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Can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
Parents came from Mainland China in the late ‘40s, as the Communists were taking over. My father came on a government scholarship to study at MIT. He got his Masters from MIT, his PhD from the University of Michigan. He was an engineer with Ford for many years, and then he became a college professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. That was the bulk of his career.
My mom was an airline stewardess between China and Canada. She decided to immigrate through Canada.
They stayed in the United States because of all the mess going on in China.
I think they met in Windsor or in Detroit. My brother and I were born in Iowa because my dad was teaching at Iowa State in Ames. I was only about three years old when we moved to Detroit. My brother and I grew up in a suburb west of Detroit called Livonia, which was 99% white at the time. So all our friends growing up in Livonia, Michigan were all Caucasian, all Anglo. I didn’t even know what an “ABC” was until I went to seminary. [“ABC” stands for an American Born Chinese.]
My parents were non-Christians, and they decided to raise us Americanized to the extreme. They didn’t even want to teach us Chinese or Chinese culture. They wanted us totally assimilated. I look back now, and I can understand their reasoning because they were somewhat victims of racism. They wanted their sons to have the best chance possible.
I became a Christian by the grace of God. My brother and I were mischievous kids. We were terrible, causing trouble and all this stuff with mom and dad working. One summer, my mom was at a store, and she overheard some guy was standing in line behind her talking about his summer camp for kids. So, she turns around and talks to this guy, a complete stranger about his camp, and she ends up sending my brother and I to this camp. It just so happened to be a Christian camp, and that’s the first time we heard the Gospel. And I trusted Christ that first week. I was 12 years old and kept going back every year. I loved it. My brother, he heard all the same stuff. Never came to faith in Christ. To this day, I’m still pretty sure he’s not a believer.
Early Church Experience
Even though I became Christian when I was 12, I didn’t start going to church until I was in college. And then, it was all Caucasian churches.
My parents, they’re semi-typical Asian dream was that with two sons, one son was going to be an engineer and one was going to become a doctor. So, my older brother became an engineer, and I was suppose to become a doctor. I was pre-med the first year. Then, God led me to this church, and I got more involved and started growing as a Christian. I started really enjoying ministry, even as a college student. And that’s when I sensed God was calling me to enter into vocational ministry.
It wasn’t until I got to seminary in Dallas that a couple of other ABCs from California reached out. Those two guys have been lifelong friends in ministry. One is Alan Ginn; he used to be the senior pastor at Chinese Grace Bible Church here in Sacramento. Now he’s doing full-time missions. The other is Brian Owyoung. He just recently retired from pastoral ministry, and he is still teaching at a community college. So those two guys, they are the ones that intentionally reached out. There were very few of us Asians at Dallas (Theological Seminary) as the time.
And that’s when I knew what an ABC was; that I was one. (laughs) They began introducing my wife and myself—my wife has a very similar background to myself, ABC, parents from China, that kind of thing. She grew up in the same suburb of Detroit. Our parents knew each other. There were probably less than a dozen Chinese families in the whole city, but we went to different schools. We met in college, attending the same large Caucasian church. Both of us were totally ignorant about any kind of ABC English speaking ministry until our time at Dallas.
Then you got plugged into the Chinese church.
Yeah, our first Chinese church experience was under the huge church called First Baptist Church of Dallas, and Dr. W.A. Criswell was the senior guy. They had all these little ethnic chapels underneath their big, huge umbrella. I think it was part of their way of keeping all these minority groups separate from their main group. That’s kind of a loaded statement, but I think even a lot of Caucasians leaders from back then might be willing to admit that now. That was a strategic way to have minorities. Then they could say, “Oh, we’ve got all these different races of people in our umbrella.” But, they’re not part of these little congregations.
All these separate chapels had totally separate meeting places that could speak their own languages. Ours was called “Chinese Chapel.” It was bi-lingual; it was one of those English-Cantonese translated things. That was my first experience, and it’s a miracle that that didn’t turn me off big time. That bilingual stuff where you have to go back and forth sentence by sentence; that’s pretty hard you know.
Chinese churches in California: seeing “a need among ABCs for more networking, support and encouragement”
What really led my whole exposure to Chinese churches and Asian Americans was my internship summer of ‘78. Joe Wong who was part of that group called FACE (Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals) was looking for a summer intern from seminary, and we (Louis and his wife, Eileen) ended up doing it. We came out here to California in the summer of ‘78. And that was an exposure to a lot of other English speaking ABCs and Chinese churches.
I graduated in ‘79. A number of Chinese churches were really impressed with that particular brand of theology and Christian leadership from Dallas Seminary. It’s more conservative or whatever. I think I was the only ABC graduate my year in 1979. So, for a number of these churches looking for a quote, unquote “Dallas guy” that could fit their ABC ministry model, I was it. I couldn’t believe how many opportunities I had! I ended up going to a little church in Stockton. All English speaking. All ABCs, a church of mostly younger people, about 20-25 people.
