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Part 2: Asian American Ministry Beginnings
How did Asian American ministries in InterVarsity (IV) come about?
When I was a student, I went to Urbana [the Student Mission Conference], and I met Donna Dong who was in California and now in Toronto. She was the first Asian American staff worker that I had met. The staff that I knew in New England—there were only five or six staff in New England in those days—were all European American.
And we just connected. I remember just chatting with her, and I wanted to touch her a couple times because I didn’t know that there was someone like me. We’re both Toisan, and we spoke a little bit of the home dialect, and we joked about that. I just thought I’d never find a Christian person in IV who had a similar family background as me!
So as I came on board on staff, at different national events, you look for folk who look like you. And I began to find the few Asian American staff. Brenda Wong came on after a bit, and I want to say there were 15 to 20 of us in the whole country.
Pete Hammond (1936-2008) [a senior leader in InterVarsity] was a big part in helping launch the Asian American ministry in IV. He figured out ways to provide funding, and we met, I think it was outside of San Francisco, for the first Asian American staff conference. That might have been as early as the late ‘70s, like 1979. A couple staff for Hawaii, three or four staff from Southern Cal, two or three staff from the East Coast, one or two from the Midwest. We had a little gathering, and we met one another.
So we started to think, “Wow, can we do something more? Should we figure out how to let InterVarsity know that we’re Asian Americans and that there might be some distinctives to how we do ministry and who we reach out to?” So a couple of us started doing that, and Donna was part of it.
And then there were those philosophy of ministry conversations that happened. I would say that the two main streams that thought were that ethnic-specific ministry was a viable ministry strategy and the other was that multiethnic was. So Donna went multi-ethnic, and I stayed in the ethnic-specific stream. And it was kind of [respectively] West Coast, and Midwest and East Coast. Those are the broad generalizations.
Asian American staff grew over time. We started doing stuff on fundraising. We started doing stuff on networking with our ethnic home churches. Nina Lau-Branson, who is now in Southern California—she and I went to several Chinese-language conferences that were pretty tough for a second generation person to sit through. But we did it to try to build relationship between InterVarsity and first generation pastors. So slowly gradually, we made connections, networked and started to think about Asian American-ness and what that meant in terms of ministry.
What were your hopes for Asian Americans as you began this ministry?
The vision was more to make a space for the second generation [from the first generation]. We were thinking: “Let’s get their blessing.” Or at least let them know that, “We’re your kids. We’re like you and yet we’re not entirely like you.” It was kind of that jumping back and forth between worlds and realizing: we needed their blessing, we needed their funding. We needed all those kinds of things if we were going to go anywhere.
So we did. We did it on our spare time. None of us had the job description of doing this. I was still a campus worker in Boston. I had these campuses, I had camps to go to and our supervisors would let us spend our spare time on these extracurricular activities. Eventually, Nina was appointed as the first National Asian American Ministry Coordinator. That title gave her a little more of a specific job description to network and move the ball further down the court.
And in 1981, you were the second National Asian American Ministry Coordinator. You mentioned that Pete Hammond was instrumental in helping you guys out. Donna and Nina also mention that he was key in securing this national Asian American role. What made Pete Hammond try to gather you guys?
Pete had done a lot of work in the deep South. He had done a lot of stuff with African Americans and white students and reconciliation issues. He also had spent a Sabbatical in the Philippines at the Asian Theological Seminary. I think that broadened his Asian-awareness. So, he was pretty sensitive to this. He was in power: he’s older. Until he passed, he was one of the senior leaders for IV. He has opened doors.
If I can ask an overly obvious question: why did you guys need to gather?
We were lonely! I was the only Asian American staff in the New England region. And there were obviously some things you shared in common because you were on staff. But there were certain things that were part of my cultural history and understanding that my primarily white friends didn’t get. So it was just fun to find one another and go, “Oh! We share that in common!” “Oh, we do that that way too.”
And also to validate that the direct approach to fundraising that we were fed from Madison didn’t work for us. To go up and ask, “Hello, Mrs. Dong, would you like to give a million dollars to me?” “Oh! We can’t do that; they’re older than us!” We finally found company: ”Oh, you don’t do that either? How do you get your funds then?” And we found out there were other ways to communicating that were more indirect and also effective. And that was helpful to us.
Beyond Asian American staff peer relationships, you wanted to reach Asian American students.
