by Rachel Held Evans
As happens with many good books, I stumbled upon More Than Serving Tea by accident, after I read an interview with one of its authors, Nikki Toyama-Szeto, at Intervarsity’s “The Well” blog. In the interview, Nikki spoke about power and privilege in ways I’d never really heard before, ways that were both practical and challenging. I followed the link to her book, More Than Serving Tea, which she co-wrote with several other Asian American women, including Kathy Khang, who had also written a post for “The Well” about ambition entitled “The Dirty ‘A’ Word” which had me standing on my desk chair, waving my hanky, and shouting ‘amen’!
Rarely do Christian women speak so candidly and practically about things like ambition, power, privilege, and race. So of course my next thought was, I have to get these ladies on the blog! Today I’m grateful to introduce you to these extraordinary women of valor and to their excellent book, More Than Serving Tea.
Rachel: Nikki, tell us a little about your new role at International Justice Mission. What will you be doing?
Nikki: I’m the Sr. Director of Biblical Justice Integration and Mobilization. This means I help oversee the work of the IJM Institute—which is where our group grapples with the issues raised by our work in the field, and asks the questions, “How does our faith inform our response?” I also oversee the world of our global prayer mobilization. Some people believe that power is found in the size of your army, or in the depth of your wallet. But I believe that the world and history are changed by praying grannies—the most powerful beings in the universe. So we work with an extraordinary network of intercessors around the world who do the work of justice through prayer.
Rachel: Kathy, tell us about your role at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. What do you do as the director of regional multiethnic ministries?
Kathy: I am essentially the set of eyes that looks at student and staff leadership development and programming and staff supervision through the lens of multiethnicity so that InterVarsity's ministry more effectively reaches out to the diverse student populations on campuses across Illinois and Indiana. I also serve on InterVarsity's national Asian American Ministries Leadership Team.
Rachel: In More Than Serving Tea you two join four other Asian American women explore how family expectations and cultural stereotypes often assume that Asian American women can only fill rigidly defined roles. Can you share a little of how you have experienced that in your life? What's the 'good news' for Asian American women who feel frustrated or burdened by these expectations?
Nikki: Most of my interactions with cultural stereotypes have assumed that because I’m an Asian woman, I could be either a dragon lady, a newscaster, or a demure sexualized object. Those are the portrayals of AA women. Today we have more diverse pictures. But it’s the small comments of, “your English is so good” and “where are you from?” that communicate that you’re an outsider or that you don’t belong. I was born in Chicago and I’m fourth-generation American, but still I will receive these questions that my friend, a recent immigrant from Poland, never will receive.
I think AA women need to acknowledge that we live in a world that makes quick judgments about who you are based on what you look like and based on others past experiences. It was hard to acknowledge for me—but one element of “good news” about that is Asian woman have some opportunities because they can turn the stereotypes on their heads.
Dealing with the expectations of others is common to all folks. But perhaps there is an extra burden, a certain kind of expectation, that AA women experience. Women who don’t follow the paths laid out for them can be seen as being “un-asian”. I’ve heard so many women describe themselves as, “I’m not a typical Asian woman…” Instead, I wish people would say, “I am a typical Asian woman—we just come in many shapes, sizes, and volumes.”
Kathy: I grew up with one younger sister. There were no sons for my parents to rely on in their old age, to provide for their retirement, and then to care for them; that was the message I heard directly and indirectly from family and the extended "aunties" and "uncles" who were not blood relatives but connected by ethnic heritage, culture, and language. I was told that I would be a worthy daughter by playing the role of firstborn son. But then the messages started to include complex addendum. I could be successful academically and then professionally and bring honor to my family, but I also needed to temper those goals because I needed to be fit to be married, which meant I couldn't be too successful and forget that my role would also include daughter-in-law.
Because I married a second generation Korean-American, I married deeper into the culture. My worth then came from not only being a good daughter but a good daughter-in-law - who bear sons, cares for my children and releases my husband from domestic duties so that he could provide financially for the family (which includes his parents). My husband and I struggled to honor the expectations of our parents but still honor one another in our marriage.
The good news is that there is a deep gift in that ability to consider other's needs and expectations while still being able to clearly identify your own personal ambitions and values. There is a skill and diplomacy to know how to put aside the cultural expectations and still live out Christ's love and generosity much like the father in the story of the prodigal son - both sons and the father knew the cultural rules, but when it came down to it, the father, who had much to lose, put aside those cultural burdens in order to love lavishly.
There is also the example of Queen Esther who plays the game, passes as a Persian queen and hides her Jewishness. Her success and survival in the palace depends on living by the cultural rules and roles; she is at the mercy of the king. But she presses into the situation and takes advantage of her role as hostess to gain an audience and build trust. What I have often first experienced as burdens and frustrations are truly opportunities to allow God to redeem the brokenness in culture.
