Reaching Asian Americans for Christ in the 21st Century

Reaching Asian Americans for Christ in the 21st Century

Donald Ng
June 22, 1999

Asian American Baptist Caucus Convocation
1999 American Baptist Biennial Meetings, Des Moines, Iowa

In 1971, I was about to start seminary in Boston. I have been active in American Baptist statewide work in Massachusetts during my college years. Since my home church, First Baptist, Boston was the cradle of religious freedom and Baptist principles, it’s no wonder that I was involved in the Boston Baptist City Missions Society and the Massachusetts Baptist State Convention before the two organizations became TABCOM (The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts). At college, I was active in the student movements of the late sixties and helped organize an Asian student union. But I was not aware that a flurry of activities was happening in the West Coast. Paul Nagano, Bill Shinto, and Jitsuo Morikawa were organizing the Asian American Baptist Caucus. Deeply rooted in their courage of faith in enduring the years of illegal internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II, they decided that it was time to act and organize all the Asian American Baptists together.

I was told that during the period leading up to the formation of the Caucus, that there were some who questioned the value and purpose of the Caucus, including James Chuck. For all of these founding members, to step out publicly and say that the denomination was neglecting the needs of some of its members was daring and fraught with the fear of recrimination. After some persuasion, James Chuck and others agreed to be included since he represented symbolically the largest number of Asian ABC churches at that time which were Chinese.

My first knowledge about the Asian Caucus was reading about it in TAB, The American Baptist magazine in an article written by Paul Nagano. For almost 30 years, the Caucus has achieved many of its objectives. It has an active voice in the ABC family and with our current president, Dr. Tim Tseng, we are in very good hands to continue reaching Asian Americans for Christ in the new millennium. However, this picture has not always spoken a thousand words.

Before I begin I want to say that there are many among us today who can speak about reaching Asians in the 21st century with more knowledge and experience than I have. And I would welcome your input and questions during this dialogue that we are about to have. I come certainly not as an expert on the topic. But rather, I come as a long-time American Baptist who believes that our future is indeed bright. What I would like to do for the next few minutes is to speak candidly about the future of reaching Asian Americans in the 21st century. From where I am today, as a pastor of an Asian American Baptist congregation, I would like to present some emerging trends that I see having impact on the work before us. Furthermore, with the backdrop of past denominational work, I wish to suggest how Asian American Baptist churches and the denomination might engage in productive and creative partnership with each other.

Perceptions of Asian American
Read Ephesians 2:11-22.

Throughout these past 30 years, the denomination has had a changing perception of Asian Americans in its midst. Depending on the events and issues at hand, different perceptions of a minority group would portray the affection or the rejection of one group’s attitudes toward another. When the U.S. government thought that Japanese Americans posed an internal threat to national security, their human rights were compromised and they were incarcerated in faraway places away from the West Coast. When Chinese laborers were perceived in the 1800s as taken away American jobs, Congress ratified exclusion acts. Perceptions of Asian Americans by our denomination, perhaps not as blatantly horrible as described above, are nonetheless, reflective of how those in control perceived Asian Americans.

In the beginning, Asian Americans were like the Gentiles. By birth, whether they were circumcised or not, were perceived as aliens and strangers by both Americans and American Baptists. The promises of a new life and the hope of becoming citizens were often dashed by fear, misunderstandings, and racism.

I would like to present 5 perceptions that the denomination has about Asian Americans.

1. Invisible Minority.

Initially, the denomination didn’t know that there were many Asians at all. Under the auspices of the Home Missions Board, known today as National Ministries, these churches were mainly mission outposts. Since Asians in these churches were perceived to be unable to call their own pastors and to manage their own affairs, the Missions Board commissioned home missionaries to care for these matters. In time, these caring and loving missionaries representing the love of Christ, broke down the dividing wall and ended the hostility between Asians and others. Asians were largely an invisible minority in the larger scheme of things—reported as statistics in mission endeavors of the denomination. When Paul Nagano was appointed as the first Director of Asian Ministries, his initial task was to find out where the Asian ABC churches were.

An interesting note can be made here in regards to the 1959 ABC meetings that took place in Des Moines. On page 13 of the program book, it is proudly stated that the

“Convention delegates “Agreed that membership in a Baptist church
should be open to all people, regardless of race or national origin; that
equal opportunity for all persons should be the rule in education,
employment, housing, and political activity; that American Baptist
organizations, schools, homes, and hospitals should adhere to the policies
of complete integration.”

Although this commitment courageously calls for integration, it was actually used to erase cultural and ethnic heritage. There was an attempt to eliminate the ethnic designations from the names of churches in order to suggest that churches were opened to everyone. The “First Chinese Baptist Church of San Francisco” was asked to remove the word, “Chinese” from its title. It was to become the “Waverly Baptist Church.” This supposedly daring commitment for integration was also a way to make Asian Americans ever more invisible.