I think by then, we saw the changing demographics on campus. IV always had in its vision statement reaching the campus, the whole campus. So we realized there was a whole group of people who were not being reached, and maybe we would have some insight on how to reach a corner of the campus that others did not know what to do with.
Were you in dialogue with Black staff? Were there any Latinos back then?
Yeah, there were very few Latinos, but yes. Nina and I were in on some of the very early conversations with Black and Latino staff on leadership. We were all trying to think about the white power structures and figure out how to make requests and be heard, and make room for our people. So, we were in conversation pretty regularly. We compared notes and figured out what to do.
There were several task forces that happened in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. I chaired one of them. It was called the Multi-ethnic Committee, and it helped changed the vision statement that said we were going to reach the campus in all its ethnic diversity. So in the forming of the task force, we had representation from the different communities of color on that team. We were in conversation quite a bit.
How did the student ministry start?
Jim Lundgren [then IV’s Midwest Regional Director] recruited me to come to Chicago. He wanted me to find out what was happening with Asian American students. So that was part of my job description here. So I’d run into the very first students, and hang out with them.
He recruited you pointedly for Asian American student ministry?
Yes, that was part of what I was suppose to do. He saw that I had interest in it in Boston. And part of the reason I came to Chicago was because he recognized that there are different kinds of Asians: there’s Asian Americans and there’s Asian internationals. I think at that point in the New England staff, there was a greater tendency to see that there were only Asians as international students. The second generation thing kind of mystified them.
So, I liked going to Chicago and thinking about it. They were thinking more about culture and racial reconciliation anyway. They do more stuff with the Black/White conversation and all the rest.
I found my first few Asian American students and started talking with them, “What are you interested in?” and just hanging with them. From my Chinese church, Chinese Christian Union Church in Chinatown Chicago [now pastored by Andrew Lee], I recruited one of the first Asian American staff workers.
It was interesting because he, Jonathan Wu—now the executive pastor at Evergreen [Baptist Church in Rosemead, CA]—is not an InterVarsity product. He was a graduate of Wheaton; he’s a Christian college guy. But his parents adopted me into their family because my family’s back in Boston. I had many a meal at their table. When Jonathan was trying to figure out what to do, I gave him the pitch, and he crazily joined up.
Then eventually we chose to pursue ethnic-specific ministry. So we had Asian American chapters. We had a little more momentum going because of that as well.
It was an area team; we served multiple campuses.
Where did the first ethnic specific group start?
There were two of them. One was at Northwestern and the other was at the University of Chicago.
The one at Northwestern had affiliated with JEMS. A local Chicagoan, Jon Warden, joined JEMS staff and was this group’s staff member. So the Asian American group at Northwestern was an AACF–affiliated group [Asian American Christian Fellowship, JEMS’ college ministry]. When their staff leader, Jon Warden, left JEMS to go on for further theological training, there was a question about who should this group affiliate with: JEMS, a West Coast-based campus ministry, or IV, which was very active on many Chicago campuses. We had many conversations but eventually we asked the student leaders to make a choice. Students carefully and prayerfully deliberated and chose IV to affiliate with. A similar process happened at the University of Chicago. That group was a bit more Korean-American in composition. They too prayerfully and thoughtfully figured out who they wanted to join. And they ended up joining IV as well. So, in a year or two year’s time, we ended up with two Asian American chapters on those two campuses.
Why didn’t they want to stay independent? They wanted the resources?
Yeah, so that’s what we talked to them about. “You could choose independence.”
I remember the group leader at the University of Chicago. My appeal to him was, “Yeah, you can stay more Korean,” as they were becoming. “Or you can choose a more difficult place which would be more missional and evangelistic. That would be to become Asian American, intentionally mixing the Asian cultures. And if you come with IV, we’d force you also to come to know white and black folk and Latinos and all the rest. We’ll help you to grow to see the bigger picture of the family of God. Your choice, but in a way, you can’t go wrong.”
They were very prayerful. It was pretty amazing.
In championing ethnic-specific, you’re also championing multi-ethnicity.
Yes, because we always said that the ethnic-specific ministry was the doorway into the larger family of God. And if folk thought the Asian American thing was all there was… We can’t stop there.
