Saved by My Refugee Neighbors

Oak Park Santas 2-1

Here’s my essay recently posted on Christianity Today’s “This Is our City” series.  It offers snippets of our twenty years of urban ministry in Oakland, about which I’m writing a spiritual memoir. You can read the story here.

This is an excerpt about my Mien neighbor:

Faithfulness over Effectivenesss

While it is tempting to romanticize the kids and our communal life, the city’s violence born of inequality and structural racism has worn on me.  Over 2,000 individuals have been murdered during my time in Oakland and I have witnessed my share of shootings.  Even when we organized our neighbors and won a housing lawsuit that rebuilt Oak Park, the new apartment layout unintentionally eroded our sense of community. I had to move because of federal rental guidelines, and the families preferred to remain inside their enlarged units.

When the issues of our city appear too daunting, I likewise retreat and focus on my own personal life, where I have some semblance of control. After leaving Oak Park, my wife and I purchased a home two blocks away, and we built gates to keep out the city’s dangers. But, fortunately, our refugee neighbors continue to knock at our door to teach us kingdom values.

When we got our house, I borrowed a rototiller and cleared weeds in our huge yard. After an afternoon of hard toil, I gave up; all I had readied was a small plot 5’ by 10’.   The next day, I was surprised by a small, turbaned lady sitting up in our apricot tree, like Zaccheus.  Yien Saelee, a grandmother who is Iu Mien, was hacking branches.  She had seen that the lot was empty and came to start a garden with my permission. I agreed, but doubted her strength to do the work.

To my surprise, though, she returned with two other grandmothers, each armed with only a small machete, and cleared the entire yard.  They planted the Native American Three Sisters– corn, squash, and beans—and soon, my family received locally grown, organic vegetables to meet our daily required vitamins.

Yien later joined our church’s “Young Family” cell, which paradoxically came to include five grandmothers.  As we shared and prayed together, I learned more of her story.  During the Laotian Civil War, she had lost three sons—child soldiers fighting with the CIA—and her husband was assassinated.  Moving to our Oakland neighborhood as a refugee did not make her life much easier; she remained poor and constantly felt fatigued.  Her step-parents’ spirits tormented her such that they made searing burns on her arms.

After being resettled in Oakland, Yien became a Christian when God revealed himself in a dream to her.  Since then, she claims, “My heart is light now because I no longer have to bear the burden of the spiritual world; it was too heavy.”  Not only did she pray for us and support her own local Mien church, but also she regularly taped gospel songs to be sent to Laos.

In spite of their advanced years, Yien and her fellow grandmas collect aluminum cans and hawk their produce to supplement their scant disability benefits that were almost cut by welfare reform. Her sense of social justice isn’t about asserting her rights, but taking responsibility for others.  Always chipping in for our water bill, she states simply, “I’m happy for the opportunity not to starve.”

When my father passed away, Yien, her back bent from osteoporosis, took the time to stand with my family in our grief.  Despite our communication and cultural barriers, her unceasing prayers  and faithful presence comforted me.  Growing up with privilege, I came to expect to make my mark and to effect social change in Oakland.  Unfortunately, our neighborhood has not been transformed despite our church’s best efforts.  If anything, its persistent poverty reflects the growing inequality in our nation.

Yien models for me another way to make one’s mark.  The servant who is faithful is the one who enters the joy of the master. The persistent widow who prays boldly is the one who receives justice.

Top 15 blog posts over the last quarter

Top Asian Americans on YouTube
Jeremy Lin & Asian American Male Sexuality
Is Francis Chan a sell-out?
popular Asian American musicians on YouTube
The model minority myth is a lie.
List of Asian American Christian Bloggers
Beauty Is The Beast?
The Search for Asian-American Worship
Article: The Korean Pentecost: The Great Revival of 1907
Why Churches Split: A Family Systems Explanation
Why Asian American Obsession with Jeremy Lin is well, Weak
West Coast vs. East Coast Asian America
Jeremy Lin, The Civil Rights Movement, & The Empowerment of Voice
“A Silent Exodus” Leads to Freedom
The Ties That Bind Must Break


Imported Entries to Join Our Voices

We’ve imported a dozen or so blog entries from another blog called “yellowfaith” – Ministry and faith from an Asian American perspective. Posted & imported with permission. Browse those blog entries here, they’re tagged “imported“. Below is the introduction from that blog (which ended in 2011.)

yellowfaith: welcome

(Posted June 19 2009 by Dave Ingland)

yellowfaith was created in response to the ongoing conversation of Asian American Christians and how they connect within the church. Should Asian Americans succumb to a Caucasian American worship experience on Sundays? If Asian Americans gather in a community of faith with other Asian Americans, should this be viewed as a form of racism? Is there an identity crisis amongst Asian American Christians, confused as to who they are in Christ–too Asian to fit in with Caucasians, yet not Asian enough to worship with other Asian Americans? When Asian Americans connect in a white church that seeks to be multi-cultural, is their culture truly recognized or are they asked to confirm to a white rather than yellow gospel? Should there even be a yellow gospel?

