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Asian American, Categories, Christianity, Politics, Race, Social Justice

Seek Justice: A Chinese and Japanese American Christian Response to Social Justice


Written May 2009 as my final thesis for my Bachelors of Arts in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University.
 

Abstract

This article examines how Asian American Christians in Los Angeles County have applied their faith to social justice. Using literature-based research and interviews with 16 Chinese and Japanese American Christians, the author discovers that Asian American Christians pursue social justice on four levels. First, the interviewees are involved in social justice because of their self-identification as racial minorities and because of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Second, a Christian love drove many to build relationships with others. Third, the development of relationships allowed for the increased ability to form solidarity with racially and socioeconomically diverse groups. Finally, some pursue systemic justice through public policy to effect long term change.

Preface

The words of Malcolm X still cry out to me: Jesus was Black, not blond-haired and blue-eyed! As I read his autobiography in the summer of 2007, his words spoke to me in two ways: first, he challenged my notions of Christianity, as I thought I had the religion all figured out. Second, his book made me see that all the things deemed “good, pure, holy, and righteous,” such as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, do not necessarily belong primarily to the White race, as we are traditionally taught to believe. I will address the second point first.

College was when I encountered Asian American Studies (AAS). Before college, I had major identity issues. I felt “American” because I was born and raised in the US, have never been to Japan, and do not speak Japanese. Yet, I was never treated fully American. My White friends always treated Asian Americans like outsiders, which made me want to be and look White because I thought they were “normal.” I began to think that something was wrong with me. Once I took AAS classes, I was blown away. AAS showed me the rich and vibrant history of Asian Americans. It showed me the importance of an ethnic identity in the face of assimilation, a community striving for equity, and solidarity with other groups that all struggle for the common cause of justice. AAS empowered me. AAS re-humanized me. AAS lifted off the internalized racism and self-hatred that I carried upon my shoulders.

Why do I share this? In a way, AAS was God’s way of showing me that I am His child, and that I am priceless in His eyes despite what I look like, what color my skin is, or how others treat me. Through AAS, Christ lifted off the chains of self-hatred that kept me imprisoned and showed me my own worth. Before, I wanted to lash out at the Whites for what they did to my people. Now with Christ, I see that the true expression of justice is not hatred, but love; not vengeance, but forgiveness; not being oppressed to try to become the oppressor, but reestablishing the humanity of all people (Freire, 1970).

Now I return to the sentiments of Malcolm X. Appreciating that Jesus was not White made me realize that I did not have this Christian thing entirely figured out. So I began searching for answers. Through this pursuit for answers however, all I discovered were more questions; questions that went beyond race to other areas of faith and practice. It was my two circles of friends that most baffled me. On the one hand, I saw my Christian friends focusing on the spiritual and relational needs of individuals by loving and evangelizing to non-Christians. On the other hand, I saw my non-religious activist friends focusing on the political and economic needs of large groups by working towards social justice and bettering their communities. I wondered why things seemed so split. Both were working towards love, whether by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with them, or by laboring to help others attain a fairer and better quality of life. This divide led me in search of other Asian American Christians who have integrated their faith with social justice.

This research paper attempts to give reasons and methods for pursuing social justice from an Asian American Christian perspective. My hope is that it may encourage other Asian American Christians to take up the call of justice in their own lives, in their communities, and in the rest of the world. Through the stories of several Asian American Christians who pursue social justice because of their faith, I hope to illustrate a Christ-centered social justice and inspire Christ-led action. Perhaps this paper will bring up questions and allow others to think that maybe there is more to Christianity than we are traditionally taught to believe, just as I realized that there was more to Jesus than the White American social construction. I pray that all followers of Jesus Christ may read this paper with open hearts and open minds, and if the Lord so leads, take action. Above all else, despite whether we enjoy this paper or throw it in the garbage, whether we do justice or not, I pray that we may remain faithful to the Lord. As Mother Teresa said, “I do not pray for success, but ask for faithfulness.”

Acknowledgements

This paper is a culmination of my time spent in the San Francisco Bay Area. First, I give thanks to the Christian Social Issues group and the interviewees in this paper. It is encouraging to know other Asian American Christians pursuing collective and systemic justice. Without them, this paper would not have been possible.

I wish to thank my church, Gracepoint Fellowship, for showing me a faith that is on fire for the Lord and a community that lives, serves, and worships together. I thank Eddie Ng and Daemin Kim for all of their spiritual guidance and support. I also wish to thank my small group, peers, leaders, the Arballo brothers, the morning DT group, and the rest of our church and fellowship. I am thankful for their warmth and love that always accepted me into their lives and homes. I am eternally grateful to them for showing me the importance of Christ in my life and my need for a relationship with God.

To the Asian American Studies Department, my heartfelt gratitude goes out to professors Wesley Ueuenten, Gordon Lee, Mai Nhung Le, Wei Ming Dariotis, and Russell Jeung. They always found time to nurture me despite their heavy class loads, extra students, and community work. Their dedication to the students and the community is a true reflection of the original AAS goals, created by the Third World Student Strike in 1968 and 69. Their community emphasis testifies that the spirit of AAS is still alive and well. May the college and program continue on into the future, and may it sway the other AAS departments around the nation to become more community focused. To my AAS peers, I am so grateful for all of our discussions that encouraged me in my desire and interest of social justice.

