Ministering to Asian Americans


Mary Lou Codmen-Wilson

Have you ever been called a hard-boiled egg? In 1986 I was team-teaching a seminar with an Asian-Indian colleague at the Inter-Varsity Urbana missions conference. Midway through the seminar a young Chinese student in the back of the room stood up and said to me, “I’ve been watching you and there is only one word for you.” Surprised, I responded: `”What is that, sir`!” “A hard-boiled egg,” he said. My eyes widened. He paused and then continued, “I am Chinese. I am yellow on the outside but I am white on the inside. I’ve been watching you and you are white on the outside and yellow on the inside.” My response? “Thank you, sir!”

I was an Anglo being trained by Asians to minister among them, and I was grateful that anyone recognized my struggles to achieve cross-cultural identification.

Hard-boiled eggs, bananas, Oreos-the images all speak of bi-ethnic identity in the United States today. They point to those cultural issues that people of every color in the church must face in our pluralistic age. In addition, as Harvey Cox has observed, “Religions now coexist and interact whether or not . . . bishops or mullahs approve.” Pluralism has changed the ethos of North America.

How should denominations in this country respond to America’s changing face? How can churches reach out across cultural and religious boundaries to minister to people in immigrant communities? What is the role of the church in easing immigrant intergenerational tensions? These questions all relate to our present churches’ homogeneity and our understanding of outreach, educational strategies and discipleship. They are particularly pertinent to the experiences of Asians and Asian-Americans in the church.

By the late 1970s, Asians comprised 40 percent of total U.S. immigration. Their numbers doubled in the 1980s, and the U.S Asian
population will continue to grow rapidly through immigration. Statistics show that in 1990 over 60 percent of the world’s population was Asian. Population experts forecast that in the next ten years a billion new babies will be born, and the majority will be Asians whose parents reside in large cities throughout the world. And as Asians come to this country, they bring the richness of their traditions with them. Indeed, Asian immigrant communities are unique sources of cultural and religious diversity within the U.S. Their communities often embrace Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam-world religions that are unfamiliar to most North Americans. Their cultural norms also differ markedly from traditional North American cultures. Asians contribute much to the mosaic of American life, but their needs must be properly understood if the church is to be relevant to them.

I recently completed research on a Thai congregation in a major U.S. urban area. In December 1991 this particular Thai congregation had a membership of approximately 50, which is average for ethnic churches. (In some ethnic groups congregations can consist of just one or two extended family units.) The church was made up of people from each of the three waves of recent Asian immigration – the 1960s, and the ’70s and the ’80s – and reflected a cross-section of the business, student and medical segments of the broader community. Although most members of the church were Christian, a few members were Buddhist. Most were middle-class professionals. In my study of this congregation I looked carefully at cultural adaptation and intergenerational conflict within the group, and at the church’s educational strategy. My findings on these two sets of issues can provide insights into other Asian communities, and therefore give helpful clues concerning effective ministry among Asians in the U.S.

Members of the congregation I studied described themselves as Thai-Thai, Thai-American and American-Thai. These three categories correspond more or less with three types of adaptive behavior studied by sociologists: separation, acculturation and assimilation. The differences between these types of cultural adaptation need to be better understood by non-immigrants ministering to immigrants. They can help provide the sensitive observer valuable insights into how immigrant communities see themselves.

Acculturation involves the interplay of two or more cultures where change may occur in any cultural group involved. Change can proceed in various cultural directions. Assimilation refers to the absorption of a minority culture into the dominant culture and a subsequent denuding of the minority’s identity and heritage. It is one-way change. Many pastors and youth leaders in predominantly white congregations assume that assimilation is the normal route by which Asians will be integrated into their congregations. Asians are viewed in terms of their success or failure in this process. This assumption violates immigrants’ cultural heritage, whatever their racial or ethnic identity, and needs to be reconsidered from the immigrants’ perspective. The category of separation indicates the behavior of immigrant groups that have little contact with the dominant culture. Understanding the characteristics of each immigrant group in their own terms enables ministers of all backgrounds to be more responsive to their cultural dynamics, strengths and needs. This was my experience in my work with the Thai congregation.

