jeanette_yepMany 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.

When I asked people about the beginnings of InterVarsity’s Asian American ministries, many pointed me to Jeanette Yep. The genesis of this ministry in Chicagoland and New England began with her.

Jeanette was on staff with InterVarsity for 30 years, beginning as an itinerant campus staff worker and eventually becoming Vice President and Director of Multiethnic Ministries. She is currently Pastor of Global and Regional Outreach at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

 

Part 1: Background
Part 2: Asian American Ministry Beginnings
Part 3: Advice for other Asian American ministers

 

Part 1: Background

 

How did you find InterVarsity (IV)?

It was the only Christian group at our small campus.  

 

That’s right. That used to be the case at many, many universities!  

I went to Mount Holyoke for college in Western Massachusetts. One of the first people I met was Mary Alexander Whallon. Mary Alexander was the daughter of John Alexander who was the president of IV at that point. And so, surprise, surprise, IV staff visited the campus. That’s how I got to know IV. She was the same year as me. She was a freshman, and we met through one of the first freshman gatherings. We were in the same dorm.

 

What drew you to staff?

I stayed involved with the Christian fellowship during my undergrad days and eventually started going to conferences and IV sponsored things. I went to Urbana. Mary’s dad would come by and visit Mary and say hi to me, and he would start talking to me about staff. And then staff workers would start talking to me about staff.

But I received a fellowship to study in Taiwan after I graduated. So that’s what I did. I took the fellowship and studied. And while I was there, I got some letters from people asking me to think about staff.

Bob Frying, the Regional Director of New England at that point—he’s now the director of the (IV) Press—he wrote me. And I remember thinking, “Okay, I’ll go to seminary for a few years. After that, I’ll join IV staff and repay them, you know, because I was grateful. I’ll repay them for a couple years, and then I’ll go on to law school.”  I wanted to become an immigration lawyer in the Chinese community. That was my little 10 year plan.  

I joined staff in ‘77 after a year of studying in Taiwan. I never made it to law school.

 

Since you pioneered Asian American ministries, there was definitely no Asian American ministries for you to join…

There was no Asian anything. I went to school in the days when there were just very few Asian Americans. Actually, there may have been a few more Asians, meaning, Asian internationals. There were not a whole bunch of us [Asian Americans whose primary language was English].  

I think in my day, the assumption was that you’d join the international students in the Chinese Bible Study group, which was usually Chinese-language speaking and probably had Cantonese and Mandarin sections. Or you’d go the dominant white group. It was one extreme or another.

I think it was the Immigration Act in the ‘60s that opened up the quota system. And when those folk started to be college-aged, that’s when the change in demographics in universities happened. That might have been in the ‘80s, I think. And you started seeing more. More of everything, more Chinese, Japanese, Korean Americans. The Asian American ministry was always viable in the West Coast because of numbers. On the East Coast, it’s probably not until the ‘80s that there were more folk coming into the universities here.  

 

Did you grow up in the Chinese church? Was there a Chinese fellowship?

Yes, my parents help found the Boston Chinese Evangelical Church (BCEC) in the 1960s here in Boston. So I grew up in that church which at that point was Cantonese, and then eventually English and now, they’ve added a Mandarin congregation. It’s a pretty big church. It’s grown to a couple of thousand people I believe. Then we moved to the suburbs when I was in elementary school. We started going back and forth between a European American Baptist Church and BCEC. I grew up in both contexts.

 

Can I ask what generation Chinese you are?

I think the Chinese and the Koreans count it differently. I don’t exactly know, but I can tell you the history.  

My grandpa came in 1901 at the end of the Qing Dynasty. He came to Boston; he was one of the first settlers in Boston’s Chinatown. And then my dad came during the Depression as a kid in elementary school, he came to help my grandpa with the laundry that he had. Then my dad was drafted into the US Navy in World War II, and he served in the Japanese theater. In between, before the war broke out, my dad was sent back to China to marry my mother. There was a village matchmaker who knew of my dad in the US and my mom, who was an overseas Chinese also. She was born and raised in Burma or Myanmar. But they were from the same district in southern China. The matchmaker knew of this man in America, and this lady in America. And she put them together. They were 16 and 17 when they married sight unseen. On the day of their wedding, he lifts up her veil and sees her for the very first time as she gets off the sedan chair.  

