Navigating Belonging as an Asian American Presbyterian

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Mark Davis is curating a series that will explore the idea of membership and the challenges and promises that come with it. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by SueJeanne Koh

Over the years, as I’ve joined new church homes in different locales, I have told this part of my story several times – I grew up in a Korean immigrant Presbyterian church, “re”-found my faith in an Asian American second-generation Presbyterian church as a young adult, and then served in another predominantly Korean American Presbyterian church for several years. But it is also true, as I reflected when writing this piece, that I have not been part of a predominantly Asian American church for the past ten years. The only thing that has remained constant, it seems, is that I am firmly Presbyterian, for better or worse. And yet, as a scholar who focuses on Asian American religion as a central part of her work, and who does in fact believe in the futures of Asian American Christianities, why am I not at an Asian American church?

The reasons are complex, personal, and probably more than I can really articulate. Part of it is because I am in a racially and religiously mixed household and that cultural and religious difference seemed easier to navigate in my last and current church homes. But there have also been three unspoken guideposts that have led my way to my three past church homes. One, Reformed theology and worship broadly construed did matter; it had become a kind of acquired mother tongue over the years. Two, my church had to be local – I wanted to be attentive to the issues and concerns of my neighborhood and how my church engaged with these. Three – I wanted to be in a congregation that affirmed sexual difference, because – see point one.

My naming of these guideposts doesn’t mean to imply that there are not Asian American churches or Christians who don’t engage those different criteria. It’s more to articulate, retroactively, my unspoken rationale in what really felt like an act of surrender when becoming a member of a non-Asian American church. I wanted to be in congregations where other voices were centered and affirmed, because in a way, this also emanates from my sense of what Asian American positionality is partly about. Asian American positionality is not just about tracing your ethnic background to Asia, but also a politically possibility that is constantly about the decentering and centering of new voices and old. That is, after many years I am embracing my “foreignness” differently, which has been as much gift as wound, to see that “foreignness” as a place where hospitality can grow in different ways.

This is also to say that when my heart deeply desires to be understood without explanation, or when I think we need engagement around our assumptions about race, my church community may not be able to provide that and that I do sometimes long for the unspoken bonds of support of the ethnic immigrant church. So sometimes I need to be creative in finding ways to think through the relationship between faith and belonging. It’s not always easy, and I don’t have a clear road map either for myself or my family. Just guideposts, and I have to, simply put, rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit to lead me to places of centering.

It means that Asian American Christian community may look far-flung, held together by bits and bytes of technology for most of the time. It means that my experiences and identity as an Asian American woman may find commonality with others who aren’t Christian or religious, but who understand the experiences and histories of racialization. It may mean that I will stumble my way through and be part of larger movements for racial and economic justice in ways that highlight my Asian American identity in a supportive role, but one who needs to learn from and center other minoritized voices in their journeys. But it is in these spaces where I want to press and form my faith and experience “holy discomfort” for the possibility of surprising connections and unexpected communion.

SueJeanne Koh is a scholar and teacher who works on the intersections of theology, religious studies with particular interests in race and gender. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher in Asian American studies and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine, and a member of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

Leaving… and Returning to Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Mark Davis is curating a series that will explore the idea of membership and the challenges and promises that come with it. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Barbara Baylee Shefelton

After 15 years in my first call as an Associate Pastor I left the church. The reasons were many – I was burned out. I was a mother to two young girls and wasn’t home at night to read them a story and put them to bed. And, after years of being a Pollyanna about the church I had seen its darker side. I loved my church, I loved my position. I felt called. But then a few voices became louder than God’s. It rattled my soul and my sense of call. So, I left.

For a while I wanted nothing more than time at home with my girls or a job where no one called me once I had clocked out.

After a couple of years, I read the book “Leaving Church” by Barbara Brown Taylor which resonated deeply with me. She had to walk away from “the church” for a while after spending her life in church. But then she remembered her seminal church encounter. Her first “cathedral” was in the “fields behind my parents’ house in Kansas.” Ultimately, she didn’t leave the church but she did have to realign what God was calling her to. How she might do ministry that both fed others and also fed her calling to be a priest.

