A Budding Movement Is Helping Progressive Asian American Christians Feel Less Lonely

Liberal Asian Americans who have felt spiritually homeless in the past are building their own communities both on and offline.
HA:N United Methodist Church, a progressive Asian American congregation, meets in New York City on May 19, 2019. People are singing “Draw the Circle Wide,” which has become an anthem for LGBTQ Christians and their allies in the UMC.
HA:N United Methodist Church, a progressive Asian American congregation, meets in New York City on May 19, 2019. People are singing “Draw the Circle Wide,” which has become an anthem for LGBTQ Christians and their allies in the UMC.
Carol Kuruvilla

The first place Liz Lin learned to truly embrace her Taiwanese American identity was in the high school ministry of her local Chinese Christian and Missionary Alliance church. There weren’t many Asians in her school system in the Detroit suburbs, and growing up she hated feeling different.

“Having a place where all of the things that made me weird in the rest of my life were normal was completely life-changing,” Lin recalled.

But when Lin left home for college, her politics veered to the left and she began to feel disconnected from the church community she’d known. The issues that were becoming increasingly integral to her understanding of faith ― feminism, racial justice, the wholehearted embrace of queer Christians ― were not being discussed in those predominantly conservative spaces. She tried searching for a spiritual home within more progressive churches, but they tended to be predominantly white. She said she missed the cultural connections that made her childhood church so precious.

Like many progressive Asian American Christians today, Lin felt she was being forced to choose between theology and community. This quandary swirled through her head in late 2016, as she observed the presidential election and the betrayal that many Asian American evangelicals felt as they watched their white co-religionists vote in droves for Donald Trump. She wondered if there were others like her, people who wanted a space where they could be progressive, Asian American, and Christian.

So Lin set out to find them ― with help from the internet.

“I know you’re out there, and I wish we all could meet somehow,” Lin wrote in an article published on The Salt Collective, an online faith magazine, in December 2016. “It would be lovely to have spaces … where we could be fully known and fully understood every once in a while. Where we could feel a little less lonely.”

She included a link to a Facebook group called Progressive Asian American Christians (PAAC) that Lydia Shiu, a Korean American pastor she’d met a few months earlier, had recently started. It wasn’t long before the people Lin was searching for began pouring into the Facebook group.

On the first day after the article’s publication, about 300 people joined the group, Lin said. The numbers rose sharply after the piece was also published on HuffPost. Today, the group has over 6,000 members who post links, start discussions and share experiences with each other.

What shocked Lin most was the energy of those joining the group. They came in wanting to organize, form subgroups for even more specific identities, meet up in person, host conferences ― and eventually help with the creation of two brick-and-mortar congregations, she said.

“I think there was just a lot of people who were in this position and felt like they were alone,” Lin told HuffPost. “They were either at more conservative Asian or white evangelical churches, harboring these secret liberal thoughts, or they were people at white progressive churches who looked around and didn’t see anybody who looked like them there. There just really hadn’t been a place for folks to congregate.”

“People were really hungry for that,” she said.

Panelists speak at a workshop titled "How to Navigate a Church That Doesn't Fit" during the second Progressive Asian American Christians conference, held May 3-5, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Panelists speak at a workshop titled "How to Navigate a Church That Doesn't Fit" during the second Progressive Asian American Christians conference, held May 3-5, 2019, in Los Angeles.

Shifting Landscapes

As Asians immigrated to the United States, the religious congregations they formed served as both spiritual and cultural hubs. The biggest wave of new arrivals started coming after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished discriminatory quotas based on national origin.

Asian American immigrant churches today are places where communities can worship in their native languages. They offer families a respite from the racism and discrimination they face elsewhere in America. These churches also play an important role in transmitting language and cultural identity to younger generations.

But although many churches have poured resources into youth ministry, these efforts haven’t stemmed what some have called the “silent exodus” of the second generation, those who don’t feel spiritually nourished in the ethnic churches of their childhoods ― especially second-generation Asian Americans with progressive views.

