Dr. Peter Cha introduced two distinct themes that the HANA consultation will carry through the remaining days together. He invited groups to use this week to discuss the struggles of identity construction that occur in HANA communities. Who are we? Who am I? Within HANA communities, outside groups continually try to define, or impose/ascribe, identities to very heterogeneous groups. As HANA communities struggle against outside definitions, they encounter an internal force of resistance as they each and together seek out identities to assert for themselves. Due to the volatile and confusing nature of the outside/internal tensions, identity remains always in flux, ever fluid, raising more questions than often providing answers. Cha extended the invitation to think pastorally and theologically together about these questions of identity. For future ministry, especially across generations and cultures, fluctuation in identities will bear out significantly in how churches move forward together in responding in faithfulness to God’s calling in their midst.

To that end, Cha introduced the second theme of calling. What might be God’s purposes in bringing our people group, our families, me to the United States at this time?”  In addition to the initial questions of identity and calling, Cha raised the question, “Who are we as a particularly evangelical North American Christian church?” He noted that when “North American church” is discussed in broader national and global conversations, the term too often refers only middle class white Christians and white church. Such narrow understanding of North American church occurs because the stories of HANA community churches have not yet been folded into the stories that are being told and heard. Cha admitted that while the stories of HANA community churches in the United States may be painful stories of birth, struggle, and existence, God’s redemptive purposes might be at work in the pain to continue and complete the work of the gospel in North America.

Both identity and calling are best understood and worked out, even in their fluidity, when rooted in history, however painful or beautiful the stories may be. They must be remembered, and attendees were invited to learn, remember, and reflect together by journeying through aspects of each communities histories.

Latino Protestantism Historical Reflections

The re-telling of European colonization of the Americas, territory seizure, and military intervention are just three of the historical moments wherein Latino presence in the United States is either omitted or reformed to serve a national narrative of European triumph and manifest destiny. For example, Mexicans who lived in the Southwest during the Mexican-American War from 1846-1848 became overnight “foreigners” as the U.S./Mexico border shifted south and west. Even though Mexicans became U.S. citizens in the process, they were treated as second-class foreigners in land they had always inhabited.

Omissions or reductions of stories such as this highlight the challenge of being Latino in the United States. “There is no one story,” Dr. Juan Martínez began, but multiples peoples and powers encounter one another creating mestizaje (mixed origin) stories  wherein self and community identities originate in painful encounters and struggles between different groups. He spoke to how these stories have shaped Latinos’ encounter with the Christian faith. The faith was “imposed by military force…through Spanish and Portuguese Catholic missionaries” from which grew official Catholicism and popular Catholicism that retained “indigenous and African religious practices.” Thus, to be Latino meant to also be Catholic, creating a further painful encounter as Latinos become Protestant, most of whom are Pentecostal. Latino Protestants often experience “double marginalization” as they navigate their “born again” Protestant identity alongside contested Latino identities.

Martínez stressed the daily realities of Latino communities that require sustained lament which cannot be rushed or left quickly. He continued by naming mañana as the source of hope that emerges in the midst of the struggle. “Mañana is not about what happens in the next 24 hours,” he said, “but more idiomatically, ‘not today.’” Rather than mañana providing an escapist route for lamenting communities, it cultivates faith communities that “believe in God’s mañana” of hope. In this future, “God brings justice and peace through Jesus Christ” for Latino communities and all of humanity. In God’s mañana, polycentric identities will be gifts to promote service to the God who journeys with Latino communities in between identities.

Asian American Historical Reflections

Dr. Russell Jeung addressed the interplay of racialization and globalization as they inform historical migration and construction of Asian American communities, identities, and callings as manifested in types of church and Christian ministries. Globalization “spurs the flow of capital, labor, and cultures across borders.” It moves people across borders and with them come customs, languages, and memories. Racialization is “the act or process by which individuals, interactions, and institutions are categorized according to racial characteristics.” Racialization in the United States occurs via the function of race constructs that developed in and following the 17th century. Humans were organized and stratified according to “ascribed identities and cultural characteristics” which were attached to biological and physiological appearances. Today, however, it is widely understood that race was and is an ideology used to perpetuate the holding of power and privilege held by a white dominant culture. Race played a central role in “excusing and permitting” European colonization, imperialism, and slavery into the 20th century. Some today would argue that we live in a post-racial society, no longer politically or socially prevented from mixing and mingling with a wide range of ethnicities and cultures as friend groups. However, the ideology of race became so deeply embedded in social policy, in mission theory and practice, and in church developments, that while one may say relationally we can live in a post-racial reality, identities and institutions are still greatly determined by racialized systems that developed over approximately two centuries.

