I am not, by nature, a rabble-rouser. I’ve been teased and marginalized by others countless times due to my Asian ethnicity (despite the fact that I am a natural-born American citizen), but no matter how much these incidents stung, I would say nothing and keep the memories deep inside. Whether it was due to my own insecurities, a desire to avoid conflict, an inability to articulate an adequate response, a fatalistic perspective that nothing I could say would change anything, in all those moments I kept my mouth shut. Doing so became my instinctive and self-protective response.
I share this to provide some context as to why a 40-something Asian American woman who has not historically been one to raise my voice when confronted by racial and cultural insensitivity did so through the open letter to the evangelical church that was recently released by a group of Asian American Christians. As part of the organizing committee who spearheaded this effort, I want to bring clarity to our motivations for releasing the letter and hopefully dispel some of the misconceptions about the letter and about those of us who were involved in its crafting.
Every misconception obscures the letter’s true intent and purpose. So let’s address some of the responses my fellow committee members and I have heard and read about this letter, either on the blogosphere, or on Facebook, or through personal conversations.
1) “This Is All About a Certain Pastor, Isn’t It?”
My friend and partner in this initiative, Kathy Khang, has explained the back story of how this letter came into existence, so feel free to read her post for more details about the process. But as the person who wrote the initial draft of the letter (which was subsequently vetted/edited/supplemented by a committee of an additional 12 people), I can attest to the fact that we bore no such grudge toward any specific person or persons. This was not a letter borne out of unforgiveness, jealousy, resentment, or rage.
My fellow colleagues and I recognized that whenever individual voices had spoken out against past instances of stereotyping or cultural insensitivity in the church, we saw momentary acknowledgement about the concerns from a handfuls of individuals, but no lasting change. A number of us, myself included, have been involved in private conversations over the years with individuals and organizations who have exhibited cultural insensitivity towards Asian Americans.
New incidents kept occurring, and I found myself thinking, “Clearly, no one will take our opinions seriously if it only comes from the mouths and blogs of a handful of us.” It was time to raise our voices together as a unified group, and to create a cultural touchstone of our own—our letter—as a way to catalyze conversations and ultimately cultural change in the church.
As for the timing of the letter, our only thought was that we wanted to release it while the memory of the recent event at Exponential West was fresh in people’s minds. The fact that it received as much attention as it did was not planned, and we even took steps to communicate to various media contacts that our letter was not an effort to focus on any particular person/pastor, but an expression of frustration over the continuing incidents of racial and cultural stereotyping in the church as a whole. Anyone who has reduced the contents of our letter to be some sort of malicious attack on any particular person in the church has grievously misunderstood the content or intent of our letter.
2) “Take Out the Plank In Your Own Eye”
One of our goals in this letter was to strike the right tone of both truth and grace. I concede that one had to read the entire letter to reach the more conciliatory notes, but we clearly admitted our our own fallibility in the area of racial reconciliation; none of us who signed the letter is perfect in this area. Just as we have all made errors of this nature at some point in our own lives and churches, we know Asians and Asian Americans have made errors and displayed xenophobic or prideful attitudes towards others or about themselves.
But the point of this letter was to focus on the way that Asian culture and Asian Americans are portrayed in the larger evangelical body. It’s a letter, not a treatise. It’s not meant to be the final word. It was intended to raise awareness and spark conversation, not to be the definitive answer to all matters regarding Asian Americans, race, and the church. If you have opinions about the ways that Asians and Asian Americans have exhibited their own forms of racism and stereotyping, then join in the conversation. But I ask that people not write off the merits of the letter just because it doesn’t include everything they would have wanted it to say.
Resorting to name-calling and accusatory language, such as labeling those of us who wrote and/or signed the letter “self-righteous,” “hypocritical,” or “gossipers” contributes nothing to the conversation. I can vouch for the fact that those who crafted and released the letter did so with a posture of prayer through the whole process, and while we would never claim to have handled everything perfectly, we have tried to do so with humility.
We all long for the goal of a fully reconciled church body characterized by understanding and harmony. Even if you disagree with the contents of the letter, instead of dismissing it out of hand, use it as a jumping board to conduct constructive conversation, so that we can all press towards the goal instead of detracting from it.
3) “I Wasn’t Offended By Any of Those Incidents, So This Letter Is Invalid”
The letter doesn’t claim to speak for every Asian American Christian. It begins with the words, “We, the undersigned…” to indicate that this is a letter supported by those who have taken the time to sign it publicly. We don’t pretend to represent the range of Asian Americans in the church, and we are aware that even the term “Asian American” itself has its limits and drawbacks.