My thanks go out to Monica Sakata. Her continual willingness to listen was a huge measure of support as I wrote this paper.

I wish to thank my mother, my father, and my sister. To them, I am forever grateful. They raised me, nurtured me, protected me, taught me, encouraged me, inspired me, prayed for me, showed grace towards me, and loved me. They taught me the values of simplicity, forgiveness, love, patience, humility, faithfulness, community, fervor, and generosity. I will always remember my mother’s words: “You’re finally growing up because you realize the importance in helping and loving others. You’re beginning to understand what Christianity is all about.” I will always remember my father’s patience and serenity as I messed up and tried to hide. And I will always remember my sister’s postcards that invited me into her life.

Finally, I wish to praise God. He has always been faithful to me and always will be. I thank him for leading me to the Bay Area, to Gracepoint Fellowship Church, and to AAS. And I thank him for the opportunity to write this paper. May it glorify His Name.

Most importantly, may we remain faithful to the Lord and be a Church that loves God, loves and cares for others, and “seeks justice.”

Seek justice,
Encourage the oppressed.”
– Isaiah 1:17 (New International Version)

Introduction

Since its induction in July of 2007, the group Christian Social Issues (CSI) meets bi-monthly to discuss the Christian response to relevant social issues in the United States and in the larger world. Topics such as immigration, the war in Iraq, homosexuality, race and the ethnic Church, and human sex trafficking were all topics of conversation.

Each meeting, the group members meet at a different location in Los Angeles County to accommodate the long commutes. People come from the San Gabriel Valley, Granada Hills, Pasadena, La Mirada, Whittier, Gardena, Torrance, Claremont, and Cerritos. They represent over seven churches throughout the Los Angeles County, yet the number of attendees is small. There are only about 20 regular members, with the majority in their middle ages. They all have a similar goal of learning how to better apply their Christian faith to social justice.

And they are all Asian American.

It is evident that there are Asian Americans who desire to pursue social justice because of their Christian faith. What is less evident is why so few Asian American Christians take up the call of social justice in their own lives, in their churches and communities, and in the larger society. Since the numbers are small, the topic is not thoroughly studied. What does the pursuit of social justice look like for an Asian American Christian? How have Asian American Christians applied their faith to social justice?

This paper attempts to address these questions by exploring the lives of Asian American Christians, specifically Chinese and Japanese American Protestant Christians in the Los Angeles County, who are (or were) activists, community workers, or involved in other areas dealing with social justice. These people’s stories weave together a clearer picture of how the Christian faith and an Asian American identity inspire people to seek justice, and what that social justice work can look like.

Historical Background

The first Christians and Asians both came to the United States in search of freedom and opportunity. Protestant Christianity spread to the US through European Christian immigrants seeking religious freedom from state and institutional Church interference. Similarly, the early waves of Asian immigrants came to the US in search of a new and better life, as well as freedom from the devastating effects of war, Western imperialism, poverty, and communism.

Asians, both in Asia and in the US, have been introduced to Christianity through missionaries and the Christian Church. European colonial and imperial powers spread Christian missionaries into Asian countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Japan, and Korea. Upon arrival to the US, Asian immigrants were further exposed to Christianity by their close proximity to the many Christian churches. They began to form their own ethnic churches as places of refuge from the dangers of racism and discrimination from White Americans (Tan, 2008). As more Asians immigrated to the US, Asian churches served as safe-havens and institutions to meet “social needs for ethnic group belonging” (Yang, 1998, p. 245). As a result, the Asian Christian Church in the US flourished.

Asian American Christians and their churches continue to thrive well into the twenty-first century. Each week in 2000, there were over 800 Chinese American and 200 Japanese American Protestant Christian worship services nationwide (Jeung, 2005). About 72% of all Asians in the US say that they have a religious identity (Carnes & Lien, 2004), and “over 60[%] of Asian Americans who have a religious identification are Christian” (Carnes & Yang, 2004, p. 2). Among the Chinese and Japanese in the US, 32% and 43% identify as Christian, respectively (Carnes & Lien, 2004). In 2001, Lien’s study of Asian Americans in Los Angeles County found that 19% of Japanese Americans and 25% of Chinese Americans were weekly churchgoers.

With the large numbers of Chinese and Japanese American Christians, many of their ethnic-specific churches are becoming multiethnic (Jeung, 2005). A majority of these churches are also of the evangelical denomination (Jeung, 2005; Yang, 1998). Tan (2008) asserts that the majority of Asian American Christians choose to remain within multiethnic Asian American churches instead of going to other non-Asian, usually White American churches. They choose to do this not only because of the “valuable and important social functions that help Asian American ethnic communities define and sustain their unique identity and cultural traditions[,]” but also “primarily because of discrimination and stereotyping arising from their physical inability to blend in with the dominant [W]hite American society” (Tan, 2008, p. 60). Ethnic solidarity, ethnic culture, and racism all play roles in allowing Asian American Christians to feel safe, comfortable, and familiar within multiethnic Asian American churches (Jeung, 2005). A brief look into the literature of contemporary Asian American Christian Studies will help expand the scope of how Asian American Christians are pursuing social justice to empower and help their own and other communities.