Rachel: Kathy, you wrote a chapter on sexuality in More Than Serving Tea in which you address the powerful effects of shame on Christian women. What are some truths that can replace the lies women tell about themselves?
Kathy: As an Asian American woman who grew up in a shame-based culture, I have an intimate relationship with shame. Shame is different than experiencing guilt, feeling bad that you got caught doing something wrong. I've read that shame in its most toxic form is believing that you are inherently wrong, broken, a mistake, and unredeemable. That in itself is a lie. I believe that to some degree it is a good thing that we experience shame, much like Adam and Eve experienced shame when they realized they were buck naked and tried to cover themselves with leaves. It can remind us that we are not doing, being what God intended for us to be and do.
The lie is that shame of our big mistake is all that is left, and that is not what scripture tells us. God did not leave Adam and Eve covered in leaves. Peter's story doesn't end with him denying Christ three times. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary in name don't belong in Jesus' family tree because they are women with some culturally suspect backgrounds. There is nothing that keeps us from God because God pursues us and is with us, even when we don't think it "feels" like He is. And from where we sit, we can't imagine the full picture.
Rachel, Nikki: I love what you said in your recent interview with "The Well" about stewardship of power. Tell us a little about the danger of unacknowledged power and privilege. How can we become more aware of our own power, and how can we steward it in ways that bring about justice, shalom, and reconciliation?
Nikki: Different people have power. And people have different levels of comfort with the power that they have. But I think some of the most dangerous folks are the ones who have power but don’t think that they have it—they play the “but there’s nothing I can do” card. I think some of the ways we can be more aware of our power is to recognize some of the privileges we have, privileges we take for granted and assume everyone has: our education level, our able-bodiedness level, our sexual orientation, the passport we have, etc. Are there ways that people in power carry our views?
How to use that to bring about justice, shalom and reconciliation is varied. I think for me, I try to think about the justice issues that are optional for me—and then press myself to “opt-in.” For me, it’s a luxury to be able to say, “I’m not going to care about that today.” For example, I would love to be able to not have my race or gender affect my interactions for one day—to be able to rest from that. But that’s not optional for me—and I long for white sojourners who will say, “I’m going to choose to not let that be optional for me either.”
Rachel: Nikki, in the interview with "The Well" you also talk about how, in some cases, the most faithful response to power is to actually step in and claim it. Do you think that’s a hard thing for Christian women in particular to do sometimes? What advice would you give women who feel disempowered in the Church?
Nikki: I do think that it can be challenging for women, Christian women, to step up and claim power. There are the images of Christian women (meek and mild) that put a theological layer on top. But for women, I think they can advocate on behalf of other women. Champion those other women around you, who you think could and should step up. I do think our churches benefit from active engagement of all its members.
For women who feel disempowered in the Church, that’s a big question. One of the things that gives me hope is thinking of Rosa Parks—and just how immovable the currents systems must have seemed to her, when she decided to sit on the bus. It can be easy to just dis-engage, to give up. Ask God, where are you in this situation? And what is your invitation to me? I’m not advocating that everyone should step in and grab power—that’s the way of the world. But what I do want to free us from us from is assumptions about Christian stewardship of power. Sometimes God does call us to step up. Even if your culture, your gender roles, others expectations are speaking differently. And I would say particularly those who’ve been on the margins, in your church, in your community—you have a perspective that is really important for the life and health of our Christian communities. Our faiths will be anemic, pithy, and shallow if some of these voices continue to stay quiet. I think it takes a truly anointed and strong leader to make space for dissonant voices.
Kathy, in your article at "The Well," you wrote about how 'ambition' is treated as a dirty word among Christian women. Why do you think that is?
Kathy: I'm not sure we Christians are comfortable with the idea of ambition because, as I wrote in the piece in The Well, it is often mistaken as the opposite of humility. Christians value humility so we can talk about leadership so long as we remind one another that we are talking about "servant leadership". Instead of creating a new culture around the word "ambition" that better reflects our Christian worldview, we add "Christian" words assuming that will reclaim what the secular world has tainted.
I've found as a Christian woman it is often better & safer to lead the conversation by talking about my dreams and hopes because having ambitions often assumes a secular worldview where promotions, opportunities, and recognition is about money, success, and ego. We've almost assumed ambition is masculine, which assumes Christian men get a pass and Christian women shouldn't be ambitious if they want to be feminine. And this is where it gets dicier because at the core we Christians have a tough time talking about gender - the differences, similarities, and stereotypes. The Church has its own version of "boys will be boys" and "sugar and spice and everything nice" where men can be servant leaders but women lead by serving.
