I'm no longer yellow…now I'm brown?

I just read something that disturbed me. I’m trying to determine why. As a Japanese-American pastor I have felt the need for a multi-cultural church here in Sacramento, California. Diversity is almost non-existent here on Sundays. When the workplace, schools, restaurants and malls have people of all races living together, why must Sunday be so segregated? So, when I saw an article in the July/August issue of Rev! magazine celebrating diversity in the church in America, I was kind of excited. It was encouraging news to me. The article cites that:

The big news is that white congregations in this country now have more Latinos, Asians, and African-Americans than ever before. Compared to a decade ago, fewer congregations today are 100 percent white.

On its own, that may be encouraging news. In combination with the title of the article, I am feeling kind of dirty. The title of this article celebrating diversity in the church is “The Browning of Our Churches.” I just went from excited and encouraged to disturbed and a little outraged.

After living much of my youth wishing I were white and about 6′ 5″ tall like all of my friends that didn’t get words of hate and violence directed towards them because they were in the majority, I have finally embraced the fact that I am yellow. Not only embracing this, but actually thankful that my experience isn’t the same as my white friends (nor my African-American or Hispanic friends). It gives me a different perspective as well as allowing me to see myself in a different perspective. As an Asian-American, I am not a pastor or church planter, but to some I am viewed as the Japanese pastor. Okay, I accept that. Now, after going through all of this I get to read in a magazine that I’m not yellow. Now you’re saying I have to be brown? I have to be blended in with other racial groups that aren’t white and conceived as living in one happy melting pot. <Insert sound of the needle on the turntable being screeched across the surface of the record> What? Did I just get my Asian taken away and replaced with the color of mud? You know, when you mix water and dirt together it forms a thick, goopy, non-descript brown goo. You can’t see the elements that went into it, all one sees is brown goo. Do I really want to be like mud? How did we go from melting pot–where distinguishable ingredients can be seen and tasted and combined to form something delicious–to mud?

The article cites multiracial Americans as the driving force behind the browning of American churches. Standing proudly as the token people of the mud are Tiger Woods, Vin Diesel, and Mariah Carey as contributors to the public’s acceptance of being multicultural in the church. Um, what public are we talking about here? The Caucasian public? Seriously, on any given day when I may think it might be confusing to people to see me–someone born in Osaka, Japan, adopted by a Caucasian Father and Japanese mother, and brought to California at the age of 4 while growing up in a country suburb where 99.9% of the residents were white–all I have to do is look to Tiger Woods. Not only are people confused by his appearance, but at times he seems confused about who he is. Everyone wants a piece of Tiger and look to him as a representative of their heritage. Now the American church wants to embrace him as their poster child for what a great job they are doing at attracting different races of people into their white church. Woo hoo! Oh yeah…sorry to be the bearer of bad news here, but I have not been in any conversation (ever) where people have looked to Vin Diesel or Mariah Carey as representing people of color or multiracial.

Of course, Dave Gibbons and Newsong are dragged into the mix because they are not a white church. Newsong is cited in “The Browning of Our Churches” as the largest church in the Evangelical Covenant Denomination, which I challenge the accuracy of. However, rather than share the merits of how Newsong is reaching Asian-Americans and that they have diversity on their leadership team, it is being used as a glorious example of how a church in a denomination founded by Swedish immigrants can be predominantly non-white and how there is hope that the American church can become more multicultural too. Why didn’t they cite an example of Tim Keller and how the congregation at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC is multicultural and predominantly Asian? I guess you can’t use a token white guy in an article about being multicultural.

For the first time in my life and in my ministry I am starting to get what all the discussion is about amongst Asian-Americans and the American church. When we strive to be in unity and all working together as the body of Christ, it is a beautiful thing as it is what heaven will be like. However, when we as non-white people are used as a sign that we are blending in and being less-distinct and more homogeneous that is where I have to draw the line. For the first time I am drawing the line rather than trying to walk both sides. I feel as if I am becoming less confused.

When we are being invited to worship in the American church, yet are being played according to their rules, I take issue with that. When the American church invites diversity into the congregation, yet has Caucasian leadership and allows no voice to the people they are trying to reach, I take issue with that. When it’s more about being multicultural because it is cool to be multicultural, rather than being multicultural because you want to celebrate diversity , I take issue with that.

Today I take a stand. I refuse to be brown for the sake of conforming. I am yellow and if you want me to come to your party, you’d better give me a valid reason. Invite me because you want to hear my voice and know my struggles, not because you want to make me a statistic and show me off to your less-multicultural church friends.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this, Dave.

    One of the trends that I’m seeing is that Asian-Americans who are dissatisfied with the immigrant churches of their youth are condemning the entire model of ethnic-specific churches because of their unhealed hurts. They declare that churches should be multi-ethnic, and then look to join a white church. It’s at these white churches that they feel that they don’t fit in, that everyone speaks English but no one really speaks their language. What breaks my heart the most is that these Asian-American young adults never really get plugged in, and fall out of going to church altogether.

