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In the last year of seminary, I took a course about incorporating the theory and methods of narrative therapy into pastoral care. The premise was that everyone makes sense of their lives through stories: stories they acquired from their families, cultures, and the surrounding society, stories others tell them or tell about them, and stories they tell themselves. These stories can be the avenue for pain and pathology as problematic stories shape and contribute to a problematic sense of identity. Children who have been told that they are not wanted or good enough, or people of color who have experienced racism can incorporate these experiences into the stories they tell themselves, consciously or unconsciously devaluing themselves as a result of problem-saturated stories that they have acquired. The goal of the narrative method is to externalize and unravel the problem-saturated stories that people tell about themselves and acquire from the society around them and help them to reconstruct and retell stories that empower them.  

During the course, I was fascinated with the destructive and healing power of stories and story-telling and the relationships forged with those attempting to reconstruct and retell their own stories for the first time. Since then, I have pondered the connection between the power of storytelling and my own sense of vocation as an emerging spiritual director sensing a call to engage in this type of ministry in Asian and Asian American communities.  

My training as a spiritual director focused much on my own spiritual development through not only learning about but also engaging in spiritual practices and paying close attention to God’s movement in my life through seeing my own spiritual director. It is only in deepening my relationship with God and staying open to God’s movement that I can accompany others in their journeys with God. A significant part of this personal journey has been incorporating all the aspects of my story into my life in God and discerning with the Lord, how I have been called to minister out of that story. My identity, as an Asian Canadian woman is weaved in multiple ways into the tapestry of my story, and thus God’s story through me.  

My story with the church began explicitly with my conversion to Christianity, but my story with God began long before that. Like Jeremiah, God knew and called me before I was born, counting the hairs of my head and knowing my name (and all the names by which I would be known) [Jeremiah 1:5, Isaiah 43:1, Luke 12:7]. Even though I did not know God’s name, I could feel God’s presence in the beauty of the Chinese countryside and the love of the close-knit family and community around me and in my own love and pride in the country of my birth. The world in which I existed and came to know myself and others, was, in the words of hymn writer Maltbie Davenport Babcock, “my Father’s world”.

When I did learn God’s name, my conversion to Christianity and entry into the community of the church was intricately linked to my immigration experience. As a child who had left the home and community that I had known my whole life, who struggled with the language and culture of my new home, I longed for the kind of love and belonging that I saw on the face of the Jesus who smile from Sunday School pictures and which I felt in the small, Baptist church I attended with my aunt in the western Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. It was then that I came to Christ and was baptized into the community of the Church, his body.  

At the time of my conversion and baptism, I thought of becoming a Christian as synonymous with becoming Canadian, leaving behind a life in which I did not know God. In the years since then, with my intellectual, spiritual, and emotional exploration of my cultural heritage and my study of Asian Canadian and Asian American history and theology, I have not only come to reclaim my Asian Canadian identity as integral to my Christian identity but also come to see how much my story with God is intertwined with the experience of immigration, the desperate attempts to survive and belong, the loss of cultural identity in an effort to do so and the reclaiming of that identity that is so much a part of the experience of so many other Asian Americans and Canadians as well as other immigrants. My story is woven into God’s story, it is also woven into the story of Asian immigrants to North America.  

The ministry of spiritual direction is a ministry of holy listening. A spiritual director listens for the footsteps of God in the story of the directee’s life. Unlike psychotherapy, where the work takes place within the relationship between therapist and client, in spiritual direction the focus is on the directee’s relationship with God. In every session, there are three in the room, the director listens for God’s story as well as the directee’s own and holds space for directees to see and hear and recognize God’s presence in the midst of their own stories. In the language of narrative therapy, it is somewhat like listening together for the story that God tells about a particular individual, seeking to walk with the directee into what one of my teachers calls “the abyss of God’s incomprehensible love”.

The formation of a spiritual director comes, not so much from learning particular skills and practices (though those play an important part, too) but from being deeply rooted in God. This means being on a journey towards integration of every aspect of my own story into the story that God tells about me, and which God calls to play a part in the world which God created and loves. My story of immigration, my experiences of loneliness, longing to belong, racism, as well as my story of coming to know and love Christ, of finding belonging in the church and discovering a vocation for ministry, are both parts of the same story and are integrated together into God’s story. They are also integral to my formation as a spiritual director.  

It is this story that I bring to the ministry of spiritual direction and my desire to minister in this way to Asian American and Asian Canadian communities. Although this has been changing, it remains a fact that spiritual directors of color are in the minority. Asian Americans and Canadians, especially first-generation immigrants, also remain an underserved community. The story of my own formation, as a spiritual director, and a Christian of Asian Canadian heritage is an integral part of the story of the Church and the story of God. The stories of others in my community, their stories of immigration, of belonging and not belonging, of racism, and of building lives and families while navigating the in-between spaces of their varied identities, are also integral to the story of God and of the Church. It is to the ministry of accompanying them as they navigate their own ways toward the God who created and loves them and finding their own stories in God’s story that I am called.  

Julia Zhao was born in China, grew up in Toronto and completed a PhD at the University of Notre Dame before following God’s call into ministry. She completed a MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary and a certificate in spiritual direction with Oasis Ministries for Spiritual Development in May of 2023. She looks forward to ordination in the PCUSA and will begin her first call as the Associate Pastor in Residence at First Presbyterian Church in Valparaiso, Indiana in December of 2023. A childhood convert to Christianity, Julia is fascinated by the Holy Spirit’s movement in the lives of individuals and communities, especially through the ministries of preaching, pastoral care and spiritual direction. She is also passionate about serving the Asian American community through the ministry of spiritual direction. When not engaged in ministry, she enjoys long walks, cooking, audiobooks, spending time with friends and family and exploring new places.

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