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Many 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.
Donna Dong was one of InterVarsity’s first Asian American staff workers based mostly in and around the University of California, Berkeley. She, Jeanette Yep and others engaged in the first conversations and efforts that grew into InterVarsity Asian American Ministries.
Donna Dong was on staff with InterVarsity USA from 1971-1974 and 1979-2001. Since 2002, she’s been on staff with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of Canada and is their Director of the Multiethnic/Multicultural Ministry.
A life of growing into Multiethnic ministry
Donna, can you share some of your background? You grew up in San Francisco?
Yes, I was born and raised in San Francisco. On my father’s side, I would be considered a third generation Chinese-American, as my father’s parents were the ones who immigrated first to the United States.
I can find a census report of the family in Wilmington, Delaware, dated 1920. Remember that this was a period when Chinese immigration was intentionally limited by the Chinese Exclusion Acts. So while there were a number of single Chinese men in Wilmington, my family were the only intact Chinese family in town. My grandparents worked hard in their Chinese laundry business, while the family, including my dad Charles, my uncle Henry and my aunt Helen, lived in the living area in back of the laundry.
Before my dad’s father died, my grandmother made a promise to bring his remains back to the home country. The whole family was transplanted back to Hong Kong to live. So, my dad was an American-born Chinese, along with his brother and sister, who had to make the reverse cross cultural adjustments of being very American adapting to Chinese culture, language and perspectives.
On my mother’s side, my mom was born in South China, from the Pearl Delta area of Toishanese and Cantonese background. This, of course, is the same background that my dad’s family is from. My mother was only Chinese-speaking. She spoke no English, and so, when I started school and kindergarten, I didn’t speak English. Like many Chinese kids in San Francisco in the ’50s, I went to “Chinese School” each day after “American School.”
My mom and dad met in Hong Kong, married, and began our family there. My older brother, Charles, was born in Hong Kong and is 13 years older than me. His childhood and life was turned upside down by war, when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong. My younger brother Edward and I—we’re classic baby boomers, born after World War II when the family reunited in the United States on the West Coast in San Francisco. My dad had enlisted in the US Army when war began and fought on the Pacific front, while my grandmother, mom and older brother remained in Hong Kong and southern China. I was born in 1948, my mom giving birth to me at the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco Chinatown, where the hospital personnel spoke Cantonese Chinese.
Were they Christians?
My dad’s side of the family received some initial Christian influence. When they were in Wilmington, Delaware, some laundry customers were from the Presbyterian Church, and they urged my grandmother to come to church, or to send her children to Sunday School. So there was some initial influence on my dad and my aunt. Christian faith really stuck with my aunt, who was a lifelong Christian and was a cherished church member and worker in her Chinese church in Sacramento, California. As for my dad, he was put off by some of the church’s practices for raising funds for foreign mission and their referencing of “the heathen Chinese.” By the time my mom and dad were raising me—I would describe myself as raised in a traditional Chinese American family background without any religious influence. My grandmother, after raising her children became a follower of Jesus and was baptized at a Baptist church in Hong Kong.
As I was growing up, there really wasn’t any religious influence on me. If anything, my dad kind of warned me about the hypocrisy of church people. (laughs) So if anything, I grew up with a negative impression of church people and was warned to stay away from them.
How did you become a Christian?
I think back about what a negative bias against church people I had, and I do think it’s a miracle that I became a Christian. God really was a “Hound of Heaven” who chased me in all kinds of ways to win me to Himself.
When I was still a child, 11 years old, my mom died of breast cancer. Her dying was in our home. Over a period of time, I watched her lose weight, lose body functions, lose cognition. Her death was devastating. I was thrown into a lot of grief and depression, which I handled with anger and rage and by keeping people at a distance. My dad handled the hurt of my mom’s death by not ever talking about her or being free with his emotions. My mom’s death uncovered real spiritual hunger in me. Not only was I struggling emotionally with a devastating loss, I grew up as a kid who felt like life had some serious questions—like about life and death and how you could live life meaningfully.
God used all kinds of different ways as the “Hound of Heaven” to chase me down for relationship with Him. To begin with, I was a reader and loved stories. My dad supported my reading habits with membership in book clubs and acquired for us kids the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as a junior encyclopedia series. The last two volumes in that junior encyclopedia set were Old Testament stories and New Testament stories. That was my first exposure to Bible stories and to the person of Jesus.
