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A life of growing into multiethnic ministry
“If Asian Americans could have what I had in InterVarsity!”
Rallying Asian Americans nationally and globally
“Missionaries are not all white, they are you! You can go and be anywhere in the world. You can participate in an awesome way in cross-cultural ministry.”
How did you get involved in InterVarsity Asian American Ministries nationally?
At InterVarsity’s 1973 Urbana Student Missions Conference, I was finishing up three years of staff work and moving on to study at the Discipleship Training Centre in Singapore, when I met an Asian American InterVarsity student from the East Coast named Jeanette Yep. Our meeting up at Urbana had all the markings of “Divine appointment” written all over it. Can you believe that in a crowd of 12,500, two InterVarsity people from the two opposite coasts would meet and find commonality and resonance in a shared concern for the well-being of Asian American students! Looking back, it was a true God moment, a God appointment.
I went off for my two years in Singapore. Jeanette went off and spent a year in Taiwan. By the time I returned to InterVarsity circles in the late ‘70s, Jeanette had come on InterVarsity staff. Between her and me, we came up with a plan to stay in touch and to gather the small handful of Asian background staff that we could find for some Asian American staff gatherings.
In the 1980s, Jeanette and I began hosting the early Asian American staff gatherings that included Nina Lau-Branson, Lisa Espineli Chinn, Brenda Wong, and Paul Tokunaga. In truth, we were all generalist InterVarsity staff workers at the time, but we seeded the beginnings of a national network of Asian American InterVarsity staff who provided significant leadership for Asian American student ministry in InterVarsity.
Pete Hammond was a national InterVarsity staff leader, a mover and shaker with a track record for pioneering campus ministry in the South and new efforts like the Fort Lauderdale Evangelism Project, Marketplace Conferences and the Word in Life Bible. Pete was very important to us in establishing Asian American Ministries as a national priority. When Pete returned from his sabbatical year of teaching in the Philippines in 1979, he came alongside Nina Lau-Branson, Jeannette and me and offered his knowledge of how InterVarsity was structured and how it worked as a ministry organization. He helped position us nationally, so that Asian American student ministry would be ongoing and long term in InterVarsity. We had a national leadership role established for Asian American ministry for Nina to step into largely because of Pete’s wise and shrewd friendship, guidance and support.
Urbana: missions contextualized for Asian Americans
The Urbana Student Missions Conferences meant a lot to me and Jeanette, partly because we were committed to global missions and because some of our Asian American mentors were missionaries themselves.
In the ’70s, I think the mental model of a missionary was still someone who was white. In the face of that, the African American staff had a seminar track at Urbana for African American students. Jeanette Yep and I thought we needed to do one similar for Asian Americans. So that was one of the first things we did.
We mobilized people like Wayland Wong and Peter Yuen [former missionaries, pastors and co-founders of FACE] to take part in an Urbana seminar on missions and Asian Americans. We were beginning to contextualize some of the best stuff we knew from InterVarsity and to let AsianAmerican students meet Asian Americans who have gone before us to do incredible missionary work.
1979 Urbana, that’s when we did our first missions track for Asian Americans.
Do you mind sharing a bit more about your missionary-type mentors?
When I became a follower of Jesus, some of the people that I really respected were from a group called the Pacific Alliance of Chinese Evangelicals (PACE), and Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE). They were a network of Chinese evangelical church lay people and seminary-trained Christian workers who really invested in younger English-speaking Chinese people like myself. The leaders that were so important to the founding of FACE, were people like Wayland Wong, Peter Yuen, Joseph Wong, Hoover Wong.
Wayland Wong is, I think, a third or fourth generation Chinese American, coming from True Light Presbyterian Church, founded as Chinese Presbyterian Church in 1876, in Los Angeles. At True Light, the English speaking congregation is the mainstay of the church. Wayland, along with his wife Clara served as a cross-cultural missionaries in Hong Kong for many years. He’s been one of those incredible bridges between Hong Kong Chinese leaders and people like myself.