In 1981, I ended up in Chinese Independent Baptist Church (CIBC) in Oakland as their English Pastor and that led to a lot of different speaking opportunities at other churches. That started opening my eyes to what I perceived as a need among ABCs for more networking, support and encouragement.
My situation was rather unique. CIBC Oakland: what was unusual was that the Chinese-speaking and English-speaking really had a pretty good partnership. It wasn’t led [de facto] by Chinese-speaking leaders. So as a young ABC, even though I wasn’t called the senior pastor, I was given a lot of latitude to grow and develop with these Cantonese-speaking pastors who were very easy to work with. I didn’t encounter many of the typical struggles that I saw among many other ABCs who were under OBC (overseas-born Chinese) leadership.
I think it’s hard to put a pastor in any ethnic cultural setting. But when you have ABC/OBC stuff going on, that just adds to the tension and the burden to function in that capacity. Today, 30 years later, some Chinese churches are still operating that way. Fortunately, that number has really dwindled. A lot. I’ve seen much more positive models like seeing these two ABC guys, one in Oakland and one in Boston, become Senior Pastors of these relatively large Chinese churches. That is such a major shift. 30 years ago, there would have been no way that was going to happen. (For more, see interview on trends.)
Seeing of a need for support among English Speaking Asians
So how did you meet these pastors?
A lot of it is word of mouth and who knows who. Speaking opportunities came up a lot. There weren’t a lot of ABC speakers. That’s one of my areas of strength, speaking. So, I had a lot of opportunities to drive around, meet people and hear some of their stories.
Though some churches were hooked up to bigger denominations, they weren’t getting the kind of support [they needed] because there were few English-speaking churches in those denominations. It wasn’t so much that these denominations were racist or whatever. I think a lot of it was ignorance. [These denominations] just had no idea how to help in a more specific context.
When I was getting to know more of these people, I felt like what we needed was some kind of mechanism where these people can get together and encourage each other. They don’t need someone coming from above, telling them what to do. A lot of these guys just had no way of making those connections.
Again, any church in any context is a challenge. But when you add on different cultural sources of tension and misunderstanding, it just makes it so much harder.
So how did you begin?
So I started thinking about MESA and the broader idea of MESA maybe 1986, ‘87.
I saw what FACE was doing; it was a great concept, a great help, but they were all busy pastoring churches themselves full-time. I thought somebody just needed to leave the full-time pastorate, to devote at least half-time to this parachurch kind of ministry. So I started talking about MESA. When I talked to Joe Wong and these (FACE, American-born Chinese) guys, they approached me and asked me to seriously become the first FACE paid staff person. I told them I appreciated it, but I felt the vision God had given me was a little bit broader to English-speaking Asians. Maybe because of my own background: I didn’t grow up in a Chinese church or a Chinese context. I thought that Asians in general have certain things in common.
We started MESA in May of 1988 when I left CIBC Oakland. I thought I could raise full support like a missionary to do MESA full-time. But, for whatever reason, God had brought in half. So, that’s when I started pastoring as a part-time interim. Looking back, I see God’s wisdom in that because it kept my foot in the door with pastoring. And that’s where a lot of my connections were, with pastors.
So I did not pastor full-time again until I came here (at Chinese Community Church). That was twenty years later. So in between that time, MESA happened. I pastored part-time as an Interim, and it was always in the Bay Area. And then I took a two-year break from 1996-98 when I was in Promise Keepers. I was full-time at Promise Keepers. I served as their National Asian American Coordinator, which is a big fancy title to say I was their Asian guy. Again, I had a lot of latitude, a lot of freedom. And I used that time and their resources to really make a lot more connections around the country with Asian American leaders.
What were some of your goals? What did your ministry look like?
Our vision statement for MESA is to help facilitate greater harmony among English-speaking Asian leaders and ministries around the country.
So the two things that we did: fellowship meetings for leaders in different geographical areas and conferences.
I was actually networking nationally. It was just me flying out somewhere and through word of mouth, meeting a couple pastors, and leaders in the area and asking, “Hey, can you get together for lunch?”
It was just relationship building. There was no agenda and guys seemed to respond to that. I think one of the difficulties initially was that there were a few who were suspicious. “Who does that? Who gets together for lunch?” It’s usually, “Come to our lunch because we’re going to try to sell you on something.” But no, it’s just to primarily to facilitate these kinds of meetings, and if you guys have an agenda, that’s fine.
The most extreme example was of these two pastors in Seattle who knew each other from their hometown of San Francisco. Their churches were a mile apart. They never got together for lunch until I came to town, and they both wanted to have lunch with me. Hopefully, after that, they got together even more. Sometimes, you just need someone from the outside to come in and facilitate it. Especially since, we were paying for lunch. So, it’s like a free lunch!
