What if Vincent Chin was an evangelical Chinese Christian? (Expanded)

December 5, 2016

This year, there has been an increase in anti-immigrant and racist incidents across the country. President-elect Donald Trump’s election campaign, which openly courted these sentiments, has been blamed for emboldening many people to perpetrate such acts. The church that I pastor was an apparent victim of such an attack just prior to the elections. Two backward swastikas and the word “die” were etched into a window and door in the back of our building as you can see in these photos:

We have not been able to find the perpetrators. When I posted these photos on my Facebook feed, I alluded to the elections, but provided little additional commentary. Most of my Facebook friends viewed this incident as an instance of a renewed climate of racism and nativism. Many, many friends and churches offered supportive words. Some even offered to help pay to replace the windows.

Many folks at my church, however, appeared more perplexed than angered or fearful. After all, this incident could have been a mere prank rather than an overtly racist act. Our large English and Chinese sign would have made us an easy target for pranksters or white nationalists. Even after local news reported numerous anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant incidents, my members did not seem to want to talk much more about it.

I think it’s safe to say that most Asian immigrant and conservative evangelical Christians are averse to addressing explicitly the structural sin that leads to racial discrimination, the violations of civil rights, and other seemingly minor acts of intimidation. Most of us are more comfortable engaging Family Values activism and remaining satisfied with being charitable. To paraphrase sociologist Christian Smith, like most of the evangelical world, most of us Chinese Christians do not have the “theological tool kit” to understand the systemic nature of racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice.

But what if more conservative Asian American evangelical Christians discovered that speaking against racial injustice, for example, is a core faith commitment? What if we learned how to break free from privatized spiritual habits? The editors at Inheritance Magazine challenged me to imagine an alternative history. So I came up with a fictionalized story of how an influential Chinese American evangelical family helped the Chinese Church in America to break their silence around racial injustice.

Because of space limitations in Inheritance Magazine, my original story was shortened considerably. So here is an expanded version. But remember, this never happened! Let me know what you think! – Tim

about-photo

Dr. Tony Yang


Update Dec. 6, 2016. Last June, fellow historian Dr. Tony Yang interviewed me to discuss racism and my Vincent Chen story in his “I’ll Look Into It” pod cast. [go to illlookintoit.org].

Here is the interview: 


Original Article: Timothy Tseng, “Chinese Evangelical Vincent Chin Pronounced Dead: What if Vincent Can had been an evangelical Christian?Inheritance Magazine (June 2016): 34-37

NOTE: In this story, Truman Wong, Chinese Evangelical Missionary Society and Go for Christ Missions, the narrator and his family are fictitious. The rest of the story is based on actual historical accounts.

San Francisco, California

June 20, 1982

“Why was he in a place like that?” Mom nearly shouted into the phone. “Okay, we’ll pray for him and for you. Please let us know if anything changes.”

Mom hung up the phone and returned to the dinner table. She could barely contain her agitation. “That was your aunt Lily. Cousin Vincent is in the hospital now. Very badly beaten. In a coma. Two men were arrested. They were white.”

“What happened?” Flora and I asked in unison.

“She’s not sure what happened. Vincent was at a topless club last night. We don’t know why he was beaten so badly.”

“What about his wedding? Are we still going to Detroit next week?”

“Flora!” mom was agitated. “We should be praying for Vincent!”

My sister Flora just graduated high school but had the sensitivity of a fifth grader. But she was right. Our family was planning to attend Vincent and Vikki’s wedding next week. But Vincent was in the hospital and everything was up in the air.

It’s not as if our families were very close. Mom and Vincent’s mom were not real sisters. They met at the Chinese Bible Church (CBC) of Detroit back in the early 60s before the church moved into the suburbs. Cousin Vincent had been recently adopted. Even though Uncle David was an American World War II vet, he worked all his life in Chinese laundries. Brought over from Canton province in China as a war bride, Aunt Lily also worked in laundries and restaurants. She found a support network at the church and mom became her best friend. At that time, dad and mom started the Chinese Evangelical Missionary Society (CEMS) at CBC. Years later, as CEMS grew into one of the largest Chinese para-church organizations in North America, our family moved to the Bay Area.

When CBC moved to Detroit’s northern suburbs, Lily and Vincent stopped attending. They said that the church was too far away, but I suspect that its new middle-class Mandarin-speaking professional members made it less comfortable for the working-class Cantonese-speaking Chins. But after Vincent’s dad died last year, Aunt Lily and Vincent started going to CBC again. Mom and Aunt Lily renewed their friendship. We heard that cousin Vincent was making his way into computer graphics field (whatever that was) and looking to purchase a new house.[1] His mom was planning on moving in with him and Vikki. We were especially delighted to learn that Vincent and Vikki had re-committed their lives to Christ and had started to attend the English ministry at CBC.

But for some inexplicable reason , Vincent was at a topless bar. And now everything was up in the air.

March 16, 1983

Instead of a wedding, we made the trip to Detroit for the funeral. We found out that Vincent’s friends persuaded him to have a bachelor’s party at the Fancy Pants strip club for one last fling. Such a tragic decision for a guy whose life was heading in the right direction. Everyone was glad that Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz were apprehended. The good folks at CBC encouraged Lily and Vikki to forgive as they awaited the hearings. But Aunt Lily, having lost her husband and her son over the past two years, confessed that forgiveness was the last thing on her mind.

Today, however, Judge Charles Kaufman had found Ebens and Nitz guilty of manslaughter. But he sentenced each of them to just three years probation, a $3,000 fine, and no jail time. No prosecuting attorney was present and neither Lily nor any witnesses were called to testify.

“Are you certain that you want to do this, Lily?” mom had been on the phone for over an hour.

“Yes! Vincent was my only son. And I cannot rest until there is justice for him! He needs to rest in peace, too. I am all alone now and really need your help.” We could tell Aunt Lily was crying bitterly as her voice shrieked over the phone.

After praying with Aunt Lily, mom and dad gathered our family for a discussion. When she shared the details of Judge Kaufmann’s ruling, we were all shocked.

