[Episcopal News Service – Los Angeles, California] With passing cars honking approval, the Rev. Peter Huang and hundreds of Asian and African Americans gathered Aug. 1 in South Los Angeles’ historic Leimert Park neighborhood raising fists; praying on bended knee; singing; chanting in solidarity, “Your liberation is our liberation”; affirming that Black lives matter.
The Gathering: A Space for Asian American Spirituality participated as a co-sponsor and helped to plan the socially distanced and livestreamed “Vigil for Solidarity and Love.” The group’s involvement signaled a shift for this Diocese of Los Angeles ministry, created in 2019 to affirm and explore Pacific Islander and Asian American identity within The Episcopal Church. The nation’s current conversation about race has led the ministry to further define that mission through the question: How do we fit into this work, this dialogue?
For Huang, co-founder of The Gathering, and for others, engaging means reckoning with Pacific Islander and Asian American complicity in narratives that pit communities of color against each other – a theme echoed frequently during the Aug. 1 vigil. And it means grappling with frustration over the relative invisibility of Asian Americans within the nation’s – and the church’s – Black-white conversation.
“We get a lot of Episcopalians coming forward and saying, ‘I thought I was the only one. For many Americanized Asians, the choice is between going to an all-white church and a Chinese-speaking church. For many Asian Americans, you’re white until you’re not,” Huang said.
Holding the vigil at Leimert Park, a center of African American art and culture, signified “that we want to and do work together,” Huang said. “And that the Black community and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities have had shared histories of working in civil rights, even though sometimes the larger narrative drives a wedge between these two.”
The Gathering was among 34 ministries funded by The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council at its October 2019 meeting. The grants were for new church starts and Mission Enterprise Zones. The Gathering’s $20,000 grant was one of 11 seed grants. The group planned and co-sponsored the vigil with the Los Angeles chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians, the diocesan Program Group on Black Ministries and AAPI Christians for Black Lives.
“There is a very real moment happening in the AAPI community,” said Suzanne Edwards-Acton, chair of the Diocese of Los Angeles’ Program Group on Black Ministries. “They are honest about the fact that, while they have been hurt by the ‘model minority’ myth, there is also a reckoning that it has benefitted them.”
The moment has created opportunities to “see the need and opportunities for learning more about our own and each other’s histories … the intersections, breaches, commonalities, wounds and opportunities for repair,” she said. “We are all committed to creating spaces and opportunities for truth-exploring, truth-learning, truth-telling, healing and repair.”
‘Our communities belong to each other’
Amid choruses of “amens,” the Rev. Kevin Doi, a chaplain at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, told vigil attendees the AAPI community repents of complicity in anti-Black racism and “we proclaim that Black liberation is our liberation also.”
The time has come, Doi said, “to change the divisive narrative. American society, white supremacy, the media, have long pitted the AAPI and Black communities against each other, using the model minority myth to drive a wedge between us.” The model minority myth stereotypes Asians as higher achievers – academically, professionally and socioeconomically – than other people of color.
Doi and others recalled that former slave turned statesman Frederick Douglass spoke out against the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was the first restrictive immigration law passed by the U.S. Congress at a time when Americans on the West Coast were concerned about white racial purity and blamed Asians and Asian Americans – who represented about 2% of the population – for a faltering economy and declining wages.
They also recounted when the Rev. Jesse Jackson took time out from a presidential bid to support a national campaign to seek justice for Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was killed in Detroit, Michigan, in 1982. Two white autoworkers, angry about the industry’s slump and the popularity of Japanese cars, beat Chin with a baseball bat. He died four days later. In 1983, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge found Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, guilty of manslaughter. The judge sentenced each to a $3,000 fine, $780 in court costs and three years’ probation, but no prison time.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude for the struggles of Black activists, Black churches, Black ministers and the Black community,” Doi told those attending the vigil. “Their sacrifices have benefitted all Americans, including Asian Americans. Our communities belong to each other.”
The Rev. Yein Kim, rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and co-founder of The Gathering, believes embracing social justice is a natural shift for the group.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, “many Asians have realized the myth of them as a model minority is just that, a myth,” Kim said
The coronavirus, a novel virus that causes the disease COVID-19, was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December. It has since spread worldwide, killing nearly 690,000 people and infecting over 18 million. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to it as the “China flu” or “Kung-flu” in efforts to deflect blame for his administration’s handling of the outbreak. Trump’s inflammatory political rhetoric and the United States’ history of racism and discrimination against Pacific Islanders, Asian Americans and Asian-born Americans have led to a rise in hate speech and hate crimes against Americans of Asian descent.
