I sat in a plastic chair in the fluorescent-lit conference room, leaning on the small tablet desk attached to my seat. The chairs were arranged in a circle around the edge of the room, filling one by one as people trickled in. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. I could hardly believe it.
It was the first San Francisco Bay Area meetup of Progressive Asian American Christians, an online community I had inadvertently helped to start. Less than two months prior, I had written a piece about how lonely it is to be a progressive Asian American Christian. At the end of it, I linked a then-empty Facebook group that a new friend of mine, Lydia Suh, had created. It would be a place, I imagined, where people who resonated with the piece could go to see that other people like them existed — where they would see a bunch of profile pictures and feel validated and maybe post the occasional article.
Neither Lydia nor I expected what followed: Three hundred people joined the group the day after the piece went up; less than six weeks later, we had two thousand. But it wasn’t just the numbers that surprised us — it was the energy and enthusiasm that these folks brought with them. They immediately started sharing their stories, discussing controversial topics, asking when we could start meeting in person. The first meetup took place a month after the group started (in Minneapolis, impressively enough); within the next three months, eight more cities would start their own.
On this sunny Saturday afternoon in February, on the fourth floor of an office building in the city, the first Bay Area meetup about to begin. As I watched people rolling in — peering around, introducing themselves, finding seats — I noticed an unfamiliar feeling in my chest.
Over the last six months, friends have regularly asked me what it’s been like to co-facilitate this online community, which now has over 3600 members. I tell them the truth: It’s been amazing, one of the most profound and meaningful things I’ve ever been a part of. It has also been wildly stressful.
The amazing part is easier to grasp. Some people in the group have said that they finally have a space where they feel at home — where they aren’t on the margins, as they are in their conservative Asian American churches or in their predominantly white progressive churches. A few folks who stopped going to church because they were tired of not fitting in anywhere have told us that this is the first spiritual community they’ve had in years. One person shared that after years of Christians telling him that his views on women and gay people weren’t Christian, he had resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t. He Googled “asian liberal christianity” in a last-ditch effort to see if there was any place for him. My piece came up, which led him to the group and showed him that he isn’t alone in his convictions. Another person started a subgroup solely for Asian American LGBTQIA+ and questioning Christians, which, I’m told, has been life-giving and life-changing for its members. Responses like these have been overwhelming and humbling.
And there are countless smaller moments that are also deeply meaningful. People post photos of meetups in Boston and DC and Philly where they shared their stories and discussed what it looks like to live as a progressive Asian American Christian. People share vulnerable questions and experiences and the community rises to meet them, offering empathy and validation and solidarity. People have thoughtful, nuanced discussions about everything from Israel and Palestine to Hollywood whitewashing to why they continue to identify Christian in a time when so many Christians espouse ideas that are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. People say how much they’re learning from the group, how they wouldn’t be able to have these conversations elsewhere, how the group has empowered them to be more vocal in their real-life communities. It’s an honor to witness these exchanges, to know that a space I helped create is making a palpable difference in the lives of the people who are in it.
But running the group is not all sunshine and rainbows. Neither Lydia nor I anticipated the amount of time that it would take in our already-full lives. Moderating alone is a significant time commitment, let alone planning in-person meetups and a national conference, applying for grants, building a website, incorporating a non-profit. We receive a good amount of feedback from people we’ve never met, some of which is thoughtful and tactful, some of which is less so. And it’s incredibly difficult to maintain boundaries with a group that runs 24/7 and is almost immediately accessible, no matter where I am in the world. Most of the time, it chugs along just fine on its own — but every now and then, something or someone in the group will demand immediate attention, and it’s almost always when I’m on a walk with my toddler or sitting down to dinner with my husband.
And then there’s everything that comes with navigating a space on the internet where most of the people don’t know each other in person. Tone can be hard to read online and people come to the group with vastly different experiences, personalities, and contexts, so innocuous conversations can turn hostile in a matter of moments. I sometimes see comments that are less than charitable and make me cringe. And on the rare occasions when something in the group blows up — say, if someone posts something offensive — intervention is rarely straightforward. Even when the moderating squad has a clear sense of how to respond, which we don’t always, there’s usually a case to be made for why we should do things another way. So we drop whatever we’re doing to furiously text each other about what to do and we do it, knowing that our decision will be disputed and some people will likely end up feeling aggrieved. This comes with the territory, but that fact makes these situations no less stressful in the moment.
But the trickiest part of facilitating the group is trying to create a space where people at all different stages of the journey feel welcome. “Progressive” is a relative term, after all, and what’s progressive in one context may be charmingly (or less charmingly) quaint in another. For some, even asking whether women can be pastors or whether same-sex relationships might be okay is enough to be deemed a heretic in their community, especially if they’ve only ever gone to Asian churches. For others, these questions are a distant memory, if they were ever on the table at all. Some folks in the group wonder why reproductive rights are still up for discussion in a group with a progressive label; others, who perhaps have never encountered pro-choice Christians before or heard a Christian argument for reproductive rights, worry they’ll be shot down for asking questions. At various points, people at both ends of the spectrum have been frustrated, and Lydia and I totally get why. And we recognize that it’s a tall order to be both a space where progressive Asian American Christians can talk freely, where we don’t have to explain or defend ourselves, and a space where people who are still working out these issues feel safe to ask questions. We want those folks to be privy to our conversations, to hear perspectives that are rarely seen or heard in Asian American Christian communities, because that’s how progress is made. Most of the time, I think we manage to do both. But that isn’t always the case, and those moments are the most stressful of all.
At those times, Lydia and I do whatever we need to do to take care of ourselves. And then I return to the group and see lovely things happening — people connecting, sharing their stories and talking about important issues, learning from each other. I read sweet messages from people sharing what the group means to them, offering words of encouragement, volunteering to help however they can. I chat with the new friends I’ve made in LA, in Boston, in London who understand not only the things I care about now but also the experiences that brought me to this point. I see people having the transformative experience of finding a place where they belong, and it is sublime. And then I remember that all the time and energy and stress is worth it.
Thirty-five people showed up that Saturday in February, driving in from as far as San Jose and Vallejo, an hour in either direction. The only agenda item was to share your story: Why are you here? Why do you identify as a progressive Asian American Christian?
We went around the room, pausing occasionally to make room for a latecomer, and the stories were captivating: Stories of growing up in conservative immigrant churches in California and Texas and Illinois, experiences that awakened them to some kind of injustice, finding themselves at odds with their communities. Stories of not fitting in in Asian American churches or in progressive churches. Stories of working as lawyers for refugees and homeless people, as teachers and pastors and social workers, as graphic designers and educators about food justice. Stories of coming out to unsupportive, condemning communities; of starting organizations so that no one would have to go through the same experience. Stories of being fired from Christian organizations for being LGBT-affirming. And above and beyond, stories about wanting to find a decolonized, authentic Asian American Christianity that isn’t just a haphazardly-applied version of white evangelicalism.
As the stories flowed, the unfamiliar feeling in my chest started to expand, spreading through my torso and down my extremities. And as it warmed my arms and my feet and my toes, I suddenly recognized what it was: I felt like I was home.
If you’re interested in checking it out, you can find the Progressive Asian American Christians Facebook group here. We’re also hosting a national conference in San Francisco from June 16-18, where we’ll be talking about everything from social justice and activism to mental health to feminism; you can find details and register here.