Lily’s very upset. She wants to appeal the ruling,” mom said. “and she wants our support to hire legal counsel. She will ask for help from CBC and the Detroit Chinese Welfare Council.”Despite thinking that racial prejudice was behind the light sentencing, we didn’t want to entertain that thought any further. Nevertheless we decided to donate some money for Aunt Lily’s appeal.

June 5, 1983

Our family dinner conversation was tense.

“I want to go to the rally,” Flora insisted. “I’ll be safe. It’s being organized by some Asian American churches in the Bay Area.”

“Which churches?” asked dad.

“The Chinese Community Church of Berkeley, a couple of Japanese congregations, I think. I know that Chinese Presbyterian Church of San Francisco and folks from Cameron House are involved.”

“Well, I’m not sure we should associate with liberal Christians. The greatest Chinese evangelists taught us to avoid them. They care too much about worldly affairs instead of preaching the gospel. That’s what John Sung concluded after his studies at Union Theological Seminary. And he was right. After the war, these Christians compromised with the Chinese Communists. Chinese evangelicals should focus on preaching the gospel and building up our churches.”

“But most of my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship friends will be there, too” Flora said. “So will many local American-born Chinese evangelicals. This isn’t about fellowshipping with non-Christians or liberals! It’s about speaking up for justice. And isn’t that part of the bible, too?”

Detroit’s Chinese community had gone ballistic over Judge Kaufman  and refusal to acknowledge their anger. Yes, the American auto industry was tanking, but blaming someone who looked like a Japanese person for it and then beating him to death… and then that judge’s sentence made me boil over. I was especially outraged when I learned that Kaufmann said, when questioned about the sentencing, that Ebens and Nitz “aren’t the kind of men you send to jail. You fit the punishment to the criminal, not the crime.” How could a statement like that NOT diminish the value of Vincent Chin’s life?

American Citizens for Justice (ACJ) was formed in late March to coordinate the community outcry. Members of twenty groups in Detroit formed ACJ, including the Detroit Buddhist Church, the Chinese Community Church, and Chinese Bible Church. Their legal team appeared to have found evidence of racial discrimination when one of the dancers reported hearing Ebens making racist epithets at Vincent and his companions before the fight broke out. They sought federal civil rights investigation into the case. ACJ also mobilized many groups to raise national attention and apply public pressure for a fair sentencing. On May 9 about 1,000 marchers rallied in downtown Detroit to protest the sentences. Rallies were planned for a number of major cities, including the one upcoming in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“But I don’t see how making all this ruckus with angry rallies will help,” dad opined. “Isn  If this wasn

As the General Secretary of an important Chinese evangelical para-church organization, he was never expected to speak on a public issue. While increasing number of younger Chinese Christians were urging him to address the Vincent Chin case, he correctly ascertained that CEM’s support base would be highly critical of any venture into the social arena. Dad was feeling the pressure and seemed genuinely torn.

Foe instance, most expected the Chinese Community Church, a member of the liberal United Church of Christ denomination, to be part of ACJ’s effort, But we were taken by surprise by CBC  In fact, CBC circulated a letter to Chinese evangelicals and encouraged them to pray and seek justice for Vincent and Lily Chin. They wanted dad to write an editorial in the CEMS newsletter.

We were also surprised that the Fellowship of American Chinese Evangelicals (FACE) also took a public stance. Truman Wong wrote an editorial in the most recent issue of FACE’s quarterly newsletter, AboutFACE, that broached a public matter for first time ever. I shared with my dad this excerpt:

     Our brother in Christ, Vincent Chin, was not the perfect model of Christlikeness. But God was turning his life around. He was renewing his commitment to Jesus Christ and the Chinese Bible Church of Detroit….The God of the Bible is both forgiving and just. Out of love for him, his mother, Lily, and his fiancé, Vikki, we invite our fellow Chinese American evangelicals to speak out for justice. Even if you do not participate in upcoming rallies, please take time to study about biblical justice, to pray for a fair hearing, and send petitions to your local representatives.[2]

“Dad, please say something to all the Chinese churches.” Flora urged.

I interrupted, “God put you in a strategic position to give our churches the courage to raise up their voices. Don’t you remember George McKinney’s message at Urbana? At times, the church must speak up for what is right.”[3]

“And not just for Chinese Christians, but for everyone who suffers injustice,” Flora added. “Suffering for our faith doesn’t mean we have to remain silent. The next generation of Chinese American Christians will not want to be silenced.” Flora was making me proud. Just one year at Cal’s IV chapter and she was thinking like a prophet.

Mom looked directly at dad and finally spoke, “Stephen, I don’t think it is wise to remain silent. Our children need to know that we care about what they care about.”

“Okay. I’ll call Jeremiah and propose that CEMS and Go for Christ Missions make a joint statement.”

August 1, 1987

Today I start my first full-time pastorate at Chinese Bible Church in Detroit. It took me an extra year to finish up at Fuller Theological Seminary, but the delay was worth it. I was able to be part of some exciting developments. I’m not talking about the Vincent Chin case. That was a disaster. It started well enough. A federal investigation was opened, partly in response to the public pressure. In November 1983, Ebens and Nitz were indicted on two counts – violating Chin’s civil rights and conspiracy – by federal grand jury. The following June, Ebens was sentenced to 25 years in prison for violating Chin’s civil rights, but was released on a $20,000 bond. Nitz was cleared of all charges.  Then last September, a federal appeals court overturned Ebens’ conviction on a legal technicality (an attorney was accused of improperly coaching prosecution witnesses). This spring, the U.S. Department of Justice, facing intense public pressure, ordered a retrial to be held in Cincinnati, Ohio. But Ebens was cleared of all charges in May. In last month’s civil suit, Ebens was ordered to pay $1.5 million to the estate of Vincent Chin. However, he disposed of his assets and fled the state. Neither Ebens nor Nitz have spent a full day in jail for the beating death of Vincent Chin. Asian Americans are very dispirited, but new movements for racial justice – both secular and Christian – were launched.

