- Reference Points
- Asian American Christians
- Asian Americans
- Christianity in the World
- Christianity in America
- Spectrum of Views
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.
I recently interviewed Joseph Wong, who along with Peter Yuen, Wayland Wong and Hoover Wong are the founders of FACE or Fellowship for American Christian Evangelicals. David Woo and William Eng joined FACE later. This group of mostly California-based pastors championed separate English-speaking ministries within Chinese churches contexts for the American Born Chinese (ABC) especially in the 1980s and early 1990s through seminars, conferences and especially through their newsletter, “About Face” which was printed from 1979 to 2003. In 2009, they collected their insights in a book entitled, Completing the Face of the Chinese Church in America: the ABC Handbook: Promoting Effective Ministries to American-Born Chinese.
In the 1950s to 1980s, it was very difficult for an American Born Chinese (ABC) to get a pastoral position at any church, let alone a Chinese church. ABCs who wanted to be pastors were expected by Chinese churches at the time to learn Chinese and to submit to their Overseas Born Chinese (OBC) seniors.
Pastor Joe is a jovial man.“I don’t like to take anything too seriously.” Yet, he does take his faith in God very seriously. We were joined intermittently by his wife Shirley who often chimed in.
Shirley in her own right, had a sense of call to ministry “because I felt called to marry him.” While her four daughters were young, she supplemented their early income as a junior high school teacher in East Oakland and later as an early childhood education specialist on a team that helped develop the acclaimed Head Start Program. Shirley enjoyed hosting people, mentoring women and putting on women’s conferences in conjunction with Pastor Joe’s ministry.
Both Pastor Joe and Shirley charm me as a couple. God has indeed been good to them. Now retired in the San Francisco Bay Area, they live near their daughters and extended family.
I also spoke to Pastor Wayland Wong by phone. Many of the details he offered helped me understand the context here, and those insights were incorporated into many of the questions, especially about FACE. To Pastor Wayland Wong, my special thanks.
As significant numbers of Asian Americans increasingly came of age in the 1990s and early 2000s, Louis Lee and his organization Ministries for English Speaking Asians (MESA) was one of the main players that helped forge the beginnings of an “Asian American Christian” identity.
Sensing a need first among American Born Chinese (ABCs) and later other “English Speaking Asians” for connection and encouragement, Louis organized MESA in 1988. As its only paid staff member, Louis hosted countless lunches and regional conferences for men, women, married couples and families, in California, Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington DC. In 2004 and in 2008, MESA gathered all these leaders nationwide, hosting the Asian American Leadership Conferences (AALC). (The 2013 AALC conference was hosted by another organization, the Asian American Leadership Center.*)
These meetings allowed Asian American Christian leaders to meet others outside the usual ethnic church, denomination or parachurch circles, some for the first time. As MESA encouraged partnerships, and friendships were formed, new gatherings and organizations were inspired like the Southeast Asian Catalyst (SEAC), and its biennial conference, Southeast Asian Leadership Summit (SEALS).
MESA and its legacy is due to Louis heart for Asian American Christian leaders. To worship leader Peter Lum, Louis is a unique leader with a “tremendous ability to connect with people one-on-one, heart-to-heart.” With no agenda other than to encourage and connect, he was able to lead leaders to meet and work alongside one another in hosting these gatherings and conferences, modeling and priming many for partnerships that continue to form to this day.
Louis Lee currently is the Pastor of Chinese Community Church in Sacramento.
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.
We asked Louis Lee what trends he noticed in his 30 years of networking and ministering to Asian Americans. Here’s four!
1) Overseas Born Chinese (OBC) / American Born Chinese (ABC) tensions: now an ABC can become the Senior Pastor
You’ve already touched upon how things have changed like OBC/ABC tensions are improving. It seems like that was really huge in the ’80s and ’90s.
Oh yeah, it’s a lot better now. It’s the kind of thing where a lot of the tension was created by ignorance. Sometimes, when you’re on the side where you’re treated unjustly, you can overreact and make it sound like there’s this evil empire putting us down. And certainly there were a few individuals that were like that; it’s not just ignorance, you know. But I think a lot of it was just ignorance.
And to their credit, a lot of these OBC seniors certainly began to see the need for younger English speaking. They would leave church, and plug in at some other Evangelical church, Caucasian or whatever. At least they haven’t left the faith, but unfortunately, a lot of them did leave the faith completely. So some began to realize, “Oh, we have to do something.” So, the OBCs began to address it.