Members of the congregation who were identified were brought up in Thailand and emigrated to the U.S. as adults. They speak their own native language and tend to remain culturally isolated by their exclusive Thai associations. They live as if they were back in the homeland. This same pattern of separation is common in other Asian immigrant communities-Cambodian, Vietnamese.

In some cases these older Asians, trapped by language limitations, force their children into roles of adult responsibility: children
become a bridge between their parents and the English speaking community. Such shifts of responsibility jeopardize the traditional, hierarchical balance of power within the family and add to cultural stress in these households. In other cases Asian-Asians remain culturally isolated because their ethnic community is large enough to meet their social and religious needs. They have little need to venture outside. They may hold jobs that don’t require mastery of the English language, and since they do not have to be conversant in English on a social level, many Asian immigrants have, never gained proficiency.

Still others remain separated from main stream North American life because attitudes within the dominant culture have made them uncomfortable. One Asian doctor conveyed these feelings to me in a conversation. “I will not stay here,” he told me. “Materially, this country is the best life for everyone. But if I live here, I will be a second-class citizen. Many Americans still see the white race as superior.” In all churches racism can be passed on from generation to generation if the transforming work of God in Christ does not affect our ethnocentric attitudes and stereotypical fears. Two thought-provoking films that will stimulate discussion on racist attitudes are Blue Collar and the Buddha and Who Killed Vincent Chen? They each describe true stories of discrimination that Asians have experienced from the white and black communities in America because of religion, competition in the job market and legal injustice.

A second segment of Asian immigrants form a bridge to the outside world for Asian-Asians. The members of this group consider themselves Asian first, American second. In the Thai community they call themselves Thai- Americans; psychologically and emotionally they swing between Asian and Anglo values. Describing the process, a Thai-American businessman said,

There are many things about Thai culture that I would never give up. I will never change my name to an American [name]. I am proud of being Thai and proud of being an American because America fulfills another part of my life. If you ask me to choose between the two countries, I will be torn. [Now] I’m very different, so I cannot go [to Thailand] and even work there….I act differently when I am with Americans than when I am with Thais.

His words illustrate the experience of many Asian-American young people today. One Thai father said of his daughter, “At home my daughter is soft like a Thai, but when she is in business, she acts like an American. She is outgoing and aggressive and very successful…. She has done well here because she makes the compromise.

Asian-Americans are biethnic people. Since they have accepted values of both cultures, they can behave appropriately in various contexts. However, their behavior in a given context is a matter of choice. They have not lost their own culture heritage, nor have they separated from the dominant culture. They have acculturated. As Asian-Americans deal constructively with the tensions of their own biethnicity, they can also help others work toward a harmonious affirmation of their ethnicity and their place in the wider culture.

The painfulness of this group’s identity struggle must not be minimized. At a conference for Asian-American Christian student leaders that I recently attended, I found that many are seriously grappling with their ethnic roots and Anglo values. They have not fully resolved who they are, what their place in society is, and how they should please their parents. These perplexing issues carry over to how they think about and relate to God. They are cultural adapters in the making-they have too many rough edges to make relationships go smoothly, but are in the process of finding their cultural identity. During this period they need the church to offer them support, perspective and counsel as they come to peace with their biethnicity.

The third group in the Thai church are Thais born and raised in the U.S. – American-Thais. They are first American, not Thai, and English is their first language. Most understand their parents native language, but if spoken to in Thai, they usually answer in English. Because they have identified with Anglos or other ethnics from their neighborhoods and schools, many are unaware of their rich Thai heritage.

Volumes have been written on the generational conflicts between teenagers and their parents. In Asian immigrant communities these tensions are heightened since the acculturation process affects the generations very differently. One area of conflict that illustrates the differences in perspective is cross-cultural marriages. From the Thai-Thai perspective, family loyalties remain a major priority. Thais express those loyalties with the words bun kuhn. One Thai-American told me:

When I first came to America, my grandmother did not want me to marry an American. She said, “The Americans do not have harmony as we do, no bun kuhn. The American will succeed. If anything comes across his path, he will do whatever he wants to. But for the Thais bun kuhn is there.”

Bun Kuhn means indebtedness. It is based on the notion of harmony and a person’s desire to repay those-family, teachers, friends-who have contributed significantly to her or his life. Thai Americans and Thai-Thais both maintain prime allegiance to the value of bun kuhn. It assures an adult child’s attentiveness to the family: without the security of bun kuhn, elderly Thai parents fear for their own well-being and the future of their family.