My aunt Helen, who did become a Christian, raised her kids in a Chinese church in Sacramento. My family from San Francisco spent our vacations with my aunt Helen, where she and my cousins would invite me along to Sunday school. That’s my earliest and first experience of being in a Christian church—and a Chinese church at that!
While I was in high school in the early ’60s, at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, my friend Pat Wong invited me to come along to her church, which was one of the two oldest Chinese churches in San Francisco. “Donna, come along to my church and help enliven it.” I was not a Christian yet, but I started going to the U.C.C. Chinese Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in the heart of San Francisco Chinatown. Given my background in knowing the Bible, within maybe a month of being there, I was teaching Sunday School.
Looking back, I am forever grateful to God for what He gave me at Chinese Congregational Church. This was where I had my earliest leadership and ministry experiences. And this was the start of how I got connected up with InterVarsity.
I was very much affected by a special speaker named Gwen Wong, who was invited by the church because some of her relatives were church members and recommended her highly to be our first English retreat speaker. Gwen was the first InterVarsity full time staff worker who was Asian American. Gwen was hired by C. Stacey Woods, the visionary leader who was the President of InterVarsity (IV) US. (He was previously the General Director for Inter-Varsity Canada and later helped start the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students or IFES.) Gwen was very much involved in the pioneering days of IV campus ministry work in Hawaii, in California at Cal Berkeley, as well as helping to start the IFES-connected InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the Philippines.
Anyway, Gwen spoke at the first English retreat at our church. Gwen was so full of life! She had a reputation for singing, playing the ukelele, and all-round liveliness. I was so struck by who she was, her manner of being and what she said about God. In Gwen, I recognized someone like myself or who I wanted to become: a third-generation Chinese American woman, who spoke my kind of English, who was cool and with it, and full of life. She talked about God as the One who gave her that quality of life, and I remember being so struck! “I would like to become the kind of person Gwen is and experience that Life.” Meeting her was a major step forward in making me a follower of Jesus. It was an experience of the gospel of Life being communicated in a contextualized way, in and through an Asian American life and person!
Gwen was the one who introduced me to any knowledge about InterVarsity. “Oh! When you graduate and go on to college, why don’t you look up InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. That would be a great place for you, Donna.” I was not yet a Christian, but God was already connecting me up with InterVarsity.
At the same time, there was a Filipina American classmate at Lowell High School. Felicia Aquino was very faithful and bold in sharing good news about Jesus to everyone in our graduating senior class. Felicia and I were together in an English class, and we would have these intense conversations about God and Christian faith. It was Felicia who challenged me in a very personal way to receive Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
The defining conversation was when she summed up the Gospel for me: “Donna, you are a sinner, and God loves you.”
I was absolutely stunned into silence. [I put aside] my slate of ‘tricky-questions-to-make-Christians-sweat’ and listened intently to what Felicia was sharing with me. What captured my attention was Felicia’s claim that God knew all the brokenness, dysfunctionality of rage and defensiveness that was going on inside me. And God still loved me and had forgiveness and redemption in mind for me.
Felicia asked me, “Donna, can you really say that you are doing all right in life without Jesus Christ?”
I fought off Felicia; I fought off God’s voice. It wasn’t until after graduation and a month into my freshman year at Cal Berkeley, that I phoned Felicia again to hear this gospel of Life again. That night, I took the decisive step of asking Jesus to be Savior and Lord of my life.
Essentially, through the influence of the church, my own reading of Scriptures, meeting Gwen Wong, the personal invitation from Felicia Aquino, my love of stories and literature, so many other things…. God chased me down with the Gospel, with His Presence, and I became a Christian.
In college and a new follower of Jesus
Eventually, I did find the InterVarsity group at Cal Berkeley, a student-run chapter at the time. Very small. I think within a few months, I was faithfully at the daily 8:00 am prayer meeting and attending noon special lectures on the Book of Genesis. I remember Dr. Francis Andersen, an Old Testament scholar from Australia, doing the teaching. He and Paul Byer were my first manuscript Bible study leaders at Campus By the Sea. From them, I learned a love and a trust for the Bible, and a humility to acknowledge when our theologizing or biblical understanding might be limited or faulty. To this day, I remember Dr. Andersen, a brilliant thinker and a true scholar, saying, “all truth is God’s truth,” no matter the source of truth.