I think nowadays we have the model now where we see an ABC become a senior pastor of a large, tri-congregation set-up! With Steve Chin in Boston and Steve Quen in Oakland, we kind of broke through that barrier. Obviously, not every ABC is well suited for that. I know some ABCs are carnal, struggling with fleshly things like ambition, just wanting to have power and authority or whatever. That’s wrong for anybody. It’s what’s best for the church, for that context. But just to be eligible, to realize that an ABC guy could be the senior pastor, and to have that realized! [We used to think] an ABC guy could never be the senior pastor!
I’ve been out of the network for the last six or seven years pastoring here [at Chinese Community Church], but I did sense before that a lot of the younger ABCs who grew up in Chinese churches in English ministries, were consciously or unconsciously turned off by that whole [attitude that] “English ministry is second class.” [Consequently,] many ABCs who went to seminary were more focused on missions than pastoral ministry. They don’t want to return to that kind of situation, and I can’t blame them. Especially in Chinese ethnic kind of contexts. Not just Chinese but Korean or whatever.
2) Parents are more supportive of a wider range of career choices, though not necessarily to ministry.
Yeah, the whole thing about values and choice of careers: it’s not just how to make the most money, being a doctor an engineer—though nothing’s wrong with those careers. But [OBC parents now are] more open to things like social workers, teachers, people who are making a difference in the community even though the status and the bucks aren’t there.
I’ve been encouraged to see how many OBC parents really coming around, and not being so narrow minded from their cultural values. [Many are] really understanding and appreciating Kingdom values. So if their kid wanted to pursue a career like that, they would actually be supportive. I’ve seen that increasing.
Obviously, I know that there’s still far too many Christian parents—not just Chinese—but Christian parents in general who are a little confused about values. I mean, is it really Kingdom values? Or is their own cultural family of origin values?
But one thing I’ve heard from my oldest son—he graduated from UC Davis back in 2004. God led him to go on staff with InterVarsity for a while; it was really cool. My wife and I were just thrilled! But we were sad to hear him say that a lot of his Asian American friends who were thinking the same thing, their [Christian] parents were not supportive. The majority of them and not just a few!
And I hear that from Urbana experiences too: a lot of young people come back and they’re all charged up about life goals and dreams, and a lot of their parents, even Christian parents are not real supportive.
Yeah, so there’s still a lot of that, but overall, in the last 30 years, I’ve seen the trend moving in the right direction which is encouraging.
3) Increased bridge building between church and parachurch.
One of the things MESA is also concerned about is building bridges between the whole church / parachurch thing. I’ve been a pastor for a long time, but I also worked for Promise Keepers for two years, and I also have MESA which is parachurch. So there’s a real need for more partnerships and trust and relationship building between those two major groups of leaders: church pastoral leadership and parachurch leaders.
Parachurch ministries didn’t always encourage people to keep a foot in the local church. So parachurch can be very focused, and that’s why they can be so effective [especially] at colleges. But you gotta help them understand the importance of the church so when they leave, they just don’t fade away, and they don’t think that their Christian experience is just a college thing. It’s a lifetime identity with the church. Then what happens after they graduate, when they leave their campus ministries? What happens to their Christian growth and Christian Identity and their spiritual life? A lot of them would drop out. And that was something they realized.
We still got a lot of work to do because sometimes the only time you hear from a parachurch ministry is when they are looking for money. And they talk about coming along side to partner… That’s why they need to build relationships and friendships and really trust each other and not just be a project or some kind of need to raise money for, but to really know people.
By the way, MESA is just one of the networking things that God has used over the years. In NYC there’s PaLM. There’s just this need to see God raise up other people in other organizations to do similar things, to build more bridges. And I think that’s overall, it’s getting better.
4) Justice and racism are now on people’s screens.
Well, let’s just say they’re all moving in the right direction. On a scale of 1 to 10, maybe I’m not so sure—maybe it used to be a 2, and it’s a 3.5 or whatever. But we’re moving in the right direction. So that’s encouraging.
Louis Lee’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
Racism was already on your screen in college?
I think I was in high school or junior high when we had the riots in Detroit.
Detroit is infamous for the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. But I think you mean the Twelfth Street Riot in 1967? Time Magazine calls that four-plus day race-related event as “one of the deadliest and costliest riots in the history of the United States.” It still has an impact on Detroit today.
Yeah. I graduated from high school in ‘71.
My last couple years of high school, I knew I was a Christian, but I wasn’t in fellowship as a Christian [just yet]. Some of my best friends were into the left-wing radical movement. The Vietnam War was still active; it was ‘69, ‘70. And so, I got involved in some of their causes which were equal rights, really anti-establishment and anti-racism.
We all have a disposition towards different things, and I think for me, when I see or hear things that are unfair to people, it bothers me. Even if I wasn’t a Christian, that would have been a strong conviction: the idea that you got to treat people with respect, regardless of all the differences.
