Silent No More: Asian-American Christians are still viewed as an invisible people

Silent No More: Asian-American Christians are still viewed as an invisible people. But these men are breaking their silence.

By: J. Isamu Yamamoto

Asian Americans comprise a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. church, but to many they are still an invisible people. No more. These Asian-American men are breaking their silence.

By Someone once remarked that Asian-American Christians are like the stems of a chrysanthemum plant: you know they are there, but they just don’t stand out. Looking at the attractive, brightly colored flowers and dark green leaves of the chrysanthemum, it’s easy to overlook the stems. But they are equally important to the plant. In fact, if the stems are ailing or neglected, the flowers and leaves will suffer as well.

Such is the case with Asian-American believers. Although they don’t tend to broadcast their struggles and pains, it doesn’t mean they want the rest of the church to be disinterested in their unique experience as Christians. On the contrary, they want to feel they are a welcomed part of the American church–not forgotten stems.

As an Asian-American Christian, I am personally acquainted with the issues affecting this often enigmatic group. Looking at the experiences of a few Asian-American men may help all of us begin to bridge the cultural gulfs that continue to separate God’s church.

The Silent Minority

Chinese-American Jim Chang was born and raised outside of Chicago. While he attended Northwestern University in the early ’70s, his fiancee became a Christian and led him to the Lord. Instantly his whole life changed. His ambition to teach at a university was replaced with a burning desire to serve in a Christian ministry. After earning a master’s degree, Jim joined a parachurch ministry in Dallas that often sent him to speak at churches and colleges throughout North America.

The past 20 years have been rewarding for Jim and his family. He cherishes the many friendships he has developed with Christians in all parts of the country. Still, he has one lament. “There have been many times when I feel looked down upon,” Jim says slowly. “It’s funny but even though my grandparents came here in the ’20s, and I’ve lived here all my life, the most common questions I’m asked are, When did you come to this country? or When did you learn English–you speak it so well? I think because I have an Asian face, Anglo Christians assume I’m an alien.

“I guess because our race has been quiet for so long in this country, we have become, in a sense, invisible,” Jim continues. “Still, each time I hear those questions, it really hurts.”

Jim says his response to those who question his background is usually to grin and say he grew up in Illinois. His questioners often look surprised, never suspecting his inner uneasiness.

Sadly, Jim’s story is common among many Asian-American Christians, who typically don’t speak out when they feel offended. In part, this is why they sometimes call themselves “the silent minority.”

At first glance, the rapidly increasing number of Asian Americans in the U.S. church indicates their presence is anything but quiet. In fact, there are approximately 2,000 Korean, 650 Chinese and 200 Japanese Christian congregations in the United States. And these figures do not include several other Asian-ethnic groups and Asian-American Christians who attend nonethnic churches.

Nevertheless, most non-Asian Christians still are unaware of the major struggles facing Asian-American believers.

Shared Pain

Paul Soong and his parents came from Hong Kong to Seattle in the early ’60s. At first it was difficult for Paul to develop friendships, because he felt self-conscious about his English. During his junior year in high school, however, he blossomed socially when he became involved with a Christian youth group. Though his parents were Confucianists, they did not discourage him from becoming a Christian. In fact, they thought it would help him assimilate better into American culture.

Paul felt welcomed among his new Christian friends until he got “too close” to a couple of the girls in the group. In one case, the mother of one girl asked him to discontinue his friendship with her daughter. In the other, the father asked a church elder to inform Paul that he and his wife did not approve of their daughter dating him. In both cases the parents were white and active church members.

After high school Paul attended Duke University where he roomed with an African-American Christian named Robert. They became fast friends, both sharing their dreams and hurts with the other. Paul remembers Robert being surprised at how much racism Paul had endured. “I still recall that night,” says Paul. “Robert and I were in our beds in the dark, talking about the bigotry we had encountered in the church. After I told him what had happened to me, he said, ‘Man, I always thought your people were accepted by whites.’

“After that, we became a lot closer,” adds Paul. “It has really helped me to have a Christian brother who could feel my pain and give me encouragement.”

Although Paul is currently a pastor in a town outside of Seattle and Robert is a chaplain in the Air Force and stationed across the country, they stay in touch. Their friendship is a fine example of how two Christian brothers from different cultural backgrounds can encourage one another.

Paul’s experiences also reveal the fact that the race problem in America goes beyond the typical black-and-white scenario.

Generational Strains

Jon Murasaki’s bruises are difficult to detect unless you listen closely to his story. Most people think of Jon as always upbeat. They know little of the burden he carries each day.

Jon grew up in a Japanese-Methodist church in San Jose, Calif. Unlike many of his friends who wandered away from the church, Jon was always devoted to Christ. Since his father was a leader in the church, Jon thought his father was proud of him. And up until he graduated from college, his father was. But then Jon wanted to attend seminary and enter the pastorate. Dad was not pleased.

