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Gwen Wong, 91, is struck by how the Lord calls. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Lord called her, to become an early staff worker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IV or IVCF) and to reach the Chinese. She, however, never quite made it to China,* but staffed many InterVarsity campuses in Illinois and pioneered student ministries in the then US territory of Hawaii, Taiwan (1957-9)¹ and most notably in the Philippines (1952-9).
As she and co-laborer Canadian Mary Beaton (who joined her in 1956) wrote to their superiors in 1958: “Our task in the Philippines is finished. We leave behind a National Committee, a corps of national staff workers, a supportive Christian constituency…”² This was in stark contrast to what then InterVarsity USA President C. Stacey Woods saw on his 1955 Asia trip.
“‘Grave questions considering traditional missionary work, the failure of much of the present-day approach, the failure to identify oneself with the people, the inescapable fact that too often the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being confused with our western way of life, and the fact that so many missionaries today seem to be improperly trained, to be spiritually immature and in some instances lack direction in terms of missionary goals tended to depress one and call for a re-examination of our own approach to student work.’”³
As other missionaries struggled with to indigenize ministry, Woods saw Gwen Wong’s work to be the epitome of what pioneering student work should be. He described it as:
“a classic example of the New Testament pattern of those who could found a work and then move on, instead of following the disastrous pattern of so much missionary paternalism.”4
Today, IVCF Philippines remains a ministry of Filipinos for Filipinos by Filipinos and today operates in nine regions throughout the country reaching high school, college, graduate and nursing students.
Gwen Wong is also InterVarsity’s first full-time Asian American staff worker (1948-1952). She currently resides in Burbank near her nephews at a senior assisted-living facility. I spoke to her there in September 2015.
A call to reach the Chinese
Pioneering IVCF Philippines
Asking Gwen Wong present-day questions of identity
“Am I more InterVarsity or am I more Christian?”
Gwen Wong, professional softball pitcher
The greatest things that happened to Gwen
How did you find out about IV (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship)?
I went to Cal [also known as the University of California, Berkeley]. IV at Berkeley met at the Bible League which was located across the street from campus. I became a committed Christian through their fellowship.
InterVarsity in the United States was just starting around that time. The Canadians were still planting it. How did you come on InterVarsity staff?
A grad student from Canada, Mary Beaton, went to Cal also. She was a very strong InterVarsity member in Canada. When she came down to the US, she helped that group become [a] very strong InterVarsity [chapter].
And I went with her to InterVarsity summer camp: Campus-in-the-Woods in Ontario. And I just became very interested in InterVarsity. I went to seminary after I graduated from Cal and was called to do student work, I thought, in China.
But at that time, China was closed. I was trying to get closer to China. That’s why I ended up going to Hawaii, and then I went to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Korea. I couldn’t get into China proper. I never did get into China.
But I learned a little Tagalog and a little Mandarin.
Because I’m Chinese. That’s it. That’s really it.
I said, “I’m Chinese, I’m Christian. They need the Lord, and God called me to China,” I thought of Chinese students particularly. Because I became a committed Christian as a student through the fellowship of InterVarsity.
What brought you to the Philippines?
I went to the Philippines because it was the closest I could to go to China. I kept thinking, I was making a hop skip and a jump to China. Hawaii, Philippines, Taiwan, China. I was still thinking of China.
But the Lord led me to the Philippines and that was interesting because the Philippines at the time was still so very pro-America. It had just become independent from [America in 1946]. They were English-speaking, and they loved the fact that I was from the States and spoke English like an American. They liked to point me out I was an American Chinese and stuff like that. That’s why I learned very little Tagalog.
They wanted to hang out with an American?
Right, right. And besides, I wanted to be with the Filipinos. They were having some tension with the Chinese population in the Philippines. The local Chinese were dominating the Filipino economy, so there was tension between them and the Filipinos.
But they accepted you? Didn’t they think you were Chinese?
I didn’t talk too much about it. I just tried to go more with the Filipinos mostly. I knew a few Chinese, and I went to Chinese church once in awhile, but mostly, I was with Filipinos. I wanted to make sure we were doing a Filipino movement and not a Chinese movement. Because the Chinese were so strong there, I didn’t want to… Anyway, the Lord led me to be with Filipinos.
Where did you meet them?
I met one or two student Christians through one of the churches there, and I got to know a couple of churches, and found the college and university students, you know.
