The Evangelical Shift, Part 5: The complex history of Asians in American churches
Welcoming Asian Americans within the Episcopal Church
Any discussion of a shift or migration between Evangelical churches and liturgical churches would not be complete without a discussion of Asian and Asian-American Christians within these spaces. There is a great interrelation between Christians of Asian descent and Protestant Evangelical churches, not only in popular perception, but in the numbers. Surveys say that between 40% and 60% of people in America with Asian backgrounds are Christian, and that more than half of those describe themselves as Evangelical (the second largest Christian group among Asian Americans are Catholic, which corresponds largely with people of Filipino descent).
According to Pew Research, between 2000 and 2015, Asian Americans were the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. In an American culture that is becoming increasingly secularized, with greater numbers of people reporting no religious affiliation at all, it is important—both for churches and for those seeking a spiritual home—for houses of worship to provide an effective welcome. Specifically extending a welcome to Asians and Asian Americans is an oft-neglected part of the church’s mission to share the Gospel with all people.
The first part of offering a radical welcome to any cultural group is to have a sense of who they are and to look clearly at the challenges that get in the way of developing understanding. This effort involves looking at origins and history, as well as current cultural considerations, which affect how the church’s welcome is perceived.
Asians/Asian Americans don’t represent just one kind of diversity
One important consideration when we ask how the Episcopal Church can best welcome Asians and Asian Americans is understanding what a varied group this demographic is. There are multiple countries and cultures within Asia, including 7 major groupings that the office of Episcopal “Asiamerica” Ministries recognizes, which include Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Southeast Asian (including Laotians, Hmong, Cambodians, and Thai people), and South Asian (including Pakistanis, Indians, and Sri Lankans), and Pacific Islanders.
While the term Asian-American, which only came into being after being coined by Asian students at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, encourages us to look at commonalities between people of Asian descent in America, there are a variety of histories, cultures, and spiritual traditions that define each of the groups we define as Asian American.
There are also differences between people with differing proximities to life in Asia, which range between people who were born and/or raised in Asia before immigrating to America (and who may still have strong cultural ties to their original home), and 2nd and even 3rd generation Asian Americans, who may wrestle with balancing Asian and American cultures as part of their identity.
There are also a range of religious expressions among Asian-Americans. While there is a strong relationship between Asian American Christians and Evangelical traditions, there is also a large Asian Catholic population, a growing number of Asians in liturgical churches, as well as many who follow traditional Asian religious traditions. These proportions are in line with religious expression in Asia, where Christianity is a minority religion, with the exception of the Philippines and East Timor, which are home to large numbers of Roman Catholics, and South Korea, which has a large Evangelical population.
In the US, there are also a growing number of religiously unaffiliated or unchurched people among Asian Americans, which is consistent with declining numbers in churches throughout American society at large.
In an effort to embrace the diversity within Asian cultures, the Episcopal church has adopted the term “Asiamericans” to embrace the range of groups who trace their origins to Asia.
I spoke with the Reverend Canon Dr. Winfred Vergara, the Missioner for Asiamerica Ministries, about what the term means:
Now our definition is threefold. ‘Asiamerican’ means Asians in America, that is, first-generation immigrants. Then it also means Asian Americans who are either born in or grow up in the United States. And then we also keep the term in mind in our global relationships with Asia. We continue to look at Asia as our roots, even though some Asian Americans have been born here. It may be for this reason that Asians in America are considered ‘Forever Foreigners’ by other cultures, because of their strong ties back home.”
With such a spectrum of differing histories, languages, traditions and cultures, it is not a surprise that it is difficult to characterize Asian Americans in a simple statement. I spoke with the Right Reverend Allen Shin, who is Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of New York, about the challenge of defining Asian Americans:
On one hand the diversity of Asian cultures is a wonderfully rich gift. On the other hand, it is also a challenge because it’s very hard to generalize and come up with generally defined identities. Because it is hard to define the Asian identity, I think that Asians are often overlooked or misunderstood, even in the context of the church.
However, recognizing the multifaceted nature of Asian American culture is a key way to begin to understand and foster dialogue, which is the foundation of welcome.
Asian Americans left out of American discussions of race
One other reason that Asians and Asian Americans are frequently misunderstood in the context of American churches is that they are often left out of discussions of race in America at large, or are continually being re-categorized within the spectrum of identities.