Cal Christian Fellowship was small in numbers in the 1960s, but it was good to be around a group of Christian students who modeled out discipleship to me as a new follower of Jesus. I remember a guy named Paul Griffiths, who later headed up the IT department of Wycliffe Bible Translators in their IT department. Like an older brother to me, he sat me down and led me through basic discipleship studies out of John’s Gospel.
I went to my first camp at Catalina Island, our Campus-by-the-Sea that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship owns. My dad and I had a big blow-up over my going. (“Who are these people?” “You’re going by yourself to Los Angeles?”) But I felt strongly that a week at camp with Christian students and InterVarsity staff and getting into Scripture, was essential for me as a new follower of Jesus. So, I held my ground with dad—shades of Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents! On the day I left San Francisco by Greyhound bus for camp, my dad was conciliatory and asked if I needed any money for my trip.
Serving on InterVarsity Staff in the early 1970s.
What happened after graduation?
I served InterVarsity on staff for three years, from 1971 to 1974. Back then, staff were fewer in number, and we were itinerant, rather than the residential team model of staff work that InterVarsity now has become. For my first three years of staff work, I was based out of the University of California, Berkeley, my main campus assignment. But I was also staff for San Francisco State University, Mills College, and City College of San Francisco. Once a month, I would go by train to Stanford to provide moral support to the women student leaders there. So, that was my staffing responsibility. I basically staffed five to six campuses. The local InterVarsity groups were not so Asian American or diverse as they are now.
In the early ’70s, InterVarsity groups in Northern California were mostly white students, with some Asian American and international students present. Let me say this: it was a new and jarring experience to me when I went to City College of San Francisco and found that the InterVarsity campus group there was all Chinese. Lance Wong, current IV staff Brenda Wong’s brother, was the student president. The group was not so much InterVarsity in identity—Brenda and I laugh because she was a member at the time and didn’t know it was an InterVarsity group! The campus group was actually more an extension of the youth group of the Cumberland Chinese Presbyterian Church, where Lance and Brenda were members. Lance, a highly dynamic leader, basically had mobilized his church youth group into meeting on campus under the InterVarsity club name. This new experience of working with an InterVarsity group that was not mainly American white ethnicity and culture, of course, gave me much food for thought.
In 1974, I resigned from InterVarsity staff work to do theological and biblical studies at the Discipleship Training Centre (DTC) in Singapore. I had been encouraged to study there by Peter Yuen, a FACE founder who had taught at DTC and by David Adeney, who was the founder of DTC. David, true to his British InterVarsity Fellowship student roots, his leadership in IFES in East Asia, and his love for the Chinese people that took him to China as a China Inland Missions missionary, founded the Discipleship Training Centre in 1968 to train university-educated Asians called of God to serve the churches in Asia and the rest of the world.
I benefited so much from my two years in Singapore at the Discipleship Training Centre. I felt it was important for me to do biblical and theological studies outside of the United States and to be among Asians from Asia. David Adeney insisted on a distinctive ethos of training within an international community where staff and students would live, study, and work together. The DTC community of 20-25 students and teachers was multi-national and multicultural. My fellow students came from Thailand, Japan, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Hong Kong… Some were former student workers from IFES student movements in their countries. In DTC, what I had learned in evangelism, discipleship, and mission from InterVarsity got deepened and broadened. I was getting a glimpse of living out Christian faith contextualized to other cultural settings.
For me, the main benefit of belonging to the DTC community was that studying scripture, theology, ethics, ministry essentials was in the context of a diverse Asian international community. Many of our conversations were spent parsing out what for us was cultural and what for us was the Biblical Gospel.
I remember a session in our ethics class where we discussed Jesus’ view of marriage and divorce. From my American context, evangelical Christians were shifting towards a more compassionate embrace of divorced Christians and greater openness for their re-marriage. Sanga was from northeast India where his people became Christians as an entire people group. In their culture before embracing Christian faith, men divorced their wives callously and casually. That all changed when the people became Christians. Jesus’ teaching about the marriage relationship took hold and was culturally transformative, with the result that divorce now was abhorrent and perceived as antithetical to true Christian discipleship. Sanga was shocked and furious with those of us whom he perceived as soft on divorce. You can only imagine the heated discussions we engaged in at the DTC!
