Culture

Five Reasons for the Church to Celebrate Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

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May is officially Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.1 Many may know that February is Black History Month or that March is Women’s History Month, but fewer people celebrate the other heritage months that happen throughout the year, including AAPI Heritage Month. This monthlong celebration was originally approved by Jimmy Carter in 1978 as a congressional resolution to celebrate the cultural, social, and economic contributions of Asian Pacific Americans. In its original form, it was only a week long and was chosen to commemorate both the first immigrants from Japan arriving in the US on May 7, 1843 and the completion of the first transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869.2 It was later extended into a monthlong celebration by the approval of Public Law 102–450 by Congress in 1992.3

This May, the intentional celebration of the gifts, history, and heritage of the AAPI community feels especially important amidst an uptick in violent attacks and hate crimes against the AAPI community. With the Atlanta-areas mass shooting, the murders of people like Shane Nguyen or Vichar Ratanapakdee, and unceasing videos of Asian elders being brutally attacked, celebrating the AAPI community feels like a significant act of resistance—a declaration of our collective worth and dignity in a world that tries to erase and eliminate us.

As a second-generation Korean American, and a pastor of a PC(USA) church, I have been reflecting on why this time of intentional celebration both energizes me and stretches me. I am not used to my embodied experience, or even the experiences of people in the Asian diaspora, being centered or acknowledged. This sort of intention can be regarded by some as divisive or gratuitous. In the church space, it can be interpreted as focusing too much on our differences instead of on our “oneness” in Christ. Yet too often, I have allowed myself and my particularities to be erased in a way that denies God glory for being a good Creator who created me in the fullness of all my identities. To deliberately celebrate AAPI histories, culture, gifts, and experiences is actually a form of worship.

To deliberately celebrate #AAPI histories, culture, gifts, and experiences is actually a form of worship. #AAPIHeritageMonth Click To Tweet

So here are five reasons why I’m intentionally celebrating AAPI month:

1. I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to fight against assimilation and cultural erasure.

Homemade 깍두기 (radish kimchi)—photo courtesy of @shepherdbapsang

Choosing to celebrate all the richness and diversity of the Asian and Pacific diaspora is to affirm the beauty and inherent goodness of our cultures, in a country that has often degraded our traditions, viewed us as perilous and threatening, and forced us into patterns of assimilation.

To value our heritage is to say that Asian and Pacific Islander traditions are not merely “foreign”—that our foods are not “exotic,” our languages are not “harsh,” and that our traditions are not “dangerous” or “immoral.” In doing so, we choose to de-center whiteness in our social reality and reimagine the value systems of majority culture by saying that eating balut or durian or biryani is to be celebrated and made as “normal” as eating pork chops and casseroles.

These acts say that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are fully a part of the life and heartbeat of this country. The whole of who we are should be valued and appreciated. We may not be white, but we are here. We are all beloved children of God, made in God’s image. And we matter.

2. I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to preserve cultural memory and (re)learn the stories of our peoples.

One of the most painful losses for people who both intentionally and unintentionally migrate to the US is the loss of history.

Growing up and speaking a language that is different from our elders, as well as being a part of families that are forced to resettle due to crisis, war, and trauma often means losing precious history. Due to generational gaps, language barriers, material deprivation, and repressed memories, many in the AAPI community, myself included, have to do more work to preserve and proclaim our stories. Many of us don’t have official family trees, heirlooms, photo albums, or written stories. Many of us can’t communicate with those two or three generations back.

Growing up and speaking a language that is different from our elders, as well as being a part of families that are forced to resettle due to crisis, war, and trauma often means losing precious history. #AAPIHeritageMonth Click To Tweet
Native Hawaiians protesting the construction of TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope) outside of ‘Iolani Palace, the home of Queen Lili’uokalani, last reigning monarch of Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Moanike’ala Nanod-Sitch.

Moreover, our schools and broader society rarely teach AAPI history in any helpful or meaningful ways. I barely remember learning anything at all in my primary education about people who looked like me, minus maybe a lesson about Japanese internment. And the AAPI experience is still glaringly underrepresented in the arts and media.

So to uphold AAPI Heritage month is to carve out opportunities to both excavate and celebrate our histories. We fight for our right to remember. We say the names of our ancestors and honor their courage and sacrifice. We remember the stories of forerunners, like Wong Kim Ark, Queen Liliuokalani, Mitsuye Endo, Min Yasui, Larry Itilong, Bhagat Sing Thind, Philip Vera Cruz, Fred Korematsu, Grace Lee Boggs, and Yuri Kochiyama. We remember AAPI members of the Railroad Workers Strikes, National Dollar Strike, Internment Dissenters, World War II veterans, and the Farm Workers Movement. We remember the first Filipinos who came in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and refugees coming today from Burma and Bhutan. We remember the sovereignty movement of Hawaii and the struggle to protect sacred indigenous lands.

Choosing to reclaim the histories that have either been consciously or unconsciously silenced is an act of resistance. We make our voices heard and our history known.

3. I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to move beyond the white/black binary and claim our place in the struggle for racial justice.

The author with her good friend, Pastor Wendy Hu-Au (L) at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2015.

A month of celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage could easily become gimmicky—a time of eating Asian foods, putting on traditional clothing, or experiencing cultural art and music. Yet amidst these acts, I also choose to recognize the ways that the AAPI community has suffered under the weight of white supremacy and the model minority myth, which divert attention from our struggles for racial justice and equity in this country.