So they were together for a year in the village before World War II broke out in earnest. At that point, the Japanese were bombing that part of Southern China, and my mom had my first sister when my dad was not there. She was developmentally delayed, so it was not a perfect baby. My mom got a lot of scorn from my grandmother who was a type of wicked mother-in-law.

It was only after World War II ended that my dad, because he was a US Navy veteran, was able to bring my mom and my sister to the US. There was a War Brides Act passed by the government to allow the GI’s to bring over German and Japanese brides. That’s when my mom came over, and they settled in Boston in the mid ‘40s. Then my sister popped out, and my next sister came, and six years later me and then my brother the year after me. So there were five of us. Only my oldest sister was born in China; the rest of us were born in the States.

So long time Boston roots.

 

Patrician Boston Chinatown roots!

I tell them that we did laundry for the people on the Mayflower.

 

You said your parents helped found BCEC in Boston. Did they become Christians here in the US, or were they Christians in China?

When my dad was a boy here in Chinatown Boston, there were some retired European American missionaries who had been to China. They were concerned about the Chinese boys they saw in Chinatown. So they started a Sunday School program, and my dad got invited into the Sunday School program. That’s where he first heard the Gospel as a kid. Eventually he was baptized in one of the big Baptist churches here in Boston called Tremont Temple. My mom was baptized in Tremont Temple sometime in the ‘40s I believe.

 

And then they felt called to start the first Chinese church 20 years later…

Right. There actually was another Chinese church that had been here, but it was a mainline church and Mandarin speaking. Most of the folk at that point were Cantonese, and there was a class gap between the Cantonese-working people, Chinatown and the usually more educated, Mandarin-speaking intelligentsia. The pastor of that first church tried to reach out to the more working-class Chinese, but there was a gap: language and culture. So my dad and friends found a Cantonese-speaking guy from Hong Kong, and he became the founding pastor of this more Cantonese-based church. So there was another ministry here before my folks started their church.  

 

When you went on staff with InterVarsity, how did they feel about that?

No one sends their kid to Mount Holyoke to go on staff. And so, they weren’t thrilled. The normal things…they wanted me to get a good job and pay for other people who wanted to go into ministry. “Shouldn’t you be doing other things? You wanted to go to law school; don’t you want to do that?” Eventually they said okay, “You can do this for a little bit, and get it out of your system and then go into the real world.”  

One of the big obstacles of course was fundraising and asking people for money and asking their friends for money. It looked like I was begging and all that kind of stuff. So I was pretty hard for them in the beginning.

 

Did they come to accept you being in ministry?

Yeah, after a while. Because they were Christians, they thought missionary stuff was pretty okay. They would’ve preferred that I was a missionary doctor. But my science acumen is like that of a dead squid, so that would have never happened. But they were okay with me doing Gospel ministry work.  

They never knew what InterVarsity was; they could never understand it. So they just knew it was with college students, and I seemed to like it.

Over time they were okay about it. I think once they saw that I could pay bills and be responsible with the money I did have, it made it a lot easier for them. You know, they were fundamentally just concerned that I’d be able to live. They helped you know. They would give me bags of groceries when I visited and things like that. But when they saw I was okay, they turned. I didn’t get those objections anymore.

 

So you went on staff.

So, my first assignment was in Boston, and I served in Boston ‘77 to early ‘81?  And then in ‘81 I transferred out to Chicago. I think I was 17 years in Chicago, and then I moved to a National role. But I lived in Chicago when I became a National person [even though IV’s national office was in Madison, Wisconsin].  And then the last five years or so I moved up to Madison. 2002-7 or something like that.

 

I’ve heard that the average tenure of an IV staff worker is something like two or three years.  Was it like that back when you first started out?

Earlier, there were very few folk who stayed beyond a three to five year stint. The generation just before me are the first to do a whole career on staff. It was a youth movement. You do your bit, you age out, and then you go on to work in the church, or you go on to grad school, or you do something else. I was kind of in the bubble of transition when people started to do a career thing.  

 

Were there any other ways in which InterVarsity campus staff work was different?

In my day in the ‘70s, we had multiple campuses. So I had anywhere from three to five campuses at any given time when I was in Boston. When I was in Chicago, probably three or four campuses. And then I became the Area Director, so I oversaw the staff who visited those campuses. I don’t remember the year when it became more common for staff to just have one campus or just a couple campuses. I started more as an itinerant staff worker.  

 

—–

Jeanette Yep’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.


Part 2: Asian American Ministry Beginnings
Part 3: Advice for other Asian American ministers

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