Ultimately, the family of God is every tribe and tongue and every nation. With the larger IV family, you can get a better taste, and a bigger taste of that. Even more than a usual ethnic church could provide. There’s room for the ethnic-specific thing especially for evangelism and some of the initial discipleship steps. There’s a significant breaking down of barriers between the Asian communities that needs to happen, even in an Asian American group. We’re not all the same. But we always encourage people that growing as a disciple meant that you had to embrace the bigger. And that’s ultimately the direction that we’re all going to be heading.
You had national meetings, you had regional meetings, and you had these two student groups. What did you guys talk about?
It was always student ministry focused. It was always how do we help introduce them to Christ? And once we introduced them to Jesus how do we grow them in their faith? How do we help them think through things when they graduate? How do we get them involved in their churches and back into a church? And what if it’s an ethnic church? How are we going to go back to a first generational church? How do we set realistic expectations? Et cetera.
That was one of Peter Cha’s strongest qualities; he always had a anchor in the local church. He wouldn’t let us do our campus-y thing in lieu of the local church. He’d always help us remember, “Well, what are the pastors thinking and how do we make sure that they are more our allies than our enemies? They’re not our enemies. How do we keep interacting with them and keep talking to them?”
Some of the things we did were geared towards reaching parents and building relationships with church pastors. The older you get, the more the church leaders would listen to you. So eventually, I was getting older and they would listen in different ways than they did in the beginning.
In the beginning, the focus is on the student level because that’s where you have some age benefit: the actual normal audience. But eventually, you had to realize that the students are part of a context. If you’re not relating to their parents as well as their local church, then it wasn’t really preparing them for life.
What made this different from a mainstream white IV chapter? Why were the Asian American chapters needed?
I think that again, the apologetic was that for the sake of evangelism—Paul would say that you become all things to win all the more. [1 Corinthians 9:19-23] And that’s what we were trying to do. We were trying to choose strategies and methodologies that would lower the barriers so that a student would decide for him or herself whether or not he or she wanted to follow Jesus. So if there was a cultural barrier—known or not known—because of a multi-ethnic group or predominantly white group, we wanted to remove that.
It wasn’t every Asian. Some Asians saw an Asian group and they went 100,000 miles the other way. There were some who were like, “Oh, it’s Asian.”
With some, people belonged before they believed.
So, folk would like their fellowship; they would like the friendships; they would like the fact that you went to noodles together after the meeting was over, even as a group; and they would have friends. Eventually as they talked, they would talk about who Jesus is and why they are gathering. So it was this affinity, and they felt at home. For whatever intuitive reason, they felt at home.
So it was often that an ethnic-specific group was evangelistic. And a great starting place for discipleship.
We would always say, it was a work of discipleship to help them realize, “Okay, you are here, but this isn’t where you stay. This is home plate maybe, but you still have to go around the bases. And the bases include the multi-ethnic group, and they include the Latino Group, the Black believers. It includes other kinds of Christians who express their faith differently from you. More charismatic, more liturgical, whatever. This is the family here. And so, if you stay only in this little nest, you’re not getting all God wants for you or could offer you in terms of the larger picture.”
At times, we would do more ethnic-specific things. We would talk about identity formation, for example, and kingdom citizenship as an Asian American. We’d talk about relating to our parents and an Asian American work ethic and all that kind of stuff. Which everyone understood—you didn’t have to say a thing. You would just say it and people knew, and that’s kind of how you knew you had an affinity group, right? If you use shorthand and everyone got it.
That was helpful for folk, that these groups spoke to their culture.
Many, many students who grew up in ethnic church would say to us: “This is the first time I saw how my Bible fit with my ethnic identity.” Even though they grew up Chinese or Korean church. They had never thought of what it means that Korean, Japanese, Chinese-ness informed who they became as Christians. So we were often the first folk to stimulate that kind of thinking, and I hope that kind of integration of identity and faith.
Can you share with us an example of how faith intersects with ethnic identity?
We had folk who were first generation believers.
I remember a woman with a Taiwanese background; she was American-born from a very secular and more traditional background. She found faith in Christ and wanted to be baptized. And her parents kicked her out of the house. This was in Skokie, Illinois [a suburb of Chicago]. They kicked her out because for them and their background, they knew that to be baptized was a sign that you were going to be a new person. They knew what that meant from what they saw of Christians in Taiwan. She could talk about it all she wanted, she could even come on retreats, but the fact that she was baptized meant that she was going to become a Christian. So out she went. For six or nine months, she stayed with different people and all these different things. Eventually I don’t think she got their blessing; I don’t think they came to the baptism, but she reconciled to enough of an extent with her folks, and she ended up being baptized.