As a Christian pastor, how do you think about unequal treatment of peoples?
It’s a Kingdom principle. So regardless of generational differences, we all need to find a way to get on board and be concerned about the things God’s concerned about like racism.
When you hear about some racist thing that happens to somebody that’s non-Asian, we should be just as outraged and involved in addressing that. Don’t wait until it happens to an Asian, because to me that gets to a very secular mentality: “My people. I’m just concerned about my people.” No, I think God wants us to be concerned about all people and justice from a Kingdom mentality.
Given your 30 years of working with Asian American Christians, how do you think we’ve been doing about responding to justice issues overall?
Overall, in the bigger scheme of things, from what I’ve seen in the United States, it’s gotten a lot better. The awareness, the concern about racism, and a need for greater diversity: it’s much more on our radar. In terms of how Asian American Christians are responding to this whole problem of racism, I think it’s gotten better. Especially in the younger generation, we’re much more concerned about social justice issues. I think largely that’s thanks to many of the campus ministries, with InterVarsity taking a big lead. So when we talk about diversity, equality and all these kind of things, the younger generation are like, yeah!
The older generation is trying to catch up a little bit.
Before, a lot of Chinese churches would make excuses. Chinese culture excuses the tolerating of racism in the Church. You can’t tolerate it just because it’s part of our culture! Not to just pick on the Chinese, but a lot of different human ethnic groups have cultural things that are kind of racist.
Any thoughts on how Asian American Christians are responding to justice issues today?
Remember, we’re dealing with Kingdom principles. This is not just a social trend, or a hip thing to do. Some younger Christians need to be careful, because I think that’s the danger.
I think we also have to catch ourselves from drifting out of a Kingdom mentality into a kind of secular mentality about equality. I’ve talked to Asian Christian leaders, and some talk about standing up for Asian rights and stuff like that. Okay. But, maybe we also have some affinity to other discriminated minorities.
You’re currently the pastor of Chinese Community Church in Sacramento. The leadership, at least on the website, looks amazingly multiethnic for a Chinese church.
One of the highlights of this ministry in the last four or five years is our men’s Bible study group. It has grown now to 10, 15 guys. and the diversity is incredible. I mean, we didn’t go out and canvas, but through friendships and contacts with other Christian friends, every single Tuesday night—we meet Tuesday nights—even if we just have eight to ten guys, almost all four of the major ethnic groups are represented each time we are here. And there are plenty of nights where the non-Asian guys outnumber the Asian guys. I’m talking Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, with Asians together. And everybody says, “Man! That’s one of the highlights of our discussions and our sharing and our fellowship together.” Because when there is an issue, we get the whole perspective. It isn’t just a bunch of Asian guys talking about Ferguson. What do we know? But there’s this great sharing. That’s the real highlight!
So, six and a half years I’ve been here. The percentage of non-Asians has increased. Not dramatically, but it’s definitely moving that way.
You’re a Chinese church that doesn’t have services in Chinese.
And there are fewer and fewer people who even speak any Chinese!
It’s always a little frustrating; we still get calls from Chinese people who can only speak Chinese. I have to tell them, “I’m Pastor Louis Lee, and I don’t speak any Chinese.” One of the few Chinese phrases I know is,” 我唔識講廣東話,” which is Cantonese for “I don’t speak (Cantonese) Chinese.” And then they keep talking in Chinese! (laughs) “Isn’t this the Chinese Community Church?” [they say?] “Yeah, yeah, it is.”
Louis Lee’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
AALC (event) and AALC (organization)
Asian American Leadership Conference is an event of MESA, Ministry of English Speaking Asians.
Asian American Leadership Center is an organization. According to its website, it is a “faith-based ministry organization that serves as both a ministry consulting and missionary-sending organization.”
AsianAmericanChristian.org is a ministry of the Asian American Leadership Center.
They have the same acronym because they were conceived at roughly the same time.
The AALC (organization) was incorporated on January 2, 2004.
The first AALC (event) was hosted by MESA, March 29-31, 2004.
Both organization and events were many months in the making.
It is a coincidence that they have the same acronym.
Though both were centered in California and there was relational overlap, the nearly simultaneous emergence of AALC—the event and the organization—emphasizes not only how rare and new it was to gather Asian American Christian leaders (and how “Christian” was a given in these circles), but more importantly, illustrates the ground swelling of desire to gather and empower Asian American Christian leaders nationwide in the early to mid-2000s. This coincidence in names emphasizes their significance.
For more, see this website’s ongoing efforts to collect our history.
From an September 2, 2015 email from Winsome Wu, AALC (organization)
“The AALC was started in 2004 by various Asian American ministry leaders and was an entirely separate endeavor independent from MESA’s Asian American leadership conference.”
