Why I left the Taiwanese American church 20 years ago
Twenty years ago I walked away from Asian American ministry. Right after I got my M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary, I served as the associate pastor of a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey. After three short years I resigned. I left before I was kicked out. I left because I did not want to cause a church split so common in Asian American churches.
My goal with this reflection is to bear witness to a not uncommon experience with the hope of shedding light into possible challenges of Asian American ministry today. I realize the American religious landscape has changed significantly in ways that most people couldn’t imagine twenty years ago. Perhaps the world has changed enough that these observations are irrelevant but I share this for the same reason we study history. I hope to share clues from the past that may explain the present.
By all appearances my ministry at a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church should have been an easy slam dunk for me and for the church. My family has been Presbyterian for generations going back to my great-great-grandfather the Canadian missionary to Taiwan, George Lesley MacKay (PTS class of 1870). I was called to serve his spiritual descendants in a different continent. The church was excited to have one of the few Taiwanese American clergy serving in their church. It seemed like a perfect match.
In hindsight, I think two core beliefs made it impossible for me to serve that church: Filial piety and Taiwanese nationalism.
Filial Piety is the most defining ideology in Asian communities and the most detrimental to maintain for immigrants. An ethical conviction with Confucian origins, it demands respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. In practice it requires a level of deference that’s incomprehensible to most Westerners and even dangerous in a rapidly changing world.
Filial Piety is something children are socialized into and reinforced by schools, families, and media. One of the first data points Asians seek at the moment of introduction is their age. Being one day older could mean the difference between power or submission. Generations across Asia have accepted these norms and many continue to do so. Like all social norms it only works when everyone respects them. I did not grow up swimming in the waters of filial piety. I grew up in Argentina where it was not disrespectful for children to call adults by their first names. It was normal for children to join in conversations and banter with grownups. I called one of my teachers by her first name and even today I consider her a friend. When I visit Argentina, we get together for mate and talk for hours like we did when I was little. My parents were very relaxed about the etiquette of filial piety at home. My only interaction with other Asians was a few hours on Sunday mornings at the Taiwanese church. I was formed in Argentina. My upbringing did not prepare me to be part of a Taiwanese institution as a child and I was certainly not prepared to lead one as an adult.
My disregard for this ancient value proved detrimental for my time at that Taiwanese American church. On paper, I was the Associate Pastor but in practice I was not expected to be in a position of power over anyone older than me. They expected me to play the role of deferential young adult to show their children how a proper Taiwanese American should behave. I underestimated the importance of this code but even if I had known, I was too rebellious and probably arrogant to comply. I was recently ordained and fresh out of seminary, I was naive enough to think that I was ready to serve as the pastor to the whole congregation. I tried to be more than a babysitter. I tried to be a pastor. The spiritual needs of the young people in those churches were dire. There was minimal overlap between Presbyterianism from Taiwan and their American lives. I thought if I could explain the challenges their children faced the elders would see their unmet needs and make the proper adjustments to the priorities of their ministries. Some of the elders welcomed my thoughts. Others received it as an act of arrogant disrespect. Both were legitimate responses.
The Sunday after September 11, 2001 the senior pastor prayed for “their” country (i.e. the United States) even as members of the church had escaped from their offices in the World Trade Center. The United States tells non-white Americans that they are permanent foreigners and members of this church bought that definition wholesale. They might live and work in the United States but they were Taiwanese in the diaspora. What happened politically in this country was not their problem. Like all immigrant religious communities, Taiwanese Presbyterian Churches sought to exist as a sacred canopy of their native culture. Their church was meant to be a place to preserve Taiwanese identity. This is not unique to Taiwanese Presbyterian Churches. It is inherited from Western Christianity, which is nationalistic to its core.
I make this point as an observation and not a judgment. Religious communities are social constructions and Taiwanese immigrants created a nationalist religious community that suited their needs. Many immigrant leaders in these Taiwanese churches lived through brutal political violence. My own grandfather was assassinated in Taiwan because he was a pastor and seminary president. My parents bear that trauma of those brutal years to this day. That anguish displays itself in many forms and creating a church was a constructive way to make sense of their suffering. Taiwanese immigrants of their generation needed a space where their national identity was reinforced and loyalty to Taiwan was lifted as a form of godliness. It was their form of protest against the persecution they experienced. That’s why an anti-Taiwanese nationalist man chose a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church to express his hatred towards Taiwanese nationalists.
Unfortunately for that Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, they got an associate pastor whose loyalty was to la albiceleste.
I did not understand then why church members chartered buses and organized anti-China rallies at the United Nations (“We have to fight for Taiwanese independence”).
I did not understand then why Chinese Christians who came to worship were asked to leave (“They could be spies for China.” “You let one in and they’ll take over our church!”).
I did not understand why church members were upset when Asian Americans (Korean, Filipino, and their dreaded Chinese Americans) began joining the English congregation. (“Those are not our kids!”) Things got really heated when their Taiwanese children began dating non-Taiwanese.
As my ministry grew, I thought I was succeeding but they saw it as worse than failure. I had disrespected the sacred code of filial piety. I had dismissed the central role of Taiwanese identity. I was not building the second-generation Taiwanese Presbyterian Church of their dream. This was betrayal and word began to circulate about my removal. So I made plans to leave.
I left that Taiwanese church to pursue a PhD in sociology because I clearly needed to have a better understanding cultures and institutions. My research focused on Spanish-speaking Pentecostal immigrants. I moved as far away as I could from Taiwanese Presbyterianism and I haven’t gone back. Over the years, I’ve wondered about the state of Asian American churches. I made assumptions based on the state of Christianity in America and anecdotal stories from friends. But do wonder whether the challenges I faced two decades ago are still relevant today.
I’m grateful a first bad experience didn’t drive me away from ministry. While I was completing my PhD, I served as the pastor of a country church in Virginia. A small rural church made up of mostly white families who lived in Virginia for generations. I had little in common with them but the church and their community welcomed me as their pastor. God used Providence Presbyterian Church in Gum Spring, Virginia to heal my soul and affirm my call. The cultural canyon between us was much wider than the one I found at the Taiwanese church. But there was a mutual expectation and understanding of our differences. I still look back to that time as my best years of ministry. It was at that church where I first experienced the exhilaration of hearing parishioners proudly say “This is my pastor.”