The first conference we did—it must have been at the tail end of my time at Promise Keepers. It was 1998. We did our first Asian American men’s conference in the San Francisco Bay Area. And then we did an Asian American men’s conference in Southern California. And we did an Asian American men’s conference tour in New York, Boston, Washington DC and Chicago. Promise Keepers [a men’s conference] was a springboard for me to be able to do these conferences. That’s why I started with men’s conferences.
We did a couple of Asian American women’s conferences. That was pretty cool. We did one in NYC two months after 9-11. That was pretty crazy. The churches and the ladies who were running the thing felt it was important not to cancel it because so many other Christian groups were canceling stuff after 9-11. They felt like it would actually be an encouragement.
Asian American Leadership Conferences (AALC,* 2004, 2008, 2013)
They were always one day conferences until the Leadership Conference [in 2004]. That’s when we did a three-day, two-night one for people traveling from all over the country. But all the other ones were regional like in Northern California, Southern California and all these cities. So it’d be a one-day conference, and we’d include lunch.
The two basic ingredients were getting good quality speakers and great worship. That was the model of Promise Keepers really; that’s part of their success. A couple of them had workshops, so people coming could hear something more specific to their felt need.
I should make it clear: in MESA, I was the only paid staff person, and it would have been impossible to do any of these conferences without God raising up some incredible team of volunteers. Very gifted. English speaking men and women to help do the planning, the worship.
Angela Yee who helped coordinate all the Asian American Women’s Conference (AAWC) events under MESA in the SF Bay Area, LA, and NYC. Angela also helped design and produce incredible conference brochures for almost all of our MESA conference events.
Ron Sugimoto: he’s one of these guys who is just incredibly gifted. People tend to be really good at logistics, or they are people oriented. Well, Ron is good at both. And that was just a great combination for a conference coordinator. In all my personal experience, I have never seen a Christian leader as gifted as Ron to help coordinate logistics and large teams of volunteers to make a conference event a blessing to many.
Peter Lum, he’s a lay leader from Christian Layman, in Oakland. He became one of our board members, and he would help lead the worship at all our men’s conferences as well as the three national AALC events. He put together these amazing teams of guys. They were really great musicians, and I really felt the spirit of worship! That would be one of the highlights of our conference, the worship.
There were many other Asian American ministry leaders who served together on our MESA conference core planning teams including Tom Steers, Tommy Dyo, Margaret Yu, Paul Lee, Ken Kong, and others.
So it sounds like a lot of your networks began as Chinese ones, but you felt God call you to other Asian Americans too?
Yeah, that was a challenge because when your network develops as other ABCs, you can sort of get pigeon-holed, “Hey, this guys is just ABCs.” So that’s why people like Ben Shin were just amazing to introduce me a little bit more to some of the Korean EM (English Ministry) people. A guy named David Ro who was a missionary in China and half-Chinese and half-Korean; he had a lot of contacts. So God gave me different opportunities of meeting different EM guys.
Of course Soong Chan Rah when he was in Boston; I met him when he was pastoring a church. So, just meeting different people obviously helped broaden the context. So it really was English-speaking Asian, not just English-speaking Chinese. And Southeast Asian. Ken Kong, he’s become one of the national leaders for Southeast Asian leaders, and that’s helped a lot.
I heard that Ken Kong got the idea for gathering and empowering Southeast Asian American Christian leaders under SEAC (Southeast Asian Catalyst) at MESA‘s first AALC.
Yes, Ken Kong would say that himself, and actually I was a little surprised. He’s good friends with Tom Steers (Director of Asian American Ministries, Navigators and part of the first AALC Core Planning Team). I talked to Tom and he said, “Yeah. God used that first AALC in 2004 to be a springboard for SEAC.” And I was like, “Really? Boy, that’s pretty cool.”
Obviously, that was not on our radar at all. That God used it that way to [inspire] something like SEAC is just a real blessing.
Ken Kong directed the last AALC in 2013.
Ken Kong, who was the assistant guy in MESA, was the driving force behind the 2013 AALC. I was going to facilitate that third national leadership conference, but I just couldn’t do it. I was having this ministry burnout because I’ve never had a sabbatical. So, I took an emergency sabbatical. Winsome Wu, with his AALC* organization was nice enough to facilitate it. (AALC the organization and AALC the event are separate entities. For more, see here.)
You’re now the Pastor at Chinese Community Church in Sacramento. What happened to MESA? Are there plans for another AALC?
Since I returned to full time pastoral ministry in 2010, my work with MESA has been very limited due to time constraints. I do not know at this time if MESA will be able to help facilitate another national AALC event in the future. It’s possible the Lord may lead me to eventually retire from pastoral ministry at which time I may be able to ramp up MESA again. Either way, I hope to continue informal ministries that encourage and support other pastors and Christian leaders.
Louis Lee’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
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