Discussions of race in America are often reduced to a binary equation of black and white, without much room for anyone who doesn’t fit into those categories. As Bishop Shin describes it:
When discussing race politics in America, it’s really a white/black discussion. Asians fall through the cracks. Oftentimes, Asians are just lumped in as part of white culture, or, when it is convenient to do so, then Asians are identified as people of color. We are in that in-between place that is difficult and challenging to navigate. It is a very complicated place to be.
Asian Americans are also often described as an example of how to assimilate into white American culture with a minimum of friction. On the subject of Asian Americans as a “Model Minority,” Bishop Shin has this to say: “It’s very patronizing and it’s not necessarily a positive thing at all.”
For many, characterization of Asians in America glosses over their historical and current struggles within white American culture. As Rev. Canon Dr. Vergara recounts:
On the part of the dominant culture, Asians are either considered ‘Forever Foreigners,’ because of our strong attachment to our cultures, or ‘Model Minorities,’ meaning that generally Asians do not make waves. Now, in fact, we do have many Asian American activists. But generally, most Asians would prefer to be left on their own to pursue their professions and their lives. Throughout the history of Asian immigration, we have examples of being rebuffed by the dominant culture.
Take for example the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, after the Chinese helped build the railroads and the mining industries, when the Chinese were mass deported back to China, and there were years of Chinese exclusion in the United States. Following that was the Japanese internment during World War II. Then there were the Filipino farmers who came to California as young people, who were not allowed to bring their wives and were prevented from marrying here due to anti-miscegenation laws. So, having been rebuffed throughout our history in the United States, the way we involve ourselves in the political and cultural spectrum is holding onto our culture with tenacity, as well as slowly, gradually activating ourselves into the spectrum of society.
As Rev. Canon Dr. Vergara points out, the differences between Asian cultures themselves may be one element that has held Asian Americans back from exerting themselves as a unified voice of activism in the racial debate:
Unlike other groups, such as Latinos, we don’t have a common language. In terms of Asians in America, we all come separately. In fact, it is only in the United States that we feel a sense of being ‘Asian-Americans.’ In Asia, Filipinos and Japanese, Japanese and Koreans, North and South Vietnamese, North and South Koreans, we all have differences, and sometimes conflicts. The Episcopal Church recognizes those differences, which is why we have different convocations within the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry council. We have not achieved a sense of unity, because of language, of cultures, the diversity of our experiences, and also because the mainstream, dominant white culture continues to divide and rule the sense of Asian destiny in the United States.
The historic search for a spiritual home in America
For many early Asian Christians in America, a spiritual home meant ethnic-specific churches. History tells us about Asian and predominantly Asian churches across denominations, particularly the Presbyterian Church. There are even Asian Churches within the Episcopal Church in America.
Bishop Shin described some of this history:
In the life of the church, it has only been very recently that the Asian presence in the Episcopal Church has been gradually recognized and seen by the rest of the people. That is in part due to growing numbers, and in part due to people being more aware of the diversity of the people in their congregations. But not all Asians are new to the Episcopal Church. Asians have been a part of the Episcopal Church since the 19th century.
Rev. Canon Dr. Vergara told me the story of the first Asian Episcopal Church in Nevada:
The first Asian Episcopal Church happened way back in the mid-1800s in the diocese of Nevada. This particular small Chinese congregation was created by a lay missionary by the name of Ah Foo. He was a transcontinental railroad worker in Carson City and then he was converted by the Presbyterians. He was baptized a Presbyterian, but he decided to work with the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada and he translated the prayers into Mandarin. Then he witnessed to his fellow workers, and in a short time, he was able to influence about 70 of his railroad workers to become Christians. Together they built the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Carson City. But then, in 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was promulgated, it just suddenly disappeared. And no one knows what happened to Ah Foo. Maybe he was deported, along with the rest of them. And there was no record of the church interceding for them. In the history of past injustice against Asians, the church was not in in the forefront in advocating for the injustice done to the Asian immigrants.
As both Bishop Shin and Rev. Canon Dr. Vergara described, Asian churches in America fluctuated over the next several decades, sometimes flourishing, but often struggling against the forces of discrimination, and this happened well into the 20th century. Bishop Shin described the growth of Asian Episcopal churches after the 1880s:
Within the next 20 years, from the 1890s to the 1910s, we had a number of Asian congregations develop and open up along the West Coast, with Chinese and Korean churches opening in California and Hawaii, and a Japanese and Chinese church in Los Angeles, and San Francisco with a Japanese church and two Chinese Churches. This was up through the 1920s. Then, of course, there was a huge backlash against Japanese and Asians in general, especially through World War II in the 1940s. With Japanese internment, a number of Japanese churches were closed. Then, when that ended, some Japanese went back to their homes and rebuilt their lives and their churches.
