For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.
1 Corinthians 9:19, 22
Lately I’ve been delving into memories from my childhood days at First Presbyterian Church, Altadena, previously known as Pasadena Union Presbyterian Church (and prior to that, Pasadena Japanese Union Church). I’m trying to prepare for a presentation to one of the 50th Anniversary events for the National Caucus of Korean Presbyterian Churches (NCKPC). The Korean Presbyterian Men met about a week ago in Chicago, and our own Dongwoo Lee was one of the speakers. Due to a mix-up with Steve Yamaguchi (who I think will try to greet them remotely from his current role as pastor of Tokyo Union Church), I will sub for him and go to Denver October 18-20 to meet with the symposium focusing on the future of the Korean-American church. The symposium planners are asking Chinese- and Japanese-Americans to share our experience, as we have been in the US longer.
The NCKPC is the collection of all Korean congregations in the PC(USA). Currently there are 350-400 churches with almost 500,000 members, but many of the church members are 1st generation, and are moving into retirement age. This question about the Korean-American church’s future has been a source of on-going concern for church leaders, and it is now more critical as the immigration rate from Korea is dropping. US Census reports show that there were 290,000 Korean immigrants in the US in 1980, 1,100,000 in 2010, and the number actually decreased by 2019, to 1,013,000. In 2019, there were an additional 448,700 people identifying as Korean who were born in the United States; they represent 31% of all Koreans in the US.
Anyway, as I have reflected on my childhood in the Japanese Presbyterian church, I remembered this Scripture passage about fitting in, which I remember my uncle preaching on regularly. Yet I have never heard it preached on by anyone else, and I myself have never preached it, and I began preaching regularly on World Communion Sunday 24 years ago. While I didn’t know how big (or small) a concept this was for other Christians, I do remember thinking how it fit in well with the Japanese penchant for conforming to the larger group.
I’ve also thought about this in relation to the intercultural orientation of Minimization, which describes San Gabriel Presbytery as a group and myself as an individual. I’ve become more aware of the ways people rely on areas of commonality when relating to groups they are not totally comfortable with. I’m now wondering whether the prevalence of this strategy reflects where we are in the world: in general, we do not deny or prejudge other cultures, but we are not yet comfortable with “going deep” in connecting with people of different backgrounds. So we can acknowledge that we have diverse backgrounds, but it feels more safe to focus on whatever we have in common, or adjust to the dominant culture, rather than explore what makes us different. Conversely, when I am with people from other cultures with whom I am comfortable, I have no trouble referencing our cultural differences.
As the Reforming Presbytery Practices group continues to meet, we have become more aware that being a truly inclusive presbytery, where we can understand and incorporate the wide range of cultural values and perspectives, takes much more effort than we have chosen in the past. I remember Alhambra True Light, and the work they put into any meeting, which included having everything written so it can be translated in three languages ahead of time, and having simultaneous translators available at every meeting. We have started to streamline things like putting more items in the Consent Agenda, but that’s just the first step. The group has been excellent at looking for ways to find time to deepen our relationships and understanding of each others’ cultures.
I think there has been great progress, in the church and in the world. One subtle shift is for Euro- Americans to recognize that they are a culture too, and there are specific values held in that culture that are not necessarily shared by others. Here’s an example: one cultural value that Elizabeth Gibbs Zehnder mentioned at our Presbytery meeting was staying on time, so she shortened her presentation to keep to the planned schedule. There are many traditional cultures, such as in Latin America or among Pacific Islanders, where people do not cut their activities to fit the clock, but they take as long as they need to in order to finish what they are doing, which may include taking the time to connect with each other on a personal level. And so we have some people who are always on time, and some even get insulted if they have to wait for a latecomer. On the other hand, others are stressed to figure out how to meet the appointed schedule, if there is something or someone who needs their attention, and often end up being “late” to their next event. (I once asked some native Hawaiians how they do it, because they are rarely late—their response was they would not schedule events back to back, and my experience is that they would not try to pack so many events in a day.)
What would it take to allow our diverse members to live and work in a way that works for them, rather than force themselves to fit the current dominant way we do things? We may not accommodate all differences— but it will be great help for us to do some self-examination and prayer time, and to take advantage of our growing number of opportunities to connect with folks you may not know yet. We don’t know how to do it all, but that’s what the prayer is for! Keep your hearts and minds open to God’s leading for all of us.
In the peace of Christ,