    On the other hand, I feel like many white churchgoers say that churches should be integrated, yet tell their minority friends to come to their white churches. I’ve gotten this a few times. I usually respond with, “why don’t you come to my church instead?” I feel like they’re just trying to relieve their own guilt or something but never really taking the courage to try to be a minority somewhere else.

    In any case, yes, I agree. If you invite me, will you try coming to my predominantely Asian-American church and see what it’s like to be a minority? because I experience that EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK. Get to know me. Know my struggles. Feel what it’s like to hear “Wow, your English is really good!” or “Where are you REALLY from?” Then maybe I’ll trust that your heart is in the right place.

  2. David Park says:

    wow dave, i think this really does reflect a turn in your tone concerning asian american christianity and how we relate to whites.

    thanks for sharing. sometimes the possessive pronouns give it away, “our churches” being one example. it makes me feel like i was never part of the first-person plural of that. or that i have a hand in soiling something, making it “brown”. of course, that makes me the sensitive one, the oversuspicious one, the one who assumes the worst, that race plays such a heavy role in things. but i think in many ways, it’s just pointing out how inhospitable christians can be to one another, unaware how even our language puts people off. that’s something i think asians, in particular, can add to the body. our critique isn’t just to piss and moan, but it really is to show how to “save face” in a good way. language plays such a huge part in creating reality, and asian cultures really emphasize (sometimes overemphasize) a manner of engaging one another that can really show hospitality, rather than competition or ownership.

    even on this blog, i have trouble just coming out and saying what i think. and when i do, often i feel guilty, or uncomfortable with possibly having upset someone. part of that feels liberating to me, but another aspect is that it would be very hard for me to say some things in person. part of that is the cultural wiring, and even in your case, where you were adopted, i think you are sensitive to language of others. i think it’s a good tension to have. at least, i’m more sensitized (not perfect) to how language can offend others, but i also think we are learning to be blunt because that is tone we are often addressed in. that may be efficient, but it doesn’t feel like hospitality, especially in a community of faith.

  3. thinkingdude says:

    I kind of fit the description of Asian americans who are dissatisfied with things in asian churches as well checking out white churches and then feeling uncomfortable or out of place. Dave, I agree with your observation concerning white churches and how diversity that is desired is not shown in the leadership. I think that is somewhat garbage. I think alot of seminaries as well as christian colleges are like this as well. Why are so many seminaries and colleges near or in rural settings? Why not have a seminary or christian college in the middle of a city?

  4. daveingland says:

    Daniel, thanks for your reply! The crazy thing about all of this is that not only was adopted by a Caucasian father and raised to conform to a white America, I was also an atheist and therefore had no experience within the church, let alone the ethnic church. So, I come to the table somewhat late, but my eyes are open and my heart is being pulled upon as I hear story-after-story of young Asian brothers & sisters losing their identity. I’m still trying to figure out what this feels like and how to help others grasp this issue in a way that honors Christ and our individual culutural contexts. I’m not sure I’ll ever figure out how to be a relevant voice in a kingdom of different cultures learning how to be more like Christ with a specific cultural DNA that makes us uniquely individual.

    I had a 3 hour phone conversation with an Asian-American that had just connected our church plant. He mentioned how he had spent some time as an English teacher in Mainland China. When he moved back to Los Angeles he landed at Newsong and looked at his fellow Asian-Americans and asked himself why they were so white. He told me how weird it was from his perspective of just coming back from China and now seeing a church full of Asians that were Asian only in appearance and nothing else. His first thought being that they all spoke English so well and had no accents. So, it seems even at a predominantly Asian-American setting like Newsong that there are still some out-of-place people that may struggle with their identity or look to conform to a white American faith even amongst other Asian-Americans.

    As for the idea of asking Caucasian-American Christians to worship in an ethnic church, I am not sure I quite get that. I say this only because for me, the first church I became a member of was predominantly white in an affluent suburb and I didn’t really feel out of place or unwelcome. However, as a Japanese-American serving as an assistant pastor for almost 4 years at a Korean church, this is where I felt really uncomfortable. Not all Asian cultures are the same! The inward focus was something I really fought hard against.

    I see issues in both the ethnic Asian church and the Caucasian church. I’m hopeful that through some dialog and a whole lot of prayer and conversation that some of the mystery of how to connect with those displaced Asian-Americans–helping them to grow in their faith–will be a focus of our new ministry here in Sacramento and online here through you all at ng.ac.