Chinese evangelicals, in particular, have made remarkable progress. The 1983 joint statement from CEMS, Go for Christ Missions, and FACE found its way into just about every Chinese evangelical church and ministry in North America. This statement, based on the section on Social Responsibility in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, encouraged Chinese American evangelicals to more deeply explore the meaning of biblical justice and social engagement. I was one of three seminarians invited to be on a commission created to study current issues, make recommendations, and implement social justice ministry programs on behalf of the Chinese church. I believe that the commission broadened the North American Chinese evangelical church’s social concerns to include poverty, gender discrimination, and other pressing issues. After the shooting death of Greg Owyang on June 30, 1985, this commission offered reflections about violence and gun control. Truman Wong’s Chinese ministry program at Fuller Seminary and other Chinese-language seminaries incorporated the commission’s resources social justice into their curriculum. Partnerships with Asian American activist organizations were forged. Chinese evangelicals are getting a reputation for being deeply engaged with most important issues affecting Asian Americans.

The work of the commission gave overseas-born and American-born Chinese evangelicals an opportunity to work together on common issues. This ameliorated some of the inter-generational tensions within the Chinese American churches.

But not everything has turned up roses. As my dad anticipated, financial support of the groups that issued the statement shrunk. Many well-known pastors were very critical of the statement and the commission’s work. Another Chinese organization was formed to counter our public stances with politically conservative alternatives. Oh well, at least these folks are also engaging the public square.

Neverthless, I think the best thing to come out of all this was Aunt Lily’s restored faith. Yesterday she told me that she recently contemplated returning to China because she was so disgusted with the U.S. justice system’s inability to be fair to racial minorities. But after witnessing how her son’s death inspired Asian Americans and Chinese Christians to fight for justice persuaded her to stay and share her story of struggle and inspiration. Occasionally she speaks at churches and public events, but she tells me that she prefers to simply talk to young people over tea. I think Aunt Lily is becoming a symbol of the struggle! [4]

SOURCES

“Murder of Vincent Chin” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Vincent_Chin

Lian Xi, Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2010)

Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (New York, 2000) pp. 55-81

The Lausanne Covenant (1974). 5. Statement on Christian Social Responsiblity https://www.lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant
     We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all people. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression. Because men and women are made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture, class, sex or age, has an intrinsic dignity because of which he or she should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ. The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead. (Acts 17:26,31; Gen. 18:25; Isa. 1:17; Psa. 45:7; Gen. 1:26,27; Jas. 3:9; Lev. 19:18; Luke 6:27,35; Jas. 2:14-26; Joh. 3:3,5; Matt. 5:20; 6:33; II Cor. 3:18; Jas. 2:20)

NOTES

[1] http://racerelations.about.com/od/historyofracerelations/a/Remembering-Vincent-Chin.htm

[2] Chinese Bible Church actually did not participate in ACJ and did not give attention to the Vincent Chin case.

[3] George McKinney: Professing Christ In The City (Urbana 1981) https://urbana.org/urbana-81

[3] George McKinney: Professing Christ In The City (Urbana 1981) https://urbana.org/urbana-81

[4] The real Lily Chin returned to China in 1987.

Korean American Christian history contest

January 22, 2014

In the interest of promoting the history of Asian American Christianity, I’d like to announce Asian American Christian Legacy’s first blog/essay contest! (Deadline March 31, 2014)

Here are the details…

Please submit a blog or short essay about a Korean American Christian who played a significant role in Korean American, Asian American, and/or overall American Christian history (In the future, we will seek other themes. But for this contest, we’d like to encourage more engagement in the Korean American Christian experience).

David K. Yoo, Contentious Spirits. Religion in Korean American History. 1903-1945. (2010)

The winner of this contest will receive a free copy of David K. Yoo’s book Contentious Spirits: Religion in Korean American History. 1903-1945 (2010) and a $50 gift certificate.

For more information about the book go to this link:

http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=18209

Dr. David K. Yoo is currently the Director of the Asian American Studies program at UCLA. He and I go way back! He received his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and Ph.D. from Yale University. I completed my M.Div. and Ph.D. from Union Seminary (NY) at the same time. We’ve worked together on a number of ecumenical and academic projects over the years. For example, one my favorite projects was an essay about race relations for Sojourners. Here is the link to “The Changing Face of America” (1998).

It has been a privilege for me to partner with David and be considered his friend! I’m delighted to make his book available

Criteria for selecting the winner:

1. Email me the essay/blog/photos/video links no later than March 1, 2014.
2. I will judge the winning entry (with consultation with others who are familiar with the history of Korean American Christianity) by March 31, 2014.
3. The winning essay/blog will be cross-posted on the Asian American Christian Legacy Facebook page (and my blog if the winner is okay with this).
4. Criteria for selecting the winner. Please address these questions:
Does the essay/blog…
– avoid excessive academic terminology or technical jargon? The blog/essay should be accessible to a general audience.
– avoid hagiography? (e.g., only treating the subject heroically). Allow your subject to be fully human – one who is animated by complex motives and desires.
– pay enough attention to the interaction between the individual you write about and his or her historical contexts? Do race, ethnicity, culture, and politics – as well as Christian faith – affect (or is affected by) the individual? So don’t just write about a person who was a powerful evangelist or an incredible church planter.
– provide proper footnotes and attributions? The blog/essay should be familiar with relevant historical issues and historiography.
– include photos and/or audio-video materials? Though these are not required, they will be strongly considered in the final selection.

Any questions? Feel free to contact me.

Thanks!

Tim Tseng

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.

Asian Pacific American Christian history: missing or dismissed?

Presented at The Second Asian American Equipping Symposium (Feb 7-8, 2011) at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA) on Feb 4, 2011

Opening Remarks

This panel presentation will introduce the theme of the symposium, namely the interrogation of the historical amnesia in church and academy regarding Asian Pacific Americans. The following questions may be addressed:

  • Why is religion (and Christianity, in particular) missing in Asian Pacific American historical studies?
  • Why is Asian Pacific America missing in the histories of American Christianity and Church History?
  • What explains the use and misuse of social sciences in the study of APA Christian history?
  • Why is understanding Asian American history, both the particular and the common, significant in constructing APA hermeneutics and identities?

Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, the missing coin, and the prodigal son in Luke 15 serve as a backdrop to the presentation:

8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, NRSV)

How did the woman know that she was missing a coin? Don’t all the coins look the same? We don’t know, but I suspect that she felt a sense of incompleteness and disquiet that we sometimes feel: “Something is missing, I just know it!”