Literature Review

Literature on Asian American Christian Studies is still small since it emerged in the mid-1990s. Social justice literature within this field is even smaller and more recent. There have been a few current works published which focus on an Asian American Christian perspective of social justice. Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches (2005), by Russell Jeung, and “Households of Mercy and Justice” (2006), by Soong-Chan Rah, both focus on social justice from an Asian American Christian perspective. Asian American Christians who do social justice focus on but are not limited to Asian American issues. They emphasize helping the poor and underprivileged, combating economic and racial injustice on the systemic and structural level, and promote community and identity empowerment as well as racial reconciliation. Helen Kim’s thesis, Niseis of the Faith: Theologizing Liberation in the Asian American Movement (2006), further adds to the list of what social justice means to Asian American Christians: the “restoration of human dignity” (p. 40); equal and non-patriarchal relationships with others; and the promotion of Asian American self-determination within churches and in the larger society. From these Christian scholars’ perspectives, social justice for Asian American Christians works on the individual, communal, and societal levels.

In the book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (2005), Ron Sider discusses the need to address social justice on different levels. He argues that North American Christians must address both “personal sins” and “social sins.” In Christian thought, actions such as sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, and domestic violence constitute personal sins. Social sins, on the other hand, are when people contribute, whether deliberately or unconsciously, to “unfair systems and oppressive structures” that hurt people (Sider, 2005, p. 114). These systems are subtly embedded within society and are hard to see, hence the title of his chapter, “Social Evil: Sin Embedded in Societal Systems” (p. 107). The systems can be economic, political, social, legal, or cultural in nature. Examples of social sins are slavery, economic exploitation of workers, unfair immigration policies, or institutional racism. Although the book concentrates on North American Christians in general, as opposed to Asian American Christians in particular, it provides a Christian framework to engage in social justice on the structural and systemic level.

Other publications focus more specifically on social justice within an Asian American Christian framework. H. Kim’s thesis, Niseis of the Faith(2006), concentrates on the Christian contributions to the Asian American Movement of the 1960s and 70s. She tells the stories of three Japanese American Christian ministers who also became activists because of their incarceration in the internment camps during World War II (WWII). The ministers’ firsthand experiences with injustice made them “view […] their activism from a theological lens, tying the narrative of Asian American liberation with the Christian narrative” (p. 58). In other words, their identities as both Asian Americans and as Christians motivated them to become crusaders of social justice for the marginalized Asian American community.

In the book Faithful Generations (2005), Jeung does a comprehensive study of two Asian American churches in the Bay Area and discovers that they have become multiethnic. A multiethnic church promotes social justice “[t]o further racial reconciliation and to reflect God’s vision for church unity” (p. 154). It also promotes inclusivity of all people, especially those outside of the church and along different racial and class lines. Jeung encourages Asian American churches to adopt multiethnic visions so that they can “develop more just relationships with others […to] bring about revival, effect structural change, and restore community” (p. 165). This generation of Asian American Christians must be faithful to the Christian calling of loving and helping others by doing justice in churches, communities, and society.

In the book, Growing Healthy Asian American Churches (2006), editors Peter Cha, Steve Kang, and Helen Lee, conclude that “healthy Asian American churches” require nine components that “bring health to Asian American congregations” (p. 15). One of those components is social justice. One of the book’s chapters, “Households of Mercy and Justice” (Rah, 2006), explores different Asian American churches around the US and how they address issues of social injustice. Rah pays particular attention to the ways Asian American churches can address systemic injustices, with special regards to institutional racism and its effects on the Asian American population. As a pastor, Rah focuses on systemic injustice because he knows that “[w]hile ministering to the immediate needs of the poor can yield short-term results, seeking long-term solutions usually involves addressing social injustice on a systemic and structural level” (p. 198).

Korean American Evangelicals: New Models for Civic Life (2006), by Elaine Ecklund, is a comparative study of Korean American evangelical Christians from two different churches, one being majority Korean American and the other multiethnic. Both churches facilitate the Korean American members’ civic engagement and community service, albeit in different ways. Ecklund finds that the two churches “do not impart models of political life in the same way that they impart models of community service” (p. 119). In other words, although the churches engage in some level of social justice and community service, they lack in striving to make structural and political change within American society and in their local communities. The few Korean American evangelicals who desire social justice on the systemic and structural levels look to the African American Church to find “model[s] for political involvement” (p. 136).

Methodology

The literature was found through various ways. The San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) library page was used to find literature by searching key word combinations such as “Asian American,” “Christ,” “Christianity,” “church,” “social justice,” “activism,” “community service,” and “community organizing.” Other secondary research on Asian American Christianity and social justice was found with the help of Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American Studies at SFSU. Once the researcher obtained articles and books, he used the bibliographies to find other relevant resources related to the topic.

