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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.
Nina Lau-Branson served as InterVarsity’s first Asian American National Coordinator from 1980 to 1982 while she also worked part-time as a campus worker at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She, Jeanette Yep, Donna Dong and others engaged in the first efforts that grew into InterVarsity Asian American Ministries.
Please share with us some of your background?
I’m more second generation. My father was born in Hawaii but my grandfather took them back to China when he was a preschooler. Even though he was born in a US territory, really he was raised in China. [Her mother was born in Guangzhou, China.]
I was born in Texas. I was raised in a small city outside of Houston which I later found out was one of the regional centers for the Ku Klux Klan. When I was just starting junior high school, we moved to Hawaii where most of my father’s family was.
So, I’ve had two very, very different experiences of what it means to be Asian American in this country. One, where I was almost the only Asian person around—and almost the only person of color around—because of that community and who they allowed to live there. It was very clear that African Americans couldn’t live there, and they didn’t. Versus Hawaii: when I was in Junior high school, there was no white person in the school. So huge differences.
You went to college in Hawaii then went on staff with InterVarsity (IV) at UCLA before moving to Madison, Wisconsin to work at IV’s national headquarters.
My husband Mark Branson and I moved to Madison in the summer of 1980. Mark already had a commitment to a national ministry, Theological Students Fellowship, and we had just gotten married that spring. So that’s how I ended up in Madison, because of Mark’s ministry and commitment to InterVarsity.
How did you become InterVarsity’s first national Asian American coordinator?
I just happened to be there at the time when they were beginning more of the multiethnic student ministry conversation. Some think of that as God’s provision and prompting, saying “Yes, this is important. I’m actually going to put someone there even though you’re not ready to actually to have someone do this work.”
When we got there, I already had a part-time campus ministry position with UW Madison as part of the regular [InterVarsity] staff team. The other part of my time was starting an Asian American student ministry initiative.
Can you give us more background on how InterVarsity came to create this role?
It was all part of this larger conversation about InterVarsity trying to be more intentional in reaching out beyond the majority culture students [with whom] they had done such effective work for decades.
And it seems like often issues of race in our country often start with the white and black conversation. That’s not unusual.
InterVarsity had been thinking about reaching out to students of color. I believe they already had started discussions with [the late African American Pastor] Elward Ellis, who they did eventually hire to start Black Campus Ministries. Elward was recruited and moved to Madison to take that position.
There also was a conversation started around Latino American ministries. The other person they asked to kind of begin some conversation was a woman named Ruth Lewis. She was also already in Madison like I was. She wasn’t of Hispanic origin but a missionary kid who grew up in Latin America. So, she was a two culture person.
I think initially there were conversations from the Asian American staff at that time. There were very few of us. There were several from Hawaii—if you didn’t count them, there were maybe six. The African American conversation was just further along.
Initially, we gathered to talk about what we wanted to try and accomplish and what the basis was of having a ministry to Asian American students. Did it make sense?
At the time, how then did you view the need for Asian American ministries?
I will say that that was also a question that God raised at that time as well. It’s not a new question, whether there is a need for Asian American student ministries.
This question definitely doesn’t seem to come up in the same way for our Hispanic and African American brothers and sisters. That’s because of the difference between the number of students from our communities in universities that are able to perform to the standards of those institutions and systems. I think for me, simply being able to negotiate a different culture and system puts Asian Americans at an advantage. And especially Confucian-based cultures are again, very heavy into academics and achievement, and so there’s that overlap of value with the majority culture that values achievement and advancement.
But in my mind, simply because we could negotiate that culture didn’t mean that we were completely received for all of who we are in that culture. Just because you can negotiate it and deal at least to some extent, it doesn’t mean all of you is really welcome.
So particularly with Christian ministry, where the whole person is welcomed into God’s Kingdom, it seemed like we were only welcoming a part of the person into the Kingdom. There was another part that was still only seen at home, or seen interacting with family, and those kinds of things. This part was truly left out of the whole and not really being received into the Kingdom and the Body of Christ.
Also, because of the part of us that was being actively engaged was our American part, we weren’t bringing our other important gift because people weren’t seeing it, and therefore weren’t able to nurture it. So there really is a loss for all of us, the whole Body of Christ.
What were some of the things Asian American Christians in InterVarsity were thinking about in the early 1980s? What were some of the challenges?