While Asian American immigrant churches are by no means a monolith, overall they tend to be silent about racial justice matters. They are often conservative when it comes to issues of sexuality and gender ― failing to affirm queer identities, for example, or support the ordination of women. These churches can also be heavily influenced by the conservative culture of white evangelical America, relying on evangelical organizations for everything from English-language Sunday school curricula to praise-and-worship music for services.

This dependency on white evangelical culture continues when second-generation Asian Americans go to college, where they tend to gravitate toward evangelical parachurch organizations. These groups are often not affirming of same-sex relationships or diverse gender identities. As a result, Asian American Christians’ conservative take on sexuality and gender is reinforced, if not strengthened, on campus.

This means many Asian American Christians with progressive views not only feel isolated from the immigrant churches of their childhoods; they also feel detached from their peers who grew up in those same churches.

On the other hand, attending progressive churches carries its own set of challenges.

People speak at a panel called "LGBTQIA+ Stories" at the PAAC conference.
People speak at a panel called "LGBTQIA+ Stories" at the PAAC conference.

Feeling Out Of Place

Rev. Tuhina Rasche is an Indian American pastor ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has been called the whitest denomination in the United States. Given that racial makeup, Rasche told HuffPost, people of color can feel out of place, whether it’s in the pews or the seminary. She remembers spending a lot of time in seminary reading the works of “old white men,” while the works of theologians of color were crammed into 15-minute class discussions.

Her experience has led her to conclude that many U.S. seminaries are “pedagogically structured to support white men” and that American Christianity is “built on a foundation of white supremacy.”

Many of the major liberal mainline Protestant churches are overwhelmingly white, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. On issues of race, immigration and the threat of white supremacy, studies have shown that white mainline Protestants often express views that are closer to those of white Catholics and white evangelicals than to those of non-white Christians.

“White supremacy is so pervasive within the history and culture and religion of the United States that Christianity has been warped and distorted in such a way that it props up white supremacy,” Rasche said.

Rasche has spent time purposefully reaching out and building relationships with other Asians in the ELCA. She didn’t receive any help from the church ― there was an assumption in seminary, she said, that all the Asian American ELCA pastors already knew each other ― so she found people through Google searches.

“I really truly believe that my Asian American narrative matters, but in predominantly white spaces … even if you do assimilate, you’re still the other,” she said.

It turns out that many progressive Asian Americans feel the same way.

Pastor Eula Pagdilao of the First Progressive Church in Los Angeles blesses bread during a service at the PAAC conference.
Pastor Eula Pagdilao of the First Progressive Church in Los Angeles blesses bread during a service at the PAAC conference.

Seeds For A Movement

The groundwork for a progressive Asian American Christian movement has existed for decades, but the PAAC Facebook group put the match to the tinder, according to Helen Jin Kim, an assistant professor of American religious history at Emory University.

Prior to the creation of PAAC, the “religious left” within Asian American Christianity was siloed into separate communities, Kim said. There were Asian Christians whose families had arrived in the U.S. before the 1965 immigration act, whose experiences of forced internment and legalized discrimination gave them an acute awareness of the need for inclusivity. But there were no national networks tying those communities with Asians who arrived post-1965. Separately, Asian American theologians and clergy had for years been talking in academic circles and on seminary campuses about affirming women as leaders, ordaining queer clergy, criticizing American capitalism and advocating for racial justice. Then there were individual laypeople like Lin who had long embraced progressive theologies but didn’t hear such views reflected in Asian immigrant churches.

Kim said it’s also hard to overstate the influence of President Trump’s election ― and white evangelicals’ continued support of him ― on progressive Asian American Christianity. There’s been “massive disenchantment” among young evangelical Asian Americans in response to how evangelicalism has become “synonymous” with white supremacy, she said.

“A lot of them don’t even want to even use that label. They don’t want to reform evangelicalism. They don’t want to have anything to do with it because they’ve seen enough,” she said about these young “ex-vangelicals.”