2. Trivial Minority.

In the early 1970s, the challenge of the Asian Caucus was to educate the denomination to the history and presence of Asian Americans. There was hardly any doubt that Black American Baptists were a part of the family, particularly after the 1960s. But to say that there were also Asian Americans along with Hispanics and Native American Indians was a novel thought. Asian Americans were seen primarily as a trivial minority to be respectful of and perhaps included, but not necessarily taken very serious. There were simply not the numbers of either churches or members to pose a challenge to the denominational family. In the late sixties during the denomination’s capital fund campaign to raise “reparation” funds to support Black colleges and seminaries known as “The Fund of Renewal,” the campaign eventually added to its list of recipients Asians to receive funds. Recipients were some Asian ABC churches including First Chinese Baptist in San Francisco and PACTS (Pacific and Asian American Center for Theologies and Strategies) in Berkeley as the Asian American counterpart to Black seminaries.

3. Representative Minority.

When the denomination’s eyes were opened to the existence of the variety of constituents in its membership, there was a belief that having racial/ethnic persons serving on boards and committees was politically appropriate and reflective of God’s family on earth. They honestly believed that when they made room around the table and invited representatives from the under-represented groups to participate, that the Kingdom of God would surely come. We know now that this strategy was grossly na•ve since racial/ethnic representatives were largely unfamiliar with what the issues were and how decisions were made. A more serious flaw in this approach is that the representatives realized that those who were ultimately in charged set and controlled the agenda. Representation turned quickly into tokenism.

4. Participatory Minority.

To take the presence and involvement of racial/ethnic constituents seriously, the denomination engaged in a time of actively seeking Asian Americans to participate in its affairs and ministries. With a General Board committed to include racial/ethnic members, Asians were actively encouraged to serve. Program Boards, having passed Affirmative Action policies in the beginning of the 1980s, sought racial/ethnic staff members to join them to develop programs and resources not only for racial/ethnic communities, but for the larger denominational family as well. For example, I was called to Youth Ministry with Educational Ministries in 1978 to serve constituents in the whole denomination. During these past twenty so years, the strategy for racial/ethnic-specific ministries and resource development has come primarily through partnering with other denominations that found themselves in similar predicaments. When any one denomination was unable to develop a program for meeting a need, there was a pretty good chance that this same need existed in the other denominations. Pooling resources and staff time from a number of groups became an effective strategy to serve racial/ethnic churches. The point here is that racial/ethnic staff persons had to partner with other denominations to achieve ministry objectives instead of from within.

5. Valued Partners.

Where do we go from here? We were first invisible, then seen mainly as trivial. We represented our groups and have been participating inside many of the denomination’s organizations. The future relationship between Asian American Baptists and the denomination needs to be based on mutual partnership. No longer strangers and aliens, the relationship between Asian Americans and the denomination is that we are all citizens with the saints and also members of the same household of God. The criterion of which group represents the largest numbers and therefore should receive more attention is rooted in human and political values and not necessarily biblical truths. Furthermore, such thinking particularly suggested by the denomination can be a sinister plan to miss focus racial/ethnic groups’ attention from the denomination to instigating bickering among racial/ethnic groups. This would be very unfortunate and therefore, the purpose of the Inter-Caucus Council is a very important forum to prevent those potential problems from getting out of hand.

Fostering partnership between Asian churches and the denomination has a compelling value from the perspective of the denomination. As more Asian churches mature and come of age, they become less dependent on their denomination for assistance and resources. No longer mission outposts, they are capable of supporting missions and organizing indigenous and contextual mission organizations that are “closer to home.” There are now many “mission-oriented organizations” that make appeals to Asian ABC churches for support. Here are only a few: JEMS, Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals, AIWA, Chinese Christian Mission, etc. Soon, there will be few convincing reasons for Asian churches to remain connected with their denomination with the exception of old historical ties.

Strategies for the Future

If the future relationship between Asian churches and the denomination is based on perceiving each other as valued partners, what might we expect to happen? Theologically, Asian Americans must not be expected to “out ABC” the denomination or that the denomination needs to become more “Asian.” Instead, Jesus Christ makes us Christians one with another; Gentiles don’t become Jews, nor Jews Gentiles. Christ has created in himself one new humanity in the place of two, thus making peace. The role of the body of Christ is crucial here. It is Jesus who holds the promises, and thus it is only when we are in him that we partake of the promises. Being in the body of Christ is the key.

1. First of all, the denomination needs to continue to both show interests in and to include Asian American Baptists in the heart of its mission and direction. Unless we go beyond superficial involvement and invite Asians to help make decisions about not only their future, but also the future of the entire denominational family, they will take their mah jong elsewhere to play. The dependent relationship that we are mostly familiar with is by and large severed. By the way, it can also be very attractive to replace the formidable “white privilege” with “Asian privilege” when Asian folks get together.

If ABC regions are sincerely interested in starting new Asian congregations, would they be willing to attend a training and orientation event planned by the Asian churches for their learning? Are they willing to see themselves as students and try a new paradigm of relationships?