For me as an American-culture person—actually, an Asian American-culture person—being in Singapore and at the Discipleship Training Centre gave me the support and stimulus to think about myself in cultural ways: what it was to be me, with distinctly American values, behaviors and perspectives alongside distinctly Asian values, behaviors, and perspectives. Some things I could not name or give words to while in the United States. For example, Asian-regard for the family in decision-making. At home in the US, when my “American” friends got invited to do something, they could make up their own minds and say straight away, “Yeah, sure, I’ll do that.” I felt like the oddball, who had no mind of her own, who had to go back and talk things over with my dad before I could commit. But in Singapore, Asian people acted like I do, collectively, not only individualistically.
I discovered how American I was as well. And I could name those things too.
I think there’s something about cross-cultural immersion experiences, coupled with reflection, that grows you in self-awareness, in terms of cultural identity, values and worldview. It goes hand in hand with the awareness of others, of other’s cultural backgrounds, values and beliefs.
“Oh, if More Asian Americans could get the benefits I had gotten in InterVarsity!”
When I came back to the United States in 1976, I was preparing to become a cross-cultural missionary somewhere in the world. I came home to recruit prayer support and find out what mission agency might be suitable for me to join. In the meantime, I knew InterVarsity, so I thought InterVarsity was a good place for me to hang around in the short-term. I offered myself in the fall of 1976 to work as a volunteer, unsalaried Associate Staff Worker with InterVarsity at San Francisco State.
I kept thinking I wanted to go overseas, but God was coalescing in me a passion for InterVarsity campus ministry among the unreached campus segment of people which were Asian Americans. I found myself thinking, “If only more Asian Americans could have what I had in InterVarsity!” and “The one thing that would keep me from going overseas would be to see Asian American students thrive as Jesus followers.”
When my dad died in August 1978, leaving me the care of my grandmother in our family home, I stopped trying to go overseas, even though I had been newly appointed as an IFES staff-worker to go to Jamaica. I knew my own need to attend to inner healing issues and in this period, I thought and prayed hard about my life and ministry future. I became convinced that God had a cross-cultural ministry calling on my life among Asian American students. I basically asked Jim Berney—then InterVarsity’s Western Regional Director and later General Director of Inter-Varsity Canada in the ’80s and ’90s—if I could come back to InterVarsity as a salaried staff worker. And so, at the start of 1979, I returned to InterVarsity, this time to focus on campus ministry to Asian American students. In fact, I gave myself the title, “Asian American Student Ministry Specialist.”
The 1976-78 period when I was an InterVarsity associate staff worker at San Francisco State, there were fruitful beginnings of ministry to Asian American students. Yet, I felt God led me to return to my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, to pioneer InterVarsity outreach to Asian American students and to develop strong Asian American Christian student leaders.
So in the fall of 1979, Cal Berkeley became my sole campus assignment, and I began a new start of linking Asian American Christian students into InterVarsity, to receive what I had so abundantly received, all the resourcing and leadership development that I received.
Beyond just Asian Americans: Multiethnic Ministry at UC Berkeley
My specialist focus on Asian American ministry at Cal Berkeley quickly evolved into being a part of something broader and more inclusive umbrella by 1980.
In 1980, Geri Rodman and I began working together in a ministry partnership in InterVarsity that continues to this day. Geri, a Canadian who learned student ministry from the Colombian South American IFES student movement arrived at Cal Berkeley, to be the new staff-worker. She asked to be Team Leader to ensure a cohesive InterVarsity campus ministry effort as I and an intern staff from Michigan arrived to work at Cal Berkeley too. Geri, coming from her Canadian cultural mosaic experience of cultural diversity, questioned why the existing InterVarsity student group was so white and welcomed my work to reach out to Asian American students.
Of course, I knew that it wasn’t only Asian Americans students who weren’t participating in InterVarsity in droves. African American students and other ethnic students were absent too. I want to say that I understood justice, racial reconciliation, love for the poor, as part and parcel to the Gospel. My own student years were in the context of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and I was blessed to cross paths frequently with John Perkins whom I regard as an important mentor.
So very early on, we were trying to grow the Berkeley InterVarsity into an intentionally multiethnic community centered around Jesus. Our vision was to be welcoming to students from a diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We believed that it couldn’t be only the new students who would make cultural adaptations to fit into a status quo InterVarsity group, but that everybody—old and new members—would adapt culturally and become culturally aware.
