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Your heart’s cry was: “Oh, if Asian Americans could have what I had in InterVarsity!” How did God first break your heart to reach Asian Americans?
Actually, my heart’s cry was, “Oh, if only other Chinese American young people could have what I had from Inter-Varsity.” That very quickly became “Asian American.” In the late 60s and the 70s, I became aware that the Americanizing context for Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, etc., gave us much common experience. So, the category, “Asian American” was appropriate for me to use.
My heart’s cry really stemmed from my experience of the exodus of my generation of young adults from my home church, the U.C.C. Chinese Congregational Church. As the second oldest Chinese church in San Francisco, there were generations of incredibly devoted and faithful Christians. But when I was a part of Chinese Congregational in the ’60s and ’70s, I found that my generation of college-aged young adults who went through confirmation class and went off to college: most did not return to the church or any church. It was not uncommon that when asked to say grace for a meal, people in my church would act sheepish or embarrassed and plead, “Oh, let Mook See or Pastor pray.” Many of my peers were not confident in discipleship or about spiritual matters.
And that broke your heart?
Yeah, even from the start, InterVarsity helped me get the strong foundations that I needed as a new Christian. What I was learning from InterVarsity as a college student, I would put to work at my home church. I learned to pray in an InterVarsity campus prayer meeting; I tried to start up a prayer meeting at church. I was involved in small group Bible studies on campus; I started up a small group Bible study that met at my church.
Unfortunately, there was little appetite from church members for these activities, but a number of non-church members came to my Bible study. One young Chinese-American woman who came to the Bible study became a Christian!
At my Chinese church, I was just trying to supplement and augment the stuff that was happening.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of gratitude for my years at Chinese Congregational Church. That’s where I met Gwen Wong who told me about an intimate life with God and InterVarsity. The church invested in its young people. I was provided many opportunities to develop as a young leader: I taught Sunday School. With two other church friends, I started up a day camp program that is still running today. I preached my first sermon there. I became the youngest member of the Deacon Board and had a place on the Elders Board.
But the sermons I heard were five-minute summaries of sermons the pastor had delivered in Cantonese. There was a dearth of sustained Biblical teaching that connected with us young adults. The Christian faith was portrayed as a mystery, sometimes incompatible with science or what we experienced of the real world.
So, that’s why I had a deep longing that other Asian American college-age young adults would receive the training and spiritual foundations that I received from InterVarsity.
You yearned for your church friends to receive what you did through InterVarsity. This yearning though clearly extended beyond your church friends.
Yes, on campus, I think if anything. In the ’60s and ’70s, not a lot of Asian Americans were a part of InterVarsity groups. Certainly, I wanted people to get the training, etc.
In college, I also was connected to an annual week-long camp put on by the Pacific Alliance of Chinese Evangelicals (PACE). Later, I was connected with FACE, Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals. Through these two networks, I was exposed to a larger cross-section of Chinese American churches, Japanese American churches, and found what the Asian American Christian stream had to give.
It sure seemed there was a hunger for Asian American ministries. Especially with the rise of evangelical Asian American churches.
In the 1980s?
Yes, Asian Americans students were starting to come on campus on the lookout for a campus Christian group to belong to. We in InterVarsity were certainly very open to them and welcoming. And many did find a good spiritual home in InterVarsity.
The Asian American Christian Fellowship group, which stemmed from JEMS, the Japanese Evangelical Mission Society churches, were the real pioneers in forging campus ministry to Asian Americans. In the late ’70s, I made it a point to meet up with Stan Inouye who became the Director for AACF after his own years of campus ministry work with Campus Crusade for Christ. I felt a lot of affinity and respect for Stan and wanted to learn from him.
In the ‘70s, Asian Americans weren’t in sufficient group numbers on campus in the way that they are now. The ones who participated in InterVarsity were few. As well in Campus Crusade. By the 1980s, there was an increased number of Asian Americans on campus, especially in Berkeley. Some students made it into Campus Crusade, and we in InterVarsity saw Asian American students come too.
Could you share a bit more about what needed to be contextualized for Asian Americans?
I know I benefited from having models of vibrant Chinese American Christian leaders, like Gwen Wong, Ada Lum, Hoover Wong, Peter Yuen, and Wayland Wong, in my life. I longed that Asian American students would have exposure and knowledge of such people too.
When [current IV Vice President and Director of Strategic Ministries] Paul Tokunaga was a student involved in InterVarsity at Cal Poly, I was the only Asian American InterVarsity staff worker that he met.
I also wanted to serve Asian American students by addressing some relational and discipleship issues that come up because of their bicultural backgrounds and from being members of ethnic minority people groups in the United States. Could we in InterVarsity provide biblical teaching, discipleship and leadership development that contextually addressed how they sort out personal identity issues as Asian Americans? How they sort out their relationship to parents? How they sort out the clash in cultural expectations inherent in being both American and Asian?
If you look at the titles of some books that InterVarsity Press published in this period, you will get a sense of how InterVarsity was equipping staff-workers and student leaders to contextually address some of these things, like Following Jesus without Dishonoring Your Parents. Tom Lin authored Losing Face and Finding Grace. Paul Tokunaga provided us a superlative, insightful book about Asian-Americans and leadership: Invitation to Lead: Guidance for Emerging Asian American Leaders.
We were putting into words and into discipleship paradigms how to raise up new generations of Asian Americans into a life-long following of Jesus Christ. So many mainstream evangelical American resources miss the Asian cultural background and context. The result is a discipleship and leadership development that does not truly resonate deep down in Asian American souls.
Donna Dong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
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