After obtaining the literature, the researcher did a study based on 13 separate interviews of 16 Chinese and Japanese American Christians living in the Los Angeles County. Twelve of the interviewees were contacted through the emailing list of the group, Christian Social Issues (CSI). The sample size of the interviewees increased by “snowball sampling” methods, meaning that some of the people on the CSI emailing list provided other people to interview who are not a part of CSI. In the emails, the researcher described the purpose and logistics of the study to the interviewees, and also set up times and locations to conduct the interviews.

The interviews took place in Los Angeles County, at restaurants, coffee shops, churches, the researcher’s residence, or the residence of the interviewees. The in-person interviews lasted on an average of 45 minutes to one hour and were audio-recorded for accuracy in the Research Findings section of the study. Interviewees were given a list of questions to consider prior to the interviews, but the interviews were conducted on a question-and-answer format with follow up questions based upon the responses of the interviewees, as to not restrict their responses. The list of questions given prior to the interviews appears in Appendix B.

The interviewees are all Chinese or Japanese American Christians, and were all born in the US. Eleven of the interviewees are Japanese American, four are Chinese American, and one is multiracial, part Japanese and part White American. Two of the eleven Japanese Americans are Okinawan American, but they also identify as Japanese American, so they will be included in the former group. Six of the interviewees are women and ten are men. Two interviewees are second generation, ten are third generation, and four have parents from different generations. With the exception of two interviewees who attend a White American mainline church, fourteen interviewees are from the evangelical denomination. Excluding the two who attend the White American church, the interviewees attend eight Asian American churches. The interviewees had jobs in education, manufacturing, non-profit and community organizations, or on church staff. A table of the demographic characteristics of the interviewees is listed in Appendix A.

Research Findings

Effects of an Asian American Identity on Social Justice

In discussing how they became interested in social justice issues, a vast majority of the interviewees said that their identities as Asian Americans, especially feeling like minorities or identifying with other minority groups who face injustice, had a significant impact. Only one interviewee said that her Asian American identity was not helpful in becoming interested in social justice.

Bonnie Tang, for example, a second generation Chinese American, grew up in Dublin, California, a majority White American town. She attended an almost all-White American church as a youth. When she moved away to college, she joined an on-campus African American Christian fellowship because there was no Asian American counterpart. After college, she taught in the inner cities of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with majority African American students and “learned how to empathize and live with people who are really on the outer edges of society, who’ve been discriminated against generation after generation” (personal communication, March 23, 2009). Both her own experiences and self-identification as a racial minority, as well as working with other minorities who experience injustice on a daily basis, led her to become more concerned about social justice.

Marian Sunabe, a third generation Japanese American, works as a counselor at the Asian American Christian Counseling Services. Her interest in social justice led her to participate in CSI and even sit on a panel discussing homosexuality within the Asian American church. The panel discussion was meant to create more understanding and dialogue about the silenced issue. One reason she is interested in social justice is because of the history of Japanese American internment and her self-identification as a minority:

I think that being aware of the history of Japanese Americans in this country has made me more sensitive to injustice in general. I do feel a lot of compassion for any minority group [….]I really identify with them, and I think it has to do with having kind of gotten in touch with being a minority myself. (Personal communication, March 23, 2009)

Scott Kushigemachi, a third generation Japanese American, was exposed to social problems through a racial minority lens. During high school, his involvement with Asian gangs introduced him to the gang-life realities many working class youth of color face. When he attended a predominantly white Christian college, he always felt like a minority and was never quite “at home” (personal communication, March 27, 2009). He is involved with the neighborhood ministry at his Asian American church, which outreaches to the church’s majority African American and Latino working class neighbors. His involvement with the community reflects his commitment to social justice, spurred on by his own experiences of marginalization.

Carla Chan, a second generation Chinese American, was the only interviewee who said her Asian American identity was not helpful in becoming interested in social justice. Her Asian American identity was a barrier, because it “slowed [her] down to social awareness” (personal communication, March 26, 2009). At an early age, she was taught to value individual and financial success over helping others, so she pursued a high-paying career in the medical field. Later in life, Carla gained social awareness through society’s negative response to her special needs daughter, and how “she can be a forgotten group of people” (personal communication, March 26, 2009).

The responses of the interviewees varied ever so slightly as to whether their Asian American identities contributed to an interest in social justice. Experiences with racial issues, personal injustice, or feeling like a minority all factored into developing a social awareness. Yet, personal experiences alone are at times insufficient to getting Asian Americans active and involved in social justice issues (Osajima, 2007). What then, pushed these Asian American Christians to get involved with community service and organizing, activism, and public policy?

A Faith Driven Social Justice

All of the interviewees said that they emphasize social justice in their lives because of their Christian faith. Their basis for focusing on social justice, whether partly because of their Asian American identity or not, came from the teachings and commandments of Jesus Christ and the Bible. Their Christian convictions compelled them to take action and address the pain and suffering of others in need.

