The Elliot Rodger tragedy and Asian American ministry

Most of the responses to the Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage have drawn necessary attention to mental illness and gun violence. Emil Guillermo, after analyzing Rodger’s “manifesto,” highlights a racial dimension that has implications for ministry in racially diverse contexts. Guillermo argues that Rodger acted largely out of disdain for his mixed-race features (he was hapa, i.e., half-Asian; his mother is Chinese).

Emil Guillermo 8-100x100See Emil Guillermo’s blog “Elliot Rodger’s manifesto shows self-hate fueled anti-Asian violence that kicked off Isla Vista rampage” (May 25, 2014)

Blaming this for his sexual frustration and relational isolation, Rodger lashed out last Friday. The Isla Vista rampage left 7 dead and 13 wounded. Three of the dead were Chinese Americans from the S.F. Bay Area (one attended a youth ministry of a Chinese church in San Jose).

I don’t want to over-analyze the racial dimensions of this tragic situation. But I believe that they have implications for ministry, especially ministry among Asian Americans. Let me begin by assuming that a racialized world will reproduce racialized subjectivities. That is to say, the way we view and value ourselves is largely determined by the way our society structures and assigns value, power, and beauty to different racial categories. Much of our self-worth depends on what we embrace from our society’s diverse perceptions about race.

Of course we don’t all think the same way about race. Many of us who grew up in an Asian ethnic “bubble” did not feel devalued until we entered the mainstream, despite the media’s tendency to present “whiteness” as the norm. Those who grew up in largely white or multiethnic settings sometimes resort to “colorblindness” to escape self-stigmatization. Others might exaggerate their race/ethnicity/culture in order to garner attention that can be, in some cases, very rewarding. Race may be deeply submerged, laying just beneath the surface, or at the core of our feelings about ourselves. But it is always present within our consciousnesses. It gives us this nagging feeling that being white (and male) is simply better. That nagging feeling is one of the ways racialization in our social structure is reproduced within us. What does this say about ministry to Asian Americans?

God’s acceptance: the Asian American evangelical gospel?

Christians believe that our identity in Christ ought to be our most distinguishing feature. We are encouraged to live each day as a public witness to our faith, as if we were standing before the face of God (corem deo). Usually this means that our Christian identity renders irrelevant all the other aspects of who we are – such as race, gender, and social status. In fact, these identities are the result of sin. Christians should overcome, not dwell on them. Ministry and mission should therefore be blind to culture, gender, and social status.

As appealing as this sounds, it misses an important reality: social inequality, not social difference, is the result of sin. When being seen as “not” white has negative ramifications for how that person is valued or treated, it is not simply racial prejudice (check out this study). This is symptomatic of a social structure that privileges whiteness. Social inequality grows out of sinful social structures. Corporate and structural sin is just as real as individual and personal sin.

But racial, gender, and economic inequality don’t exist in a worldview where structural sin is not seen. In this worldview, racialized subjectivities are not ministry concerns.

However, can one say that the God of the Bible doesn’t care about social inequality?

Many Christians believe that God cares deeply. For them, living corem deo includes bearing witness against structural sins and their consequences. Over the last twenty years, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has developed a ministry strategy for overcoming the negative effects of racial inequality that Asian Americans experience. The inequality often finds expressions through self-hatred, feeling unaccepted and devalued, seeking worth through performance, and placing undue faith in meritocracy. This ministry stresses the importance of embracing Asian American culture, ethnicity, and race.

The basic gist of this ministry is this:

God created and placed us in our cultural, ethnic, and racial settings. Sin diminishes Asian social identities and favors others. Rather than rejecting or escaping them, we need to realize that our identities are not marks of worthlessness. Rather, they are gifts from God. God transforms what our world sees as insignificant into something with tremendous significance and purpose. So we don’t have to feel embarrassed or devalued. 

An example of this approach can be found in this video clip (thanks Roy Tinklenburg):

 

As you can see, the spiritual discovery happens when the Asian American believer realizes that God accepts him or her. Instead of the futile efforts of earning societal acceptance and meeting family expectations, we rest in God’s declaration that we are worthy (in view of Christ’s work on the cross). This message transposes into the Asian American context the basic Reformation and evangelical insight of sola gratia.

