Exponential and the Open Letter

It has been one week since the Asian American Open Letter to the Evangelical Church was released on Nextgenerasianchurch.com.  I am one of the original signatories and part of the planning committee for this open letter.

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Because I have been on vacation over the last two weeks, I apologize for my delay in blogging about this important event, as well as an article in the Vancouver Sun that featured some research that Johanna Waters and I did on transnational youth between Hong Kong and Vancouver.  This post will cover my involvement in the publication of the open letter.  A forthcoming post will focus on the Vancouver Sun article.

My involvement in the Asian American open letter began when Religion News Service’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey contacted the group of us who had blogged about the Rick Warren ‘Red Guard’ fiasco and said that she had obtained information about an orientalizing incident at Exponential, a church planting conference that was incidentally being hosted at Saddleback Church but had no connection to the actual church itself.  Kathy Khang has provided a rundown here of what happened.  The gist of things is as follows: the Rev. Christine Lee, a Korean American Episcopal priest and assistant rector at All Angels’ Church, New York, tweeted that she had seen a skit at the conference where a white pastor used an orientalizing accent, but when she reported her concerns, her comments were brushed off.  This tweet was shared by Asian American writers Kathy Khang and Helen Lee, who proceeded to write the open letter.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey directly obtained the story from these tweets.

My comment to Bailey was that this second incident demonstrates the necessity for why the conversation must remain public.  I said: ‘It is worth observing that it has almost been 10 years since ‘Rickshaw Rally,’ and there are prominent American evangelical publishers, conferences, and pastors who still use Orientalizing imagery’. What I was doing was to place this incident in a historical trajectory that dates back to the Asian American evangelical campaign to pull ‘Rickshaw Rally’ from Lifeway Publishers’ Vacation Bible School publications in 2004. I am thankful that the open letter also uses this trajectory, because the concerns of Asian American evangelicals focus on whether they in fact have a place in American evangelicalism, especially if prominent pastors and publishers feel free to orientalize them despite a decade of protests. (It would be a worthy academic history project to check if there is activism that predates this decade, and whether those activists are connected to the ones at present.) As I have said repeatedly, each of these incidents were public, which makes a public response to them, including one via the press, extremely appropriate.

Over the week after Bailey’s article was published, the planning committee for the open letter gathered signatures. Exponential also issued a public apology after gathering a group of Asian Americans to talk about the skit, at which the story is that Jeya So’s story about her past of being bullied as an Asian American resonated with the conference organizers. I signed the letter to indicate my public support for this public response to these public cases of orientalization. The signatories comprise people gathered from diverse points on the theological spectrum. It is worth noting that this is a letter to the evangelical church and thus includes those conventionally labeled the ‘mainline’ and those whose theological orientations are ‘liberal’ and ‘liberationist.’

The idea now is to keep this conversation about the place of Asian Americans in American evangelicalism–and indeed, in American religion–public.  Indeed, the letter indicates that this is not so much a letter that goes on an attack, but rather, it is an invitation to a public conversation. As some noted to me, the letter struck them as conciliatory, and I agree; it should not sound a note of aggression.  Instead, it signals that while private conversations are necessary, like the one that led to Exponential’s informed apology, they are insufficient. If a decade has passed since Rickshaw Rally, then this conversation about race and orientalization must be had with American evangelicals in a public forum, one whose openness provides some accountability for actual change to happen.

This public conversation is in turn not a niche conversation. It is good for our public sphere. In a social and political situation where evangelicals are themselves the subject of public discourse, this conversation fits within key debates that are being had in American civil society, especially regarding the intersection of faith and politics. The openness of the open letter is one way to enter into this conversation because it interrogates whether the word ‘evangelical’ in our public discourse is inclusive of Asian Americans. If it is not, that would be curious indeed, given the observations in the social science of religion that Asian Americans are a quickly growing group of evangelicals and have historically been part of key American Protestant conversations. This open letter is thus an invitation to a broader conversation about American religion, especially because American religion concerns every person in the American public, and if that’s the case, then it is an imperative to know what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘evangelicals,’ including the fact that there are many Asian Americans who are very much included in that term.

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