Gary Sakata, for example, a third generation Japanese American, attributes his interest in social justice to his Christian faith. During the 1970s, his involvement in Agape Fellowship, an Asian American Christian group, helped him to become more conscious “about a particular lifestyle to live as a Christian” that valued Christian discipleship and social awareness (personal communication, March 25, 2009). In talking about why he would help the poor or needy, Gary attributes it to his faith and his obedience to the commandments of Jesus Christ and the Bible:

Everything would have to come from a spiritual aspect. If I were to reach out to a homeless man, I would hope that I could share my relationship with God [Christian faith] with that individual. But as it says in James [a book in the Bible…] if he’s hungry, or cold and I have the means to give him food or clothing, I better do that. (Personal communication, March 25, 2009)

Amy Phillips-Kushigemachi speaks about how her identity as both a Christian and as a multiracial person led her to social work and helping the older Asian American population. She says, “If I hadn’t been a Christian, things in my life would not have driven me towards work, like a vocation or a calling, that’s related to social justice” (personal communication, March 27, 2009). Her Christian faith was the overriding factor that led to a focus on social justice.

Social Justice Out of Love

The interviewees gave testimony that it is a Christian love that drives them to pursue social justice for the suffering, marginalized, and poor. The interviewees do not labor because of their rage at the injustices imposed on these people. Instead, it is their love and care for the disenfranchised individuals that motivate them to stop the injustices that make people suffer in the first place.

Rodney Tanaka’s work in the social justice realm is based upon his compassion for the underprivileged. After retiring from the police force, he became a Christian chaplain at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles’ skid-row area. His switch from police work to chaplaincy was a subsequent change in his attitude. He says, “My walk and growth as a Christian exploded after I retired from police work. My whole energy now is based on doing things for God […] and his people. My heart’s just gotten really full” (personal communication, March 27, 2009). The transition into working with the homeless gave Rodney a new emphasis of loving poor people by helping them get back on their feet.

Paul Nagano’s Christian faith has taken him on a life long journey in the pursuit of social justice. He was incarcerated in the internment camps during WWII, participated in the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s, and currently works with the Council for Asian Pacific Theology towards creating peaceful and diplomatic interfaith dialogue. After all of his different experiences working towards justice and peace, he concludes that his faith driven desire for social justice stems out of his love for others:

Social justice is more concerned about a relationship with people […Y]ou become a co-worker with God’s love and concern for others and the world[….] In Christianity and religion in general, love is the ultimate answer […] compassion and love, these are universal. When you think about love, you can’t define it, but you can do it. It’s love in action. (Personal communication, March 24, 2009)

Relational Social Justice

The interviewees’ loving faith not only encourages them to care for the marginalized, but also to build relationships with them. Social justice goes further than donating money and canned goods to the poor and hungry, or occasionally going to a soup kitchen to feed the homeless. It goes beyond alleviating people’s pain and suffering. Social justice is also about breaking down boundaries with the outcasts, befriending the poor, and welcoming the forgotten.

Seminary student Ethan Eng tries to bring a social justice orientation to his Asian American church in Orange County. Through his Christian education, he realized that “the best idea of justice is a restoration to community” (personal communication, March 24, 2009). In other words, justice takes down walls of separation between people and allows entry into mutual relationships. When people reach out to the poor and the poor in turn accept help, a relationship is built and community is strengthened. Ethan and his church youth group pursue social justice by partnering with different urban and homeless ministries in downtown Los Angeles.

Brian Wang, a children’s minister at the First Chinese Baptist Church of Los Angeles in Chinatown, also attempts to bridge the gap that separates his church from the poverty and homelessness on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. Like Ethan, Brian tries to connect his youth ministry with the local homeless shelter “not just once a year but as an ongoing thing” (personal communication, March 26, 2009). He wants the youth to feel comfortable building long-term relationships with all people, both inside and outside the church, both Chinese and non-Chinese, and both rich and poor.

Ellen and Harold Kameya advocate for the civil rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Asian American community. After witnessing their daughter Valerie’s struggles with being a lesbian, they better understand the pain and ostracism LGBTs experience, even within Christian circles. Their activism with the organization Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) gives them the perspective of treating the LGBT community as friends and loved ones. They also desire to see the Asian American Christian Church build relationships with LGBTs by being affirming instead of tolerating:

Tolerating is that, yeah, it’s okay for gays to come into our church as long as they don’t say that they’re gay [….] Affirming is to embrace them, and to say, they are all made in the image of God, and are people with every right to participate fully in the church. (H. Kameya, personal communication, March 23, 2009)

Kevin Doi, a pastor at EPIC church in Fullerton California, focuses on addressing poverty because he has friends who have money problems and knows others who are poor. His personal relationships with those who are facing financial hardships motivates him to preach sermons on the state of the dwindling US economy, its effects on the poor, and the response of the Asian American church he leads. He also has been volunteering at a low-income afterschool program for the past six years to “be committed […and] build relationships with [the youth] and really get to know them” (personal communication, March 25, 2009). The pursuit of social justice encourages Kevin to build and maintain relationships with others and try to help them attain better lives in the long run.

