Friday, June 13, 2014

Where and how do you think God is calling Asian American Presbyterians to go and be in the future?

For my readers: 
This is a piece I presented the 2nd Moderator's Convocation on Asian American Presbyterians, an event preceding the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly, which is a gathering of the highest governing body in the denomination. The 1st Moderator's Convocation on Asian American Presbyterians took place 14 years ago, when the first Asian American moderator of the PC(USA) was elected (the Rev. Dr. Syngman Rhee). 

This event was in the PechaKucha style, a Japanese style of presentation that is image-driven, lasting only 6 minutes. It was really hard for me to find images! But all of these are either mine, or from friends/family used by permission, or from true open-source websites. (Just had to say that, since I work for a publisher.)

The topic I addressed, along with four other presenters, was "Where is God calling us to go?"

The first thing I remember my parents teaching me about my identity was, “I’m Japanese and Jewish.” I said it with pride, even before I really understood what it means to live in a country organized by race and racism, before I understood that leaving the house meant going into a world that saw us as an aberration, or offensive, or at best, as “interesting.”

Out of my family and our communities, I learned multiple languages. Not Japanese and English and Yiddish, but the various languages spoken by specific people groups in the U.S. I codeswitch. I can move between white churches, immigrant churches, long-standing churches of people of color, social justice activists, and secular people.

The challenge of being multiracial is racism. I know I am multiracial Asian American (and not white) because other people made it clear that I am. Because of my racialized experience (not my cultural experience), I chose to identify politically with one racial heritage over another, instead of pretending that being multiracial exempts me from racial justice work.

I have this great group of folks who, among others here, connected me with Asian American and Pacific Islander Presbyterians. I have always been Asian American. Having been grounded in the specificity of multiraciality and Japanese-ness, I had to learn how to speak to a broader Asian American Presbyterian experience.

Learning this did not come naturally. I have to do most of the work of crossing over into the specific culture of Asian American Presbyterianism, with its ethnic-specific caucuses. I am very familiar with being raced, and racialized, so to interact with Asian Americans still organized by ethnic groups is challenging for me, but I understand it is necessary, because so many of us need places to worship that speak directly to our own languages and experiences.

I am not monocultural, and honestly most of you aren’t, either. Ethnic-specific caucuses make sense for people closer to the immigrant generation, and less sense for me and others like me, a fourth-generation multiracial person.

So what is God calling us toward?

God is calling us to know what it means to be an immigrant church. Because immigration from the Asia/Pacific to North America is ongoing, we are called to continue to be in ministry with first, 1.5, and second generation Asian Americans. Transnationalism is here to stay, as is the necessity for immigrant spaces, home for those who are making new homes.

In a country increasingly hostile to non-white immigrants, we are called to be political. We are called to advocate for language rights in mid-council and general assembly meetings. We are called to continue to work for just immigration policies. We are called to continue to work to end laws unfairly targeting and criminalizing immigrants.

Now that there are seventh and eighth generation Asian American Christians, God is calling us to get real. My motherland isn’t Japan or Poland or Ukraine or Russia or Lithuania and it certainly isn’t Israel. I don’t “go back” to anywhere. I am not “exotic.” My motherland is California.

We as Asian Americans have a wealth of history and culture based here in the U.S., enough to ground us as our own people. We have activists and pastors and theologians and artists and musicians to help us express our own Christian faith. Identifying with a racial category such as “Asian American” isn’t the loss of unique cultural markers, but the gain of a heritage.

This is my youngest niece, Leena. She is Libyan, Chinese, Irish, white Jewish, and Japanese. Unlike me, she will likely not identify with one racial or ethnic heritage over another. We don’t know if she will think of herself as white, or Asian American, or Arab American.

Asian Americans have high rates of marriage outside our own ethnic and racial groups, and we as Asian American Presbyterians are called to be both/and. We are both Asian American and multiracial. We can minister with immigrant Asian Americans AND those multiracial people who are our children and grandchildren.

These are my friends Stella and Aaron, six-year-old twins. They are Presbyterians who are Korean, African American, and white. They will likely never attend an Asian American Presbyterian church. They have another language and worldview.

We will need to understand that being Asian American means including multiracial people who will not necessarily identify with one racial group over another. We in the U.S. are accustomed to thinking in binaries – black/white, citizen/foreigner, man/woman, straight/gay, Christian/not Christian. Our racial and ethnic caucuses in the PC(USA) expect people to identify with one identity, but multiracial people increasingly do not and will not think this way. The struggle for racial justice is wrapped up with women’s liberation, equal rights for gays and lesbians, rights for religious minorities, and equal access for people who speak languages other than English.

This binary causes us to get trapped into thinking that men are the real or ideal pastors. Asian American church communities are bleeding women pastors to majority-white communities. The Asian American church needs to come to terms with the causes for this (patriarchy, Confucianism, colonial missionary imposition), and find a way to faithfully nurture women’s AND men’s leadership.

Leena, Stella, Aaron, and other kids are growing up believing that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are equally made in the image of God, and should be our theological and social equals. This may be controversial or dangerous to speak of here, but the church we are becoming is less concerned with policing sexual and gender orientation and more concerned with embodying God’s love to all people.

We cannot sit on the sidelines and let white conservatives and white liberals use us as their arguments over maintaining the definition of marriage as between one man and one women, or changing the definition of marriage. Instead of being pulled by the agenda and interests of the dominant-culture church, we have a chance, now, to find ways to participate in the larger church out of the strength of our own beliefs and communities.

This table at which we feast is changing. I have eaten Chinese food all over the world, except in China. Chinese food in Puerto Rico integrates tostones (green plantains fried with garlic). There is no one way to cook Chinese food, because food reflects the reality of each context.

The feast has to change… not to abandon where it comes from, but to adapt to meet the changing tastes of succeeding generations. Maybe it means combining spam, sushi rice, and nori. Maybe it means that we have the hard conversations here and now in order to become the Asian American Presbyterians we are called to be.

(I'd like to thank the following folks for photos: Diakonda Gurning, Irene Pak, Mary Paik, David Cheifetz and Mina, David Barnhart, Elsie Barnhart, and Jeffrey Cheifetz.)

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