Ninety-two Asian pastors, church workers, and seminarians filled the pews at St. Paul Thai Lutheran Church on Dixon Street in Forest Park, April 20, to begin a three-day conference sponsored by the Association of Asians and Pacific Islanders, ELCA (AAPI) titled, “Reformation and Renewal in Asian American Ministry Context.”

In many ways, this 13th biennial conference was a search for identity. How does one recover the insights of the 16th-century Reformation for effective and faithful ministry in contemporary post-modern America while retaining the best of the Asian cultures from which the AAPI members originate?

Rev. James Moy’s sermon at the opening worship on Wednesday served as a keynote speech. His text was from II Corinthians where Paul wrote, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view. … So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” 

As much as that may be the vision, the reality Moy talked about for most of his sermon was about how cultural and religious differences can turn people against each other.

He talked about growing up in New York City’s Chinatown in the 1930s and ’40s. He recalled how he and the other Chinese kids at PS 23 elementary school would get beat up by the Italian kids after school if they didn’t run fast enough back to the safety of their own neighborhood. He shared how his mother and father, whose marriage was arranged back in Hong Kong, didn’t really love each other. He remembered how he once told his father, “I’m an American,” to which his father replied, “Look in the mirror. You’re Chinese.”

He recalled being made fun of by the staff in his family’s restaurant and even by members of his own family because he had become a Christian, at the same time noting how he “received at church the love and support I didn’t have at home.”

Moy concluded his life story by talking about the concept of marginality “for people who are caught between two cultures, who learn early in life to balance two cultures.” He said the research on such people reveals that they tend to have more empathy than the average person, can tolerate ambiguity, and have social skills that make them good pastors, teachers and counselors.

Rev. Paul Rajashekar, who teaches at the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia, talked about the unity and nuances in Asia culture. On the one hand, he said, Asian cultures share values like respect for elders and for learning. He used the image of a bamboo shoot to explain how young people are “hollow” and need to be filled with knowledge.

The differences, of course, include language and cuisine, and the dominant cultures in Asia — Indian and Chinese — have widely different political philosophies. Whereas the Chinese emphasize that unity comes from homogeneity and conformity, Indian culture contends that unity is best nurtured by diversity.

That said, Rajashekar emphasized that Asian culture in general has a capacity to tolerate and appreciate diversity, that it’s like a choir in which the tenors don’t sing the same notes as the altos, but they are in harmony because they are all on the same page.

The three main talks at the conference were given by a Chinese pastor working on her PhD, Man-hei Yip, and two Indian pastors, Surekha Nelavat and Sarah Anderson. Each was an attempt to reinterpret for our time the three Reformation principles of Grace Alone, Faith Alone, and Scripture Alone. The last one about the authority of the Bible in post-modern times received the most intense discussion during the Q&A period following the presentation.

Rev. Pongsak Limthongviratn wears two hats in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). He is pastor of St. Paul Thai Church and in that capacity, he and members of the congregation hosted the conference. As director of Asian Ministry for the ELCA, he and the association’s officers planned the event. His wife Monta was honored as an outstanding leader at the conference banquet, Thursday evening.

One of the hot topics during the three days was justice, i.e. what real inclusiveness would look like in the church. Man-hei Yip observed that Asians are becoming more assertive, that they are no longer content with being just token faces in pictures the ELCA publishes to promote itself as a multicultural church, but want to have a voice as well. 

“The ELCA is good at talking about diversity,” she said, “but not as good at follow through. Inclusivity means nothing without justice. The presence of Asians can widen the church’s perspective.”

Several images portrayed how the Chinese, Hmong, Indonesians, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Laotions and Indians attending the three-day event worked to maintain diversity while creating unity. Diversity was expressed at the prayers during the opening communion service in which each language was used for one of the petitions, while the rest of the liturgy, including the praise songs, was in the common language of English.

Similarly, Surekha Nelavat and Sarah Anderson wore beautiful saris during their presentations while most delegates wore western clothes.

Many of the attendees had Asian surnames and western first names. Franklin Ishida greeted the gathering on behalf of the ELCA Division for Global Mission. Jonathan Shin led a prayer petition in Korean. Daniel Penumaka prayed in one of the languages of India. Prof. Rajashekar’s first name is Paul. Gigie Sijera-Grant is the AAPI’s president.

James Moy referred back to his text for preaching to conclude, “So I thank God for this world, for the life we have as children of Christ living between two cultures. Christ’s response to this world that was filled with evil is to love unconditionally as spiritual beings who are meant to love and to live out God’s expression in this life.”

Man-hie Yip put it this way: “Otherness is a gift and not a threat. The value of our cultural diversity will build up the church and widen the perspective of Lutheranism. After years of efforts made by our Asian American predecessors advocating for the benefits of other Asian American brothers and sisters, we are beginning another chapter on this shore. This is the living witness to the faithfulness of God that grace alone empowers us to stand against darkness.”