For a long and formative time in my life, the Asian American church was my home. I came to faith at 15 in the high school ministry of a Chinese church. This was the place where I started to grasp the idea of a gracious God who loved me unconditionally; it was also where I came to terms with my Asian American identity, something I had been bitterly fighting for a decade. It was the first Asian American community I’d ever been a part of, and for the first time in my life, I felt normal. I now had friends who innately got how I interacted with my family, how I thought about school and college and the future — all the experiences that made me so different from my peers at school. I felt seen and accepted and understood, both by God and the people around me.
In college, I was part of a Chinese American campus fellowship — but as the years went on, I started to notice a disconnect between my friends there and me. I was beginning to care a lot about race, politics, feminism. No one at my fellowship discouraged me from pursuing these things, but for the most part, they weren’t interested in discussing them either. Whatever the reason, when I wanted to talk about those issues, I mostly had to look elsewhere.
And then I went to grad school — a clinical psychology graduate program that was housed in a seminary — and my whole world got blown open. I took theology classes and learned that the context in which each part of the Bible was written is crucial to understanding the text and applying it appropriately to our context. I hung out with students from a whole spectrum of Christian traditions — most of whom were not Asian — and saw the myriad ways in which they practiced their faith, many of which did not look like mine. I heard theological ideas that were way edgier than my own, espoused by professors who took their faith seriously. I learned more about power and privilege and the systemic nature of racism in this country. I sat with dozens of clients and heard their stories of pain and trauma and resilience and hope, and I realized that all of us have far more in common than not and everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. I finished grad school with a completely different understanding of my faith than when I started. It was no longer just about Jesus as my personal Savior and helping people like me; it was about Jesus as a revolutionary who came to set the oppressed free (Luke 4.18), and it was about using my voice and my privilege on behalf of those who don’t have those things. Following Jesus was no longer primarily about my individual relationship with him; it now meant continuing his work of embracing and advocating for the marginalized and fighting injustice.
I’m grateful for how my faith transformed during that time. But it came at a cost: Early on in my graduate career, I started to find it difficult to be in Asian American churches. They still felt familiar and comforting in some ways, but the messages that I heard, both from the pulpit and the congregation, rarely acknowledged the things that were becoming central to my faith. There was, at least in the communities I visited at that point in time, little mention of injustice or how to Christians should respond to it. Aside from musicians in the worship band and the occasional Scripture reader, I almost never saw women up front. If LGBT issues were ever raised, it was to reiterate the notion that homosexuality was unacceptable. Almost invariably, I left Asian American churches — once the places where I felt most at home — feeling like I didn’t belong.
As I looked for churches that were a better theological fit, I ended up in ones that were predominantly white. For the most part, I haven’t minded being in the racial minority; it’s an experience I’m used to, having grown up in the Midwest, and I value diversity and having friends of all kinds. But there are times when it wears on me — when I wish that connecting with my Christian community was as effortless as it once was, that I didn’t have to explain so much about myself or my experiences. I wish, sometimes, that I were a little less alone.
Being a progressive Asian American Christian can be lonely — because for us, finding a Christian community often means having to choose between shared theology and shared experience. We can join churches that match our ideology, which are usually predominantly white or black. Or we can join churches that mirror our cultural experiences, which are often silent — if not actively oppressive — when it comes to women, other people of color, and LGBT folks. Finding a community often means making a choice between integral parts of ourselves.
It’s no secret that Asian American Christianity tends to be conservative. Asian immigrant churches are especially so, and since 92% of Asians in America are either immigrants or the children of immigrants, most Asian American Christians have spent serious time in these communities. The conservativeness of these churches stems from several factors: For one, they generally maintain the social mores of their home culture, which are usually more conservative than broader American culture on every front, from clothing and appearance to interactions with elders to dating and sexuality. Then you add the immigrant mentality of playing everything very safe and going out of your way to avoid trouble; you also mix in the conservative views of white American evangelicalism, upon which Asian churches draw heavily for resources (books, curriculum, etc.) and general direction for how Christians should respond to political issues and current events. You end up with communities that can be even more conservative that the typical white evangelical church: they’re vehemently pro-life and anti-gay marriage, and they may also perceive questions as challenges to authority and forbid high school dating.
So if you’re in an Asian church and you start to think that, say, women should have the same rights and privileges as men when it comes to doing ministry and church decision-making, you may find yourself at odds with the people around you. While many Asian countries have made strides in this area, patriarchal values still permeate Asian cultures to varying degrees, and these values can shape how Asian clergy interpret the Bible. Though I don’t have hard data, I would bet that the majority of Asian immigrant churches don’t allow women to hold the same leadership roles than men do. I would also wager that many churches targeting American-born Asians, while somewhat more progressive, don’t either. (And many of the ones that do in theory, I suspect, have no female pastors in practice.) So if you’re at an Asian church and you come to the not-so-radical conclusion that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men in a church context — since we now have the same access to literacy and education that men do, which was not the case when any part of the Bible was written — your perspective may not be warmly received.
And if you’re in an Asian church and you start to think that, say, black people experience more police brutality than other groups do and maybe Christians should talk about that, you may again find yourself at odds with the people around you. Asian Americans are often silent on issues of racism for a number of reasons: the cultural value of harmony, an immigrant mentality of looking out only for yourself, anti-black racism in both Asia and America, a belief in the model minority myth. This tendency can be especially pervasive in Asian churches, where fear of disrupting the community can make individuals especially reluctant to bring up issues that could be controversial. And since Asian cultures tend to be more hierarchical than Western ones, church leaders may cherry-pick verses about obeying authority to invalidate the idea that the police or the government might ever be wrong. So if you want to talk about systemic injustice at an Asian church, you might not find many willing conversation partners, and you might be silenced altogether.