In an IV article about you, you said that school officials wouldn’t allow you on campus, so you would have Bible Studies in your car.
We began to meet, and we began to have a vision for being on campus and on the different campuses rather than just coming out and meeting off campus. Although we had an InterVarsity movement in my home, I tried to start a student center. That was a long time ago. A long time ago.
You told me before we started recording that now two former students you had known from the Philippines are coming to visit you tomorrow!
It’s just amazing that they are coming to see me. I haven’t seen them for 40, 50 years. But they’ll be shocked looking at me, with my gray hair, 90-something. I won’t recognize them because I knew them of course when they were kids. They are now 50, 60 years old. I’ll be shocked and they’ll be shocked.
“I never thought of myself as a missionary.”
I never thought of myself as a missionary. I just thought of myself as an InterVarsity staff member. So when I went to the Philippines, I did not identify with missionaries because to me—I’m sorry but, I don’t know if you want to tell this—but I was sort of anti-missionary.
Because in the Philippines when the missionaries got into anything, they took over and they became very strong leaders. And the finances would come from the US and stuff like that.
I said, InterVarsity here is going to be Filipino. And the leadership and the financing and everything was going to be Filipino. Not American. So, I deliberately stayed away from them. You don’t want that stuff in there.
What you are saying is no longer that controversial.
Well, I guess not. Because now, the Philippines is completely politically independent and has been for a long time. When I went there, they were just emerging, they were just coming out of being a colony.
In the time of Magsaysay, I was watching the change. [Ramon Magsaysay was President of the Philippines from 1953-57.] There were the first beginnings of wanting Tagalog to be the national language, rather than English—because everything was being produced in English: the newspapers and everything.
English really kept that country together because it had been an American colony. Since, all the different islands spoke different languages, the government was pushing Tagalog, and Tagalog became the national language which helped the Philippine Islands to become truly a national whole. That was amazing to see that.
And the Lord led that the Philippine movement had to be Filipino—not Americanized, not funded by IFES or anything like that. It was going to be Filipino: the leadership, the staff, everything.
Were the Filipinos used to that model? If missionaries were as dominant as you said, I would imagine some Christian Filipinos were already accustomed to someone else being in power.
True, but somehow, I don’t know what we did, but our groups were always very Filipino. The board, our staff, everything—the leaders, the student leaders, everything was very Filipino.
This was really remarkable! While missionaries had been trying to empower indigenous movements for 100+ years, it really was hard for them to change.
When InterVarsity (USA)’s president C. Stacey Woods visited Asia in 1955, he noticed Western dominance was rampant in missionary work. He saw your work as the example of what student-movement planting should be! In his own words, he called it “‘a classic example of the New Testament pattern of those who could found a work and then move on, instead of following the disastrous pattern of so much missionary paternalism.’”4
Pastor and former missionary Wayland Wong told me that people didn’t think you could do it, and establish an indigenous movement. But you did, and within seven years, it was self-sustaining.
Yeah, I wonder how come he knows that so well. (laughs)
[About Wayland] He’s amazing. And I met his wife, Clara when she was a student in Hong Kong. And I was working with InterVarsity there too. I remember seeing him in Hong Kong, but I don’t remember when we met. All the time I was living in the Philippines, I was doing some of that traveling [to Hong Kong etc].
I never thought of myself as being one of the first Asians to go overseas with an American mission board. I think Wayland schooled me in that. Because he was apparently turned down once by a mission agency for being Asian, for going overseas.
Do you mind sharing about your family background?
My mom and dad were born here [in the States]. My granddad came [from China] in the mid-1800s. My dad was born in the later two-thirds of that century, so my granddad came when he was really young. He was brought over apparently by an older relative. And that relative passed away, and some Indians picked him up and raised him.
Really, Native American Indians?
My granddad. And so, he was brought up in Northern California by American Indians.
I don’t know how he got together with my grandma who is Chinese. Nobody ever says it but I have a feeling she was brought over as a, well—they say she was kidnapped as a kid, brought over by the family. We’re reading these days about the slave trade and all that, and I bet she was. But I’m just guessing. That was a couple generations ago. She never talked about of course.
What were they like? Do you remember them?