By contrast, the values of Thai culture have been lost or replaced among many American-Thai children, particularly among daughters who marry cross-culturally-usually to Anglo men. Ironically, women who have been socialized in traditional Asian values yet who also possess a strong American-Thai cultural affiliation are often the quickest to yield their cultural identity. Traditionally, a Thai wife is taught to adopt her husband’s lifestyle. Thus in marriage American Thai women accept their Anglo husband’s lifestyle and disregard their Thai customs. The same happens to Thai-American women in cross-cultural marriages. Their own submissive role in traditional Thai culture actually encourages them to adopt their husband’s culture and leave their own.

These tensions involved in cross-cultural marriages should be understood by youth workers and pastors outside the Asian community. Most Asian cultures are sociocentric, so an individual’s choices are far more, closely related to the family and community than is the case for Westerners. The ideal of a marriage based on mutual love, which is focused primarily on a nuclear family, is difficult to maintain when such an ideal alienates a person from her or his cultural community. These problems in cross-cultural marriages need careful shepherding, gracious mediation and wise counsel by all concerned.

For non-Asian church members who want to minister to Asians in their neighborhoods and work places, I offer three suggestions based on the insights I’ve gained from my work in the Asian community. They have to do with religious pluralism, intergenerational tensions and cross-cultural marriages.

Christians who encounter Asians who embrace another religion can look for common elements between religious traditions and then use these as a basis for building further relationships- For example, from 1987 to 1990, an Asian colleague and I together ran the Chicago Asliram of Jesus Christ in which we sponsored spiritual-growth groups that encouraged dialogue among Hindus, Buddbists, Muslims and Christians. The goal was not to Pursue the kind of theological dialogue favored by religious Professionals; rather it was to share one another’s personal faith stories. Using a model developed by E. Stanley Jones in India, we studied texts like the Sermon on the Mount, James Fowler’s Stages of Faith and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. As trust and intimacy grew we were able to pray for the needs of our friends in other faiths and share, our lives together. Some came to Christ. All of us were
strengthened in our own faith by the encounters.

Questions to ask yourself in such religious interactions are: Where are there evidences of grace in my Asian colleagues’ or friends’
specific religious communities? How do the people I know describe their spiritual journey? In what way can I learn from them and share my own faith? To reach out to those from different religions we need to become learners and be open to grace in its many colors. Training Christians to share their faith sensitively with Asians of other religions is a vital component both of educational ministry and of witness in our pluralistic environment.

If enough practical help and caring has been demonstrated to earn the trust of Asian families, a church can create neutral places of mediation where family members can discuss opposite approaches to adaptation (separation and assimilation) and the conflict it engenders. Ministers and laity can receive training in needed cross-cultural counseling skills. Chicago’s Asian-American Pastoral Counseling Center was established to provide these skills. Among other programs, bimonthly seminars are held in conjunction with Garrett-Evangelical Theological School for professionals who work with Asians. In a collegial atmosphere ministers can learn from one another and grow in their appreciation of different cultural perspectives.

A church can also help teenagers caught between the culture of their parents and their peers learn how to build their identity in Christ within their cultural framework. Youth groups provide an alternative to the gangs that are attracting many Asian young people. Drama is also particularly appreciated in Asian contexts and is a marvelous tool for exploring family, faith or acculturation issues. At the Ashram we organized a multicultural drama group that performed a one-act play titled Changing Places. It portrayed an Asian immigrant family’s adjustment to stateside living and was well received by Asian audiences in the country as well as by school audiences in Chicago. The drama provided an entertaining and thought-provoking catalyst for discussing generational tensions.

A church can also become a place of koinoinia for couples in cross-cultural relationships-dating or marriage. People in these situations often feel that they are rootless. Their values are no longer set predominantly in their culture of origin so they are uncomfortable in a traditional ethnic context. Yet they realize they will never be fully accepted into the culture of their spouse or partner; they sometimes feel that they are on the periphery of both groups. They need to establish a fellowship of support and caring by joining with people like themselves who are striving to integrate different cultures. The Asian Community Team, an outgrowth of The Chicago Ashram, offers such a monthly cross-cultural fellowship group. Members are both Christians and non-Christians. Each month issues such as handling anger, roles of women, relating to in-laws, male leadership and financial priorities are discussed from the perspectives of culture, faith and personality.