Photo by Alexander Nachev on Unsplash

It took a me a while of nursing my wounds – I needed to go back to my “cathedral” (which for me is the mountains) and remember what my calling was all about. I needed to remember who I was – even if I wasn’t serving as a pastor in a church.

Today my girls are teens and for 13 years I have worked as a Chaplain, Ethicist and Dementia Specialist at a Catholic Hospital. It is where I am meant to be. I am comfortable in my roles. I find joy and energy in something that really fills me and my sense of calling.

I have served other churches as an interim, a supply pastor, and substitute for other pastors during sabbaticals. I enjoyed that upfront leadership. But I also discovered the simple joys and relaxation of staying home on a Sunday morning and sleeping in and reading the Sunday paper. But after a while I felt that ache, that hole in my soul. I needed a church that was mine, not mine to lead, but a place where I was known, and loved, and accepted for my gifts.

So, after many years away I am back in my first church. The newest pastor has welcomed me with open arms. He has welcomed me as I was saying – “I just want to sing in the choir. I don’t want to be up front.” The congregation has welcomed my daughters and my husband back into full membership and leadership in the church. And I realize – I’m back home. And it is good. And I am filled with gratitude. God’s grace abounds.

 Barbara Baylee Shefelton is an ordained minister in the PC(USA), a certified chaplain and ethicist, and a nationally certified ethics consultant. She lives in Newport News, Virginia.

Multiple Memberships on a Journey of Faith and Perseverance

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Mark Davis is curating a series that will explore the idea of membership and the challenges and promises that come with it. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

by Sid Chapman

As a part-time pastor in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, an educator, former president of a local education association, a president of the Georgia affiliate of the National Education Association, former candidate for the Georgia State School Superintendent, and the current Chair of the Spalding County Democratic Committee, I have a broad area of participation in church , education, politics, and social organizations. One may ask how can one person be so involved in so many directions? Honestly, I don’t even know how I do all that I do without at least a cape! I can only say that I have a passion for faith, education, politics, and social issues in general.

(Photo by Eugene Zaycev on Unsplash)

I was born and reared in a small town in Georgia by a divorced Mother of six. We lived on a tight budget and with a faith that sustained my mother and kept us going. It certainly wasn’t a cake walk for any of us. My mother came from a Methodist family and spent a lot of time in a Presbyterian Church on altering Sundays. It was the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. My mom went through the catechism of the ARPC but remained a Methodist until she married into a Pentecostal Holiness family. My paternal grandfather was a Pentecostal Holiness pastor (converting from Methodism during the Great Depression at a “Tent Meeting”). I suppose you could say that I have strong Wesleyan roots with a splash of Calvinism—sounds like Tanqueray and Tonic!

I spent most of my early years in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition. I confirmed my faith and was baptized in the now International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC), received an undergraduate degree at the denomination’s Emmanuel College. I was licensed to preach and ordained in the Georgia Conference of the IPHC and was pastor of one small church after college. While I was in college, I began to question my faith and particularly my affiliation with the IPHC for several reasons. I suppose this conservative was realizing he wasn’t as conservative as he pretended to be and certainly not the fundamentalist scripturally as he wanted to be perceived. My life was full of contradictions and deep groanings to be free from the microscope of a religion that I didn’t feel comfortable in though I experienced glossolalia and prayed earnestly to be sanctified!

To make a long story short, 1987, I started visiting the United Methodist Church. I was totally disillusioned with religion, but I was still seeking a faith, a home, a compass for my life. I was encouraged to transfer into a program that would have led to my becoming an Elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church by my new pastor. I spoke to him about my feelings of possibly entering teaching. My pastor said something profound, “the call of God is fluid and can take many shapes and forms!” I became certified and taught high school social studies, adult education classes, college level economics courses, and finally union leadership. During this time, I started serving as a part-time pastor of small churches in the UMC. I must say my journey has been busy by all these positions and adding Master of Education, Doctor of Education degrees, and a Course of Study in United Methodist Ministry at Candler Theological Seminary at Emory University.