It has often been hard for me, as a Korean American woman, to find my place in racial conversations that have historically felt very black and white. It is easy to feel invisible, or believe that my struggle is insignificant, or think that I have nothing to contribute. And while it is true that much of the racism that the AAPI community has faced in this country is distinct from what the Native community, Black community, or Latinx community have faced, and that some in the AAPI community experience greater levels of privilege and wealth than other POC, I believe that choosing solidarity and shared suffering across communities is the only way we can dismantle the forces of white supremacy, which impact us all.

It has often been hard for me, as a Korean American woman, to find my place in racial conversations that have historically felt very black and white. It is easy to feel invisible... #AAPI #AAPIHeritageMonth Click To Tweet

So as I celebrate AAPI history and heritage this month, I also choose to remember the experiences of forced labor, violent displacement, and human trafficking that our peoples have faced. I remember the experiences of racial terror, violence, and even lynching that Asian immigrants experienced. I remember governmental policies that tried to exclude our peoples from even entering into our borders, or policies that incarcerated our peoples en masse. I remember the ramifications of U.S. colonialism, militarism, and economic exploitation that affected many of our ancestors and ravaged our homelands with violence and environmental destruction. I remember discriminatory practices which affected our ability to buy homes, to have communities of worship, to sustain businesses, or even rise to leadership.

And I choose to remember that we are not alone in these experiences. We are not alone in the struggle for liberation.

4. I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to acknowledge the immense gifts and talents of our communities.

Growing up as an ethnic minority, and particularly as a Korean American in this country often meant feeling like I wasn’t enough—like a spotlight was constantly on my deficiencies. I wasn’t loud or assertive enough. My parents weren’t loving or affectionate enough. I didn’t understand puns or know pop culture references enough. I wasn’t confident or independent enough. I was constantly trying to blend in and fight for acceptance, to prove that I wasn’t a weirdo and that I belonged.

Artwork: “Prophet” by @ShinHappens—a depiction of a prophetic vision received in prayer by Sarah Shin, created by Korean American artist, Shin Maeng.

It hasn’t been until recent years that I’ve begun to notice and appreciate the powerful gifts of the AAPI community—that being Korean American isn’t just an identity that I “need healing from.” There is so much beauty and value in the gifts of the broader AAPI community, gifts that don’t always get honored by majority culture, but that help sustain life, build community, and serve others.

There is so much beauty and value in the gifts of the broader #AAPI community, gifts that don’t always get honored by majority culture, but that help sustain life, build community, and serve others. Click To Tweet

So celebrating AAPI Heritage Month is not just about honoring the external gifts of food, language, and tradition. It is a way of commending our values and our beliefs, our ways of moving and being in this world, our patterns of relating. It is to celebrate the unspoken impulses and intuitions of our communities and affirm the less noticeable gifts—gifts of hospitality and loyalty, honor and generosity, collaboration and embodied leadership, listening and bridge-building, resilience and endurance, collectivism and sacrifice. It is to honor all of our creative expressions—of rhythm and melody, of prayers and poetry, of movement and strength, of wailing and travailing, the work of our bodies and our minds. It is to celebrate the ways that we always make room at the table, and we always make sure that everyone has enough.

Our gifts are valuable and needed, whether people recognize that need or not.

5. I celebrate AAPI Heritage Month to acknowledge the unique contributions of the AAPI church.

As a Christian in particular, I believe that celebrating this month is also a chance for me to remember the unique faith expressions and theological contributions that the AAPI community has brought to the broader church.

Many of us, despite histories of colonization, harmful missionary practices, exclusion from white churches, or forced assimilation into white Christian institutions, have persisted and resisted, creating ways of understanding Jesus and practicing the Jesus Way that try to speak our heart language and lift us out of a Eurocentric Christianity.

Rice cracker and matcha bowl communion at a Fuller Chapel service. Photo by Eric Tai. Used with permission.

So this month, I celebrate theologies of han and jeong, and the ways that they give words to experiences of my (Korean) soul that no Western theologian could. I celebrate readings of Scripture that give words to my own experience of marginality, liminality, placelessness, and exile. I celebrate the spiritual rhythms and practices of dear friends, like my native Hawaiian faith family or my Malayali frends who are unveiling the work of the Holy Spirit in their history and their cultures. I celebrate communion performed with roti, prayers uttered in mother tongues, after-church fellowship over jook and sinigang, and worship songs played on the guzheng. I celebrate churches that were also language schools, immigrant welcome centers, social safety nets, and places of cultural refuge for those in new lands.

As I celebrate AAPI Heritage, I affirm that the American church, and even the church universal, would not be the same if we were not a part of the Body. We are a blessing, not a burden.

To God be glory and praise!

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Are you celebrating AAPI Heritage month? If so, what are you planning to do? What motivates your celebrations?

If you are a pastor, and you are looking for resources or prayers for your congregation, check out this resource post Erina created.


[1] There are a wide range of acronyms people use to mark this month. In addition to AAPI, some use APA (Asian Pacific American), APIDA (Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American), Asian American, or even AANHPI (Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander). While there might not be consensus about what term to use, it’s important to acknowledge the vast diversity of the AAPI community, represented in over 48 countries and hundreds of languages, and including people from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Pacific Islands (Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia), and Native Hawaiians.

[2] https://www.grassley.senate.gov/news/news-releases/qanda-asian-american-and-pacific-islander-heritage-month

[3] https://asianpacificheritage.gov/about/#:~:text=Frank%20Horton%20of%20New%20York,Pacific%2FAsian%20American%20Heritage%20Week.&text=Then%20in%201992%2C%20Congress%20passed,Asian%2FPacific%20American%20Heritage%20Month

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