From a Fall 2015 Interview with Louis Lee, MESA’s AALC (conference)
You know the organization Asian American Leadership Center? All this time, I’ve thought that AALC, the organization, and your conference were one and the same, and then recently something made me ask Winsome Wu (AALC, the organization’s Executive Director). Winsome says they are separate.
Both AALC, the MESA conference and AALC, the organization happened the same year. Winsome told me that yours was likely first.
And he is correct, and it was somewhat annoying when we found out he was using the same acronym “AALC.” So when people did Google searches, they would get confused.
But both AALCs partnered together in 2013?
Winsome, with his AALC (organization) was nice enough to facilitate the last AALC (conference) in 2013, with Ken Kong who was the assistant guy in MESA as 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.
So, I will now always put an asterisk next to AALC and explain that one is MESA’s conference and one is an organization that sends out other smaller Asian American ministries, like AsianAmericanChristian.org.
Yeah, our AALC is an event, and Winsome’s AALC is an actual organization.
Why is Asian American Leadership Conference called that? Why is the word “Christian” not in it?
I think because our networks were so focused on Evangelical Christians that we just felt it was not necessary to include “Christian” even though we know there are secular Asian American leaders. But there was no confusion for our clientele; they understood it was a Christian conference.
[Louis Lee’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.]
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.
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.
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.
Donna Dong was one of InterVarsity’s first Asian American staff workers based mostly in and around the University of California, Berkeley. She, Jeanette Yep and others engaged in the first conversations and efforts that grew into InterVarsity Asian American Ministries.
Donna Dong was on staff with InterVarsity USA from 1971-1974 and 1979-2001. Since 2002, she’s been on staff with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship of Canada and is their Director of the Multiethnic/Multicultural Ministry.
A life of growing into Multiethnic ministry
Donna, can you share some of your background? You grew up in San Francisco?
Yes, I was born and raised in San Francisco. On my father’s side, I would be considered a third generation Chinese-American, as my father’s parents were the ones who immigrated first to the United States.
I can find a census report of the family in Wilmington, Delaware, dated 1920. Remember that this was a period when Chinese immigration was intentionally limited by the Chinese Exclusion Acts. So while there were a number of single Chinese men in Wilmington, my family were the only intact Chinese family in town. My grandparents worked hard in their Chinese laundry business, while the family, including my dad Charles, my uncle Henry and my aunt Helen, lived in the living area in back of the laundry.
Before my dad’s father died, my grandmother made a promise to bring his remains back to the home country. The whole family was transplanted back to Hong Kong to live. So, my dad was an American-born Chinese, along with his brother and sister, who had to make the reverse cross cultural adjustments of being very American adapting to Chinese culture, language and perspectives.
On my mother’s side, my mom was born in South China, from the Pearl Delta area of Toishanese and Cantonese background. This, of course, is the same background that my dad’s family is from. My mother was only Chinese-speaking. She spoke no English, and so, when I started school and kindergarten, I didn’t speak English. Like many Chinese kids in San Francisco in the ’50s, I went to “Chinese School” each day after “American School.”
My mom and dad met in Hong Kong, married, and began our family there. My older brother, Charles, was born in Hong Kong and is 13 years older than me. His childhood and life was turned upside down by war, when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong. My younger brother Edward and I—we’re classic baby boomers, born after World War II when the family reunited in the United States on the West Coast in San Francisco. My dad had enlisted in the US Army when war began and fought on the Pacific front, while my grandmother, mom and older brother remained in Hong Kong and southern China. I was born in 1948, my mom giving birth to me at the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco Chinatown, where the hospital personnel spoke Cantonese Chinese.
Were they Christians?
My dad’s side of the family received some initial Christian influence. When they were in Wilmington, Delaware, some laundry customers were from the Presbyterian Church, and they urged my grandmother to come to church, or to send her children to Sunday School. So there was some initial influence on my dad and my aunt. Christian faith really stuck with my aunt, who was a lifelong Christian and was a cherished church member and worker in her Chinese church in Sacramento, California. As for my dad, he was put off by some of the church’s practices for raising funds for foreign mission and their referencing of “the heathen Chinese.” By the time my mom and dad were raising me—I would describe myself as raised in a traditional Chinese American family background without any religious influence. My grandmother, after raising her children became a follower of Jesus and was baptized at a Baptist church in Hong Kong.
As I was growing up, there really wasn’t any religious influence on me. If anything, my dad kind of warned me about the hypocrisy of church people. (laughs) So if anything, I grew up with a negative impression of church people and was warned to stay away from them.
How did you become a Christian?
