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Peter Cha: My own Jerusalem

Some of the most important work of reconciliation is not just between cultures or ethnic groups but also within them, says Peter Cha.

October 12, 2010

Author, pastor and professor, Peter Cha says Asian-American pastors and ministry students often experience conflicting loyalties between expectations for success from their immigrant parents and their own calling to serve Christ. Reconciling inner and outer manifestations of cultural tensions is a central part of the Asian-American Christian’s spiritual and vocational journey.

As a pastor who felt called to be an agent of reconciliation, Cha found it helpful to think in terms of Acts 1:8, to be Christ’s witness in “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria.”

“My own Jerusalem is my own Asian-American congregation,” he said.

Cha is co-author of “Following Jesus without Dishonoring Your Parents: Asian American Discipleship.” Since 1997 he has taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he is associate professor of pastoral theology. Cha earned master’s degrees in divinity and theology from Trinity Evangelical and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

Between 1985 and 1999, Cha was involved in a number of different ministries, including youth and young adult ministry in Korean immigrant churches, campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and church planting. He is currently a board member for Catalyst Leadership Center (an Asian-North American Christian Leadership organization) and has served as a board member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, USA.

Cha was a faculty member at the 2010 Summer Institute of the Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation and spoke with Faith & Leadership about reconciliation, leadership and issues in Asian-American ministry. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: Your first book, “Following Jesus without Dishonoring Your Parents,” addressed the conflicting expectations and values that Asian-American students experience in this culture. Tell us about that and how things might have changed since the book came out in 1998.

InterVarsity Press and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship leaders saw an increasing number of Asian-American students coming to colleges and universities around the ’90s and participating in InterVarsity. But they didn’t feel they had adequate resources to help these students.

Initially, they asked us to put together a discipleship manual for Asian-American college students. As we looked at the unique challenges and opportunities in discipleship for Asian-American students, some culturally particular things began to emerge.

There were five authors: two Korean-Americans, two Chinese-Americans and one Japanese-American. At that time we were in our 40s and 50s. No matter which InterVarsity chapter we visited, our parents appeared very prominently. We thought that was kind of funny and weird. But we understood. Parents have a more ongoing presence in our lives than a typical American might experience.

There was often conflicting loyalty we felt between parents and Christ’s call for our life. How you navigate through those two competing voices often defines our spiritual journey for Asian-American young people.

The parents -- particularly immigrant parents who had given up a great deal back in their homeland to come here and start anew -- often desire that their children have opportunities that they did not have back in Korea or China or Japan. When they’ve come to this country and toiled many hours of hard labor, there is a sense of deferred dreams that they have for their children.

When their children come back from an InterVarsity camp and say, “I know you wanted me to go into medicine, but I sense God’s call to be a missionary or God’s call to go into an under-resourced area as a public school teacher,” you can imagine what that conversation might be like.

I feel that each community has different tensions and conflicts to resolve. For Asian-American Christian communities, probably one of the most contested and conflicted areas of tension is this intergenerational one. It’s intergenerational as well as intercultural, isn’t it? And some of the tensions that flare up in our families, in our congregations -- it is very intense.

When I was a pastor I sensed God’s call for me to be an agent of reconciliation, and it was helpful to think in terms of Acts chapter 1 verse 8, to be Christ’s witness in my own Jerusalem. My own Jerusalem is my own Asian-American congregation.

Q: So reconciliation issues occur not just between cultures or ethnic groups but also within them?

Right. For instance, first-generation pastors who were educated and formed in the ministry back in Korea would come to the United States, and sometimes, intentionally or not, they decided not to contextualize their ministry into this new setting. They held on to certain practices and norms and values that they adhered to back in Korea.

Meanwhile, the second-generation pastors are trained in American seminaries. They bring with them, again, certain practices and certain assumptions about ministry. Often there’s a collision happening with a congregation between the younger, Americanized pastors and the usually older, Korean or ethnic pastors.

When that kind of conflict happened, the younger pastors would leave and plant their own churches. So there were a number of churches that were planted during the ’90s through what we called a silent exodus phenomenon. A significant number of second-generation pastors and their laypeople left their parents’ congregations.

Q: What are some of the challenges of leadership development in Asian-American ministry?

For my generation of second-generation pastors, we felt orphaned. Within our own Christian community, the older, first-generation pastors were trained back in Korea. We served under them, but many of us, because of the language barrier, did not have the benefit of being mentored. That mentoring relationship that could be so beneficial when you are starting on your ministry was absent. At the same time, many of our generation who did our seminary training during the ’80s and early ’90s did not have faculty members who could have guided us to contextualize what we were learning into our particular Christian community.

Without that kind of mentoring, there was a real sense of lostness. Many gifted and dedicated colleagues ended up leaving ministry, sometimes out of despair, sometimes to have some sense of sanity about their lives, because it was affecting their marriages and so forth.

I hope that the next generation of pastors has more opportunities to be mentored as divinity schools become more attentive to the needs of various Christian communities. That would be one thing. And the other is older pastors, like myself, we’re creating an intentional program for younger pastors who’ve been out of seminary now for five to eight years.

Q: What wisdom can Asian-American churches offer to the rest of the church?