Here at yellowfaith we hope to engage in some hard questions in the interest of gaining some understanding to the state of faith in Asian American culture today.

Article: Orange County exports Asian American churches to the world

DJ_ChuangA recent article was released in the Orange County Register featuring DJ Chuang.  Here’s an excerpt from the article, written by Jim Hinch:

“I’m an experimenter,” Chuang said. “My heart is in the church, the Asian American church. But church is not known for being a place of research and development.”

Chuang left formal ministry and became a consultant, working for churches, parachurch organizations and Christian nonprofits, always aiming to help Asian American Christians become more digitally savvy and culturally responsive.

He’s helping Brea’s Ambassador Church expand its network of sister churches and advising La Mirada’s Talbot Seminary as it develops one of America’s first doctoral programs in Asian American ministry.

Chuang is a manic presence, especially online. He was, he says, the first person in Orange County to sign up for Twitter seven years ago (a distinction confirmed by the rankings website Twitaholic). He tweets throughout each day, blogs, produces a weekly podcast and talks by phone, Skype and Google Chat with a nationwide roster of church leaders. Callers make appointments via an interactive scheduler on Chuang’s website.

Last year, Chuang traveled 35,839 miles in 74 days on 16 trips to conferences and meetings. This information comes from the Chuang family Christmas card, which also details the number of followers (7,000) Chuang has on Twitter and the number of reward points he earned last year at Starbucks (50).

Since 2005, Chuang has edited two books on Asian American ministry, produced a report on current trends in Asian American churches, written 23 magazine articles and made 28 presentations at church conferences and seminars – achievements tabulated, in chronological order, on Chuang’s website.

Chuang has bipolar disorder. He has been successfully treated for the condition since 2001. But he attributes his numerous career changes and intellectual restlessness, in part, to manic episodes.

His periods of depression, he said, brought him near suicide. And they convinced him that helping Asian American churches become more culturally inclusive is tantamount to a life-or-death calling.

“It’s very hard for Asians to talk about their weaknesses,” Chuang said, explaining why he waited years before publicly acknowledging his condition and seeking treatment.

Chuang said traditional Asian American churches are especially inhospitable to painful personal problems because many Asian cultures prize a veneer of stoic hard work and moral respectability.

“I want to bring churches into a place to deal more honestly with the real person,” Chuang said.

“I would like to see Asian Americans become more healthy and whole as people.”

To read the full article on the Orange County Register website, visit here.

Also, DJ gave an inspiring talk at Urbana 12’s PANA lounge, called: “Step Up, Speak Up, Live It Up,” which you can find in transcript and audio format on his website, or in video format on Intervarsity Asian American Ministries’ website.

Watch the Urbana 12 PANA Lounge Talks

During Urbana 12 (tri-ennial student missions conference), InterVarsity’s Asian American Ministries (AAM) hosted a Pan Asian North American (PANA) Lounge and platformed a speaker-series from leading Asian & Asian North American ministry leaders. Each talk was 8-minutes long, inspired by the short-form talks popularized by the likes of TED, TEDx, and Q.

One of the more provocative ones was Greg Hsu‘s intriguing talk, titled: “Asian North Americans: Divided by God?” or, more bluntly, “Why don’t non-Christian Asian Americans like our Asian fellowship?“

The IVCF AAM blog is posting a new video every day for the next 3 weeks. Watch them there >>

James Choung introduces the speakers-series and how Asian Americans can be redeeming our gifts.

Why started and still exists

Once in a while David Park and I (DJ Chuang) meet in person and chat about all kinds of things related to life and faith. Back in October 2010, I think it was, we recorded this conversation and our little pocket camera worked. (Yes, we can recall times when we had technology fail, too.) In this 20-minute video, we share about how this team blog came into being, what topics have been particularly painful and challenging, and our dreams and hope for the future of churches that are contextualized to better serve Asian Americans and all peoples.

And, below is a web statistic chart of the most popular pages here during the past month. What do you notice about what’s popular? What surprises you?

Current Success and Future Failure

[a guest post from Timothy Lo, reposted with permission]

I write this from my own limited experience and observations… obviously limited to what I’ve seen and from talking to others.  And probably more relevant in the non-CA or TX areas of the US.

Since the early 1990’s there have been a lot of new churches that quickly started up and grabbed my attention.  For example, you might have heard of some of them like Redeemer Presbyterian in NY, Parkwood Community in IL, Liquid in NJ, and High Rock in MA.  God is doing a lot of great things in these churches, as is evident by how he is growing them in attendance, spiritual depth, and positive influence in their communities.  They are often marked by excellence in their ministries across the board: worship music, preaching, media, child care, fellowship, small groups, outreach, welcoming to newcomers, etc.  But it is the appeal of being part of such churches that has hurt and continues to damage the future of the children of immigrant Chinese.

What do the children of immigrant Chinese have to do with these churches?  Well from what I can tell these 2nd generation American born Chinese (ABC) as we call them have been greatly attracted to these newer churches.  And this greatly affects their attendance and participation in their home churches.