2. Asian churches need to remain actively involved in the life and mission of the denomination in order to reap its benefits. As in any membership, there are responsibilities to be fulfilled by its members. One of them is to become familiar with what is going on and how to participate in ways to receive benefits. Said in another way, you can’t earn your frequent flyer miles unless you know how to collect them. The denomination has recently announced its decision to start “1010 new churches for 1,000,010 new Christians by 2010.” The challenge for us is how might Asian churches participate in this denomination-wide effort.

3. Asian churches must also learn how to do for themselves. Sadly, we will be seeing increasing concerns from the denomination to address issues and needs facing its survival and viability. Each church and together as an Asian American family will need to remain solvent and to resource each other with perhaps little help from Valley Forge. Although we will, no doubt, continue to be concern for the larger ABC family, we must also become more equipped and mature enough to sustain ministries on our own.

May it be possible to establish “sister Asian ABC churches” by pairing an established church with a new church plant; English speaking church with an Asian language church; a historic ABC church with a newer member church to the denomination? This relatively simple strategy would encourage mutual consultation, possible sharing of resources, and most of all, praying for each other’s ministry. We will learn that God has blessed all of us with gifts and talents for ministry that can change the world.

4. Since the mission field continues to come to these American shores, Asian churches need to remain active in ministering to new immigrants. Who else is more suited and qualified to reach new Asians than Asian American Christians who have already sojourned before? Established Asian churches can learn from new immigrants and vice versa. I realized that the church that I serve continues to be situated in a thriving Chinese community with new immigrants making San Francisco their home everyday. This reality makes this ministry possible.

A growing phenomenon in Asian American ministries is ministry aimed primarily at English speaking second and later generations. Although there is a rightful place for such ministries in the total mix of churches, I sometimes do wonder whether such deliberate exclusiveness embodies the Spirit of Pentecost.

5. Asian mainline churches may need to examine their religiosity in ministry for today. When churches are committed to ecumenical and inclusive values, there seems to be a tendency to become more liberal than it is helpful. Perhaps it is the simple fraction principle of finding the lowest common denominator. When this happens, I believe we begin to lose our particular distinctives that characterize in the good sense, who we are. When Asian American churches engage in inter-faith dialogues, we may need to be more careful in not minimizing Jesus Christ for the sake of having a conversation. Although I am all in favor of building a world community of faith and traditions, the sole reason why we are even having this conversation is that we are Christians and not that we are Asian Americans. We bring the gift of Asian American Christianity to others.

I share this perspective because in my local church, there is a tremendous hunger for the Gospel to be clearly preached, taught and lived out. People of all ages but particularly young adults and baby-boomers are seeking for deeper meanings in their affluent lives. And what we offer them must be solidly based on our faith in Jesus Christ.

6. Probably the most frequently heard question that has been asked for the past two years is “What is there to do in Des Moines?” For Asian Americans, we ask yet another question, “Is there a Chinatown in Des Moines?” As Asian Americans, we are used to being around other Asians. Today, most of this behavior is our choice. Historically, Asians were restricted to travel and lived only in certain areas. Regardless of whatever reasons that Asians prefer to identify with some places instead of others, we must get out of this ghettoized mentality. To think that because there are not many Asians in Des Moines is a good reason to not attend the Convocation and the Biennial is the same mentality that limits and bars us from maturing in our role as full partners in the life of the denomination. Wherever the biennial is, we too are American Baptists and therefore, we need to be there too. Imagine what it would be like at these meetings, if none of us were here. We would once again become an “invisible minority.” But this time, it would be our fault.

I grew up in a neighborhood called Roxbury in Boston. When school desegregation was taking place in this mainly Irish and Italian neighborhood, I was counted as “Black.” After Roxbury became a Black community, I was then counted as “white.” I was not counted as an Asian American because we were “invisible!”

If anybody ask you “where did you really come from,” you tell them that I am no longer a stranger or an alien, but I am a citizen and a member of God’s household!

If anybody ask you to write their name in your language, you tell them that I speak English and I am no longer a stranger or an alien, but I am a citizen and a member of God’s household!

And when you may be walking down some of these lonely streets in Des Moines and if anybody yells out unkind words at you and call you names, you tell them that I am no longer a stranger or an alien, but I am a full citizen and a member of God’s household, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone!

Paul in Ephesians said,

“You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
As we begin these Biennial meetings in Des Moines, let us claim our citizenship as full members in the household of God known as the American Baptist Churches. Let us go out from this room and sit side by side with other American Baptists from around the country and Puerto Rico because the seats have our names on them! The saints of Jitsuo Morikawa, Bill Shinto, Ed Tong, Mavis Lee, and Obadiah Patnik and many others are also apostles and prophets of the whole denomination. Under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we have become one people, growing together spiritually to eventually become the dwelling place for God. With such a faithful commitment and identity in Christ, reaching Asian Americans in the 21st century is God’s plan and blessing for us all.

Rev. Donald Ng is the Senior Pastor of the First Chinese Baptist Church of San Francisco, California