  5. daveingland says:

    David, I told you I felt God was changing my perspective on things! 🙂 Thanks for explaining a little more on your position in regards to speaking to this topic. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view) I am always direct. I have to be careful of how I say things as people can take offense. I do my best to be humble and *always* listen more than speak, but I’m learning to not speak my mind so much. I think so many Asian-Americans feel as if they shouldn’t speak to things because of saving face. I guess I’m just not one of those Asians 😉

    I’m hopeful that rather than being divisive and confrontational, we can engage in an inquisitive and thought-provoking dialog that may allow us to reach some Asian-Americans with a culturally relevant gospel before it’s too late. Rather than continue to point out the problem, may we rally behind trying to resolve it. Each of us is precious in God’s sight and just as three thousand men came to hear the gospel in their own language on Pentecost so that they may believe and share the good news with other people of their various tribes, so to must we try to speak the right language to our people.

  6. daveingland says:

    ThinkingDude: I would greatly appreciate your perspective on why you are dissatisfied with Asian churches, yet feel out of place in the white church. If you were in a predominantly white church, yet the pastor was Asian would you feel any differently?

    For me, one of the dilemmas I have had is that I really appreciate contemporary gospel music in the church. Your mind may go blank here, but guys like Israel Houghton, Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin really fire up my spirit. Hearing some passionately preached Word really causes me to look within and see how I can change to be more like Christ. In essence, I have had great experiences in the black church. However, at the same time, when I look around and see that I am the only Asian in attendance it does feel a little strange. As I say this though, if the music was being sung by an Asian choir and the message was being given by an Asian pastor, I am not sure I would respond the same way. I don’t mean this to be in a stereotyping or racist manner, but it’s almost like my reply above to Daniel. It would be like my friend coming back from China, going straight to Newsong and seeing a bunch of Asians that seemed totally white. Honestly, I’ve never really thought about any of what I just wrote prior to writing it just now. It feels a little weird actually. It’s as if I’m losing control of my mind for the sake of a cause greater than my personal comprehension.

    Oh, about seminaries being in rural settings. That is true in a lot of southern and mid-western states, but in California we have many seminaries in urban and metropolitan areas. Several in the Los Angeles area as well as in San Francisco and we even have an extension of Fuller Seminary, Western Seminary, City Seminary and William Jessup University (formerly San Jose Christian College) here in Sacramento.

  7. daniel so says:

    Dave – Great post! Thanks for sharing your heart, and your ongoing journey of working out the questions. As a practitioner and church planter, I definitely respect your willingness to go out and live in the questions.

    David – I totally hear you. Even when I want to “be totally real” (i.e., explode in full-on rant mode), I don’t. As you said, part of that is cultural wiring, but part (I hope) is a kingdom-gift. Soong-Chan Rah addresses that with his discussion of triple-consciousness (and Dave Gibbons with his ‘third culture’ perspective) — our Asian cultural tendency to listen first, to gauge environments & people, and to be sensitive to others’ perspectives can embody the kingdom in a tangible way.

  8. Bo says:

    Good post Dave. Hope you’re doing well in Sac. I didn’t get a chance to read the article (the link doesn’t direct me to the article) but from what you shared, it just reveals how clueless the writers and editors of this magazine are to the fact that they are entrenched in a white cultural hegemony. Lumping all non-whites as brown represents that they don’t really care about non-whites. I think of the scene in Joy Luck Club where the white guy drowns every dish in soy sauce – it’s no wonder that Chinese food all tastes the same to him. And to celebrate that churches are no longer 100% white – give me a break. They have achieved this pathetic statistic w/o any effort or sacrifice. If anything they should be lamenting how little progress they’ve made. The very fact that they consider this “big news” just shows how monocultural they really are. Also the fact that they appeal to pop culture as a vehicle for this change just shows how little they have thought over this issue. I don’t find the argument persuasive – if such is the case then we would see a lot of white churches pastored by non-whites (Tiger’s fans base is predominantly white). If anything it is one more example of how American evangelicals are obsessed with chasing pop culture. Usually they are one step behind. In this case they are miles away.

  9. daveingland says:

    Professor Bo Lim! Of all the places to reconnect…it truly is a small world! I appreciate your views in light of your years of experience within the Asian-American church and for your study of the American church. I had a vision to be an Asian-American that plants a multi-cultural church here in Sacramento, but then God sent an amazing group of second & third generation Chinese Americans to us. It caused me to question what the heck was going on and why me, being someone who never really identified as being Asian, was now leading a group of Asians that had come from Asian-American churches. However God moves our ministry in Sacramento forward, I want to be intentional in a way that honors him and is true to the calling he is giving me. I’m enjoying and learning from all of the comments so far. Thanks again for your input!

  10. djchuang says:

    Dave, wow, you came out of the gate a-swinging! First, welcome to the nextgenerasianchurch.com blog. And thank you for sharing your unique story, history, perspective, and the discoloration of the church. I have a hunch we’ll be hearing more from you… 🙂

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