The creation of PAAC finally brought all these groups together, Kim said.

“With PAAC, we see this synthesizing of those communities in a way we haven’t seen before,” Kim said. “It’s happened in small spurts and small trickles, but never en masse like this.”

This budding progressive movement places Asian American Christians within the revival of the religious left, Kim said.

“So many think of the [religious left] as white or even black, but there’s also this groundswell of the religious left that’s coming out of Asian American communities,” the professor said. “I hope it continues to be a force for change.”

People pray for a gay engaged couple during the PAAC conference.
People pray for a gay engaged couple during the PAAC conference.

Creating Community Online And Offline

Since its inception over two years ago, the PAAC Facebook group has flourished, birthing multiple offshoot Facebook groups meant to gather together South Asians, Filipinx, multiracial Christians, parents, clergy and other subsets of Asian American Christianity. PAAC now has a digital magazine, a podcast, and an online fellowship program. The community is building a list of LGBTQ-affirming churches and therapists across the country.

Also notable is how the Facebook group has evolved into offline communities. Members have had meetups in 21 cities around the world. Some location-based groups, such as Seattle PAAC, are particularly active, and their members meet regularly.

Two progressive Asian American churches have formed with PAAC’s help. New York City’s HA:N UMC, a United Methodist congregation formed by Korean Americans, found its pastor this January through PAAC. Another nascent congregation, the First Progressive Church in Los Angeles, found core members through the Facebook group.

PAAC has also created a safe space for its queer members. A subgroup for queer Christians, known as PAAC Family, has blossomed into an active national support network. Last year, PAAC Family held a retreat in California that was attended by about 40 people. Serena Cerezo-Poon, a queer Christian living in San Jose and one of PAAC Family’s moderators, told HuffPost that lately, whenever someone on the group mentions that they’re about to come out on Facebook, other members go to their page and “pride bomb” the post, flooding it with positive comments.

In addition to a lack of support from their own families, queer Asian Americans face a broader queer community that can feel very white, Cerezo-Poon said.

“Liz’s article talks about how lonely it is being a progressive Asian American Christian,” she said. “I think it’s even lonelier as a queer one because the community feels so much smaller.”

“That’s why we do this,” she added. “Because when we don’t have support from our families and our churches, we are each others’ support.”

Clergy speak at a panel at the PAAC conference. From left: Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort, Rev. Tuhina Rasche, Rev. Laura Cheifetz and Rev. Lydia Shiu.
Clergy speak at a panel at the PAAC conference. From left: Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort, Rev. Tuhina Rasche, Rev. Laura Cheifetz and Rev. Lydia Shiu.

Myles Markham, a trans person of faith with multiracial heritage, including Japanese and Native Hawaiian ancestry, told HuffPost that he’s experienced a kind of “spiritual homelessness” in his life, but found “hope and refuge” in the PAAC community. Markham said that throughout his childhood, he was connected to churches with conservative perceptions of gender and sexuality. It took a long time for his personal theology to shift on these topics, and when it did, he felt the need to become an evangelist of sorts, making the clear Biblical case for LGBTQ inclusion. But this had its downfalls, Markham said.

“Because of that constant need to defend my existence, I kind of neglected all my other interests, all my other curiosities, all the other ways I used to be able to operate in churches before I came out,” Markham said.

When he joined PAAC Family, he realized he didn’t need to be defensive in that space ― he could just be himself. The Facebook group gave him the breathing room to think about other ways he wanted to be involved in the church and eventually helped push him toward seminary. He’s now a student at Georgia’s Columbia Theological Seminary and hopes one day to be an ordained member of the clergy.

“There were several folks in that group who had either gone to seminary or were clergy or other types of invocational Christian ministry, who were sharing their journeys,” Markham said. “And I thought, ‘These people have done it. Maybe I can do it, too.’”