There is no doubt in my mind that God’s acceptance is a message Asian Americans need to hear. It is a message that rings true for multi-race people and others who are marginalized, too.

But, in my opinion, it is just a first step. There are many questions that still need to be considered by Asian Americans as we minister to them. For example:

  • Now that I can accept who I am, what do I do with this knowledge? [i.e., the sanctification question]
  • What in my Asian culture needs to be redeemed? After all, God’s creation, despite being declared good originally, is still marred by sin.
  • What does social equality look like as an Asian American Christian? Does this mean fighting against any and all forms of discrimination and injustice?
  • Should I openly support Asian American causes? (e.g., APA programs in colleges or seminaries, Asian American politics or community activism, Asian American specific ministries)
  • Should I take pride in being Asian? How? (e.g., promote Asian American studies or cultural immersions)
  • How do I share this new insight to non-Asians? What role do they play in all of this?
  • Should I belong to an immigrant Asian church? Should I go to a multi-ethnic church?
  • Whichever church or ministry I join, how much of my Asian American identity should be part of conversation? How can I contribute this part of who I am?

I don’t know all the answers, but I’m eager to connect with others who are also interested in these questions.  I cannot say that the message of God’s acceptance would have prevented Elliot Rodger from slipping down the slope of self-destruction, hatred, and violence. I wonder if he and many others would have benefited from a ministry that pays as much attention to the “racial dimensions” of our contemporary life as InterVarsity’s Asian American ministries. But I’m convinced that greater attention to the questions raised by those who are invested in Asian American ministries will contribute to a better self-image,  mental health, and spiritual maturity for the Church and those to whom she is called to minister.

Asian American Legacy: James Chuck looks to the future of Chinese American churches in the 1970s

Rev. Dr. James Chuck, Th.D.

Rev. Dr. James Chuck, Th.D.

I was honored to participate in a tribute to the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. James Chuck on Feb. 8, 2014 sponsored by ISAAC NorCal. Dr. Chuck was pastor of the First Chinese Baptist Church, San Francisco, for forty years. After his retirement, he had a second twenty-year career as a theological educator at the American Baptist Seminary of the West/Graduate Theological Union. He is one of my favorite mentors and, a hero, in my eyes, of building bridges between mainline Protestants and evangelicals. I’m sure that this will not be the last time I share about James in my Asian American Christian legacy blogs!

Let me first highlight two of Dr. Chuck’s studies that are still available:

1. James is the principle author of the 2008 Bay Area Chinese Church Research project report. You can purchase a copy at: http://www.lulu.com/shop/timothy-tseng-and-james-chuck/the-2008-report-bay-area-chinese-churches-research-project-phase-ii/ebook/product-17412321.html

2. Three volumes of Chinatown Stories of Life and Faith,  oral histories of First Chinese Baptist Church, San Francisco. Here is a description:

chinatown Stories Vol. IIIn 2002, the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco began a project to preserve and share the life stories of persons connected with the church, plus some others from the Chinatown Community. Participants talk about parents, growing up, schooling, marriage and family, work, and faith and values. The stories are contained in three volumes: the first published in 2002, the second in 2008, and Volume III in 2012, with each volume containing about 60 stories. Volume I is no longer available for general distribution, but some copies have been saved out for libraries who may want to purchase a single copy. Collectively, the three volumes, which is illustrated with hundreds of photographs, provides a rich travel trove of stories of Chinese Americans negotiating life in 20th Century America. Copies are available for purchase from First Chinese Baptist Church, 1 Waverly Place, San Francisco, California, 94108. (415) 362-4139. 20.00 per copy; 15.00 per copy for three or more copies.

Now, the historical document!

“Where Are the Chinese Churches Heading in the 1970’s?” is a presentation that James gave to the Chinese Christian Union in early 1970. He shares the findings of a study of Chinese churches in the Bay Area. The study shows that the then current generation of predominantly English-speaking Chinese mainline Protestants were at their peak of spiritual vitality. While he also noted the increasing visibility of Chinese American evangelicalism, he and his peers “did not anticipate the growth of Chinese churches with overseas roots, or the many independent groups that has arisen since.” [James Chuck email, Feb. 24, 2014]

In the second part of his presentation, he offers suggestions about the future direction of Chinese American churches. In retrospect, James was amazingly prescient. He agreed with emergent Chinese American evangelicalism in the 1970s about the centrality of evangelism in congregational life. Indeed, the impressive growth of immigrant and American-born Chinese evangelicalism since 1970 has almost overshadowed the legacy of the earlier generation of mainline Protestant Chinese Americans. Perhaps James anticipated this. Thus, he expressed concern about the loss or negligence of public witness among Chinese American Christians.