It was the chapter, the folks in the group that helped stand with her as they saw the agony of that.
So, big generalization: there were more Korean American folk were churched. Fewer of the Chinese American folk were churched.
One of the things we talked about with the Koreans was to be missional. “God gave you a Christian heritage and family so you can reach outwards. Are you going to squander it? Or are you going to use it?” So many of them did use it. “I realize I am a fourth generation Korean believer, and I can use this to reach out to others on campus.”
Can you speak about the book? Following Jesus without Dishonoring your Parents?
I don’t remember when it was written, but there was a group of us.
It got published in 1998.
So we must of met starting in the mid ‘90s. It was IVP [InterVarsity Press] that took the initiative. We may have approached one of the editors at some point, “Hey, we have more Asian students coming to campus…” I don’t know if Tom Lin wrote his Bible study before us. Anyway, we thought, let’s get some folks together and think about some of the issues we tend to talk about.
So the book is the result of us having lots of conversations with students over the years. Even though we live in different parts of the country, like Susan Cho Van Reisen on the West Coast, there were certain notes that kept on getting sung.
Cindy Bunch was the editor. She’s the one that kind of pitched the idea and got the group together. So we had a lot of fun, and we ate a lot of food. And it’s still in print. Very surprising to us.
It’s still recommended.
Can we talk about New England? How did IV Asian American ministries start there?
The New England Asian American conferences happened in [1990-93]. It’s just because of the IV network. Doug Whallon was the regional director of New England then. He was my boss in Boston, and Mary Alexander is his wife and my college friend. So we’ve known each other and we’d see each other at IV gatherings and stuff. He’s the one that realized that there were more Asian American students coming into the IV chapters here in New England with all the preppy schools that are everywhere.
So he invited me to come out and do something with Asian American students. And I said, “I’m not coming by myself. I’m coming with a team.” And he swallowed because it caused money to send a team, but he said, “Okay!” I think he paid for a couple of us, and I probably paid for a couple of us with area money. So that’s how we came out.
We actually planned the conference and brought it out to Boston. I brought Peter and Henry, Jonathan and Bob Hong, who is no longer on staff. So I brought these men with me, and we led the first Asian American student conference here in New England.
There were no Asian American staff at that point in New England. There might have been a couple of volunteer staff, but nobody on full-time staff. I think Colin Tomikawa and Helen Lee (on staff at Williams College early 1990s) came to the conference. I don’t think Tom Lin was at that first one. We came back the next year, and Tom may have been at that next one. I knew a few Chinese American pastors, and they came and helped staff the conference.
So we did it at least two years, maybe three. And then we said, “Okay, you guys know what you are doing now. Feel free to steal and borrow and tweak the materials as your own resources.” And so, they started doing the conference.
You guys essentially planted the Asian American work in New England.
Right. We helped plant more the identity-formation pieces.
Colin was a great find and Helen was a great find. And I think for Tom, it helped him with some of the things he was wrestling with and his parents. There’s also Jimmy Quach in the Bay Area who came to came to those things. And Soong-Chan [Rah] was a seminary student at Gordon-Conwell, and he did helped with a conference or two. And then he started a church in Cambridge.
Yeah, yeah. It was exactly around that time. It was good fruit from that little opportunity there.
Jeanette Yep’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
Tagged with: African American • Asian Theological Seminary • Black • Boston • Brenda Wong • Chicago • Chinese • Chinese Christian Union Church • Cindy Bunch • Colin Tomikawa • Donna Dong • Ethnic-specific ministry • first gen • first generation • Following Jesus without Dishonoring Your Parents • Harvard Asian American Christian Fellowship • Helen Lee • Henry Lee • identity • InterVarsity Christian Fellowship • InterVarsity New England Asian American conferences • InterVarsity Press • Jeanette Yep • JEMS • JEMS: Japanese Evangelical Missionary Society • Jim Lundgren • Jimmy Quach • Jon Warden • Jonathan Wu • Korean American • Latino American • Multi-ethnic ministry • New England • Nina Lau-Branson • Northwestern University • Pete Hammond • Peter Cha • Philippines • second generation • Soong-Chan Rah • Susan Cho Van Reisen • Taiwanese • Toisan • Tom Lin • University of Chicago • Urbana
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