NYC Asian American Pacific Islander Churches (NYCAAPIC) is a group of approximately 20 New York AAPI ministry leaders who came together after the murders of eight people, including six Asian American women, in Atlanta on March 16, 2021, to form a local chapter of the Coalition of Asian American Pacific Island Churches (CAAPIC). NYCAAPIC’s activities have included community organizing, liaising with city officials, prayer walks, and raising public awareness of Anti-Asian hate. On March 30th, 2023, leaders from this group gathered for a retreat at City Seminary of New York. Two NYCAAPIC members on the spiritual formation committee, Dr. Maria Liu Wong and Rev. Dr. Geomon George, who are also in senior leadership at City Seminary, were the hosts.
For this article, Carrie Myers, who attended as a spiritual director and retreat leader, and Geomon George, who was both a retreat leader and participant, reflect on their retreat experiences. At the end of the article, you will be invited to enter into one of the prayers experienced by the retreatants.
As an Asian American spiritual director and former faculty member at City Seminary, I (Carrie) was asked to lead the morning silence and reflection portion of the NYCAAPIC retreat. As I planned our time together, I was guided by my experience as an Asian American spiritual director navigating the mostly white world of spiritual direction and spiritual formation. (For those unfamiliar with spiritual direction, it’s defined by Sue Pickering as “taking place when one person (the director) prayerfully supports and encourages another person (the directee) to attend and respond to God. As a fellow pilgrim, the spiritual director accompanies the directee on this journey of faith.” In practical terms, a director helps a directee make space for silence, reflection, prayer, and listening to both God and self, so that the directee may encounter God who is always present and always inviting the directee to enter into a deeper, more joyful relationship and way of living out their calling in the world.)
It’s one of my life’s deep joys to be able to accompany my directees on their spiritual journeys, seeing them draw closer to God as God draws closer to them. However, as a person of color, I am often faced with the fact that the spiritual direction landscape in the US skews largely white, both in its practitioners and in its training materials and programs. (A quick glance through any of the major directories of spiritual directors will illustrate this phenomenon.) Although spiritual directors are gradually becoming more diverse, and some culturally and ethnically diverse professional organizations and training programs are sprouting up here and there (for example, Liberated Together Spiritual Direction School, Sustainable Faith’s English-Spanish bilingual training cohorts, or Spiritual Direction International’s BIPOC community) almost all of the spiritual direction books on my shelf, whether training books, retreat planning guides, or prayers and blessings, are written by white men and women.
Seeing Jesus’ Face in our Own
I had already been thinking about this disjuncture – between my own experience and the experiences of my Asian American directees and the lack of ethnically contextual materials – when I was invited to help lead the NYCAAPIC retreat. Because we were a group of Asian American ministry leaders coming together in the context of violence against Asian Americans, it felt especially important to honor our experiences and perspectives within the retreat. To do this, I chose to create retreat materials using art, poetry, and prayers created by Asian Americans and Asians. I had some materials already in mind and found others. When I could not find what I wanted, I created materials myself. (The structure of the retreat and the contemplative music I used to accompany prayers came out of The Stillness Collective, a spiritual direction and retreat organization I co-founded along with Janine Rohrer and David Buchs.)
For this retreat, in addition to a Lectio Divina that we did as a group on Psalm 98, which was the official Scripture for the day, I created a guided breath prayer based these words from Psalm 27, a kind of call and response between God and the loved one with whom God longs to converse:
My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”
(Psalm 27:8, NLT)
I then invited the retreatants to spend individual time in prayer, using two different texts and types of prayer. The first prayer experience was “Prayer with Poetry,” using “On Heirophany” by Karen Ahn-hwei Lee, a Chinese American poet and literary scholar at Wheaton College, which invites us to find the holy in everyday occurrences. The second experience was “Prayer with Imagination and Image” (a hybrid of Visio Divina and Ignatian or imaginative prayer), inviting retreatants to reflect on and imaginatively enter into “Baptism of Jesus,” a water-color on silk painting by Kim Ki-Chang, a 20th Century Korean painter. Ki-Chang’s “Life of Jesus” series re-imagines the key moments from the Gospels with Korean figures in Korean settings and dress. In his baptism scene, Jesus and John the Baptist are both Korean men and the angelic figures hovering over them are Korean women.
During the retreat sharing time, one participant spoke of how emotional it was for her to see Asian figures in the story of Jesus. She was almost moved to tears and was able to place herself within the story in a new way. Her reaction affirmed for me the importance of being able to see ourselves in Biblical stories and in our own imaginations.
