Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Asian Church Leaders Share the Gift of Diversity with The United Methodist Church

Date Posted: 10/24/2011

"In the Tongan language there is no word for cousin, because you are either sister or brother," said Rev. Sione (Loni) Veikoso.


On Thursday, October 13, 2011, 35 sisters and brothers of Rev. Loni from the Asian and Pacific Islander network of The United Methodist Church met in the upper Manhattan office of Global Ministries to discuss how to enlarge the Church for all people. The night before, about 100 people gathered to celebrate the vital voice of people connected to the United Methodist mission agency and Asian and Pacific Islander ministries in the US and around the world.


The themes of the one-day meeting included the prophetic voice of Asian and Pacific Islanders, the need for young leaders, and the concern that Asians and people of Asian ancestry be at the table for all decision-making processes of the Church, including the upcoming 2012 General Conference.


Participants came from the leadership of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists (NAFAAUM), the Pacific Islander National Caucus of United Methodists (PINCUM), the Korean Caucus Committee on Reunification and Reconciliation, the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, the Korean-American National Plan, the Asian American Language Ministry, the Pacific Islanders Comprehensive Plan, Global Ministries staff, and Global Ministries directors.


Rev. Elizabeth Tapia, Global Ministries director of mission theology, began with a reflection on the gift of diversity. From 50 countries and ethnic groups, and speaking over 100 languages and dialects, people in the US with Asian and Pacific Islander heritages are "the fastest growing and most diverse part of the US population," said Rev. Tapia.


The Heart of Mission

The Asian and Pacific Islander population in the US face many challenges, Rev. Tapia reported, including the need for wholeness and health due to the population's higher risk for stroke, diabetes, and obesity.


With the growing Asian and Pacific Islander population, "the US becomes the new mission field," Rev. Tapia. About 27 percent of this population has no religious affiliation, 22 percent are practicing Eastern religions, 17 percent are Roman Catholics, 15 percent are Muslim, and 2 percent Pentecostal and Protestant.


Rev. Tapia said, "How do we discern where God is leading us? We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit." She quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: "We may have all come on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."


With common cultural and spiritual roots, and a sense of "economic injustice everywhere, we build a new theology of belonging. We bring a variety of gifts.... There is room, food, mission for everyone, even as we live in an individualistic, consumer, and materialistic culture."


To counter the decline in United Methodist churchgoing in the US, Rev. Tapia said, "Our enemies are not Muslim or other denominations, but the consumerism and the individualism that cut the threads of common life."


As a way to confront this enemy, she offered the suggestion: "To practice a communitarian way of life, which is the heart of mission.... We do not own mission, we participate in God's mission. We are instruments of peace in a violent and fragile world. As my mother told her ten children, you must have courage, faith, and solidarity. We need each other. This is the ministry for the whole church."


Throughout the day, others returned to this prophetic call to diversity as a great hope and founding philosophy of The United Methodist Church within the US and around the world. Don Hayashi, president of NAFAAUM, reported that in the US in the next four years, the number of Asian and Pacific Islanders will double.


The Need for Young Adult Leaders

Mr. Hayashi said that to grow The United Methodist Church, church leaders need to spark a passion for mission work within young people. "We're good at bringing children into our churches, but our young adults are declining. How do we make ministry relevant to the younger generation?"


Elizabeth Lee, executive for young adult mission service, agreed. She reported that in the spring of 2011, when the last class of 26 young adult missionaries was sent forth, not one was Pacific Islander or Asian American. She asked church and racial and ethnic plan leaders to support young adults in ministry through financing, mentoring, and finding places for young adults through the US-2 and Mission Intern programs.


At next year's commissioning, Ms. Lee said, the agency plans to commission 30 young adult missionaries. Her hope is that more young adults from marginalized communities will learn of and accept the call to service through these justice opportunities.


Several speakers commented on the need for young people to know about opportunities for leadership within United Methodism. Many of the Church leaders expressed concern that the future of The United Methodist Church would exclude the gifts of young people, as well as any people of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage.

"We are a sea of islands," Monalisa Tuitahi, director of PINCUM, said. "I sit before you as a Pacific Islander. Pacific Islanders are little brothers or little sisters of the ministry. We have the metaphor of navigators and boat people. And we have this feeling of missing the boat. It is part of our journey. We are in the early part of our migrant story.... We are people of the heart. We don't speak big institutional languages. We have tried to tell our story in our way...."


Global Ministries Work

Several Global Ministries executives spoke on the ways their offices resource the Church through ministries with people who are Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander. Paul Kong, executive director of the United Methodist Development Fund (UMDF), a loan fund for investors, churches, and mission centers, offered statistics and information on the fund. The largest group of investors, investing close to $60 million a year, he reported, is made up of individual investors.


Adam Neal, church relations and mission specialist for The Advance, spoke about the giving from small and large churches. Korean church members, he said, connect to missionaries and mission work far beyond Asia, to places like Kenya or Alabama. He emphasized that the priority of The Advance's work is to fund missionaries. "We need $7 million per year to support missionaries," Mr. Neal said.


Within the 13 mission initiatives, "growth is phenomenal. The Church is growing the fastest around the world in Asia," reported NamJin Jun, executive for Asian American and Pacific Islander Ministry. And the agency is always looking at "how to sustain and expand local leadership," said Jong Sung Kim, executive for mission relationships.


"The beauty is that we're not alone, we are sharing in the work together," said Rev. Judy Chung, associate general secretary for missionary services. "How can we connect more Asians and Pacific Islanders? There's so much passion for mission in general. How do we tap into the gift and talent to strengthen the missional church?"

From UMCOR, Melissa Crutchfield, assistant general secretary of international response, emphasized health initiatives, alleviating hunger and poverty, and ongoing work in Southeast Asia to address the needs of those who've survived floods, earthquakes, and typhoons. She said that in working with survivors, "we do not discriminate."


Sung-Ok Lee, assistant general secretary for Christian Social Action for the Women's Division, spoke against militarization in Asia. She talked about plans for peace movements in 2012. "As we near the 60th anniversary of the armistice treaty in Korea, we are calling for a peace march."


A Truly Global Agency

Thomas Kemper, the chief executive of the mission agency, led a discussion on the goal of the agency to become a truly global entity, "a global agency for a global church."


Several of those gathered shared their personal stories, some with tears in their eyes, on what the mission agency has meant to them.


"My faith and vocational journey has been shaped by agencies and boards," said Bishop Roy Sano, who convened the meeting and is a retired bishop of The United Methodist Church.


Mr. Hayashi agreed: "We have been partners. It's not about populating churches, but about being engaged in communities."

"Vitality is evident in small churches, large churches, and more so in our ethnic communities," Rev. Chung said.


While the trend within countries and globally is towards diversity, so, too, the Church moves toward diversity and greater church connectivity.


"We are becoming a more global Church," said Mr. Hayashi. "We have roots outside the US. Though we have become more Westernized, we yearn for connection. We can be that bridge that connects the Church because we understand the connection that is there."


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