My granddad? I was just this big when he passed away. (hand gestures a little above her knee)
I remember my grandma. She was a tyrant. And my my mother was a very obedient daughter-in-law. She was born here [in America], but her parents took her back to China, and she was raised in China. So she came over here, I have a feeling, she was more like a picture bride to my dad. Because they were looking for somebody with American papers. She was very Chinese and very sweet and docile to my grandmother, her mother-in-law, you know. We were raised as much by my grandmother as by my gentle mother.
We were a half a dozen. In fact, recently, our last brother passed away just a month ago. We were not a Christian family.
And I prayed for them. I still pray for them.
Was your community Chinese?
No. Alameda [a town neighboring Oakland, California] was strictly American. In fact, we had Italian neighbors, Irish across the street. Germans a little further away. We were all just a big mixture.
Do you mind if I ask you about being Chinese or being a woman?
What about being Chinese?
There weren’t that many back then, right? This is before the 1965 Immigration Act equalized immigration quotas for non-Europeans.
Oh yeah, yeah. It was in the ‘50s. (long pause)
When you say, how do I feel as a Chinese being brought up here? Was that your question?
I was just a happy kid. I didn’t think too much about it. I played a lot of softball and hung around with everybody.
So it was not just something you thought about really?
Okay, that’s fine.
Going to Chinese school was as Chinese as we got.
[Gwen asks me about me. I tell her my parents are from Taiwan.]
How did you feel? Most of the early Chinese here are Cantonese.
Yes, that’s true.
How did you fit in?
Well, like you, we didn’t grow up in Chinatown, we grew up with other white families. And just like you, I felt like I was just another kid. It was news to me when someone pointed it out to me that I looked different.
I remember looking in a mirror and thinking as a child,”Well, I guess I do look different than anybody else.”
There weren’t a lot [of Chinese kids] in Alameda either.
When we were kids growing up, people would say “Ching Chong Chinaman,” you know. Stuff like that. We’d get that. But not too much. Because we were in a mixed neighborhood.
My first job out of college was at InterVarsity’s headquarters; they call it now the National Service Center. They talked a lot about multiethnicity and even more so today. They wanted me to bring all that I was and asked me to share with them what it means to be Chinese. At that time, I honestly had no idea.
So when you asked that question, I’m thinking, “What’s she talking about?”
I appreciate you sharing that.
We all have that feeling, I guess, [we] American Chinese who were born here and raised in white neighborhoods and everything: “What do you mean, Chinese?” But my grandma was thoroughly Chinese. She made sure we knew we were Chinese.
(Gwen imitating her grandmother scolding in Cantonese.)
“Yes, Grandma. No Grandma..” (nodding tentatively)
You can imagine how long ago that was. Centuries ago…
You never had to go through the period, which I did during the Japanese war in the ‘40s. when we had to go around saying, “I’m Chinese, I’m not Japanese.” You know, that was very important. Of course, when they were put into camps, it became less important. Because if we were still here, then we were Chinese, and they were Japanese.
Some people are going to want me to ask about you being a woman in ministry. How was that?
In student work, it doesn’t matter. At least, I didn’t think it did. Maybe it did, and I was too dumb to realize it, or that there was a difference. We developed male staff members. It didn’t seem to matter. And I didn’t want to be a preacher or anything, so I don’t think it made a difference in the ministry, if that’s what you mean.
No one questioned you about it?
No. Certainly not to my face.
When did you come back to the States?
In the ‘60s, I think.
And then you stayed in the States.
Yes. And I actually—I was away from the Lord for a while. When I left InterVarsity, I left the Lord.
You know that that’s pretty bad.
When I left InterVarsity staff, I figured: am I more InterVarsity or am I more Christian? That can happen. I was so strong with the organization, the culture and the ways of the organization—you take it all on and you think that’s the same as being Christian. Not necessarily.
Except the Lord really does use InterVarsity.
What did you do in those years?
When I was away from the Lord? I lived in different parts of California. I was out in the desert. You know, all over. I worked on YWCA staff for several years. I went into the federal government and was employed by the department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).5 And I later transferred and became a staff member of the US Department of Labor. I lived in Washington DC for a while.
How did you come back to the Lord?
I don’t remember. It just the Lord called me, I guess. It’s amazing. I recently just became much stronger in realizing that God calls. God chooses those who are going to be his. The Lord Jesus said so.