We ended the retreat with a group prayer and a blessing. Both of these I wrote, incorporating some of the themes from the retreat: the importance of silence and listening for the “still, small voice of God,” (1 Kings 19:11-12); the need to, in the words of one of my directees, “be held by God so we can hold others;” and the need to be known as God’s beloved child. I can’t say that there was anything inherently “Asian American” about what I wrote, except that an Asian American woman wrote them for an AAPI retreat. Still, it felt honoring to the group and the purpose that brought us together to end that way.
Spiritual Formation By and For Asian Americans
As I look back on my retreat experience, I continue to see the need for Asian American spiritual direction materials. Some of the work is gathering what already exists and curating it for the purposes of spiritual formation and direction: taking Asian American created poems, visual arts, and musical compositions and weaving them into retreats, guided meditations, prayers, and other resources. Another aspect of the work is creating new resources: writing the words, prayers, and blessings that will speak from and to our AAPI community. I hope to continue to engage in both types of work.
With my phone turned off and with a paper in my hand, I (Geomon) settled in the south corner room at City Seminary allowing the Holy Spirit to release the power of Pentecost. This was our first NYCAAPIC retreat. So, after months of planning and designing, my posture changed from being an organizer to a participant. The retreat started with prayer and moved intentionally in a participatory style. As I reflect on the retreat, the following themes emerged:
Identity and Ongoing Formation
I am a South Asian American, husband, father, a theologian, a teacher, and an ordained Pentecostal pastor who started a multi-cultural church plant in the Bronx, New York City. Being in theological education offers me the opportunity to walk alongside ministry leaders from different cultures and Christian traditions: to be, as one pastor said, “a pastor to pastors.” All this is to say, I am on a pilgrimage of becoming.
Amidst the cars honking, sirens of emergency vehicles, and music loudly playing from the street, the retreat offered an opportunity to pause and reflect. It was time to pay attention to my life – an opportunity for me to reflect on who I am, how much God loves me and knows me, and how I can respond to that love.
Unlike other retreats that I have participated in, this retreat offered a new perspective. The prompting to imaginatively enter into “Baptism of Jesus,” a water-color on silk painting by Kim Ki-Chang, a 20th Century Korean painter, was a gift from God. As I entered imaginatively into that scene, I felt a sense of courage and inspiration.
Meeting of People, Time and Space
We came together as Asian American Christians united in our love for God and with a desire to faithfully serve God in our communities. The diversity in our group – from different generations to different Asian American communities – provided a deeper sense of our belonging to one another. There was something liberating about being together, and an acknowledgement that we are not alone. We were sitting in circles and listening to each other without judgements or performance. This retreat also offered space and time. The sacred time with God and with one another affirmed and validated my experience. City Seminary Hope Campus provided a space to be together. Prayer, silence, guided reflection, eating together, and laughter created an environment to listen to the voice of God and build community.
Carrie’s Perspective: “Lord, We Are Coming”
For each of us, God’s invitation to “Come and talk with me,” and our response, “Lord, I am coming,” takes place in our own contexts, in our own lived and imaginative landscapes. I hope that we will all have more opportunities to take a holy pause with others in our AAPI Christian circles, to listen for God’s voice speaking into our histories and lived experience, and to see Jesus’ face looking much like our own.
Geomon’s Perspective: Out of the mud arises a beautiful lotus
The retreat offered me an opportunity for reawakening and recharge. Some images in our retreat guide caught my attention — various flowers and plants that brought a lotus to my mind. As my eyes moved from the pages of the guide to the streets below, I experienced a heightened sense of purpose and focus — a renewed sense of vocational calling and that my gifts are to be used to serve God in the world. Out of the “mud” of AAPI hate, brokenness, marginalization, loss, grief, and feeling invisible, the lotus bud emerges into a beautiful lotus. Each lotus petal represents different Asian American cultures, opening up with hope and joy, overcoming many obstacles to flourish and to bloom.
An Invitation to Prayer
Below is one of the prayers that we entered into at the NYCAAPIC retreat. We invite you to take several minutes to pray with this depiction of Jesus’ baptism.
Praying with Image and Imagination
In this form of prayer, you are invited to imaginatively enter the story that is happening in this painting. You can enter as a character in the story or as an object or as someone observing the scene. Use all of your senses to make the story come to life around you. The story does not have to unfold exactly as it does in Scripture. Trust that God can speak to you using your imagination and your senses just as he can through your thoughts and reason.
After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” (Matthew 3:16-17)
1) Spend some time looking at the image. What is going on? What catches your attention or stirs emotions within you?
2) Imagine yourself as any part of the painting. Who or what are you? What do you see, smell, hear, taste, touch? If you have a body, what is happening to it and within it?
4) What might God be speaking to you, God’s dearly loved child? How do God’s words resonate within you?
5) As you reflect on this image, how do you experience the Spirit of God?