In late April 2020, The Gathering hosted “Being Asian American in the Age of Coronavirus,” a webinar to address harassment and hate attacks against Asian Americans. A July 1, 2020, report identified 832 incidents from May to June in the state of California alone. The report was compiled by Stop AAPI Hate, a website developed by the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University and others.
Kim experienced one such attack. “I was really scared. I never thought it would happen to me. I was dumbfounded, just standing there” unable to move or speak as someone screamed at her from a car to go back to her own country, she said.
The experience strengthened her resolve to work for racial reconciliation. Citing the complicated historical tensions between Black and Korean communities, she acknowledged, “In my experience, Asians do have a lot of racism existing in our culture.”
Simmering tensions erupted during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, for example, when nearly 2,300 Korean American businesses were burned or looted, at a cost of about $400 million. As recently as 2017, past grievances resurfaced and Black activists picketed a Korean American-owned business in Leimert Park, citing its treatment of customers.
“We want an end game to end racism, to defund police … finding our true solidarity with other people of color, especially our Black brothers and sisters, especially after the murder of George Floyd, and also providing a safe space for Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and white allies that had already existed in The Gathering group,” Kim said.
Floyd, an unarmed black man, died May 25, 2020, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His death sparked worldwide protests and revived and expanded the Black Lives Matter movement to include other minorities.
Asian Americans are finding solidarity with others, Huang said. “We have experienced similar, but different, injustices, and we too want to be a part of this conversation. The addition of our voice makes the conversation richer. This is not just Black and white. It is how we engage diversity and prejudice and economic injustice – all of that is part of the conversation.”
‘A real oasis’ for Asian Americans
Kim, rector of St. Alban’s, is the daughter of retired South Korean Anglican Archbishop Paul Kim; the granddaughter of the Very Rev. Elijah Kim, former dean of the Cathedral Church of St. Mary the Virgin and St. Nicholas in Seoul; and the great-granddaughter of the Rev. Michael Lee. Lee died during the Korean War after sending his family and congregation to safety in South Korea but choosing to remain with his church, she said.
Kim speaks Korean yet serves a predominantly white congregation, and like other Asian American clergy, she wanted “to claim my Korean-ness, and I needed a way to do that,” which led her to help establish The Gathering.
As a successive generation of immigrants has assimilated into mainstream America, many have experienced similar yearnings.
For example, after the World War II camp experience, when 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to U.S. detention centers, many Asian Americans “abandoned the Buddhist church and joined Christian churches,” Huang said. “It was deemed as more American to be Christian, and The Episcopal Church in many ways was perceived as more mainstream than other denominations.”
Mel Soriano, who was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States at age 5, was dogged by a sense of, “Where do I belong because I am an immigrant but spent most of my life in this country? How do I identify?”
After several decades away from the church, he joined All Saints in Pasadena and discovered The Gathering. “I didn’t realize how much I missed a fellowship with people who had a similar experience to me, with an experience of a different kind of racism.”
But The Gathering is for everyone,” he added. With its cultural immersion and educational events, as well as YouTube videos addressing current issues, “the idea is that we can also be a resource to rectors and vicars, for those looking to find ways of understanding the people in their pews who come from all sorts of backgrounds and are in mixed marriages.”
Erika Gieschen Bertling, 48, of Culver City, grew up in Okinawa, Japan, with a Chinese mother and a German American father. She feels “very ethnically Asian” and embraced the church and The Gathering because of its inclusivity.
“I am all about bringing diversity in every way,” she said. “When I discovered its Beloved Community’s foundation for racial reconciliation, I was hooked. I joined The Episcopal Church.”
Similarly, Dustin Nguyen, 25, grew up in a non-religious home but discovered The Gathering through a group of progressive Christians “who are trying to get away from patriarchy, racism, anti-LGBTQ versions of Christianity. It was wonderful to be around like-minded individuals who shared a similar lived experience.”
Although “the pandemic has brought out tons of racism towards Asian Americans,” the concurrent desire for solidarity is a blessing, Nguyen said. “My values are ultimately hollow if I only speak for myself and not for other oppressed groups.”
Of 25 people who registered for an online book club taking place this August led by Kim, only three are Episcopalian, she said. Their interest in “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee and “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui drew them, along with the opportunity for spiritual engagement. “That’s something they said they can’t get in another book club,” Kim said. “I call it #digitalevangelism.” Click here to register for the book club.
The Gathering and its online presence have been “a real oasis for a lot of Asian Americans” across the country and beyond, said Huang, who is Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese. “If you think about … Episcopalians in places without much of an Asian American presence in their communities, they can feel very alone.”
Ultimately, “this whole recent national conversation about George Floyd and countless others is part of the story The Gathering has to tell,” Huang added. “And what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry talks about, ‘loving, life-giving and liberating,’ is part of our Gospel message, too.”
– The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.