Jon’s father was a landscape gardener who hadn’t graduated from high school himself, but he worked hard so that his sons could become successful professionally. His closest friends were also gardeners, but their sons were becoming dentists, attorneys and engineers. After Jon decided to become a pastor, arguments between he and his dad became more frequent and bitter.

“At first I was stunned by my dad’s reaction,” Jon says. “He was comparing me to people who cared very little about Jesus, and he judged me to be the failure. We became so upset with one another that to this day we speak very little. People–other Christians–don’t realize how strong and damaging these attitudes are.”

Disappointment and resentment result in many Asian-American families when one generation saddles the next with their own dreams of a desirable profession, which for many Asian Americans invariably is limited to such vocations as law, medicine, education and engineering.

Although Asian-American Christians of different generations have a lot in common in terms of cultural interests and ethical standards, they can be worlds apart in one-on-one relationships. The worst fallout from this conflict is what a 1996 Christianity Today article described as “a silent exodus of church-raised young people who find their immigrant churches irrelevant, culturally stifling and ill equipped to develop them spiritually for life in the multicultural 1990s.”

Jon notes that this crisis has gone on largely unnoticed by non-Asian Christians. “What has occurred,” he contends, “has not been addressed in the Christian media or Christian books or even in the pulpit. So what happens is that those of us who struggle with this problem have to work it out on our own.”

Unsure Perceptions

Another problem that many Asian-American Christians feel is what they perceive to be “a glass ceiling” within the evangelical community that prohibits them from rising to leadership roles, despite their qualifications.

“I get the feeling that [white evangelicals] want to help us, which is great,” says Pastor Yong Jin of Open Door Community Church in Atlanta, “but we don’t want them to look down at us, thinking that we have a lot of zeal but little knowledge. Our theology is mature, and the time has come for them to see that we can stand on our own merits and skills. We don’t want to be arrogant, but we also don’t want to be tokens. In other words, we want to rub shoulders with them as equal partners in the Lord’s service.”

Promise Keepers (PK) is one Christian organization that is making a concerted effort to reach out to Asian-American men and involve them in their ministry. Nevertheless, even PK has run up against major challenges in this task.

First, many Asian-American Christians have the impression that PK specifically reaches out to “jock types,” says Paul Soong. “Particularly the big, brawny, football guys, or the ‘jock’ side in men.” Since you don’t see many brawny Asian-American men, observes Soong, this image can keep Asian men away.

Second, “Asian-American men, for the most part, are already culturally trained with strong family values,” explains Jim Chang. Christian men from this ethnic group generally place a high priority on family, and they are less likely to be divorced or engaged in adultery. Therefore, there is a sense that they don’t need what PK has to offer.

Third, there is a perception that PK encourages too much self-disclosure, being vulnerable in front of strangers. On the other hand, according to Japanese-American Paul Tokunaga, “There is a side to Asian-American men that says, ‘I’m not going to hang up my dirty laundry in front of other men in public, especially predominantly Caucasian men who don’t know where I’m coming from.'”

Tokunaga, who is the Asian-American ministry coordinator for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, believes Asian-American men feel more comfortable talking over a cup of coffee to just one guy they know really well rather than spilling their guts out to men they just met for the first time.

“I went to a Promise Keepers conference a year ago,” says Harry Kim, a Korean pastor in Los Angeles, “and I felt intimidated at first. As an Asian I had never allowed myself to be so vulnerable in front of strangers before. But I was with men who were sensitive to me, and I felt I could trust them. It turned out to be a blessing, but that was only because we all made an effort to truly listen to each other.”

Forging Ahead

Promise Keepers wants to build bridges between Christian men of different races, and its leaders realize they need to understand Asian-American Christians better. That’s why PK has hired Louis Lee as its National Strategic Ministries Manager to Asian Americans. Lee’s primary responsibility is to coordinate PK’s contacts with Asian-American churches and to ensure that future Asian involvement in PK better reflects the Asian-Christian community.

Lee believes PK has taken a significant and unique step toward understanding the issues that concern Asian-American Christians, and he hopes to be a voice of reason and compassion for both Asian-American Christians and PK.

“The bottom line,” says Lee, “is that PK is one of the few major Christian organizations right now that is genuinely seeking to embrace these issues. PK is learning. They have made mistakes. But I have talked to other minorities, and all of us are convinced that PK’s heart is in the right place on this issue.”

According to Lee and other Asian-American leaders, the voices of Asian-American Christians will be heard and their presence seen as vital to the rest of the body of Christ when there is mutual understanding and appreciation of different cultures in the American church.

Just as other Christians can encourage and strengthen their Asian-American brothers and sisters in Christ, Asian Americans can also provide their gifts to the rest of the U.S. church. When this happens, like a chrysanthemum plant that’s fully nurtured, the church will display the fruits of true Christian solidarity.