For Asian-American Churches, Integration Proves Complicated

For Asian-American Churches, Integration Proves Complicated
by AP, The Associated Press

By Michael Luo, AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Pastor Victor Kim wanted to make sure his congregation understood. This was not a Korean church, nor was it an Asian church. Remnant Presbyterian was for everybody, black, white, yellow, brown.

So he laid down some rules for his Korean-American members. He barred them from bringing kimchi, or other Korean food, to church. He refused to make any announcements for Asian events. He even discouraged them from going to nearby Koreatown for lunch.

“We need a paradigm shift,” he said.

Today, despite Kim’s efforts over six years to make people of all races feel welcome, the 250 to 300 worshippers who attend the church’s three English services every week are almost all Koreans, with a scattering of other Asians.

He has attracted only a handful of whites and blacks. One of the whites, Kyle Allen, 24, stopped coming recently.

“I just never really fit in,” he said.

Nearly five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. scolded churchgoers for making Sunday mornings “the most segregated hour in America,” the racially integrated congregation remains rare. Only 3.5 percent of U.S. churches have a second racial group that makes up more than 20 percent of the congregation, said Rice University sociologist Michael Emerson, who is directing a national study on multiracial congregations.

The reasons are complex. Prejudice is part of it. But there is also a desire among churches to protect their racial or ethnic identity. The churches that have tried to break out have found that, in the end, people simply gravitate toward others like them.

Still, in a small but growing number of Asian-American Protestant churches, a new experiment in integration is unfolding. Asian-American pastors are pushing to succeed where their black and white brethren failed.

But they’re finding that integration is a complicated ideal.


Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority group in the nation. Slightly more than a quarter of 11 million Asian-Americans consider themselves evangelical Christian, one recent survey found. The rest are largely Roman Catholic, Buddhist and atheist.

There are some 3,000 Korean, 700 Chinese and 200 Japanese Christian congregations across the country. Most are evangelical, making Asian-Americans an increasingly important force in evangelical Christianity.

The majority of Asian-American churches remain closed to outsiders, simply because they hold services in the congregants’ native tongues.

But a crop of second-generation Asian churches has emerged, composed mostly of American-born, young professionals, who are accustomed to diversity and expect it in their churches.

The churches followed a familiar path, tracing their origins to the introduction of English during children’s Sunday school in the immigrant church. Eventually, an English-speaking congregation emerged, coexisting with the immigrant service. Recently, as immigration has slowed, the English-speakers have begun to outnumber the first generation.

Across the country, painful church splits have resulted. Many young Asian-American pastors have also struck out on their own.

— In Boston three years ago, leaders of the English service at St. John’s Korean United Methodist Church elected to leave, taking about 50 people with them. They wanted to feel comfortable bringing their non-Asian coworkers and friends to church, said Peter Sung, a second generation Korean-American who became a pastor at the new church, Highrock.

A year later, Highrock hired Dave Swaim to be senior pastor, giving the church the non-Asian face that founders wanted to lead them.

— Five years ago, in suburban Washington, D.C., Ray Chang founded Ambassador Bible Church. He had resigned as pastor of the English-speaking congregation at Korean Central Presbyterian Church.

Chang, who came to the United States from Korea at age 6, dreamed of forming a church for people from all races and nations. “A slice of heaven,” he said.

— For Ken Fong, a third generation Chinese-American and senior pastor at 70-year-old Evergreen Baptist Church in Rosemead, Calif., it was his own family’s changing racial dynamics that pushed him to consider integration as a mandate.

His brother’s family adopted a black child 21/2 years ago. Most Asian churches like his — a historically Japanese and Chinese institution — would make his nephew feel like an outsider, he said. “They wouldn’t accept him.”

— NewSong Community Church in Irvine, Calif., has arguably come the furthest among Asian-American churches in its quest for diversity. The 7-year-old church caters to a Gen-X flock, featuring ministries like hip-hop dance and draws 1,500 every weekend to its three services. Senior Pastor David Gibbons, who is half-Korean, half-white, said 15 ethnic groups are represented in his congregation.

Although its 14-member pastoral staff is almost completely Asian, NewSong has Darryl Brumfield, an African-American member who used to be pastor of a Compton church, as one of its primary preachers. NewSong also recently hired a Latino pastor.

Yet NewSong remains at least 80 percent Asian. Other churches, including Ambassador and Highrock, have a similar experience.

“There’s definitely a race thing going on,” said Sun Hi Shen, a longtime NewSong member.


Realizing the pastor’s ideal of diversity can be hard, even for willing congregants. Everything, from food to worship music, has the potential of dividing a diverse congregation.

Stacy Heisey-Terrell, 27, and her husband, Christopher, 26, committed themselves to racial reconciliation as part of their faith. For Stacy, a white woman, that meant living in inner-city Los Angeles. For the Heisey-Terrells as a couple — Christopher is half-black, half-Latino — that meant attending Evergreen Baptist Church, a half-hour’s drive east.

But life in an Asian church has been difficult. Stacy, especially, has struggled to make friends. Last June, Stacy organized a church luncheon. A pastor suggested picnic food, and she contributed her black-bean salad.

On the day of the lunch, Stacy noticed her salad had barely been touched. A Chinese-American acquaintance, seeing her dismay, asked what she had made, and she explained.

He had seen something like this before, in an “American” restaurant, he said. He tentatively tasted it and called others over. Soon everyone had politely tried a few bites.

Mortified, Stacy brought home three-quarters of the salad. “Here I was thinking that the food I brought was normal American picnic food,” she said. “I think it as more like normal white American picnic food.”

Family matters are another common disconnect. At a Bible study group, a Chinese woman told about buying a house and complained her parents were pushing to move in. Stacy Heisey-Terrell suggested that it might be OK, if proper boundaries were set.

“That would work with white people, but that’s not how Chinese mothers work,” the woman told Heisey-Terrell, who was taken aback. “It was like, ‘Uh, I can’t participate because I’m different.”’

Asian-American pastors have urged their members to compromise. But many Asian-American churchgoers, even those who applaud the multiracial visions of their leaders, are reluctant to be forced.

The process should be allowed to unfold naturally, said David Kang. Kang gravitated to Remnant Presbyterian because he felt an affinity to the Korean-American pastor and congregation.

The Asian church is one of the only places where Asian-Americans can experience a sense of belonging in a white society, Kang said. “Where else can I go to feel Korean, or feel Asian … An Asian arts society?”

At Remnant, other pastors have gently urged Kim to ease up, suggesting there are limits to who he can reach. Kim presses on.

Spotting a few unfamilar white faces in the audience recently, he became excited. Maybe the church was succeeding. “I see a little hope,” Kim said.