A specific educational strategy for the Thai congregation also emerged from my research. Three suggestions are applicable to many Asian immigrant churches-churches that play a vital role in creating social supports and a sense of communal well-being for immigrants.

One need is a strong discipleship program to anchor Christians in biblical thinking and help them grow in their faith. In an ethnic
church in particular, many people come because of their common ethnicity, but they may not have systematic training in the principles of Christian living. The ongoing strength of a church must be measured by the spiritual vitality of its members, not just its ethnicity. Church members require biblical instruction in how to incarnate the reality and power of God in their pluralistic environment how to communicate their faith to those who are not Christians.

They can also benefit from leadership and counseling skills. In an Asian church the small group structure is an ideal way to provide this discipleship training. Groups can be developed for different constituents in the church: a women’s discipleship group allows women to share their intimate concerns; an early morning men’s prayer breakfast has been used successfully in many churches; a youth program conducted in English can also offer opportunities for teens. Specifically, youth groups can organize participants to tutor disadvantaged children, help the elderly or visit people in hospitals outside of their ethnic community. Through this community service young people learn to become contributing members of the society as a whole, and in so doing express their Christian commitment practically.

In many Asian churches issues of conversion and discipleship also need to be addressed. In the Thai church I studied, many adults had converted from Buddhism, so the church needed materials to help members come to terms with their Buddhist roots. This same need exists in other Asian congregations. People who were reared in a faith system other than Christianity need an opportunity to examine the sometimes unconscious beliefs that they have carried over from childhood.

For example, some Christian converts from Buddhism are still motivated by an unconscious belief in merit and karma and thus experience their Christian life in these terms. If they sin, they fear that forgiveness is not possible. Unconsciously, they are constantly trying to earn their way into God’s favor. Or they believe that misfortune they experience is the result of their past sins and was thus unavoidable and is now irreversible. They believe in God’s grace but may have trouble appropriating grace’s freedom. Similarly, they may need to understand the differences between shame and guilt. One Asian pastor observed acutely,

Shame is a push from outside because of obligation. Guilt is a pull from inside. Christ’s love motivates us to go beyond obligation.
The Christians need help not to function mainly in terms of shame. When they do something wrong, they ask, “Has anyone seen?” Rather, they need to ask, “Have I hurt God?”

The educational challenge in dealing with two religious worldviews is to develop materials that compare and contrast the systems. Areas of commonality can be stressed, then the unique Christian dimension can be highlighted. This is a vital educational opportunity that the church can offer its new converts.

Finally, Asian immigrant young adults (aged 22-35) need to be brought back to the church in greater numbers. No church can survive if the next generation of leadership is not a growing proportion of the membership. For some immigrant communities, members of this group are absent largely because they have adopted a Westernized, materialistic lifestyle. Many are busy establishing their careers and are, uninterested in religion. Others are absent because their ethnic churches are predominantly Asian-Asian in their appeal. Maintaining the community’s cultural heritage is vital to immigrant identity, but for the young professionals trying to bridge the outside world, such an emphasis may be too one-sided-

If the church is perceived as too ethnic and closed to other cultural values, it can alienate these young people who are already bicultural. Although Asian-Americans are cultural adapters, in some cases they are required at church to be mostly ethnic Asian. Churches that minister to these young people should make every effort to attend to both sides of their identity. Church meetings that address the strains and challenges of being cultural adapters and the issues of cross-cultural marriages would be relevant to these young adults.

The church’s future in general lies in its ability to bridge several worlds. If an ethnic church addresses only the concerns of its
community, it will fail to be relevant to the larger multicultural context in which it finds itself. Only as it ministers to its larger
whole will it become an ongoing, relevant part of the U.S. multicultural ethos. Similarly, when non-Asians cross cultural lines to
include Asians and those of other cultures in their church families, their churches can incarnate the harmony and rich diversity of God’s multicultural kingdom. The pluralistic makeup of this country will demand these kinds of attitudinal changes in all our churches if they are to be, relevant for the next century.

(The above material was published by THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY)

Christian Information Network