Well, one might be the notion of church as a household of God. I’m thinking particularly of Ephesians chapter 2 verse 19, as well as some of Peter’s letters, which also use that particular image of church as a household of God, or oikos. I think it was Craig Van Gelder who pointed out that for most American churches, church as a voluntary association has become the sort of de facto ecclesiology of what a congregation is. Individuals choose to go to a certain church because it meets a particular need of yours or your family.

In an Asian-American church, there is a stronger sense of the church as the gathering place of God’s people as a family, as a household of God. And it’s partly because this notion of the extended family has a strong central place in our lives. That has a number of implications, like you choose your friends but you don’t choose your brothers and sisters.

There are conflicts, but we need to live into that reality. That concept of family is so strong that when these younger pastors end up leaving, it causes deep woundedness on both bodies. It’s just as painful as if your own family breaks up.

Q: At this week’s conference on reconciliation, you’re leading a session on change in complex organizations. What is that about?

This week we’ve been talking about reconciliation quite a bit, and I think one of the implications of this ministry of reconciliation is that we are now to see ourselves through the lens of being this oikos of God’s people. Because brothers and sisters share lives -- good, bad and ugly.

And we’ve talked about creating a new space in which we can experience God’s reconciliation and peace and unity and love. An important aspect of being a leader is intentionally collaborating with God’s spirit, creating that new space where new things can be experienced.

What does it look like for us as leaders to facilitate and intentionally create with God’s help that space in which no one will claim to be a host or a guest? I think in some ways we have overused our language of hospitality in the Christian communities. Now, granted, hospitality is a biblical practice and mandate, but I think in some settings that particular language may have unintended consequence of creating yet another invisible barrier.

For instance, my school -- which has a good number of international students coming to study -- for many, many years we used the language of hospitality: “You are our guest, and we want to be as hospitable as we can to you.” The limitation of that language is that it clearly then sets up another category of those who are the hosting, the hosts, and then those who are guests. And the thing about being a guest, while you are respected and treated with kindness, you are never part of the family. And you’re never part of the decision-making process of that family.

How do we create intentionally that space where we go through the rhythm of lament together, hope together, celebration together? But in some ways, not denying our own histories or who we are, but given our own uniqueness in terms of where we come from though. But when we enter into that space, so as a Korean-American Christian or a Christian who happens to be a Korean-American, both what gift do I bring as well as what pain do I bring? And then other brothers and sisters would bring their pieces so that the commonality would be what gift or joy and the pain we bring that enters into it. But the other is as a Christian community, we have possible resources that would really help us to create that common space. It is our understanding and belief in who God is and what Christ has accomplished on our behalf and the new reality the Holy Spirit enables us to experience.

Q: You said at a May 2009 conference on Asian-American ministry that “we are here not to seek easy answers but to ask the right questions.” What are the right questions?

I got a grant to bring together Asian-North American theologians, pastors and parachurch workers from different denominations and regions, and we called it a consultation to generate some questions. Some were serving in academic institutions. Some in local churches. Some in parachurch and nonprofit organizations. We asked them, as you look at your context, particularly working with Asian-Americans, what are some urgent things that you are seeing that can be phrased in the form of a question? What is God doing? What are some needs that you see that we have not, as a church, addressed yet?

To me, as an Asian-American, our way of knowing has been shaped by transmission of wisdom from the past generation to our generation. And I am grateful for that. There are many wise thoughts and values that I received from my parents. But while appreciating that received wisdom from that past, I want our Christian leaders, particularly in the Asian-American community, to also learn to ask good questions.

Sometimes the questions we raise can be answered by our received wisdom and from Scripture. But then some of the questions we raise now require us to do the hard work of having collaborative conversations with the work of the Holy Spirit to generate new sets of knowledge that will serve the church. So earlier your question about what can Asian-American Christian communities bring to the larger Christian family -- I don’t think we have an answer to that question, because we really haven’t had a chance to come together and have that kind of conversation.

Q: Anything else on Asian-American ministry, leadership and reconciliation?

In the past there was a fairly simplistic picture of what an Asian-North American Christian leader might be like. Now we are seeing younger pastors doing all different types of ministries, where they’re emerging as exciting leaders.

One of my own students is leading a multiracial congregation in Chicago, a congregation with about 30 to 40 percent Caucasians, about 30 to 40 percent Asian-Americans, and then about 30 percent blacks and Latinos. It’s a new church plant. They have about 500 members now who are very proactive on justice issues and community development.

Twenty years ago it would have been hard to imagine a pastor emerging out of an Asian-American context and being a pastor to a multiracial congregation. And one of the things he mentioned was, “I had a lot of doubts about whether or not as an Asian-American person I would be received as a senior pastor of a multiracial congregation like this,” because he had not seen a model like that before. But now, in some ways, as an Asian-American, he saw himself as sort of in the in-between space in terms of racial categories.

He’s not white, with the history of being a slave owner. But he’s not black, with a history of slavery. He’s an immigrant kid, and he came to the United States when he was seven years old, and now he is learning in his own ministry that God has called him to be a senior pastor of this multiracial congregation. And he’s really working on issues of reconciliation. So right now multiple models of congregational leadership are emerging among Asian-American pastors. And that’s pretty exciting.