As we fast forward thirty years, we witness a new generation of Chinese American evangelicals who are expressing the same concern. Many have left Chinese churches, in part, because few Chinese evangelical church leaders have paid attention to Dr. Chuck’s call for a balanced theology of ministry. – Tim Tseng

* * *

Where Are the Chinese Churches Heading in the 1970’s? 
Rev. James Chuck, Th.D.
Chinese Christian Union of S.F. • Feb. 28, 1970

I.

When we speak of a “Chinese” church, we are speaking of a church which sees its special responsibility as that of reaching the Chinese. The issue is not whether we need a Chinese church as such. That is a secondary question. The main question is who will work among the Chinese, and how can this work be best carried out?

Protestant work among the Chinese has a history of over one hundred years. That work has included a variety of ministries, including the teaching of English, the teaching of Chinese, rescue missions, social services, children and youth programs, etc. Within these missions, staffed mostly by missionaries, were organized “Chinese” churches led by pastors who were for the most part from China. This was a situation which continued through the 1940’s.

As more and more of the American born became assimilated into the American way of life, the English speaking element within the churches gradually became more predominant. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, this element within the Chinese churches supplied more and more of the leadership and financial support. This period began to raise the question as to whether or not there will continue to be a need for Chinese churches as such. The influx of new immigrants in recent years has, of course, introduced a new dimension to this question.

In May of 1968, the Bureau of Community Research connected with the Pacific School of Religion published a report entitled, “A Study of Chinese Churches in the San Francisco Bay Area.” The report found 34 predominantly Chinese congregations in the Bay Area, two times the number in 1952. This increase can be almost entirely accounted for by new groups coming to work among the Chinese. Denominations such as the Lutherans, Southern Baptists, the Reformed Church, Nazarenes, etc. established work among the Chinese, as well as independent groups with special attraction to student groups, the Mandarin speaking, and other sub-groups of Chinese not being reached by the existing churches. Churches in the Bay Area averaged 120 members; in San Francisco, 240. Including Roman Catholics, Chinese churches were reaching, either as members or as constituents, about 25% of the Chinese population.

From the study, the following profile of the membership emerged. First, the membership was middle class. 70% were married and have middle size families; 50% belong to professional, business, or clerical; and 80% work outside of Chinatown. Secondly, the membership was found to be youthful, with one half of the members between the ages of 25-44. They are undoubtedly the products of the youth programs of the late 1940’s through the early 60’s. Thirdly, the majority of the membership (63%) were born in the United States. Fourthly, most of the members (59%) listed English as their dominant language. The study also found that 70% of the governing boards of these churches consisted of English speaking persons. This profile confirms the observation that the Chinese churches – at least among those which belong to the mainline denominations and have a comparatively speaking long history – are made up primarily of English speaking persons.

The report also found that a third of the membership of these churches live within a mile of the church building, but another third had to travel more than five miles to get to church. Nevertheless, the activity level was fairly high, with 52% reporting that they attend church at least once a week; and 58% reporting that they belong to at least one church group besides attending worship.

The new factor in the Chinese churches is the arrival of a great number of new immigrants in recent years. To varying degrees, they have made an impact upon the churches. Some churches have made the reaching of these new immigrants the main thrust of their work. Other churches have created separate and parallel programs, all the way from polite indifference to open conflict. While these new arrivals hold promise of giving new life to our churches, differences in background, theology, understanding of the scriptures, style of life, etc. could be decisive unless this new challenge is intelligently and creatively met.

These are some of the sociological facts, defining the context in which the Chinese church must do its work. In order, however, to delineate where the church is heading in the 1970’s, it is also necessary to look into the church’s understanding of its mission.

II.

Evangelism, in the broad sense of the term, stands at the center of all that the church does. Evangelism means making the new life in Christ available to all men everywhere. It is simply the carrying out of the Great Commission to “make disciples.”