I think back about what a negative bias against church people I had, and I do think it’s a miracle that I became a Christian. God really was a “Hound of Heaven” who chased me in all kinds of ways to win me to Himself.
When I was still a child, 11 years old, my mom died of breast cancer. Her dying was in our home. Over a period of time, I watched her lose weight, lose body functions, lose cognition. Her death was devastating. I was thrown into a lot of grief and depression, which I handled with anger and rage and by keeping people at a distance. My dad handled the hurt of my mom’s death by not ever talking about her or being free with his emotions. My mom’s death uncovered real spiritual hunger in me. Not only was I struggling emotionally with a devastating loss, I grew up as a kid who felt like life had some serious questions—like about life and death and how you could live life meaningfully.
God used all kinds of different ways as the “Hound of Heaven” to chase me down for relationship with Him. To begin with, I was a reader and loved stories. My dad supported my reading habits with membership in book clubs and acquired for us kids the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as a junior encyclopedia series. The last two volumes in that junior encyclopedia set were Old Testament stories and New Testament stories. That was my first exposure to Bible stories and to the person of Jesus.
My aunt Helen, who did become a Christian, raised her kids in a Chinese church in Sacramento. My family from San Francisco spent our vacations with my aunt Helen, where she and my cousins would invite me along to Sunday school. That’s my earliest and first experience of being in a Christian church—and a Chinese church at that!
While I was in high school in the early ’60s, at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, my friend Pat Wong invited me to come along to her church, which was one of the two oldest Chinese churches in San Francisco. “Donna, come along to my church and help enliven it.” I was not a Christian yet, but I started going to the U.C.C. Chinese Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in the heart of San Francisco Chinatown. Given my background in knowing the Bible, within maybe a month of being there, I was teaching Sunday School.
Looking back, I am forever grateful to God for what He gave me at Chinese Congregational Church. This was where I had my earliest leadership and ministry experiences. And this was the start of how I got connected up with InterVarsity.
I was very much affected by a special speaker named Gwen Wong, who was invited by the church because some of her relatives were church members and recommended her highly to be our first English retreat speaker. Gwen was the first InterVarsity full time staff worker who was Asian American. Gwen was hired by C. Stacey Woods, the visionary leader who was the President of InterVarsity (IV) US. (He was previously the General Director for Inter-Varsity Canada and later helped start the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students or IFES.) Gwen was very much involved in the pioneering days of IV campus ministry work in Hawaii, in California at Cal Berkeley, as well as helping to start the IFES-connected InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the Philippines.
Anyway, Gwen spoke at the first English retreat at our church. Gwen was so full of life! She had a reputation for singing, playing the ukelele, and all-round liveliness. I was so struck by who she was, her manner of being and what she said about God. In Gwen, I recognized someone like myself or who I wanted to become: a third-generation Chinese American woman, who spoke my kind of English, who was cool and with it, and full of life. She talked about God as the One who gave her that quality of life, and I remember being so struck! “I would like to become the kind of person Gwen is and experience that Life.” Meeting her was a major step forward in making me a follower of Jesus. It was an experience of the gospel of Life being communicated in a contextualized way, in and through an Asian American life and person!
Gwen was the one who introduced me to any knowledge about InterVarsity. “Oh! When you graduate and go on to college, why don’t you look up InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. That would be a great place for you, Donna.” I was not yet a Christian, but God was already connecting me up with InterVarsity.
At the same time, there was a Filipina American classmate at Lowell High School. Felicia Aquino was very faithful and bold in sharing good news about Jesus to everyone in our graduating senior class. Felicia and I were together in an English class, and we would have these intense conversations about God and Christian faith. It was Felicia who challenged me in a very personal way to receive Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
The defining conversation was when she summed up the Gospel for me: “Donna, you are a sinner, and God loves you.”
I was absolutely stunned into silence. [I put aside] my slate of ‘tricky-questions-to-make-Christians-sweat’ and listened intently to what Felicia was sharing with me. What captured my attention was Felicia’s claim that God knew all the brokenness, dysfunctionality of rage and defensiveness that was going on inside me. And God still loved me and had forgiveness and redemption in mind for me.
Felicia asked me, “Donna, can you really say that you are doing all right in life without Jesus Christ?”
I fought off Felicia; I fought off God’s voice. It wasn’t until after graduation and a month into my freshman year at Cal Berkeley, that I phoned Felicia again to hear this gospel of Life again. That night, I took the decisive step of asking Jesus to be Savior and Lord of my life.
Essentially, through the influence of the church, my own reading of Scriptures, meeting Gwen Wong, the personal invitation from Felicia Aquino, my love of stories and literature, so many other things…. God chased me down with the Gospel, with His Presence, and I became a Christian.