It would take a lot of time to share my whole story and all my struggles in my lifetime. My struggles have been very personal that have affected me physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, with numerous nuances. I have persevered to reach this juncture of my life. I now find myself in a situation in my adopted denomination of facing the very real possibility of schism. Our denomination is torn over LGBTQIA+ and other issues. Whether members of this community should be in ministry and whether UMC members can perform gay weddings and/or can they be performed in our churches. The Church in the USA has a majority for inclusion; however, the UMC is an international connectional church governed by a General Conference and Book of Discipline compiled by the General Conference delegates from around the world. I find myself once again not knowing where my ministry will continue or if at all.

One of these days, I’m going to write a book revealing all my struggles and my triumphs. My story is a story of faith and perseverance. A high school dropout that took the GED and now holds a doctorate degree. A guy who has so many interests and came through many dangers, toils and snares. I suppose if I were a good Presbyterian, I’d say it was all Providence! A good Methodist would say the same or Prevenient Grace. The church in general must decide its role in an ever-changing society. Before I am gone from this earth, I pray most of these questions will have been settled, but no victory lap so far!

Sidney “Sid” Lanier Chapman, Ed.D. is an educator and education leader in Georgia. Immediate past President of Georgia Association of Educators. Currently Assistant Coordinator of Textbook Division of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in Clayton County Public School in Metro Atlanta. Sid is also pastor of Faith United Methodist Church, Riverdale, GA. Chapman is also the Spalding County Democratic Committee Chair, Griffin, GA.

Talking Membership… in a Join-Averse World

by Mark Davis

About four times a year I lead a “New Members Inquiry.” Once upon a time it was called “New Members Workshop,” but we had to adjust the language because many people were interested in the content but wary of being committed if they attended. The name change was a small concession to a large challenge. It’s just the case that many people are not “joiners.” I suspect that wariness is a symptom of a larger suspicion of institutionalization in general. Curiously, I am finding that many people are not commitment-avoidant when it comes to showing up, pitching in, and even supporting with time or money. But, becoming a “member” seems to be another matter.

While I share many (not all) of the concerns that people have regarding institutions, I am a strong advocate for church membership for two reasons – one of which is theological and the other of which is biblical.

The theological reason I strongly push membership is because I do not want to see the church reduced to yet another cog in the wheel of capitalism, where every decision is predicated on passing the muster of “What’s in it for me?” The church is not a vendor, at which we shop as long as we like the products it carries and the service it provides. It may be the case that this is exactly how people will approach the church regardless of my theological convictions, because we are surely steeped in capitalist rationalization. And, while many people whom I admire argue that we should de-institutionalize the church, starting with eliminating the notion of membership itself, I worry that we would lose something extremely valuable in the process. What we might lose falls under the biblical reason that I strongly push for church membership.

When the apostle Paul addresses church membership, his ongoing analogy is to speak of the church as a “body.” Indeed, one meaning of the English term “member” is “body part.” Most of us have lost this association in our language, except for the term “dismember,” which we still use to speak of losing a body part. Likewise, the term “remember” carries the connotation of being re-attached to something that is part of us. In Paul’s language – which I believe we should strive hard to recover – “membership” is an organic term, not an organizational one.

My favorite illustration of what membership means is a story I once read about Ben Franklin. He was writing a letter to a friend and asked the friend to excuse his handwriting, because the gout in his large right toe was being particularly bothersome. The very idea that swelling in the large right toe could make writing with his left hand shaky is a perfect example of what it means when Paul speaks of being “members one of another.” We weep because another is hurting; we rejoice because another is dancing; we tremble because another has gout. Becoming a member is not simply a matter of joining an organization until it no longer suits us. Members take the risk of being vulnerable to each others’ joys and concerns.

This organic use of the word “member” is richer and more authentic than our typical, organizational approach to the term – whether we consider ourselves for or against it. While I do not want to discard the word “member” because it seems to be overly institutional, I am not suggesting that we simply chug along, using “membership” a metric for measuring success. What a wonderful moment it could be if we lean into our aversion to “membership,” explore what it is that we find untenable about it, and express a vision of what an authentic church would look like if we were organically “members” of one another.

Throughout this month we will reflect on membership, with many of the challenges and promises that come with it. Stay tuned.

Mark Davis is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.