Evangelism, broadly conceived, involves at least four stages. The first is contact, making some connection, getting next to the people we are trying to reach. The second stage is cultivation. People simply are not able to make any meaningful decision without some prior preparation of heart and mind. The third stage is commitment, the glad and willing response of a person to the call of Christian discipleship. The fourth step is conservation, the continuing process of nurture and growth whereby committed persons express their faith in loving service to others in the name of Christ.

From this it can be readily seen that the vehicles of evangelism involves nothing less than the totality of all that the church does. Christian education, social service, social action committees, and services of worship are necessary either as preparation for, or as an expression of, the new life in Christ. Mass evangelistic meetings (emphasizing the element of commitment) is meaningful only when placed within the total context of nurture and the life of service and witness.

The church’s main task, therefore, is to call men to respond in love and trust to God through Christ. That is where the Christian life begins. This relation which man has with God is always deeply personal, even mystical, in nature. One of the main contributions of the conservative wing of the Christian faith is to constantly remind us of that fact.

However, we need to go on to say that although faith is intensely personal, it is never private. Much harm has been done to the Christian cause with the uncritical identification of the personal with the private. True faith always seeks to find ways of expressing the love of God in love for neighbor. The Christian lives a “separated” existence only in the sense that his life is different from, or distinguishable from that of the world; but the Christian never lives apart from the world. He is in the world but not of it. He relates to the world as salt, light, and leaven.

Much of the recent criticism of the church today is precisely at this point: the church has not been sufficiently concerned about the large social issues such as injustice, war, the pollution of the environment, etc., being too often preoccupied exclusively with personal morality and the salvation of the individual’s soul.

It is extremely unfortunate that in the fundamentalist-liberal controversy, which goes back now at least half a century, commitment to Jesus Christ in a deep personal sense and concern for the world and its needs are seen as opposites. Why could we not have said that the more deeply we are committed to Christ, the more we will be committed to the world and its needs? And conversely, the more we are committed to the world and its needs, the more we will see the need for the new life in Christ.

Now when people ask the question, “What is your church doing?”, I believe we must not hesitate to say that the main thing we are doing is to bring to men the new life in Christ. But I also believe that the fullness of faith must be expressed not only in deep personal commitment, but also in works of love: for much of the outside world will understand our commitment only in terms of our works of love.

Where the Chinese churches are heading in the 1970’s depends on how those of us who belong to Chinese churches respond to the new challenges and opportunities, and this in turn depends largely on our understanding of what the mission of the church is. Three factors, it seems to me, are relevant:

  1. The quality of commitment we bring to bear on the work of the Chinese churches. If we seek first the Kingdom — give this matter of reaching the Chinese top priority as far as energy and resources are concerned — then we may see some notable progress made in the coming decade.
  2. The fullness of our understanding of the Gospel, taking seriously both parts of the great commandment. The whole Gospel should be deeply personal and socially relevant at the same time. The 1970’s are not a time to retreat to an individualistic perversion of the Gospel. We must not only move ahead, but in the right direction.
  3. The quality of leadership we can bring to bear in reaching all age groups and conditions of men. We are beginning to see emerging in the Chinese churches a quality of mature churchmanship such as we have never seen in the history of the Chinese churches in America. Whether all the potential that is there can be effectively channeled is for the present an open question. The present generation of Christians in our churches is probably better trained, and has more in the way of financial and other resources, than any previous generation. If we are good stewards, we may write a significant chapter in the history of the Chinese church in America.

Book review of Scott Zesch, _The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871_ (2012).

Cross posting a book review. – Tim Tseng

H-ETHNIC REVIEW

Scott Zesch. The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871. New York Oxford University Press, 2012. Illustrations. xii + 283 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-975876-0.

Reviewed by Sharon Sekhon (The Studio for Southern California History, University of California-Fullerton)

Published on H-Ethnic (March, 2013) Commissioned by Amy J. Johnson

Scott Zesch’s The Chinatown War is an important study about the October 24, 1871, killing of eighteen Chinese men and boys, an event that gave Los Angeles its first international notoriety. In relaying this history, Zesch weaves together the stories and storytelling of this tragic event. Historians have long grappled with nineteenth-century Chinese California but have done so in ways that have privileged a top down and/or institutional approach, relying on the scant historical record: legislation, court records, and public documents. Immigration historians, influenced by Robert Park’s Chicago School of Sociology, have used assimilation as the model from which to measure a success driven narrative of the Chinese experience. Other historians have focused on the possibility or impossibility of the Chinese to ever be considered “American” by dominant nineteenth-century society. More recent histories have included a global consideration of immigration in addition to local networks of support. In this continuum, very little has been written on the Chinese Massacre, and it has been presented as an extension of an Anglo-centered story. The Chinese undoubtedly were victims of a xenophobic and anti-Christian society that exploited their labor and them as political foes when it suited. And the public violence exacted against the Chinese served as immediate and long-term lessons to Chinese immigrants’ place in Los Angeles hierarchy.