When I expressed surprise that Japanese-American churchgoers would still go on with their regular worship in American communities after the war, Bishop Shin reminded me of the empowering role that the church can play for the oppressed:
Many of the Asians stayed in the church, despite the challenges and racial discrimination that they experienced. In fact, similarly to African Americans, Christianity was actually their outlet. Church was their community center. Church was the center of their communal life. Church had an important role in bridging and bonding the community together.
When immigration laws changed and Asian immigration increased in the 1960s and 1970s, Asian-specific churches increased as well. Along with that growth came an increased outreach on the part of the Episcopal church to reach out to Asian and Asian American Christians.
Rev. Canon Dr. Vergara says:
In 1973, when the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry was started, the original purpose was simply for the church in San Francisco and the church in New York to be able to communicate with each other. They wanted a newsletter for Episcopal Asians to have a common venue for communication. And then, when they submitted a proposal for funding to the General Convention, they were approved to have a budget for Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries that was big enough not only for a newsletter but to hire a full-time missioner. The late Reverend Canon James Poon of San Francisco, who made the proposal, commented that we were just asking for a bicycle and the Episcopal Church granted them a bus and a driver. And the Episcopal Church has continued to be very supportive of Asian ministries since then. The Asiamerica Ministries has grown. Some diocese not only have Asian congregations but even Asian commissions that continue to advocate for Asian ministries.
According to Bishop Shin, there are around 140 Asian Episcopal churches around the country, and many other Asian-Americans who attend other parishes. One recent development is the founding of around 30 Karen congregations or smaller groups dispersed across multiple denominations, largely made up of refugees from Myanmar, which is traditionally Anglican.
There are also, as previously mentioned, strong connections between Asian Americans and other Protestant and even Evangelical denominations, particularly a strong influence of the Presbyterian church among Korean- and other Asian-Americans.
I asked Bishop Shin about the history of this connection:
Christianity has a long history in Asia, although it looks very different now. Before the Revolution in China, there was a Catholic church in China, an Anglican Church in China, and other Protestants. Then of course the Revolutionary War and all of that got stopped. But the first Anglican missionaries came to Korea through China in the 1870s. There were also Catholic and Protestant missionaries around the turn of the century. The interesting thing about the beginning of Korean Christianity, is that it was the Koreans who went to China to study, learned about Christianity, got baptized, and came back to Korea and began evangelizing Koreans themselves. It was much later, after the Korean War, that the Presbyterian Church in the United States chose South Korea as a mission field. They sent missionaries, and founded schools, hospitals and churches. Now, within the Presbyterian church in the United States, the Korean Church is so large as to be its own denomination.
Understanding this history is important, particularly within a series about shifting denominational demographics. If there is an assumption that a certain demographic group is only associated with a certain church or theology, it might limit our understanding of that culture, as well as our outreach to them.
For instance, the assumption that Korean-Americans are by and large Presbyterian, or that the majority of Asian-Americans are Protestant Evangelicals restricts the dialogue and potentially keeps other churches from fully recognizing Asian-Americans in their midst.
But the realization that Asian Christianity has historically been open to a variety of theologies and ways of worship, opens our eyes to the possibility that Asian-Americans might be attracted to our particular kind of worship—and it challenges us to extend a radical welcome to them.
As Bishop Shin explains:
Whenever I talk about Asian ministry within the Episcopal Church and someone says, ‘They’re all Presbyterians,’ or ‘They’re all Evangelical,’ I say yes, but is that the point? There are so many Asians who don’t attend church, and a younger generation that is no longer interested in attending church at all. We’ve got work to do.
Having taken a look at how Asian Americans are defined (and examining the ways that traditional definitions don’t quite fit) and looking at the long history of ambiguity and marginalization of Asians in America (and this article has only scratched the surface), we are left to examine the ways in which we can work to continue to make room for Asian Americans to be in the mainstream of American culture, and particularly to be at home and welcome within the Church.
Looking forward to the future of Asian Americans in the Episcopal Church, including ways that congregations can grow in their understanding and welcome of Asian American churchgoers, and groups and initiatives that are working to give Asian Americans a voice—and a home—in the Church.
[Originally published in Episcopal Cafe Magazine]
Photo by Kelly Wilson