I am a product of ethnic church youth ministry. I would even go as far as to say that my youth pastor – a second-generation Korean man who went to UC Santa Cruz and liked to surf and play pick-up basketball with the locals – formed me more than my first-generation Taiwanese parents did. A man of great character, he gave 15 years to a small and seemingly insignificant group that never expanded beyond 40 youth. He understood who we were and who we could become. He taught us to be worship leaders, Bible study teachers, event planners, and nonprofit volunteers. He’s why I went to Bible college, which led me to seminary, which led me to study religion in a doctoral program. My parents weren’t opposed, but they had never envisioned this life for me.
My good friend Amar Peterman recently wrote about a darker side of youth ministry formation. He tells a story about “See You at the Pole” (SYATP), the evangelical practice of gathering youth around their school flagpole to pray for the nation. Amar argues that “SYATP unassumingly – yet explicitly – formed the evangelical imagination of young persons by combining a narrow theological dogma with an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.” Telling a similar story, Kathryn Gin Lum begins Heathen: Religion and Race in American History (2022) with an anecdote about her experience in youth ministry. There, she was cast as a stereotyped and exoticized Native character in an offensive children’s play about evangelizing to wayward peoples, and there, she was trained to imagine “others” as depraved heathens who needed to be transformed by the gospel.
My immigrant youth ministry wasn’t “evangelical” – we didn’t use that term. But like Amar and Kathryn, evangelicalism influenced my immigrant youth ministry experience. Once, as a senior in high school, I was chatting with fellow youth leaders about how we could evangelize and invite people into our “Asian” church. It felt like an impossible task. Why would our more “American” friends want to worship at a jarring ethnic enclave in a drab office complex? Not only were we severely under-resourced to entice newcomers with fun activities, but the linguistic and cultural differences would also surely make them uncomfortable. I remember gazing longingly at the white-led megachurch nearby. “That church has a giant water park in their parking lot,” I sighed incredulously. “It would be so much easier to evangelize if we were in that church rather than ours.” It felt like our youth ministry was not our own, but a distorted reflection of theirs.
In 2020, Pew Research Center reported that a staggering eight-in-ten evangelical parents have evangelical children, compared to the 55% of Mainline Protestant parents who can keep their children within the boundaries of their congregation. Evangelical youth ministries succeed partly because they adorn the banality of sacraments, liturgy, and biblical exegesis with whatever is required to keep the kids paying attention. In an evangelical youth ministry, you might encounter contemporary music blaring through speakers, energetic and extroverted leaders, and a year-round rotation of fun, wholesome activities that glue together large local networks of fun, wholesome, and like-minded peers. All this is to keep young religious seekers within the evangelical tradition.
Evangelicals don’t have a monopoly on exciting youth programming. But the reality is that evangelicals mastered the art of youth ministry, and as religious attendance declines in the U.S., churches can’t help but follow in their footsteps. In 2018, Janelle Wong observed that “evangelical churches are without a doubt the largest, fastest-growing Asian American and Latinx organizations in the United States, and they are fueling demographic change within the larger evangelical community.” Major studies of contemporary Asian American Protestants – Prema Kurien’s Ethnic Church Meets Megachurch (2018), Sharon Kim’s A Faith of Our Own (2010), and Rebecca Kim’s God’s New Whiz Kids? (2006) – all profess the desire of immigrant youth to leave their first generation immigrant congregations for what they find to be more exciting versions of religious experience. Perhaps youth ministries are partly responsible for these religious demographic changes in the U.S. If so, youth ministries are not only changing the future trajectory of individual lives, but ethnic churches as a whole. Youth ministries, therefore, are inflection points in ethnic churches.
Now, these are the effects of contemporary evangelical youth culture on immigrants, but this is not a new phenomenon. Even before the evangelical takeover, young Asian Americans were formed within congregational youth ministries. Perhaps the most impactful youth ministry in Asian American history is Donaldina Cameron House, which is connected to Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, San Francisco (PCCSF) – the oldest surviving Asian American congregation in the U.S.
