I spoke recently to Adrian Pei, Associate National Director of Leadership Development with Cru’s Epic Movement. Adrian shares with us what he’s learned in the midst of majority/minority cultural tensions. Though always challenging and fragile, differences can be good, and are an opportunity to see more of God’s glory, as every culture reflects a different aspect of that glory. Efforts in ethnic ministry since the 1970s within Cru (or prior to 2011, Campus Crusade for Christ) have taught Epic that staying in that uncomfortable tension of not fully separating or assimilating, has not only made Epic become a better ministry, but it has also made it an intriguing example to other ministries.  

 

“Differences are are not necessarily bad. Differences could be good.”
Is this what we signed up for?”
America’s growing embrace of diversity is true also of Cru
The pressures of majority/minority dynamics

Becoming more Asian American because of majority/minority dynamics
“It hasn’t always been this way.” A history of learning to grow and stay in the majority/minority tension.
Joy and thriving in the midst of fragility

 

 

 

AdrianPei“Differences are are not necessarily bad. Differences could be good.”

When I was in college, I was part of a ministry [with] a lot of Asian Americans together. There was something comfortable and familiar about being together, but in terms of the actual content of what we did: Bible Studies, worship, approach to leadership—it wasn’t anything that was intentionally Asian American per se. I don’t know if we could have described exactly what made it Asian American, except for the fact that we were all ethnically Asian American.

When I went to seminary at Gordon Conwell in Massachusetts,I was part of a group where I was the only Asian American. I remember in that group, I was just trying to make friends and fit in. I grew up in America, so I knew all the music and the cultural stuff, and I was just trying to relate to them on that level. But they kept on asking me questions like “So what was it like for you growing up as an Asian?” I had a really defensive reaction to that. I was like, “What do you mean? I don’t want to talk about that. I’m just the same as you guys. I grew up here.” I was not trying to think about my differences as an Asian American.

After a period of time, I realized they didn’t mean anything bad at all. They just wanted to learn something different from my background. The big lesson for me was that differences weren’t necessarily bad. Differences could be good. It could be something good for them, and they also may have something good for me to learn, if I understand that they are different. I had to open my mind to diversity and differences. It opened my categories to think in a new way. I think that was the first turning point for me.

 

Is this what we signed up for?”  

Later, when my wife and I joined Epic (Cru’s Asian American ministry), we went out to Florida for Cru’s New Staff Training. We had culture shock! It was the first time we understood what it was like to be a minority—ethnically, geographically, and even theologically to some degree. While my experience at Gordon Conwell had been intellectual, this experience in Florida impacted me emotionally. I felt depression, isolation, paranoia, second guessing: feelings and experiences that were new to me. I think probably a lot of Asian Americans, if they were in certain contexts, they would feel that too. But for me, I had lived previously in situations where I didn’t have to feel that.

For a while, both my [California native] wife and I were really taken aback. I remember just thinking, “We’re not used to this. What is this?” We had a lot of healthy confidence, and we brought our own perspectives, as we were encouraged to bring. But we felt shut out sometimes by certain people. We felt isolated, and wondered “Does anybody understand who we are? Are we kind of the problem here?” Part of us really just wanted to leave. “What’s the point of this? We didn’t come out here for this, to feel like this.” So, it was actually a very difficult experience. It was somewhat deflating and demoralizing. We thought, “Is this what we signed up for?”

 

America’s growing embrace of diversity is true also of Cru

As we reflected on that experience, I realized that it was indeed what we signed up for. I thought of my grandparents who came to the United States and were pioneers who faced a lot of challenges fitting in, discrimination and those things. This is part of the journey that our nation is in the middle of.

Generations ago, people didn’t know what it was like for people coming from Asia. They see us, and they are like, “Wow. I haven’t seen an Asian, an Asian American before.” So they don’t know what to expect.

We’re at a stage now where [American Evangelical] Christians are slowly beginning to understand that the beauty of God is more diverse. There’s a lot of angles of God that you can’t get from just one culture alone. I think people are getting closer to the point where they recognize that. We don’t do ethnic ministry just because it’s a pragmatic thing. Our motivation is not just, “if we don’t do this, we’re not going to be able to reach all these ethnic people joining America.” Rather as we do missions around the world, and with ethnic minorities throughout this country, we are getting exposed to different facets of God’s glory, as different cultures reflect it in different ways.

A ministry like Cru has really been wanting to become more diverse for a number of years; they’ve realized that they cannot stay predominantly Caucasian. Cru leadership realize that there are more ethnic minorities coming into our country. They want to become more diverse, and they want to grow. But it’s not that simple. There are a lot of challenges that come with the process. And it takes time.

People in the United States are in the middle of this journey of understanding diversity and how to relate to one another in healthy and honoring ways. And the history of Cru from the past decades until now, is a pretty accurate representation of what we see on a broader scale in America. So, I appreciate that I get to experience [a broader American] reality in this organization, if you know what I mean.

 

The pressures of majority/minority dynamics
As I thought back on my New Staff Training Experience with Cru, I realized why the work of ethnic ministry is so important. The point is not simply to go to a place and be comfortable, although for some people that is what they need at that stage in their ethnic journey. But I sensed a different calling: if we fully embraced the challenges of majority/minority dynamics, what could we learn it? The benefit of an ethnic ministry positioned in a bigger predominantly Caucasian organization, as Epic is to Cru, is that you have to constantly navigate the pressures of majority/minority dynamics.

And that plays out on so many different levels. It plays out on a local level, on campuses for each of our staff and interns. There a lot of campuses and Cru teams that are predominantly Caucasian. They’re having to engage it also on the highest national levels of organizational leadership in Cru. I think it feels very uncomfortable to deal with it, and a lot of staff wonder “How long can I last in this kind of environment?” And yet, I think there’s been great value that’s come out of it, for everybody.