However, if you are an Asian American who was not offended by any of the incidents listed in the letter or by similar incidents that happen in your life, that does not automatically make the particular actions and behaviors addressed in the letter appropriate or acceptable. The fact that a significant segment the body of Christ has been offended and hurt by these instances of racial and cultural stereotyping means that the issues are worth examining. If our black, Hispanic, or other brothers and sisters in the church were to collectively join their voices together to raise an issue that is disturbing them, I would hope we would all similarly listen to their concerns.
Nearly 1,000 other people both within and outside the Asian American community have affirmed the contents of the open letter. Many of these individuals are prominent Asian American pastors, leaders, and academicians who have spent years or even decades thinking about ethnic and cultural identity issues and the relationship between Asian Americans and the broader majority culture in America. Is this not enough of a coalition to give you pause and to ask if there is in fact an issue for the larger church to address? If this many people found past incidents of racial and cultural stereotyping offensive, yet these behaviors continue, imagine what kind of witness we are having to nonbelievers and visitors in our churches who feel similarly.
Whether you are Asian American or not, you don’t have to sign the letter if you don’t personally feel the same way as we did. But to dismiss it out of hand and claim that its contents are invalid or overly sensitive does nothing to further the conversation on racial reconciliation in the church. Instead, seek to understand the perspective of those who were offended. They may have stories to tell about their own lives that will surprise and even shock you, and help you understand why continued stereotyping in the church is painful to experience.
4) “Why Air the Church’s Dirty Laundry? Aren’t We Supposed to Reflect Christ’s Love and Grace?”
I once heard a great talk by Rich Lamb, a former InterVarsity staffworker, in which he talked about the wonder of a compost pile. You throw all sorts of material in that pile, and as it decays, it becomes messy, smelly, and no fun to romp around in. But by virtue of going through that messy, smelly, stage, the pile transforms into life-giving material. The church has to be willing to go through some collective composting together in order to transform into the life-giving body that reflects the love of Christ.
By airing our issues publicly rather than burying them, those of us who have signed the open letter are doing exactly what the church needs in order to reflect the love of Christ. We are addressing behaviors and bringing issues to light that need to be discussed, and as we work through them together, we have the opportunity to bear witness to the reality that the love of Christ does have an impact on how we converse and relate to one another. It does have the power to build bridges and relationships where previously there was none. And we are already seeing this happening.
As a result of the letter, a number of us have had honest conversations with various individuals in the church whose eyes have been opened to the ways in which they were ignorant of these kinds of issues before. We have heard about organizations who have discussed the letter or publicized it with their constituents as a way to help raise awareness about cultural stereotyping in the church. We have seen how many people have been entirely oblivious to these issues before, and that they are thankful to be made aware of how to support Asian American Christians and other minority voices in the church. None of this would have been possible if we had stayed quiet. The church has an incredible opportunity to demonstrate that despite the divisions that exist due to race and culture in the church, love does indeed bring unity amidst the divisions. But first you have to understand why those divisions exist in the first place. This is not quick work, and we are not looking for easy answers. We are looking to begin conversations and relationships that will last over the long haul and that will lead to a church that more fully reflects the love that God has for every tribe, tongue and nation.
I am not, by nature, a rabble-rouser. I much prefer to stay in the background and keep the peace. But sometimes achieving peace requires that we first stand up and make some noise. And I am grateful for many others, such as Soong-Chan Rah and Kathy Khang who have had the courage to raise issues without the support of a broad coalition behind them. I’m grateful to Christine Lee for having the courage to speak out about what she saw recently at the Exponential West conference, which started this whole chain of events leading to our open letter. They took these risks knowing that the potential for being misunderstood and accused of ulterior motives was high. But they did so anyway, believing that the goal of seeing greater unity and harmony in the church was worth the risks.
Whether or not you agree with what we were trying to accomplish with our open letter, I hope you can better understand why we did it. We raised our voices not to cause greater division in the church but to promote understanding and healing in the body of Christ. We live in a world that continues to exhibit racial tensions and divisions, both within and outside of the church. But I believe the church has the best answer for bridging those divisions, and that answer is our shared unity and love in Christ.
May we continue to press forward together toward the goal of true reconciliation and bear witness to the world that unity in Christ is possible even amidst our racial and cultural differences. And may the church one day be able to reflect in word and deed that the diversity God has created is a blessing for us all to cherish and respect.