Among Asian American Christians, a similar sense of disquiet surrounds us. Something is amiss. Unlike the woman and God, those who notice that our stories are missing from the narrative of Christian history are few and far between.

The recent interest in global Christianity has been a welcome development. But the ignorance of the history of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is more than missing a small coin. As the story of world Christianity justifiably receives greater attention, the story of Asian Americans is still missing. Most recently, Philip Jenkins has written The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asian – and How It Died (2008). His central point is that the expansion of Christianity is not inevitable.

Nevertheless, while scholars like Jenkins, Samuel Moffett, and others are retrieving the histories of Asian Christianity – and rescuing it from mission history – the state of Asian American Christian history remains lamentable.

1.  APA Christianity is not so much missing, but dismissed in church and academy

34“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Luke 14:34-35, NRSV)

Jesus concludes the previous chapter with this cryptic remark that seems out of place. Yet, it resonates with many in the church and the academy. If something is irrelevant or insignificant and if it doesn’t seem to have a function, it should be thrown away. In so far as Christians reify the irrelevance of history and the academy reifies the insignificance of APA Christianity, the history of APA Christianity is likely to be dismissed.

When one compares this situation with African American or Latino histories where religion is so much a part of the fabric of these communities, it is deplorable that religion (and specifically Christianity) is rendered irrelevant to Asian American history. David Yoo has rehearsed some of the reasons for this in the first issue of Amerasia Journal dedicated to religion in Asian America. Allow me to state them a little differently.

  1. The religious academy is more attuned to religious diversity than racial diversity. Thus, Asian Americans are merely ethnic or cultural variations of religious traditions. The study of the way that race shapes different religious communities has not received much attention in this arena.
  2. Asian American studies, on the other hand, has been more focused on socio-political and economic factors than religion. One even senses a denigration of Asian American Christianity in some circles.
  3. Social scientific approaches have done a great service by opening up the scholarly conversation around actual APA Christian congregrations and organizations. But they are missing the historical richness of the APA experience – and are in danger of reifying the idea that APAs are recent immigrants.
  4. Historians of the American religious experience continue to wrestle with how to craft an inclusive narrative of American religion. Twenty years ago, Martin Marty wrote an article for Church History that summed up the then current state of American church history. He noted that there had been advances in the history of African American Christianity, but a paucity in Latino and Asian Pacific American Christianity. Today, the paucity still exists. And even though the recent emergence of the history of evangelicalism has reshaped the history of American religion, the master narrative remains stubbornly the same. The recent PBS series entitled “God in America” is a good example of how difficult it is to envision a history that is not centered on White Protestantism.
  5. The nature of historical research in APA communities is itself very challenging. Identifying sources, equipping researchers, and finding financial resources for historical research for a marginalized population is extremely daunting. As mainstream funding agencies shift further towards  postracial or multicultural assumptions, ethnic and race specific resources are drying up.
  6. It therefore behooves the APA churches themselves to support and sustain the historical study of their own communities. But these churches are themselves locked into an Evangelical “born-again” theological culture that dismisses history, race, and ethnicity. Most evangelicals possess an ahistorical understanding of reality. Salvation is about conversion to a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come! Thus, the old is irrelevant. This is one of the reasons why many evangelicals are so quick to embrace a post-racial vision. As J. Kameron Carter suggests in his very important study entitled Race: A Theological Account, modern Christian theology and popular culture assumes a “hierarchy of anthropological essences and the supremacy of those of a pneumatic nature within the hierarchy.” Anything rooted in history and race are considered inferior to the spiritual realm. Carter suggests that this tendency is more akin to Gnostic desire to repudiate the Jewish roots of Christianity in favor of a spiritualized Christ. Indeed, by Orientalizing the Jewish Jesus, the Gnostic strategy was to establish a hierarchy of spiritual elites. Thus began what Carter calls “a discourse of death, the death of material existence.” This is one of the origins of racial ideology in the West, one from which modern Christianity in its theological and institutional expressions needs to be liberated from.

Therefore, the history of APA Christianity faces a double marginalization in the church and academy. The worst part of all this is the self-marginalization of our histories. Insofar as APA evangelicalism embraces this modern “discourse of death, the death of material existence” we will never find value in our experiences, our stories, and our histories. Instead, we will pursue the Orientalist strategy of “leap frogging” Asian America.

So what can we do? Beyond protesting this state of affairs, we must move towards representation in both senses of the word. Representation as a political act of empowering participation; Representation as an act of self-expression and culture making. But in both cases representation does not occur de nova, nor is it created ex nihilo. It must be grounded in history.

2.  God values the marginalized.

1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2, NRSV)

What does God value? Outcasts and marginalized. Here, the tax collectors and sinners are the ones who are outcast. Yet, Jesus portrays God as one who actively searches for them. This continues Jesus’ lessons in Luke 14 about inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to banquets (Luke 14:13-24).

Carter begins his study with an overview of Irenaeus work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies, ca 180). I’ve always liked Irenaeus – from his name, which means peace, to the pastoral heart for the flock in his theology. Indeed, to counter the Gnostic attempt to Orientalize Jesus and his Jewish identity, Iranaeus embraces the entire historical scope of the Hebrew Scriptures vis-à-vis his theology of recapitulation. Jesus Christ is the recapitulation of Creation, Fall, and Israel. Rather than renouncing Hebrew Scripture and the history of Israel, the Gospel is its fulfillment. Thus, all are welcome – not just the spiritually enlightened elite. All, including the mulatto and hybrids.

APA Christian histories are mulatto [cf. Brian Batum’s Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor University Press, 2010)] and are therefore ignored, leap-frogged, and excluded. Nevertheless, our missing histories are of great value to God, just as the missing coin led the woman to light the lamp and to sweep diligently in order to find that coin. Indeed, this is the historian’s craft!

So what can we learn from the Asian American margins of the history of American Christianity? A few themes may be helpful to consider.

First, in contrast to the romanticized narrative of immigration into the American melting pot, the story APA Christianity prior to the Second World War is filled with nationalist discourse and transnational practices (e.g., Ng Poon Chew). Asian American Christians did not simply mimic white Christianity. They believed that Christian faith would empower Asians – whether in the homeland or the North American diaspora. Very early on, Asian American Christians sought to indigenize their Christian institutions vis-à-vis nationalist rhetoric. Institutional independence from denominational control was an effort to fight white supremacy, but also an attempt to redefine Asian participation in the church as a whole.