When you are the minority, you are under a lot of pressure to conform to the bigger group or the main way of thinking. This is not necessarily just externally from greater society, but internally as well. We want to fit in; we want to become part of what the group is doing.

In the face of pressure to conform, and adversity, we’ve had to define who we are even more clearly. We’ve had to ask, “What is our identity? What are our values?” If we don’t define who we are, we will just conform.

 

Becoming more Asian American because of majority/minority dynamics
What I realized in the midst of this pressure is that Asian Americans are actually our own people too. There is enough distinctive thought. We have our own identity.

Over the past decade especially, Epic has sharpened our identity. We’ve really developed a clear sense of who we are in terms of our mission, the way that we do things and our values. One example is a very clear, systematic set of leadership values called the “9 Elements.”  That’s really impacted a lot of ways we do things like evangelism, discipleship, leadership development, missions, and even fundraising.

Since we’ve been doing that, we’ve noticed that people outside of Epic, other ethnic ministries within Cru, and even other church or Asian American ministries, have been interested in what we’ve been doing. They’ve even asked for our materials as a resource. Again, that’s because we’ve had to really define an approach, and I credit that in some ways to the majority culture context. We’ve had to push back and figure out the appropriate level of engagement. We have our distinctiveness, and yet we’re connected. We have our own identity as well as being part of Cru.

Honestly, I wouldn’t want Epic to ever separate from Cru. I would want to keep engaging, because it’s part of what’s helped us develop our unique identity, in fully understanding the distinctiveness and the approach that we have. At the same time, I wouldn’t want us to lose our distinctiveness as Epic and Asian American ministries. Both of those things are important and necessary.

 

“It hasn’t always been this way.” A history of learning to grow and stay in the majority/minority tension.
It’s important to remember that this hasn’t always been the case. For a long time in ethnic ministry, it was much harder because fewer people understood what ethnic leaders were trying to do. Some staff felt pressure to conform and assimilate, or to split off completely and go off “on their own.” This is what I have seen on an organizational level, and on an individual level in relationships with people as well.

The ‘70s were a time when Stan Inouye was an ethnic ministry pioneer in Cru, then Campus Crusade for Christ. A lot of people don’t know about this, but he started an intentional leadership developmental program for ethnic minorities, for Asian Americans, Latino Americans, African Americans and Native Americans. His approach was to spend a year to learn about culture and how that impacts things like evangelism, discipleship, etc. It was amazing, groundbreaking work. But the program ended after only one year. Maybe Stan was ahead of his time. Think of what kind of good could have come, if his program had continued!

(What’s interesting is that since that time, Stan has continued to do what he did [through Iwa]:  contextualized resources for leadership development, evangelism, discipleship. He’s done some great things that we’ve used.)

In the 1980s, the perception of Asian Americans was just so young and undeveloped. A lot of people were like “What’s the difference between Asian Americans and Asians?” They didn’t understand the concept of Asian American as well. In those days, a lot of Asian Americans who wanted to do Asian American ministry were actually sent to Asia to do training.

And then, in the ‘90s, there was a little more progressive thought: “Oh, there are more Asian Americans! I need to understand Asian American ministry a little bit more.” In Campus Crusade, they were encouraged to do Asian American ministry, but they were encouraged to do it when they had free time, [in addition to their “regular” ministry.] People in Asian American ministry were essentially doing two jobs. They would have two of everything: a conference within a conference for Asian Americans, “regular” stuff and then ethnic ministry on the side. It led to an unsustainable situation, and there was a lot of burnout. At least 20 ethnic staff left within a span of a year or two. That was really concerning because it was a significant portion of ethnic leaders. I think they saw what they would need to do sustain it and realized they couldn’t.

Sometimes we still face that tension, even now. To stay connected to majority culture and to our bigger organization, there’s a lot we have to keep engaging in and doing. And [if diversity continues to be championed,] ethnic leaders will always get asked to do more than we probably can do. We think that is great, but we also have our own ethnic contexts where work needs to be done, apart from being spokespeople in the cross-cultural learning process. So basically we have to figure out how much time can we devote to this, how much time can we spend on that. So we often feel like we have two jobs, and it’s hard to keep that up.

Ethnic ministry, the way we’re doing it today, feels fragile. To keep engaged with majority culture and say, “No, we need to learn from you,” and also remain distinct enough that we don’t get assimilated. It feels like we’re constantly in this tension, and both majority and minority staff feel it. As we’ve been relating to leaders in Cru, we’ve come to some better understanding, and yet, it’s a challenging dynamic that requires humility, listening, and persistence.

 

Joy and thriving in the midst of fragility
In some ways Cru’s past history with ethnic ministries has allowed us to really thrive. But as I said before, it always feels fragile. It always feels challenging. On one hand, I feel that my experience in Epic has been amazing; it’s really a joy and we’ve thrived in some ways. On the other, we feel the fragility, that it is so hard. And that’s just part of the tension of being in ethnic minority ministry within a larger majority culture organization. When you do things this way, that comes with the territory.

We are a campus ministry that seeks to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ through our students and faculty. Cru is big on the idea of “win, build, send.” We help people to come to know Christ, then build them up in the faith, and then send them out. That’s the heart of what we do, but when you look at it through the lens of a certain culture, say Asian American, think about how much more that could be added! That’s why I hope ethnic ministry will continue to endure, and influence majority culture ministry contexts. We as Asian American Christians have so much to offer, if we have the space to develop our distinct voices and leadership, and if we stay connected enough to influence the church and our country for the better.

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Adrian Pei’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.

 

Last revised: February 16, 2016

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