Peter Yuen played a large part in mentoring Asian-born and American-born Chinese college students like myself and others at Cal [Berkeley] and Stanford’s Chinese Christian Fellowship (CCF) groups. Many CCF-ers learned to lead small group inductive Bible studies from him. Peter taught at the Discipleship Training Centre and so, he was a strong encourager for me to go to there. It was Peter who provided me perspectives on what Asian American churches could become: “It’s a sign of maturity when a people group are not only recipients of the Gospel but also send their people out to communicate the Gospel.”
Ada Lum, now in her 80s and living in her home state of Hawaii was a high-profile Asian American cross-cultural missionary. She worked for IFES among students in Thailand, Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia. When I was a young student leader, my InterVarsity staff worker made sure I met up with Ada. Ada is an important mentor to both me and Jeanette.
I would also number in that network of Chinese American missionary women heroes: Gwen Wong, Marge Yuen (wife of Peter) and Marge Yuen’s sister, Mildred Young.
At one time, Millie Young taught Greek at Wheaton College. She then became an IFES staff worker in Africa. There was a period when I would meet up with some Africans who had been taught by Millie, and I would always be asked to bring her their greetings.
Through these networks, I also became acquainted with, but never met, Masumi Toyotome, who wrote the InterVarsity Press booklet, “Three kinds of love.” [This JEMS pioneer was also a speaker at Urbana ’57.]
So through Urbana, you were able to bring your InterVarsity world and Chinese American Christian worlds together. And that generation of Chinese American Christians helped you and Jeanette share missions in a contextualized way to Asian Americans at Urbana.
Earlier, you shared with us what discipleship issues needed to be contextualized for Asian Americans. What about missions needed to be contextualized?
Did you grow up thinking all missionaries were white?
The generation that Peter Yuen, Mildred Young, Ada Lum and Gwen Wong belonged to—when they approached some mission agencies to get sent to work among Chinese, many were refused. They were told that Chinese Americans had a record of finding it culturally rough to work among Chinese. I think it was Peter Yuen who told me that that was the commonly accepted wisdom. But his own experience was that when you lasted through the cultural dissonance, in fact, the Chinese [eventually had] a deeper trust with Chinese American missionaries than with missionaries from non-Chinese ethnic backgrounds.
In immigrant Chinese churches in the US and in Canada, recognized leadership and missionary models are more attuned to the social, political and historical contexts in Asia and so, are able to provide contextualized responses to evangelism, social justice and missions challenges.
Also, in my generation of Asian Americans in the US of the 1960s and ’70s, the Civil Rights Movement was prominent. Where does an Asian American belong in that? Did Asian American Christians, coming from another ethnic minority background, have a role to play in working for justice and racial reconciliation?
I’m thankful that Jeanette and I knew people who were Asian Americans like us, but who went before us. We were influenced and affected by such people, and we really wanted others to also have that impact. Asian American second+ generations sometimes were not necessarily resourced through their own, say Chinese church. Neither were they easily understood by your American church mainstream and could just be dropped. There were just these cracks.
Calling forth new generations of Asian Americans for global missions
So my idea, and I think Jeanette’s—though I won’t speak for Jeanette—was that we needed to call forth new generations of Asian Americans to have a heart for global missions. “Missionaries are not all white, they are you! You can go and be anywhere in the world. You can participate in an awesome way in cross-cultural ministry.” The Urbana conferences present God’s call to global missions to every generation of university students. And we wanted to make sure Asian American students also heard that call as members of their student generation, that they would receive God’s call and see themselves as vital participants in God’s global redemptive mission.
Asian American second+ generations sometimes were not necessarily resourced through their own, say, Chinese church. Neither were they easily understood by your American church mainstream and could just be dropped. There were just these cracks.
So my idea, and I think Jeanette’s, though I won’t speak for Jeanette, was that we needed to call forth new generations of Asian Americans to have a heart for global missions. “Missionaries are not all white, they are you! You can go and be anywhere in the world. You can participate in an awesome way in cross-cultural ministry.”
The Urbana conferences present God’s call to global missions to every generation of university students. And we wanted to make sure Asian American students also heard that call as members of their student generation, that they would receive God’s call and see themselves as vital participants in God’s global redemptive mission.
Donna Dong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
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