Racial and Class Solidarity Through Social Justice

Relationship building, as an avenue of social justice within Asian American Christian circles, also reveals the ability to create solidarity with groups of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many Asian American churches have memberships with majority middle class Asian Americans and White Americans (Jeung, 2005; Yang, 1998). Their outreach and partnership with African Americans, Latinos, and working class people are low. By being involved with different areas of social justice, the interviewees have more opportunities for interaction, affinity, and solidarity with non-Asians.

Cyril Nishimoto, a Japanese American with a background in law, began his Christian faith wanting to “help people in need, especially people from [his] own background” (personal communication, March 26, 2009). As he began his legal work in New York, he initially helped the Asian American community by working with organizations that dealt with anti-Asian violence and racism. Later, a local church denomination recruited him and other representatives from the major racial and ethnic groups onto its racial justice task force to address issues of race in the Church. Together, they addressed the question, “How do we [Christians] really begin to understand each other and our cultural differences and address those things together in partnership?” (personal communication, March 26, 2009). By working in the social justice realm, Cyril has collaborated and built relationships with other racially and ethnically diverse Christians to address common issues that affect everyone.

Bill Watanabe, the executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), does not restrict his work to an only Japanese American focus. LTSC also works with senior citizens from multiple ethnic backgrounds, Asian and Latino immigrants, and those needing low-income housing. The organization tries to be as culturally sensitive as possible to accommodate the differences among people. Bill’s social justice work also launched him into the inner circle of Sojourners, a progressive Christian magazine. The leadership of Sojourners is predominantly White American, and he is one of the few Asian Americans on the Board of Directors. By working with Sojourners, he sees that they are trying to be more inclusive of all people, especially those from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. He says that Sojourners told him, “The Asian [American] community is one of our priority groups” to partner with (personal communication, March 26, 2009). By working in the realm of social justice, unity and solidarity have been some of the key issues the interviewees address.

Systemic Justice and the Lack of Church Opportunity

A few of the interviewees who work with people from other socioeconomic and racial backgrounds see the disparities, inequities, and injustices that occur from group to group. Their experiences of striving for justice among the different groups led to realizations that larger systemic and structural forces are at work, negatively affecting large numbers of people. These interviewees work to effect change at the macro level because they know that “seeking long-term solutions usually involves addressing social injustice on a systemic and structural level” (Rah, 2006, p. 198). Their work is outside the Asian American church because there are no opportunities for political involvement. They look to other churches, especially African American or working class churches, for models of political activism.

Diane Ujiiye is the director of Asian and Pacific Islanders California Action Network (APIsCAN), and works towards the equity and empowerment of Asian Americans at the political level. Through the avenue of public policy, she tries to help “facilitate better and more equitable systems [that] address the underlying causes and issues that create social ills” (personal communication, March 24, 2009). Her work attempts to help vulnerable people attain better lives in the long run by changing the systems and institutions that hurt them. Although she is committed to an Asian American church, her brief time at an African American church showed her the contrast between the two churches and their differing emphases on social justice at the systemic level. She says, “It’s interesting how social justice is infused into a lot of Black churches because they live [injustice]! It’s not something theoretical. It has to be part of the daily sermon because it’s a part of the daily life (personal communication, March 24, 2009). She does not see her church emphasizing social justice on the systemic level, so she searches for other Christian models that do.

Amy Phillips-Kushigemachi, mentioned earlier, is the director of the Asian Pacific Islander Older Adult Task Force. Her work is at the public policy level to help the older Asian American population gain equity not only as individuals but also as a whole community. Part of the reason she does community and social work comes from her commitment to “do justice in all parts of society” (personal communication, March 27, 2009). She reports that there was an “absence of the discussion” about social justice within her church, so she looks to other churches (personal communication, March 27, 2009):

There are some other churches, either because of where they’re located or maybe even the history of the church or the ethnic background of the church, that may feel a much greater sense of urgency around the issue of justice at the systemic level. (Personal communication, March 27, 2009)

Research Analysis and Conclusion

Experiencing injustice and a love for others drives individuals to get active in social justice issues. H. Kim’s (2006) study shows how three Japanese American ministers became activists because of their Christian faith, their experiences in the internment camps, and their desire to see other Asian Americans be treated humanely. Similarly, the interviewees became crusaders for social justice because of a combination of their Christian faith, biblical teachings, learning about their ancestors’ history of hardship in the US, experiencing racism or marginalization on a firsthand basis, or seeing the injustices other groups face. There is an importance in experiencing, witnessing, or learning about injustice: it fosters and facilitates the growth of care and concern for the suffering of others. Many of the interviewees are passionate about social justice because they personally experienced injustice, and can empathize with other people’s pain. Now they desire to help those who suffer at the hands of injustice.