And if you’re in an Asian church and you start to think that, say, LGBT folks should be allowed to have the same relationships and rights to marriage that straight people have, and should be allowed to participate fully in all aspects of the church even if they’re out, you may really find yourself at odds with the people around you. If Asian churches aren’t totally sold on women, it’s not surprising that they’re even farther behind when it comes to LGBT issues, which are taboo both spiritually and culturally. “There isn’t a Korean church in America with a non-traditional view of marriage,” an affirming Korean American pastor once told me. I can’t think of any Chinese or Taiwanese churches that do — or any East, Southeast, or South Asian churches, for that matter — though I would love for both of us to be wrong. (If you have a counterexample, please let me know — I’d love to hear about it.) The only predominantly Asian American church I know of that’s engaging these issues at all is Evergreen Baptist Church LA, but even they don’t have an officially affirming stance. So if you’re at an Asian church and you start to think that LGBT people should have the same rights as cisgender heterosexuals, you may find yourself alone on the issue, if not rebuked for thinking so. (And that’s if you’re merely an ally; if you identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, the ramifications of being in these communities are infinitely greater, and all the more if you come out.)
To be clear, I don’t think Asian churches are bad. They understand and are uniquely equipped to meet the needs of their communities — this is especially true for immigrant churches — and they provide a respite for people who have to spend the rest of the week constantly crossing cultural barriers. But for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned, it’s not hard to see why progressive Asian American Christians often find themselves unable to participate in these communities.
The next step for many of us, then, is to find other churches that care about these issues. But these communities are usually predominantly white (or predominantly black, though these churches are rarely progressive on LGBT issues), and that can carry its own baggage. It can be hard to be the only Asian American person around, or one of only a few, both because of how you stand out and because you have to do so much more work to be heard and understood. You no longer have cultural experiences in common; the shorthand that you can speak in Asian American churches doesn’t translate. You may find yourself having to explain a lot — about your family, about your culture, about what your faith looks like — to people who have no firsthand experience of these things. The fear of being misunderstood, or of misrepresenting an entire culture, or of having to defend how you do things is real and exhausting. And it can be hard to be in a community where you don’t see your own experiences reflected in any part of the worship or the liturgy or the leadership. It’s easy in spaces like these to feel like you don’t belong.
And some of these progressive communities, for all of their rhetoric about supporting black lives and standing against injustice, don’t really know how to talk about race or how race and racism affect their members. Some of these communities think they get it because they say the right things but don’t actually see how pervasive whiteness is, even within their own walls. So the progressive Asian American Christian may find themselves feeling alone and even alienated, again, this time because of their cultural identity.
So to summarize: I feel out of place in Asian American Christian spaces, though I can’t overstate the impact they’ve had on my life. And while I’m grateful for the progressive Christian spaces that I’ve had — the fact that I have access to any is as gift, as I know they’re hard to find in some parts of the country — I often feel out of place there, too. In my most cynical moments, I’ve wondered why I bother trying to participate in any of these communities and why I continue to pursue this faith at all. But at the end of the day, I can’t get away from the fact that at the core of my convictions about justice is my belief that we’re all created the image of God, who values each of us wholly and equally, and my belief in Jesus as a revolutionary who came to dignify every person and to level the hierarchies that our societies create. Try as I may, I can’t escape those things. My progressive values and my faith are inextricably intertwined.
So I stick around. And while I love diversity and inclusion and having friends of all stripes, every now and again, it would be nice to have a place where I didn’t have to choose between people who get my theology and people who get my experiences. And I know that people who get both are out there. I know a lot of them, actually; I made a list, and what started as a trickle became a flood. But we’re scattered all over the place, both in terms of geography and the churches we attend. My one-on-one interactions with these folks are normalizing and life-giving; these meals and coffee dates are now my spiritual home. But we don’t really have places to connect more broadly.
And I know more of you are out there. Some of you are lucky enough to attend churches like City Church San Francisco and Vox Veniae — exceedingly rare places that are progressive and have sizeable Asian American contingents. You’re fortunate to have a community where you don’t have to choose between the two. I get why you’re there.
Some of you are sitting in the pews at Redeemer and Pacific Crossroads, at New Song and GrX, in the English ministries of the immigrant churches where you grew up or where you work with students. Maybe you quietly ignore the church’s stances about women in ministry and LGBT issues or their silence about racial injustice because it’s nice to have friends whose stories are similar to yours. I get that. Or maybe, in spite of your ideological differences, this church is still the best option among the ones you have available to you. I get that. Or maybe you’re trying to do the incredibly difficult, admirable work of creating change from within. I get that too.
Some of you, not feeling like you belong at progressive churches or in Asian American ones because you can’t be fully yourself in either, don’t go to church anywhere. I get that.
And some of you affirmed women or other people of color or gay folks but saw no place for that in your church — or, worse, were reprimanded for doing so — so you left the faith altogether. I get that. If the only options I knew of were to dignify these people or be a Christian, and these options appeared to be mutually exclusive, I probably would have chosen the former too.
I know you’re out there, and I wish we all could meet somehow. I’m not arguing that we necessarily need progressive Asian American churches, though I’d be stoked to know that one exists. But it would be lovely to have spaces where we didn’t have to choose between shared theology and shared experience; where we could connect with people with similar stories; where we didn’t feel the need to turn down the volume on either our ideology or our cultural experiences. Where we could be fully known and fully understood every once in a while. Where we could feel a little less lonely.
If you’re interested in such a space, here’s a start: Join the Progressive Asian American Christians group on Facebook, curated by Lydia Suh, a pastor at City Church San Francisco. We’re still figuring out what the group is, but at the very least, it’s a place to know that we aren’t alone.
Photo credit: Diana Chen