Second, the Asian American Christian story between World War II and the 1980s is also about a shift from an anti-segregationist to an anti-assimilationist posture within American society. During this time, Japanese American nisei (and other Asian Americans) initially valued integration, but when it came at the expense of their cultural identities and denominational representation they started to question how it was implemented. Thus the caucus movements were started in the 1970s. The story of caucus founders (e.g. Paul Nagano) within mainline Protestant denominations needs to be told – not only because the civil rights inspired stories are compelling, but because their experiences teach us about theology, identity, and empowerment within structural injustices.

A third theme is the story of the evangelical transpositioning of Asian American Protestantism. Whereas Asian American leaders in mainline Protestant denominations approached faith, culture, and civic engagement through the lens of the Niebuhr brothers, the evangelical renaissance among post-1965 immigrants created a different lens through which to understand APA Christianity. Of course, to call this a renaissance implies that it was all good – and after all, isn’t church growth a good thing? Unfortunately, it was not all good, in my opinion. For we see the re-inscription of hierarchical gender roles and a shift to a privatized and color-blind faith. Furthermore, the evangelical story is not all about immigrants. We must never forgot the witness of leaders as Hoover Wong, Stan Inouye, and many women evangelical leaders.

Having said this, I am still not convinced that an APA Christian history will be written any time soon. We live an an era that proclaims America to be post-racial. In this environment will the missing coin APA Christian history remain MIA? Perhaps. I’m not hopeful.

3. Fulfillment of our yearning and desire.

Nevertheless, it is my prayer that the search for APA Christian history will be received by the Church with the same spirit as that woman who found her missing coin. Note how she celebrated with her neighbors! Joy and fulfillment was the natural outcome! The search for our missing history is indeed motivated by a desire to correct injustice. But from the vantage point of faith, this is not the final destination. Joy and celebration with all God’s children, not just APA Christians, should be the ultimate goal of engaging our missing histories.

The search for our missing histories fulfills not only God’s yearning and desire to find the marginalized and lost, but the church’s missional call to invite all to the Great banquet!

The late Ron Takaki, Him Mark Lai, and other influencers

Posted on the ISAAC blog on June 4, 2009 [http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/04/the-late-ron-takaki-him-mark-lai-and-other-influencers/]

The passing of several important scholars in this past year has given me occasion to pause and reflect. Robert Handy, an American Baptist church historian, and Kosuke Koyama, theologian and advocate for Asian contextualized theology, passed away earlier this year. Both were strong influences for me while I was at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Dr. Handy encouraged me to enter the Ph.D. program in history of Christianity when I was uncertain of my scholarly abilities. Dr. Koyama served on my dissertation committee and encouraged me to enter the academy. I’m grateful for both of these men because they showed me that one could be both a scholar and church leader.

Three important historians passed away recently as well. I did not know John Hope Franklin (January 2, 1915 – March 25, 2009) or Ron Takaki (April 12, 1939- May 26, 2009) personally. I’ve corresponded with Him Mark Lai (Nov. 1, 1925- May 21, 2009) on a few occasions. These three historians profoundly shaped my thinking about race and multi-culturalism in America. Through them, I  learned not only about the hidden histories of African Americans and Asian Americans, but also how to reframe American history through the perspectives and experiences of racialized peoples. Him Mark Lai’s grassroots approach to Chinese American history linked colleges to local ethnic communities and challenged the elitism of university education. Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore, his much acclaimed  history of Asian Americans, demonstrated that the racial landscape of American history was always diverse – even before the landmark 1965 Immigration Act that allowed Asians to immigrant on an equal basis as European immigrants.

Furthermore, Takaki and other Civil Rights Era historians (they used to be called revisionist historians) also began to ask why ethnic and racial diversity were not reflected in American histories and popular culture.  The first book by Takaki that I read was Iron Cages, a sophisticated analysis of the ideology of white supremacy and the practice of white privilege in 19th century American culture. Before it became common to employ Edward Said’s Orientalism as a theoretical tool for analyzing Euro-American texts, Takaki demonstrated that paying close attention to historical documents can yield powerful critical interpretations of the use of privilege and power to create racial differences and hierarchies. Today, Soong-chan Rah’s scathing criticism of Western, white privilege in American evangelicalism [see his The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (InterVarsity, 2009)] will not make many white evangelicals happy, but that critique rests on the solid work of historians like Franklin, Takaki, and Lai [as well as some sociologists who see it operating in multi-racial settings today. See my review of Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005) 185 pp. ISBN: 0814722245 at: http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2008/06/21/review-against-all-odds-the-struggle-for-racial-integration-in-religious-organizations/]

Their passing comes at a critical time for Asian American Christians – especially evangelicals. Our most thoughtful Asian American evangelical leaders don’t really know what to do with these historians from the Civil Rights Era. Asian American evangelicals tend not to think about their ethnic identities or public issues affecting Asian Americans – the very issues that Civil Rights Era historians focused on. Acting as if the model minority myth is reality, many embrace individualism, consumerism, and materialism (the other aspects of Western Cultural captivity that Rah critiques). Even those who are passionate about missions or social justice leap-frog the Asian American experience. Further complicating the Civil Rights narratives  is an increasing scholarly recognition that racial identities are more fluid, transnational, and complex than they were understood to be a generation ago. All this, along with the reality of multi-racial marriages, a growing number of hapachildren, greater Asian American social mobility, and a general embrace of racial non-recognition and globalization have challenged the the anti-discriminatory vision of Civil Rights Era historians. Is it any wonder that many of our Asian American evangelical leaders have a difficult time bridging past and present?

So what should  church leaders, theological educators, scholars, business and non-profit leaders do? Shall we repress the past as leaders in China appear determined to do on this 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests? Shall we ignore history and move on because the past is not directly relevant to our ministry, research, business, career, or causes? Or shall we continue to remind this generation and our children of the sins of human history such as the Holocaust, the Nanking massacre, the Japanese American concentration camps, Jim and Jane Crow, etc.? Leaders today are entrusted with the souls and the aspirations of the next generation. It is easy to write off the voices of the past as irrelevant for this generation and the future. But the responsible leader in Asian American settings will attend to the lessons of Lai, Takaki, and Koyama.