In college and a new follower of Jesus
Eventually, I did find the InterVarsity group at Cal Berkeley, a student-run chapter at the time. Very small. I think within a few months, I was faithfully at the daily 8:00 am prayer meeting and attending noon special lectures on the Book of Genesis. I remember Dr. Francis Andersen, an Old Testament scholar from Australia, doing the teaching. He and Paul Byer were my first manuscript Bible study leaders at Campus By the Sea. From them, I learned a love and a trust for the Bible, and a humility to acknowledge when our theologizing or biblical understanding might be limited or faulty. To this day, I remember Dr. Andersen, a brilliant thinker and a true scholar, saying, “all truth is God’s truth,” no matter the source of truth.
Cal Christian Fellowship was small in numbers in the 1960s, but it was good to be around a group of Christian students who modeled out discipleship to me as a new follower of Jesus. I remember a guy named Paul Griffiths, who later headed up the IT department of Wycliffe Bible Translators in their IT department. Like an older brother to me, he sat me down and led me through basic discipleship studies out of John’s Gospel.
I went to my first camp at Catalina Island, our Campus-by-the-Sea that InterVarsity Christian Fellowship owns. My dad and I had a big blow-up over my going. (“Who are these people?” “You’re going by yourself to Los Angeles?”) But I felt strongly that a week at camp with Christian students and InterVarsity staff and getting into Scripture, was essential for me as a new follower of Jesus. So, I held my ground with dad—shades of Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents! On the day I left San Francisco by Greyhound bus for camp, my dad was conciliatory and asked if I needed any money for my trip.
Serving on InterVarsity Staff in the early 1970s.
What happened after graduation?
I served InterVarsity on staff for three years, from 1971 to 1974. Back then, staff were fewer in number, and we were itinerant, rather than the residential team model of staff work that InterVarsity now has become. For my first three years of staff work, I was based out of the University of California, Berkeley, my main campus assignment. But I was also staff for San Francisco State University, Mills College, and City College of San Francisco. Once a month, I would go by train to Stanford to provide moral support to the women student leaders there. So, that was my staffing responsibility. I basically staffed five to six campuses. The local InterVarsity groups were not so Asian American or diverse as they are now.
In the early ’70s, InterVarsity groups in Northern California were mostly white students, with some Asian American and international students present. Let me say this: it was a new and jarring experience to me when I went to City College of San Francisco and found that the InterVarsity campus group there was all Chinese. Lance Wong, current IV staff Brenda Wong’s brother, was the student president. The group was not so much InterVarsity in identity—Brenda and I laugh because she was a member at the time and didn’t know it was an InterVarsity group! The campus group was actually more an extension of the youth group of the Cumberland Chinese Presbyterian Church, where Lance and Brenda were members. Lance, a highly dynamic leader, basically had mobilized his church youth group into meeting on campus under the InterVarsity club name. This new experience of working with an InterVarsity group that was not mainly American white ethnicity and culture, of course, gave me much food for thought.
In 1974, I resigned from InterVarsity staff work to do theological and biblical studies at the Discipleship Training Centre (DTC) in Singapore. I had been encouraged to study there by Peter Yuen, a FACE founder who had taught at DTC and by David Adeney, who was the founder of DTC. David, true to his British InterVarsity Fellowship student roots, his leadership in IFES in East Asia, and his love for the Chinese people that took him to China as a China Inland Missions missionary, founded the Discipleship Training Centre in 1968 to train university-educated Asians called of God to serve the churches in Asia and the rest of the world.
I benefited so much from my two years in Singapore at the Discipleship Training Centre. I felt it was important for me to do biblical and theological studies outside of the United States and to be among Asians from Asia. David Adeney insisted on a distinctive ethos of training within an international community where staff and students would live, study, and work together. The DTC community of 20-25 students and teachers was multi-national and multicultural. My fellow students came from Thailand, Japan, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Hong Kong… Some were former student workers from IFES student movements in their countries. In DTC, what I had learned in evangelism, discipleship, and mission from InterVarsity got deepened and broadened. I was getting a glimpse of living out Christian faith contextualized to other cultural settings.
For me, the main benefit of belonging to the DTC community was that studying scripture, theology, ethics, ministry essentials was in the context of a diverse Asian international community. Many of our conversations were spent parsing out what for us was cultural and what for us was the Biblical Gospel.
