Ten years ago, Helen Lee shed a grim light on a generation of Asian Americans leaving the church in droves with a piece entitled “Silent Exodus – Can the East Asian church in America reverse flight of its next generation?” which Peter Ong resurrects on his blog.
Although I had heard of the title, “Silent Exodus”, and been loosely familiar with the term since the late 1990s, I’d never read the article until Peter’s post. When it was first explained to me back in the 90s, I remember that it had filled my heart with a sense of alarm, but when I saw the post and the title, even before reading it, I said to myself, “Exodus means freedom. They were never meant to come back.” I almost shocked myself with that thought. It runs counter to how I feel about the ethnic church that I serve and whether I truly know if they will find freedom upon leaving it. But is it possible that exodus was a necessary thing — perhaps even, a good thing? Is it possible that when Asian Americans don’t return to the church of their youth, that could spell good things for the faith of their youth?
Exodus in the biblical sense meant freedom, first of all, and a journey — so it begs the question as to why this exodus for young Asian American Christians would be a bad thing. I know why, of course. Or I should say, I know why my parents and their parents fear the wandering. I know why the pastors were concerned, after all, it meant that I was leaving their churches, which is, more than just a place of faith to me, it was, for many of us, the “third place” that was neither home nor school. It was the community that I grew up in, the place where I found more Asians than in any other arena of my life, and yes, it meant a place that prepared lunch for me on Sundays.
While in college, that familiarity was warm to me. The language, the songs, the food — ah yes, familiar in a season of change. Familiarity was a spring of comfort. It also bred contempt. I left the church, angry with its hypocrisy and self-righteousness, public displays of disagreement and pride, and I plunged headlong into “the world” and my own personal desert.
“I could always go back,” I would think to comfort myself in dark nights of the soul. But I didn’t. I didn’t want the rumors to get back to my father though he was cities away. I didn’t want the patronizing glance of pastors and elders to look down on me with those sad eyes and that sigh that meant that I was so much potential wasted. Those were dark years indeed for me. But even in the midst of my desert did I once think that what I had left was better than my pit.
I went for Christmas. I had missed it one year and my life was too empty without it. That one year I didn’t spend the holidays around parents or church and it was one of the most difficult I have lived. But Christmas at the Korean church was not comfortable, for them nor me. The gossip about my failure was more than my forced smile could dissipate and I never found the courage to go back there. That was my silent exodus. I never told anyone, and no one ever called.
In my desert, God’s grace came before forty years. By Easter, my heart stirred again. I needed to believe again. I asked around for a church at my workplace. After all, I needed a recommendation, I had given up on the sermon not understood. Even if I sat in the back, I thought, it would be a good thing – at least no one would recognize me and make me ashamed.
Sunday morning came. Because of my newfound anonymity, church became filled with wonder again. The smiles were genuine and the handshakes came without obligation. The pastor preached in a way that I completely understood — “I want to suggest to you that in Christ Jesus, you can be more yourself than you could without him.” In this new church, people danced, people wept, people confessed…prayer here was only one of many expressions. My journey had brought me to a strange place…but I could smell freedom, it was close.
I spent four years in that church, healing, and learning to love again. God set me on fire there. I had stopped reading books in college, which coincidentally correlated to a plunge in my academic career. But that year I returned to church, I read sixty books in a single year. I also began to long for my people again, even when they didn’t long for me. I don’t recall seeing another Korean there in Sunday services. Once there was a girl who was half-Korean in my cell group. Although she didn’t understand it, I opened my mouth for the first time in years to pray in Korean for her and I wept because she had never known that fervent, affectionate mother tongue. And while I still had Korean friends, my dearest and closest confidants were beginning to look more unlike me.
Redemption is a long and winding road. Take my word for it. I stepped onto the campus of Vanderbilt for the first time in six years to pick up what I had lost. But this was more than I had lost, it was altogether different. Whereas in 1993, there was no such thing as an Asian American Christian Fellowship, in 2001, there was and continues to be. And God made me a servant to those who were younger and brighter, continuing to draw me to where I am now, back to an ethnic church. To me, the ethnic church is both Egypt and Canaan. In my story, it is both point of departure and ultimate destination, but it is all Exodus and Christ is the one who delivers me and I am now more myself than ever I was before this began.