– Tim Tseng

* * *
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/education/31takaki.html?_r=1

May 31, 2009
Ronald Takaki, a Scholar on Ethnicity, Dies at 70
By WILLIAM GRIMES

Ronald Takaki, who made it his life’s work to rewrite American history to include Asian-Americans and other ethnic groups excluded from traditional accounts and who helped start the first doctoral program in ethnic studies in the United States, died Tuesday in his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 70.

The cause was suicide, said his son Troy. He battled multiple sclerosis for years. “He struggled, and then he gave up,” his son said.

Mr. Takaki, whose Japanese grandfather immigrated to Hawaii in the 19th century and worked on a sugarcane plantation, became a leading scholar of ethnicity and multiculturalism in works that challenged ethnic stereotypes and chronicled struggles of non-European immigrants.

His works like “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America” (1993) became seminal texts in emerging fields that he helped institutionalize by establishing a doctoral program in ethnic studies in 1984 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for 30 years.

Don T. Nakanishi, the director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the Berkeley Web site: “Ron Takaki elevated and popularized the study of America’s multiracial past and present like no other scholar, and in doing so had an indelible impact on a generation of students and researchers across the nation and world.”

Ronald Toshiyuki Takaki was born in Honolulu and, in his youth, spent most of his time surfing. On the beach, he was known as Ten-Toes Takaki for his hang-ten style.

He found his vocation while earning a bachelor’s degree in history at the College of Wooster in Ohio. While in Ohio he married Carol Rankin, who survives him. Besides his son Troy, of Los Angeles, he is also survived by another son, Todd, of El Cerrito, Calif.; a daughter, Dana Takaki of Chester, Conn.; a brother, Michael Young of Thousand Oaks, Calif.; a sister, Janet Wong of Chatsworth, Calif.; and seven grandchildren.

He continued his education at Berkeley, where he earned a master’s degree in 1962 and a doctorate in history in 1967. He was deeply influenced by the Free Speech movement at the university and by the civil rights struggles in the South. “I was born intellectually and politically in Berkeley in the ’60s,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2003.

He wrote a dissertation on slavery in the United States and returned to the subject in his first book, published in 1971, “A Pro-Slavery Crusade: The Agitation to Reopen the African Slave Trade.”

At U.C.L.A., Mr. Takaki taught the university’s first black-history course, created in response to the Watts riots. When a student asked what revolutionary tools he would be teaching, Mr. Takaki said: “We’re going to strengthen our critical thinking and our writing skills. These can be revolutionary tools if we make them so.”

In 1971 he became the first full-time teacher in Berkeley’s new ethnic studies department, where he taught a highly influential survey course that took a comparative approach in describing racism as experienced by different ethnic groups in the United States. In addition to helping establish the graduate program in ethnic studies, he helped put in place the requirement that all undergraduates take a course intended to broaden their understanding of racial and ethnic diversity. He retired in 2003.

His many books include “Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America” (1979), “Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans” (1989), “Democracy and Race: Asian Americans and World War II” (1995) and “Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II” (2000).

* * *

May 22, 2009

UCLA Asian American Studies Center
Him Mark Lai: Dean of Chinese American History, Passes (1925-2009)

Him Mark Lai, the internationally noted scholar, writer, and “Dean of Chinese American History” was born on November 1, 1925 in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  His ten books, more than 100 essays, and research in English and Chinese on all aspects of Chinese American life are published and cited in the U.S., the Americas, China, Southeast Asia, and Australia.

Lai was a member of Amerasia Journal’s editorial board for more than 30 years and a contributing writer.  Among his works published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press are: A History Reclaimed: An Annotated Bibliography of Chinese Language Materials on the Chinese of America (1986); in 2000 Amerasia Journal published his autobiographical essay: “Musings of a Chinese American Historian.”

With the writer Ruthanne Lum McCunn, historian Judy Yung, and editor Russell C. Leong serving as the co-editors, the UCLA Asian American Center Press will be publishing his autobiography in 2009-2010.

* * *

Him Mark Lai was born in San Francisco Chinatown to immigrant parents from Nam Hoi District, Guangzhou, and attended local schools including Francisco Junior High, Nam Kue Chinese School, and was graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering and until his retirement worked for Bechtel Corporation.

In late 1949, he began volunteering for Chung Sai Yat Po, the first daily paper to support the People’s Republic of China, and became a member of organizations active in persuading students to return to China to serve the new government.  He also joined the Chinese American Democratic Youth League, more familiarly known as Mun Ching, where he met Laura Jung, a new immigrant, whom he married in 1953.

According to Ruthanne Lum McCunn:

“Lai joined the Chinese Historical Society of America soon after its founding in 1963.  These events, together with contemporaneous changes in the status of minorities spurred by the Civil Rights movement, led Lai towards developing a Chinese American identity, and in 1967, he accepted a proposal by Maurice Chuck, editor of the bilingual East/West, the Chinese American Weekly to write a series of articles on Chinese American history.  This marked the beginning of Lai’s career in reclaiming the Chinese/American experience-a fortuitous confluence of his passion for history and his deep commitment to his bicultural heritage and democratic principles.

His East/West articles – revised and annotated-became the cornerstone for the classic A History of the Chinese in California, A Syllabus, co-edited with Thomas W. Chin and Philip P. Choy, as well as the basis for the first Chinese American history course in the United States, which Lai team taught with Choy at San Francisco State College in Fall 1969 and which resulted in another classic Outlines: History of the Chinese in America.  Lai’s first scholarly essay, “A Historical Survey of Organizations of the Left Among the Chinese in America,” published in the Fall 1972 issue of theBulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars – together with subsequent revisions-remains a standard reference.  So do Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, co-authored/translated with Genny Lim and Judy Yung; Lai’s “Chinese on the Continental U.S.” in theHarvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups; his From Overseas Chinese to Chinese American: a History of the Development of Chinese during the Twentieth Century (in Chinese) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Chinese Overseas and Huaquiao Huaren baike quanshu [Encyclopedia of Chinese and people of Chinese descent overseas];  his studies of Chinese newspapers and schools, district associations, and communities in the Pearl River Delta.”

