There have been many conferences and consultations involving Christians of various ethnic and cultural identities in the United States, but a recent one uniquely encompassed two distinct groups, Hispanics and Asians, for the purpose of sharing experiences and learning how to collaborate. The first ever Hispanic Asian North American (HANA) Consultation on Theology and Ministry was held in May 2013 at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) outside Chicago.
The racial discourse in North America has traditionally been just black and white. However, Hispanics and Asians are the two fastest growing minority groups in the United States, and Asia and Latin America are the two continents with the closest geographical proximity to North America: the southern border of the United States abuts Mexico, and the Bering Strait—from the western end of Alaska to the eastern tip of Asia—is only about 50 miles wide.
Peter Cha’s initiative
The history of this consultation is as unique as the premise of the meeting itself. In 2009, Dr Peter Cha, a professor of Pastoral Theology at TEDS, received a large faculty-led Initiatives Grant from the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at TEDS. Instead of using the funds for his own research, as most scholars do, he decided to break the norm and think collaboratively.
He used the grant money to bring together 115 Asian-American Christian leaders for the Asian North American (ANA) Theology and Ministry Consultation at TEDS in 2009. It was self-consciously a consultation (not a conference), where everyone contributed. Consultations provide an excellent model for gatherings among diverse groups because all participants are able to express their opinions and also listen to different perspectives.
Cha procured another Henry Center grant four years later, but this time he expanded the consultation to include Hispanics, and thus HANA was born. Cha enlisted the help of Dr Juan Martinez (Associate Provost of Fuller Theological Seminary), Dr Linda Cannell (former Dean of North Park Seminary and former Professor of Education at Trinity and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), and Armida Belmonte Stephens (a PhD candidate at Trinity, and adjunct instructor at North Park University and Theological Seminary) as co-planners and co-facilitators.
The HANA consultation brought together for the first time Hispanic and Asian pastors and theologians (30 from each group) to find commonalities and theologize together, framed by two key questions:
- What lessons and insights could we share that might deepen each community’s theological reflections and strengthen its ministry of the gospel?
- In what significant ministries could both ecclesial communities partner with one another, locally and globally?
Within these questions, the two communities explored common themes in their faith journeys, such as being profoundly shaped by their immigration histories (many HANA people are bilingual and bicultural) and cultural theologies. These were done within plenary sessions and topic-specific track sessions.
The track sessions were each co-led by a scholar and a practitioner. This was in keeping with the holistic philosophy behind the invitations being extended to both theologians and pastors—that head and hands should not be separated. There are not many opportunities for theologians and practitioners to interact and learn from each other. This consultation thus provides a helpful model for other groups around the world. A rich learning experience takes place when believers across ethnic, linguistic, and ministry settings come together to learn from each other.
The tracks were all working groups involving Hispanic and Asian participants in dialogue with each other. Whereas the plenary sessions were foundational starting points, the real work was being done within tracks, to create new knowledge and creative synergy between the two groups.
The tracks went beyond history, theology, and pastoral ministry, exploring new areas found within communities which have struggled and suffered. These included social justice, how to bridge generational divides due to migration, and how to mobilize the laity for ministry given the paucity of formally trained clergy. HANA faculty members also struggle to find a balance between their academic duties and their service to their faith communities in different ways from their colleagues who come from individualistic cultures.
Four main themes
The main four themes that guided the conversations during the four days of this consultation were Christian fellowship, a biblical practice of lament, a biblical practice of hope, and gospel partnership. These themes are relevant to all groups, which although diverse regarding culture and language, share the core values of the Christian faith. Often diverse groups focus on their differences and miss the profound commonalities they have both culturally and in Christ.
Hispanic and Asian American leaders were able to enjoy and celebrate the profound Christian fellowship that transcends social barriers and to experience ways in which they can encourage their own faith communities to seek opportunities to do the same.
It is rare to be able to experience together singing in different music styles, but worshipping the same Lord; praying in different languages and tones of voice, but to the same Father; and eating different kinds of food, but with gratitude to the same good God. Music, language, and food are essential elements of cultural identity that can be shared, appreciated, and valued within the Christian community. This consultation provided the space for this opportunity. Other groups around the world could follow this model of interaction.
