Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Rev. Yena K. Hwang

Welcome to the blog series celebrating the 2015 Asian Pacific American Hertiage Month, inspired by the "Our New Day Begun" series celebrating Black History Month by the Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson. This month, you will read profiles of Asian Pacific American Presbyterian leaders, spanning many generations and ethnicities. Check back throughout May for more profiles!

A look back at previous posts:
Presbyterians Celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
The Rev. Charlene Han Powell
The Rev. Phil Tom
The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow
The Rev. Joann Haejong Lee
The Rev. Shawn Kang
The Rev. Neal Presa
The Rev. Jim Huang

The Rev. Yena K. Hwang is the Associate Pastor for Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church, and lives in Falls Church, VA.

Are you a “cradle Presbyterian,” or did you come to the tradition later in life?

I came into the Presbyterian tradition as a child.  My great-grandfather accepted Christianity through his encounter with early Methodist missionaries to Korea.  He helped build the first Methodist church in his village, Mu-Reung Methodist Church in our family’s hometown of Gangwon Providence in South Korea.  My father’s family maintained the church as deacons and provided leadership in the church.  

However, my father left the faith during his early young adult life.  When I came along, my parents were not connected to the church.  As a matter of fact, my earliest memories of “spiritual” or “religious” experiences were associated with Buddhism, because my parents were exploring Buddhist faith at the time.  

When I was in third grade, my parents decided to go back to the Christian faith. They chose to go back to my father’s roots and chose a large Methodist church located in downtown Seoul. Being restaurateurs at the time, they did not attend Sunday worship regularly, so instead of having me attend church worship services sporadically with them, they allowed me to attend a local Presbyterian church with my friends. Every Sunday, I walked to Hoo-Am Presbyterian Church, in my neighborhood, and attended the children’s worship service and Sunday school program without my parents. 

We immigrated to the States when I was eleven years old. When we arrived in Baltimore, MD, and transitioned into our new life in America, we were cared for by other Korean immigrants who were members of a Korean Presbyterian church in nearby Towson, MD. The deacons of that church reached out to us and cared for us. We joined the Presbyterian church at that time, because of their caring outreach. It was a practical and intentional decision for my parents, because it was important for my parents to make this transition as immigrants, with a firm footing not only in faith in God, but in the community that shared that faith. Denominational ties were not as important.

What do you most appreciate about this tradition? 

Ours is a tradition that values knowledge and believes in evaluating continually what we profess to believe. We desire to deepen our faith by seeking knowledge and understanding, so we can grow to a renewed, deeper, and perhaps, transformed faith.  I appreciate the inclusive nature of our tradition that claims strongly in word and deed the “priesthood of all believers,” even when the desire to include “all” forces us to reinterpret our past understanding and stand toe-to-toe in conflict when that new interpretation rattles and unnerves people who are resistant and fearful of that change.

What about it do you think needs to be changed or addressed?

Related to the previous question/answer, because we value expanding our knowledge and experience, and because we value inclusiveness, we need to address the issue of who are invited to the process of creating those conversations that lead to changes in the larger system. Because of our denomination’s belief about being inclusive, we do a decent job of invite “minority” voices to leadership circles and committees of various levels, but are we really bringing “minority” voices? 

We need to be more honest with ourselves. Just because I am a female clergy of Korean descent, I get invited to all kinds of leadership opportunities. This is not a complaint. This is just a fact. However, I ask myself:  do I truly bring a minority voice? Yes, in certain context I do, but in other contexts, I do not. I have two master’s degrees from Presbyterian seminaries of distinction. I didn’t have to fight for my right to get married to my college sweetheart. When I bring my children somewhere, I am not asked if I’m their biological mother. I live in one of the most affluent counties in the United States, where I don’t have to worry about the quality of education my children are receiving with my tax dollars. I serve an affluent medium size church, where I don’t have to worry about whether or not I am going to receive my paycheck on time.  I live a privileged life as a person employed full-time in a respected profession. Am I really a good model of a minority voice? 

If we are genuinely concerned and invested in enlarging the pool of voices, we need to look beyond what we have typically looked in the past. All minorities are not all minorities. Diversity is not that easy to achieve.

How do you think your perspective as an Asian Pacific American can enrich the denomination? 

Asian Pacific Americans share very little in common as a whole. When we say Asian Pacific Americans, we are talking about Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descents. According to Wikipedia, yes, a very reliable source, this distinction of Asian Pacific American includes, "A person with origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or the Pacific Islands. This area includes, for example, China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Samoa; and on the Indian Subcontinent, includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan.” (U.S. Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Program’s definition)

The “Asian” designation, alone, covers 49 different countries! So by designation itself, we embody diversity! Do I need to answer this any further? 

What led you to pursue ordination as a Teaching Elder?

I felt the “call” early on as a college student. I felt like I had something to offer those living a so-called a “hyphenated” life as Korean-Americans or Chinese-Americans, etc. I wanted to honor our first generation’s (Korean immigrants) understanding of what it means to be a faithful Christian, a faithful daughter, a faithful son, a faithful__fill in the blank____, while expanding what that “faithful” looked like in various contexts. I wanted to help bridge the gap between the different generations and different cultures, through providing different perspectives that are spiritual and theological and Biblical. So I pursued a master’s and with my MDiv., I felt like I could add my voice to the conversations concerning spirituality, faithfulness, best practices, discipleship, etc. that influenced and impacted faith communities. I struggled with the decision to seek ordination for various reasons. But eventually I got tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. I got weary of having to defend/ prove myself, simply because I did not have the “Reverend” title in front of my name. I finally got ordained as a Teaching Elder. Sexism is real. Racism is alive. The title gets me into places where I can add my voice about these and other issues that are plaguing our society, to raise awareness, to educate, and to move us out of complacency and a false sense of achievement.

Describe your current call. What is your role? What is the racial/ethnic composition of the place you serve?

I serve as Associate Pastor for Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church.  Fairfax Presbyterian Church is a 600 + member church, 92% White and 8% others that include Asian Americans, African Americans, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic members. Located in the suburb of an economically diverse northern Virginia, our church welcomes people of diverse backgrounds, including theological and political views, but the reality is that most of our members are in the privileged class.  

My role as Associate Pastor of Christian Formation is to provide educational opportunities through worship experiences, programs, and relationship building experiences, to nurture faith in Christ, from cradle to grave.

How do you think our denomination can best benefit/be enriched by the perspectives of Asian Pacific American Presbyterians?

Our denomination can best benefit and be enriched by the perspectives of Asian Pacific American Presbyterians, and other non-dominant ethnic groups for that matter, by listening to their specific stories, valuing those stories, learning from them, and including them to broaden and enlarge our understanding of how God works in the world. God speaks to all people and all people have stories to tell of God. These stories should be heard and embraced, so as to recognize the power and value that are inherent in them. These stories should be valued, not because they are “minority” stories that make our denomination look diverse, but because they are telling the stories of God who has always worked in the margins. These stories should be learned and included as stories to nurture our spirituality, not in the spirit of tokenism, but in the spirit of humble desire to learn from all people of God, and because their stories reflect various ways in which God works through and around people. Our denomination will grow spiritually, qualitatively and quantitatively, when we are willing to share leadership, decision-making, and power with voices in the margins - true margins.  

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