Zesch, an independent scholar, drops any attempts at integrating these tidy narratives into a larger historiography. He provides the messy and often contradictory details that make history compelling and perhaps more accessible to our own chaotic lives. Concerned with how cultures clash in different historical contexts, Zesch has authored several significant histories including fictional accounts as well as the acclaimed history of his great-great-great uncle in he Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier (2004). The Chinatown War is a direct and intimate look into one of the most horrific instances of mob violence in Los Angeles history with a focus on the human agents; the complicated series of events during the riots; and the role of Los Angeles’ law enforcement before, during, and after the massacre. Not only does Zesch aptly put this event into its proper contexts, but he also demonstrates the diverse responses by Los Angelenos to the Chinese. Whenever possible, Zesch uses the testimony and writings of the Chinese to share their hitherto unshared point of view. This book is a recovery project that gathers new information on the years leading up to the 1871 event and subsequent court cases.

The Chinatown War is organized into two sections. Part 1 explores the foundations of Chinese life in Los Angeles, documenting the reasons individuals came to California; the lawlessness in the area, the societies and institutions that the Chinese formed to navigate and prosper in such a hostile environment; and the much-publicized differences between the Chinese and the rest of the population. Part 2 builds on the foundations established in part 1 to show how these factors shaped the events leading up to the Chinese Massacre. Zesch breaks new ground in sharing not only the details of the night, but also the events leading up to October 24 that were three years in the making; the massacre was one in a series of hate crimes against the Chinese. As the book’s title conveys, that day was brutal in a war on the Chinese and not an isolated event. Sources include court records, newspaper accounts, and memoirs from Anglo-American “pioneers” from the mid- to late nineteenth century. Zesch shows that much of the vitriolic rhetoric against the Chinese in local newspapers was reprinted from publications in San Francisco and northern California, home to the nativist Workingmen’s Party.

Missing from Zesch’s investigation is an in-depth analysis of the sources. The author undoubtedly provides a critical lens to all of the content and discusses the impermanence of the Chinese from historical memory. However, a more thorough examination of the motivations behind the local presses and memoirs would substantiate this telling of the Chinese experience in the mid- to late nineteenth century.

This book is rich with reproduced source material. Included are advertisements, photographs, drawings, and maps from local archives, such as the Huntington Library and the Seaver Center for Western History Research. Zesch’s informative captions provide a visual materiality to the detailed history. For example, included is a nondescript black-and-white photograph from the Seaver Center with the following caption: “This 1869 photograph shows Commercial Street from its T-intersection with Main Street, looking east toward Herman Heinsch’s two-storied saddle and harness shop (which was replaced by the present-day Federal Building). Three Chinese were hanged from a wagon parked on the south (right) side of the street”. The Chinatown War situates its subjects geographically whenever possible, and provides information on the site of an event in relationship to its current location.

While the entire book is captivating, chapter 4, “Daughters of the Sun and Moon,” on the wretched lives of Chinese women is especially illuminating. It provides an unflinching look at Los Angeles’ seen and public Chinese women and extrapolates on the lives of hidden married Chinese women. Zesch demonstrates how the conditions for human trafficking and treatment of Chinese women left some of them continually brutalized and dying alone, destitute in back alleys.

The Chinatown War is an ideal candidate for educators teaching courses on Los Angeles and the history of the West, as well as general surveys on the nineteenth century, sociology, and American studies. While the book uses Los Angeles as its example, the lessons drawn from this case study are applicable to a nation that continues to struggle with immigration, controlled networks of information, and its history.

Citation: Sharon Sekhon. Review of Zesch, Scott, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871. H-Ethnic, H-Net Reviews. March, 2013.

URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=37048

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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