In the ’80s, when there were not many models of God’s people sharing life together in multicultural communities, Geri led us in a vision to develop disciples and student leaders who would be all the stronger for being a part of a multiethnic team, sharing life and doing ministry together. This was also my experience from the Discipleship Training Centre. It makes me laugh. Now, there is so much literature on intercultural competence like James E. Plueddemann’s Leading Across Cultures and Soong-Chan Rah’s Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church. It’s so essential to 21st century Christian leadership.
In the ’80s and ’90s, this ministry work of discipling and developing leaders in all their ethnic diversity at Cal Berkeley, the Golden Gate Area (roughly the San Francisco Bay Area and more), and then the whole of the Pacific Region of Northern California and Hawaii was what we gave ourselves to. It was a team effort. At Cal Berkeley, we had an initial generation of student leaders that included Becky Heffner Glad, Brad Wong, Craig Wong, Dana Foster Cunliffe, Bruce Hansen, Phil Bowling-Dyer who all came on InterVarsity staff. I want to add the names of Brenda Wong, Barry Wong, Johnine Hansen, Bora Lee-Reed, Sharon Henthorn-Iwane, Leslie Bowling-Dyer, and Jason Jensen who came onto InterVarsity staff, not only from Cal Berkeley, but also San Francisco State and Stanford. There are so many other names—I don’t have the time and space to tell their stories. I would say that God raised up a multiethnic movement of InterVarsity-related people in that 20 year period. All remain relationally connected, even as they minister and lead in North America and in the world.
In your focus in becoming more multiethnic, it seems like you were very successful in reaching out to Asian Americans. Some of your campus fellowships became overwhelmingly Asian American. So whatever you all were doing totally worked.
Yes. I think we were successful. We certainly welcomed people in. People stayed and would say that InterVarsity is their spiritual home.
Contextualizing on the ground: one-on-one.
And you were able to do multiethnic ministry while informally reaching out to separate ethnic/racial streams.
Yes. In the ’80s and ’90s, we were holding on to a fluid, multiethnic and inclusive approach to InterVarsity campus ministry, rather than formalizing distinctly separate ethnic/racial streams of students. We wanted students to experience the benefits of friendship, discipleship and mission forged in the richness of intercultural, multiethnic contexts.
That said, cultural differences are real. You have to be on the ground-level with students and pay attention to what they are experiencing in InterVarsity. You have to make the special effort to listen, debrief, contextualize, and provide support to help each generation of students to develop in intercultural sensitivity.
I still remember the time in the early ’90s when the Cal Berkeley InterVarsity fellowship had become culturally Asian, and yet welcomed many Mexican-American freshmen students. Geri hosted a dinner gathering at our home for them. I stayed away to ensure that the students felt safe to share honestly. One student mentioned that when she introduced her InterVarsity friends to her family, her mom said, “Hija, son todos tus amigos Chinos?” or “Are all your friends Chinese?” Another student shared how great it was when InterVarsity members invited him over to their homes for numerous meals. But he found it strange and disorienting to enter a house, to find shoes piled in the entrance, and to be asked to take off his own shoes.
I like to think that the challenge we face in doing multiethnic or ethnic-specific ministry is that in real life, we actually do both. It’s not one or the other. We have to be alert that under the guise of “multiethnic” ministry, we’re not just ignoring culture. With ethnic ministry, we have opportunity to do good contextualized Biblical discipling and teaching, but we could ignore calling students into the experience of reconciliation and living and ministering as multiethnic members of the Body of Christ who really need each other.
You are known for this multiethnic stream of ministry.
Even now, where I’ve been working as the Director of Multiethnic/Multicultural Ministry for Inter-Varsity Canada since 2002, I would say I am doing ministry from the perspective of Christ’s global mission and the Biblical teaching of Ephesians about God’s multiethnic people the church. So that influences my wanting to do contextualized ethnic ministry from a more multiethnic umbrella.
So when I work with Asian Canadians, I want to bring them on board to a place where they care for all of God’s people.
I feel like I’m the product of student movements connected with IFES. Like when you hang in with the IFES and the World Assembly, which I just did in Mexico with 1000+ delegates coming from over 150 nations, I just feel like, “Yeah, this is where I want to be.”
Donna Dong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
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