[This is a skippable section if you have less patience or time]

Let’s get this straight: immigrant Chinese churches haven’t always been good at keeping ABC’s with their churches (the history of this is pretty recent, since many Chinese churches in America are less than 50 years old).  This is a whole other topic in itself, but to summarize it, immigrants started churches, eventually they needed some English parts to it for their kids, they have childcare, children’s programs, then youth groups, and then eventually an English service.  The problem comes when the kids graduate high school.  I’m totally generalizing, but let’s say that roughly less than half of these kids stay with the faith, and out of the other half, maybe only half of those go to church weekly.  And out of those young adults (25% of the original teenagers) that go to church weekly, only some of them go to their home immigrant church, since many others go to the mainstream (white) American church somewhere else.

Now that may just be a typical rate of attrition in youth groups, which is also another whole issue for another time.  What I want to focus on is the fact that there are a bunch that do not go back to their home church, sometimes they just don’t feel the connection there anymore, it could be that they are dating or more comfortable with non-Asians, or for whatever other reason.  But then those who DO go back to their home church, they oftentimes face a lot of struggles there.

In a typical immigrant Chinese church, the primary purpose and mission is to minister to immigrant Chinese.  By extension, their secondary goal is to minister to the kids of the immigrants.  So children and youth programs are an important part of their ministry.  However, when young adults come back to the church, now not only wanting to assert themselves as independent, responsible adults but also with tons of Americanized values which are different than the Chinese, there is conflict.  I have rarely seen an immigrant Chinese congregation and an English speaking and led congregation work together in harmony, cohesion, and with equal authority and fellowship.  In many larger Chinese churches, the two sides (ooops, I mean, “groups”) just tolerate each other, and give each other large amounts of independence and freedom, and that’s called getting along (very eastern: “solidarity in conflict”).  It’s very much like two separate churches just worshiping in the same building–different ministries, schedules, programs, equipment, rooms, worship services, etc.

But in those medium and smaller sized Chinese churches, what I’ve seen happen is when these ABC’s come back to their home churches to serve their youth groups, they are underappreciated in their service, they get burnt out by constant requests and blame, they feel like 2nd class citizens (whether or not the immigrant congregation views them as such or not), there is no one to mentor or disciple them, they don’t have fellowship with other peers, and they wonder, why don’t I just go to that other church down the street that will care for me and love me (yes, it’s a consumeristic mentality) instead of this one that always asks me to help with the youth or children and never cares for how I am doing spiritually?

And then on top of that, and this is my real issue, there are all these new, really cool churches that have started up, full of other ABC’s (and ABK’s, Koreans).  They are intentional, they care for you and minister to your needs, they have excellence in their ministries, they are made up of tons of young adults just like you to fellowship with, and they are typically attended by the more dedicated group of Christians that are left over from the weeding out process in college.

We are thankful for these churches, that serve these American born Chinese who might be poorly ministered to by their home churches.  Perhaps we in the immigrant Chinese church need to do a better job of creating a place where young adults can come back to.  But, meanwhile, because these churches are ministering so well to all these ABC’s, there are fewer than ever coming back to their home churches.

It was hard enough that only a small percentage of our graduating youth would come back, as far as continuing to grow and strengthen the youth and adult English presence.  But now, with the existence of these new, good churches, the few kids that would have come back are not.  They’re getting fed somewhere else now, but that leaves the immigrant Chinese church with fewer role models and ministry leaders, resulting in weaker English speaking ministries.

Is your church one of these places where the spiritually stronger young adults from immigrant Chinese (or Korean) churches are going?  If so, realize that though that may be good for your church, it may also be hurting the future of the next generation of teens from these immigrant churches.  Without at least some American born Chinese students willing to go back to their home church to minister to the next round of students, our youth ministries get weaker, and result in fewer healthy adults.  And that might mean that 10 years from now, there will not be the comparable influx of ABC young adults that have joined your congregation in the past 10 years.

As an example, I am the only 2nd generation ABC in my church who serves with the youth group.  But there are over 40 kids who are craving to be ministered to.  So most will go through all 6-7 years of middle and high school without anyone regularly leading a small group, meeting up with them, walking them through their spiritual questions, or setting an example of “this is what you can look like when you grow up, as an American born Chinese Christian.”  I am very thankful for the many parents who help out in the youth ministry when they can (the cultural challenges for them to help out in the youth ministry are much greater than in a typical white American church).  But unfortunately the number of ABC’s that we have coming back to our church is sometimes very few, or often, none.  And that is crippling the future for these youth.

I’m torn, because I cannot “blame” these new churches for what they are doing.  They are in fact doing a great job of ministering to the 2nd generation ABC’s.  But on the other hand, our Chinese church ministries continue to be hurt by fewer of our graduating students coming back.

I guess I am just praying and hoping for these 3 things:

  1. That these newer churches realize and are sensitive to this dynamic
  2. That Chinese churches can figure out how to adjust to this (design youth ministries to say bye to our kids after graduating or try to create a place where ABC’s would be more welcome?)
  3. That God would put it on the hearts of those who were blessed by their youth group experience to come back and be that mentor and role model to the next generation