A look at other posts:
Presbyterians Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
The Rev. Charlene Han Powell
The Rev. Phil Tom
The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow
The Rev. Yena Hwang
The Rev. Shawn Kang
The Rev. Neal Presa
The Rev. Jim Huang
The Rev. Joann Haejong Lee serves as Associate Pastor for Community Formation at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA.
Are you a “cradle Presbyterian,” or did you come to the tradition later in life?
Cradle Presbyterian! Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers were the first Christians in my family. They shared their faith with their children and spouse which then got passed down to me.
What do you most appreciate about this tradition?
That we are a connectional church. Without these national connections, I would never have known that women (Korean women at that!) could grow up to be ministers. I also believe being a connectional church, at its best, can teach us how to honor and appreciate diversity: how to be one without being the same; how to have unity without uniformity; acceptance without assimilation, & solidarity without sameness.
What about it do you think needs to be changed or addressed?
For far too long, we have been so focused on self-preservation that we are not boldly being the Body of Christ in the world. We should be on the front-lines of working for justice and peace. We should be breaking cycles of poverty, working to end racism, sexism, and homophobia, and being a catalyst for change in the world. We, however, focus so much on fundraising and “church growth” which are certainly important aspects of ministry, but oftentimes we do so at the cost of being the church in the world.
How do you think your perspective as an Asian Pacific American can enrich the denomination?
My ministry is informed and shaped by my gender and racialized identity. My family tried to uphold the notion of the “model minority” and to achieve the supposed “American Dream,” but no matter how hard we worked, that dream was never within reach. And although we were Asian, our failed businesses and unpaid bills never quite qualified us to be considered a “model minority.” Perhaps this freed me up to be less-than-model: to be angry and frustrated with dehumanizing systems that perpetuate injustice; to resist labels and stereotypes that paint entire groups of people in one light; to listen and give voice to people who are silenced or whose English is less-than-perfect; to straddle two cultures while never feeling fully comfortable in either.
I think my perspective can challenge our predominantly white, highly educated, relatively socio-economically affluent and powerful denomination to consider faith and life through a different lens, to come at the questions and answers we seek from a different angle.
For instance, one of my key theological beliefs is that God created diversity and rejoices in it. I believe our differences are what strengthen the Body of Christ. I recognize that one of the reasons I believe this so fully is because I simply have to. I live and navigate this difference every day. I have no choice but to believe that diversity is a gift from, difficult though it may often be.
One other example is that for me, as a young person growing up as a second-generation Korean American in Texas, church was my extended family. Church raised me. My parents were not always able to be present because they worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. But they relied on the church to be there for me; we were a true community. That sense of communal dependence and support is expected, and an important perspective that is often lost in American culture and society.
What led you to pursue ordination as a Teaching Elder?
I suppose the word “call” comes to mind. Others heard the call for me and encouraged me to take steps towards ordination as a Teacher Elder, and for a long time the call was “external.” I began seminary not knowing what I wanted to do upon graduation.
While in seminary, I began to develop my own voice and to individuate (studies show APA young adults tend to individuate later in life, so maybe I wasn’t all that behind the curve from my peers.) And that’s when I began to experience that sense of call for myself.
Describe your current call. What is your role? What is the racial/ethnic composition of the place you serve?
I serve at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco which is about 1000 members and whose racial/ethnic composition probably mirrors that of the denomination. My full title is Associate Pastor for Community Formation, and my focus is on building community on and beyond Sunday mornings through education and fellowship. I supervise the children, youth, and family ministries and am directly involved with confirmation. Worship, mission & service, and pastoral care are also a part of what I do, and much of the ministry here is shared rather than silo-ed.
How do you think our denomination can best benefit/be enriched by the perspectives of Asian Pacific American Presbyterians?
As previously stated, I believe diversity is created by God and the best expression of the Body of Christ. I believe we are strengthened as a church when many voices, perspectives, and experiences are present and valued at the table. While every Asian Pacific American brings their own unique gifts and perspectives, as APA Presbyterians, we bring voices of immigration, of interfaith dialog from within our own families, of generational differences and of straddling cultures, of internment and forced migration, of language barriers, and of being perceived as perpetual foreigners. And while we are still a minority in the PCUSA, we bring faith communities that are thriving and oftentimes growing in membership, too.
Too often, APA voices are included but not always heard. They are present but not always valued. When these voices share perspectives that are inconvenient or requires change, they are silenced or ignored, and excuses and justifications are made for upholding the system as it currently is.
I think this denomination would best be enriched by the perspectives of APA Presbyterians by resisting tokenism and being open to mutual transformation through these relationships.