Indeed, almost every researcher or scholar who has studied Chinese Americans during the past forty years is indebted to Him Mark Lai’s pioneering and lifelong work based on primary Chinese-language sources.  According to editor Russell C. Leong, “Him Mark Lai gave Chinese Americans a voice in history because he listened to ordinary people both in America and China and trained himself to read what they felt and thought–in the Chinese language. His legacy challenges us to listen, to think, and to feel more deeply–to untangle, to clarify, and to refine the historical and political record of our lives here.”

The UCLA Asian American Studies Center is also grateful for Him Mark Lai’s support of the work of others as a long-standing member of the editorial committees of Amerasia Journal and of Chinese America: History & Perspectives, the two leading scholarly journals which have collectively published the most materials on Asian Americans and Chinese Americans during the past four decades.

-Russell C. Leong
Editor, Amerasia Journal, UCLA

* * *

https://www.utsnyc.edu/Page.aspx?pid=1519

Union Mourns Professor Emeritus Kosuke Koyama, Intercultural Theologian

The Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Ecumenical Studies, died on March 25, 2009, at BayState Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He was 79. The immediate cause of death was pneumonia, said his son, Mark.

During the 16 years he taught at Union Theological Seminary, Koyama made a name for himself as an important figure in the development of global Christianity.

He was an early proponent of multiculturalism and religious pluralism, long before those terms came into common parlance. He taught courses in Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – and showed students how these faiths could inform Christian commitment.

“I feel a mission to teach about different religious traditions,” Koyama said. “I think it’s the Christian thing to do.”

Chris Herlinger, a 1993 Union MA graduate whose work with the humanitarian agency Church World Service has taken him to numerous predominately Muslim countries, said Professor Koyama was “way ahead of the curve in having students look beyond the limits of our own faith borders.

“A full decade before 9/11 and its aftermath, Professor Koyama was almost alone at Union in alerting us to the realities of religious pluralism in the world. I’m not sure everybody fully understood or appreciated that at the time, but I think we do now.”

Kosuke Koyama, known as “Ko” to his friends, was born in Tokyo on December 10, 1929, at a time when Japan was already active against Manchuria and China. He survived the bombings, violence, and destruction of the war years, and later wrote that he was baptized “not so much from an awareness of my personal sinfulness as from the immediate experience of the destruction of my country by war.

“The minister who baptized me told me that the God of the Bible is concerned about the wellbeing of all nations, even including Japan and America,” he wrote. “To hear this at the same time that we were being bombed by America was quite startling. This was my first ecumenical lesson.”

Koyama graduated from Tokyo Union Theological Seminary in 1952. He then chose to pursue his theological studies in the United States. At Drew Theological School he earned the Bachelor of Divinity degree cum laude in 1954, and at Princeton Theological Seminary he completed the Th.M. and Th.D. in 1959. (He would later refer to his nascent thinking at Drew and Princeton as his “New Jersey theology.”)

Upon graduating from Princeton with a dissertation on Luther’s interpretation of the Psalms, Koyama was sent by the United Church of Christ in Japan (Kyodan) as a missionary to the Church of Christ in Thailand. As Dale T. Irvin wrote in his introduction to The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kōsuke Koyama (a festschrift presented to Koyama on the occasion of his retirement from Union), in Thailand Koyama “found himself exploring a theology that began not with Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or Karl Barth, but with the needs of farmers among whom he worked. Out of this commitment to being a neighbor to the northern Thai farmers was born the ‘waterbuffalo theology’ that would permanently enter the name of Koyama in the register of twentieth century contextual theologies.”

In 1968 Koyama moved to Singapore to take up the position of dean of the South East Asia Graduate School of Theology (SEAGST), which had come into being two years earlier − an outcome of a historic theological education consultation held in Bangkok in 1956. At this conference, Koyama later wrote, “We consciously began the process of decolonization of theology. The selfhood of the Asian church became a subject of serious discussion.”

At SEAGST, “All of the professors were people of two cultures (‘fork and chopsticks’). We explored together the nature and limits of cultural accommodation of the Gospel not from the North Atlantic theological perspective but from the contexts of diverse local cultures in Asia.”

In 1974 Koyama was appointed Senior Lecturer in Phenomenology of Religion at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. It was there that he received a phone call from the Rev. Dr. Donald W. Shriver, Jr., then Union’s president, inviting him to become Professor of Ecumenics and World Christianity. The first Asian appointed to the faculty at the Seminary, Koyama began teaching there in February 1980. He was later installed as the first incumbent of the newly established John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Chair in Ecumenics and World Christianity.

At Union Koyama had a profound effect on both his students and colleagues. “To say that Kosuke Koyama made his imprint on ecumenical church meetings, in unnumbered intercultural theological dialogues, and in intense classroom discussions at Union and around the world, is to forge an understatement,” Dr. Shriver wrote about Koyama’s years at the Seminary. “In his quiet, persistent way of speaking and writing, humor which cloaked his seriousness, fidelity to Gospel teaching, and readiness to listen long before he crafted another of his eloquent metaphors, he was an exemplary educator and Christian witness to all who knew him.”

And New York had a profound effect on Koyama. There he encountered Jews and African Americans for the first time, an experience that forced him to respond theologically to “the fact of enormous violence suffered by these two peoples.” He sensed, he said, “that my identity would be directly threatened if I did not come to terms with the twofold encounter… The experience of blacks and Jews challenged the heart of the Christian faith as I understood it at that time.”

Throughout his life Koyama went from encounter to encounter, hammering each into a contextual theological endeavor. He beat swords into plowshares, evoking King Zedekiah – “his eyes torn out, and taken into exile.” He wrote about a theology of the cross “in which love, becoming completely vulnerable to violence, conquers violence.” He carried on a deep theological dialogue with Buddhism, studied Judaism and Islam, and again and again returned to reflect upon the encounter between East and West.

When he stepped down as Professor Emeritus in 1996, he said he didn’t like the word “retire” and preferred, instead, to think of himself as “reappearing” through “new empowerment from the Holy Ghost.” He continued his encountering and endeavoring to the end.