Lament and hope
The important biblical teachings of lament and hope are two essential elements of the Christian experience that resonate with Asian-Americans and Hispanics. In North America and other Western contexts, success and happiness are perceived as values to be pursued and celebrated, while sorrow and lament are experiences that need to be avoided and silenced.
However, a more holistic expression of our faith should include our lament and longing for a better future based on our blessed hope in Christ. For example, Hispanics commonly use the term ‘mañana’ (tomorrow) as an eschatological expression of hope and deliverance from present sorrows and difficulties. It was particularly helpful that all participants spent one full day sharing their stories of lament because often Christians have a tendency to rush through sorrow and mourning.
Another full day of reflections on the blessed hope believers have provided an extraordinary complement to the previous day. Christian groups which wish to hold similar consultations among diverse groups should realize that a good investment of time is required in order to reach deep levels of community sharing when dealing with intense emotional longings like lament and hope.1
This HANA gathering modeled a productive dialogue and reflection that transcends ethnic and linguistic lines in order to foster collaboration as brothers and sisters in Christ. As believers, all of us are members of one body and have the same divine calling as ambassadors of Christ regardless of our cultural heritage. Furthermore, our diverse cultural backgrounds are assets to the gospel proclamation and gifts to the whole body of Christ. Together we can glimpse a better representation of Christ’s bride. The gospel that united Jews and Gentiles unites all believers and communities.
Hispanics and Asians have a history of being ‘pilgrim people’. Thus some of the presentations and themes had an Old Testament Exodus flavor to them. Perhaps in this way, HANA peoples feel a close resonance with biblical Jewish culture. As the Israelites were called to ‘remember’ God’s work through them as a people called to be a light to the nations, so HANA peoples understand themselves as having a similar call and responsibility, not just to be but to speak and act.
There is also an understanding that Hispanics and Asians are merely two groups within the multiplicity of people that God has formed, and we are not theologizing and ministering in isolation but within a wider redemptive context of God’s work in this world. Other groups around the world face similar issues and can benefit from consultations like HANA. In this case, it was the initiative of one person with a vision that launched a movement that brought together HANA leaders for the first time and that continues growing in different areas. Leaders around the world could learn from this movement and create their own initiatives.
The next HANA consultation is being planned for June 2016 in Los Angeles, and it will involve a similar format. The same people will be re-invited, but there will also be an effort to recruit new voices and perspectives as well.
The Asian-American Christian community is also engaging in some unprecedented initiatives with other ethnic communities.
ISAAC (the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity), organized by Young Lee Hertig, has had six annual Symposiums, including for the first time African-Americans last year. This was a historic bilateral gathering between African-American and Asian-American Christian leaders. HANA and ISAAC have different missions (the former exists to serve the academy by way of the church, and the latter is more to equip the church via scholars), but both are built on dialogue between scholars and pastors. It is exciting to see Asian-Americans working together with Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans in theology and ministry.
The AAPI (Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders) Faith Alliance was born last year out of the KCCD (Korean Churches for Community Development), organized by Hyepin Im. The KCCD had held six ‘Lighting the Community’ Summits, always involving Korean-Americans and always in Los Angeles. Last year, due to an unprecedented invitation from the White House to dialogue about racial and faith issues, the KCCD expanded to create the AAPI and held its seventh summit in Washington DC to coincide with the White House event.
Black Christian leaders have been invited to the White House in the past, and so have Hispanic Christian leaders. When Asian Christian leaders were finally invited last year for the first time, the previous marginalization and underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in the public/political/media sphere made this event historic.
HANA, ISAAC, and AAPI Faith Alliance represent new directions of intersectionality for Asian-American Christian leaders, which should bear much fruit in the future. These are hopeful trajectories for the church at large.
1 An on-the-ground blog, hosted by the Henry Center’s Sapientia site, was written by Jennifer Aycock as the events unfolded in real time. Her unedited and unfiltered perspective can be seen here: http://henrycenter.tiu.edu/author/jennifer-aycock/page/2/. For a more complete and academic perspective, consult the current issue of the online Common Ground Journal at www.commongroundjournal.org (Vol 12, No 1, Spring 2015) authored by some of the HANA track leaders.
* Editor’s Note: Featured image used with permission from Trinity International University Newsroom. See original source at http://news.tiu.edu/2013/06/24/teds-hosts-historic-hana-consultation/.