We Should be Unified, Right?
“So you’ll be working with Epic this school year!” My heart sank when I heard that – I was a first-year intern with Cru at the University of Minnesota and we were discussing assignments for which ministries we would be involved in besides our general campus responsibilities. I was just told that I’d be working with Epic, which was Cru’s contextualized ministry for Asian-American students. As a college student, I tried to avoid everything with Epic – I just wanted to fit in at Cru, and going to a Bible study specifically for Asian-Americans didn’t make sense. After all, weren’t we supposed to be one unified body in Christ? Why would we split off into contextualized ministries?
Now, it’s important to note, I did not hate being an Asian American – if anything, I embraced it. I loved listening to Korean pop music. A lot of my favorite YouTubers that I watched on a regular basis made content specifically for Asian-Americans. I had attended events for the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers and the Asian-American Student Union all throughout college. It’s just that when it came to my faith, I didn’t see a need to differentiate between myself and all my non-minority friends. Why should I go to a conference specifically for students of a certain ethnic minority? Why should I go on a summer missions trip specifically for Asian-American students? I did go to the ethnic minority lunch at our annual winter conference, but that was mainly for the free food, not because I saw it as an experience I needed.
So imagine my reaction when I was told that as part of my job, I was to help relaunch an Asian-American ministry at the U of M. I wasn’t happy, but I figured I’d enter the situation with an open mind.
I was upfront with my co-worker about my lack of enthusiasm and he understood my hesitation. He explained that our job wasn’t to split people from Cru – if they wanted to be a part of that campus ministry, that was fine. Our job was to help those at the margins, the students who wanted to have a relationship with Jesus but didn’t necessarily feel comfortable at a majority-culture event.
Believing and Belonging
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a very assimilated minority. I grew up in the suburbs in Minnesota, at a school where 10% of the population was Asian-American. As a result, I had instinctually learned how to assimilate into the majority American culture. While I certainly had interests that were distinctly Asian-American, I was also very comfortable in a majority culture setting. For me as a student, Cru felt like an extension of my life experience.
As we got the ministry going and started meeting students, I found that the topics we were talking about with students about were also relevant for my life. We connected about being sick and tired of college events that catered Mesa Pizza since our experience of hospitality growing up was providing home-cooked meals to guests. We commiserated not only over strict parents and recognizing how difficult it was to be a college freshman with all this newfound independence, but also the internal pressure of not wanting to let down your parents in education. We talked about how Asian culture’s emphasis on just putting your head down and not drawing any attention prevented our ability to share the Gospel boldly. We shared about having that internal understanding that we didn’t completely belong in the majority culture and the challenges of walking with one foot in two different cultures. We walked through the gospel with an honor-shame lens, which all of sudden unlocked a completely new understanding for me and my relationship with God. While I understood fully the concept that God didn’t just forgive our sins but also made us new in Him, providing language in the context of an honor-shame lens helped me understand why I had always resonated more deeply with the truth that “God doesn’t just love us, He also likes us.”
I also saw how Epic impacts the students who were involved in our ministry. They were willing to share about their struggles at home because they knew we understood what their home lives were like. We could make inside jokes about Asian-American culture that would not have landed in Cru. We could get boba without feeling like we were part of some hipster trend. Slowly, Epic started to feel like home – we came up with a clever tag line that we wanted Epic to not just be a place for students to believe, but also to belong.
A New Role
In my own personal life, being a part of Epic also helped strengthen my ties to Asian-American culture. I began to see how assimilating into majority culture had hurt my ability to express my culture in the faith circles I was in. I realized that I had an important role to play as an ethnic minority in this majority culture settings. In my small group at Hope, I started speaking more about how a passage could be seen through a communal lens. I was more open about my culture and didn’t try to hide the fact I was Asian-American.
Funny enough, God also started using my experience as an Asian-American growing up in Minnesota to help other Asian-Americans. In the national Epic conferences, where there were staff and students coming from all over the US to meet together, I could draw on my experience in both Asian-American and majority culture and provide the voice of someone who grew up in a majority culture, as opposed to a community where the majority of the population was Asian, like some of my friends who grew up in California or New York. At an Epic summer mission, I was able to connect with students who grew up Asian-American in the Midwest.
Even now, while I’m not actively involved in Epic anymore, I’ve been able to pull from my experiences of leading that ministry into my current faith. I’m much more acutely aware of issues facing the Asian American community, especially with recent current events, and sharing my distress about those situations with my small group. In my apartment, I took my experiences from growing up in a Chinese family to bring my roommates together during COVID, emphasizing spending time together and having meals together. And maybe most importantly, I’m becoming more aware of how my Asian-American identity can hold back my ability to connect with God and understanding how culture can both inhibit and grow our relationship with God.