In a final tribute, to Koyama, his former student Dale Irvin, now President of New York Theological Seminary, offered this remembrance:

“Koyama once remarked to me that one reason he enjoyed reading a particular work by Thomas Merton was that he could pick it up and begin reading anywhere, in any direction, and the book still made sense to him. Koyama found in Merton’s work a profound circularity in which beginning and end met in a cosmological rather than eschatological way.

“The logic was not linear and progressive, but circular and unfolding. Perhaps the same can be said of the life of Kosuke Koyama. It remains an unfolding event, circulating from the global to the local and back to the global dimensions, dancing between the cosmological and the eschatological dimensions of religious life, yet doing so with a certain agitation as he seeks to follow the God who spoke from the Mountain.

“Koyama is with that God now, and with the Christ he so passionately followed in his life,” Irvin concluded. “I am sure they are dancing together.”

Kosuke Koyama is survived by his wife of 50 years, Lois Koyama, and his children: James, who lives in Honolulu; Elizabeth, who lives in Moscow; and Mark, who lives in Western Massachusetts. He is also survived by his five grandchildren: Matthew, Isabel, Sophie, Amos and Silas.

Read President Emeritus Donald W. Shriver’s tribute to Prof. Koyama.

* * *
Union Mourns Robert T. Handy, Church Historian
Henry Sloane Coffin Professor Emeritus of Church History at Union Theological Seminary

The Rev. Dr. Robert T. Handy, Henry Sloane Coffin Professor Emeritus of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, died at Crane’s Mill Retirement Community in West Caldwell, New Jersey, on January 8. He was 90 years old.

During the 36 years he taught at the Seminary, Handy made a name for himself as an impressive scholar of American church history, an exceptional teacher, and a gifted administrator.

“From the very first I knew him to be one of a cluster of faculty who could be counted on always to put the good of the school above their own good,” said former UTS president Donald W. Shriver, Jr.  As a member of Union’s presidential search committee, Handy in 1975 had helped to bring Shriver to Union.  Shriver in turn appointed Handy dean of the faculty in 1976, a post Handy held for two years.

“By the end of those two years, he felt obliged to return to full time teaching of church history,” Shriver reminisced recently in an email, “but by then he had restored many fractured relationships among faculty, administration, students and board.

“Bob was a born reconciler,” Shriver continued.  “He brought to academic work the skills and commitments of a Baptist pastor as well as the training of a disciplined scholar.  His is a combination rare in the halls of academe, rare among human beings, too.”

Handy’s students and colleagues have long since acknowledged him as a leading historian of American church history.  His work on church and state, on religious liberty, on nineteenth-century attempts to establish a “Christian America,” and his labor with fellow Union professors David W. Lotz and Richard A. Norris, Jr., in revising and updating Williston Walker’s standard, A History of the Christian Church, produced books that are still in use and considered classics.  Among his great contributions to the Seminary was A History of Union Theological Seminary in New York, published in 1987 as part of Union’s sesquicentennial celebration.

Handy’s tenure at Union as a member of both the faculty and the administration gave him particular insight into the critical issues affecting the Seminary during his time.  He also successfully illuminated events of other eras of Union’s past, particularly the troubled times of the Charles A. Briggs trial in the late nineteenth century.  An exacting and tireless researcher, Handy spent countless hours in the Seminary’s archives, fact-checking details and building on the work of earlier scholars of Union’s history, among them former Union president Henry Sloane Coffin and faculty members G.L. Prentiss and Charles R. Gillett.  The result was a readable and entertaining history, both objective and accurate, yet tempered by Handy’s respect and affection for the sons and daughters of Union Seminary.

Robert Handy was born on June 30, 1918 in Rockville, Connecticut and attended Brown University, where he majored in European history and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1940.  He earned his Bachelor of Divinity (later upgraded to a Master of Divinity) at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in 1943.  He was ordained a Baptist minister in May of that year.

At the time, Handy was still looking for a way to combine his two interests, history and the church, into one vocation.  “A congregation in Illinois,” he later wrote, “which I then served as minister for two years, enabled me to take some courses at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago ‘to fill some gaps.’

“At first I had no plans to earn a further degree,” he continued, “but a wise dean advised me to put whatever work I did on a doctoral program anyway…  Then, during an interim of nearly two years while I was serving as an Army chaplain, I concluded that my attraction to both ministry and historical scholarship could come together in the role of church historian.”

After leaving the Army, Handy returned to Chicago Divinity School, where he completed his doctorate in 1949.  The following year he was invited to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary for a three-year term, “primarily to assist John T. McNeil and Paul Tillich in their foundational surveys of church history and the history of Christian thought, but also to teach courses in the modern and American periods.

“Little did I know that the three years would stretch into twelve times that number to the time of retirement,” he later marveled.  Handy’s full reflections on his career were published in Religious Studies Review in April 1993.  He taught at Union from 1950 to 1986, retiring as Henry Sloane Coffin Professor of Church History.

In 1989, Handy’s colleagues and former students published a festschrift in his honor, Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America 1935-1985.  While not a conventional festschrift because the contributors were not all former students of his, nor were they all professional historians, the volume celebrated  the man all the contributors considered their mentor.

“Every one of them… knows his or her indebtedness to the lifelong scholarly career of Robert Handy,” wrote the book’s editors in the preface.  They went on to praise “his strict adherence to the technical canons of historical inquiry, his sensitivity to the practical needs of Christian people, his signal labors on behalf of a sophisticated understanding of American church history, and his appreciation for the conceptual ties of history with many other disciplines.”

Teacher, author, colleague, friend, spiritual helper – Handy was all these and more.  “We know that as a historian he loves the truth of history,” the editors concluded.  “He loves as well the people who make history.  Indeed, among those scholars whom we know, we know of none who better joins the love of truth to the truth of love.”

Peggy Shriver, wife of the president emeritus, had this to say: “Once a student of Bob Handy, always a student of Bob Handy!  He cared for them, nurtured them, was solicitous of their careers and lives, and was always ready to be helpful and encouraging.

“Although I was never his student,” she went on, “I sometimes turned to him in my position as Assistant General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.  So I know how kindly and helpful he could be.  I also know how important he was to my husband during those early years of leading the seminary through some difficult times.”

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