I think all ministries were trying to make sense of our relationship with churches.
Staff who come from large majority culture churches would generally have the easiest time raising their support. In those churches, there was an understanding of what student ministry is, and they feel connected to it; they see the fruit of it. They see how it adds to them as a church, as they get more mature disciples who cycle back.
It was a complete disconnect with the Asian churches—at that time, our staff were coming from more Asian-speaking churches. [Second+ generation English speaking Asian American churches which were just beginning.] These churches did not see the benefit. They did not see the fruit; it was a foreign land to them.
So because of that, we tried to create some avenues to be in conversation and create conversation with these churches. And that was pretty difficult. From a cultural standpoint, it was very unideal. Having two or three young second generation Chinese American women [Donna Dong, Jeanette Yep and myself] trying to establish effective relationships with first generation Chinese pastors whose primary language is Chinese in such a Confucian-based culture would have been a challenge under the best circumstances. This was true even with the few second generation Asian American pastors we attempted to connect with. The whole cultural effect was ongoing in terms of gender and age.
The other challenge in my memory was that we were asked, “Why are you based in Madison where there are no Asian American students?” I believe in the conversations with my counterparts, they also were asked this question. Elward would be asked by other African American churches, “Madison is not exactly the hotbed of African American life and students. So, why are you there?” And really, there just wasn’t a good answer for it other than InterVarsity required it. I don’t know if InterVarsity is still requiring that of all their national ministries at this point. At that point in time, if you had any responsibility for national ministry, you had to physically be in Madison, Wisconsin. [Editor’s note: It is no longer required.]
I remember we raised the question if we could possibly be based in Downers Grove [a suburb of Chicago] with InterVarsity Press because you can at least make an argument that there are minorities there. But that wasn’t perceived as necessary. So Madison it was.
So, those two things in my mind were some of the great challenges.
You stayed in that position for about two years? What happened next for you?
We had a four year commitment in Madison. After the first two years, I left InterVarsity, and I did my MBA in Finance at UW Madison while Mark finished out his commitment.
I moved on to business. After graduating from UW Madison, Mark and I moved to the [San Francisco] Bay Area and spent about 15 years there, first working at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in their entrepreneurial services group, and then being hired by one of my clients to be part of their management team to take their company public.
Then, there came a point at the end our time in the Bay Area, that I just had a sense that God was asking me to step off my career path. At the same time, a couple of my mentors were urging me on to the next step, another start-up, another IPO, to be the CFO.
I did step off my career path. I didn’t expect it to be such a step off as it’s come to be.
We moved to Southern California, and my sense with the Lord was that he was inviting me into a time of solitude and wilderness, a time of prayer and journaling and simply being with him. We had younger children at the time; my youngest was just starting school. Anyway, that was almost 15 years ago. I didn’t realize that time period was going to be so long.
It’s only been in the last couple years that I felt God’s release to move into more external work. One of the things I have discovered in this past season is how Chinese I really am, which is a surprise.
Discovering how Chinese she is
Somebody asked me a great question: “Are you saying that really your soul is part Chinese?” I haven’t answered that question, but thinking of my soul as bicultural makes sense.
I think there was a part of me that wasn’t as available to God or as present to God that is very distinctly Chinese. I don’t think it’s because the Chinese part of me was inherently less available to God. I believe this Chinese part of my soul was not recognized and nurtured as much as my American part. I don’t believe it was less visible than my American part, but the Chinese part of my soul was not perceived like my American part. For example, the way I’ve been brought up in the church, in InterVarsity: it was speaking more to the American part of me. There was more nurturing and development for the American part of my soul. The Chinese part of my soul didn’t get substantially nurtured until God himself did it in the season of solitude and wilderness.
So anyway, I feel like this last season has really been about God moving into some of those places. And I’m really grateful for that.
As you’re moving more towards an “external” life as you say, it sounds like you still have a wonderfully deep internal life with God. You’re currently affiliated with the Missional Network, you’re a spiritual director, and you’re helping with various programs at Fuller. Do you have any inklings as to where God is moving you next?
These last couple years I am pondering what God might want me to do with who I am, and how he’s responded to, in my mind, very Chinese questions and what can I do with that. There’s not real clarity about this yet at this point.
Well, I’m looking forward to seeing how God continues to lead you. Thank you so much for your time.
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