A storied organization, Cameron House was the most popular voluntary youth organization in San Francisco Chinatown for first and second generation immigrant adolescents who were funneled into America through Chinatown. In the late 1800s, the Presbyterian denomination created Cameron House to “rescue” and “convert” young enslaved Chinese women brought into Chinatown. By the 1960s, Cameron House was firmly established as the youth ministry of PCCSF. Around 500-600 Chinatown youth were enrolled in their popular summer programs. Despite having an abusive minister, Dick Wichman, from 1947 to 1977, Cameron House was an important site for youth to spend their time in a disinvested space.
Chinatown Rising (2019), an award-winning documentary about housing activism in San Francisco Chinatown after the civil rights movement, reveals the impact of youth formation through Cameron House on Asian American history. The director of the documentary, Reverend Harry Chuck, attended Cameron House and later served as its director. Reverend Chuck briefly shares that at Cameron House, youth were instilled with a justice orientation toward racialized urban problems such as residential segregation, racial discrimination, and lack of access to jobs, services, and adequate housing. Due to Cameron House’s influence, shares historian of Asian American Protestantism Tim Tseng, there was “hardly a Chinatown non-profit where there wasn’t Cameron House leadership.”1 For example, influential community organizers Gordon Chin and Reverend Norman Fong, who established and led the Chinatown Community Development Center, were intimately connected to Cameron House.
But even before Cameron House, Protestant youth programs were training Asian American youth to apply the gospel to their racialized Chinatown experiences.2 In the 1930s, ecumenical Asian youth retreats – heralded as the “Chinese Christian Youth Movement” – were widely publicized and attended by Chinatown youth across the U.S. (Figure 5). These retreats, which continued into the 50s, gathered Asian American youth under the mentorship of educated Asian American ministers and community leaders. The West Coast Conference was held at Lake Tahoe (Figure 3), led by UC Berkeley graduate Beulah Ong. The East Coast Conference,3 held at Silver Bay, New York, was led by Harvard graduate Paul Louie.4 Retreats “not only sought to provide city youth a time of spiritual nurture, but also offered seminars which addressed a host of second generation anxieties such as ‘Love, Courtship and Marriage,’ ‘Chinese Youth in an American Community,’ ‘Understanding Chinese Culture for the American Born,’ and ‘Keeping Informed about China.’”5 Historian Min Min Lo writes that these topics signal the beginning of a “Chinese American consciousness.”
The “Chinese American consciousness” was generated through residential experiences with urban problems. We can see this in a panel discussion at the Lake Tahoe Youth Conference in 1936 (Figure 1). The panel cited a “social survey conducted by the International Institute and the Chinese churches of L.A.” The survey asked respondents to share their experiences with racism and segregation. The panel integrated these themes with the “social teachings” of the church, signaling the youth conference’s alignment with developing social justice theologies in Protestantism writ large. Importantly, the panel discussed the meaning of the conference theme – “Christian Youth Building A New World Thru Social Action” – in reference to racial, social, and economic “relations to our fellowmen.” Leaders asked: “What steps are we to take toward social action? A new social order? A new economic system? And the Kingdom of God on earth?”
These issues continued to be addressed into the 1950s. In a report likely written in the 50s about Chinese Christian youth in Oakland, a section titled “Problems of Orientation and Adjustment” detailed the racialized effects of residential, economic, employment, and education discrimination, such as dealing with racist real estate agents and racist depictions of the Chinese in movies and novels. Offering solutions to these problems, the 1950s report championed the necessity of organizing with other racialized groups: Being “rooted in Christian principles…the church is to engage in social service projects and be a place of multiracial unity…we must guard against exploitation of our racial group in other people’s interests…we must join a labor union [that stands for racial equality] rather than an auxiliary labor union or some ‘Jim Crow’ union.” In their view, strategic partnership with other racial groups didn’t require flattening cultural differences. Rather, “Eliminating racial discrimination…must rely on a harmonious development of physical, spiritual, moral, and financial elements of strength within our own Chinese society…It would be a pity if we lost all the rich background of our parents in art and philosophy.”
Since at least the 1930s, youth ministries have formed immigrants. Some youth ministries of the past taught Asian Americans to confront their urban contexts by becoming activists, by unionizing, by partnering with public service organizations, and by reclaiming their cultural heritage. One key difference between then and now is that fewer are being raised in the urban context – rather, Asian Americans alike are being funneled into America through suburbs. Some commute long distances back into urban contexts to serve, others ignore it altogether.