I remember a session in our ethics class where we discussed Jesus’ view of marriage and divorce. From my American context, evangelical Christians were shifting towards a more compassionate embrace of divorced Christians and greater openness for their re-marriage. Sanga was from northeast India where his people became Christians as an entire people group. In their culture before embracing Christian faith, men divorced their wives callously and casually. That all changed when the people became Christians. Jesus’ teaching about the marriage relationship took hold and was culturally transformative, with the result that divorce now was abhorrent and perceived as antithetical to true Christian discipleship. Sanga was shocked and furious with those of us whom he perceived as soft on divorce. You can only imagine the heated discussions we engaged in at the DTC!
For me as an American-culture person—actually, an Asian American-culture person—being in Singapore and at the Discipleship Training Centre gave me the support and stimulus to think about myself in cultural ways: what it was to be me, with distinctly American values, behaviors and perspectives alongside distinctly Asian values, behaviors, and perspectives. Some things I could not name or give words to while in the United States. For example, Asian-regard for the family in decision-making. At home in the US, when my “American” friends got invited to do something, they could make up their own minds and say straight away, “Yeah, sure, I’ll do that.” I felt like the oddball, who had no mind of her own, who had to go back and talk things over with my dad before I could commit. But in Singapore, Asian people acted like I do, collectively, not only individualistically.
I discovered how American I was as well. And I could name those things too.
I think there’s something about cross-cultural immersion experiences, coupled with reflection, that grows you in self-awareness, in terms of cultural identity, values and worldview. It goes hand in hand with the awareness of others, of other’s cultural backgrounds, values and beliefs.
“Oh, if More Asian Americans could get the benefits I had gotten in InterVarsity!”
When I came back to the United States in 1976, I was preparing to become a cross-cultural missionary somewhere in the world. I came home to recruit prayer support and find out what mission agency might be suitable for me to join. In the meantime, I knew InterVarsity, so I thought InterVarsity was a good place for me to hang around in the short-term. I offered myself in the fall of 1976 to work as a volunteer, unsalaried Associate Staff Worker with InterVarsity at San Francisco State.
I kept thinking I wanted to go overseas, but God was coalescing in me a passion for InterVarsity campus ministry among the unreached campus segment of people which were Asian Americans. I found myself thinking, “If only more Asian Americans could have what I had in InterVarsity!” and “The one thing that would keep me from going overseas would be to see Asian American students thrive as Jesus followers.”
When my dad died in August 1978, leaving me the care of my grandmother in our family home, I stopped trying to go overseas, even though I had been newly appointed as an IFES staff-worker to go to Jamaica. I knew my own need to attend to inner healing issues and in this period, I thought and prayed hard about my life and ministry future. I became convinced that God had a cross-cultural ministry calling on my life among Asian American students. I basically asked Jim Berney—then InterVarsity’s Western Regional Director and later General Director of Inter-Varsity Canada in the ’80s and ’90s—if I could come back to InterVarsity as a salaried staff worker. And so, at the start of 1979, I returned to InterVarsity, this time to focus on campus ministry to Asian American students. In fact, I gave myself the title, “Asian American Student Ministry Specialist.”
The 1976-78 period when I was an InterVarsity associate staff worker at San Francisco State, there were fruitful beginnings of ministry to Asian American students. Yet, I felt God led me to return to my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, to pioneer InterVarsity outreach to Asian American students and to develop strong Asian American Christian student leaders.
So in the fall of 1979, Cal Berkeley became my sole campus assignment, and I began a new start of linking Asian American Christian students into InterVarsity, to receive what I had so abundantly received, all the resourcing and leadership development that I received.
Beyond just Asian Americans: Multiethnic Ministry at UC Berkeley
My specialist focus on Asian American ministry at Cal Berkeley quickly evolved into being a part of something broader and more inclusive umbrella by 1980.
In 1980, Geri Rodman and I began working together in a ministry partnership in InterVarsity that continues to this day. Geri, a Canadian who learned student ministry from the Colombian South American IFES student movement arrived at Cal Berkeley, to be the new staff-worker. She asked to be Team Leader to ensure a cohesive InterVarsity campus ministry effort as I and an intern staff from Michigan arrived to work at Cal Berkeley too. Geri, coming from her Canadian cultural mosaic experience of cultural diversity, questioned why the existing InterVarsity student group was so white and welcomed my work to reach out to Asian American students.
Of course, I knew that it wasn’t only Asian Americans students who weren’t participating in InterVarsity in droves. African American students and other ethnic students were absent too. I want to say that I understood justice, racial reconciliation, love for the poor, as part and parcel to the Gospel. My own student years were in the context of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and I was blessed to cross paths frequently with John Perkins whom I regard as an important mentor.
So very early on, we were trying to grow the Berkeley InterVarsity into an intentionally multiethnic community centered around Jesus. Our vision was to be welcoming to students from a diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We believed that it couldn’t be only the new students who would make cultural adaptations to fit into a status quo InterVarsity group, but that everybody—old and new members—would adapt culturally and become culturally aware.