If personal experiences with injustice encouraged the interviewees to help the suffering, then being sheltered and insulated from injustice makes it difficult to spur others on towards helping the suffering. One interviewee stated:

I think if you’re at a middle class church […] you’re comfortable enough that you can focus on yourself or you’ve been taught to focus on yourself rather than considering privilege or systemic issues…and it’s not because Christians in the middle classes are just bent on excluding others or being unjust. I can’t think of a single Christian that tries to be unjust. But their life experiences and awareness don’t drive them to look for a vocabulary or explanation or solution [for injustice]. (A.P. Kushigemachi, personal communication, March 27, 2009)

When people are unexposed to the ghettos, slums, and other suffering places throughout the world, they can also be sheltered from other people’s pain and suffering. Asian American Christians can gain more compassion by being exposed to the injustices and pain people experience. Groups like CSI can facilitate this exposure. Documentaries, speakers to share their personal experiences, forums to discuss issues, or local organizations that are helping the underprivileged can all be used to raise awareness and exposure to social issues.

The interviewees embark on their quests for social justice in many different ways. Going further than Sider’s notion of engaging both personal and social sins (2005), the interviewees pursue justice on four levels. The first level of social justice occurs internally. Because of their faith, the interviewees gain compassion and concern for the plight of others and do justice out of love. On the interpersonal level, the interviewees give aid to the suffering people by befriending them and building mutual relationships with them. A community level of social justice occurs when the interviewees help those outside their own class or race, and together build coalitions and solidarity. Finally, social justice on the systemic level requires the interviewees to engage the political realm to change the systems in place that hurt large groups of people.

It is important to understand that social justice for Asian American Christians is not just political and social activism. Entering the political realm to create change is controversial for Asian American Christians. Many believe in the separation of church and state and “do not see their local congregations as political entities” (Ecklund, 2006, p. 119). The interviewees demonstrate that justice is not only about changing unfair political structures. They do justice because they want to alleviate the pain people experience from injustice, whether that is on the internal, individual, communal, or societal level. This perspective can both open up the dialogue about social justice and open up the possibility for Asian American Christians to give social justice a chance. One interviewee said:

Social justice, in terms of socioeconomics, is just a single part of God’s healing and redemption of the world. And I think if we remember that, [Asian American Christians] will become a little more interested in it, because that’s something they can understand more. (Eng, personal communication, March 24, 2009)

An open dialogue about the reasons to do social justice can help others see the need to care for people who are poor and suffering. Understanding that social justice is about helping someone sheds light on the fact that social justice at the larger systemic level is about helping larger groups of people. Both literature and interviewee responses reflect the need for Asian American Christians to engage social justice on the systemic level (Ecklund, 2006; Jeung, 2005; H. Kim, 2006; Rah, 2006; Sider, 2005). Yet, like the Korean American evangelicals in Ecklund’s (2006) study, many interviewees do not know where to begin. They lack models or examples of how other Asian American Christians are politically involved in changing systemic problems. Further research, then, is needed on Asian American Christians working specifically in the political realm to see how they are striving for long-term change and to understand their perspectives about social justice at the systemic level.

Research is also needed on how Asian American Christians are affected by an open discussion about social justice. An in-depth study of the Christian Social Issues group would be a start. One can look at why Asian American Christians decide to attend CSI and how the discussions affect their attitudes, interests, or involvement regarding social justice. Does the discussion make them more open to getting involved in social justice, or more closed? Another possibility is to examine the specific work CSI does. Or one can explore other Asian American Christians’ perceptions about a group such as CSI that strives to apply the Christian faith to social justice.

For two years, CSI has discussed how Asian American Christians should respond to certain social issues. The group has come to little conclusion about a proper and unified response, especially over the issue of what level of social engagement is appropriate for a Christian. Some members argue that Christians should be working to serve the immediate needs of the suffering through the non-profit and community organization realm; others say Christians should work within the Church to cultivate its justice work; others advocate that Christians should enter the political sphere and strive for long-term progress. At what level the Asian American Christian community strives for social justice however, should not be the main concern. What matters is that the search for justice must unite rather than divide the Church. What matters is that Asian American Christians must be “guided by great feelings of love” as they care for those who are disadvantaged, poor, marginalized, and in pain. And what matters most of all, is that they have lives centered wholly and fully upon the Christian faith.

Bibliography

Barker, K. L. (2002). Zondervan new international version study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Busto, R. V. (1996). The gospel according to the model minority? Hazarding an interpretation of Asian American evangelical college students. Amerasia Journal, 22(1), 133-147.

Carnes, T. & Yang, F. (Eds.). (2004). Asian American religions: The making and remaking of borders and boundaries. New York: New York University Press.

Claiborne, S. (2006). The irresistible revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Ecklund, E. H. (2006). Korean American evangelicals: New models for civic life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Emerson, M. O., DeYoung, C. P., Kim, K. C., & Yancey, G. (2003). United by faith: The multiracial congregation as an answer to the problem of race. New York: Oxford University Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed.  New York: Continuum.

Jeung, R. M. (2004). Faith-based, multiethnic tenant organizing: The Oak Park story. In P. H. Sotelo (Ed.), Religion and social justice for immigrants (pp. 59-73). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Jeung, R. M. (2005). Faithful generations: Race and new Asian American churches. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kim, H. (2006). Niseis of the faith: Theologizing liberation in the Asian American movement. Unpublished paper.