Jeung delineated five different periods of “transnational flows and racial discourses” which have shaped identity construction and calling among Asian American Christian communities since the 1800s. Orientalist Paternalism ran from about 1850-1900 wherein Asian immigrants were treated as foreigners never to belong in the United States. Rather, they were seen as the object of evangelism, with the intent to send Asians back to their countries to witness there. Many Chinese and Japanese immigrants resisted this treatment, and quickly became self-governing through their own Christian organizations. Moving into the 20th century, majority white culture never allowed space for the integration of Asian immigrants into the American narrative. Additionally, Japanese American internment camps further racialized and stigmatized a portion of the Asian American communities when Japanese Americans, 62% of whom were American citizens, were moved into camps following World War II. Leading up to and during this period of history, Transnational Asian Christianity 1901-1945 developed as a vehicle by which Asian immigrant communities who were “segregated from mainstream American society” looked back to their countries of origin to support national movements there. Following this era, Asian Americans were “pressured to behave as ‘model minority,’” a racialized identity setting expectations of high performance and achievement that perpetuates a “don’t make trouble” posture in the midst of dominant culture. This post-war imposed identity created resistance among many Asian American communities. Christians began organizing to create Ethnic Family Churches from 1946-1980 wherein they could minister and live out of constantly in flux bicultural identities. Mainline caucuses and independent evangelical causes began to emerge as the 1965 Immigration Act increased new church developments. English Ministry, particularly reaching 1.5 and 2nd generation youth, also arose during this time. Gradually the homogenizing term “Asian American” became a legitimate category for self-identification within the United States. While it overlooks the vast diversity of Asian American communities, the identity allowed for founding and organizing of churches, especially among second, third, and fourth generations, around this panethnic, i.e., broad-based sweeping, identity. During this period of Asian American Pan-ethnic Churches 1981-2000, Asian American churches began growing and becoming a more visible presence within evangelical American church scene. Today, we witness the development of Asian American-led Multiethnic Churches since 2001. These churches “reflect the diversity of the kingdom of God” by embracing a “color-conscious approach” in order to create a unified church that gathers to address racial discrimination and celebrate cultural differences in order to most effectively reach the cultures around them with the hope of Christ. While well intended under Asian American leadership that understands a calling “to be bridge builders between racial groups,” these churches often remain predominantly Asian American in membership, with non-Asians being involved or serving on the edge of the community rather than being fully folded into the church.

Table conversation

As HANA participants heard the presentations, they were invited to interact in small groups answering the questions: What did you hear? What similarities and differences can you discern in the past narratives of our two church communities? What redemptive moments can you identify in your communities’ past narratives?

Out of the table conversations, themes of new knowledge and understanding of one another’s struggles became clear. Ana Jara commented that she has thought often of the commonalities between the Irish immigrant stories and her Latino community in the United States, “but I never think of Chinese and Japanese as going through the same experience. I need to lament on that absence of history from my own thinking.”

Yet, in the midst of the different histories, there was a deep sense of having shared in the struggle to construct identities and hear God’s calling through and as the church. As one participant noted, “So many of us, when we go to church, there is a need to have ‘our’ church experience, to be able to gather as our people. We have to be ‘out there’ in the midst of someone else’s world all week; please don’t take ‘our church.’ But, it’s not my church, it’s Christ church, and together we must remember this.”

HANA communities also discussed the common points of lament in relation to their constantly challenged and changing identities in a racialized context. Most HANA community members negotiate a polycentric identity, “learning to fit in more than one cultural space, moving between the various cultural, ethnic and social poles that define their lives” (Martinez). Yet, the identifying categories such as “Asian American” and “Latino” lump together a variety of informing poles that do not capture the nuances and diversity present within each community. “As immigration increases and becomes more diverse, points of commonality in the categories decrease” (Jeung).

So, what implications does this conversation have for the church and the ministry of the gospel? One participant offered that as each community remembers their histories, “a balance of thinking about we are both sinned against and sinner within our churches, groups, and cultures needs to inform our laments.” As victims of racialization, discrimination, and historical exclusion from centers of power, members also recognized the hope that brought many to the United States and the inherent privilege that now defines their new lives in the states. But while there is the presence and call to hope, HANA communities recognize in a way that most white middle class North American churches cannot the deep need for lament, and the fullness of God’s comfort, love, and strength to be found and experienced in the act of crying out from the pain of identity confusion. Perhaps part of the call within the HANA communities is to bear witness to the role of suffering and lament in Christian discipleship that recovering forgotten or hidden histories can prompt.