Immigrants may become the majority demographic in American evangelicalism soon. As suburban youth ministries raise up more Asian American evangelicals, questions remain: How will suburban contexts, and how will evangelical beliefs and practices, shape the formation of religious Asian Americans? Will these Asian American Christians rise up to confront the social problems of the day?
But perhaps the more pressing question is this. The immigrant youth ministries of the past – indelibly shaped by the social movements of their day – challenged youth to return to Chinatown, to place their hands on community wounds, and to take up the burdens of their neighbors. That is the beautiful testimony of Chinatown Rising, but is Chinatown rising becoming evangelical rising? And at what cost? Are the evangelical youth ministries of today leading Asian American youth on an exodus journey away from their first-generation communities?
Figure 1: Panel Discussion for the Lake Tahoe Conference, 1936. Box 1:17, Edwar Lee papers, 1871-1971 (bulk 1938-1971), AAS ARC 2000/19, Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley
Figure 2: The significance of Chinatowns as areas of residential segregation, no date. Likely 40s-50s. Box 2:13, Edwar Lee papers, 1871-1971 (bulk 1938-1971), AAS ARC 2000/19, Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley
Figure 3: Pamphlet for the Lake Tahoe Conference, 1943. Box 1:19, Edwar Lee papers, 1871-1971 (bulk 1938-1971), AAS ARC 2000/19, Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley
Figure 4: Paper about Chinese Youth in Oakland, no date. Likely 1950s. Significantly, Rev. Frank Mar–a very important but little-known figure in the resistance to urban renewal in Oakland in the 60s-80s–is listed as a contributor in the section on social problems. Box 1:39, Edwar Lee papers, 1871-1971 (bulk 1938-1971), AAS ARC 2000/19, Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley
Figure 5: 1940s newspaper clipping about Beulah Ong, Paul Louie, and the Chinese Christian Youth Movement. Box 1:36, Edwar Lee papers, 1871-1971 (bulk 1938-1971), AAS ARC 2000/19, Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley
1 Wesley Woo, Interview with Tim Tseng, November 20, 2016. My thanks to Tim Tseng for granting me permission to share his unpublished material. For a discussion on the urban activism famed in Asian American Movement history, see Li, Chuo. 2019. “Postwar Urban Redevelopment and the Politics of Exclusion: The Case of San Francisco’s Chinatown.” Journal of Planning History 18(1): 27-43. Gordon Chin’s Building Community, Chinatown Style: A Half Century of Leadership in San Francisco Chinatown and Harry Chuck’s Chinatown Rising detail some essential contributions of Protestant Asian Americans to the movement.
2 My thanks to Tim Tseng and the librarians of the Ethnic Studies Library at UC Berkeley for helping me locate these materials.
3 A conference for youth on the east coast was conceived in 1943 at the Lake Tahoe Conference in an effort to make the Chinese Christian Youth Conference a “nationwide movement,” Box 1:32, Edwar Lee papers, 1871-1971 (bulk 1938-1971), AAS ARC 2000/19, Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley.
4 Beulah Ong, president of the West Coast conference, was on staff at the San Francisco Y.W.C.A., Young Women’s Christian Association. “Much of the life and drive of the Conference program stemmed from Beulah Ong,” Edwar Lee Archive, Box 1:21, UCB ES Library). Furthermore, as Tim Tseng wrote to me in email correspondence, “Beulah Ong is the actress Beulah Quo, who became an activist for greater Asian American representation in movies and media. She also was involved with the Vincent Chin protests. She changed the spelling of her married name, Kwoh to Quo, when she started to act. Her husband, Edwin Kwoh, was also involved with Lake Tahoe and was an activist and community service volunteer as well. Their son, Stewart Kwoh, was the founder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. Paul Louie’s son, Steve Louie, is an important leader in the Asian American movement. Paul Louie himself was an anti-racist activist, who also worked for the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. This commission tracked incidents of discrimination in the 1980s and 1990s.” Tim Tseng intends to include their stories in his forthcoming book. My great appreciation to Tim Tseng for these supplemental details and for his comments on this piece.
5 Lo, F.H. Min Min. 2001. “The Growing Asian Diaspora in the Methodist Church: Intersections of Ethnicity, Race, Citizenship, and Religion Asian American Congregations, 1847-1986.” PhD dissertation, Department of History, UC Berkeley. UMI, 3044568.