmong changed it?
As a kind of general curriculum talking about ethnic identity, [we’d] affirm that following Jesus does not necessarily mean [being] anti-Chinese, anti-Japanese, etc. You can be Japanese-American Christian and all those [Japanese-American] things still stay. That was the nature of the ethnic identity conversation because there were so many things in [East Asian] communities that were so much the same, like the value of education, a certain level of achievement and ambition in American society, a certain trust of American systems and ideals. There were a lot more similarities, so the conversation really focused on the specific cultural aspect.
[With] the Hmong community, there are different dynamics that [make you] realize, “Oh, actually, we have different starting places.” Dynamics like: the first person to get sent to college, families not even being convinced that going to college was worthwhile, or not being convinced that sending a woman to college was worthwhile. They had a different relationship with the American government in the terms and locations in which they immigrated, and the jobs people stepped into. So [what] we thought were just Asian actually were economic or social or political and common to these East Asian groups.
It’s been very interesting because I’m only beginning to get a glimpse on some of the ways gender plays out very differently in Hmong families. So the introduction of a community wresting with following Jesus with very different questions has been a such a blessing, but also a sobering challenge for Asian American ministries. We’re trying to come up with more robust things that will work for more folks, and not just for people with more privilege or access.
You also noticed two more trends?
Trend 3: Inclusion of multi-racial people in Asian American ministries
Another thing that God is doing among Asian American Christians in InterVarsity: the role of hapa or multi-racial folks and how they are either included or not included in Asian American Christian circles.
I just think God is doing something really neat among multiracial or biracial folks, because I think there is a way that they understand being say, fully Asian and fully Black and yet belonging to neither community. Theologically, I find that very interesting.
As a parent, I think about it a bit, which is part of why it caught my eye. I have children who are fully Japanese, and fully Chinese and I’m trying to raise them in that mindset, versus “Oh, you’re only half and so you’re not quite qualified.” But I realize that the dynamics are really different for folks who are multi-racial because in a sense, my children’s ethnic identities are both East Asian.
That’s a voice I hope the Asian American Christian community can be very hospitable to until that community has a stronger form from which to speak. They may have it, I just might not know about it.
Trend 4: Asian Americans rising in influence, viewing power in a new way
Another thing that I see God doing among Asian American Christians: in the American Christian realm, Asian Americans are beginning to rise in influence. There’s the appointment of Michael Oh to the Lausanne Movement, and multiple leaders within InterVarsity are VP or senior positions. As Asian Americans are rising into more positions of power, God is beginning to stir up a new wresting with what it means to have authority and what it means to have power as a marginalized person.
For myself as an Asian American, I’m program director of a large conference, so there’s a lot of authority that comes from my position; it has nothing necessarily to do with me. Yet, in some of the circles I’m in—say, in missions circles, with a lot of mission agencies, I have been in the room as the only Asian person or the only woman, and sometimes I’m both. There’s this reality of being a marginalized person and also holding positions of power. There are different power dynamics there. It’s just less clear when than it used to be the white person as the position of power and people of color in other places.
So, I think one of the things God is doing among Asian American Christians, is stirring up questions about power and authority, God’s power, [and] true authority. When do you speak up, and when do you empower others? On my team, I supervise an African American woman [and] two Latinas directly and so the people of color can’t interact with me like I’m a white man in my job, and I can’t interact with them as a disempowered minority because I’m their supervisor. So I think managing lots of different power dynamics is no longer as clear cut. It’s become tricky.
I think for me there are rarely places where I have a tremendous amount of power except this one time when I was working with First Nations, the indigenous people. As disempowered as I feel in mainstream American society, even more so I am a huge beneficiary of systems and injustices that have displaced their people economically and socially. In a sense, as disempowered as I feel, I’ve never felt so much a part of power, or the majority or the establishment as I do when I’m interacting with First Nations leaders.
This has rocked my world upside down knowing that I need to go into the conversation with an awareness of how much power comes behind me in these conversations that I’m not used to holding as a woman or an Asian American woman. And there also confusing things in Christianity about meekness and servant leadership and really good examples and really bad examples of all that. This is what I think God is stirring up—it’s a good stirring up but it still feels like I’m very much in the middle of the journey.
. . .
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 Leadership Conference 2013 • Asian Pacific Islander Women's Leadership Conference • biracial • college • defining Asian American Christians • East Asian • family • First Nations • Hmong • immigrant • influence • InterVarsity Christian Fellowship • Lausanne Movement • leadership • Michael Oh • Midwest • multiethnic • multiracial • power • redemption • SE Asian • second generation • South Asian • Urbana Student Mission Convention • woman
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