In the ’80s, when there were not many models of God’s people sharing life together in multicultural communities, Geri led us in a vision to develop disciples and student leaders who would be all the stronger for being a part of a multiethnic team, sharing life and doing ministry together. This was also my experience from the Discipleship Training Centre. It makes me laugh. Now, there is so much literature on intercultural competence like James E. Plueddemann’s Leading Across Cultures and Soong-Chan Rah’s Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church. It’s so essential to 21st century Christian leadership.
In the ’80s and ’90s, this ministry work of discipling and developing leaders in all their ethnic diversity at Cal Berkeley, the Golden Gate Area (roughly the San Francisco Bay Area and more), and then the whole of the Pacific Region of Northern California and Hawaii was what we gave ourselves to. It was a team effort. At Cal Berkeley, we had an initial generation of student leaders that included Becky Heffner Glad, Brad Wong, Craig Wong, Dana Foster Cunliffe, Bruce Hansen, Phil Bowling-Dyer who all came on InterVarsity staff. I want to add the names of Brenda Wong, Barry Wong, Johnine Hansen, Bora Lee-Reed, Sharon Henthorn-Iwane, Leslie Bowling-Dyer, and Jason Jensen who came onto InterVarsity staff, not only from Cal Berkeley, but also San Francisco State and Stanford. There are so many other names—I don’t have the time and space to tell their stories. I would say that God raised up a multiethnic movement of InterVarsity-related people in that 20 year period. All remain relationally connected, even as they minister and lead in North America and in the world.
In your focus in becoming more multiethnic, it seems like you were very successful in reaching out to Asian Americans. Some of your campus fellowships became overwhelmingly Asian American. So whatever you all were doing totally worked.
Yes. I think we were successful. We certainly welcomed people in. People stayed and would say that InterVarsity is their spiritual home.
Contextualizing on the ground: one-on-one.
And you were able to do multiethnic ministry while informally reaching out to separate ethnic/racial streams.
Yes. In the ’80s and ’90s, we were holding on to a fluid, multiethnic and inclusive approach to InterVarsity campus ministry, rather than formalizing distinctly separate ethnic/racial streams of students. We wanted students to experience the benefits of friendship, discipleship and mission forged in the richness of intercultural, multiethnic contexts.
That said, cultural differences are real. You have to be on the ground-level with students and pay attention to what they are experiencing in InterVarsity. You have to make the special effort to listen, debrief, contextualize, and provide support to help each generation of students to develop in intercultural sensitivity.
I still remember the time in the early ’90s when the Cal Berkeley InterVarsity fellowship had become culturally Asian, and yet welcomed many Mexican-American freshmen students. Geri hosted a dinner gathering at our home for them. I stayed away to ensure that the students felt safe to share honestly. One student mentioned that when she introduced her InterVarsity friends to her family, her mom said, “Hija, son todos tus amigos Chinos?” or “Are all your friends Chinese?” Another student shared how great it was when InterVarsity members invited him over to their homes for numerous meals. But he found it strange and disorienting to enter a house, to find shoes piled in the entrance, and to be asked to take off his own shoes.
I like to think that the challenge we face in doing multiethnic or ethnic-specific ministry is that in real life, we actually do both. It’s not one or the other. We have to be alert that under the guise of “multiethnic” ministry, we’re not just ignoring culture. With ethnic ministry, we have opportunity to do good contextualized Biblical discipling and teaching, but we could ignore calling students into the experience of reconciliation and living and ministering as multiethnic members of the Body of Christ who really need each other.
You are known for this multiethnic stream of ministry.
Even now, where I’ve been working as the Director of Multiethnic/Multicultural Ministry for Inter-Varsity Canada since 2002, I would say I am doing ministry from the perspective of Christ’s global mission and the Biblical teaching of Ephesians about God’s multiethnic people the church. So that influences my wanting to do contextualized ethnic ministry from a more multiethnic umbrella.
So when I work with Asian Canadians, I want to bring them on board to a place where they care for all of God’s people.
I feel like I’m the product of student movements connected with IFES. Like when you hang in with the IFES and the World Assembly, which I just did in Mexico with 1000+ delegates coming from over 150 nations, I just feel like, “Yeah, this is where I want to be.”
Donna Dong’s words have been condensed, edited and subtitled with permission.
Join our mailing list
Like us on Facebook
SUMMER AND FALL 2015
Asian American Ministries
Frames of Reference
7 challenges to
Asian American Ministries
Asian American Ministers,
this mainly is for you.
Other ways to give here.
All gifts are tax-deductible.
2015, 2014, 2013