Connected by Water

Originally posted in PLGRM Volume I Issue 2 Winter 2012

This picture shows everything that is wonderful about being a part of an Asian community. This is a picture of signature stamps, dojang (Korean), or chop (Chinese). If you are Asian, you most likely have a dojang or chop that has your name in Korean, Japanese, or Chinese. It is your signature. It is your identity. These particular stamps were stamped in a Hebrew Bible that was passed on to different Asian-American Presbyterian seminarians throughout the years to use in seminary. Each recipient would stamp their name into the book and pass it on to the next person. It was an honor to receive the book because in many ways you felt the awesome weight of those that have gone before you. At a time when there weren’t many Asian-American clergy role models, having mentors like these were crucial for support, advocacy, and example. Earlier this year, Rev. Frank Yamada was installed as President of McCormick Theological Seminary as the first Asian-American president of a PCUSA seminary. To mark this occasion, signature stamps were collected from the Asian-American clergy community and added to the Hebrew Bible that by now is showing wear and tear and was presented to Frank as a sign and token that he is supported by his fellow Asian-American clergy brothers and sisters. In the words of Rev. Mary Paik who presented him the Bible, “We decided to present this Bible to you – not only because now it will belong to someone who can actually read it – but because this Bible represents the hopes and dreams of an Asian-American Community that sojourns here.”

There are also challenges to being a part of a tight knit community as well. The 219th General Assembly showcased that well when I and two other Korean-American clergywomen spoke against an overture to form another non-geographic presbytery. We highlighted that although we understood the reasons behind forming a Korean-language presbytery, there were also challenges that were impossible to overlook, such as lack of participation from second-generation due to language and lack of ordination of women. This sparked tension in the Korean-American PCUSA community because those of us who spoke out were not only women, we were also 1.5 and second generation. In Asian culture, not only is it not common for women to speak up, but it is disrespectful for the younger generation to speak out in such a way. What this event spotlighted was the need for first and second generation to be in dialogue with one another if there is going to be a future for the Korean-American church.

In April, I had the pleasure of traveling to Honolulu with a group of Korean-American pastors – first, 1.5, and 2nd generation – to study, observe, and learn about the history of Asian immigrant churches. Asians had emigrated to Hawaii way before they came to the mainland, so in many ways, Hawaii is a glimpse into the future of what immigrant churches on the mainland may and will experience. One of the biggest differences was that the older generation were English-speaking and were also second and third generation. Unlike on the mainland, they didn’t have a language barrier that segregated the first and second generation and yet they still had the same struggles of the younger generation not staying or returning to the church.

This brings up an issue that goes beyond immigrant churches and touches on the wider PCUSA body. One of the main reasons mentioned for the younger generation not returning was the issue of power. The kind of power I am referring to is the ability to evoke change, to speak up and be heard, to make a suggestion and have it be considered, to be a part of the conversation and not just an observer. Whether in an immigrant church or not, it is not easy to share power among generations. Eventually, someone is going to say, “It’s never been done that way before.” And we see this played out at General Assembly. I’m always fascinated to hear reasons why young people are considered advisory delegates and not actual delegates; why their vote is considered influential and not a vote that counts; why they are provided with their own young adult advisors and subjected to a program that breaks down the procedures and protocol of General Assembly. As if the “grown up” delegates because of their age are any more experienced to vote responsibly or have full knowledge of the ins and outs of what goes on in a General Assembly.

But I digress. We are living in a time when saying “it’s never been done that way before” should be a sign of a good thing. The way things were done in the past are no longer working as we move along in the 21st century. Does this mean that we throw out everything “old” and replace it with something “new”? Of course not. While in Honolulu, Rev. Kekapa Lee of First Chinese Church spoke about how Hawaiians carry the wisdom of their ancestors on their shoulders. There was a collective “ugh” in the room when he said that. When asked, “Isn’t that a burden?” Rev. Lee seemed confused and replied, “Of course not. It’s an honor.” I believe why we consider it a burden is because in Korean culture, wisdom from our ancestors comes with great expectation – expectation that we will honor them by doing it their way, their rules, and their tradition. I see that same burden weighing down on the shoulders of our young people today. The difference is there is no sense of obligation for them to carry it. What is happening and what will most likely happen is that they will shrug it off and move on.

It is not the responsibility of the future generations to carry on the tradition, heritage, and wisdom of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. It is very much our job to make room for future generations to learn from our mistakes, be exposed to the collective wisdom, and create fresh and relevant ways to spread the gospel and be church. We want our young people to cherish and appreciate all the good things about being in a faith community, like passing down a Hebrew Bible filled with the markings of those that support and pray for you. What I fear our young people are learning is how it is easier to separate then work through our differences; how it is more important to stand your ground then compromise, extend grace, and let go; and how commonality is more valuable than diversity.

Recently, the governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie shared that many usually describe Hawaii as islands separated by water, but that he describes Hawaii as islands connected by water. No matter how different or separated we may feel or think, we are connected by water as well – the waters of baptism. It is in our baptism that we covenant with one another to nurture, love, forgive, and support one another – no exceptions. When babies are baptized, we promise as a faith community to help raise and nurture them in the ways of Jesus Christ and the Church.

How are we as Presbyterians living out our baptismal vows? How are we nurturing future generations? How are we learning from them? How can our collective wisdom be a gift and not a burden?

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