You know, I said that at one Bible study here, and one person said, “No, God doesn’t choose, everybody has a chance.” So I just shut up. But Scripture says—the Lord Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me, I chose you.” [John 15:16]
One verse that is very very meaningful to me, is that the Lord called me by name. “I called you by name.” [Isaiah 43:1] By name! He knows Gwen Wong in heaven? Amazing!
There’s a story about you, about how you used to be a professional softball pitcher.
That was just earning my way through seminary. Biblical Seminary in New York.6 I don’t even know if it’s still existing. I was just there so long ago.
In the 1940s and 1950s professional women’s softball used to draw large crowds, particularly in the Chicago area, like in the 1992 movie, A League of her Own. You’re even part of a yet-to-be-released documentary about your league!
So playing ball with Bloomer Girls in 1947 helped pay for seminary?
That’s right. And so I got to know that [Chicago and surrounding states] area. So when I was on InterVarsity staff, I covered that area as a staff member after Seminary.
I was a pitcher. Because when I was a teenager, I was a pitcher in Alameda [California, near Oakland] and according to the locals, I was supposedly pretty good. (smiles)
That was a brief interlude after I had developed into an effective softball player on the American Alameda team.
I guess when you help me to think back on my past, some of the greatest things that happened to me…
Well, one was helping to start the student movement in the Philippines. Of course, that was a wonderful thing. But something stupid like, being a professional softball player…
I’m sorry, Gwen, but that ranks up there as super awesome.
It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything, but it was a very strong important part of my life.
Since we’re talking about my history and everything, one of the very important things in my life that I learned in Hawaii was that I learned how to play the ukelele. (bursts out laughing)
I also used to be a operatic soprano. I was a soloist at various weddings and churches. I can’t sing a note anymore. If I sing anything anymore, it’s in baritone! But 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago, I learned some operatic arias. You can’t imagine how long ago that was. Crazy.
Do you mind if I ask how old you are now?
I’m 91, going on 92 in January.
You look awesome!
I just said to the Lord. Take me home before I lose all my hearing. I can’t taste anymore. You know? This is enough.
And I also said, I’m so glad I’m not facing any eternity without you because eternity without the Lord would be horrible!
I am certainly not longing for long human life. Especially living around here in an assisted living facility for seniors. I see what’s happening with old people. I say, God take me home before that happens to me. That’s very real.
But meanwhile, I’m very, very thankful that I’m learning to spend more time with Him.
Gwen Wong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
¹After Wong’s time in the Philippines, she joined Richard and Lucille Webster, two UC Berkeley IVCF classmates who were pioneering student work in Taiwan. Richard Alvis Webster’s autobiography Seize the Baton (2001) credits Gwen for helping their ministry become more indigenous. “…(D)uring the next two years she served as a catalyst, helping bring the island’s college and high school work into an indigenous unit called Campus Evangelical Fellowship.” (31)
“She pointed out that as long as everything centered around the missionary, things could not fully develop. The students needed to move from passive to active involvement. They needed to see the work as their own. The Christians of each campus should come together and do their own planning, praying, and outreach to their fellow students. Missionaries could speak by invitation, but the students were to take the reins and promote it themselves.“ (31)
²Gwen Wong and Mary Beaton, quoted by Pete Lowman, Day of His Power (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1953), 155, quoted in Donald MacLeod, C. Stacey Woods and the Evangelical Rediscovery of the University (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 174.
3Stacey Woods, “Minutes of the Meetings of the Fourth General Committee of the IFES, September 4-7, 1956,” Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College, 49.2.A1, page 6, quoted in Donald MacLeod, C. Stacey Woods and the Evangelical Rediscovery of the University (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 154.
6Biblical Seminary of New York changed its name in 1965 to New York Theological Seminary. According to Columbia University Libraries, Biblical Seminary was founded to as an non-denominational, progressive and evangelical institution that trained both men and women particularly in inductive Bible study. Inductive Bible study too is a hallmark of InterVarsity. Wong taught Filipino students inductive Bible study too. She joked to me that some of them know it as the “Gwen Wong method!” Gordon Govier corroborates this here.
*Correction from Wayland Wong, Gwen Wong’s former pastor (no blood relation): Wong finally did go to China at age 80. Pastor Wong, his wife Clara, Gwen and others taught 240 teachers of English near Chongqing, China. Wayland Wong, personal communication, January 28, 2016.
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