Rev. Vicki Flippin opens the PAAC conference in Los Angeles.
Rev. Vicki Flippin opens the PAAC conference in Los Angeles.

The Future Of The Movement

Early in May, 165 adults and nine children from around the country attended the second PAAC conference in Los Angeles. It featured panel discussions about deconstructing Asian masculinity and purity culture, worship sessions, and a communion service on the last day.

For some attendees, the weekend marked the first time they had ever seen Asian American women preaching from the pulpit. Others who had been hurt by the church in the past decided to take part in communion for the first time in years.

Ophelia Hu Kinney, a queer Asian American Christian from Maine who attended the conference, said that it felt like attendees were there to revel in the experience of being surrounded by like-minded people.

“You forget from time to time in your normal life that you were given a script and acting it out,” she said. “As a person of color in a 97% white town, I’m acting out the script of someone who is trying to fit in and trying not to become invisible at the same time. And I play the script of someone who is a Christian and is constantly in my professional life defending people from Christians.”

“Then you go to a place like the PAAC conference and you put the script down and you just get to play in this huge playground … with all the pieces of yourself that you were taught didn’t matter or pieces of you that you were taught bring shame or bring destruction to the expression of Christian faith,” Hu Kinney said.

For others, the PAAC conference was a challenging space to be. Rasche, the Indian American pastor, told HuffPost that she struggled with being one of only a handful of South Asians at a meeting that was dominated by East Asian voices.

“It’s hard to be at a progressive Asian American Christian conference and still be on the outside,” she said.

Rasche’s experience at the conference illustrates one of PAAC’s biggest challenges moving forward ― how to cast a wide and inclusive net. The term “Asian American Pacific Islander” covers a substantial amount of geographic ground and a myriad of ethnic groups, each with its own history of colonialism and experience of Christianity. Some folks involved in PAAC are the only religious believers in their families, while others belong to families where religion and culture are inextricably intertwined. Members of the Facebook group are constantly talking about how to be more inclusive of South and Southeast Asians, where Pacific Islanders fit in, how to be more welcoming to Asian Christians with diverse gender identities. The group has also struggled with how to stay open to people who have just started their journey away from evangelical Christianity and need a space to process their questions.

Rasche said she appreciated that PAAC leaders have acknowledged these issues. She’s hoping that one day, PAAC will help gather a fuller community of South Asian and Desi Christians.

“I think that’s why I still want to be engaged with PAAC, even though I feel like there’s not a lot of Desi representation,” she said. “If someone sees that I’m here, maybe they’ll feel more comfortable being here. Because seeing yourself really matters.”

Participants pose for a group photo during the second PAAC conference.
Participants pose for a group photo during the second PAAC conference.

Kim, the professor, said that historically when American Christians of color banded together in the way PAAC has, they formed minority-led churches or even denominations. She said it’s possible that the group will plant more new churches. But PAAC has formed during a time when the country is seeing a rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated people who don’t want to label themselves as part of a specific religious denomination. Given that trend, Kim said it’s also possible that PAAC continues to meet informally, preserving its original free-flowing spirit.

“In an online space, you voluntarily get to choose how you communicate, how you congregate,” Kim said. “There’s a kind of independence and invitation to be genuine and do what feels right to you. I wouldn’t be surprised if social media continues to be the primary way that PAACs express themselves.”

Lin said that she hopes PAAC will keep expanding, as new generations of LGBTQ-affirming, feminist and justice-oriented Asian Americans come of age.

“There’s a possibility that lots of folks will leave the church altogether,” she said. “If we exist and they know we’re here, they at least know that there’s some other alternative of what Christianity can look like, that’s not homophobic or anti-woman or what have you.”

Two years after she commenced her search for progressive Christians who look like her, Lin said that PAAC ― and particularly the testimonies of its queer members ― has completely transformed her faith.

“I feel like PAAC has given me so much hope,” she said. “It has just radically expanded my understanding of the Gospel, what Jesus’s work in the world looks like, what the kingdom of God looks like.”

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