Beyond semantics, it is how so many of my Christian friends grew up - dichotomizing our spiritual and occupational lives. It's a little crazy if you ask me.
Rachel: Kathy, What can Christian women do to recognize and celebrate their ambitions rather than feel guilty about them?
Kathy: We need to be one another's biggest fans and cheerleaders regardless of the arena in which our ambitions - our God-given gifts we are to steward well and faithfully - play out. We need to be the ones destroying any sense of competition or judgment between socially-constructed divisions amongst women. Single, married, divorced, young, old, SAHM, working outside of the home with kids - we should be leveraging the gift of a multigenerational Church and the examples we see in scripture to see what we are doing aligns with what women have been doing all through history.
I'd also love to see more churches do away with the awkward Mother's Day Sunday sermons and Children's programs and celebrate women more consistently through the year. I had ambitions before I got married and certainly before I had children.
On a very practical level, celebrate your friends' ambitions in tangible ways. Write a note or send a card congratulating someone on a new job or with a word of encouragement. Share prayer requests with one another and keep track of how God answers those prayers. Ask questions and find out what the women around you are achieving, creating, and leading. And help one another achieve those ambitions. When I was writing More Than Serving Tea I confided in a few friends who helped my husband juggle the preschool and elementary school schedules so that I could get away to write, edit, and promote the book. Christian women and men made that possible.
And to celebrate and recognize personal ambitions, think of meaningful ways that resonate with you personally. I keep a private blog full of incomplete posts. And when More Than Serving Tea went to contract I gave half of the advance check to my mother and then went out to buy myself a pair of pearl earrings as a symbol of celebration.
Rachel: Christians love to talk about how faith is changing in the U.S. and we often point to statistics that paint a gloomy picture of church attendance and religious involvement. We also have a bad habit of ignoring the continued growth of Christianity among immigrant and ethnic minority communities in the U.S. What's something you wish more people knew about Asian American Christians? What are some common mistakes we make in discussing multiethnic Christianity?
Nikki: I wish that people knew that Asian American Christianity is not a monolith—but a diverse group of creative, and committed followers of Christ. Asian American churches come in many shapes and sizes, and span the theological spectrum. They might be some of the best places to go to learn about powerful prayer, costly discipleship, death to self, life in community. I think there are lots of different values that God holds dear that are being expressed in the life of our Asian American churches. Asian American Christians are usually bi-cultural—we have to be in order to function in both our families, as well as in broader American society. And I think that’s something that the American church can receive from the Asian American church.
Kathy: I would say that even in your question, Rachel, you make a common mistake. I was late to the emergent/emerging church conversations because Christians who were loving the talk about how faith is and continues to change in the U.S. were and continue to be predominantly White. "We" can mean different groups of people in different contexts, and honestly I often have to point out that the "we" too often excludes non-White voices at the table. Those gloomy statistics are gloomy if you are a White church in a White-lead religious movement. Diversity and multiethnicity is then, at its worst, seen as a threat to the "way it was", a gilded memory of a Christian and secular history that has been documented and repeated through White, dominant culture's lens and messengers. If "we" want to discuss multiethnicity, we all need to know what our cultural lenses are. That is where the White Church may have some good work ahead in understanding its own culture, preferences, and strengths as well as differences within the White, dominant cultural experience. Phew!
Multiethnicity in Christianity cannot be limited to conversations about race in Black and White terms and history or how we are going to change up musical worship to include some Gospel music and a song sung in Spanish. We cannot assume token gestures and good intentions mean churches have "arrived", and being together in the same space doesn't mean being on the same page. Proximity isn't unity.
The Asian American Christian church is extremely diverse, vibrant, multigenerational, and cutting edge with all the struggles and concerns of the historically White Church - evangelical and mainline. I wish more people understood that "Asian American" includes Thai, Hmong, Laotian, Vietnamese, Pilipino, Pakistani, Indian, and Pacific Islander as well as Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Our cultures are not all the same. There are nuances to shared values as well as distinct differences, and that plays out in the beautiful, diverse expressions of our faith and faith practices.
And that goes back to the discussions about multiethnicity. There is a cost for a hyphenated American like me to help what once was a White church become multiethnic. I have to leave my immigrant church, a concern for first generation congregations who saw and still see churches as a both a strategy and physical space to connect generations divided by language, education, power, and levels of assimilation through faith. I'd love to see more conversations about the cost of asking English-speaking second generation Asian Americans to leave their comfortable, homogenous Asian American churches without offering up a similar call to the White church. (Should I duck now?)
Rachel: No ducking necessary! Thank you both so much for your time. This was encouraging and enlightening.
Be sure to check out Nikki’s interview with The Well and Kathy’s interview with The Well and of course More Than Serving Tea. You can learn more about International Justice Mission here and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship here.
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