Kim, R. Y. (2006). God’s new wiz kids: Korean American evangelicals on campus. New York: New York University Press.

Lien, P. -T. (2001, January). Comparing the voting participation of Chinese to other Asian Americans in U.S. elections. Chinese America: History and Perspectives, 17, 1-13.

Lien, P. -T., & Carnes, T. (2004). The religious demography of Asian American boundary crossing. In T. Carnes & F. Yang (Eds.), Asian American religions: The making and remaking of borders and boundaries (pp. 38-51). New York: New York University Press.

Matsuoka, F., & Fernandez, E. S. (Eds.). (2003). Realizing the America of our hearts. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.

Ng, D. (Ed.). (1996). People on the way: Asian North Americans discovering Christ, culture, and community. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press.

Osajima, K. (2007). Replenishing the ranks: Raising critical consciousness among Asian Americans [Electronic version]. Journal of Asian American Studies, 10(1), 59-83.

Phan, P. C. (2003). Christianity with an Asian face: Asian American theology in the making. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Rah, S. C. (2006). Households of mercy and justice. In P. Cha, S. S. Kang, & H. Lee (Eds.), Growing healthy Asian American churches: Ministry insights from groundbreaking congregations (pp. 183-200). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Sider, R. J. (2005). Rich Christians in an age of hunger: Moving from affluence to generosity (5th ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Tan, J. Y. (2008). Introducing Asian American theologies. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Yang, F. (1998). Chinese conversion to evangelical Christianity: The importance of social and cultural contexts [Electronic version]. Sociology of Religion, 59(3), 237-257.

Appendix A: Demographic Characteristics of the Interviewees

Name

Date of Interview

US Born /  Generation
F– Father
M – Mother

Ethnicity
F–Father
M – Mother

Occupation/Place of Work

Church (Denomination, Mainline/Evangelical)

Ellen Kameya

Monday, March 23, 2009

3rd generation

Okinawan American (Included in Japanese American category)

School Teacher

First Congregational Church of Long Beach (United Church of Christ, Mainline)

Harold Kameya

Monday, March 23, 2009

3rd generation

Okinawan American (Included in Japanese American category)

Electronics Engineer

First Congregational Church of Long Beach (United Church of Christ, Mainline)

Paul Nagano

Monday, March 23, 2009

3rd generation

Japanese American

Christian Minister at Atherton Baptist Homes

Atherton Baptist Homes (Baptist, Evangelical)

Marian Sunabe

Monday, March 23, 2009

3rd generation

Japanese American

Counselor at Asian American Christian Counseling Services

Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles (Baptist, Evangelical)

Bonnie Tang

Monday, March 23, 2009

2nd generation

Chinese American

Staff Attorney at Asian Pacific American Legal Center

Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles (Baptist, Evangelical)

Diane Ujiiye

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

3rd generation

Japanese American

Director of Asian and Pacific Islanders California Action Network

Gardena Valley Baptist Church (Baptist, Evangelical)

Ethan Eng (Pseudonym)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

3rd generation

Chinese American

Seminary Student and Church Intern

Asian American Orange County Church (Pseudonym) (Baptist, Evangelical)

Kevin Doi

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

3rd generation

Japanese American

Pastor at EPIC Church

EPIC Church (Baptist, Evangelical)

Gary Sakata

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

3rd generation

Japanese American

Marketing Director and Estimator

First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton (Evangelical Free, Evangelical)

Carla Chan (Pseudonym)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

2nd generation

Chinese American

Church Staff Worker

Asian American Orange County Church (Pseudonym) (Baptist, Evangelical)

Brian Wang

Thursday, March 26, 2009

F – 1st generation      M – 4th generation

Chinese American

Assistant Children’s Minister at First Chinese Baptist Church of Los Angeles

First Chinese Baptist Church of Los Angeles (Baptist, Evangelical)

Bill Watanabe

Thursday, March 26, 2009

2.5 generation

Japanese American

Executive Director of Little Tokyo Service Center

Evergreen Baptist Church of San Gabriel Valley (Baptist/Evangelical)

Cyril Nishimoto

Thursday, March 26, 2009

3rd generation

Japanese American

Executive Director of Iwa Ministries

Gardena Valley Baptist Church (Baptist, Evangelical)

Rodney Tanaka

Friday, March 27, 2009

3rd generation

Japanese American

Christian Chaplain at the Union Rescue Mission

Gardena Valley Baptist Church (Baptist, Evangelical)

Scott Kushigemachi

Friday, March 27, 2009

F – 2nd generation    M – 3rd generation

Japanese American

Community College English Teacher

Gardena Valley Baptist Church (Baptist, Evangelical)

Amy Phillips-Kushigemachi

Friday, March 27, 2009

F – ?             M – 1st generation

F – White American       M–Japanese

Director of Asian Pacific Islander Older Adult Task Force

Gardena Valley Baptist Church (Baptist, Evangelical)


Discussion

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