Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches by Russell Jeung (Rutgers University Press) (Hardcover) Religion-both personal faith and institutional tradition-plays a central role in the lives of the 12.5 million Asians in the United States. It provides comfort and meaning, shapes ethical and political beliefs, and influences culture and arts. Faithful Generations details the significance of religion in the construction of Asian American identity. As an institutional base for the movement toward Asian American panethnicity, churches provide a space for theological and political reflection and ethnic reinvention.
With rich description and insightful interviews, Russell Jeung uncovers why and how Chinese and Japanese American Christians are building new, pan-Asian organizations. Detailed surveys of over fifty Chinese and Japanese American congregations in the San Francisco Bay area show how symbolic racial identities structure Asian American congregations. Evangelical ministers differ from mainline Christian ministers in their construction of Asian American identity. Mobilizing around these distinct identities, evangelicals and mainline Christians have developed unique pan-Asian styles of worship, ministries, and church activities. Portraits of two churches further illustrate how symbolic racial identities affect congregational life and ministries. The book concludes with a look at Asian American-led multiethnic churches.
This engaging study of the shifting relationship between religion and ethnicity is an ideal text for classes in ethnicity, religion, and Asian American studies.
Excerpt: If Asian American communities invest in the explorations of their heritage, interpret their experiences through scriptures with both the eyes of the privileged and the marginalized, and share their resources and talents in the promotion of justice, then they do have something to offer that is distinct and authentic. Rather than organizing around a difference based solely on identity, they can develop a different cultural viewpoint that is to be shared with others. But will racism and racialization prove to be insurmountable so that Americans remain divided by faith? Asian American ministers explain that true multiculturalism involves sharing gifts and burdens, as well as racial reconciliation and empowerment.
As Asian Americans lead Pan-Asian and multiethnic congregations, they want to avoid tokenizing other ethnic groups and instead actively include those on the "niche edges." As minorities in broader society, Asian Americans are sensitive to patronizing multiculturalism. One minister describes her desire for true partnership:
[The denomination] always does this stupid stuff about, "Oh, let's make the Chinese pastor pray in Chinese!" and we'll all get a sense of our oneness.
But you know, it wasn't real and I feel all this stuff happens on the surface and there's not real partnership. It's the same people who lead and the same people who run the economics and the same people who are up front.
Instead of patronizing others, Asian American ministers of multiethnic congregations recognize they must share their power to shape their corporate culture. They are therefore conscious of identifying the people on the margins as members of their own extended family:
If you're trying to move into multiethnicity, those who are in power to shape and name the corporate identity and corporate culture have to have an awakening to the presence of people that we're marginalizing. I try to bring them and their culture into the mix. So that they can see that they're more than tolerated. They're welcomed and invited to make this evolving culture reflect some of who they are.
I'd be reading the LA Times and reading this article on WW II Filipino war veterans who are trying to take action against the U.S. government because they never gave them the veterans benefits. Before I would never read the story. Now I think, there are Filipinos in my own extended family, Filipino people in my church. I need to feel this pain, I need to understand this issue.
Just as racial identity may marginalize people, embracing the racial identities of church members can build a congregation's unity and strengthen its worship of God.
Racial reconciliation, then, involves the bearing of minority group bur-dens, the development and sharing of group gifts, and the use of power to serve others. The pastors recognize that this type of multiculturalism that includes Asian Americans requires divine grace:
The idea out there is that there is no racism outside of black/white relations. But what does reconciliation look like when it's not black and white?
It's a pain, it's a hassle to do multiethnicity. You have the power dynamics, you have racism issues, and you have the spiritual dynamic. We're going up against the strongest demonic force in America—slavery. Our battle isn't against flesh and blood. It's a challenge, but the church can do something that the world can't.
These ministers acknowledge that without God's grace, both personal sins, damaged group relations, and structural racism cannot be overcome.
"The church can do something the world can't." It has brought together Chinese and Japanese American Christians, along with other Asian groups despite their traditional enmity and their American acculturation. As they come together in sacred spaces, they can develop new eyes to see and new ears to hear. Asian American panethnicity is still emerging so that its subculture is as of yet inchoate. But new generations of Asian American churches offer the opportunity to establish affirming and redemptive identities. It provides the space for grace-filled modes of worship, authentic cultural expression, and liberated community. And as Asian American churches develop just patterns of lifestyle and action, they can offer the racial reconciliation our society desperately needs. These can be Asian American offerings of faith to America's table of multiculturalism…
Finally, the Asian American church also can be the home for a creative, liberating community as it looks eschatologically into the future. In forging new worship styles and liturgies, ministry programs, and small groups, Asian American church members can look to their past and present to imagine a new, beloved community. In their heritages and traditions, in their talents and experiences, Asian Americans are rich with resources to theologize, critique, and express new ways of relating in this world. For example, the anthology Realizing the America of Our Hearts: Theological Voices of Asian Americans, edited by Fumitaka Matsuoka and Eleazar Fernandez (Chalice Press 2003), offers numerous, creative essays that elaborate on concepts such as han (frustrated hope), the tao (the way), and tam tai (three elements of reality) to provide hermeneutic lenses that are both Asian and American. These insights not only build Asian American communities but also can contribute to the broader church's understanding of God and the sacred.
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