The loneliest Liz Lin ever felt was when she realized the Asian American church she had embraced as a teen was no longer in sync with the adult she had become: a feminist who cared about racial justice and LGBTQ rights.
Most Asian American churches are conservative, so Lin’s search for a congregation that matched her theology led her to progressive churches where she was a minority.
“Usually those spaces are super white and often don’t really know what to do with you if you’re a person of color, for all of their good talk about race,” said Lin, 36.
It turns out Lin is not so alone. In 2016, she co-founded a lively online community called Progressive Asian American Christians or PAAC whose members met this past weekend in Los Angeles for their second conference.
About 170 people from across the country filled the gothic-style Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Koreatown. Some were fresh off flights and rolling suitcases, their voices giddy at meeting like-minded Christians. Many used to attend predominantly Korean and Chinese American evangelical churches, but left for more liberal congregations or don’t go to church anymore.
Sam Chung, a pastor from Los Angeles, was raised in a large Korean American church that is dominated by male leaders and opposes gay marriage — like most Asian American churches. He knew he no longer belonged after volunteering at a hospice where gay patients were dying of AIDS.
“Seeing all these people that were abandoned by the Christian church, I realized something was wrong, you know?” Chung said. “Churches hid behind their walls but didn’t really care for those who were sick and dying.”
He ended up at predominantly white churches where he said his ethnicity was at times erased and other times, unmistakably noticed.
“Nice white church ladies (were) telling me ‘Oh, you read scripture without an accent. That’s great,'” Chung said laughing.
FROZEN IN TIME
Christians make up a substantial minority of Asian Americans, with one survey finding that more than 40 percent are Christians. The rates are as high as 89 percent for Filipino Americans and 71 percent for Korean Americans. Thousands of Asian American churches were started by the wave of immigrants who came after the mid-1960s, when a change in U.S. policy made it easier to emigrate.
Those who’ve left traditional Asian American churches said they tend to be conservative because they were created by immigrant members who were raised in cultures that prized collectivism, deference to elders and modesty.
And then there was the self-consciousness about being in a new country.
“I feel like that brings with it the sense of ‘Keep your head down. Don’t take too many risks, just keep quiet, they’ll let us in,” said Lin, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants.
The churches took on many roles for the immigrant congregants — community centers where the adults socialized, schools where children could learn their parents language.
Lydia Shiu, a Korean American pastor who co-founded PAAC with Lin, said that created insular worlds that saw many immigrant churches “just kind of get stuck in the year that they moved here.”
Shiu, who’s father was a Presbyterian pastor, has thought a lot of why most Asian American churches remain conservative.
“You tend to get very stagnant in your theology because you’re not actually interacting with a bigger denomination and have the cross-pollinating of ideas,” said Shiu, who first connected with Lin when both were living in the Bay area.
Shiu said that Asian American pastors model themselves after white evangelical leaders such as Tim Keller, John Piper and Rick Warren of the Lake Forest-based Saddleback megachurch.
“They’re the majority,” Shiu said. “We’re immigrants and so we take cues from the people the center of power: white men.”
When Shiu and Lin first met for coffee in 2016, Lin was about to publish a first-person essay that was later picked up by the Huffington Post and went viral. Shiu had just started a Facebook group for progressive Asian American Christians.
Today, that group has grown to 6,000-plus people and has spun off into subgroups meant for Filipino Americans, parents, people with disabilities, Canadians… the list goes on.
Members have held local meet-ups in more than 20 cities. There is also a PAAC website, book club, digital magazine and podcast.
Daniel Lee, the assistant provost for the Center for Asian American Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said it’s not a coincidence that PAAC coalesced as a group after the election of President Trump.
The issues raised during Trump’s White House run — white nationalism, sexism and xenophobia — were a catalyst for some Asian American evangelicals to re-examine their faith, Lee said.
And that’s something, he said, most Asian American churches were not set up to handle.
“The churches themselves have been trained in this conservative white evangelical Christianity, so the structures themselves are having a hard time attending to these needs,” Lee said.
Shiu said for some PAAC members searching for a community, the group itself has become their version of “church.”
That’s doesn’t mean everyone always agrees. There are crackling online debates about male privilege and race. Even the issue everyone seems to support — equal church rights for LGBTQ members — has sparked differences.
Kyle Wong is part of an LGBTQ ministry at Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles in Rosemead. For an Asian American church to offer such a group is unusual. So is the fact that one of the group’s members recently became a deacon at Evergreen.
Still, its pastors have decided not to perform same-sex weddings, Wong said, because “there’s a lot of people who are conservative and have said ‘hey, if that happens, we’re leaving the church.'”
For Wong, that’s OK. He said he wants to help make changes from within the church. He hopes one day the Sunday school curriculum will acknowledge same-sex couples. That the church will make at least one bathroom gender-neutral.
“I would rather be in the tension, and be part of the movement, instead of just, like, joining a progressive faith.”
“I would be comfortable,” Wong said, “but maybe, like, wouldn’t be as needed.”
But for others like Jonathan Mabuni, it’s more important that his church be “fully-affirming” than have an Asian American congregation.
“There’s so much to be said about a space where LGBTQ people have the space to breathe, where there’s not this instant judgment cast on who they are,” said Mabuni, 25.
Mabuni attends New Abbey, a progressive, multi-ethnic church in Pasadena where whites make up the largest group. He said he’s happy there, although he wants to improve the way the church talks about race. For example, he notes that a church panel held on race several months ago lacked an Asian American.
He’s been heartened, though, by overtures his church leadership has made to Asian Americans. Last year, he and three other Asian Americans were invited to share their past church experiences with the congregation. He recalled how ancestor worship, practiced by his Chinese American mother’s side of the family, was treated like it was “evil” at his childhood church, he said.
“The white evangelical faith tradition I was raised in devalued a lot of my ancestry,” Mabuni said.
A NEW CHURCH TRADITION
Still others say there’s no reason that progressive Asian Americans can’t have it all — a church that aligns with their culture and values. Last fall, Sam Chung, the pastor from L.A., helped launch the First Progressive Church in Los Angeles.
At a service last Sunday, Chung, wearing a rainbow stole, looked over the congregation of 20 people.
“We pray for those who don’t get to live authentically for who they are, those who are persecuted for their sexual orientation, their sexual identity, their nationality, their status in this world,” Chung said.
The church hasn’t celebrated any same-sex weddings, yet. Chung said he can’t wait for the first ceremony.
“We’re not just the model minority, you know, supposed to be keep quiet and just follow along,” Chung said. “We can be active and step forward. So let’s do it.”
A church like his has started in New York and some PAAC members are also planning new churches in Oakland and Seattle. For these Asian Americans, it’s the start of a new church tradition.
Josie Huang covers Asian American communities. Read more of her work:
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